Yup, just wasn't in the mood for it. A couple of days ago, though, I took to one of the prompts: "Where do you come from? Describe the landscape, people, etc. Do you visit?"
In the middle of writing it out as prose, though, I struck an irresistable rhyme (...defeated, the wind sighs and flies and soars out the French doors.) (Hey, the prompt required describing the landscape, a'ight?)
My brother, who actually went to college to study poetry, tries to steer clear of cheesy archaic conventions like rhyming. My mother and I, however, keep up this really stupid fun game--
Me: (normal dialogue) ... and threw me a furious glare, like it was all my fault! How dare he!
Mom: He dares,
to throw glares...
What a beast! Like a bear,
so then you come to share this?
Do I look like I care... miss?Me: A female horse is a mare.
Hey, don't diss
how ignorance... is bliss.
... yeah, it can go on for a while, because nothing is too contrived.
The contrived, casual rhyme in the where-do-you-come-from text block original version didn't make it into the penultimate (or even second) draft of the poem, and neither did the vivid vision of childhood or whatever that the prompt asked for. But the process just surprised me, I guess, showing how self-centered scribbles can be made into something almost presentable!
Prompts from the same chapter of Baldwin's Storycatcher:
Describe one of your earliest memories. Who is with you? Bring in all five senses. Do you know if this is an actual memory or a story you have heard others tell about you?
Describe your relationship with grandparents or elders. How inolved in your life were they? Do you know much about how they grew up? What effect did having elders around (or not having elders around) have on your life? Imagine a conversation with a grandparent or elder who is no longer around: What questions would you ask? What do you wish you knew?
Describe the place you come from. What is the landscape? Who lives there? Use all of your senses to describe the way you remember this place. Do you still visit?
Choose a family heirloom or artifact and write down as much of its history as you know. Where did it come from? How old is it? How did it come to be valued in your family? Who has it now? What will happen to it in the future?
Just finished reading Storycatcher, by Christina Baldwin. It's not too detailed on the technicalities of writing like plotting and character development and style, in fact it's not confined to writing at all. It's an exaltation of storytelling in any and all forms.
As the elders of unspecified tribes are quoted, "The story in English is not the story; and the story written is not the same as the dance." Cave paintings are put forth as the first journals. Around a bonfire, so-called primitive tribes put the criminals and traumatized child soldiers among them through psychotherapy by oral storytelling.
There's theories of the importance of storytelling: history, religion, evolutionary biology, anthropology... but these are interwoven with examples of the practice.
A grandmother writes of her family's legacy of alcoholism: "From where I sit, thirty-plus years sober, a woman in my late seventies, I can see three generations back and two generations forward..." A Dutch-African woman writes about the moments and reflections that built her identity, growing up in both lands. A stepmother of difficult children finds an "in" to correspondence and communication, when one leaves an open journal for her --turned to the page of his angry diatribe. The author herself shares an anecdote about the sleepy, grouchy, long line of people waiting for their coffee-- brought to enthusiasm and the-opposite-of-grouchiness, by her just asking the stranger next to her what his first memory is of coffee.
Having developed an inner editor who very badly wants to make public service announcements, I should have loved this book. But, while I found some tidbits really interesting, (who knew the "sympathetic protagonist, plot catalyst, trials and tribulations, turning point, resolution" organization came from Aristotle?) I found the content more maudlin than the floweriest of Diane Ackerman's stuff. It seemed more padded than powerful, and worst of all passive: only in the last few chapters does it seem to recognize that while "self-healing is a necessary foundation, the leap must be made to extend our healing into our actions in the world around us."
On the other hand, I like Ackerman sometimes. Maybe I was just in the wrong mood.
The prompts ought to appeal to a diarist, because the invite personal stories, but I felt intensely embarrassed. I ramble in diary entries, to get the clutter out. I plan articles and stories, even the semi-autobiographical short stories. This no-man's land of personal essay prompts that are both or neither... blah.
Instead of a notebook, I have a notebook-sized 28-ring binder. That means the first page is always a clean sheet because I can shuffle the order of the loose-leaf pages around. Last weekend I even got those cardboard divider-tabs: research notes for epic fantasy in the yellow section, quotes and mixed ingredients of ideas (not quite half-baked ideas) that I use as prompts in baby blue, poems and weird dreams in pink, rants/raves/reflections from everyday life in green...
And on Monday, my mom sent me on an errand. I prepared for this quest like I usually do, taking my shoulder-bag off the hat rack and sweeping everything on my bedside table into it: the multi-colored gel pens, wallet, celphone (and charger, ripped off the wall socket along with the sweeping,) wristwatch (that I don't wear because I never got used to the chafing and sweating of dead cow skin even loosely buckled around the wrist... hmm, I ought to get a pocket watch,) instant hand-sanitizer, my notebook--
-- that I could have sworn was eating the pens when I went to sleep Sunday night, in case I woke up in the middle of the night remembering a dream, but it was not there. But I might have woken up, scribbled in it, and slipped it under the pillow, then forgot that I did that because I was sleepy. Or maybe I tossed it to the foot of the bed, where it fell under the bed.
Nope. Nil. Nada.
So I gave up looking and just took up the extra notebook-sized 28-ring binder that I had on the shelf. I didn't want it brand-new, though, I wanted my old one that already had content in it...
... which I looked for when I got back, and every spare moment on Tuesday (looked almost everywhere it could have been), and today (looked everywhere else it could have been).
Edited to add: Found it, thank the Muses
A book fair opened last weekend in my town. I can't believe I actually kept within my budget. One of the best bargains I got was The Pocket Muse, by Monica Wood. I haven't read any of her other works, but I liked that it was hard-bound and heavy with thin glossy pages, compact but with excellent content.
I'd say my family has a decent stock of "how to write" books: The Writer's Path, The Writer's Block (very cute, cubical book of prompts,) The Observation Deck... but, they haven't all helped me much. They give vague advice about the philosophy of writing, like "explore the underside" that I either already knew or is explained too blandly or aphoristically for me to understand. Or, some have exercises like "write in sentence fragments and then expand it into a story" which is fun but I don't see why it's helpful. The prompts... I feel are only really interesting if I can read what other people have done with the same prompt.
My favorite of the collection is Gail Carson Levine's Writing Magic. I loved Ella Enchanted and The Princess Tales had such clever twists, but the style comes off a little clunky to me. Still, she has a lot of heart and the instructions come through with unparalleled clarity: exactly why characters ought to have both flaws and virtues, how an exercise with sentence fragments can show change in narrative voice and/or get to the bare essentials of a scene before the writer expands it-- things like that.
Many of these prompts were a lot more inspiring because they connected directly to the exercise, but weren't so vague. I love those kinds of prompts, with random requirements more than airy philosophies... "Write a romance, set in prison. Make an allusion to Titus Andronicus." beats "Exercise these tips mentioned to illustrate abstracts by writing about an unrequited love." any day, to me.
Now, actually, it's my second favorite.
The Pocket Muse comes with both the blander variety of prompts, but also...
tips on style, honing in on grammatical devices to improve writing
One way to enliven your prose is to avoid the use of the verb to be: am, are, is, was, were, etc. Very often you can trace a dull passage to the overuse of that pesky verb. Look at these two examples:
Eliminating the verb to be forces you to think about your method of expression, often yielding a more poetic and precise passage:
as well as some... non-grammatical stylistic suggestions,
(A)pply highlighters in different colors to diagnose possible problems (in a piece):
Highlight abstract language ("she loved him/ with heart and soul") in pink; concerete language ("she counted his eyelashes/ numbered the knobs of his spine") in orange.
Too much pink... is the poem lazy, cliched, too generalized to imply very much?
Too much orange... There's no such thing as too much orange.
insights on how stories work,
Do not confuse situation with complication!
For example, one student story I seem to see over and again concerns the depressed character considering a suicide. Even if the character is holding the gleaming gun to his sweaty forehead, this is not a complication. This is a situation. The situation might be tense or dramatic, but it... offers the story no egress.
What if the depressed person holding a gun to his head gets a phone call-- a wrong number? What if the [caller] is herself a person in trouble? What if she demands something of the depressed person?
Bingo, we're writing again. A good complication forces the character to act.
insights on how writers work,
I possessed that stubborn, blind, lazy refusal so common in beginning writers: the refusal to complete our apprenticeship. The refusal to let time enrich our experience, our understanding of craft, our ability to see connections. The refusal to believe that early work is practice work, work that will lead us, if we continue to write, to the real work.
A writer's apprenticeship usually lasts ten years. That's ten years between the first serious word and the first published word. This pronouncement seems to horrify twenty-year-olds, who have boatloads of time, more than it horrifies forty-year-olds.
Respect your apprenticeship.
quotes from famous authors, "notes from the road" or experiences of published writers to brace those on the verge of publication, but also prompts for those just scribbling for our spirit.
So, just blogging about this to say "highly recommended."
I'm rediscovering books outside the fantasy genre. Well, okay, Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club has a few mystic elements. So does Ruby, by Ann Hood (but that doesn't mean I like it.) The Other Side of Silence by Andre Brink is grounded yet so deliriously poetic that I don't suppose it counts.
Second Helpings, by Megan McCafferty, was the most mundane and candid of my stack, and the main character gets slammed for it at her writer's workshop, which got me blogging.
Actually, I thought Jessica's Top Trauma List was right for the setting and plot: her best and only real friend, Hope, moved away after the above-mentioned death; her classmates were total airheads she could never find any real connection to; and her parents, too used to (and apparently preferring) their other daughter's age-appropriate vapidity and uncomplicated ease with getting over things, told her she was overreacting and refused to "enable" her angst until her sleep and menstrual cycles went haywire.
Those physical manifestations of stress might have even been pushing it, but her emotional core shone through so honestly and clearly.
I know, conflict is necessary, excitement in a plot is good... but I've been seeing a trend lately in gratuitous tragedy. A tragedy used to be the development of a character with a fatal flaw that leads to his downfall. Now it's just "random bad things that happen."
From J.K. Rowling to Joss Whedon, creators seemingly pull character casualties and such events out of a hat, because it makes the piece "dark" and... what, automatically brilliant? So we're expected to be moved?
Well, I'm not. It's not deep, it's not an indicator of tortured genius, it's just random bad things that happen! It's all angst, no aesthetics.
Why is that? To make it "realistic"? Or for drama, to make it "fantastic"? Does our relatively paradise-polarized civilization push us to seek outrage and trauma for its own sake, or something? Why force a Candide-like series of events onto a piece to make it ...valid?
Who's to say what suffering is valid, anyway? I thought of this verse:
I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand--
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep--while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
The speaker seems to be having an anxiety attack while making mud-pies at the beach. Childish. Shallow. Tch. Bad writer, Edgar Allan Poe! Bad! Now go sit in the corner until you can write something properly miserable!
No. I thought this verse was beautiful-- clear, honest but poetic. The emotion shines through; so the subject doesn't matter. Take that, Noir Bard.
If we want to get apagogical, I recognize that the trauma of battling in the trenches is hardly the same as the inconvenience of clipping off a hangnail. I doubt an ode to a hangnail would seriously capture my sympathy. But, I don't know-- neither do a lot of the things that should, somehow.
I recently read an account of domestic violence where the narrator described the inward sound of her cheekbone cracking against the tiles, as somehow the same pain as the earth ripped by an atomic bomb.
On the first read, I thought, okay, her point was that all sorrows are spiritually connected.
On the second read, I thought, Excuse me, is she putting her singular suffering on par with a geographically-sized trauma and that of thousands of people dying of radiation? What a selfish loss of perspective! What a way to cheapen lives, to put them down to enrich your own! Even given that she was abused, which didn't need hyperbole. No suffering does, no suffering should.
Maybe it's all in the execution, for a good reason it's becoming popular to just throw something obviously tragic in there, let it speak for itself-- and save us the work of having to speak for it. Showing, not telling (as every writer ought to know to do.)
Bah, I've given up looking for the cause, and only deal with what I see:
So long, true character-driven tragedy.
Hello, random bad things that happen -- I love your costume, you know, you almost look like art.
Separate names with a comma.