Monday, February 27, 2012

Still looking back

Ah--another tip of the hat to earlier times, I guess. This time to the Brontes. Margot Livesey has a nice post today on that family of writers. The Bronte story is a familiar one, but the lesson (perseverance, boldness) is always useful.

A Little Stretching Exercise

As most of you know, I don't believe in writer's block. Daily, crappy writing is the solution to that chimerical dilemma. But if someone thinks he/she is blocked and just wants to limber up, here's something that might work. Billy Collins and others have pointed out how much like a family reunion the thesaurus is and I think they're right.

Let's imagine words like "friend" and "comrade" standing by the big picnic table and saying hello to everyone and that includes "amigo"and "chum" and "buddy," the last one having driven all the way from Topeka for the potato salad.

Here's the drill: Write a simple sentence: "Robert looked at the garage." Then start fooling around with your thesaurus. Try the verb first, probably: "peeked" or "scowled" or ogled." Already I'm more interested. Any of the choices is stronger/weirder than "looked." Now the noun: "silo" or "shed" or "arsenal." Okay, we're getting someplace; if Robert is ogling the arsenal I want to know more about Robert. And perhaps call the authorities.

If you're working with an existing story or poem, this is an almost surefire way to get a little fire started in your brain.

Try it. Let me know if it works. If I don't reply, don't get your feelings hurt. I'm busy writing embarrassingly bad prose.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Dither Factor

Remembering Marsha’s pep talk, I turn to one of my favorite web newsletters -- the free emailed monthly “Writing World: A World of Writing Information for Writers Around the World”. The newsletter is part of Moira Allen’s cornucopia of writing links to genres (including children’s, of course), how-to, book resources, craft specifics, marketing, self-help, “Free Stuff for Writers,” book reviews, and a gazillion more. Plan to stay a while.

In Moira’s Feb. 2 editorial, “The Dither Factor” is when a writer’s worked so hard on Project A, B and C that he (or she) gets sick of them, but doesn’t want to begin Project D or E because, well, the first projects haven’t been finished. As a result, nothing gets done.

Sound familiar? To rid yourself of “The Dither Factor” (after piling guilt upon your head and having to take a nap to knock it off), Moira writes that you “go work” on one project and then stop, and -- deliberately -- and move to another.

Simple enough. Key words here are “go work”.

Her steps:
Streamline your literary plate to only a few writing tasks at a time rather than several so that you don’t feel overwhelmed. “Rotate” from one to another of THOSE tasks in an intentional, purposeful manner until you’re finished.

This way you’ll get at least one of them completed, even if it’s done chunk by chunk. Thanks, Moira!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Pep Talk

Ron indulged in metaphor last week, and now it’s my turn. More accurately, I will pass on another writer’s plunge into metaphor

For a long time one of my favorite books on writing has been Fay Weldon’s witty Letters to Alice on first reading Jane Austin. The Alice of the title is a fictional niece who has complained to her novelist aunt about being forced to read Pride and Prejudice for a college course. She just doesn’t get the point of spending time on that book--or any other, for that matter. What follows is a series of letters in which Weldon holds forth on literature, popular culture, and writing as she attempts to persuade her niece that reading is worth while. Published in 1984, the book’s cultural references are a bit dated, but Weldon’s ruminations still resonate with me. Here’s the metaphor I promised:

"For what novelists do (I have decided, for the purposes of your conversion) is to build Houses of the Imagination, and where houses cluster together there is a city. And what a city this one is, Alice! It is the nearest we poor mortals can get to the Celestial City: it glitters and glances with life, and gossip, and colour, and fantasy: it is brilliant, it is illuminated, by day by the sun of enthusiasm and by night by the moon of inspiration. It has its towers and pinnacles, its commanding heights and its swooning depths: it has public buildings and worthy ancient monuments, which some find boring and others magnificent. It has its central districts and its suburbs, some salubrious, some seedy, some safe, some frightening. Those who founded it, who built it, house by house, are the novelists, the writers, the poets. And it is to this city that the readers come, to admire, to learn, to marvel and explore." (pp 15-16)

Aside from her use of colons, what I like about this passage is the idea that all books are part of this city. I imagine, too, that the entrance portals are framed by children’s books, portals with plenty of “towers and pinnacles,” as well as “swooning depths.” It is the rare reader who enters the city without passing through those gates.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

This is the year to write for YOU - No Matter What

My first semester (and even second) was spent doubting myself and writing abilities. My poor advisors, Claire Rudolf-Murphy and Jane Resh-Thomas, must have spent the entire semester encouraging and boosting my esteem. No more. I've grown since then, and I'd like to share my gems.

#1 Don't overwhelm yourself about perfection. Celebrate your small steps.

By day, I'm a Teaching Artist. I instruct teachers on arts-integration techniques (using drama and storytelling) to incorporate into their curriculum. One of my teachers said, "I have to be perfect. The administration will look at my lesson plans and expect perfection." She was so tense and obviously lost some of the joy of teaching. She added, "I want to be able to teach the way you do, with your drama." At this, I tried to remember the quote (If you know it please correct me): "Don't insult me, it took years for me to be able to do this." After she exhaled, I helped her to celebrate her small successes. That's when I realized that I must do the same for myself.

#2 You might have to celebrate all by yourself.

While having your little congrats party, realize everyone won't join you. You might have to celebrate alone. While working on a big project, there was a friend with me at the beginning of the process, but when it was time to break out the champagne--she was a no-show. I could rationalize many reasons for her lack of support, but in the end I knew that she wasn't truly excited for me. Don't cry for me, Argentina. That valuable lesson taught me that I must do me--even all by myself. Remember, everyone can't climb to the mountain top with you.

#3  You're meant to tell a story in a way that no one else can tell it.

Yes, every story has been told. It doesn't matter because we've accepted the call to write and signed the student loan promissory notes to prove it. Now, we have to trust the voice within ourselves and just write. There's only one Neil Gaiman, one Gary D. Schmidt, one Anne Ursu, one Kate DiCamillo, one Whomever. And, there's only one YOU.

At the end of the day, I can't continue to whine to my advisor. I'll have to pull my shoulders back, look into the mirror and say with attitude, "I'm the fabulous Alicia Williams."

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Another Poem Via Ted Kooser

Carol L. Gloor is an attorney living in Chicago and Savanna, Illinois. I especially like this poem of hers for its powerful ending, which fittingly uses the legal language of trusts and estates.


At the moment of my mother’s death
I am rinsing frozen chicken.
No vision, no rending
of the temple curtain, only
the soft give of meat.
I had not seen her in four days.
I thought her better,
and the hospital did not call,
so I am fresh from
an office Christmas party,
scotch on my breath
as I answer the phone.
And in one moment all my past acts
become irrevocable.

Thanks to Chris Heppermann for passing this along to me; Ted is the poet who takes his poems to the office and if the people who work there don't get them, he revises.

The austerity of this appeals to me. I'm such a chatterbox. It's also the kind of poem that means what it says. No searching for deeper meanings. Lord, spare me from deeper meanings.

If you want more poems, there are two of mine today at One of them is at least 30 years old! Holy cow!!! This is a cool site in general, so drop by now and then.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

On Memory and Writing

I first heard the phrase “let me see can I call ‘em down” years ago when I met the famed Mrs. Ruby Forsythe of Pawleys Island, SC. Miss Ruby was the widow of an Episcopal Bishop who also was a priest-in-charge of Holy Cross Faith Memorial Episcopal Church and its one-room school there. Named an “Unsung Hero” by Newsweek Magazine, she taught for over sixty years, mostly in that school. She was in her 80s. She also lived above the school.

I needed to know the names of all the Episcopal priests who had presided over that Episcopal district for an article I was writing. The current priest did not know. "Let me see can I call em down," Miss Ruby said. She named each priest-in-charge (there were many) in order of presiding, and threw in an anecdote about each one. Long memory.
Though I have a hard time even remembering the plots to my own books, the process of memory, or “calling it down,” is central to our writing endeavors.

The elements of memory include:
“Recollection” -- the reconstruction of events or facts through prompts, or reminders;
“Recall” -- the active, unaided pulling up, or “calling down” of something from the past;
“Recognition” -- identifying previously encountered stimuli as familiar; and
“Relearning” -- showing, in most cases, evidence of the effects of memory.

For us writers the evidence is our work.

We writers “call down” our memories (learned, researched, first-hand, etc.), then act on them by creating manuscripts that resonate with readers so compellingly it’s as if -- as writer Jacqueline Woodson once said -- we poked through their closets and ate biscuits with them at their kitchen tables.

Let me see can you call 'em down.
Eleanora E. Tate, Feb. 15, 2012

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Introducing the new student blogger...

Alicia Williams!! (loud applause, whistles, cheers) The standing O only happens in my daydreams, or for a character in a future novel.

Moving on...

Hello fellow bloggers and readers! (I'm typing, deleting and re-typing this next line--on with it!) I'm a graduate student in Hamline Univeristy's program for Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults. I absolutely love it. Just think, I almost didn't apply... (twinkling music for backstory)

In November 2010, I attended the National Black Storyteller's Conference in cold Minneapolis. As I passed by the booth, I sped up thinking it was one of those pushy sales people from Sprint or AT&T. A quick glance and I saw it: Hamline University. This was the program that author, Jewell Parker Rhodes, suggested that I apply to. I literally heard the angels singing, "Ahhhh, Hamline..." The magestic cheribums took me by the arms and led me to the table. Mary Rockcastle and Eleanora Tate greeted me with enthusiasm and kindness. Mary informed me that the application deadline was extended to Nov. 30th. It was meant to be. Right?

Wrong. I didn't believe in myself enough to actually apply to the school. I was one of those fradulent writers. I walked around saying, "I'm a writer," but never actually putting pen to paper. I thought I'd be clever. I sent Mary a nice email thanking her for our meeting, but I couldn't get in touch with Jewell for a letter of recommendation. Oh well, I tried to apply.

Outsmarted by Mary Rockcastle. She replied saying to send a work sample to Eleanora. Every excuse I gave, Mary countered. (She must be a chess player!)

After all my excuses were removed, I applied. The week of Christmas I received a phone call from Anika. "Congratulations..." I couldn't believe it! Me? Acceped into graduate school? To be a writer?

Ladies and gentlemen, it was one of the best decisions I've made in my life thus far. I hope to enlighten you with my lessons, make you laugh and invite you to grow with me.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Another Metaphor I Can Hammer Into Submission

For people who like to bet on horses, there's something called the Future Book. Sounds sci-fi, doesn't it. But it's only about the Kentucky Derby. What someone can do (not me, though, since it's a sucker bet) is bet now on who'll win the Derby on the first Saturday in May. Why not wait until then, you ask? Because the odds this weekend are astronomical compared to Derby Day. Basically you're bettering on potential. Most 3 yr. old colts (and pretty much only those guys run in the Derby) haven't matured completely. Some have run only short races. But the potential is there. Maybe a blazing six furlongs. Maybe a huge, locomotive late run that mowed his opposition down. 30-1 now is way better than 2-1 on Derby Day. But that assumes he'll stay healthy and rise quickly through the ranks. If you bet now and he stubs his toe tomorrow, kiss that money good-bye. (Brace yourself for the metaphor, kids.)

Writers are like that. When I met Tobin fifteen or so years ago, I knew he was a genius. Not everybody knew, though, so his odds, so to speak, would have been juicy. Now, everybody knows. No money to be made there for a bettor.

Also like thoroughbreds, not everybody lives up to his/her potential. We all know a story about some first book phenomenon with a $100k new contract who didn't sell 30 thousand copies of the second book and was essentially never heard from again. The equestrian equivalent of ending up at the Big Fresno Fair.

And then there are the mid-level steeds who week in and week go out there there and do the best they can. A few aches and pains but those never trump determination and guts.

Most of us ache a little for one reason or another. But we write, anyway. Revise diligently. Send the manuscripts out regularly. Celebrate the wins, deplore the losses and the next morning or the next week or the next month, get out there and run for our equivalent of the roses again.

P.S. An Australian editor of a magazine called JACKET has a new web page and this week I'm on it with a selection of poems from the past. If you're interested, go to my website ( The JACKET info will be up today or tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Save It!

Novelist Peter de Vries said that while he loved being a writer, “What I can’t stand is the paperwork.”

I know, Peter, I know. Almost every precious scrap of paper and disk (aka floppy) I own gets saved in a drawer or box. The thought of throwing away my (or anyone else’s) precious prose horrifies me. I certainly can’t throw away cards and letters from children I met during my forty years of school residencies. The other day I ran across a pile of homemade Valentine cards given to me back in February 1987.

I’ll just share one:

“Mrs. Tate, I’m sorry today is your last day to be with us. Oh by the way I had a million zillion tons of fun with you. I enjoyed it while it lasted but now I have nothing to look at the clock for. Well, bye bye.”

Potential dialogue! Save it!
Eleanora E. Tate Feb. 7, 2012

Book Blurbs

This article is fun reading. Did you know the first use of the term "blurb" is attributed to a children's book writer? Nor did I. Enjoy.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Cold Medicine

I’ve been under the weather lately, which without fail always results in me 1. Not wanting to write and 2. Eating too much toast. This is a writing blog, so I’ll focus on that first thing. Not Wanting to Write is an old blues song we all know. My usual remedy when I begin humming the tune is to mess around with a writing exercise or two for a while and focus on something outside of the novel but related to a character or a scene. I do this for a while and then the juices kick in. Why just last week I was bubbling about a fruitful new exercise I’d cooked up and I told you all about that. Lately, however, I’ve not had the oomph to even tackle one of the exercises. They all just loom so large, so long, so very--

Excuse me. Had to blow my nose.

Anyway, what I have been doing is rereading with pleasure a book called Word Magic, by a Minnesota writer, Cindy Rogers. The first chapters of the book are devoted to a witty and useful discussion of some familiar and not so familiar rhetorical devices that we should all have in our tool box. Alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia—those are familiar to us all. But Rogers delves into some of the less familiar devices.

Anaphora is the repetition of leading words (or clauses): “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired…” (Dwight D. Eisenhower)

Epistrophe is the repetition of a word or words at the end of a phrase, or clause, or sentence: Love beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things” (1 Corinthians).

Antimetabole is the repetition of a word or phrase in reverse order: “Ask now what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country” (JFK). You can be even more precise with this one and bookend a sentence with the same word: “Break was when she watched the waves break” (MRQ).

Epizeuxis is the repetition of one word for emphasis: “Water, water, everywhere /And all the boards did shrink/Water, water everywhere/Nor any drop to drink” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge).

Okay, the poets in the crowd are by now muttering, “Hon—these are all old tricks in our playbook.” Okay, probably so. But I’m still pleased with my discovery that crafting just a line or two according to a certain form is a wonderful sick-bed writing exercises; tough, sure, but just the right focus and scope for those days when any activity is likely to be interrupted by a period of lung-clearing.

There’s plenty more in Word Magic (anadiplosis, anyone?) but I’ve already lifted enough from the book; Cindy is a tough cookie and I don’t want to get sued. Also, it’s time for some toast.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Pico Iyer

Went downtown L.A. to a series called ALOUD. It's people shouting at each other. (Joke). It's a reading/conversation series. Last night was Pico Iyer chatting somebody from the L.A. TIMES.

Pico Iyer has long been a fave of mine. His recent article in the L.A. TIMES was in defense of long sentences! (Sorry, Elanora) It was a beauty, too. He's a very graceful writer. And -- here's the point -- long-winded and knows it. He writes, he says, regularly and has few boundaries.

His recent book is about Graham Greene and it's probably a couple of hundred pages long. BUT he wrote 3000 pages. Then he edited. Not must taking out, but shuffling early pages into later ones and chronological sections out of time. He just wanted to see what would happen as he handled/fondled/caressed the rough drafts.

I particularly liked the out-of-time suggestion since I cling to time-lines. If that resonates with any of you, join me in the new time-dance where the last might be first or even in the middle

P.S. February's poem is up on the RK site:

A writer?

Did my taxes yesterday and picked "writer" for one of my job descriptions, which reminded me of the John Scalzi blog post I'd read over the weekend. Since that post is lacking tight lines. I'll try to apply them to mine. (Welcome, Eleanora!)