What’s the message of a wordless Word?

Our church picked “Voices of Christmas” as the theme for this year’s Advent-through-Epiphany series of worship services. In Advent, we explored the voices of prophets, Mary, angels, and shepherds. For the second Sunday in Christmas, we will look at Anna and Simeon, and the following Sunday, in honor of Epiphany, the voices discussed will be those of the three wise men from the east. But for Christmas morning, the designated “voice” was that of baby Jesus.

I had prepared a children’s lesson to explore what Jesus-the-baby had to say to us, but no children of suitable age showed up this morning, all having had their Christmas church last night. However, as I listened to the pastor’s message about Jesus as light of the world and Word made flesh, I continued to ponder the concept of the “voice” of the infant Jesus.
Young children need concrete examples and stories. As I would have pointed out to the children, newborn babies don’t talk. They do communicate, but baby Jesus would have used his voice only for gurgles, chuckles and (despite the assertions of songs such as “Away in a Manger”) crying, not words.

And yet, the gospel of John starts out by calling this Jesus the Word of God. John makes quite a point of this Word becoming flesh, being born just as people are born.

Quick aside on the Greek word logos, translated here as “Word”: It is the root of the “-ology” ending that we use in English to denote “study of”: biology = study of life, sociology = study of societies, etc. Translated as word in the first chapter of John, it can in fact also refer to the larger concept of reality, an entire frame of reference. This gives an interesting insight into how the Greek philosophers thought. An early Greek Descartes might have said, I use words, therefore I am real. Or even, without words, how can we know reality?

But back to Christmas and the voice of the baby born in a stable. This baby, this enfleshed Word, newborn Reality, spoke of God’s boundless love for humans by the very fact of his birth as another human. By taking on our humanity, God could, in Jesus, gain our perspective and speak in words we humans might better understand.

As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. So even before Jesus grew old enough to speak his first word, his very birth spoke volumes about the lengths God would go to convince us that God’s love and forgiveness can be ours.  Amazing love … our gift at Christmas, if only we remember to claim it.

 

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What are you thankful for as a writer?

Without even pausing to think, I would answer the question of what I’m thankful for as a writer with  one word: computers! Of course, I have plenty of other blessings that allow me to write, such as disposable time in which I can write and access to all sorts of reading material from which I’ve learned about good (and not-so-good) writing.

But without computers, I probably would still be limiting myself to the occasional, fairly short, poem. I don’t dictate easily because I work out my story ideas as I write, so a dictation would be full of “umm … no, let’s make that …” And my handwriting is too slow to keep up with a really good flow of ideas. Old-fashioned typewriters are faster but have mechanical limits on how fast they can go without tangling or skipping. And any of these three methods leaves you with physical cut-and-paste to rearrange ideas for better flow. Plus retyping a clean copy. Bleah!

I never would have realized that I enjoy writing if not for computers taking the work out of getting to clean copy. Computers let me type nearly as fast as I think. I can drag or cut-and-paste words sentences, paragraphs … whole chapters … with a couple of keystrokes, and only ever need to retype things i want to change. If I were the sort of person who could dictate, I could get software that would make the computer into my stenographer.

And now that netbooks exist, not to mention tablets and even smart phones, writers have very portable access to the joys of computer-assisted writing. As netbooks have become more popular, they’ve become more affordable… another cause for thanks-giving. I’m writing this 8 hours’ drive away from home, sitting on a sofa in my son’s apartment, working off of 5 hours remaining battery power even after doing a bit of typing in the car yesterday.

And the computer gives me a clearer, more searchable platform on which to store and view my work than the scraps of paper on which my poems always seem to get written. Yes, I write stories and blogs and news posts now, but I still do poetry from time to time … and I revise poetry from years, even decades, before. And sometimes I just enjoy being surprised by how much I still like something I wrote that long ago.

So, as autumn fades into winter and we pause to be thankful for blessings in our lives as writers, I share this poem as my reminder to myself that blessings abound, for me as a writer, but also in the many other aspects of my life. May you all find many blessings in your own lives for which to give thanks!
Harvests

The year has come to fullness, green turned rusty
browns and sun-bleached tow. Gold-leafed trees
frame fields already shorn of grain and dusty
under late-year sun. Migrant geese
now glean through what remains. White wings
flash on high — dove? My mind argues
for urban pigeon strayed but heart clings
to Love’s icon, from whence hope issues.

dry milkweed pods shedding seed

Nature’s bounty is not claimed in
silos
but scattered abroad. Squirrels
spread nuts,
wind lofts seeds in clouds: milkweed,
aster, thistle. Berries load the
hedgerows.
Nor should we salvation hoard.
What’s
given us is likewise meant as seed.

(c) Susan N.C. Price 2011

 

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Not just a novelist

I have friends who’ve reported reaching 25K, 30K, 40K words on their nanowrimo novels already. Well, I’ve got nearly 1.9K now. Up from 1.2K a week ago. Just.

But after taking the latter part of Thursday evening to drive west and stargaze, watching the Leonid meteor shower (about which I wrote yesterday), the truth of a past realization hit me with renewed force: novelist is not my main occupation. Not even in my top three occupations, to be honest.

My roles in keeping the household running (food, laundry,etc,) and the family business organized (invoicing, web updates and other PR for my attorney husband) fully occupy the business parts of my life … and I don’t complain most days. I like cooking, and I find tasks like washing dishes and clothing rewarding for the sense of order and rightness when everything is cleaned and put away.

And then I have the garden times of year: spring garden chores of splitting and moving perennials, replenishing mulch, and cutting back spring-blooming shrubs once the blooms have gone. In autumn, I start next year’s garden, preemptively mulching new areas of grass (sometimes mostly weed) and moving in shrubs or small trees gone dormant for winter. And each year adding a few dozen more bulbs for spring color.

I let housework go and leave my family to make themselves sandwiches at peak garden times. I will even give up reading (for a day or two) to get my gardening done when te time is right. I once hoped my children would join me in the dirt but neither has. So I gardened without them.

I realized then that gardening gave me a creative outlet, related to my love of drawing, writing poetry (this is before I’d started doing stories), sewing, crocheting and cooking. I also realized that I tended to do only one or two creative things at a time.

So here I sit, a part-time novelist. I haven’t written anything on Door to Phoenix in the past two day … but I’ve posted to both my Examiner pet column and this blog both days. The story still percolates in my imagination and I;m hopeful that, when I return to it, the ideas I need will have sprouted from the seeds in what I’v written so far.

Meanwhile, I have editing to do … and crocus and daffodil bulbs to plant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Awe and wonder

Last night marked the peak for this year of the Leonid meteor shower. The past couple of years’ peaks have come and gone behind solid cloud here in Chicago, not an uncommon occurrence this time of year. But yesterday dawned crystal clear and the nearly-nonexistent humidity continued all day. So my husband and I went out to watch for meteors.

We only watched from about 10:15 to 10:45.  We didn’t stay out too long because the wind had started to rise and even with a sleeping bag under and around us we cooled off pretty fast. We couldn’t stay too late because we had to drive most of an hour west and off the main highway to get far enough from Chicago’s light pollution to see any but the very brightest  streaks. If we’d gone west of DeKalb, we could have gotten darker sky but at the cost of a longer drive home … and we couldn’t sleep in this morning so we compromised.

Even with a rim of bright haziness at the horizon, our dark-adjusted eye picked out a handful of dim streaks and a couple of bright flashes. But even more than the few, unpredictable meteor sightings, I reveled in the sight, however dim,  of stars I can never see from our yard, with the streetlight by the road and neighbors’ lit windows. I saw at least a hint of the Milky Way. The Pleiades. And on the way home, the 3rd quarter moon, just barely risen over the horizon and still blood red.

November has sped by. Less than two weeks remain. This bodes ill for my finishing a novel before the end of the month, even if I write in the car to/from Minnesota … when I’m not the driver, of course.

But I care less about finishing by Nov 30 than about finishing well. After all, my first novel (the one that I started with the idea of writing a short story) took almost 20 months to finish.  Of course, some of that time the novel simply lay fallow as I did other things.

As I did last night, leaving mundane duties (such as getting to bed at a “decent” (in other words, “responsible”) time for a frolic and detour. My frolic rewarded me with a small adventure, an experience of wonder outside the everyday and a reminder of the awe-inspiring universe that surrounds my mundane life.

So instead of being completely cast down by my laggard performance this month, I take heart that no rule keeps me from completing what I’ve started even after November ends. And I hope I can keep hold of the wonder and delight I felt watching the meteor shower so that some of the wonder can trickle over into my story.

 

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Goals are good … except when they aren’t

OK, so here’s my ‘reality bites’ version of nanowrimo reports. November is 4 days old and I’m about 5500 words behind the average nanowrimo writers’ goals for this point in the month.

See, to get to about 50,000 words by the end of the month, you need to churn out an average of 1667 words per day (wpd). So most writers challenge themselves to 1500 wpd on weekdays and expect to make up the 167 wpd deficit by doing 2000 wpd on the weekends (which actually gets them slightly ahead going into the next week).

I, on the other hand, cranked out maybe 4-5 dozen words on Nov 2, bringing the page-plus of opening scene with which I started the month up to just over 500 words. Total. And I hadn’t written a word on Door to Phoenix since until yesterday evening, Nov 4. I did finally get another 300-ish words written last night, but still …

 

afghan with picture of autumn tree crocheted into the pattern

I make up my crochet patterns as I go along, much like I do with my stories. Eventually, each gets finished.

 

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NaNoWriMo

After taking a 3-month leave of absence from this forum, I feel almost obligated to take up the National November Writing Month challenge. Of course, I have written nothing but what you see here all of today, Nov 1 and it’s already 7 pm. But I do have a story in mind. In fact, the opening scene has been rolling around in my head for almost a year now. Or perhaps I could go with the title that has no story yet: Dragon under the Stairs. Although with no reason to point to, I think that one really should be a short story.

I encourage you to do more writing than usual this month as well. If you’re not ready to tackle a novel, do some short essays. Or poetry. Write descriptions of Christmas list items, or notes of appreciation to send friends for Thanksgiving. Be creative and express yourself more this month.

Bin with ripe apples gleaned from beneath the trees

I gleaned apples in an orchard a month ago, piling them in a bin ... now it's time to glean ideas by writing them into a document.

 

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The value of story: road trip

There’s nothing like a 14-hour road trip to make vividly plain the full value of a well-told story. Especially a 14-hour road trip in a five-passenger sedan with five adult passengers, the shortest of whom (me) is 5’6″ tall.

Our family has been taking summer road trips from the beginning. However, shortly after we had our second child, we transitioned from sedan to minivan, so we’re used to spacious vehicles. Alas, our last surviving van, approaching the end of its eleventh year, developed fatal brake defects earlier this summer. Before the problem could become fatal for us, the users, we said goodby to a vehicle that would cost more to fix than it was worth.

This left us with our Passat, a lovely car with decent gas mileage … but not a lot of leg room in the back seat. Actually, when three grown people sat in the back, seat width became an issue as well. And, while the togetherness would have provided a welcome cosiness midwinter, that same heat generated on a sunny summer day strained the ability of the air conditioning to keep up.

I know this because I spent my not-driving periods of this 14-hour journey in the middle position of the back seat, battling heat-induced claustrophobia. I love my family but … I do also appreciate the ability to move feet and legs. And not overheat.

Luckily, we also have a longstanding tradition of bringing music tapes/CDs/mp3s and audiobooks along on road trips. For years, we did sing-alongs to keep the kids happy, and then we found the audiobook section at the library.

I’ve found that a novel I also know and like works best. That way I can enjoy the good lines, be reminded of the plot twists, and yet also pay enough attention to my driving because I do know how everything turns out. But even with a story I know, listening to it takes my mind off the passage of time and keeps me from boredom and road hypnosis as a driver.

On the aforementioned recent 14-hour marathon drive, I learned that a good story (in this case, The Vor Game by one of the Price family’s favorite authors, Lois McMaster Bujold) can also keep shoe-horned, overheated passengers content for up to two hours at a stretch, in a situation where barely over an hour was otherwise enough to leave them begging for a break to cool down and move. I hope to someday write stories that compelling myself.

What has a good story done for you?

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Getting beyond nothing to say

I spoke on enjoying writing and writing better to a group of businesspeople a couple of weeks ago. After I finished, one person commented that he’d thought I would spend more time on how to get past “writers block.” I answered that, if you know the story you want to tell and why it’s important, you should be able to start writing.

But that set me to albino ferret face looking up between leavesthinking about better ways to kickstart the writing process. I progressed slightly further along this path when I accepted the assignment to create a sort of MadLibs® worksheet to help church members write their own psalms, a slightly annotated fill-in-the-blanks format with prompts such as:

O Lord our God, blessed be your name for your ________________ [works or attributes]
I/We give thanks to you, O God, for __________________
Rescue me from ____________________________

And finally, I saw a Facebook post from a friend on her own writing … and not writing. She does occasional travel blogs, but has been grappling with her inability to write more often. Because she is also a talented photographer, she has decided to concentrate on posting more images, with written comments.

I told her that my Examiner pet column always starts from one or more images, such as the ferret with attitude above (mentally, I tagged this one,”What’re you looking at?”). Well, “always” might be a slight exaggeration. I might start instead with an idea to write about, say, hot weather and pets … but then I always find at least one photo to embody my idea. And sometimes I take my camera to the dog park, or the ferret shelter or the stables for Friends for Therapeutic Equine Activities, specifically to get photos that will illustrate a column about some aspect of dogs in [fill in blank] weather, ferrets and the people who care for them, or riding therapy.

But perhaps the best way to get past the “what do I say” quandary is to just start writing. For me, the most freeing revelation is to recognize that you may well throw out much or all of what you write when you’re still struggling to find your proper theme. What I write … what you write … doesn’t have to be perfect as it first comes out of your head and onto a page. The first draft is where you start, not where you end.

 

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Write what you love

One of the many things I love would be animals. So I write a column about animals—specifically, pets—for Examiner.com, an online news organization with numerous regional offices. I live in Chicago’s western suburbs, so I write my “Pets Examiner” column under the auspices of Examiner.com’s Chicago bureau.

Red shiba inu lying downIf you aspire to be an “examiner” (reporter/columnist) for Examiner.com, the application process gives you the opportunity to name your area of interest. The news pages of the site suggest areas they’d like to have covered in their “Want to be an Examiner?” ads, but they wisely allow individuals the latitude to name their own area of expertise—or interest.

The impulse that led me to Examiner.com consisted of a desire for (1) greater incentive to write more often and (2) something that would push me to get experience with posting—and promoting—my work online. With amazing forethought, I realized that choosing the wide-open category of “pets” would give me much more flexibility than picking a single species.

I suppose I could find something to say every day about my dog. Especially now that I once more have two dogs. But being able to switch between dogs (mixed breed Crystal and shiba inu Seiki, pictured above), ferrets (we have 4), cats, horses (mostly about a local group, FTEA, that does therapeutic riding lessons), reptiles … and occasional forays into the quasi-pet status of critters that feed/make their homes in your yard … keeps me interested. Lets me change subjects before I get jaded.

Others might make the opposite choice: to limit their work to a single subject, whether business law or scrapbooking, to stay within an area they know well and to avoid biting off too large a subject to cover. But for something you plan to write about even once a week, you’d better pick a topic about which you are passionate, however large or focused the scope, and however much or little you already know about it. You can always find more knowledge as needed. In fact, if you love the topic enough, you’ll delight in the excuse to dig into it deeper and learn more.

By the way, if my experience makes you want to be an Examiner, and you’re willing for me to get a bonus for interesting you (and for which I thank you in advance), use this link to apply: http://exm.nr/jpAVQq

 

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“Detailing” your writing

What makes a piece of writing special? Probably your answers would differ from mine, but the question is worth considering if you want your writing to be special. So maybe the place to start is, what makes anything special? A summer day, for instance.

I’m not a hot-weather person. I like many aspects of summer, but not the 90+ hot-and-humid weather such as Chicago just suffered through. Special = not ordinary. In the midst of tropical weather, cool/dry brings a welcome change from summer’s ordinary. But how does a writer communicate that specialness in words on a page?

One key is relevant detail. Many writing essays, books and courses stress the importance of sensory detail in descriptions. But making your writing special takes more than just checking off sensory detail: sight, scent, sound, touch and taste.

early summer morning with sun rays behind tree Back to that special summer day. For me, my recognition of a special day starts with sight and touch: The cool breeze and bright, early morning sun lighting trees, grass against bright blue sky, maybe a few white clouds. Breeze leads to scent, bringing to me sweet clover, dew-wet cut grass and, as the day warms, sun-warmed dust and pine. And sound: birdsong in early morning can mask distant traffic.

Sometime in the special day, you will eat and drink. Is special for you that first cup of coffee in the cool of the morning or a cold drink at the end of a hot day? Dinner at a marvelous restaurant, a cookout with friends, or a picnic with just Mom, Dad and kids?

Special often means memorable. What will you remember? And what details bring back other memories? For me, sound and scent most often trigger summer memories.

Most vivid: dusty hot pine. That smell links my mind directly and only to Cape Cod, where my family rented a cottage every summer for about 15 years. Lots of pine on Cape Cod. So whether I’m standing on a sunny Colorado hillside, or walking by a landscape planting in the city, the smell of hot, dusty pine makes me remember Cape Cod summers.

More recently, I’ve realized that I associate some sounds very strongly with special places. Blue jays calls, for instance, sound like Nova Scotia spruce forests to me. Gulls crying, on the other hand, bring much less specific memories … but the sight of a bunch of them soaring together may trigger memories of gulls following the ferry to Nantucket or Nova Scotia.

When you’re considering what details to add, remember this: Your detail shouldn’t distract from the point of your story (essay, report or proposal). So look for the details essential to your theme and eliminate the others. The right details for your writing are the relevant and memorable details.

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