Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Continuing on a theme: week of June 1 and beyond

Okay, so I have been in a real quandary lately about how to continue between notes here on the blog, assignments, and possible guest speakers.  Feedback from the members in class seems to indicate a desire for more information on how to finish a book, either for publication or for one's family.  There's a whole lot of advice on that, which I can reference at a later time, but it basically comes down to two points:
  • Make a list of the stories that you want to tell
    • You can start with the most compelling one, list 5 more you want to write, and move forward (per the advice of Linda Joy, president of the National Association of Memoir Writers).
    • You could make a list of 100 stories you want to tell (per Sharon Lippincott in The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing).
    • You could identify the basic plot points of most books and work from there, filling in with your own memories (an adaptation of Blake Snyder's Save the Cat approach).
    • You could start from your concept and work through an outline to a gradual filling in (per Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake method which can be adapted for memoir if one is creative enough).
  • Sit down and write them (by whatever means necessary).
    • You can set aside time.
    • You can set aside a page/word limit.
    • You can use a maximization approach (as suggested last week on this blog).
But really there's not much more to say here.  What I feel I can contribute, though, is the way our archetypes--the characters and plotlines we know as a culture--can help us in writing our own stories either as an ordering principal of an entire manuscript or as single pieces.  I haven't really seen this approach detailed anywhere, and I have been using it a bit.

So, to begin exploring that option, because I always feel one should start with research, I looked at Writer's Digest's some of the top publishing companies and their list of fiction genres.  This is the list of genres that were common across several of the groups:

  • Action & Adventure 
  • Classics 
  • Comics & Graphic Novels 
  • Contemporary 
  • Fairy Tales, Folklore, Allegory, & Mythology 
  • Fantasy 
  • Historical 
  • Humor 
  • Literary 
  • Movie or Television Tie-In 
  • Mystery & Detective 
  • Occult/Ghost/Paranormal 
  • Political 
  • Psychological 
  • Religious 
  • Romance 
  • Science Fiction 
  • Short Stories 
  • Suspense 
  • That which appeals to a certain religious, cultural, or ethnic group—Christian, LGBT, Jewish, Hispanic/Latino, Asian American, multicultural 
  • Thrillers 
  • Westerns
My plan, starting Friday, is to pick one every week and give a few ideas how you might use these genres to start a story and then another post on Tuesdays (hopefully *crosses fingers*) to give some extra ideas about how the finer aspects of the genre might relate to your memoir.

Happy writing, and thanks for your patience!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Let's Write: June 2 class and beyond

Just so we're clear, I want to make sure that you all know that these classes are now come as you can and these a assignments are suggestions ONLY.  You are always welcome to bring any piece of life writing you are working on.

This week's project is a combination of something suggested in last Friday's class and a challenge by a friend (Sharon Lippincott--check out her blog, The Heart and Craft of Lifewriting, if you haven't already) on a life writing Yahoo! Group.

The assignment?

Write your birth announcement in retrospect.  Include what will be important in your lives but also how that would have been important to your parents and the community that welcomed you into the world.  Do not exceed 750 words.
Once again, this assignment is a suggestion only.  I look forward to hearing anything you choose to share!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Thought for the Week of the May 25th Class: Finishing and Behavioral Economics

"Huh?  Behavioral economics?" you ask.

"Yes," I say.  "Because I have seen the light."

For years, I (and much of my family) have wondered how I could be so good at math (although I admittedly dislike it) and still have so little common sense when it came to money.  And I stumbled on the answer a few months ago:  behavioral economics.

Behavioral economics examines our behavior regarding our fiscal responsibility in terms of what we know intellectually, how we process it psychologically, and what we do (and how we feel about it) finally.

Behavioral economics is slightly more than common sense, and in this case, one of the lessons I learned from behavioral economics has direct bearing on one's ability to write and finish.  Here is the case:

An example of suboptimal behavior involving two important behavioral concepts, loss aversion and mental accounting, is a mid-1990s study of New York City taxicab drivers (Camerer et al. 1997). These drivers pay a fixed fee to rent their cabs for twelve hours and then keep all their revenues. They must decide how long to drive each day. The profit-maximizing strategy is to work longer hours on good days—rainy days or days with a big convention in town—and to quit early on bad days. Suppose, however, that cabbies set a target earnings level for each day and treat shortfalls relative to that target as a loss. Then they will end up quitting early on good days and working longer on bad days. The authors of the study found that this is precisely what they do.  (Excerpted from "Behavioral Economics."  The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.  2008.  Available online at
 So what does this have to do with us as writers?

Simply, it teaches us five things about maximizing our efforts:
  1. Go to work.  Every cab driver actually had to go to work to get anywhere.  They had a time planned to work; they got into their cab; and they want to work.
  2. Have a strategy.  Every cab driver went out every working day with a route planned.  In order to make any progress at all, you need to plan a route.  You may not stick with it, but you at least need to have a plan.  Several other authors, experts, etc., have offered advice on creating plans, and we'll get there eventually, but for now, let's just accept that we need a plan.
  3. Set realistic goals.  Each cab driver had an expectation about how much they wanted to make.  The expectation in and of itself was not a bad thing.  And we know that the goals were realistic because the drivers usually attained them--although the time it took to attain them varied.
  4. Adjust your plans to the circumstances.  This step was the kicker.  This is where I have my gripes as a teacher and where I fail sometimes with money.  But the strategy for both (and for us with writing) is very simple:
    1. Recognize the progress you are making.  The cabbies knew how much money they were bring in, obviously, because they knew when they could quit.
    2. Adjust your practice to maximize the time you are spending.  Here's the rub.  Instead of just plugging away and plugging away on the rotten days, there needs to be a point of no return where you just call it a day.  That doesn't mean never plug away.  It means recognize when your wheels are just spinning and you need to call the tow truck or wait for the mud to dry.  On the other hand, though, you also need to recognize when you are making progress and build in ways to put in more time on the days that you are succeeding.  Don't quit early when you're doing well.  Plug at it a little more.  Go until you have to stop or just challenge yourself to keep at it for another half hour.
  5.  Recognize that your work is not a one-day deal.  The cabbies' initial goals were for single-day revenues.  Yes, we should have single-day goals.  But we aren't only working for a single day, and so
    we need to recognize that profits and shortfalls will occur and can balance one another out--without our killing ourselves over it--if we are smart in how we work.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Let's Write: For the May 25th Meeting

Dear all,

So sorry for the delay in posting, but here is the assignment for this week.

Pick one:
  • Write something that you have been wanting to write and present to the group but haven't because you have been writing other assignments.
  • Finish or revise something that you weren't happy with the first time around and present it to us again.
I look forward to seeing you all (or as many as are not on vacation) on Friday! Our first joint class beginning at 10:30 AM and lasting until 1:30 PM with a break from 11:50-12:10 to allow for people to come and go as needed.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Better the Second Time Around: Week 5 - Postponed

Hi, all!  I need to make a quick unexpected run, so this post will be delayed slightly.  You should see it before 5:00 PM EST.

Hope all is well, and thanks for your patience!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Truth of the Matter: Week 5

In the case of a personal essay, few items are technically "wrong."  You will primarily be sharing your perceptions of events in your life as they convey a basic truth or belief to you.  Therefore, what we will examine this week is your word choice and how it colors your essay.  Word choice works in two major ways in an essay:
  •  It clearly shows to what extent you feel something or to what extent we as a reader can believe something.
  •  It creates metaphors and allusions likening these perceptions to things and stories we already know.
When it comes to word choice, the easiest way to insert your beliefs regarding strength of feelings is through the choice use of adverbs, which can, by definition, tell "to what extent."  Now, some authors swear of adverbs.  In a now famous essay on writing, Elmore Leonard writes, "Never use an adverb to modify the verb ''said'' he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin."  Leonard, however, is discussing creative writing and not essay writing.  While using a strong verb is often more powerful than using an adverb, some adverbs can truly aid the telling of your tale through essay by establishing your credibility in your honesty of how much we ought to believe.  Was it "rather" windy, "fairly" useless, "radically" altered, or "slightly" different?  Before you choose your adverb, though, see if a synonym might not make it unnecessary.  Was it "gusty" or "breezy?" Was he "inexperienced" or "inept?" Sometimes your adverbs should stand as they are, but use the sparingly and to be honest with your reader.

Far better than the use of adverbs, however, is the use of precise, vivid verbs.  When we're talking about belief, these are the words you might use:
  • maintain, suspect, doubt, question, adopt, espouse, believe, think, assert, imply, infer, accept, admit, confess, affirm, charge, assume, presume, posit, postulate, ponder, mull over, suppose, understand, trust, waver, fear, reject, disdain, esteem, respect 
More than any single word choice, however, metaphor and allusion have the ability to sway us powerfully by drawing us into stories and experiences we have already made up our minds on.  This can be used to sway us or engage our sympathies.  From Kennedy's Camelot to the simple line "happily ever after" or "Cinderella story," we are pulled to side with someone, to draw comparisons between modern participants and the characters of the past.  The only problem with this technique is that it assumes (1) that we share the same stories; and (2) that we interpret the stories the same way.  

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Write Order: Week 5

Once again, like the epiphany, the ordering of most "This I Believe" essays is fairly straightforward.

It usually begins with a statement of belief.  It often begins, "I believe," but not necessarily so.  Sarah Adams writes, "If I have one operating philosophy about life it is this: 'Be cool to the pizza delivery dude; it’s good luck.'"  Howard Spalding begins with an introductory paragraph before he gets to his statement of belief.  Peifong from Holmdale, New Jersey, omits "I believe" and simply begins, "Always try your best."

Generally, the statement of belief occurs quickly and is then followed with elaborations.  Each topic sentence is generally general (hehe) and is followed by startlingly specific example. Often, but not always, one paragraph is a story while the others are collections of moments, images, or sayings. 

The essays often go from personal to general and return to personal again or vice versa, going from general to personal back to general.

This isn't to say that every one is the same or that you can't write it a different way.  Amy from Middletown, Maryland, saves her statement of belief until the very end.  Many of the essays from the fifties are far richer in vocabulary and allusion but slightly less specific--perhaps because of our changing beliefs in a common background.  Some of the current essays can be slightly overly specific (in my opinion) as if a clutter of details is better than a clear link to our thought pattern.  But both are style choices, and they are not "wrong."  The essays are in the first person, but how personal they are differs greatly.  Some are told with long twisting sentences, others are told with quick jab-like sentences.  They are all "right." 

One of the dangers of workshopping your writing is that it all starts to sound the same.  This is a chance to follow a guideline but to let your own voice shine.  I can't wait to hear your stories.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Words Become Flesh: Show, Don't Tell, Week 5

This week, you are not writing creative fiction.  You are writing a personal essay, and now you need to


What you want to do is make an assertion strongly--use vivid words!  Paint the pictures with your examples.  Be very specific.  The tell us again what you feel and believe in a way that has already been validated by what you have told and then shown us.

Again, not to totally reiterate yesterday's post, but Sara Adams's essay is the epitome of this.

She tells us exactly what she believes:   If I have one operating philosophy about life it is this: “Be cool to the pizza delivery dude; it’s good luck.”

She tells us that she has four reasons why she thinks that way, and then she tells/shows us these reasons:
  1. "Principle 1: Coolness to the pizza delivery dude is a practice in humility and forgiveness."
  2. "Principle 2: Coolness to the pizza delivery dude is a practice in empathy."
  3. "Principle 3: Coolness to the pizza delivery dude is a practice in honor and it reminds me to honor honest work."
  4. "Principle 4: Coolness to the pizza delivery dude is a practice in equality."
Then she shows us each of these four in action: (I have bolded the showing and underlined the telling and italicized them both.)
  • Humility and forgiveness:  "I let him cut me off in traffic, let him safely hit the exit ramp from the left lane, let him forget to use his blinker without extending any of my digits out the window or towards my horn because there should be one moment in my harried life when a car may encroach or cut off or pass and I let it go."
  • Empathy:  "I’ve held an assortment of these jobs and was grateful for the paycheck that meant I didn’t have to share my Cheerios with my cats."
  • Honor:  "They never took over a company ..., artificially inflated ...the stock ,,, cashed out their own shares, bringing the company to ... bankruptcy, resulting in 20,000 people losing their jobs while the CEO builds a home the size of a luxury hotel. Rather, the dudes sleep the sleep of the just."
  • Equality: "I am the equal of the world not because of the car I drive, the size of the TV I own, the weight I can bench press, or the calculus equations I can solve. I am the equal to all I meet because of the kindness in my heart."<--as shown in the rest of the essay
How do you do this yourself?  Well, you start like you did yesterday, and then, once you have found your metaphor/illustration, you expand on it three ways:
  1. With concrete sensory perceptions (images, words, sounds).
  2. With the intelligences (rhythm in your words, strategy, description that reveals personality, movement that solves or exacerbates problems).
  3. By bringing 1 and 2 together with the butter of the bolded section:  tying concrete observations (#1) to feelings/needs (the feelings they evoke in you and why--usually a response to meeting or failing to meet a need) and how you go about meeting those needs (#2).
So, for example,  my belief is "squirt unto others."  It illustrates my underlying values:
  • Sharing
  • Not going too fast/Allowing things to take time
  • Using rules as guidelines and letting empathy decide your actions in the gray areas
I can hook those to images:
  • Sharing:  all the guns in a bucket, children running with two guns to avoid handing over one, guns held high above the head of a younger one (and the younger one biting to get it back)
  • Not going too fast/Allowing things to take time:  getting rid of the super soakers, trying to coax bubbles out of the little holes to allow the water to come in.
  • Using rules as guidelines and letting empathy decide your actions in the gray areas: letting the biter run away with the gun he won, tackling the runner, giving second chances in the form of refilling the bucket...
I can add intelligences:
  • logic:  the one who waits for the others to run out of water and then squirts them while they try to fill up
  • kinesthetic:  running, holding above head (not just the actions, but how they change things)
  • personal:  sibling rivalry
  • visual:  the conjured up images and placement in action (not just the images, but what they can tell us)
I can link the two with the feelings and needs they demonstrate:
  • feelings:  anger, frustration, joy, excitement, surprise
  • needs:   rest, fun, friendship, competence, fairness
And hopefully I will have this essay for you to read at a later date!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Heart of the Matter: Week 5

How do we get to the heart of our story this week?

Well, it depends which heart you're talking about.  If you're looking to find the beat of your belief, look at yesterday's post.  For those of you who attended this week's class, you can refer to questions 1-3 of your handout/worksheet (1.  What are two things you'd like to have written on your tombstone? (also in yeasterday's post); 2.  What are two things you'd like people to say about you?; 3.  What underlying belief do these answers reveal?).

If you're looking for the heart of what you want to write in your essay, then move forward to the next question:
  • How do you see this belief exemplified in your everyday life?
Sometimes, this is really, really hard.  Yes, I know I'm being redundant, but I'm doing so to let you know that it's hard not in the herculean sense that it is a single overwhelming task, it is more onerous.  It will take time and effort to slog through your memories of your day to find the habitual actions of small seconds that reveal the essence of your belief.


In Sarah Adams's essay, she clearly has four guiding principles: humility and forgiveness, empathy, the honoring of honest work, and equality.  And she has discovered a single repeated action with aspects that demonstrate the application of each of these four values in everyday life--actions which she very succinctly describes.
  • Take home lesson:  You can cover more than one value when you outline it clearly and illustrate it vividly.  Feel free to tell, then show.

In James Michener's essay, he states, "I believe that all men are brothers."  He then follows it with case after case after case.  Each case becomes more intricately described until he zooms back to his home. 
  • Take home lesson:  Once you have found your belief and an action or series of repeated actions that demonstrates that belief, get closer and closer to it before you zoom out and reiterate your belief.
In Tim Wilson's essay, he states his belief then gives us negatives, the actions surrounding the words are alluded to but left as suspense.
  • Take home lesson:  Sometimes the example or belief is the opposite--and that can be okay.
Deirdre Sullivan also uses a single example to convey more than one ideal.  But instead of going straight into her beliefs in her essay, she begins with a dramatization of the first funeral she went to alone before really going into what her father meant by it.  By the time she gets to what her father meant, we are sold on examples, entertained, and willing to follow her through more examples.
  • Take home lesson:  Even in an essay, dramatizations can draw the reader in and keep their attention.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Spark Your Memory: Week 5

Many of you will not be stuck.  KUDOS!!  Go write!

To those of you who are stuck, or are overwhelmed with the sheer vastness of things you believe, consider the following questions to see if they don't center you on an answer:
  • If you were going to write one thing on your tombstone, what would it be?
  • Choose three words that characterize you.  Why?
  • What's one thing you wish you had realized earlier in life?  Why?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Let's Write: Week 5

Assignment:  Using what you know about painting a word picture, writing a word movie of life, SHOW us what you believe in the form of a This I Believe type essay.

More info:  Now that you have worked to really paint out what is happening around you, to present dialog, to illuminate the details of the world around you, pick out the details which will help prove what you believe to us.

Some examples: 

This I Believe:
Other well known:

Other contemporary blog:

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Truth of the Matter: Week 4

Many of you have asked about what you should do when memories "conflict."

Sharon Lippincott, author of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, has a very practical take on that issue, which she shares in "Stories from My Life, Real or Imagined"on the site, The Collected Stories of Ritergal.

What I aim to do is introduce you to the basic reasons that we are wrong and help you avoid those pitfalls through awareness.  My source for most of this material is Kathryn Schulz's amazing book Being Wrong.

According to Schulz, there are three types of error.  The first two kinds of error--madness and the blatantly-wrong-and-everybody-knows-it--don't really concern us in our journey.  The last type, which Schulz terms as "which quid you take for quo," is the little bugger we deal with so frequently.  Essentially, what she means is that if enough people are also wrong in the case in which you are wrong--either through common illusion, deception, denial, or other circumstance--then society condones the condition, even though it still gives us pause.  What that means for you as a lifestory or memoir writer is that there will be situations in which the reader will understand how you could be wrong.  They won't want you to intentionally lie or ignore the truth, but they will accept the possibility of it.

So how do we avoid it?
  • Understand why we get things wrong.  
  • Take steps to counter those propensities.  
  • Having done all we can to avoid error, use appropriate caveats in our writing to let our reader know that we've done the best we can but that there's still some uncertainty on the point.

So why do we get things wrong?  Once again, I am resorting to Schulz's book on this matter (and I would highly recommend this book to you just for a general read.  It offers great insight not only into writing and memory, but into life in general.  It is available at our library and on Amazon).
  1. Faulty senses
    1. Even though our senses are often correct, they can be amazingly deceived--think optical illusions.  On a more practical level, we see things we expect to see.  I've actually written quite a bit about this as a white woman with an Asian name, I'm not infrequently mistaken as an Asian even though I'm very clearly not.  The most common example of this inattention, though, is this ball game. Go visit and check it out. (There's also a twist on it here.)
    2.  We tune out what we think is unimportant in order to concentrate on something else and sometimes find our priorities have been misplaced--say when we realize the annoying sound in the kitchen is the roast in flames.
  2. Assumptions/conclusions
    1. We think we know.  That's the default.  Most of us think, until proven wrong (and then sometimes even for a while), that we are right.  As Schulz says, "The feeling of knowing something is incredibly convincing and inordinately satisfying, but...[t]hat's the problem with the feeling of knowing:  it fills us with the conviction of rightness whether we're right or not."
    2. As we collect experiences, we develop "intuition" about what most likely happened.  Often, we are correct.  Other times, we are very wrong.
    3. We forget, and we fill in (as in 2).  Consider Schulz (Chapter 4--I am using a Kindle, so I don't have a page number--or I haven't figured out how to get the page number):
      On December 7, 1941, a thirteen-year-old boy named Ulric Neisser was listening to the radio when he learned that the Japanese had just attacked Pearl Harbor.  The experience made a huge impression on the child.  For decades to come, he would carry around the memory of a radio announcer interrupting the baseball game he'd been listening to with a bulletin about the bombing.

      In its vividness, intensity, and longevity, Neisser's recollection was typical of how our minds react to unusually shocking events.  Think about your own memories of a different national tragedy--the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  If you are American, I will bet my bank account that you know what you were doing that day.... I will further bet that those memories are unusually vivid and detailed... and that you have a high degree of confidence in their accuracy. ...I will also bet that, to one degree or another, you're wrong.  Neisser certainly was.  Forty years after the fact, something suddenly dawned on him:  professional baseball isn't played in December.
    4. Culturally, we don't like saying either, "I don't know," or "I'm wrong," so we fill in with our best guess.
  3. Preexisting beliefs
    1. We are so sure that we are right that we not only ignore evidence that indicates we might be wrong but also try to silence those who point to it.  Schulz writes, in Chapter 5, "[E]very one of us confuses our models of the world with the world itself...."  We also tend to think that those who disagree with us do so because they don't know better and if they are just informed of all the information, they too will believe as we do.  When they persist in disagreeing, we think they do so because they are simply bad people ("evil" is the word Schulz uses).
    2. Our beliefs, correct or incorrect, have emotional consequences which then lead to spurs for our own actions. 
    3. Beliefs cause us to theorize.  Schulz, in Chapter 5, writes, "What we aren't capable of doing is not theorizing.  Like breathing, we can ignore the belief-formation process or control it--or even refine it--but whatever we do, it will keep on going for as long as we keep on living."
  4. Misweighing the evidence
    1. We have a tendency to give more credence to evidence that supports what we already believe (confirmation bias).
    2. We will believe things based on very little evidence.  In Chapter 6, Schulz writes, "[B]elieving things on meager evidence is what people do. ... [B]elieving things based on paltry evidence is the engine that drives the entire miraculous machinery of the human cognition."
  5. Peer pressure
    1. With the support of our peers, we are even less likely to reconsider the evidence.  We are bolstered by their certainty--even to a ridiculous level.  Schulz gives the example of women's write to vote in Switzerland, which wasn't achieved until 1971, 78 years after the first women were allowed to vote in New Zealand and at a time when there were "just a tiny handful of nations where women remained disenfranchised; the others included Bangladesh, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Samoa, and Iraq" (Schulz, Chapter 7).
    2. With the complete rejection of our peers, we may also dig in our heels deeper and become more firmly entrenched--and less open to discussion--about our beliefs.
  6. Love of confidence
    1. We believe he who hesitates is lost.
    2. It's reassuring to be decisive and confident--even if we're wrong.
Countering those propensities.  Of course, Countering those propensities for error can be done in many ways, and each has its place.  But I have limited time (and space) to write them all for you.  Let me just say that they fill books!  That said, however, a few basic strategies help you avoid some of the major pitfalls.
  1. Check information from an objective source.  If you think that you broke your leg on the day Kennedy was shot, take a look at your Thanksgiving pictures from that year.  If you're not in a cast, you're probably mistaken.
  2. Ask more than one person about it and, when possible, ask people outside of your group (if you're a woman, ask a man.  If you're a member of the majority (political, racial, or other) ask a member of the minority--and if you catch yourself listening to their criticism and saying, "Oh, he/she's just...," TAKE THEIR INPUT WITH EVEN MORE SERIOUSNESS!  My experience has taught me that "just" is a flag we use to validate things we do without an apparent reason.
  3. Reweigh the evidence.  Look at numbers.  Count it out.  Give the other side the benefit of the doubt.  You may still come to the same conclusion, but this time you can be more certain that you are correct.
  4. Wait and look at it again.  It's funny how after you've written or thought about something, you will begin noting coincidences and references back to it.  Often you will remember more of the story or find links to other pieces.  Time can definitely work on your side as far as fact-checking--even though your memory from long ago may be fuzzy.
Caveats.  So you've tried your best to be accurate.  You've taken steps to verify information, but you're still absolutely not sure about what happened.  Now what?
  1.  You can say straight out that you're uncertain.
    • "Maybe I went home first..."
    • "I'm not sure where I went before the bank..."
    • "I think I must have..."
    Or you can hint at your uncertainty.
    • "I usually..."
    • "Most of the time..."
    • "Sometimes..."
    By using these last phrases, we get the hint that there were repeated patterns but that the pattern may not be completely the same for this particular instance.
  2. Attribute things you don't actually remember but that you are not certain of elsewhere--to the source whenever possible.
    • "I can't remember but I am told that..."
    • "My mom says..."
    • "The newspapers of the day reported..."
  3.  Let people know that what you're reporting is your interpretation of what happened.
    • I'm not sure of her exact words, but my six-year-old brain heard, "...."
    • Her words blurred together, but her intent was clear: ...
    • "Get in the car," she said.  Or maybe it was, "Will you please get in the car?"
    • The conversation went something like this: ....
    • I was too young to understand _____.  I thought ....
  4. If you are uncertain to the point of being uncomfortable, then go ahead and write it, but keep it to yourself or dispose of it.  We all know that sometimes there is value in writing out an experience--even if you burn everything you just wrote.  But if you know what you're writing is very skewed, then stop with your own private consumption of it.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Better the Second Time Around: Week 4

We are going to visit grammar this week, which is technically proofreading and not revising, but since so many have requested a review of it, here is a checklist that I developed, which is far better thanks to the help of the lovely and talented Amanda Ching, in order to help one of my students deal with the SAT.  While I imagine that none of you are taking the SAT any time soon, this list is helpful in that it has two distinct advantages:
  1. It does not subscribe to any one "style."  I quote style not because it needs to be quoted but to signal to you that style here is a technical word referring to the spelling, grammar, and preferred conventions that are used by a group, generally identified by a reference to a style system (APA, MLA, AP, Chicago, and Turabian styles are the ones I'm most familiar with), or by a company (most publishing houses and magazines have their own style sheets that are more specific and unique to their publications).
  2. It prioritizes the offenses.  The biggest problems, in ETS's system, are at the top of the list, meaning that if you're going to correct, start at the top with the problems that most affect the ability of your sentence to make its point.
It does have one distinct disadvantage:


That said, however, it is very helpful to know what makes a sentence, even if you decide not to use one.

So here's the list:

Prioritized List of Major Issues in Correcting/Improving Sentences
  1. Is it a sentence?A sentence is one independent clause (a subject and a predicate) or two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction or a semicolon.  For more information on sentences, look at Grammar Girl's articles on run-ons and fragments.
    1. Specifically, check that every clause (dependent and independent) has a subject and a predicate.
    2. Make certain that compound sentences are joined appropriately with coordinating conjunctions (think "FAN BOYS"--for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so--thanks to Chuck Thomas for the mnemonic) or semicolons, not commas or other punctuation.
  2. Do things agree?Agreement is when the number and gender of your items match throughout a sentence.  For more information on agreement, check Purdue OWL's extensive sections.  Parallelism is another form of agreement in which the part of speech/form of the word of every item in a list or parallel position match. You can check this out on Purdue OWL's section on Parallel Structure or on Grammar Girl's article on parallel construction.
    1. Specifically, if you have a plural subject, do you have a plural verb?
    2. Do the number and case of all of your pronouns match their antecedents as they (both the antecedents in terms of number and the pronouns in terms of case) appear in the sentence?
    3. What is the tense of the sentence?  Do all of the tenses line up?
    4. Are things parallel?
    5. If you have a single modifier modifying two things (usually nouns, but sometimes something else), does it carry through correctly for both?  Be especially careful of comparisons ("than," “like,” "as ____ as" constructions, etc.).
  3. How are your modifiers?
    This section mainly takes agreement one step further--checking the gender and placement.  NOTE:  In contemporary popular writing, most commercial publishers (magazines, popular books, etc.) are not enforcing the rules about placement of gerunds and participles.
    1. Are your modifiers in the correct places?  If they are modifying nouns, are they next to them?
    2. Do they fit--number, tense, person/thing (i.e., have you given a personal verb to an inanimate object--okay in the reading section but not here? If you have "who" is it modifying a person or if "that" is it modifying a thing?, etc.)?
  4. Are the words used correctly?
    Check out these lists of commonly misused words. (1) (2) (3)
    1. Are all of the words used appropriately?  See 3 b.  This is similar, but on a more global scale. In this case, you are looking for things like "less" vs. "fewer," etc.
    2. On a finer note, is the tone correct for all of the words?  Does one jump out as inappropriate?  Consider tone for academic writing (or particular tones for other types of writing) as well as Poe's unified effect.
  5. Is the sentence, or any of its clauses, in the passive voice?
    Essentially, passive voice is when the subject of the sentence is having something done to it instead of doing something.  While Western sensibilities prefer the transitive voice (active sentences)--and it does cut out words--it also presents a qualitative difference in philosophy.  Because active sentences lend themselves to subjects that can act upon other things, they sometimes point a finger of blame where there may not be one.  It's important to recognize this tendency as you write.
    1. FYI - This change may often cause a change in the subject of the sentence.
    2. Make certain that the sentence is still a sentence after this change is made (this often appears as a trick!).
  6. Is the sentence's meaning clear?
    We tend to know when we are confused.  This section actually helps look at the grammar that causes confusion.
    1. Do all of the pronouns have clear antecedents (e.g., if there is a "she" can it only be one person, or are there two females in the sentence?, etc.)?
    2. Would a comma clarify something?  Sometimes things are running together and could be clarified a couple of different ways.  A comma is often used to separate, and you may see this in the answers.
    3. Would reordering help?  Under the couple of ways to clarify, reordering ranks high.  Keep an eye out for this in the answers.
    4. Is it excessively wordy or are the clauses split up?  One of the biggest ways to cause confusion is to separate a verb from its object with anything other than its indirect object.  
  7. A note of caution:  Differing styles use commas very differently (comma use follows two extremes: the AP style, which avoids them, and the APA style, which embraces them.  Most other styles fall somewhere in between.), and in looking over these sample tests, I see VERY few questions in which commas are the crux of the issue with these exceptions:
    1. Without the help of a coordinating conjunction following it, a comma cannot join two independent clauses; only a semicolon can do that.
    2. Introductory gerund phrases and dependent clauses require commas after them.
    3. Most styles now state that dependent clauses beginning with "which" require a comma (restrictive/unrestrictive set aside for the purposes of the test).  ETS seems to be following this rule.

I hope this helps you! 

Paragraph rules will come later.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Write Order: Week 4

Assignment:  Write about an epiphany (aha! moment) from your past.

Ordering your work:

As we have previously discussed, epiphanies are generally told in a chronological order because they are a revealing of a significant change in thought--a contrast of before with after.  So when we talk about ordering in an epiphany, we're not really talking about when to write about what.  Instead, we're talking about two issues:
  • Making certain that you have clarified your misconception before your moment of enlightenment; and
  • Playing with your tempo to make sure that everyone gets your moment when you do.
Now, for those of you in class this last week, this is essentially what we already talked about, but here it is written out for review or for those of you who were unable to make it.

Tempo is simply the speed at which you read.  Within limits, the tempo of the reader can be set by the author, and I will give some examples of tempo setting at the bottom of the post.

Tempo setting is one of the more straightforward aspects of writing and follows some basic rules.
  1. You set the tempo of your reader with your averages.
    1. When you begin writing, as when you speak, you have a kind of default length to your responses.  This default length is accepted by your reader/listener as a kind of "sound bite."  Your reader will adjust their speed of comfort to match with yours.
    2. By changing this average, you will grab your reader's attention.
  2. You can change a reader's speed through paragraph length.
    1. You can slow down your reader's perception of the action through shorter paragraphs.  If you describe everything together in one quick paragraph that your reader zooms through at breakneck speed, they will lose some of the action.  Several short paragraphs at key moments of change will help your reader identify the important actions and slow them down long enough to take them in.
    2. Long paragraphs, ones significantly longer than your average ones, can also slow down the reader and are frequently used as thoughtful asides.  While emphasis on thoughts has been somewhat downplayed during the last century or so (James Joyce excepted), best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith does this very nicely in several of his series.
  3. You can change a reader's speed through sentence length.
    1. We try to read a sentence in a single breath.  Even when we read to ourselves, we generally follow this tendency.  
    2. Counterintuitively then, a short sentence, particularly following long ones, will slow your reader down.
    3. A long sentence, especially one with relatively few commas and stops, will speed your reader up.
  4. You can change a reader's speed through punctuation.
    1. More punctuation = slower speed
    2. Less punctuation = faster speed
  5. You can change a reader's speed through word sound (and length too, but sound is much easier).
    1. Word sound produces a physical barrier or affinity to speed especially when reading aloud but even when reading silently.
    2. Without getting into the technical terms, the "hard" letters (p, b, t, d, g, k, q, y, hard c, ch, tch) will slow the reader down.  Think how hard it is to say "rubber baby buggy bumpers" quickly!
    3. The "soft" letters (s, f, j, z, soft c, soft g, th, sh) will speed the reader up.
Here are some examples of speed:

From Chapter 2 of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone:
Nearly ten years had passed since the Dursleys had woken up to find their nephew on the front step, but Privet Drive had hardly changed at all. The sun rose on the same tidy front gardens and lit up the brass number four on the Dursleys' front door; it crept into their living room, which was almost exactly the same as it had been on the night when Mr. Dursley had seen that fateful news report about the owls. Only the photographs on the mantelpiece really showed how much time had passed. Ten years ago, there had been lots of pictures of what looked like a large pink beach ball wearing different-colored bonnets - but Dudley Dursley was no longer a baby, and now the photographs showed a large blond boy riding his first bicycle, on a carousel at the fair, playing a computer game with his father, being hugged and kissed by his mother. The room held no sign at all that another boy lived in the house, too.

Yet Harry Potter was still there, asleep at the moment, but not for long. His Aunt Petunia was awake and it was her shrill voice that made the first noise of the day.

"Up! Get up! Now!"

Harry woke with a start. His aunt rapped on the door again.
 Did you notice what the change in both sentence and paragraph length did to our speed and attention?

From the opening of The Battle of the Labyrinth:
The last thing I wanted to do on my summer break was blow up another school. But there I was Monday morning, the first week of June, sitting in my mom’s car in front of Goode High School on East 81st.

Goode was this big brownstone building overlooking the East River. A bunch of BMWs and Lincoln Town Cars were parked out front. Staring up at the fancy stone archway, I wondered how long it would take me to get kicked out of this place.

“Just relax.” My mom didn’t sound relaxed. “It’s only an orientation tour. And remember, dear, this is Paul’s school. So try not to . . . you know.”

“Destroy it?”


Paul Blofis, my mom’s boyfriend, was standing out front greeting future ninth graders as they came up the steps. With his salt-and-pepper hair, denim clothes, and leather jacket, he reminded me of a TV actor, but he was just an English teacher. He’d managed to convince Goode High School to accept me for ninth grade, despite the fact that I’d gotten kicked out of every school I’d ever attended. I’d tried to warn him it wasn’t a good idea, but he wouldn’t listen. I looked at my mom.
Notice how Riordan (the author) sets the tempo with the length of the first two paragraphs, slows it down to further foreshadow (as well as increase the stakes of messing up), and then speed it back up again by returning to his former sentence and paragraph length.

And here are some real classics:

To Be or Not to Be:
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing
end them? To die: to sleep;
No more;
Note the use of punctuation and hard sounds.  There are soft sounds used as well, but the slowing comes in the pairing (I have bolded these elements and underlined the phrases to make them more apparent).  Notice also that this use of slowing down highlights his leaning toward death, where he uses the punctuation and hard sounds, and not toward life--an area that is not only sped up by soft sounds and lack of punctuation but by an abbreviation as well.

Queen Mab:
O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies' midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate stone
On the forefinger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Over men's noses as they lie asleep;
Here, note mainly the lack of punctuation and a preponderance of f's and s's.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Words Became Flesh: Show, Don't Tell: Week 4

Okay, so, we have our blanks from yesterday:

BEFORE:  I used to think ___________________________.
MOMENT:  Then, ________________________ happened. (or Then, I ______________________________.)
AFTER:  Now, I know/believe ___________________________.

 So how do we move on?

What you really want to do, and what is actually rather difficult, is pinpoint specific ways your belief colored your actions both before and after the MOMENT.  This is really, really, really hard.  I mean it.  Count the reallys.

So I'm going to give you an example:

I used to think parental intuition would tell me all I needed to know about my child.
Then, in the middle of a horrific night when I had just no idea what to do, my firstborn son, then four days old, looked up at me with eyes that showed he believed I held the answers to all of his problems when I just didn't have a clue.
Now, I know parenting is your best guess, aided by intuition and supported by a whole lot of love and not a small amount of panic.

 Now what I need to do is work from the MOMENT backward and forward to make sure that everything I have done up until that point displays my misconception and sets up my epiphany and everything after that reflects my change of heart.

How so?

Well, first I write the moment:


3:00 AM.  I thought I could get up at any time, but it's a lot harder to get up at 3:00 AM when you just laid down at 2:30 and the time before that at 1:45 and the time before that at 12:30.  Where was the two hours of sleep that breastfeeding books promised??  Two hours, they said.  Two hours.  LIARS!

Of course, I hadn't stood up yet.  I had only looked at the clock.  After determining that the snooze button on the clock was not stopping the noise, I took to gazing at the red fragments alternately lit around two stacked squares that formed each numbers.  Maybe if I rearranged them I could somehow turn the time into 7:30 AM, a reasonable hour to get up.  My husband didn't even bother coming into the bedroom with me and the baby.  The smart man was snoring on the couch!  I could be there too, except my boobs were attached.

My mind was roaming between reforming the numbers, wondering what my husband would look like with boobs, and imagining how nice it would be to sleep on the couch when the baby's cry startled me into rolling in the direction of the crib.  There they were, a foot or so from mine.  Two coal black eyes that gleamed in the near darkness.  As soon as they caught my eyes, the little creature gasped.  His spindly, skinny arms reached for me with balled fists, and the anticipation in his gaze said clearly, "You hold the answers to all of my problems."

And I felt them at that moment.  Two great, amazing, mind-shattering truths.  One:  I was a mother.  I mean it.  I really felt like a mom at that moment.  Up till then, it was more a fantasy, a slightly bad dream that I was hoping to wake up from until the dream that I had anticipated--one with more sleep and fewer stinks--arrived.  But, no.  That dream wasn't coming, and I was the mom.  I knew that now.  That I could accept.

The other was awful, far too awful to bear.  Something that can only be whispered.  Lean close.  Are you ready?

I didn't have any answers.

BETRAYAL!!!!  Parents are supposed to know, man!  You read the books.  You feel your body.  Intuition kicks in, and you know.

It's all a lie!  A complete lie!  Just like that lamaze crap but worse.  Unlike labor, you don't get over parenthood in a matter of hours.  It sticks around awhile (and we want it to).

But in the hole where the knowledge was supposed to be, I felt something else.  Complete love.  Complete love for that little alien in the warped space ship of a crib draped with a cat tent.

 So now I have made it through the moment.  Is it perfect?  Of course not!  It's a first draft.  But do I have something to work with--yes!  What?

Here's how to identify what:
  • The misconception as foil to the truth:  thought I should know--I didn't know.
  • The feelings that go along with each side:
    • Think I know
      • arrogance
      • pride
      • confidence
      • strategy/planning
      • schedule/expectation
    • Know I don't have a clue 
      • confusion
      • betrayal
      • sadness
      • fear
      • frustration
      • spontaneity/improvisation
  • The new truth:
    • Role as parent
    • Love
  • The feelings that go along with it:
    • Role as (imperfect) parent
      • responsibility
      • flexibility
      • listening
      • responsiveness
    • Love
      • both patience/impatience
      • spontaneity
      • make-it-work moments
      • "it is what it is"/acceptance
Are those perfect all-inclusive lists?  No.  Are all the things listed under feelings even really feelings?  I don't think so.  But the point is that I now have a clue what I'm looking for and I can write forward and backward.

And actually, I'm revising forward because once I started writing the moment, I wasn't sure where the moment stopped until I reread it.  You may have this trouble too.  Or you might start writing and realize that you've written some before with your moment.  That's okay.  From here, we're going to follow a strategy.
  1. Split out your moment.
  2. Analyze it a bit according to the truths and the feelings that go with them.
  3. Write your before and after.
  4. Incorporate those truths as you write.
Here's an example below as I revise what I had originally written for the after (revisions are in bold so that you can see how I have incorporated the realizations from the analysis):

Screw it all, I thought, mentally trashing the pregnancy and newborn advice books I had read.  as I lifted him my wailing son from the crib., I was having a strangely Animal Planet moment.  I kissed his little face and tears while feeling and sniffing for the source of the alarm.  assessed the wWet.  Very wet.  And flat.  A very flat belly. situation, I attached him to my right breast to make the howling stop.  Pain.  Pain and peace.  Peace was more important than pain, so I left him there, held football style with my left hand while I   hunted down any clean clothes for the child.  Of course, in the pre-child era, when I thought everything could be planned, I had completely stocked the top drawer of our combination dresser/changing table with clothes for a sweet eight-pound baby.  Four days after birth, my little loud one was now pushing four pounds once again.  No, those clothes wouldn't work.  Even half of the preemie items, folded neatly on the top of the adjoining dresser, ballooned around his tiny body.  Rrootinged through the emergency stack of preemie clothes with my right hand. while grasping squirmer with my left, I eyed the shelf of pregnancy books towering over the dresser.  I knew where the clothes were going tomorrow.  owned, and sSomehow, in my cross-eyed state, I found a suitable outfit that he hadn't peed yet.  I detached him from my breast to change him, much to his shock--but he was so shocked he hadn't started to scream yet.  With speed I didn't know I possessed, I  and replaced the clothes he had on. 

I then attached him to my left breast to take care of the flat belly problem stifle the impending wail and turned to thunk down on the side of the bed exhausted.  Then I looked at tThe cat nodded at me from inside the crib.  who had since jumped in the crib and, I didn't even have the energy to think, Damn cat!  If I had been more rested, I would have fought to know, fought to research out the right answer.  Sleep deprived, all I could muster was, Screw it. 
I tuckinged the baby into the crook of my arm, and settled drowsily with him in my own bed.

Screw the experts.  We needed sleep. 

Again--absolutely not perfect (I need a new epithet or way to introduce it--and maybe it's the second because my vocabulary was so limited in that state), but can you see the changes.  Note also that it may take one revision.  I had planned just to write it out for you in one take, but obviously, it required more.  Don't worry if yours requires more and don't worry if you don't have time to do it all at once.  The lovely part about revision is that you can do it separately.  Do what you can, and be assured that just getting it down is half the battle.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Heart of the Matter: Week 4

For once, I feel we have a simple way to get to the heart of the matter this week, and that is this:


Every epiphany or aha moment technically follows this design even though they are more commonly told like this:

a  f  t  e  r

(If you need examples, please see yesterday's post.)

And to be honest, maybe that's the way that they need to be told, but your job is to very succinctly, for yourself, discover and articulate what you believed prior to that moment and what you *knew* afterward.  You can do it simply by filling in the blanks:

I used to think ___________________________.
Then, ________________________ happened. (or Then, I ______________________________.)
Now, I know/believe ___________________________.

And we'll move on from there tomorrow.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Spark Your Memory: Week 4


Epiphanies come in all shapes and sizes, from the little goofy ones to the bigger messy ones.

Most people find that they have a story for one of these:
  • The moment they learned their parents were fallible
  • The moment they learned they were on their own
  • The moment they knew they had found "the one"
  • The moment they realized this was not "the one"
  • The moment they knew they had to stop something (drinking, smoking, computer games, living at Mom's house, etc.)
  • The moment they had to start something (exercising, working, going back to school, etc.)
  • The moment they knew they were wrong, lost, confused, in trouble, etc.
  • The moment they knew they were right, on the right track, sure, moving up in life, etc.
I have also found these videos to be very inspirational in helping me recognize/remember aha moments:

The wrong ones:

The fun/together ones:

And, for some of you, now about a month in to our class when it is apparent that, while rewarding and exciting, writing can also be hard and discouraging, you can find ways to break through your block and get motivated again.

Here are some that work for me:
  • I sometimes think about a really, truly joyful moment and write about it.  It doesn't have to be a moment you've never written about.  I have written about the same moments over and over.  They come out different every time.  When I'm done, I feel refreshed and can return to what I was thinking of.
  • Sometimes I do in words what artists occasionally do with their surroundings.  I pick a still life--what I'm looking at right now, this instant--and begin to describe it.  I usually stumble onto something I want to write about.  Once I've accomplished that, I'm often able to go back to what I was working on.
  • I lower my expectations.  Sometimes, it just isn't going to happen in the time you've allotted.  It just isn't.  Recognize that and cap it.  Pick an amount of time you're going to devote to it, let it go, and come back later.  Do that until it starts to flow again.  Do something else in between.  Eventually, it will start to flow again.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Let's Write: Week 4

Assigment:  Using what you have learned up till now, write a story about a single, emotional moment, or, if you feel emotioned out, write a story of an "Aha!" moment, an epiphany from childhood, or a pivotal moment from any time in your life.

More info:  First we learned to catch a story and get it on the page.  Then we learned how to describe the fish so that we knew what we had.  Then we learned how to qualify what we had, measure it, discuss its health.  Now I want you to tell me how that fish fits into your life.  What did you learn from it?

Some examples:

This I Believe:

Other well known:
  • Araby (which I hate, mind you, but I would be negligent not to mention it because it is one of the definitive examples of epiphany in literature) 
  • Time Flies: Do the Legs Go Before the Mind? (Choose the arrow by "Front Cover" to choose the chapter beginning on page 114.)

Other contemporary blog:

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Better the Second Time around: Week 3

Well, we've had a couple of group critiques now, and I want to talk about the unexpected nature of group critiques as well as what I find to be helpful about them, what I don't, how I sort through the comments I get.

So first I ask myself:  What am I willing to submit to the group?

The answer to this question depends on a few things:
  • Who's going to be there?
    • If it's an editor, then I'm not going to submit anything less than my very best.
    • But if I'm not reading in front of someone who might want to hire me, then I don't necessarily want to submit only my best.  Ideally, I want to submit something I'm about to send for high stakes publication (to see if I've missed something big), or I want to bring a piece I'm stuck on, one that I've been revising but just can't quite get to "gel."
  • How serious is the group?
    • Our current life writing group is aimed at getting stories on paper for friends and families in the best way we can.  It is not geared toward publication in a competitive market.  Therefore, we would generally bring shorter pieces--about 250-500 words--so that everyone has a chance to read even if the pieces might not be standard publication length.
    • Serious groups may expect longer and more polished pieces.  They may also expect you to take the pieces home for serious editing--which can be okay if that's what you're looking for.  
    • If you are looking for another group, it's helpful to email or call a member to find out more about the type of group it is and the expectations the members share.
  • What do you expect out of it?
    • This answer varies a great deal, and I'll be spending a whole lot more time on it below.  You, however, may want to clarify this for yourself before you go in.  It will help you shrug off what is unnecessary/unhelpful as well as sort out what you want to spend time on.
    • Remember, though, that just because you know what you're looking for, it doesn't mean that everyone reviewing for you will listen or answer those questions.
When you have determined if or what you will read, then the next step is how it will be done.  Different writing groups have different practices, and some of them do not allow any input from the author (These can be helpful because it is how the reader initially approaches any piece of published writing).  Unless this particular review is my last stop before publication, however, I find this practice to be unhelpful.  More often, I have chosen a piece on which I NEED help.  Some things I already know are a problem, and I don't really need to hear more about them.  In this case, I try to let the group know the help I am looking for, and you can too.  For instance:
  • Limit the scope of what you share.  If the problem you have is located in one particular place, consider sharing only the problem area with the group, thus focusing their attention on the part that needs attention.
  •  Acknowledge existing problems.  If you already know something needs to be done (and know what to do with it) but want help on a separate problem, make sure you let the group know.  For instance, you might say, "I know _______ is a problem, and I will work on __________ing it later."
  • Direct the group's attention to the area in which you are seeking advice.  Ask the question or state the problem that you have directly.  "I'm afraid ______ is confusing," "Is this fair?" or "I could really use help on this sentence/transition" all help tell the group where you are in your revision process and where they can really help.
 After you have shared your writing, how do you sort through what you take away from the critique?
  • Look for answers to your direct questions.  If you came into the session looking for specific feedback, by all means, look for that first.  I often find that because I have been thinking about that area, I am most ready to deal with that first.
  • If two or more readers say the same thing, take heed.  You don't necessarily need to agree with what your readers say or think, but if more than one is honing in on the same area, then the area is a problem and you need to address it.  Often writers (myself included) can feel hostile about this predicament, but when I let myself feel through it, I often find what seems to be hostility is often just frustration at not having an immediate solution.  As I let myself ponder the problem, possibilities present themselves, and I'm able to move forward.
  • Come back to unsolicited/irrelevant advice later.  Some people can't ignore certain issues, but they may be of no concern to you.  For example, after years of proofreading/editing (and, no, I know that my work here is not perfect, and I'm hoping to revisit areas), I have a hard time not marking things: run-on sentences, introductory clauses not set off by commas, etc.  I may know full well that the author is going to completely redo that sentence and the whole point is moot.  Still, my own brain can't move on until I've addressed it.  Unless the author intends to keep that sentence, though, they can completely ignore that advice for the moment and come back to it when and if it becomes relevant.  I don't mean that the advice given should be completely ignored, only that often technical issues are better addressed later on, or issues of showing vs. telling (which other writers can't pass up) are better expanded once the plot has been ironed out.  Make sense?
So then, if it were all just as easy as that, why don't more people write books?  Well, because it's not as easy as that, and life and critiques often bring up other roadblocks.
  • Roadblock 1: Not done yet.  
  • Roadblock 2: So depressing.
  • Roadblock 3:  No answer.
These roadblocks may all stem from the very same issue.  For instance, about a month and a half ago, I sent out the first draft of a memoir I am working on.  I knew that there were issues that needed to be addressed.  I knew that some of the chapters s***ed a** (because "were terrible" is far too nice a comment).  I knew that I still needed to address some very major issues that I was not yet willing to confront.  And I was still laboring under the conception that I could do all this in a couple weeks.  (I am laughing at the ridiculousness of my own assumptions here).

Personal Example of Roadblock 1:  Three of my author friends, Amanda Ching (author of re(Visions): Alice), Many Ly (author of Home Is East and Roots and Wings), and Sharon Lippincott (author of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing and Meetings: Do's, Don'ts and Donuts) all said, "show, don't tell" (which I *sigh* already knew but which as authors they were as compelled to say as I am to correct punctuation) in different ways.  But then they each went on to elaborate in much different and helpful ways.  Many encouraged me to expand the areas where she had questions into scenes.  Amanda was good at locating the areas where I lapsed academic (fifteen years of editing theses and dissertations will do that to you) as well as noting what worked (was fair and funny) and didn't (was unfair and unkind).  And Sharon was very good at pointing out to me gently that this was not going to happen in a week.  When I first read "few more weeks" in her comments, I was very disheartened, but it was followed both by immediate encouragement, "I hope you’ll feel excited by this additional challenge and not discouraged. I would not lay this message on you if I weren’t totally confident you will easily make the breakthrough to this next level."  And then this was followed both by explicit comments and two other books on writing particularly the places I had a problem with.

Personal Example of Roadblock 2:  I went into temporary memoir paralysis.  I just couldn't touch it.  And that's okay.  Ralph Keyes has a couple of great books that discuss this problem:  The Courage to Write (at Plum Library and on Amazon) and The Writer's Book of Hope (at Plum Library and on Amazon).  So I can say with certainty that I am not alone in this paralysis (and neither are you).  But you can't stop.  Luckily, I had life and other projects going on.  There was no time to give up.  I just had to step back for a couple of weeks and then resume.

Personal Example of Roadblock 3:  The one area in which Sharon, Amanda, and Many were not helpful was how to fix those "thought" areas that needed an action--one that really happened, not one I make up.  And it's okay that they didn't have an answer both because they offered a different kind of advice and because I also shared the first draft with some people whose main qualification was that they were experienced in life (as are Many, Sharon, and Amanda--but they weren't concerned with giving "life" advice, and, again, that's okay).  Because these other friends didn't feel compelled to give writerly advice, they helped point me in the direction of answers that could really help me go further.  One said, "The more you can give of your interactions with your husband the better.  I just love those!"  Benefit?  I know what works and how to expand.  Another told me, "It seems that you're giving a whole lot more than your getting?  Is that the way it was then and is now?  Is it changing over time?"  Wow!  She hit the nail on the head of a very sensitive issue (I am not giving more than is being given, but neither of us are "getting" what the other is giving) in a way that showed me how I could really "show" this--a catalog or history of misunderstood gifts.  And the third sat with me over breakfast and said, "I think I know where you're going, but I think you're going to have to write out the whole ugly truth to get there and then cut out the unnecessary and move it around to make sense."  And I knew at that moment that she was right, and hearing her--who has endured so much over her life and really knows how to go about unearthing issues--gave me the courage to keep going.

Overall solution:  Butt in chair (in the words of Jane Yolen).  Just write.  You may need to leave what you were writing and write something else for a while, but just write.  Keep going.  In the end, isn't that the secret to life--to just keep living?  So keep writing.  You'll get there.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Truth of the Matter: Week 3

This week in class, the question of digital archives arose.  Digital archives are like online repositories of various information (not just from originally electronic sources) that have been converted to digital files, usually for public use.  Digital archives range from legal files to census data to schoolbooks.

These archives can be useful for jogging your memory and helping you bring more detail to your stories--but you may simply just enjoy them as well.

Here is a list of digital archives that I found fairly easily and which you might find useful: