“…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

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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?

via The Performance of Writing: What Writers Can Learn From Elite Athletes

Rebecca here: From “low dread” to sports psych to the art and patience of practice, this guest essay featured on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog was spot-on for me. Hope it strikes a chord in you, too.

A quick story before I go–about humility and performance and the knowledge of our elders, etc., etc. My regular readers know I was a ballet dancer as a kid. It wasn’t just my thing; it was my only thing for a while, which is dangerous enough that one’s identity becomes wholly wrapped up in it. So that, when the pirouette fails, the person fails.

Anyway…about those pirouettes, I could practice and practice in a corner of the studio, sweating my proverbial balls off (sorry), but I wouldn’t entertain any other notions of practice besides putting myself in fourth position and taking off, spot, spot, spot, tight core, and land. Or fall. Or fall off pointe. Or spin out into the wall.

Before a performance of some kind, I remember my mom asking me if I ever visualized doing a perfect triple pirouette. I rolled my eyes in reply. Visualization, along with the self help-mumbo jumbo-yoga-reiki-dalai lama nonsense she’d gotten into since she got sick was just that.

Then, of course, she died (not just then, but years later) with more grace than I’d ever been able to perform with. No matter all my practice and all my sweat.

To borrow from this essay on the practice of writing, I wasn’t yet ready. I couldn’t yet plunge to the “deepest depths” for my art. My art is different now, but I think I can.

Yep, I’m ready.

Good evening and good writing and reading. Good practice–what ever that looks like for you.

What does writing practice look like for you?

Rust Belt Girl roundup for June 26, 2018

But first…a bit of inspiration (and my last reference to Amor Towles’s novel, A Gentleman in Moscow and its hero, Count Rostov–I promise–at least until the TV adaptation comes out.):

For what matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.

I’m adapting “acclaim” for my uses, loosely here. And “venture” in the creative vein. (No bungee jumping or sky-diving for me.)

Here’s the thing…recently, funny mom blogger extraordinaire, Becca, from With Love and a Little Self-Deprecation, got me to thinking, when she asked of herself a question I’m asking myself, this week. When was the last time I did something brave?

Not just something required that was maybe a tad-bit outside of my wheelhouse (to use  my fave maritime-inspired jargon). No, something that required guts.

Guts I’ve got when it comes to my kids. (Ask any mom.) Birth twins sans drugs–sure, got that… Forget my introversion (and the book I’m dying to read!) to introduce my toddlers to fellow toddlers on the playground–because, go figure, humans aren’t born knowing how to make introductions… Stick up for my kids when confronted by bullies… Overcome elementary math phobia to become a math club coach to teach kids that math is cool. Done, done, and done. Brave-ish Mom strikes and strikes again.

Now, can I be brave for myself? And can I be brave, when there’s no paycheck attached to it, when I’m the only one relying on me? Can I be creative-brave?

OK, let me back up to say that one reason I’m a writer is that I’m a nervous public speaker–and sometimes even not-so-public speaker. I’m just better on paper (you’re welcome). It’s one reason that I have five times the number of WordPress followers as FB friends.

And, funny thing, I taught freshman and sophomore-level college composition courses (yea, essays!) throughout my MFA, but teaching is different than speaking. Reading is different, too, if still a little scary. (Best done in a closet, as I was when I recorded my story, “Recruit.”) Reading my work before a group, letting my “weird” accent hang out–this I haven’t done in a while.

So, on my gutsy creative to-do list, this week: send my first, long-awaited literary agent query (first stop on the publishing road map) for my behemoth historical novel manuscript; and, even more to the bravery point, apply to present at a fall literary festival in my home state of Ohio, where much of my short fiction is set. This is new literary territory for me.

Part of my nervousness is due to the fact that to present at this festival really will be going home, and there’s a fear that I will be looked at as an outsider. (After so many years south of the Mason Dixon, I do say “ya’ll,” after all.)

Still, I’m going to submit my proposal. Worst thing that can happen is that they say no. Second worse, they say yes, and then I need to start stewing with nerves until September!

So, help a girl out, readers and writers:

Ever been to a literary festival? What do you look for (besides free books–yeah, I’m with you there)? What do you want to hear? Learn? I have no wares to hawk, no tsotchkes to share. It’s just me. And, in the immortal brand slogan of L’Oreal and imitator memes everywhere, I’m worth it.

I hope.

What’s on your gutsy creative to-do list this week?

 

 

 

 

In praise of twice-tolling timepieces and other miracles of invention: reading A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

My powers of observation are not so keen that I’m going to brave the very crowded depths of reviews of A Gentleman in Moscow. (Want to read my reviews, I’ve got a whole category, above.)

Let’s just agree that Amor Towles’s second novel is a modern masterpiece, shall we? If you are one of the four people on the planet who haven’t read or at least heard about this story of Count Alexander Rostov, here’s a brief intro (from the jacket copy):

When, in 1922, the thirty-year-old Count is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin…the [erudite and witty] Count’s reduced circumstances provide him entry to a much larger world of emotional discovery as he forges friendships…

Basically, drama, relationships, and meaningful meditations ensue. Just read this novel about the Russian soul–its art, history, toil, treasures, and catastrophes. (And be sure to watch the best novel trailer I’ve ever seen at Towles’s website, above.)

Just as this former kid ballet dancer (me) can’t watch a ballet without my feet twitching,  my calves contracting, my back straightening, and my head lilting this way and that with those on stage, I can’t read a book without wondering how?

But here’s not the place for a deep-dive into craft. I simply want to note a few miracles of invention in A Gentleman… and provide a word of caution to the dutifully outlining and character backstory-charting new(er) writers out there.

An image of note: the Count’s twice-tolling clock is much more than a clock that tells time by tolling only at noon and at midnight. It provides a mechanism to discuss industriousness, for Towles to tell us of the Count’s father, who had the clock made because a man (of a certain class, time, and place) should be too busy with work to heed the chimes between waking and noon. And by noon, having had an industrious morning, a man should then leave his work to commune with others. Should he hear the midnight chime, he is too late to bed. And the replete uses for this image are only beginning…

Description of note: readers come to a book like this expecting description befitting its learned main character. Towles delivers, but fear not, he doesn’t (like in real Russian novels) let his pacing lag in many-paged sections of description. No, his descriptions are just as clippy and cutting as his dialogue.

Take the goose chase section (trust me), a funny and farcical bit that brings together in a hotel hallway a melange of worldly guests: two French journalists, a Swiss diplomat, three Uzbek fur traders, a representative of the Roman Catholic Church, a Russian opera tenor with his family of five, and an American general. (All that’s missing is a partridge you know where, but then we do have geese!) Each becomes a character–and a caricature in the Count’s eyes–in the briefest of scenes, thanks to Towles’s powers of description. The ambassador from the Vatican advised; the Swiss diplomat heard the Russian and the Italian out, mouth shut; the tenor, “who spoke only a few words of Italian, informed the prelate (fortissimo) that he was not a man to be toyed with.” The American general, from “The Great State of Texas” took charge and threw the geese out the window.

A sleight of hand (and humor) of note: recently I read a wonderfully-informative and instructive piece on Brevity‘s nonfiction blog, “The Sound of a Memoir,” about shying away from using song lyrics in our writing (whether fiction or nonfiction). Practically-speaking, citing song lyrics (titles are OK) can be an expensive endeavor–if a writer manages to get permission to use them. Creatively-speaking, there are better ways to note a song in a story–to provide a bit of soundtrack to a piece, to get the reader’s foot tapping and put him or her in mind of a certain time when that song said so much! (If you now, as I do, have Elton John’s “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” in your head, you’re welcome.)

Back to Towles’s mastery: In A Gentleman… the author artfully explores the passing of time and trends, in one part commenting on jazz music. In not one but a few places the author has the Count muse about the popular jazz tune that speaks of a distinct absence of bananas, a lack of bananas, for want of bananas… You get the idea. Anyone who hasn’t lived his entire life in a cave knows the song is Louis Prima’s “Yes! We Have No Bananas,” (hear the song here) but by not citing even the title, the reference becomes more than a song but a clever running joke.

All that’s to gush, yes, and also to provide a word of caution to the new(er) writers out there looking for the keys–not only to plot but to imagery and motifs, the characterization and quirks–that make a piece of writing beautiful. How to make these little miracles happen on the page? If I knew, I would be doing it, right now. But I think one of the keys to being a great writer is being a great reader. Another is to trust your mind to make the miracles as you go. Call it a state of flow or the (ahem) muse catching you by the hand, whatever, but writing is more about writing than planning. (OK, you caught me; I’m a panster.)

Yes, you can plan for plot. Outline all you like. Get a sense of your characters before diving in. But can you plan for the clever bits, the brilliant tropes and descriptors and “bananas” that make a piece sing, I’m not so sure.

What do you think? What miracles of invention have you encountered thus far in your summer reads? I’d love to hear from you!

 

*I grabbed the American and UK cover (which I prefer) images from Goodreads.

 

 

 

 

 

Me, my selves, and Mel Brooks

Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his skin. The talent of a writer is his ability to give them their separate names, identities, and personalities, and have them relate to other characters living with him.

Mel Brooks

Amen, Mel. (Ahem, with the addition of “her skin,” “her ability,” and “with her,” thank you very much.)

Ever have one of those weeks (or months) when you feel like you’re juggling too many balls–but also too many names, identities, and personalities? And not only on the page.

I am a creative writer (“dang it,” she pounds fist on desk), but I am also a writer and editor for modest pay universities and etc. It is this latter personality that lately has taken precedence over the former (because the fruits of this personality can buy actual fruit, or veggies, or ice cream from the truck that smartly parks itself at our neighborhood pool.)

Fear not, one of two looming work deadlines met, I am seeing the light. (Sometime, I’m going to see how many myriad scads of mixed metaphors I can cram into a single post!) Back to my creative endeavors I WILL BE (soon-ish).

In the meantime, I enjoy my work that allows me to pick the brains of academics young and seasoned and learn things I’d never come to on my own, like the powers of biofilms, the miracles of flexible solar cells, what rotorcraft even is. Really, I remind myself, it’s all creative, right? Who knows, maybe this work will create burgeoning new identities in my fiction.

I talked in my last post about list-making, reining in those cows. (Another metaphor gone awry.) I’m trying to be better about writing it all down, so I see what I must do, and what I AM DOING. (Sleeping past 8am, now that the kids are out of school, for one. Big, big win!)

Creative right now:

Reading: A Gentleman in Moscow (read me gush about it on my FB page.); next up, Warlight

Listening to: Above Us Only Sky, audio novel by my uber-talented author friend from my MFA program days, Michele Young-Stone

Submitting: yesterday, a travel-ish short story of mine set in India to the literary travel mag, Nowhere; agent query submissions coming soon (see next line)

Editing: that last 40 pages of my historical novel manuscript–woo to the hoo!

How’s your creative list looking? What are you reading, writing, loving right now? Let me know here or at FB.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rust Belt Girl roundup for June 8, 2018

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s a Rust Belt Girl roundup for an end of the work week that also coincides with the beginning of CRAZY summer vacation.

Going with the “roundup” theme, I can say that the cows are loose, having broken the fence, and now they’re just roving around the plains willy nilly. (I know I’m impressing you with my vast knowledge of cowpoke life right now.)

Let’s be real. There are no cows. The cows are the items on my to-do lists, lists which don’t actually exist anymore, because so much of my life has gone digital.

I used to have real paper-and-pen lists: meal plans and menus, work to-dos based on deadline, and post-its galore with snippets of story ideas. Concrete things I could hold in my fingers. Then I’d go about numbering the items according to importance.

What happened? Hmm. Could it be that I jumped on social media last year, and my lists are collateral damage?

Whatever. The upshot: I’m bringing back the lists, because they’re real.

Because…my children (though they are playing virtual FIFA soccer at the moment) are real. Their need to be fed and watered (and maybe even educated and socialized even on the hottest days) is real. Yep, it is really summer now, and they are really home—ALL DAY LONG.

You don’t need to be a mom to lose your cows—or to rein them in (or is that only with horses?).

Author Amy Jo Burns talked about writing while mom-ing in my latest author Q&A. She also talked about her memoir, an essay, and her upcoming novel. I bet she’s got real lists.

With two work deadlines looming, these cows will dominate my lists for the next little bit. But, fear not, I will leave time for creative writing and tinkering, literary agent soliciting and journal submitting…and even dreaming—doing some of that right here.

What’s on your reading and writing list this weekend, this summer?

Want to know what I’m reading in my stolen moments–when I’m not abiding by my lists? (One of the best novels I’ve read in a long time!) Find me on FB.

 

 

 

For my ‘hood of humans: a retrospective and a gift

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The Port Clinton, OH, (Walleye capital of the world; don’t give me a hard time on this, MN) Walleye Festival 2018 at night. (Thanks for the pic, Dad!)

Nope, I’m not going to get all weepy on you (and I’m not going anywhere), but I am going to share a few of the coolest things that have come out of my first year, social–as in, social media.

A retrospective as it were (we will miss you, Daily Post.)

But first, a little tongue-in-cheeky lyrical accompaniment–hum along if you can–from “Brotherhood of Man” (a la How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying):

There is a Brotherhood of Man,
A Benevolent Brotherhood of Man,
A noble tie that binds
All human hearts and minds
Into one Brotherhood of Man.

 

I don’t know a lot about brotherhood or business (OK, maybe a little about the business of writing), but I know that noble ties that bind are hard to come by anywhere.

Question: What connects us human readers and writers, really?

Answer: A love of ideas communicated as words, right? Carefully chosen ones–yes, all in the right order. Not the sort of stuff you can dash off between your Dunkin Donuts run and the office (unless you’re Hemingway and D.D. is a bar).

Rarely do I feel more alone in the writing world than I do while pawing my way through my FB feed populated by thousands of “writers” group members. You (and Mark Zuckerberg) don’t need me to tell you that there’s not enough real connecting–or even real socializing–going on, on social media, for writers, readers, or anyone else.

Not so for my WordPress Reader feed. Of course, I’ve taken the time to curate the scads of sites I follow. (If I’ve missed yours, let me know!) But there is, generally, great care and feeding done to the words that make up WP posts. And that care feeds community. So, here’s where I lament the draining of the Community Pool, especially, and and thank the WP editors for making it and the Daily Posts, like this, happen. (Not to worry, though, there is another pool I plan to dip my toes in and hope you might join me there.)

Back to the good care and feeding of our reading/writing community here and everywhere…remember when e-book readers made us fear the end of real books was nigh? In the same way I worried that email would disappear with my foray into social media. My findings: I still email the friends and fam I used to. And, guess what, people–even strangers–still respond to emails, even from bloggers (like this one), who reach out to writers they want to interview. I’m here to say email still works, and stay tuned for an author Q&A with Cinderland memoirist Amy Jo Burns, who will fill us in on her upcoming novel, Shiner!

My final finding in my very unofficial year-long social media study: the heated FB or LinkedIn debate: which is better suited to connecting with other writers and readers. My sense is that the pace of FB is more frenetic, making LinkedIn the place to connect with other communicators of your ilk looking to take the time to consider something more substantial than a jumping pygmy goat. (FB has cornered the goat video market, and that’s OK).

How do you best use social media to meaningfully connect with your fellow communicators?

I’d love to know.

And, as it’s the last day of short story month, I’d love to present a little gift, the latest issue of Flock literary journal (FREE to view online only until June 4), chock full of carefully tended words, all in the right order. Short stories not your thing (wah?)? How about a poem about honey? Art or interviews your bag? This issue’s got that too.

Hope you enjoy.

 

 

Darlings done in: May 20, 2018

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“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

William Faulkner

Yep, we got it, Will. Do those darlings in. What counts as darlings? The (flowery, purple or otherwise unnecessary) prose in our stories, poems, and blog posts we just can’t let go–but know we must.

On today’s editing room floor, as it were:

“He fantasized about how he would greet Kate after three days away. He would sweep his wife into his arms like one of her matinee idols might.”

Um. Fantasy–in my historical novel manuscript? If it’s not happening, it’s not staying. Cut!

Here’s another. (The trouble with writing a historical novel is that there’s just sooo much interesting history. But, one must remember that it’s a novel, not a textbook.)

“In the nineteenth century, coal was discovered in the hills, and easterners brought industry, almighty steel, to the west…”

Cut! (And that “almighty steel” might be a contender for “purple prose.”)

No one said revision and editing would be easy. If a section, paragraph, or phrase is especially dear to me, I will save it–in a file on my computer or in a jar where I keep actual slips of paper with cut phrases on them. (Sometimes fodder for story prompts, sometimes a good joke, sometimes both.)

In this way you can revive your darlings like writer K.M. Allan. Don’t fear when it’s time to slash and burn your way to a better manuscript. Happy revising!

What’s your favorite revising or editing tip?

 

 

Our Place in the World: Water Ways

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We writers love to talk about finding our literary voice (good piece on that here), along with our favorite tropes, motifs, and images. Basically…stuff we know.

We’ve all heard the “write what you know” advice, often attributed to ol’ Papa Hemingway. What he really said (and more Hemingway writing advice here):

Write about what you know and write truly and tell them all where they can place it…Books should be about the people you know, that you love and hate, not about the people you study about.

So, we read, travel, meet, live, repeat, and read some more–to amass the places, people, and ideas that we know fully, that become an integral part of us. So much so that these places, people, and ideas pop up in our writing as setting, characters, tropes and all those other fun literary terms.

All that’s to say that our writerly voice and our place in the world (weekly photo challenge) go hand-in-hand. For me, the way to discovering my literary voice–my place on the page (definitely still a work in progress)–and my place in the world are parallel journeys. And both follow water.

They say the apple doesn’t fall far… My dad, a lifelong Lake Erie boater, went around the world’s waterways as a young man in the Navy and still didn’t get enough of the stuff. Being landlocked makes him itchy. (Here he is on his 1942 Lyman he restored himself.) I suppose I inherited some of his itch.

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From the Great Lake of my girlhood to the river I’m on now (header photo)–water makes its way into much of my creative writing. Not only as setting and a handy trope, but I’m interested in water’s relationship with our human bodies (which are so much water!), and I wish I could fish and swim and dive with an expert’s ease. And there’s where I write what I don’t know, because I want to know more.

This summer I will do more to know more to write more. How’s that? And I’ll do it in a dinghy! Yep, we bought a dinghy–my little family’s first foray onto the water.

Does your place in the world inform your place on the page? I’d love to hear about it and to see pics!