a bit of writerly advice for July 31, 2018

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Free image courtesy of KathrynMaloney at Pixabay.com

Every parent knows the torment of a four-year-old’s interrogation. Why is the sky blue? How do birds fly? … Questions are the backflips of the mind. They are, as the early-twentieth-century explorer Frank Kingdon-Ward once said, ‘the creative acts of intelligence.’ –from Lisa Garrigues’ Writing Motherhood

The past couple years, I’ve gotten in touch with my inner four-year-old in a way I never thought I would. I don’t often talk about my work-work here (except for lessons learned from writing direct mail); however, I will now, briefly.

In the last year, I’ve conducted what feels like a bazillion but is probably closer to 50 interviews, in order to write articles. All have dealt with science–not exactly in my cozy-and-comfortable arts and humanities wheelhouse. I’ve queried doctors about the symptoms of stroke and about virtual medical delivery systems. I’ve asked engineering students about minuscule solar cells and unmanned aerial vehicles. And I’ve asked budding scientists to describe and describe again a headset that can help detect Alzheimer’s. And much, much more.

Have all my questions spurred Grade A scientific conversation? Probably not. Have I asked a dumb question or two. Probably.

But I asked, and oftentimes asked a second time. (In layman’s terms please, I ask. If I still don’t understand, I say, Pretend you had to teach this concept to a child.)

There it is.

Ask questions like a child. Listen. Ask again. That’s my writerly advice for the week.

(Looking for interviewing tips? Here you go.)

What’s your best “writerly” advice?

 

 

 

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Dear Poetry…

Dear poetry,

It’s not you. Really. You’re great, if sometimes hard to read.

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Sun setting on my poetry romance (er, over Lake Erie)

OK, poetry and I were never very serious. But I want to try, try again.

Last year, a great friend (and great poet) turned me on to Marie Howe (the Stevie Nicks of poetry, am I right?) through several of Howe’s poems from her book What the Living Do and this amazing interview from On Being. I listened to that interview with Howe (the former Poet Laureate of New York) over and over, thinking, if I can “get” the poet, I can “get” the poems. She’s a woman, a mother; she was raised Catholic. Check, check, and check. I’m still working through her Magdalene, from which the poem “Magdalene–The Seven Devils” may be my fave. Do I get every single reference? Probably not? Do I still feel like a fiction writer in poet’s clothing? Sorta.

I don’t expect you to be easy, poetry. Really, I’m trying to meet you halfway here.

I recently came across the work of Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas, who grew up in Northeastern Ohio, like this girl. Check. And he had something interesting to say about writing about place:

For a lot of writers, there’s a realization: I can write about where I’m from, about what I know.

He says more in this interview here about “de-mystifying” poetry and about liking food and beer. Check and check.

I mean, we’re on the same wavelength now, poetry and me.

I’m looking forward to hearing Lucas read at the Lit Youngstown Fall Literary Festival. Here’s Lucas reading his poems “Midwestern Cities” and “River on Fire” from his 2012 book Weather. I’m also hoping I can get up the gumption to see if he’ll answer a few questions for the ol’ blog here!

If I imagine you in your underwear, poetry, maybe I won’t feel so unworthy.

Humor can be an entry to literature, even poetry. Right?

I saw the poet Billy Collins read several years ago. My twin boys were infants and I remember feeling so free–and literary–leaving my brand new, screaming offspring with my sleep-deprived husband to hear poetry at a downtown theater by myself. Collins is a huge deal, the former U.S. Poet Laureate, the “most popular poet in America.” Is he read by “serious” poets; I don’t know. He’s read by me. The Rain in Portugal. Come on, that’s brilliant.

Is Collins funny and wise? He was that day, as much as I needed those things, sitting alone in that theater, contemplating the senior citizens around me who’d raised their kids and made it to older age with their sanity intact, it seemed.

The poet smiled and rubbed his bald head and read poems about his cat. I like cats. Check.

Maybe I’m the one who’s easy, poetry. Let’s try again!

First poem you loved? Last poem you read? And…go!

 

Like this post? Give a girl a “share.” Thanks! ~ Rebecca

*image my own

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OH

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I have to say, I felt a little bit vindicated when reading author Lauren Groff‘s latest interview with Poets & Writers magazine (her short story collection, Florida, was released earlier this year) in which she asserts: “Florida is the biggest joke of all the states. It is the punchline to every other state’s joke.”

Oh?

That statement, itself, feels like a joke to this Cleveland, Ohio native. A quick recap for the Buckeye State-uninitiated: OH is flyover country; Cleveland is the “Mistake on the Lake”; the home team Cleveland Browns’ last season went 0 and 16. (Yep, it’s a rebuilding year–again.)

The big F-L? A “bad joke?” Even if one doesn’t dream of Disney or gets heat-hives, the Sunshine State has a lot on offer. For a girl growing up in the Snowbelt of the Rust Belt? Florida sounded like heaven.

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But into each heaven, some rain must fall. (Yep, bastardizing Longfellow now.) Stay with me.

Place is important. I’ve covered this before here and here. Writing about place is important. Writing about a conflicted place? Both sunshine and darkness?

Now, that’s interesting. Yep, Goff’s Florida is on my TBR. (Want to learn more before you buy? Bookish Beck has a short review of the story collection.)

But the push and pull of FL on the writer is not all the truth Groff has to offer in this insightful interview. Advice for the rest of us?

On collections: “I believe short story collections have to be an argument,” Groff says.

On being a writing mother and the “sexist enterprise” that is American parenting: “I had my husband sign a ten-year contract…It was about how we live…I’m a writer. I’m going to continue to be a writer. I will never be a full-time mother…”

On being a writer: “…if you’re the writer you have to take it [the above agreement] more seriously. It means you’re taking yourself seriously as an artist.”

So here I am, back at my desk, musing about place and writing and parenthood and balance and summer. When, you might ask, did this writing mother have time to read a magazine interview? On vacation, where these beautiful photos were taken in…

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OH.

Are you conflicted about your native place or the place you call home? How does place inform your reading and writing?

 

*Thanks, Dad and Ryan, for the pics!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rust Belt Girl roundup for July 15, 2018

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We’re at the midpoint of the middle month of the summer, in my view. (We warm up early here in Maryland). And I’m feeling like I’ve only just begun to check off items on my summer to-do list. My boys filled out a summer bucket list on the last day of school. (Thanks for setting me up to fail, teach!) I have yet to pen my own. Top of the list would be “visit the Lake Erie shores and islands with fam.” (Yes, there are islands in Lake Erie–something for everyone, unless you’re allergic to ferries.)

That’s where we’re headed, my boys and me, to visit with family. Picture us in the scene above. So, I’ll be taking a brief hiatus from the blog, but not from reading and writing. That never happens.

On the work front, I made a deadline last week, handing in a 4,000-word feature story (I think I rocked it; I hope the editor agrees!). There will be edits. Oh, there always will be edits.

A creative item of note: I found out earlier this week that I will be a presenter at the Lit Youngstown Fall Literary Festival, and I’m so excited! In addition to doing a creative reading of a flash fiction piece of mine, I will sit on the Writers’ Publishing Panel–to talk about the ol’ blog. (Maybe see a few of you there!)

Thanks to my followers and friends here who encouraged me to submit a proposal. Your support means so much!

On my upcoming vacation, I hope to catch up on all I’ve missed recently on my WordPress Reader and to finish the books I’ve started: on audio (for my WWII list) Above Us Only Sky by Michele Young-Stone, a friend, former fellow MFA classmate, and all-around major literary talent); and in book form (for my Rust Belt list): The Weight of Heaven by novelist and memoirist Thrity Umrigar, who lives and teaches in Cleveland. (I’m interested to see if any Rust Belt sensibilities rub off on her characters.)

Mostly though, I am hoping for boat rides and swims at the pool and backyard fish fries and back deck-sitting with family until the mosquitoes drive us inside. Bucket list done and done.

Here’s to summer.

~Rebecca

“…until you don’t suck as much.”

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No, not you…me.

And so I sat at my computer last night, wondering…

How to make David Sedaris apropos for the ol’ blog.

Hmm.

The author/humorist is a native of Binghamton, New York. That’s Rust Belt-ish, right?

Who cares? It’s David Sedaris! He’s got a new book out. Bookish Beck reviews it here. And so he’s been top-of-mind.

On a day when I’m feeling kind of stuck, creative writing-wise, and even a little sucky, I went searching for some writing advice and found Sedaris’s. It’s funny and wise and talks as much about our current share-heavy-and-share-often culture as it does about writing.

So, obviously, I will share it here, now.

“David Sedaris on Keeping a Diary in the Age of Over-Sharing” in The Atlantic.

I kept a diary for all of a week, when I was nineteen. I probably called it journaling, but it’s the same thing, I think. My mistake, according to Sedaris, is that I read what I had written–and was embarrassed by the detailing of overwrought emotions in response to a series of banal-at-best events. So I stopped journaling.

In my interview with memoirist David Giffels (another very funny guy), he had this to say about journaling:

I have journaled at various times, but to me, writing is getting down to work and doing it when it needs to be done. I think in banker’s hours. Once I’m working on a project, it’s all-consuming. I’m always taking notes. When you’re working on a writing project, you become a selective magnet, like all of a sudden everything in the world is being tested to see whether it’s going to be drawn to your subject. If it is, it comes flying at you and sticks. I’ll hear or see something and think, I have to write that down right away. That’s urgent journaling, I guess.

It’s good that I stopped journaling when I did, I think, because I hadn’t lived yet. I was writing about nothing. Certainly, I didn’t know enough to feel any sense of creative urgency.

So I started living and still try to; to do otherwise scares me. (Guess I should write about it). These days, when I’m writing, I’m writing, when I’m not, I’m reading–and attempting to live outside paper-and-ink worlds. How else does one have anything to write about?

Memoirists must have an abundance of personal story, but truth makes the narrative choices fewer. Amy Jo Burns, author of Cinderland, told me this in my interview with her this spring:

I’ll put it like this–novelists suffer from having too many choices, and memoirists suffer from the lack of them. I think I’ve used the same kind of creativity to solve both problems, but the boundaries are very separate.

Nonfiction and fiction writers alike trade in personal truths, of course. We are what and who we write–no matter the genre, no matter the distance we try to create between our characters and ourselves.

So, tell me, do you journal, write in a diary? When did you start? When did you first show it to someone? Does it spark your personal essays, blogs, stories?

Here’s to journaling–urgent or not. To writing and writing until we “don’t suck as much.” To funny writers. To beautiful weekend weather that took me outside to swim, bike, and shoot hoops with my boys. To live in the world off the page, so that I might feel inspired enough to get back to it today.

Happy Monday, all.

~Rebecca

*book image from goodreads.com

3 things we can learn from a not-great book

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There are great books and not-great books.

The joy of a great book is getting swept up in the narrative so that we forget the laundry that needs doing, the garden that needs weeding, the kids that need watering (kidding/not kidding).

Thing is, when we get swept up in a book, it can be hard to see the mechanics behind the thing: to discern where the scenes begin and end and where the author uses exposition; to follow the plot points and point to where the plot lines converge; to chart the character development; to consider the themes. And so on.

3 things a not-great book can teach us about writing:

The data dump: or, your research is showing

Any book takes some research; to write a historical novel takes a ton. Been there. The trick is digesting all your research so that it comes out through the natural interactions between the characters as they go about being testing and wrung out by the machinations of the author before coming out the other side changed. Whew!

A not-great historical novelist will reveal his or her research; often you’ll see it plunked down without much artistry in chunks at not-so-strategic points. Listen hard and you can hear the book’s editor saying: “You need to set this part of the story in time here; don’t forget World War Take-Your-Pick was going on…”

Backstory as dialogue: or, real people don’t talk like that

Novels are not screenplays, and vice versa. Screenplay writers have it tough. All scene (the showing part). No exposition (the telling part)! A little stage direction maybe–but, still, that’s tough stuff.

With exposition at our disposal, we fiction writers have it easy-ish. Exposition is an efficient way to dispense necessary information about the time and place where our story is set, about a character, or anything else. Exposition is also a good way to tell your reader about a character’s past (or backstory). It’s better than wrenching backstory into dialogue, which sounds kinda like this:

Character 1: “Remember the time we went on that train ride, and we met Jesse James, and fought Al Capone, and stopped for ice cream with Marilyn Monroe? And remember I said that was the best day ever and I felt like I knew what it was I needed to do with my life, and so here I am?”

Character 2: “Yep. Now, tell me more about that time I remember.”

And so this inane conversation goes…

I’m not saying I have backstory all figured out. More on my little backstory addiction here. But rather than try to wrench backstory into conversation, we can make it exposition. Or, think long and hard about whether that backstory is needed at all.

Got to start somewhere: or, an author’s earlier books

I’m a big fan of Amy Bloom, author of Lucky Us and Away. But, while I love these novels, which are later works of hers, her first book–a collection of stories called Come to Me: Stories–is the one I’ve studied. If you love to write and want to get better at it, give this a try: find early books by authors you admire and see how they crafted their stories.

Want to know what historical novel prompted this post? Hop on over to my FB page. And please share if you like.

What are you reading and writing this week?