About Me

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Writer's Notebook and Words of Advice

Slowly, over several months of "before bed time" reading, and during breaks at work, I've been reading a collection of essays: The Writer's Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House (Tin House Books, c2009). I've found the collection, covering the craft of fiction writing, with one essay about poetry writing, to be worthwhile. A CD is included.

The next collection I'll be reading is: Words Overflown By Stars: Creative Writing Instruction And Insight From The Vermont College Of Fine Arts M.F.A. Program (Writer's Digest Books, c2009).

When I was a purely beginning writer, I didn't enjoy reading books like this, because I was still grasping to understand the basics of point-of-view, plot, scene, etc... I find these kinds of books to be useful now, because I can relate the ideas I'm reading about to things I've written or substantially written. I have a body of work completed, and several novels-in-progress.

I take what I can from these books, and lose the rest; just like reading a critique of your own work. You will find some of it valuable, and some of it esoteric, or something you plain just don't agree with, but the ideas are always stimulating, either as words to incorporate into your personal philosophy about writing, or ideas to reject.

I've added both collections to my ongoing bibliography of Recommended Books on the Craft of Writing. I've also added a link to the bibliography on my sidebar.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Viggo Mortensen, Writing, and The Road

I don't consciously model my fiction characters often after a real life actor, but I find we tend to "absorb" these people we see and admire in so large a life, and "make them our own." The character I've modeled after Viggo Mortensen is not him, and not any character he has ever played, not even Aragorn in the three Lord of the Rings movies, but in another sense, he is a part of the character I wrote about in my James Taylor post, a "wild" man redeemed by the sound of a young woman's voice. It is the actor's facial expressions and manner of speaking in certain key scenes that "resonate" with me as an author, for example, when Aragorn tells Eowyn he cannot be who she wants him to be. My favorite of the three Lord of the Rings movies is The Two Towers, in part, because of the relationship between Eowyn and Aragorn.

I did not see Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises. I think I was afraid to see the level of violence described, after seeing him in A History of Violence, an excellent and disturbing movie. Both he and Maria Bello, as his wife, earned academy awards, though he was never nominated, and she did not win in her category. I am planning to see The Road, which is coming out today. I was not aware of the film until a week ago, so you see I am not a Viggo groupie, but when I saw an advertisement, I decided to seek out the movie trailer. The first trailer released is morbid. The second trailer gives the world portrayed some hope. The movie is based on the 2007 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.

Click on the arrow to view the trailer, or click on YouTube and watch in wide screen HD.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Poem: Shark Valley

I’ve just read some pleasant poetry. It relaxes me and makes me smile. I’ve had a busy day today, driving many miles into an unfamiliar downtown and back home again, traversing six lane traffic in both directions for an all day library conference.

So, I left the land of concrete for a time, and read about frogs, protected fish, and egrets. It made me remember a poem I wrote, so I’m posting it here, but it has no happy ending, only an uneasy compromise between humankind and nature.

If you click on the image, you can read my poem about Shark Valley. It's a good one to read aloud.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Writing Inventory

A generous friend helped me with a reading, and some feedback on my short play. He talked about the play reflecting a region in folkways and mores. At first, I wasn’t certain what he meant, but my mind took over, as I was dreaming, and I woke up realizing I am influenced by my surroundings, the era I grew up in, and where I live now in the suburbs of a sprawling urban area. I’m also influenced by the impact of my childhood, both joys and trauma, everything I’ve ever done and known, and my current experiences as the mother of a teenage boy, and as a librarian.

I’ve written two short stories involving homeless men, one of them a newspaper vendor running away from his life as a journalist after the unexpected death of his fiancĂ©, and one of them an alcoholic artist who hangs out at a train station, separated from his wife and children, and longing for redemption. I knew I was directly influenced by seeing such men standing on street corners, or hanging out at the library where I work, and the downtown library where I used to work. We often dismiss such men as invaluable members of society, but what do we know about their backgrounds, and who they are?

My first short story, after ten plus years of writing novel length fiction (story starts, novels-in-progress), poured out of me, after a first line, surprising me completely, because I didn’t know I was going to write about teens working at the mall and Hot Topic, a teen/young adult clothing store, frequented by young punks and goths, and aging tattooed store clerks with red hair and face piercings. A teenage girl escapes assault, when a teen working as a custodian rescues her from a group of boys. A few days later she goes back to the mall to find him, recognizing her restless attraction.

My realistic short play, one story novella, and one novel-in-progress, all involve alternative rock musicians and the women they meet and turn to in a time of crisis. They are not the same characters, in the play, the story, or the novel, but, as I have admitted before, the male characters, who are not Billie Joe, were inspired by Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day.

It’s not so much that my son led me to Green Day’s music; it’s my husband and I who were led to Armstrong, first through the song and the album, American Idiot. We saw him perform live in 2005, and the attraction began, but it is Armstrong’s photograph on a Rolling Stone cover that made all the feelings coalesce, and I began to write the stories.

The novel began before the play. Part of the attraction in writing about the “Billie Joe” characters, is the exploration of the difference between the public and private persona. Who are these people we admire? Why do we demand so much of them? Do they realize how much they have helped us? Will they accept help from a stranger, when we know so much about them, at least what is printed in books and magazine articles, and from their music?

Another one of my stories involves a children’s librarian who is not me or any one person that I know. She is dying, with some hope of recovery, from cancer. She becomes mesmerized by a story time dad, because she is so lonely, and grieves for the loss of the children she may never bear. It’s a very short story, and I have some hope of its publication. It was rejected with a very kind note from Susan at Glimmer Train. I haven’t submitted it anywhere else recently, but I believe I’m working up the gumption to start submitting my work again.

The fantasy novels come from another place. I may enjoy writing them the most. I have come to believe the fact that well written fantasies embrace universal truths. It is in fantasy, that my deepest feelings can be expressed. It is all there, fears and attractions, independence, courage, sensuality, tragedy, and transcendence. It is the most difficult and complex fiction to write. There are no dragons in these stories, no elves. There are newly created magics, and intertwining relationships. And there is hope in the face of the impossible. I complicate the requirements with multiple points of view.

My substantially written novels-in-progress include two realistic, two historical, and two fantasy fictions. I have three more novels substantially started. All require completion and revision. I have numerous story or novel starts. Sporadically, I write poems. The demands of work, marriage and motherhood make it difficult for me to stay focused. I write in spurts, and by the time I write again, it’s often on a new project. The act of writing is cathartic, but I want my efforts to mean something, and be read. I’m not sure how to accomplish this. And I thank my friend for helping me.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Morning Squirrels and Dorothea Brande: Becoming A Writer

7:12 am

I meant to go back to sleep, after getting my husband and son off to work and school; but I looked out my kitchen window, and just saw a squirrel with a nut running along the six foot tall wooden fence separating our house from the bad neighbor behind us (his fence). I wonder where the squirrel got what looks like a peanut; not a seed- who's feeding him?- though it may be a palm tree seed- can you eat them? I looked again, and he's perched on a fence post, holding the remains between his paws, and finishing eating it. He runs back in the direction he'd come, possibly for more. A whistling wind is blowing the oak leaves and palm fronds. It's been windy now for days, and they say it's not due to Hurricane Ida. It looks like it will be a blue sky day, with scattered clouds.

I've been reading Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer (Tarcher/Putnam, 1981), a classic book on writing, first published in 1938, recommended to me a while back by Brigindo. There are chapters where I argue with Brande's tone, and her "you must do this" attitude, though, in general, she rails against such concepts (except when it involves her own ideas of what's what)- and I say this as if she's living, though she died in 1948. She recommends writing every morning, before you've read anything, listened to anything, and I suppose, done much of anything else, to see what pours out of you in your own voice, and using that as a starting point to evaluate not only how you write but who you are- or, you are not a writer! (You are a bad girl, and deserve many spankings.) Other than that, I'm finding her ideas about the link between the conscious and the unconscious, as you write, to be extremely useful, mostly because it solidifies my own thinking about the writing process, and her concepts about why it is important to write. Here's a choice quote, from her chapter, titled: The Source of Originality:

"It is well to understand as early as possible in one's writing life that there is just one contribution which every one of us can make: we can give into the common pool of experience some comprehension of the world as it looks to each of us. There is one sense in which everyone is unique. No one else was born of your parents, at just that time of just that country's history; no one underwent just your experiences, reached just your conclusions, or faces the world with the exact set of ideas that you must have. If you can come to such friendly terms with yourself that you are able and willing to say precisely what you think of any given situation or character, if you can tell a story as it can appear only to you of all the people on earth, you will inevitably have a piece of work which is original." ~ Dorothea Brande

There are many other encouragements sprinkled throughout this book. Here are two more choice quotes from the same chapter, under the sub-heading, Honesty, the Source of Originality:

"If you can discover what you like, if you can discover what you truly believe about most of the major matters of life, you will be able to write a story which is honest and original and unique." ~ Dorothea Brande

"... We all continue to grow... In order to write at all we must write on the basis of our present beliefs. If you are unwilling to write from the honest, though perhaps far from final, point of view that represents your present state, you may come to your deathbed with your contribution to the world still unmade..." ~ Dorothea Brande

And this, under the sub-heading, Trust Yourself:

"... It is not the putting of your character in the central position of a drama which has never been dreamed of before that will make your story irresistible... How your hero meets his dilemma, what you think of the impasse-- those are the things which make your story truly your own; and it is your own individual character, unmistakably showing through your work, which will lead you to success or failure. I would almost be willing to go so far as to say that here is no situation which is trite in itself; there are only dull, unimaginative, or uncommunicative authors. No dilemma in which a man can find himself will leave his fellows unmoved if it can be fully presented." ~ Dorothea Brande

I'm adding Dorothea Brande's book to my bibliography of recommended books on writing fiction.

8:10 am

My phone alarm has just rung, and I scurry in my gown and robe across the house from the computer room to my bedroom to turn it off. I've accomplished a lot in this hour. Now it's time to add to that bibliography, work on a critique for a fellow writer, and perhaps, if I'm smart, take a walk. I'll put Dorothea Brande out of my mind, or she'll be telling me what to do, admonishing me to notice things and let them meld with my psyche.

Monday, November 2, 2009

James Taylor: Something in the Way She Moves

I've been driving this afternoon and this evening, listening to James Taylor. The two CD set is simply called James Taylor (Live), a performance from, unbelievably, 1993, though I think, maybe, we bought it later than that. Old favorites include Sweet Baby James, Millworker, Country Road, Fire and Rain, Walking Man, Riding on a Railroad, Something in the Way She Moves, Up on the Roof, Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight, Carolina in My Mind, and You've Got a Friend. The titles alone evoke emotions in me, since I hear the melodies and hear James Taylor's voice, as I say them or read them. The songs are playing in my mind right now.

The first time I heard it, Something in the Way She Moves was new to me. I was riveted and delighted, and it became an instant favorite, because it is beautiful, and because it reminded me of a book I'd substantially written, yes, yet another novel-in-progress, (and this one does not involve Billie Joe in any way). There is a wild man, traumatized, and by choice and circumstance shunned and alone, and a young woman who brings him back to himself, first, through the sound of her voice. The story is set in the nebulous middle ages, a setting which would "firm up" in revision. She is in flight from an onerous situation, with a companion who is killed by an enemy. The "wild man" is charged to bring her back to her home, but she is the one who metaphorically rescues him. They grow to depend upon one another, and she becomes enamored.

Yes, it is partly a romance, but only in that, I realize, among other themes, my stories always involve connection and the redeeming power of relationships. But I don't write to theme, and I don't plan. I start with a first sentence and I see where it carries me. Sometimes it's a short story, and sometimes a novel. The story shapes itself. Poetry is a different mind set. It begins with introspection, and I sometimes succeed at defining my emotions with imagery, and when I don't, it's a melody of words. A few of these poems I've posted on my blog are exercise, like my attempt at a villanelle, or my random observations, but others are expressions of who I am.

When I drive in a car on a long trip alone, I sing with the singer of the songs. I can't sing with James Taylor! I don't know what it is. I sing with Billie Joe Armstrong. I sing with the lead singer for Three Days Grace, whatever his name is. I sing with The Beatles, or the Shins, or John Denver, or Bob Dylan, and even with John Ondrasik's Five for Fighting, who sings in a very high pitch. I can't sing with James, not very well. His voice is not high, but the key he sings in, requires me to sing in too high a register, except, when I am singing Fire and Rain, or You've Got a Friend (doing Carole King's higher pitched part, where it seems natural), or Something in the Way She Moves. That's okay. I'm good to listen, the guitar work alone, and the songs that are poetry.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Paul Zollo Interviews Billie Joe Armstrong at Bluerailroad: Why It Matters to the Writer of Fiction and Why It Matters to Me

I've discovered an insightful interview: Inside Green Day with Billie Joe Armstrong, by Paul Zollo, in an online magazine of the arts: Bluerailroad. Zollo sets the scene for his interviews, and discusses the background of each songwriter, so the reader imagines the conversation in real time.

Armstrong's interview took place soon after the 2000 release of the Green Day album, Warning, one of my personal favorites, at a time when some critics considered Green Day to be in a slump. You would never know it from Zollo's balanced article, and Armstrong's thoughtful responses to Zollo's questions.

Zollo, the author of the classic Songwriters on Songwriting (De Capo Press, 4th ed, c2003), and Bluerailroad's editor, is compiling a second collection of interviews with prominent songwriters, to be published as a Volume 2. Generously, Zollo is publishing a selection of the interviews at Bluerailroad, including the full text of an incredible interview with James Taylor, a Woody Guthrie tribute, Armstrong's interview, and a monthly question and answer column with Bob Dylan.

Within some of the interviews, Zollo, a photographer, as well as a singer, writer, and songwriter, intersperses his own photographs of the artists, and a selection of their songs. True to its name as an online magazine of the arts, Bluerailroad also offers original fiction and poetry.

You will also find classic interview excerpts from Songwriters on Songwriting on Paul Zollo's blog at American Songwriter. In her 1989 interview, Carole King discusses writer's block:

"Songwriters, both lyricists and melody writers, are often plagued with the thing most often known as writer’s block. All writers are, writers of prose as well. I have found that the key to not being blocked is to not worry about it. Ever... Trust that it will be there. If it ever was once and you’ve ever done it once, it will be back. It always comes back and the only thing that is a problem is when you get in your own way worrying about it." ~ Carole King

Here's a tiny sample from Billie Joe Armstrong's interview with Paul Zollo:

Zollo: "Where do you think the great songs come from?"

Armstrong: "I don’t know. I really don’t. It comes from somewhere deep down inside of you that you didn’t even know existed. It’s kind of like seeing a shrink or something. (Laughs) There can be a lot of anger, or sadness, or joy, that you had but you didn’t even know you really had – but it can all come out. You feel a connection with it, and so other people can, too. You strike a nerve." ~ Billie Joe Armstrong

Since that time, Billie Joe Armstrong has had a lot of time to think about his songwriting process and where his songs come from; but sometimes I think it's best, like he said it then, to say it plain. A fellow writer, Alisia Leavitt, recently posted on her blog about a cathartic experience she had writing a scene in her novel-in-progress. She titled the post: Becoming Emotionally Involved. The more I read about songwriters and their process, and writers and their process, the more I am convinced song= story= poem= narrative= art= life, and that creativity, in music, writing, or the visual arts, all comes from the same place; we just use different languages and the instrument of the individual to express it, and emotion is the key.

I'm planning to buy Zollo's book, Songwriters on Songwriting, appreciating the insight I can gain from each artist's view on the creative process, and I'm looking forward to the second volume. And now, I wonder, all along, have I been missing something? Should it have been obvious to me that song= story= poem= narrative= art= life? It has come to me as a revelation, why, I am drawn to music, beyond being a human, and why, Billie Joe Armstrong's songs have had such a profound effect on me, even though I cannot identify with their details. I always knew a song was a poem, but I didn't know it was a story, my story, rendered in the emotion it conveys.

When I was a little girl I heard a song on the radio in the dark in the middle of the night: Richard Harris singing Someone Left the Cake out in the Rain. I don't think that I can take it, cause it took so long to bake it, and I'll never find that recipe again. Oh, no. Oh, no.... I've barely heard that song again in my entire life, but I'll never forget those words and the melody, because of what combination? The unusual words (on the surface silly), the music, and the emotion in the voice, parts of it ruined for me by the hokey music, but the overriding emotion winning out, Richard Harris singing me his story. I was "arrested" by that song, and it made an "indelible mark." And somehow, that song relates- to Billie Joe Armstrong- and to every other song, and to every other novel, and to every other poem, and every other painting, and every other drawing I've ever loved or responded to- all parts of me, and who I am.


Note: Paul Zollo kindly contacted me and sent me a complimentary copy of Songwriters on Songwriting. Thank you, Paul.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Paul Simon's Song Lyrics and the Art of Fiction

I can't say it better than the title of this post: What the Short Story Writer can Learn from Paul Simon’s Lyrics, an essay by Phil Sandick, posted in June 2009, at Fiction Writers Review.

Based in part on Sandick's response to the release of Paul Simon's book, Lyrics 1964-2008 (Simon & Schuster, c2008), the article is an excellent overview of how Simon uses fiction writing techniques, including dialogue, characterization, and scene. "These lyrics read like a collection of short stories," says Sandick, and he justifies that statement with a thorough, engaging and convincing analysis.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Point Of View: Selected Quotes and One Author's Perspective

The following quotes are excerpted from Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Sixth Edition (Longman, c2003):

"Point of view is the most complex element of fiction. Although it may be labeled and analyzed, it is finally a question of relationship among writer, characters, and reader." ~ Janet Burroway

"An author's view of the world will ultimately be revealed by the way that author manipulates the technique of point of view. However, the reverse does not hold true... Rather than think of point of view as an opinion or belief, begin instead with the (concept) of 'vantage point.' Who is standing where to watch the scene?" ~ Janet Burroway

"In establishing the story's point of view, you make your own rules, but having made them, you must stick to them... Beginning writers of prose fiction are often tempted to shift viewpoint when it is both unnecessary and disturbing." ~ Janet Burroway

"Third- and second-person stories are told by an author; first-person stories, by a character." ~ Janet Burroway

"In the third person, all the characters will be referred to as he, she, or they. In the first person, the character telling the story will refer to himself or herself as I and to other characters as he, she, or they. The second person is the basic mode of the story only when a character is referred to as you. When one character addreses 'you' in a letter or monologue, that narrative is still told by the 'I' character... Only when 'you' becomes an actor in the drama, so designated by the author, is the story or novel written in second person." ~ Janet Burroway

"In choosing a point of view, the author implies an identity not only for the teller of the tale, but also for the audience." ~ (For example: the story can be told to the reader; another character or characters; the self, as in a diary or a journal; or told as an interior monologue or as stream of consciousness.) ~ Janet Burroway

"A reader's experience of fiction is influenced by person, tone, distance, reliability, and other aspects of point of view." ~ Janet Burroway

These quotes come from Alice LaPlante's The Making of a Story ( Norton, c2007):

"One of the most common ways to break with point of view conventions is to be telling the story from one point of view, and then suddenly shift to another... In general, once you establish your point of view, you're going to want to stick with it. The point isn't to follow some esoteric rule, but to avoid jolting your readers out of the story. When such a jolt occurs, some would argue that there is a point of view error that needs to be fixed. But while this might be the case some, or even most of the time, you can read stories-- good stories-- in which the point of view shifts... In such cases, we assume that the author felt it important enough to risk jolting the reader to get some additional information into the text. Does it work? Does the author get away with it? Only the reader can say." ~ Alice LaPlante

"Second person is one of the more complex points of view, and it is rarely used. In second person, the narrator speaks via a 'you,'-- who can be one of four types of characters. (1) The 'you' is actually an inverted form of first person... (2) The 'you' refers to a specific character, so that the piece, in effect, becomes a monologue addressed to a person or persons... (3) The 'you' is a direct address to the reader... (4) The 'you' can also, occasionally, be an attempt to turn the reader into an active character in the story..." ~ Alice LaPlante

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

If you've noticed that Burroway and LaPlante are in disagreement about what can properly be identified as second person, you are correct; but both authors agree writing in the second person is an experimental technique that is rarely employed. The contemporary authors who use it usually confine it to shorter pieces, because the technique, in a longer piece, can fatigue the reader, and interfere with reader identification.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It took me a while to master point of view in my own fiction writing. I had an intuitive sense of characterization, description, and dialogue, and that has served me well. In terms of novel writing, beyond point of view, it is plot and overall story structure I have yet to master, though I've largely succeeded in all the elements, including significance, in my shorter works. What I need now, is time-- to write, and to only write. And I do not have it. I have to see a novel through from conception through development and completion, and only then, after revision, can I judge how well I can do.

In my most recent novels, I write in close limited third from multiple points of view (for those who don't know the technique, that is not a shift, because the rule is followed that only one point of view is employed for each scene, and that within that scene, the point of view does not shift). For me, one of the fascinations in telling a tale, is that, for each character, as in life, the truth is a difference of perception. Ah, but there is right and wrong, and for every story I write, there is a heroine and a hero, and there is a villain (sometimes an aspect of the self).

Friday, September 25, 2009

Sing Us A Song For Me: Billie Joe Armstrong shifts point-of-view to great effect.

Billie Joe Armstrong
NME Magazine
June 6, 2009
Interview Excerpt

Someone searched on the phrase: poetic techniques in the song 21 guns by greenday. At the time, I had no answer for them, but they found my site, anniekwrites, through the key words in the search. They stayed for a minute or two, and maybe clicked the link to hear the song in a live performance. It got me thinking about impressions I’d already gleaned, pertinent for the writer, any writer, of prose, poetry, or song lyrics. Billie Joe Armstrong breaks the rule; he shifts his point of view.

One minute he’s in third person, the next it’s first, or it’s the second person, “you,” or the understood you, as in a command, sometimes all in the same song, or in the same sentence, and there are the layered elements of tone, narrator reliability, and distance. And nobody minds it, because it makes you feel included, and he readily admits, every song he writes, from a male or a female perspective, starting with the multiple points of view expressed in the concept album American Idiot, and continuing with 21st Century Breakdown, with its two major characters, is him. Often, when he uses the second person “you,” it’s almost like he’s talking to himself.

In the June 6, 2009 British music magazine, NME, Billie Joe Armstrong is interviewed by Hardeep Phull. On page 10, Phull asks Armstrong:

The characters on 21st Century Breakdown are extensions of you, aren’t they?

“I think it’s 100% me. It’s just different names. Those songs could be ‘Billie’s Inferno’ or ‘Viva La Billie Joe’ (laughs). The character thing came almost by accident during recording. There’s a yin/yang element to them- it’s a little bit schizophrenic in a lot of ways.”

Doesn’t that worry you - that you’ve written an album that’s 100 percent you and yet it’s two different people?
“Yeah, and one’s a man and one’s a woman! What does that say (laughs)? I think it’s more down to creativity. When you put names and characters to it, it gives it flesh and blood… it means so much more than if the songs were all obviously me.”

Whether he knows it or not, Billie Joe Armstrong works to achieve what all good writers do: to translate his personal visions and demons onto the page through his characters, so that every word is accessible, without compromise, and essential to the piece.

Because of its emotional content and lyrical melody, the song, 21 Guns, is one of my favorites on 21st Century Breakdown, but it is not the best constructed of the songs in terms of poetic technique. In 21 Guns, Armstrong asks a series of questions and gives the listener an answer. This is an example from the third stanza and then the repeating refrain:

Did you try to live on your own
When you burned down the house and home
Did you stand too close to the fire?
Like a liar looking for forgiveness from a stone

(incredible musical interlude, before powerful refrain)

One, 21 guns
Lay down your arms
Give up the fight
One, 21 guns
Throw up your arms into the sky
You and I

The “You and I.” That’s when you learn he’s talking about a version of himself, and not an abstract concept. That’s why I call 21 Guns a song about relationships.

In the closing stanza before the final refrain, Armstrong starts out in the second person “you,” and in the third line, brings in the concept of the first person, “I.”

When it’s time to live and let die
And you can’t get another try
Something inside this heart has died
You’re in ruins.

Of course, you could consider it as a discourse, where he’s interjecting, as a third person omniscient observer, “Something inside this heart has died,” but I prefer to think of it in a first person context, and that he’s talking about his own heart. But, then, why doesn't he say "my heart"? (Because he wants you to feel included, the mark of a master writer, the ability to convince the listener to identify with the characters. And he wants you to know he's been in the same place, emotionally, so you can identify with him, the performer.)

(And if I haven’t thoroughly confused you yet, Green Day fan or bewildered reader, just remember, this is only my opinion, not a critical analysis. I write prose and poetry, but sadly, I was never an English major.)

When I was a ninth grade student, we were asked to analyze Paul Simon’s lyrics in songs like Sounds of Silence and Like A Rock. I still have that essay somewhere. It was a useful exercise, not because I learned to analyze the construction of the songs as poetry, but it gave me the opportunity to think about what the songs meant to me, and what I thought the first person character in I Am A Rock was really feeling when he said, “and a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.” (I got an “A” on the essay.)

Ultimately, what a song (or a story or a poem) means to you is more important than any literary technique. But, as a choice from 21st Century Breakdown, 21 Guns is probably about the only song on there you could analyze for a high school class, though the title song from the album is probably the most ambitious in terms of technique.

Poetic technique in 21 Guns? There’s some slanted rhyming going on. There’s a stanza structure and a refrain. Lines repeat for emphasis. But the power of the song is in its performance. The words and the melody and the voice are ready companions, and there is no reason they should stand alone. Sung and played in the Key of F, in every note of 21 Guns, there is emotion and there is resonance.

© 2009 Annie King

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Dancing at the Edge of the World

I've been reading Ursula K. Le Guin's essay collection, Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (Grove Press, c1989). I'm skipping around through the entries because she's invited me to do so. In the table of contents, she's even given me a guide, so I know if the article is mostly about writing, feminism, travel, social responsibility, or some combination of the four. Twenty to thirty-three years later, her Talks and Essays and Book Reviews remain relevant.

My favorite essays, so far, concern writing and literature, since feminisim, for me, is a given. I particularly enjoy Some Thoughts on Narrative, an essay based on a lecture she gave at Portland State University in 1980; a brief essay on World-Making from 1981; the page and a half Conflict from 1987, which made me laugh out loud; and the wonderful Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?, also from 1987, where she discusses the writing process and her personal approach to writing. I don't want to distill any of these essays, because they should be read in their entirety, but I'd like to share a few choice quotes:

"The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story." ~ Ursula K. Le Guin, from Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?, 1987

"Only the imagination can get us out of the bind of the eternal present, inventing or hypothesizing or pretending or discovering a way that reason can then follow into the infinity of options, a clue through the labyrinths of choice, a golden string, the story, leading us to the freedom that is properly human, the freedom open to those whose minds can accept unreality." ~ Ursula K. Le Guin, from Some Thoughts on Narrative, 1980

In this collection, also, is her sensible advice on the issue of censorship, after her classic Science Fiction novel, The Lathe of Heaven, was challenged at a school library near her home:

"To provide the best: everyone agrees on that (even the people who vote against school levies). But we don't and we can't agree on what books are the best. And therefore what is vital is that we provide variety, abundance, plenty- not books that reflect one body of opinion of doctrine, not books that one group or sect thinks good, but the broadest, richest range of intellectual and artistic material available." ~ Ursula K. Le Guin, from Whose Lathe?, 1984

This enjoyable quote comes from an essay about the "rules" of writing she published on her official web site, http://www.ursulakleguin.com/:

"As for 'Write what you know,' I was regularly told this as a beginner. I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them. I got my knowledge of them, as I got whatever knowledge I have of the hearts and minds of human beings, through imagination working on observation. Like any other novelist. All this rule needs is a good definition of 'know.'" ~ Ursula K. Le Guin from On Rules of Writing, or, Riffing on Rechy

Le Guin generously offers several articles about the writing process on her web site, under a section called About Writing, well worth reading by authors of all types of fiction. You can also read a Biographical Sketch.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Of the five essay collections by Ursula K. Le Guin I've discussed or cited on this blog, for overall content and usefulness to the writer, I recommend Steering the Craft and The Wave in the Mind the most; but anything written by Le Guin, fiction or nonfiction, in any genre, or on any topic, always stimulates and enlightens.

To read my other articles including selected quotes and information about Ursula K. Le Guin's essay collections, please click on her name in the labels below this post.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Carson McCullers - Flowering Dream

Carson McCullers (1917-1967) published her first short story at the age of nineteen, and her first novel, the highly acclaimed The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, at the age of twenty-three. These are excerpts of some of her thoughts on writing, expressed in The Flowering Dream: Notes on Writing, first published by Esquire in 1959:

"The dimensions of a work of art are seldom realized by the author until the work is accomplished. It is like a flowering dream. Ideas grow, budding silently, and there are a thousand illuminations coming day by day as the work progresses. A seed grows in writing as in nature. The seed of the idea is developed by both labor and the unconscious, and the struggle that goes on between them." ~ Carson McCullers

"I understand only particles. I understand the characters, but the novel itself is not in focus. The focus comes at random moments which no one can understand, least of all the author. For me, they usually follow great effort. To me, these illuminations are the grace of labor. All of my work has happened this way. It is at once the hazard and the beauty that a writer has to depend on such illuminations. After months of confusion and labor, when the idea has flowered, the collusion is Divine. It always comes from the subconscious and cannot be controlled." ~ Carson McCullers

"A writer's main asset is intuition; too many facts impede intuition. A writer needs to know so many things, but there are so many things he doesn't need to know -- he needs to know human things even if they aren't "wholesome," as they call it... I become the characters I write. I am so immersed in them that their motives are my own." ~ Carson McCullers

"It is only with imagination and reality that you get to know the thing a novel requires. Reality alone has never been that important to me. A teacher once said that one should write about one's own back yard; and by this, I suppose, she meant one should write about the things that one knows most intimately. But what is more intimate than one's own imagination? The imagination combines memory with insight, combines reality with the dream." ~ Carson McCullers

"The writer by nature of his profession is a dreamer and a conscious dreamer. How, without love and the intuition that comes from love, can a human being place himself in the situation of another human being? He must imagine, and imagination takes humility, love, and great courage. How can you create a character without love and the struggle that goes with love?" ~ Carson McCullers

The quotes are excerpted from the essay, as published in The Mortgaged Heart (Houghton Mifflin, c1971, c2005). To fully appreciate Carson McCullers' ideas, they should be read in their complete context, so I highly recommend locating a copy of this book at your bookstore or local library.

I find her ideas particularly compelling, because they validate my methods and my contention that a true writer is an actor, inhabiting the characters she/he creates. I do not plan my work, but I think about it incessantly, imagining each scene as it progresses, breathing and living for each of my characters, letting them tell me what they will do next. Then, of course, comes all the revision, reliving each line, until you feel you've told your character's stories and all about their world in the best way you can, cutting out the repetition, revealing the core. I can honestly say, in my novels, I love all of my major characters, every one of them, with all of their flaws and their mistakes, and their great capacity for love. I am in that happy place where I am revisiting a novel-in-progress, and moving forward.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Carson McCullers - On Writers and Writing

I've been reading Carson McCullers' The Mortgaged Heart: Selected Writings (Houghton Mifflin, c1971, c2005), starting with a section under Essays and Articles titled: Writers and Writing. I devoured these essays and noted a few choice quotes:

"An observer should not criticize a work of art on the grounds that it lacks certain qualities that the artist himself never intended to include. The writer has the prerogative of limiting his own scope, of staking the boundaries of his own kingdom."
~ Carson McCullers from The Russian Realists and Southern Literature, 1941

About the sting of rejection:

"The function of the artist is to execute his own indigenous vision, and having done that, to keep faith with this vision... Once a creative writer is convinced of his own intentions, he must protect his work from alien persuasion. And it is often a solitary position. We are afraid when we feel ourselves alone. And there is another special fear that torments the creator when he is too long assailed. For the parallel function of a work of art is to be communicable. Of what value is a creation that cannot be shared? The vision that blazes in a madman's eye is valueless to us. So when the artist finds a creation rejected there is the fear that his own mind has retreated to a solitary uncommunicable state."
~ Carson McCullers from The Vision Shared, c1950

From a discussion about her play, A Member of the Wedding:

"... Any form of art can only develop by means of single mutations by individual creators. If only traditional conventions are used an art will die, and the widening of an art form is bound to seem strange at first, and awkward. Any growing thing must go through awkward stages. The creator who is misunderstood because of his breach of convention may say to himself, 'I seem strange to you, but anyway I am alive.' "
~ Carson McCullers from The Vision Shared, c1950

There is another wonderful essay: The Flowering Dream: Notes on Writing. I'll excerpt a bit from it next, but I highly recommend reading The Mortgaged Heart in its entirety, for these essays, as well as Carson McCullers' early stories, her first published story, a sampling of her later work, and the introductions written by her sister, and by Joyce Carol Oates.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Research and Story Starts

I've been working on revising a short short story, an experimental piece I've been required to cut from about 1,165 words to 1,000, to stay under the maximum word limit. It's been an unsatisfying 995. It's been 1,oo1. It's been 1,034, and 1,056. But, it has gotten stronger with each re-read. I've recombined dialogue into more meaningful units; dropped the unnecessary line, so the odd dialogue flows more naturally from the mouth of each of two characters, with the mystery and charisma of a play, and the added bonus of minimal narrative, characterizing for the reader how the speaker would say it, cluing them to the story's backstory and the speaker's motivation. I've improved the ending.

If it were to become a longer short story, I would pick back up a thread or two I chose to delete. I don't ordinarily like writing to length. I believe a story is the number of words required to tell it. However, this little story has benefited from a tighter focus.

It is a complete scene; but it is not a complete short story. In order to write it, I've had to research cerebral palsy, it's prevalence in twins, what spastic bilateral CP means, types of leg braces, and horse therapy. It all started with the words: Rita gainsaid walking... (I don't know why. There's more to the line, and the opening line keeps changing as I tweak it.) The story is still evolving. It will always be a short, and never a novel. I started it about a year ago, revised it once and abandoned it as an interesting kernel, and now, I'm polishing its potential for Glimmer Train's new category: Best Start, planning to gamble my $10.00 for the possibility of recognition.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Bargain Book Finds and Intriguing Reads

This is one of my every other weekends, when I work Saturday and Sunday, and then I work Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. When you work part-time, five days in a row feels like a long stretch. So what did I do Saturday evening, after leaving the busy and hectic library world? I went to a bookstore, browsed the shelves and tables with my husband, and bought two bargain books and Guitar World magazine. (The August 2009 issue has a lengthy Green Day article focusing on Billie Joe Armstrong's songwriting process, and his "working" collection of classic guitars.)

My first bargain book find is Carson McCullers's The Mortgaged Heart: Selected Writings, with an introduction by Joyce Carol Oates (Houghton Mifflin, c1971, c2005). I've owned Collected Stories of Carson McCullers (Houghton Mifflin, c1987) for many years, which also includes The Member of the Wedding, and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. I went through a time in high school, where I read most of everything she'd ever written. Mortgaged Heart includes her early and later short stories, essays and articles, her thoughts on writers and writing, and a selection of five poems. I count The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter among my favorite books of all time, and Carson McCullers as one of my favorite authors, but it's been so long since I've read her, I'd like to be reminded of why I was impressed. At $3.00, already bargain priced and discounted an additional 25%, this will be a great book to get me going.

My second $3.00 bargain is J. R. R. Tolkien's Roverandom (Houghton Mifflin, c1992, c1995, c1998), including a thorough introduction, definitions, and notes. I'd never heard of Roverandom. So far, I've only had a chance to read the first few scenes. Told much like a traditional fairytale, in appealing language with modern sensibilities, it begins with the words: Once upon a time...

Here's a quote from the back cover to give you some idea of what the fantasy is about, and why Tolkien wrote it: In 1925, four-year-old Michael Tolkien lost his beloved toy dog on the beach. To console him, his father, J.R.R. Tolkien, improvised a story about Rover, a real dog who is magically transformed into a toy and is forced to seek out the wizard who wronged him in order to be returned to normal. This charming tale, peopled by a sand-sorceror and a terrible dragon, by the king of the sea and the Man-in-the-Moon, went through several drafts over the years. Now, more than seventy years later, the adventures of Rover (rich in wit and wordplay) have been published for the first time... and illustrated with Tolkien's own delightful drawings.

Another book store find, from a few weeks ago, is an intriguing, dry, and challenging book. I found it in the writing and publication section, but it could properly be included in psychology, or language and linguistics. It's cataloged by the Library of Congress under the subject headings: Language and Languages - Philosophy, Metaphors, Concepts, and Truth. Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (University of Chicago Press, c2003) was first published in 1980, and updated by the authors with an afterword, in 2003. As I read more of the book, I'll post more about it. The authors propose and support the position that metaphors are not just a construct of language; metaphors are representative of the way humans think.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Pigs by Craig Hartglass

What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever gotten?

One thing I find really helpful when I'm stuck and nothing will come, is to play a piece of music that evokes the same feeling as the scene or section I'm stuck on. I'll play a song over and over, almost insanely so, until I am drowning in that feeling—and often that will be the secret passageway back into the story. ~ Craig Hartglass

You can read Craig Hartglass's full interview about his short story, Pigs, Issue #120, at One Story, and an engaging essay by Elliott Holt about why One Story published it.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

One Story
is a wonderful publication. A subscription gets you a new short story approximately every three weeks in your mailbox (your real mailbox- not your inbox!). I'm paraphrasing and borrowing this line from someone else's blog: Every three weeks you get a good short story, and sometimes a great short story. Actually, just like Glimmer Train, most of the stories are great; they make you think, impress you with the author's ability to weave a tale, or grab you with an emotion. Craig Hartglass's Pigs does all three and will leave you feeling satisfied.

Life is all about connection. It's great when a connection is made.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

When In Doubt

I've found six things to be helpful to me in continuing my fiction writing:

(1) Writing.

(2) Reading quality books about both writing technique and revision.

(3) Joining a workshop or finding other writers willing to read your work and give you kind, but honest feedback, so you know what is working, what may need more work, and whether what you thought you were describing is coming across to the reader.

(4) Re-reading scenes or chapters of pieces you’re working on, over and over, and revising, expanding, and contracting, at will, until you feel you've got it right.

(5) Listening to feedback, but only using what is helpful to achieve your own vision.

(6) Reading a variety of authors to expose yourself to all the possibilities in story structure, characterization, description, dialogue, and point-of-view.

Workshops are optional, but often, what they achieve, if you’ve found the right group, is to learn that you are on track and your work is appreciated. Much of the critique addresses technical matters, and every writer works to improve their craft. Even iconic writers like Joyce Carol Oates talk about asking readers to review their work prior to publication.

I wrote a post called Recommended Books on the Craft of Writing a while back, where I list and discuss sources I've found helpful in my journey to become a better writer. For Fantasy, SciFi or Speculative writers, I also wrote Writing Fantasy Fiction: A Short Bibliography.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Living the Dream: Cindy Pon

Here's another great Cindy Pon interview where she discusses her writing process, and her journey from idea to publication:

Cindy queried 121 agents before she found representation, and now her new novel is an amazing success. I wish Cindy all the best!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Interview: Fantasy Writer Cindy Pon

I read a great author interview at Headdesk for Writers. Creative A (AKA Mandy) interviews Cindy Pon about her just published first novel, Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia, a Young Adult fantasy set in ancient China. Cindy talks about her book and gives insight into her writing process: http://headdeskforwriters.blogspot.com/2009/04/10-questions-with-cindy-pon.html

Booklist Online, a prestigious book review source published by the American Library Association, named Silver Phoenix one of the Top Ten 2009 Fantasy and SF Novels for Youth: http://booklistonline.com/default.aspx?page=show_product&pid=3516193

This is an impressive debut!

Speculative writers will enjoy this statement at the top of the Booklist article: "Debut novels make a strong showing on this year’s roundup of the top 10 science fiction and fantasy titles for youth, all published in the past 12 months. Also included are the Newbery Medal winner and two Printz Honor Books, reinforcing speculative fiction’s continued status as one of the strongest genres in youth literature today." ~ Booklist Online (May 15, 2009)

Cindy is also an artist. She is working on a children's picture book, and a sequel to Silver Phoenix is scheduled for release by Greenwillow Books (Harper Collins).

You can learn more about Cindy Pon at her web site: http://cindypon.com/

Here's Cindy's About Page: http://cindypon.com/about/ where I've discovered we share some favorite authors and books!

Here's a link to illustrations from what will be a beautiful picture book. I love the bunny, the chick and the toad, and the quality of light: http://cindypon.com/picture-book/

Monday, May 18, 2009

Tehanu, Le Guin, and the Writing Process

I finished Tehanu the same day I started it. I felt there was more to the story, and now I know why. In the forward to Tales from Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin explains how she got from the "now" in Tehanu to the "now" in The Other Wind, and why "The Last Book of Earthsea" was not the last:

"At the end of the fourth book of Earthsea, Tehanu, the story had arrived at what I felt to be now. And, just as in the now of the so-called real world, I didn't know what would happen next. I could guess, foretell, fear, hope, but I didn't know.

Unable to continue Tehanu's story (because it hadn't happened yet) and foolishly assuming that the story of Ged and Tenar had reached its happily-ever-after, I gave the book a subtitle: 'The Last Book of Earthsea.'

O foolish writer. Now moves. Even in storytime, dreamtime, once-upon-a-time, now isn't then.

Seven or eight years after Tehanu was published, I was asked to write a story set in Earthsea. A mere glimpse of the place told me that things had been happening there while I wasn't looking. It was high time to go back and found out what was going on now.

I also wanted information on various things that had happened back then, before Ged and Tenar were born... In order to understand currrent events, I needed to do some historical research, to spend some time in the Archives of the Archipelago.

The way one does research into nonexistent history is to tell the story and find out what happened. I believe this isn't very different from what historians in the so-called real world do. Even if we are present at some historic event, do we comprehend it -- can we even remember it -- until we can tell it as a story? ...

When you construct or reconstruct a world that never existed, a wholly fictional history, the research is of a somewhat different order, but the basic impulse and techniques are much the same. You look at what happens and try to see why it happens, you listen to what the people there tell you and watch what they do, you think about it seriously and you try to tell it honestly, so that the story will have weight and make sense...

So these are reports of my explorations and discoveries: tales from Earthsea for those who have liked or think they might like the place, and who are willing to accept these hypotheses: things change: authors and wizards are not always to be trusted: nobody can explain a dragon." ~ Ursula K. Le Guin, from "Foreward" in Tales from Earthsea (Harcourt, c2001)

I love reading Le Guin's thoughts on writing and her generosity in sharing the way her mind works as she tells her stories. Being one of those writers who writes to find out what will happen next, I identify with the concepts she expresses, and I wanted to share this excerpt on how she constructs a story world.

My first entry about Tehanu is here: http://anniekingwrites.blogspot.com/2009/05/tehanu-last-book-of-earthsea.html

Monday, May 11, 2009

My Secret Crush

I’m in love with Billie Joe Armstrong. There, I’ve said it. Not the man, I don’t know the man, but the man he represents in my mind. I’ve written about him before, though I kept his identity hidden.

If you don’t know his music, you may remember the uncharacteristic ballad, The Time of Your Life, also known as Good Riddance, written by Armstrong and performed by Green Day, played at the end of the closing credits for the final performance of the TV show, Seinfeld. Or you may know him from the successful rock opera album, American Idiot. He has been my inspiration for three-novels-in-progress (one realistic and two speculative fantasy), one lengthy short story, one play, and what I call a “character study” poem.

How can all of these men have black hair and green eyes? How can they all be strong, flawed, yet achingly vulnerable? How can they all share the same face, and yet have different back stories, different patterns of speech, and different ways of functioning and moving about in this world (well, the worlds of their stories). How can they all have the body of another man who shall remain nameless, because I can’t remember his name, the athletic, muscled body of a gymnast (unlike the real man, I suspect, though during the American Idiot tour, at 33 years old, Billie Joe Armstrong, lean and dynamic, was in his prime; and at 37, he's fit for the next). How can they all have a voice, diction, and mannerisms, completely different from the real man (except when he’s performing on a stage)?

My husband and I became interested in Green Day, after hearing the song, and then the rock opera theme album, American Idiot, during some of the worst days of the Bush administration (weren’t they all the worst days?) after 9-11 and the “war” had been declared. We never listened to Green Day in 1994, when they became famous for songs such as Basket Case and Longview and When I Come Around, focusing on teenage angst. We had never heard of them, and had nothing in common with them, or so we would have thought, those “boys” of 21 and 22 years old, and in 1994, I was busy giving birth to my son, then nursing him through traction and then surgery for dislocated hips. In 1994, what did we know about “dookie” except for changing diapers?

Grammy Award, Best Alternative Performance, 1994

August 26th, 2005, right after Hurricane Katrina buzzed South Florida with a near miss (and no one knew yet the horrors it would cause New Orleans), to celebrate our wedding anniversary, my husband and I saw Green Day perform at a terrible venue, then called The Bank Atlantic Center (coincidentally the same venue where we heard Barack Obama speak while he was running for president, generating the same energy as a rock concert). After Katrina, we were one of the lucky ones, with power and air conditioning. The roads were clear, and a friend without electricity came to our house to stay with our son, then eleven years old.

My husband and I sat in our rafter seats, as far from the stage as a body could get, trading a pair of Leica binoculars, when we both became mesmerized, energized, couldn’t stay in one place, singing the words at full volume, as Billie Joe Armstrong took control of the audience. (If you’ve ever seen the DVD, Bullet in A Bible, of Green Day’s concert at Milton Keynes in England, performing in front of 130,000 faithful fans, you’ll know what I mean.) And, I became aware, that this man, for a man, is near as small as me. (By some accounts he is 5’4’’ tall and I am 4’10”, about the height of his wife.) He stood on boxes, he jumped, he gyrated, he ran across the stage, challenging the apron, and he admonished the hungry audience to roar.

Because of the hurricane, the audience was down by a half, but he, and Mike Dirnt (Mike Pritchard) the bassist, and Tre Cool (Frank Edwin Wright), the drummer, friends and band members since they were twelve and thirteen, played as if they were at Milton Keynes. And that is what I have read about them. From the time they were teens, playing to an audience of five, or fifty, or twenty-five, they played their hearts out, like the Beatles at Shea Stadium. And that is what we witnessed, what impressed us, that these men gave their performance 6,000%, and they wanted to connect with their audience, and give them the best experience they could possibly share.

For American Idiot, Billie Joe Armstrong wrote Wake Me Up When September Ends, about his father dying when he was ten years old. So, even though Green Day allowed a video of the song to become an emblem for loved ones separated by the Iraq War, don’t you believe that when you hear Armstrong sing the song. He’s singing for his father, he’s singing for himself. When you know that, and hear it, you can feel it in his voice, you can see it in his face. He writes virtually all of Green Day’s songs, and just like my poems, most of his songs are inspired by autobiography, even if the details change in the rendering.

Do I have anything in common with the details of his life? No. I’ve never been on drugs. I don't smoke. I’ve never been an alcoholic and gone to rehab. I’ve never been a young child who lost a parent. I don’t have a single tattoo. I’ve never been the youngest of six siblings (though I am the 4th of 5). I’ve never been a pop punk rock star. Can I relate to the emotions he portrays in his music?: Self-Doubt, Disillusionment with Government, The Desire for Fulfillment, Love, Anxiety, Hope, Knowing You’re On the Cusp of Something Grand but It Just Hasn’t Happened Yet.

Well, it happened in 2004, for him and his group, with the release of American Idiot, when he won the Grammy for Best Rock Album, and in 2005, Record of the Year, for Boulevard of Broken Dreams. And now they have a new album coming out in May 2009: 21st Century Breakdown, reviewed favorably by Rolling Stone. I hope he succeeds with this album, and in the tour that accompanies it, or I will personally “ache” for him. (Armstrong, and his bassist, Mike Dirnt, came from hardship and poverty, and for their perseverance, I can also admire the members of Green Day.)

One of my favorite Armstrong songs appears on Warning (Reprise, 2004), a lesser known album with acoustic influences, panned by some of his punk rock fans. The song is called Waiting, and there is an upbeat video to match it. Amazingly, the song is a cross between Mary Tyler Moore’s optimism in the intro to her ancient show where she lands a job at a TV station and throws her hat in the air, and Petula Clark’s performance of the song, Downtown. And here is an excerpt of his song: “I’ve been, waiting a long time, for this moment to come. I’m destined for anything…at all... Downtown, lights will be shining, on me like a new diamond, ring out under the midnight hour. I’m so much closer than I have ever known…Good luck, you’re gonna need it, where I’m going, if I get there at all.” The words are simple. It’s the melody, Armstrong’s singing voice, the bass and drum line, and the pure passion, that makes the song live.

Above all, I relate to the emotion in Billie Joe Armstrong’s songs and in his voice when he sings them, accessible, energetic, and lyrical. In 2006, at a pre-game show in New Orleans to officially re-open the Lousiana Superdome, Armstrong had the pleasure (I’m sure he would term it in this way, though I do not know him) to share a stage with Bono of U2, doing a duet with Bono of The Saints Come Marching, a single for Music Rising to benefit musicians in New Orleans.

When he is quoted, Armstrong doesn’t have Bono’s silver tongue, and it is obvious he is not as well read. He dropped out of high school, and by all accounts, never sought a higher education. But you can’t do what he does without being intelligent. I sometimes wonder how his lyrics would soar, if he’d ever expanded his horizons, but what anyone can relate to is what he’s been through in his life. Who hasn’t experienced a sense of loss and betrayal of trust? Who hasn’t wished for something more?

Armstrong has been married to his wife, Adrienne, for fifteen years. The day after they married, they found out they were pregnant with their first son, born just a year younger than my son, in 1995. A few years ago, when his son was twelve, Armstrong was quoted (in an article I can’t locate) as saying, in effect, what can his son possibly do to rebel, considering he’s the father. (By all accounts, Armstrong is a good father, but his point was, I dropped out of school, I’ve done the drugs, I've got the tattoos and the crazy hair…)

Armstrong may not be the perfect role model for my son. But he is a role model for me: giving 6,000 %, believing in yourself, learning from your mistakes, and sharing your life in ways that matter. It’s not his performance at the live concert I saw that inspires me to write the characters that look like him. It’s not reading about his life. I wrote my first story involving a character with his face after looking into his eyes and expressive (air brushed) face on this cover of Rolling Stone:

Rolling Stone, Issue 987, November 17, 2005

If I get stuck writing a story involving characters inspired by Armstrong, I just look at his image on my opening computer screen, and gaze into those green eyes. I may not know what my character will do next; but I know how my character is feeling, and how my female lead feels about him.

Of the three novels-in-progress, featuring a variation on the themes of alienation, indomitable spirit, and the redeeming power of relationships, the one that will be published is the one I finish first (so that I’ll just have to give the male character a radical makeover in the novel I finish second). He is not the only main character; there is always a flawed and innately powerful young woman, equally challenged by potentially crippling circumstance. I know the story I finish first will be good because I won’t submit a completed manuscript to any publisher or agent until I’ve given the book my 6,000%.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Inhabiting a Role

I've been thinking about the actors in the new Star Trek movie, and about William Shatner "inhabiting" his role as Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek series (See my May 8th capsule review). The actors in the new movie successfully capture the spirit of the established characters they are portraying, instantly convincing the audience, despite the physical differences, that they are indeed Chekhov, or Uhura, or Scotty, or Spock; yet, they each carry their own nuances. They are not clones, or automatons; they are people. They inhabit their roles.

I'm reminded of one of the major assignments in the Fiction writing class I took a little over a year ago. We were each assigned to write a chapter in a collective novel. The class discussed and tossed around a few ideas, and one poor sap volunteered to write the first chapter. He created a wonderful main character, an assortment of possible secondary characters, and enough of a setting, a back story, and a premise, for the next writer to continue the thread, the tone, and the characterization the first writer had established.

Then, came the next writer, and the next writer, and then came me. For those first four chapters, and the one that followed, though the technical skills of the writers varied, we each built on what came before, and I was amazed at how exhilarating it was to write in the voice and point of view of characters I never would have dreamed of, in a scenario I never would have considered, and it was fun!

At some point the story took a turn, and then it took a couple more turns, but for those of us who stuck to the original premise, I know, at least for me, I learned something about writing, and collaboration, and the unique feeling that I could inhabit a universe not of my own making (which is a different feeling from creating your own characters, who, in some way shape or form, represent some aspect of yourself- of course, I'm sure I brought some of myself to these characters, too).

Maybe it was like that for the actors in Star Trek: The New Movie. They were not the first actors to inhabit those roles, but inhabit them, they do, playing on the mannerisms and the vocal quirks of the original actors, but not stifled by them.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Jane Yolen and Sister Emily

Here's a quote from Jane Yolen in her Afterword to Sister Emily's Lightship and Other Stories (Tor, c2000):

"Writers are peculiar archaeologists. We gather the backward and forward remnants of our own and others' histories, mining the final part of that word: histories.

What we find there is always a surprise.

But there is a secret, a magical spell, that succcessful writers know---and I shall impart that to you now.


The magic word is: BIC.

That's right.


Butt In Chair.

There is no other single thing that is as helpful to a writer. William Faulkner understood this well when he said, 'I write only when I'm inspired. Fortunately I'm inspired at nine o'clock every morning.'


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Sister Emily's Lightship is a wonderful collection of 28 short stories, ranging from fantasy to science fiction to fairy tale redactions (fairy tale adaptations told from a different point of view, altering the original tale). In the title story, which won the 1998 Nebula for short fiction, Yolen supposes what could occur if Emily Dickinson encountered an alien:

Alien: "Tell me what it is you do in this place."

She knew this was not an idle question. She chose her answer with care. "I tell the truth," she said. "But I tell it slant."

"Ah..." There was an odd light in the gray creature's eyes. "A poet."

It turns out the alien is also a poet! And I love this concept, that she tells the truth, but she tells it slant; what we all do, I believe, when we write our carefully constructed poetry and fiction.

These are lines from the Emily Dickinson poem that Jane Yolen credits with her inspiration for the story:

I lost a World--the other day.
Has Anybody found?
You'll know it by the Row of Stars
Around its forehead bound.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Le Guin on Reading Aloud

And Other Choice Quotes from essays collected in The Wave in the Mind (Shambhala, c2004):

"Prose rhythm is made up of many elements, repetitions of sounds, parallels in syntax and construction, patterns of imagery, recurrences of mood... It is my strong belief that all prose worth reading is worth reading aloud, and that the rhythms we catch clearly in reading aloud, we also catch unconsciously when reading in silence." ~ Ursula K. Le Guin from "Stress-Rhythm in Poetry and Prose"

"There are no rules for finding and feeling the rhythm of prose. It is a gift, but it is also a learnable skill-- learned by practice. Probably the best practice is reading out loud... The only rule... I know is: listen to what you are reading (or writing) as closely as you can, listen for its beat, and follow your own ear. There is no right way. The way that sounds right to you is the way." ~ Ursula K. Le Guin from "Stress-Rhythm in Poetry and Prose"

"Words, whether in poetry or in prose, are as physical as paint and stone, as much a matter of voice and ear as music, as bodily as dancing... To reduce the aesthetic value of a narrative to the ideas it expresses, to its "meaning," is a drastic impoverishment. The map is not the landscape." ~ Ursula K. Le Guin from "Collectors, Rhymesters, and Drummers"

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I've realized for many years, when I pick up a good book or I'm selecting a good book to read, from the first page, the author's rhythm either carries me, or it doesn't, and the author teaches me how to read her/his work. I love to settle into the rhythm of an author I can enjoy. Along with imagery, characterization, plot, and meaning, the sound of a work appeals to me, and I strive for that achievement in my own fiction writing. Le Guin is a champion of the sound and rhythm of a work, being as important an element as any; in fact, integral to the work, and I agree.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Writers: On Rhythm and Sound and LOTR

Virginia Woolf:

"Style is a very simple matter, it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can't use the wrong words.... This is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing... one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it."

~ From a letter to Vita Sackville-West, March 16, 1926

Ursula K. LeGuin:

"What is this rhythm Woolf talks about? Prose scrupulously avoids any clear regular beat or recurrent cadence. Are there, then, deeply syncopated patterns of stress? Or does the rhythm occur in and among the sentences-- in the syntax, linkage, paragraphing? Is that why punctuation is so important to prose...? Or is prose narrative rhythm established as well in even longer phrases and larger structures, in the occurrence of events and recurrence of themes in the story, the linkage and counterpoint of plot and chapter? ~ All of these, I think. There are a whole lot of rhythms going in a well-written novel. Together, in their counterpoint and syncopation and union, they make the rhythm of that novel, which is unlike any other."

~ From "Collectors, Rhymesters, and Drummers" in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (Shambhala, c2004)

"Since I had three children, I've read Toklien's Trilogy aloud three times. It's a wonderful book to read aloud or (concensus by the children) listen to. Even when the sentences are long, their flow is perfectly clear, and follows the breath; punctuation comes just where you need to pause; the cadences are graceful and inevitable. Like Dickens and Virginia Woolf, Tolkien must have heard what he wrote. The narrative prose of such novelists is like poetry in that it wants the living voice to speak it, to find its full beauty and power, its subtle music, its rhythmic vitality."

~ From "Rhythmic Patterns in The Lord of the Rings" in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (Shambhala, c2004)

"Reading is performance. The reader-- the child under the blanket with a flashlight, the woman at the kitchen table, the man at the library desk-- performs the work. The performance is silent. The readers hear the sounds of the words and the beat of the sentences only in their inner ear. Silent drummers on noiseless drums. An amazing performance in an amazing theater."

~ From "Collectors, Rhymesters, and Drummers" in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (Shambhala, c2004)

"The sound of the language is where it all begins and what it all comes back to. The basic elements of language are physical: the noise words make and the rhythm of their relationships. This is just as true of written prose as it is of poetry, though the sound-effects of prose are usually subtle and always irregular."

~ from "The Sound of Your Writing" in Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing (Eighth Mountain Press, c1998)

"A good reader has a mind's ear. Though we read most of our narratives in silence, a keen inner ear does hear them. Dull, choppy, droning, jerky, feeble: these are all faults in the sound of prose, though we may not know we hear them as we read. Lively, well-paced, flowing, strong, beautiful: these are all qualities of the sound of prose, and we rejoice in them as we read. And so good writers train their mind's ear to listen to their own prose -- to hear as they write."

~ from "The Sound of Your Writing" in Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing (Eighth Mountain Press, c1998)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The Wave in the Mind is the title Ursula K. Le Guin gave to her collection of essays published in 2004. The title is a tribute to Virginia Woolf, who first talked of it, the rhythm that takes hold of the writer and carries a reader through a work of fiction. Joyce Carol Oates quoted the same passage in The Faith of a Writer, her collection of essays published in 2003. Both Le Guin and Oates expand upon their own ideas in response to the concept, and I highly recommend both of their essay collections.

Virginia Woolf is not the first writer to feel it, but she may be the first writer to discover and articulate it, this process that informs a writer's work and makes it unique. I've written before of how I start a work with the sound and rhythm of a first sentence. I know when I edit a work, that a word, sentence, or phrase removed or added, must be in balance with the whole. A wave in the mind- when a piece works, you know it- words do fall into place, and the sound of them is a counterplay.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Writers: On Revision

Joyce Carol Oates:

"Editors are sometimes surprised that I entirely rewrite pieces that have been accepted for publication. Often I surprise myself, I exasperate and frustrate myself, by entirely rewriting chapters of novels that had seemed quite acceptable the previous day; and, on later occasions, rewriting these. For always I feel that I have new ideas, always there seems to me more felicitous ways of expressing what I want to say." ~ Quote from The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art (Ecco, c2003)

Raymond Carver:

“There’s not much that I like better than to take a story that I’ve had around the house for a while and work it over again. It’s the same with the poems I write. I’m in no hurry to send something off just after I write it, and I sometimes keep it around the house for months doing this or that to it, taking this out and putting that in. It doesn’t take that long to do the first draft of the story, that usually happens in one sitting, but it does take a while to do the various versions of the story. I’ve done as many as twenty or thirty drafts of a story. Never less than ten or twelve drafts…Things like this should hearten every writer whose first drafts are dreadful, like mine are.” ~ Quote from The Making of A Story (Norton, c2007)

Bernard Malamud:

“First drafts are for learning what your novel or story is about. Revision is working with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to reform it….The first draft is the most uncertain—where you need the guts, the ability to accept the imperfect until it is better. Revision is one of the true pleasure of writing.” ~ from The Making of A Story

William Faulkner:

“All of us have failed to match our dream of perfection. I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible. If I could write all my work again, I’m convinced I could do it better. This is the healthiest condition for an artist.” ~ from The Making of A Story

Joyce Carol Oates:

"My method is one of continuous revision; while writing a long novel, every day I loop back to the earlier sections, to rewrite, in order to maintain a consistent, fluid voice; when I write the final two to three chapters of a novel, I write them simultaneously with the rewriting of the opening of the novel, so that, ideally at least, the novel is like a river uniformly flowing, each passage concurrent with all the others." ~ from The Faith of a Writer

I read Joyce Carol Oate's novella, I Close My Door Upon Myself, this evening, and the book embodies this concept of a river uniformly flowing- I could not put it down. I can identify with the ideas these writers express. When I write, I write in one sitting the initial draft of a scene, a chapter, or an entire short story, and then I go back to revise, interminably, until all the elements synthesize. Moments, hours, days later, when I think I have finished, a word, a phrase, or an idea will present itself that must be added, and then the work begins all over, re-reading, re-shaping, adding and deleting, and searching for this uniformity of sound and spirit. (For me, the auditory, the sound and rhythm of a work, is as important an element as any, in prose as much as poetry.)

Here's another great quote from Joyce Carol Oates, in her collection of essays that make up The Faith of A Writer:

"Why certain individuals appear to devote their lives to the phenomenon of interpreting experience in terms of structure, and of language, must remain a mystery. It is not an alternative to life, still less an escape from life, it is life: yet overlaid with a peculiar sort of luminosity, as if one were, and were not, fully inhabiting the present tense."

I've read every page of the library copy of The Faith of A Writer, "sticky" noting all the amazing passages. My personal copy of the book is on it's way to me, and should be delivered by tomorrow.

Here's a link to an article I wrote a while back, about my current writing process, and some of the methods I use for revision: http://anniekingwrites.blogspot.com/2008/09/how-i-write.html

Sunday, March 22, 2009

I Spoke With Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates. If I were a man, I'd be in love with her. At 70, she is beautiful, gracious, and authentic. I had the pleasure of hearing her speak yesterday. She read from her newest collection of short stories, Dear Husband, (Harper Collins, c2009). It was a transformative experience, watching the writer's mind at work as she used expressive hands, graceful wrists and long fingers to delineate the rhythm and tone of her words as she spoke them, convincing me my theory is correct: that all good writers are actors, even though most writers have never acted on a stage.

Oates spoke at LitLive, a Day of Literary Feasts, in a large auditorium 3/4 filled, bemusedly, with people mostly over the age of fifty. (I'm being generous, mostly over the age of sixty.) It was not intended to be a performance; it was a reading. Oates spoke about her writing and her writing process for about ten minutes, and then, in a pleasant, modulated, melodic voice she communicated the personality of her first person, present tense narrator in the story, "Suicide by Fitness Center," and her hands, during particularly complicated sentences, illustrated the rhythm in a way that I suspect was unconscious. At one point, a character touches their forehead, and so does Joyce Carol Oates.

What I noted most as she read the humorous story was the intertwining of events with the character's interior thoughts, what she thinks about the people at the fitness center, which is how the reader gets to know the narrator and her foibles, and Oates use of specific detail to make the fitness center, and the characters live in the reader's mind.

Without reading the story yet (I own the book now, and I'll get to that later), from hearing selections from it (she didn't read it in its entirety) this is what I remember: Oates focused on the locale of the fitness center, focused in on the fitness center itself, describes it a bit, the employees, and the people who go there, focuses again on the place, and then builds the story around the place, the events, the people, all filtered through the first person narrator.

Later, in the brief question and answer session, she said the story is in the digression, not in the five events that happen in "Death by Fitness Center." The story's genesis was a real fitness center, that she and her husband used to go to. She also said the story was even more relevant in the waning days of the Bush administration (not meaning to get political, she said), comparing the Bush administration to the darkest middle ages, in a way that made the audience laugh; and that in an Obama administration, where there is more hope, some of the references will lose their relevance.

On a scrap of paper I happened to have in my purse, I scribbled down her words of wisdom about writing, which I paraphrase and consolidate here: Writing is a lonely process. Writing is a sisterhood and brotherhood. Writing doesn't get easier, no matter how long you do it. It is a challenge to find a period of time to direct your thoughts and directly channel them into your work. She believes "writer's block" is really too many thoughts coming in (that conflict with your thoughts about your story).

In the question and answer period, she said this about her writing: She always knows where she is going. She always knows the first line and the last line, before she begins to write; that for her, the first line, the title, and the last line form a triangular relationship. I wish so much, she'd had time to expound upon that concept.

I bought the book, Dear Husband, and a copy of my favorite of her four Young Adult novels: After the Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread my Wings, and Flew Away. I stood in line for my autographs, wondering what I would say to her, knowing what I wanted to ask. I handed her the books, tongue-tied, and gave her my name. "What do you do?" she asked me. This was my opening to speak. I told her, and I asked her my question, a follow-up to what she had said. "Always knowing the last line. Is that true of your novels, as well as your short stories?" She said that it was, and as she also said during the questions and answers, that is her method, and there are other writers like D. H. Lawrence who write without knowing their ending.

Joyce Carol Oates' husband died last year. She has a novel, and the story collection published this year, and many more writing projects in the works. I'm going to post more about her, links to recent articles profiling her life, links to relevant web sites, and my assessment of a book she published on writing in 2003, that somehow escaped my search for meaningful guides, maybe because it was cataloged as biography.

I am still in awe. I got to hear her voice, and speak with a writing icon, and I found her to be amazing, and ageless. In her photographs, she looks somewhat scary. In 3-D, she is an engaging heroine, and comes across as a woman in her fifties. Did you know she grew up in poverty and her first eight years of school were in a one room school house in upstate New York? Before she learned to read in first grade at the age of six, she wrote her first books, by telling the story in pictures.

The book I hold in my hands, Dear Husband, she touched with her hands, and autographed. I didn't know until I got back to work yesterday, the volume will not be sold in book stores until March 31st, so I own it ten days early, on my son's fifteenth birthday. When she earns the Pulitzer Prize, I will smile, knowing I looked into her eyes. I'm smiling now.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Odes to Spring - Favorite e.e. cummings Poems

Two of my favorite e.e. cummings poems are "Spring Is Like a Perhaps Hand" and "What if a Much of a Which of a Wind." I used to own a volume of cummings poetry, but I can't locate it. I checked all of my anthologies, and I was amazed to find these two poems are not included, so I searched online so I could copy them here. I was reminded of them because I recently read an engaging poem about Spring, and though they are completely different, I thought of these:

Spring is like a perhaps hand

Spring is like a perhaps hand
(which comes carefully
out of Nowhere) arranging
a window, into which people look (while
people stare
arranging and changing placing
carefully there a strange
thing and a known thing here) and

changing everything carefully

spring is like a perhaps
Hand in a window
(carefully to
and from moving New and
Old things, while
people stare carefully
moving a perhaps
fraction of flower here placing
an inch of air there) and

without breaking anything.

e.e. cummings

what if a much of a which of a wind

what if a much of a which of a wind
gives the truth to summer's lie;
bloodies with dizzying leaves the sun
and yanks immortal stars awry?
Blow king to beggar and queen to seem
(blow friend to fiend: blow space to time)
-when skies are hanged and oceans drowned,
the single secret will still be man

what if a keen of a lean wind flays
screaming hills with sleet and snow:
strangles valleys by ropes of thing
and stifles forests in white ago?
Blow hope to terror; blow seeing to blind
(blow pity to envy and soul to mind)
-whose hearts are mountains, roots are trees,
it's they shall cry hello to the spring

what if a dawn of a doom of a dream
bites this universe in two,
peels forever out of his grave
and sprinkles nowhere with me and you?
Blow soon to never and never to twice
(blow life to isn't: blow death to was)
-all nothing's only our hugest home;
the most who die, the more we live

e.e. cummings

I first read e.e. cummings, these two poems, and a few others, when I was fifteen. I was enthralled with his use of language, his boldness in arranging the words on the page, instructing the reader how he wanted his words to be read. Cummings along with William Carlos Williams, and later Diane Wakoski, taught me how to use language in a poem to its best effect, with its own internal logic, truly a free verse.

This is one of many sites, where you can read a brief biography, and a selection of cumming's poems: http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/eecummings/