Sunday, April 29, 2012

Dream on

Have I ranted lately? Okay, sure, but have I ranted about myleast favorite writing device, the dream sequence? Okay… have I done it withinthe last couple of months? No? Good. Here I go.

I recently finished reading The Stand, by Stephen King. What’s amazed me about my reading experience might not seem like such ahot deal to you but it does to me so you have to hear about it: I read everysingle dream sequence in the book--and there are a lot of them.

I am biased against dream sequences in stories. Why? Well,as a veteran dreamer, I know that dreams are seldom (ever) trustworthy sourcesof information. So when I come across one in a story my immediate reaction isto think “I don’t need this, why is it here?”

I suspect most dreamsare included for one of two reasons: to give the writer a stage fordouble-barrel prose or to reveal (usually with double-barrel prose) the emotionsa character is suppressing.And yes, I’m guilty as charged. Perhaps that’s one reason I’mso quick to recoil when I come across a dream on the page: I wish I could takeback the ones I’ve written.

But not once did I feel that about the dreams in The Stand. They are a crucial element ofthe novel, one that both binds and divides every single character in the story,even the lone dog.

I love it when I come across something that upends a writingprejudice. Has that ever happened to you? Do you have a writing/reading petpeeve that you had to let go of because of the way it was used/handled byanother writer? Do tell.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Kiss Poetry Month Good-Bye

Here's a link to the Greg Pincus site He's had a poem a day for all of April.

I unabashedly announce that today (Thursday) is my poem's turn but modestly suggest you go back in the month and prowl around among the others. Greg picked some very cool poems and if you don't like one, keep scrolling until you find something you do like.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

If you're a Hamline student

...then you may be on your last packet. It's almost time to pop a cork and congratulate yourself, right?

I'm finishing my critical essay and received feedback from a writing peer. Her comments made me feel like my paper is a winner, yet with needed edits that are totally doable.

This made me think of the importance of giving critiques. There are different ways, many use the sandwich approach (good-bad-good).

During my first semester, Hamline instructor and acclaimed author Claire Rudolf Murphy had the ability to look past my junky over-writing and find the true story. If she attacked my work with pointing out every negative aspect, or what she didn't like, it would have totally devastated me. I'm sure I would have quit the program right away. And when it came to an element of craft that she noticed I was struggling with, Claire would suggest that I write an essay on it. Jane was the advisor who helped me to reach deeper into the plot and character. She structured her feed backs in the form of questions that made me think about the story. She helped me recognize my grammar weakness. And her comments were stern, yet empowering.

It's important to give feedback to help the writer grow, and not necessarily from personal opinions. It's a fine line, I know. Here's the thing... depending on our circumstances, some moments we are like rubber-- everything bounces off, we make adjustments, and keep it moving. Other times, we are like glue, and all the negative comments stick, weigh us down, and keep us stuck.

What critiquing techniques do you find effective?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Keep Moving

Ashley Bryan Saturday afternoon reminded me of something very important that all of us artists must do.

Bryan is author, poet and illustrator of dozens of award-winning books that include African folk tales, collections of spirituals, poems, and works with such luminaries as Nikki Giovanni, Nikki Grimes, Naomi Shihab Nye, Mari Evans, and Walter Dean Myers.

Bryan is in his late eighties. Slender, with crinkly white hair and white moustache, he looks frail, as if he should be speaking to us while sitting in a chair. But for over an hour on Saturday Ashley Bryan was continually moving -- standing, chanting, singing, talking, laughing, clapping, inspiring us with words from his picture books, and in a booming voice reciting Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni, and extolling us to join him in singing universally known African American spirituals.

Bryan was in Raleigh, NC to celebrate Alazar Press’s re-issuing of his children’s books “Walk Together Children: Black American Spirituals Volume 1” and “I’m Going to Sing: Black American Spirituals Volume 2.”

When he first began collecting spirituals and illustrating them in his books, he discovered that children -- and adults -- often knew the songs but didn’t know their origins.

“They didn’t know that ‘He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands’ and ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain’ were created by Black American slaves,” he said. “Those slaves worked from the dark of the morning to the dark of night. How did they have time to think up those songs? No matter how much you suppress people, they’re going to find out who they are and express themselves. These songs have universal feelings. You never know what’s going to help you get over obstacles.”

For those of us who create poems, songs, stories, and books at our desks, bent over our computers and pads of paper, or try to, this wondrous octogenarian’s energy, passion, and commitment to his crafts and his culture are motivators.

He also left me with another message, which apparently makes everything else possible: Keep moving. Keep moving. Keep moving.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Hello, Mr. Krishnamurti

I was just up in Ojai for a few days. R&R for my wife, not me. I don't need no stinkin' R&R, but Bianca works 8-5 like a real person while I sit home and try to rhyme the word "orange" with . . . well, something. I'm convinced it can be done.

Ojai is still the home of a Krishnamurti center. Mr. K. was a very smart guy with no narrow agenda about spirituality. (He's worth reading about.) Here's my favorite Krishnamurti story: he leaves the small community of disciples (though he didn't like followers) for awhile and when he comes back this guy we'll call Joe is missing. Mr. K. asks where Joe is and learns that the others have asked him to leave. Joe was a pain in the ass: selfish, overbearing, and a general killjoy. Mr. K. goes right into town, finds Joe and brings him back, pointing out that Joe was the one person everyone could learn from. To someone like Krishnamurti, a well-oiled community with no conflict was a sign of narcosis brought on by self-satisfaction.

Here's the point -- where in your stories or novels or picture books is Joe? Where's the thorny, difficult person everyone has to live with?

If you'd like an exercise, try this one: have every important person in your story carry on a conversation with Joe. Write fast. I think you'll be surprised when a character you thought of as sweet and benign turns out to hate Joe while some recalcitrant s.o.b. reveals a tenderness and understanding you never suspected was there.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Time Out for a Short Story

In search of quality short stories, I recently revisited Cricket Magazine, part of the 14-member Cricket Magazine Group of literary and nonfiction magazines for children and young adults. Cricket’s target reading level is for the 9-14 age crowd.

This April issue sparkled with fiction about a wheelchair-bound boy who rides a horse for the first time; tough poetry about a tough mutt who runs alone; a first-person piece about raising skunks; fiction about a Bar Mitzvah; a fairytale in graphic novel form about a prince who believes he’s a rooster (he wears no feathers, but no clothes, either); an historical fiction story; a recipe for Irish soda bread; and a nonfiction article about the sinking of the Titanic.

I was particularly impressed with “Sunrise,” Nancy Springer’s dynamic story in which Mike, who has spina bifida, is determined not to let himself like -- or even try -- to ride a horse. I could feel his fear of the horse, his fear he could break bones, his fear of possible injury, and certainly his fear that he could even die from falling on the drainage tube that ran from his brain through his neck.

Springer deftly pulls the boy (and me) out of his comfort zone in his protective wheelchair world and onto the horse’s back where he can see higher than he’s ever been able to see before, and in more ways than one.

Talk about point of view! I was in this boy's head!

While we work diligently to produce books, don’t forget to study children’s magazines. Plot, characterization, voice, conflict, resolution, setting, sensory details, dialogue -- the literary elements are there for you to peruse -- and use.

Are writer's kinda-sorta crazy?

All writers have different processes for capturing their character's voice, I'm sure. As an actor, I attempt to attack my protagonist like I do a script. Easy right? But add in several writing projects at a does a writer juggle their own sanity while handling the thoughts, moods, and voices of several different protagonists and antagonists. Can you imagine us walking through a crowded street displaying different personality traits? One moment you're plotting to take down the Capitol and the next second you stop to a halt to champion people to freedom.

In Outlining Your Novel by K. M. Weiland, the author suggests interviewing your character. Weiland goes further and advises conducting a freehand interview for those tough, clousemouthed characters. For example:

Author: Why are you being so uncooperative?

Character: Why are you asking stupid questions?

Author: They're not stupid. Why don't you just relax and let me get to know you. Your resistance just makes me think that you have something to hide. Do you?

Character: If I did, it's not of your business. That's why I'm hiding it.

Author: So you do have something to hide!

Anyhooo, as I read the real exchange that the author wrote as an example, I burst out laughing. The exchange sounds crazy! It just made me realize, we writers might either have a touch of insanity (not because we write without getting much pay), or extreme creativity.

Which are you?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Next Step

Critical writing is an important part of our MFAC program. During a student's first two semesters he or she must write a total of 8 essays on some element related to writing. During the third semester there's a much longer paper to write; most of these run 30-40 pages. Then the student's done with the critical writing element of the program.

I love reading and thinking about these essays, not least because of the variety of topics students tackle. Here are just a few from off the top of my head: Humor in the dark novel; Using Fear effectively in YA fiction; Why best friends make the best antagonists; Swearing in YA novels; Voice and POV in historical fiction; Jazz phrasing in Bud, Not Buddy.

Patrick Jones is a YA author and former librarian. (a terrific and esteemed one, too; in 2006 he received the American Library Association's Scholastic Library Publishing Award in recognition of his outstanding library service to teens). In addition to his novels (The Tear Collector is his most recent; he's signed a contract for a sequel), Patrick has published many articles on teens and YA literature. A little over a year ago I had the good luck to work with Patrick on his current WIP, Control Group, when he signed on for a mini-immersion semester in the Hamline MFAC program.

Recently he sent me a copy of his latest article that is in the current ALAN Review issue (Winter 2012). The article, "Mind Games: Mind Control in YA Literature" grew out of a paper he wrote for me during his semester work. It's a fascinating survey of the use of mind control as a thematic and plot point in literature.

He sent the article to me along with a request that I remind students in the program to try to get their papers published in one of many professional journals. MFAC students and grads: consider yourself reminded, okay? This is exactly the sort of next step we want you to take, along with trying to get that book published, of course.

And now a question for y'all: What critical paper proved to be the most useful to your own writing? If you don't have an answer to that, then tell me this: What essay topic still haunts you?

And congrats to Patrick!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


I was at a little soiree the other evening- Cheryl Strayed and Bernard Cooper on a lawn in Altadena. The main event was Ms. Strayed and her new book, WILD. They're both essayists and memoirists. And, in a sense, memory-ists. One of Bernard's books has this hilarious premise, his father sends him a bill for raising him. Food, clothes, schooling, etc. Bernard has a light touch, but the book is also very moving. CS's WILD is about this arduous and dangerous journey she took after her mother's death. She hiked alone pretty much the coast of California.

All of their books are worth reading, and/but what I wanted to pass on this morning was CS's advice about memoir. She teaches Creative Non-Fiction and gets a lot of what she called "My Trip to Paris." Her simple question to her students (the disappointed ones clutching their Paris journals) was this: Why should I care?

What a good question! It comes up in poetry all the time -- this is pretty but why should I care? This certainly rhymes but why should I care? And, of course, it comes up in fiction where it's more of a whack upside the head. Someone works for months on a novel and then comes The Question. The stuttering answer often is, "I worked hard on this." "It really happened." "I've always wanted to tell this story."

Those answers wouldn't cut it with Ms. Strayed. And if you're given to self-interrogation (the shiny boot, the leather glove, the hot lights) they might not be good enough for you, either.

And probably shouldn't be.


Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Grass is Always Greener

How do you write a novel? We're supposed to be giving tips on that sort of thing, but some days I'm just tipped out. What I do know is that if you set a video camera up in my work place and let it run, it would have to run a mighty long time before it would capture anything taking shape on the page or even me doing something. That's not the case with painters of course, they can daub away and right off the bat something's there. Carol Marine is one of many painters who does a painting a day (she does larger work too, of course); this video is a demo of her creating one of those one-day pieces. One reason I feel akin to painters is that they revise as they go along.

BTW, when you reach the third minute mark--that's about the status of my work-in-progress.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Music to Write By?

Back in my green salad ranting and raving poetry and short story days I wrote profusely
The Four Tops, James Brown, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Janis Joplin, Phoebe Snow, Phyllis Hyman, Michael White, Pharoah Sanders, Don Ellis, Beethoven, Hetor Villalobo, Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck, The Iron Butterfly and George Gershwin serenaded me.
They didn't do it all at once, of course. From midnight to four a.m. -- after my evening nap and before I went to work at 8 a.m. as a newspaper reporter back in Des Moines, Iowa -- their music swayed me and their lyrics stimulated me. While I wrote The Secret of Gumbo Grove in South Carolina, I was aided by The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, Michael jackson, Whitney Houston, Tina Marie, the Righteous Brothers, and especially Christopher Cross ("Sailing, take me away ..."). I listened to them either on the radio (before CDs) or on their 33 1/3 vinyl records. I still have most of their albums, too.
When I wrote African American Musicians in North Carolina in the late 1990s I swooned to the music and/or lives of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Ma Rainey, Duke Ellington, Shirley Caesar, Millie-Christine McKoy, Queen Latifah, Tupac Shakur, Eubie Blake, Anita Baker, and other greats. By listening to their music I was able to connect to their personalities, I guess.
And now what do I listen to? Well, I watch television: Dr. Phil, the Braxon Family Values, Survivor, Dancing to the Stars, Golden Girls and Frazier (still!), South Park, the Weather Channel, Animal Planet and the History Channel, Joyce Meyers, Creflo Dollar, Joel Osteen. As I write this piece I'm watching Entertainment Tonight.
I've no excuse for my media proclivities (other than NOT watching Fox News). Everything evolves. Just as long as I can keep writing.
What about you and our favorites? Or is silence your favorite partner?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Don't Let This Happen To You...

There I was, working on my third semester critical essay. Click, save. Break time.

My daughter's Girl Scout troop was coming over for a Pizza/Wii party as a 'thank you' to providing a formidable discussion on female protagonists as role models. I wanted to order the pizza online to get a special "online" discount. Little did I know...

I clicked on the Papa John's pizza link. The page popped up, but suddenly closed down explorer. Weird. I tried it again, even clicked on the pizza that I wanted to order, again explorer shut down. My desktop icons were gone and a "Smart" something box jumped on the screen like it was checking for viruses. I cancelled it and ran my own anti-virus program. TOO LATE.

My entire desktop was wiped clean, itunes, pictures, documents, EVERYTHING. I couldn't panic...I was too overwhelmed with life to panic.

"You need to get an external hard drive, costs about $100 bucks," said my best friend. Yeah, thanks. Will do.

That my friend is a tragic experience for anyone, especially for us writers who have at least 100 first-second-third drafts of one story, exercises, old essays and creative work from eons ago. Save your sanity and invest in an external hard drive.


I know we're kids' writers, but when Harry Crews died recently, literature lost a true original. He was Southern Gothic. Very gothic. Think Flannery O'Connor on crank. Profane, disturbing, and truly strange, he wrote seventeen novels. A typical review said " . . . not entirely satisfactory but memorable." No kidding. In one, a man eats a car. We like our autos here in Southern California but not that much.

He taught creative writing and suggested writing every day, even if only for fifteen minutes. Sound familiar?

Legend has it he got up at 4:00 a.m. and prayed: "God, I'm not greedy. Just give me the next five hundred words."

Obviously it worked for him.