Thinking poetically

In December of 2007, I had a period of frustration early in Advent, facing the tension between holiday chores and holiday expectations. I could have journalled or blogged about the feeling, at some length. Instead, I condensed it into 5 lines and a title:

Still waiting…

Advent sees me clean my whole house,
sifting through the year’s detritus
to reach a new beginning. Children grouse,
pets flee or hide, but Christmas hopes unite us:

Hark, do we yet hear angels singing?
Why do poets choose poetry, and what does this have to teach writers of prose? Poetry is, in general, both a more intense and a less bounded form of writing. By that, I mean that a poem can, at the same time, evoke strong feelings or memories while still leaving interpretation open to the reader. Indeed, sometimes the intensity comes exactly because, however specific the details, something about the setting or description allows for multiple interpretations and thus connection with people in varying situations.

As a prose writer, I struggle against the tendency to over-explain. I need to remember the lessons my poetry can teach me.

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What assumptions are you making without letting me know?

I got into an interesting correspondence conversation with a friend-of-a-friend after my last post, on the importance of accuracy even in tangential details. In the course of a discussion of how much “factual” leeway one should grant writers of fantasy, I made the statement that the default assumption by readers about life, the universe and everything in any fantasy (or scifi) story is the norm for their own world and culture. The points that differ are—must be—spelled out in the story.

The more I thought about that rule, the more I realized how true this holds for any other kind of writing as well. That also means the author needs to be aware of the range of norms for possible readers: not only in genre fiction but also for literary fiction and all kinds of nonfiction. Because the default condition is that anything not specified as differing from assumed norms will follow those norms, you need to recognize when your assumed norm is not that of the majority of your target readers.

But sometimes YOUR default is not that of your readers. If you live in the US Midwest and your writing is set in, say, a Central European or South Asian country, your readers have a clue that laws, culture, even climate may be very different from what they’re used to. But if you’re telling a story from the point of view of a South Asian immigrant living in a small Midwestern town, you’ll need to find ways to draw the readers’ attention to the differences between the norms of the native land and the immigrant’s new home.

In general, when the point of your story or article depends on a specific aspect of the setting’s culture, climate or some other location-specific attribute, you’d better describe that attribute.

Why do I even need to mention this? Shouldn’DSC_0005

t it be obvious? In fact, the concept is—but the difficulty lies in recognizing where the reality you’ve assumed differs from the default conditions your readers expect.

The important assumed conditions will also vary with what you’re writing. Fiction genres have very different settings and needs, of course, but different assumptions apply to various nonfiction topics as well.

An article on cosmetic formulation, for instance, can reasonably take for granted that the reader understands basic organic chemistry—but if the author needs to refer to how the olfactory system works, that should be explained, at least in brief. If the audience is neurologists, on the other hand, they might need a review of the standard ingredient categories in, say, a perfumed lotion.

When in doubt about your own ability to spot your unfounded assumptions that “everyone knows this,” ask a friend to read what you’ve written—and for preference, one less familiar with your subject.

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The importance of being accurate

As writers, the last thing we want to do is pop the complex bubble of unreality that makes up the story enveloping our readers. We never want to dump them abruptly back onto the hard, uneven sidewalk of real life because they’re mentally shouting, “That couldn’t be!”

Alas, the reader’s acceptance of a story’s reality can be just as evanescent as those shimmery soap bubbles we blew as children, where the smallest flaw or touch destroys the entire sphere in an instant. You need to realize that your readers will come from many backgrounds and have expertise in many more areas than you have. A detail-in-passing that you wrote off the top of your head and forgot may be a major, story-wrecking flaw in the eye of a reader.

How do I know this? Because even though I love the Lord of the Rings trilogy, every time I come to the part where the Fellowship has left Lothlorien and Sam Gamgee is trying to work out how long they were there, I cringe.

Yes, the moon can rise during the day.

He invokes a sound concept of time-telling: that they seemed to have been there barely a week or so, and yet the exact same moon phase greeted them their first night on the trail again, meaning at least a month had passed. But in describing the moon’s phase, Tolkien made Sam say that a moon “as thin as a nail-paring” had “popped up” in the evening sky. That’s the glaring mistake for me.

It’s all too easy to equate moonrise with nighttime, yet even very slight thought will remind us that we often see a waxing or waning moon in the morning or afternoon sky. Only the full moon belongs to the overnight hours alone—and in summer, long days can have even a full moon rising in the twilight and being overtaken by predawn light before it sets. 

The moon’s phases relate to the sun, with a full moon opposite the sun and the new moon very close indeed—so close that perfect alignment gives a solar eclipse somewhere on earth. Moonrise creeps about 50 minutes earlier daily, meaning the moon slowly gets further away from its conjunction with the sun, moving from new moon to full, and then circles back again from full to new.

Most of us learn this in an earth science course sometime during the middle school-to-college period—and many promptly forget it again after the final exam. But I grew up with a sailor father who understands celestial navigation. He started teaching me, and then my brother, about the relative motions and positions of moon and stars as soon as we were old enough to be away after dark. I coasted through a college astronomy course on what I’d learned from my father, reinforced by an eighth grade earth science course.

So my understanding of lunar phases goes nearly bone-deep. I don’t have to think about what I’ve read to know something is wrong. And what Tolkien got wrong is position and timing: the sliver of new moon FOLLOWS the sun. It doesn’t “pop up” in the evening sky because it rises in the east—it would be creeping up just before or after sunrise. So Tolkien should have had Sam (a country-wise hobbit who surely would have known better) say—and a savvy editor should have suggested to the author—that the slender moon was “hanging low” in the western sky.

What does this mean for our writing? It tells us that carefully chosen first readers, meticulous editors—and even hired fact-checkers—can be invaluable to our work, especially if our writing touches on subjects outside our core expertise. There’s good reason for those long paragraphs thanking all sorts of people for help with background information about a place, occupation, or portion of history that the author has included in the story.

And even with all that help, you’ll want to hope that the Force is with you, accuracy-wise, or you’ll still miss something that will be an obvious error to someone else. Which explains in a nutshell the many “all remaining mistakes are my own” statements at the end of authors’ lists thanking everyone who helped with the product.

Some authors even go further and invite readers to let them know about any mistakes so future editions can be corrected. I rather like that approach—it tells readers you really care, even if you did miss something despite all your editorial reads.

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Guerrilla writing … or how to get back into the habit

Until recently, I’d posted nothing here for months—all of the last 6 months of 2012, really. My pets column hit an all-time low for posts per week, month and year from spring through summer. And I’d done nearly no new work on fiction writing during the whole of 2012. I flogged myself to produce enough verbiage to fill a newsletter for my husband’s law firm every month, though not always in the target week.

I began to wonder whether I really deserved to call myself a writer after all. The word-drought had started with two of our 4 ferrets succumbing to old age early in the year (January and March). Losing our elderly dog, Crystal, in September did not help, either.

The problem with getting out of the habit of writing? All the things that move in to fill up the time you used to use for writing during the days/weeks/months you haven’t been writing.

So what can you do to get back into writing if you’ve had a hiatus, however short or long? One approach that works for me is to trick myself into it. I may not think I have time to just write, but I can usually steal ten minutes here, five minutes there, at least enough to jot down a sentence or two at a time.

Belonging to a writers group has also helped me. Getting together with friends twice a month to talk about writing keeps me accountable in the gentlest possible way. But the one or two short writing exercises we do every meeting also kept me stringing words together in a small way even when I wrote next to nothing on my own.Image

When I decided to start fostering rescue dogs, the excitement of dealing with new dogs helped bring my pet writing back to life. I still didn’t always manage daily (or even weekly) posts if life got busy, and there have still been gaps, but more posts appeared during the past four months than during the preceding eight.

And over time, as I get back into the groove of writing for one venue, I find myself thinking about writing in general more often. I’ve restarted posting here occasionally, and may even get back to my children’s novels soon.

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Conflict can be a good thing

In real life, I think of myself as preferring to avoid conflict when I can, but conflict is the engine that drives story. As a writer, I need conflict—and if you write, you do too.

The thing is, I say “conflict” and you think action film shootout or chick flick heated argument over relationships—and then say, “but my story isn’t about that sort of brawling or whining.” So let’s look at what conflict can be, beyond the fistfight or name-calling.

ImageAt its core, conflict explores the gap between expectation or desire and reality. Even the most unsubtle mayhem in suspense novels can be understood as bridging the gap between how one character expects or wants his or her opponents to act versus how those other actually respond. But conflict can come from something as non-personal as a late April snowstorm in Illinois, weather that flies in the face of what one would expect for that time of year. Drama, romance, comedy—they all depend on conflict to give the characters reason to act.

Conflict, defined as the tension or gap between the expected or desired and the actual, plays important roles in other artistic endeavors also. The impact of many striking photographs depends on some subversion of what you’d expect to see. In music, the clash of dissonance sets up a tension that leaves listeners waiting in expectation of an eventual resolution. Fiber art, sculpture and illustrations in many media all create interest through the tensions generated by using unexpected imagery or unusual juxtapositions.

In fact, that sort of conflict plays a valuable role in making factual as well as fiction writing more compelling. If text you’ve developed for a company website or the press release you’ve written for a product or service  lacks appeal, you may need to find a conflict that can bring this information to life. For publicity to announce a commercial venture, try using some variation on the sequence: expected condition, undesirable reality, solution offered. When writing up special events for nonprofit groups, I’ve often set up a common expectation that I can contrast with the activity or attitudes of the group and its members.

If you’ve been paying attention here, you’ll have noticed that I set up a conflict right at the opening of this essay by announcing that I think of myself as avoiding conflict but I need it as a writer. I put a second level of conflict in play immediately after, by introducing the idea that conflict in writing may not be what we think of when we hear about conflict in real life.

Writing challenge: Can you identify the conflicts in the last thing you’ve written? Did you recognize these as important when you were writing? Can you think of different conflict(s) that might work better—or other layers of conflict that would add depth?

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The Missing Dwarven Phaser

I also blog on a shared blog, The Missing Dwarven Phaser. The name reflects the origin of the project: a writers group that wants to push its members to share their writings and begin to build a platform for future publication of novel-length works. The name reflects the interests of the group’s members: suspense, fantasy and science fiction.

This week, we committed to doing something we’d talked about for a while: posting the results of one of our writing prompts and the writing resulting from that challenge. I just posted mine; others should be following soon.

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Too many projects?

Oh the irony: I write a post about scheduling writing time so as not to feel guilty about writing … and then spend a couple of months doing just about anything except updating this blog! And, while I have two other blog-type projects (my column with and my occasional posts as a participant in The Missing Dwarven Phaser), they weren’t getting the love, either.

The fact is, I got a bunch done in those missing-from-my-blogs weeks: I edited a collection of my poetry, submitted both the collection and a bunch of individual poems to a handful of contests, did some reading and editing for friends, and at least thought a lot about the mid-grade novel I’m slowly working on.

I also produced art for the Sunday morning bulletin at my church for two different 7-week sequences, wrote call to worship and prayer text for 3 weeks, designed a summer adult ed sequence for the church, and wrote two sessions for that sequence (one already delivered to great acclaim and one to come next Sunday).

Plus, as weather allowed, puttered in my gardens. What with drought and hot weather, much more of said puttering has involved watering than in previous years, but the yard is looking distinctly not-dead despite everything. I count that as success.

Shiba inu lying in wait in a field of dandelions

When all else fails, I can recover creativity by taking out the dog and my camera.

So, to answer the question of the title, I’d say yes, I probably have too many projects going at once. But, while any one project may go a long time without progress, I always have something I can switch to if I get stymied by creative block. Maybe too many is a meaningless term and the question I should ask involves not how many but how: How do I balance all the projects so none get forgotten and I feel productive?

What about you? Do you focus on one or a very few related projects, or do you find that having a broader range of creative outlets keeps you … well, more creative?

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Giving ourselves permission to dream

How often have you felt guilty about how you were spending your time? I think we all have those moments. But when you start feeling that way most of the time, you should start thinking about why you feel guilty and what you can do about that.

A recent dream about going back to my alma mater got me thinking. For my undergraduate degree, I studied sciences with a sprinkling of liberal arts courses, but my dream had me returning to study for a degree in creative writing. Talk about a wake-up call! So what was my dreaming self trying to tell my waking self?

It only took a few moments to recognize that frustration fueled this dream. My mind had put me back in college because there not only could I write without guilt, but I would be required to write.

Frustration wastes time and energy. Can you afford that? I can’t. So I need to figure out how to stop feeling guilty if I do my creative writing and low-paying freelance work, or frustrated when I spend time doing non-writing chores for my attorney husband.

One strategy I’ve used with some success before: setting schedules. If I know that a specific block of time “belongs” to me, I need feel no guilt for using that time to write what I want to write, or read and edit on spec. At the same time, the block I dedicate to working on GrowthLaw projects needn’t frustrate me because I know how much time I’m giving to these projects.

When setting up your own daily, weekly or monthly schedule, be careful to program in enough time for the running costs of life: household upkeep like cooking and cleaning, or errands such as transporting children or spouse to/from school/work. If you assign more time than you can actually manage for work-time-plus-me-time, you’ll run a deficit in the life tasks and find yourself feeling just as guilty as you do now.

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To plan or not to plan …

Perhaps the most frustrating part of writing for me is when I know where I want to go with my essay or proposal or story, but can’t see how to get there. Sometimes, I don’t even know how to start.

Oooh, colors! Sometimes changing to pen and colored ink can be an inspiration in itself, even for a dedicated word-processor.

No clue where to start, even: The seminar proposal for which I just wrote my half of the project would fall into this first category. Luckily, I had a list of what my partner and I had talked about and simply started putting these key phrases into sentences. The sentences fell into a preliminary organization as they formed. And the individual segments of the proposed seminar had a logical order of their own. Once I’d completed a very rough draft, I could rearrange as I re-read what I’d done. The result? A plausible treatment for my part of the work. Finished and coherent enough for emailing off to my partner, anyway.

A start, a goal, and a blank between them: Both my just-needing-final-edit first children’s novel and my almost-2000-word start on a second fit this category. For the first, I had an opening concept: girl meets ferret and has an adventure. So I just stated writing. A couple of chapters into it, when I realized I had at least a novella and not a short story, I thought out a more complete version of what the end point of the story needed to be. But even as I drew in on the end, I never knew ahead of my writing it exactly how I’d get there. In fact, the most essential editorial work still needed on this story involves smoothing out the final resolution. However, my work did close the gap eventually, just by writing on and staying true to the characters and their environment, so I’m not too panicked about the second story. Yet.

A man, a plan, a canal … what? Sorry, got sidetracked into a palindrome when I started to write about writing to a plan. Some people always plan everything out before they start writing. Other people never plan, feeling constrained by even a very loose outline and wanting to be free to follow their creative impulses. As you may have gathered already, I fall somewhere in between these two extremes. I always try to have some sort of outline, however loose, but I also stay open to changes of direction as I start writing if a different approach looks likely to work better than my original plan.

The trick, if you can call it that, to avoid frustrating yourself as you write lies in figuring out what kind of organization helps you most. If you’re a free spirit, don’t plan your story or essay to the last detail—leave yourself a lot of space for expressing the mood of the moment. On the other hand, if you find yourself frustrated by wandering off-topic all the time, you should probably organize your notes or thoughts before starting to type … or picking up your pen or pencil.

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I write therefore I comprehend?

This year, despite a calendar full of Advent activities, the Christmas season seemed to spring up unexpectedly, catching me unprepared. My gift-choosing and –making fell sadly behind schedule and I still haven’t made all the cookies I intended to and we’re on the fourth day of Christmas already. I blame a schedule that left too little time for just-me writing.

Anyone who journals knows the difficult balance between not writing enough to capture details you want to remember and being so focused on journaling that you distance yourself from the very events you’re trying to capture. I’ve had that happen with photography as well. Snapping pictures can become an end in itself, keeping you from participating fully in whatever you’re photographing.

But this year’s experience has taught me to value a certain level of detachment form the immediate details of my life. That distance allows me to reflect and appreciate a holy season, not just get caught up in the busy-ness. To recognize the unimportant and cherish the significant parts.

Still waiting (2007)

Advent sees me clean my whole house,
sifting through the year’s detritus
to reach a new beginning. Children grouse,
pets flee or hide, but Christmas hopes unite us:
Hark, do we yet hear angels singing?

Most years, I’ve written at least one poem for Advent or Christmas by December 25.  This year, I’ve written none.

I’ve done some crochet crafts as gifts and some Illustrator work on a text-based title design, but only work-related writing. And not nearly as much editing as I’d hoped (see previous comment regarding craft projects).

Christmas Eve 1997

white stars (cold stars)
falling on the bitter wind
towering drifts, icy roads blocking cars

clearing sky (storm ended)
now unveiling higher stars
over a world with faults snow-mended

But I still have 6 days before the Christmas season ends with Epiphany, so all is not lost. Even though tomorrow is also next year, it’s still this Christmas season. I wonder what I’ll find to say about Christmas this time?

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