Thursday, May 28, 2015

Alumni Voices with Janel Kolby: Get Lost

Have you ever purposefully got yourself lost? Stepped onto a road you’ve never stepped before? Drove aimlessly without a GPS? Walked into the woods without a compass?

I was reckless. In high school, I’d get up in the middle of class and leave to walk home eight miles away. Not because I was bullied or ostracized. I had friends who understood me, good grades, and a teacher who made a difference. I left because I couldn’t sit in that same chair anymore doing the same predictable questions and answers and structured reading exercises while the same subtle meanness and flirtations darted around us. My choice was to leave or explode. So I left.

The first time I wasn’t sure how to get home. I knew the general direction, and was confident if I headed that way I’d eventually find a familiar street. I didn’t worry. I sang songs out loud. I made up poetry about flowers and weeds. I saw houses I’d never seen, shops I’d never noticed, interesting people, and I made stories from them. I skipped. I ran. I leaped across puddles and challenged myself to jump bigger ones. And I did find my way—even though it was cold and dark when I walked up our driveway. This wandering became addictive. Whenever I was too comfortable with my route, I’d change it. Sometimes I’d get lost. Once I found myself in a giant dirt pit, and a man in a hard hat yelled at me until he realized I was really lost, and he pointed the easiest way out. I had to crawl out on my hands and knees, clinging to fistfuls of earth. I was filthy and my pants were torn when I got home, but I got home. At church camp, I’d walk away from the organized activities into the woods until I didn’t recognize anything, then I’d sit against a tree and watch life happen—from tiny insects to the enormous sky. When I learned to drive, I explored greater distances, and took bigger chances to the extent my car once burst into flames.

I haven’t wandered in a while. Not like that.

Instead, I get lost in first drafts. From experience, the only way to keep myself excited and interested is to walk away from what I think I know. The woods might be dark with strange creatures hiding, but I want to go there. The path ahead might not be one path—it might be infinite, ridiculous paths crisscrossing each other, but I’m going to step out on one. The people I see may be those I’ve never encountered, but I’m going to talk to them. If I’m dirty and torn at the end, if I’ve made mistakes, so be it. However I head out, I know I’ll make my way to an end.

Revision is when I turn on the GPS, take out my phone or my compass. But not until that point. Because what sort of fun would that be if I already knew the way? I choose to stay reckless.

Janel Kolby is a January 2015 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. She lives in Washington state.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Alumni Voices with Melinda Cordell: This Is What Writing Is

You get an idea you want to write about. It’s a beautiful thing, all precious and gold, an amazing thought, a stunning image, and you think, Oh my gosh, this is the most beautiful idea I’ve ever had. And this idea is like a magnet made of gold, and all these little golden flecks start collecting on it – other ideas. Looking at this brilliant idea, your brain starts racing. You start envisioning what you want this story to look like when it’s finished. You can just see it, all solid and perfect, in its final form, and you want so much to create this story. People start to annoy you. Work starts to annoy you. Why can’t people leave you be? All you want to do is think about this idea.

But you don’t write about it yet – you want this idea to be strong enough to hit the page and look good. If you write too early about this idea, it turns into a bank of fog that burns away when the sun comes out. So you wait, you brood, and you get ready.

But the catch is, once you start writing – the moment the words start to hit the page – the work of imagination turns into a work of demolition.

Every word you write is a sledgehammer against that idea.

That beautiful story idea, even when it’s made up of images, is connected in your mind in a constellation of unspoken ideas, concepts, hidden meanings that have no direct meanings in words. The idea is rooted in emotions that you can’t name, feelings that clutch the foundations of this idea, down in the dark. But they aren’t in the dark because they’re evil, but because they’re feelings that you don’t understand, that you haven’t plumbed yet.

So as you translate this story to the page, and as you write about this glimmering golden thing, every act of translation is ripping parts of this image out of this constellation. You are groping for words that you don’t know how to say, words that don’t yet exist for you.

It seems like a simple process to move the thought from your mind to the page, to break an idea into its component parts. But every word is a solid thing, with every one bearing a particular meaning, and all the connotations they bring with them. As you try to shape this idea into words, the words pull the idea into different shapes. That’s not the right word, that’s not the right idea at all, you mutter, looking back at the spill of words on the page, like a track of blood from a wounded deer.

The writing of the idea is a journey, too, as you follow those words--that track of blood into the night forest. When you follow the words, you journey into yourself. You have got to be honest with yourself, brutally honest, even if it seems like the most scandalous thing in the world. You are going to see parts of yourself that you won’t like, but you have to write them anyway.

You’ll see glimmers of the idea as you walk into the night forest – which, actually, is a very beautiful place, though every scuff in the leaves shoots pulses of fear down your nerves, and sometimes you hear a cough that might be a mountain lion. Or you hear a bobcat scream, like an old lady getting murdered, and you just about turn inside out trying to get away.

When you get to the end of what you’ve written, you can’t help but look at it with some despair. When you read it, though, you see a few glimmers of the original idea in there – but now the writing has turned into something different. It’s like kintsukuroi – you repair the break with silver or gold, and now the piece is more beautiful for having been broken. The writing has turned into something altogether new, and though in the end it doesn’t resemble that lovely idea, it is a beauty of a new sort.

That’s okay. That’s how the work goes. One kind of beauty can be transformed into a different kind of beauty. That’s how the magic works.

Melinda R. Cordell is a 2012 Graduate of the MFAC program. She lives and writes in Missouri. Her book Women Heroes of the Civil War will be published in 2016 by Chicago Review Press. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Faculty Voices with Marsha Chall: Micro-revision Madness

Marsha Wilson Chall
For those of you working writers, this blogpost might come as nothing new. For those of you just dipping your quills, you may want to refrain from reading. Unless you are very courageous or enjoy schadenfreude.

My new picture book about Figgy, an adventuresome doggie, is nearly set to go to production. In a casual gesture, I recently handed the layouts to my husband, John. “You haven’t read this for a loooong time,” I told him. “Want a look with final art?”

Expecting nothing beyond “cute,” I was shocked when he asked a pivotal question about the story. “Why is Figgy so tired if all of his adventures take place in his dreams?” Sounds logical if you didn’t know better. Figgy does dream the adventures, but he also relives them in real time. John had somehow missed the words, “When Figgy woke up…”. No one in my writing or retreat groups or in the publishing office had missed that Figgy woke up and carried out his adventure for real. Could he have uncovered a subtle wrongness in the text?

I panicked. This was too late to change any art; was it too late to recast the words to show with no uncertainty that Figgy was awake when he reenacted his dreams? Writing my editor late that evening, I queried possible solutions, even hoping she’d say that I was too anxious or that my husband was a bad reader. Well, she didn’t. She told me we could change the words if I liked.

The words in doubt say, “WOOF! When Figgy woke up, he knew his dream had to be a sign. So he made one of his own: FREE ROCK CONCERT. I wondered if the introductory clause, “When Figgy woke up,…” is too easily overlooked and could be revised as such: “Figgy woke up. WOOF! He knew his dream had to be a sign. So he made his one of his own: FREE ROCK CONCERT.”

Do you have an opinion, dear reader? Or have your eyes glazed over like a pond in November?

I’ve revised at every level, from punctuation (
“I'm exhausted. I spent all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out.” ~ Oscar Wilde) to pages. These are the rantings of a writer mad in the midst of micro-revision. My profound apologies and appreciation for your insight.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Alumni Voices with Maggie Moris: Five Senses Worth

Let’s say I sit at the top of the mountain. You claw your way upyou with your split, bloodied fingernails, blurred vision, parched lips, windnumbed ears and the scent of hot stone flaring your nostrils. You reach me and gasp, “What is the secret? What is the best craft tool?” I lean forward and whisper two words. “Sensory details.”

Maya Angelou is quoted as having said, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” To slip a reader inside a character’s sensibilities, there is no more powerful means for melding one with the other than the transformative powers of the five senses.

Think of the five senses as the nickels of your craft, a five-part coin that should be spent as early and often as possible.

Here’s why.

In Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway advises:
Fiction offers feelings for which the reader doesn’t payand yet to evoke those feelings, it is often necessary to portray sensory details that the reader may have experienced … if the writer depicts the precise physical sensations experienced by the character, a particular emotion may by triggered by the reader’s own sense memory … to dramatize [a character’s emotion] through physical detail allows a reader to share the experience. (31)
Of course, compelling stories are made up of more than just page after page of sensory description, but if you commit to work all five senses into your writingsight, sound, touch, taste and smellyou truly can hook and hold your audience.

Taste and smellthe most potent trigger of memories and associationsare ironically the least used sensory descriptions. In A Natural History of the Senses Diane Ackerman explores the ability to connect what is seen in the mind with what is felt in the body:
Nothing is more memorable than a smell … Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines … Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth. (5)
In our mind’s eye, that abstract seat of imagining, we picture the face of a lover, savor a kiss. When we think of him in passing, we have various thoughts; but when we actually picture him, as if he were a hologram, we feel a flush of emotion … The visual image is a kind of tripwire for the emotions. (281)
You can create that hologram and trigger an emotion with a detailed, multi-faceted sensory offering. The more senses you describe, the clearer the mental picture formed in the reader’s mind. The stronger the mental picture, the stronger the emotional connection with the character.

It’s so simple really. Your favorite best-beloved books are the ones that make you feel something. The key to triggering emotions is to engage a reader through sensory description.

Here are just three examples of acclaimed award-winning writers who spend that whole nickel as early as possible.

The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman:
When animal droppings and garbage and spoiled straw are piled up in a great heap, the rotting and moiling give forth heat. Usually no one gets close enough to notice because of the stench. But the girl noticed and, on that frosty night, burrowed deep into the warm, rotting muck, heedless of the smell. In any vent, the dung heap probably smelled little worse than everything else in her life—the food scraps scavenged from the kitchen yards, the stables and sties she slept in when she could, and her own unwashed, unnourished, unloved, and unlovely body. (1)

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary Schmidt:
Turner Buckminster had lived in Phippsburg, Maine for fifteen minutes shy of six hours. He had dipped his hand in its waves and licked the salt from his fingers. He had smelled the sharp resin of the pines. He had heard the low rhythm of the bells on the buoys that balanced on the ridges of the sea. He had seen the fine clapboard parsonage beside the church where he was to live, and the small house set a ways beyond that puzzled him some. (1)

Last, but not least, Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury:
The grass whispered under his body. He put his arm down, feeling the sheath of fuzz on it, and, far away, below, his toes creaking in his shoes. The wind signed over his shelled ears. The world slipped bright over the glassy round of his eyeballs like images sparked in a crystal sphere … His breath raked over his teeth, going in ice, coming out fire. Insects shocked the air with electric clearness. Ten thousand individual hairs grew a millionth of an inch on his head. He heard the twin hearts beating in each ear, the third heart beating in his throat, the two hearts throbbing his wrists, the real heart pounding his chest. The million pores on his body opened.
I’m really alive, he thought. (10)
Now it’s your turn. Find your favorite books. Look for the passages that most moved you. What do you see, hear, taste, feel and smell?

If you want your readers to journey as your characters, deploy sensory details. But remember, this craft nickel has 5 sense(s). Spend the whole coin.

Be generous.

Works Cited
Ackerman, Diane. A Natural History of the Senses. New York: Vintage Books-Random House, 1990.
Bradbury, Ray. Dandelion Wine. Rev. ed. New York: Bantam, 1975
Burroway, Janet and Elizabeth Stuckey-French. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft 7th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007.
Cushman, Karen. The Midwife’s Apprentice. New York: Clarion-Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
Schmidt, Gary. Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. New York: The Penguin Press, 2005.

M. A. Moris is a 2009 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. She suggests that if you wish for a better understand of the physiology behind this phenomenon, read “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain,” by Maryanne Wolf.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Faculty Voices with Jane Resh Thomas: Setting and Fiction

Jane Resh Thomas
Developing writers have assured me so many times that they would “put in setting” after they had completed first drafts of their novels that you'd think I'd be prepared for this proposal, but still it always shocks me. A writer's inserting setting into a half-baked story is like a baker's adding the yeast after the bread is kneaded. Yeast releases the air bubbles that create the grain of the loaf, its physical structure. Without yeast or some other leavening, the loaf cannot rise. Setting is the world through which characters move and conflict and plot play out. Setting, like yeast, is not put-in-able at late stages of the cookery.

A writer's inattention to setting from the beginning of a story results in its floating in the clouds, unmoored, deprived of a specific culture and definite place. Fiction needs a context, something impossible to provide without a setting. For this reason, fantasy writers must build worlds as well as characters. Writers of realism must place their plots in a real place that affects events, not a generic one.

Although place does concern distances and landmarks, it also determines character. The remark “Bless her little heart” may mean something ironic, rather than fond, something entirely different in Charleston, South Carolina than it does in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The subtle assumptions of a Louisiana fisherman differ from those of a Wisconsin farmer in ways we can't know without experience in both places.

In early April, my son Jason and I drove from Minneapolis to the North Shore of Lake Superior for the day. We went to the mouth of the Gooseberry River, where we sat at a picnic table overlooking the open water where the river entered the big lake. The wind was cold; I wore my beloved old secondhand beaver coat with the collar up around my ears. As we sat there, we talked about the scene before us and hypothesized.

On the far side of the river, on a sandbar, two people sat looking for agates, far enough away for us to be uncertain of their age and gender, though we thought they were a youngish woman and a twelve-year-old girl. How had they reached that sandbar? Beyond them, a seventy-five-degree bluff arose. They couldn't have descended that steep incline on the opposite bank. They must have gone from our side across the river ice. But look, we said. Look how rotten the ice is. See that dark place, where the snow is saturated? They were lucky once, but they'll have to cross again. Those people are headed for a swim.

After a while, the child returned across the ice to our side of the river. She avoided the dark spot. She was lanky and her weight was light; she made the crossing without mishap. A few minutes later, the woman followed her, but she quickly left the girl's tracks. As she headed straight for the place where the snow was wet and dark, Jason took off. He skidded down the ten-foot cliff on our side of the river and came even with her upstream when, just as we had foreseen, she fell through the ice. Perhaps she found a footing on a submerged rock, for she caught herself on the sharp edge of the hole and hauled herself out. Jason shouted at her to lie on the ice and crawl to the riverbank, but, still oblivious to her danger, she ignored the advice. The last time we saw her, she had taken off her icy jeans and stood shuddering and barefoot in a cotton skirt. She did not thank us.

Here were four characters in a far-north landscape, on the banks of a river where the flow and depth varies according to snowmelt, which was light this year. The two agate-seekers were strangers to this place; no native would cross river ice in April, knowing that it's unreliable even in cold January. No native would bring a cotton skirt on an April road trip to the North Shore. No. Natives bring wool and fleece and down and beaver skins. This mother who had risked her own and her child's life was also a fool.

The observers, Northerners all their lives, were not particularly prescient or wise. They foresaw events not only because of their own experience with rivers and lifetimes in the North, but because they had read Jack London's terrible story, “To Build a Fire,” where an Alaskan trapper falls through river ice and freezes because his hands are shaking so hard he can't keep a match lit. People on the North Shore say that, if you capsize on Lake Superior in early spring, you have twelve minutes to save yourself from hypothermia. After the incident at the mouth of the Gooseberry, a blasé gas station clerk said to us, “Oh, ya. People die down there every coupla years.”

Fiction writers must create the world through which their characters move. They must consider how that world influences events and how it has shaped the people who inhabit it.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Faculty Voices with Jackie Briggs Martin: Side by Side

Betty Comden and Adolph Green
New York Times photo/SuzanneDeChillo
Every working day for more than sixty years, Betty Comden and Adolph Green sat down together to write song lyrics-- for composers such as Leonard Bernstein (once their accompanist) and André Previn. We all know their songs—“Make Someone Happy,” “Just in Time,” “The Party’s Over,” “New York, New York.” 
Audiences loved them.  In 1958 Brooks Atkinson, theater critic for the New York Times,  called them “good enough for just about any civilized corner of the world.”  According Comden’s obituary in the Times,  (November 24, 2006), “They met daily, most often in Ms. Comden’s living room, either to work on a show, to trade ideas or even just talk about the weather.” Theirs was a life-long collaboration.

And that’s really what I want to consider: collaboration. Comden and Green wrote song lyrics. We write stories, books. It’s all words.  How does it go when we work with words with others?  Ms. Comden said of their collaboration: “We don’t divide the work up. We develop a mental radar, bounce lines off each other.” (New York Times; October 25, 2002).

I expect each instance of collaboration is different. But perhaps they all involve some kind of “mental radar,” and the joy of sharing ideas, "bouncing lines."

Ron Koertge and Christine Heppermann have been collaborating on a series of early chapter books—Backyard Witch (Greenwillow; July, 2015). Ron says of their work, “It always strikes me in collaboration that somebody has to drive the car and somebody has to/wants to ride shotgun.  Chris drove our car.  She’s much more focused in general than I am, so I could just  — I’m going to wring everything out of this car-metaphor that I can  — look out at the cornfield.”

But, in spite of the useful car metaphor, the writing gets passed back and forth. And there's some shared understanding of what the final story should look like—mental radar.  

Christine said, "[Ron] is probably right that I had the more definite vision, at least in the beginning, for who the characters were and where I wanted the story to go. But as we got deeper into the process, I think we became equally invested, to the point where now, when I go back to the finished text, I can't always remember who wrote what. We're both pretty meticulous about word choice--Poets!--so each sentence has a little of each of us in it, I'd bet. I love the two-minds-as-one aspect of collaboration." 

As a picture book writer I’ve always felt that a picture book is a collaboration of many minds—writer, artist, editor, book designer. And I’ve thought my books were better for the multiple perspectives. But it wasn’t until my daughter moved to California and gave birth to our first grandchild that I wanted to collaborate on the actual text. 

Here was this grandchild in California. Here was I in Iowa.  Insert powerful need to see grandchild.  Insert missing a daughter.  And the result is a story about a granny who walks to California to see her grandbaby, a story that Sarah and I worked on together.  She had the new infant so maybe I was the one who drove the car. I’d write a draft and she’d fix it—whenever she had time.  We both agreed on what we wanted the story to be.  The work was fun and we did it for each other.  Of course we wanted to publish, but we also wrote to amuse each other. Whoever else might see it was a little further from my mind than when I work alone. (And, we are now in the middle of another tale.)

I’ve  recently been working on a non-fiction piece with Phyllis Root and Liza Ketchum. In this instance there were three distinct parts of the story. And we divided the responsibility for the research.  We each wrote up what we had learned. Then we got our hands into the clay, combined the three parts and worked together to smooth out the seams.  Again, though we all believed the story was important and wanted it to get out to the wider world, we wrote to please each other.  And we had a wonderful time, so much fun that we are looking around for another project.

Think about writing a piece with someone else, someone who shares your passion for a story, someone you love to work with.  You don’t have to be like Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who only worked together. “Alone, nothing,” Mr. Green once said. “Together a household word…”  Working with someone can be just part of your writing portfolio. My daughter is a poet who is continuing to publish books and chapbooks. Phyllis, Liza, and I have individual writing projects. Both Christine and Ron are continuing to publish their own work, as they collaborate.  Working with someone can be just one of your writing projects—a treat for you and a writer friend.