Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Beginning

“Beginnings are always more fun.” –Margaret Atwood

I make no secret my love of Margaret Atwood. Perhaps as an American female writer I should be more enamored with Joyce Carol Oates, but I just can’t help myself. Our (one-sided) romance took root in the autumn of 2000. Newly graduated from college, I meandered into a Santa Monica bookstore in one of those rare moods where I had no purpose other than to wander through the world of literature, seeing what caught my eye. At the front of the store was the display of New Releases. There were other works there, but the cover art of this particular book called to me.

Perhaps it was because the image reminded me of LA Confidential, one of my favorite films. Or it might have been the title–The Blind Assassin. Already so intriguing, particularly juxtaposed with an image that seemed completely disconnected. The book found its way into my hands. Rather than reading the jacket, I flipped to the first page:

The bridge

Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”

I shut the book and bought it. In that single sentence, she had me. Although I knew Atwood’s name from The Hand Maid’s Tale, I had never read the book and knew almost nothing about her. I bought a non-discounted hardcover book based on three things: the title, the chapter title, and the first sentence.

While the title is intriguing (how does one become a sightless political murderer?), the other two were what harkened to my wallet. Here was a decidedly adult text that used chapter headings instead of numbers. It automatically gave the text, to me, an almost fairytale quality. It reminded me of books I had read as a kid that were completely engaging, so much so that I lost track of hours and weeks because I was captivated by this world. There again was that promise.

The first sentence is, without question, simple. In that is the beauty. We have a simple subject (Laura) and a simple verb (drove). Atwood establishes a rough time period (sometime around a modern war–one might guess World War II at the earliest), a point of view, and a mystery. Notice that Laura’s car did not drive off the bridge. It did not swerve or fall. She “drove” it. That indicates intent. Did Laura drive off of a bridge on purpose? Is the time period, ten days after the conclusion of a war, significant?

The answer to both is yes. The why to both takes roughly 500 beautifully rendered pages to fully grasp.

In the future I will return to this book to consider the elements that spurred me to infatuation. For today I will just leave these thoughts: there is beauty and complexity in simplicity and never underestimate the value of the first sentence.

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How I Learned to Study

I have a secret to share: I have killer study skills. Even if I don’t know the subject, I can figure it out, or at least how to study for it, because of one woman. Carol Clay. People who attended Goddard Junior High can probably reluctantly agree. Mrs. Clay was our eighth grade history teacher in 1992. If you had this woman, you are one lucky bastard.

Mrs. Clay was a number of things. She’s was decidedly southern (Her vendetta against General Sherman lent itself to a t-shirt–not kidding: the only t-shirt she wore all year was a picture of Sherman with a slash through it. She called him a “rompin’ stompin, rootin’ tootin’ idiot).  Her Big Blue Stick was notorious. And her tests . . .

Her tests would qualify for their own circle of hell.

But Ms. Clay did something that, to my knowledge, no other teacher did before.

She expected more.

The test I studied for more than any other, except perhaps my Master’s Exam, was Mrs. Clay’s Civil War Exam. I made an A- and I am incredibly proud of that grade. Mrs. Clay had this very sneaky way of tricking us into memorizing facts (who was Robert E. Lee’s horse?) while taking the major events and elements of the period in stride. For the first time a teacher asked us fill in the blank questions. She was so specific in her questions that the generalities we took for granted. She asked that we know things, that we understand things. We studied ideas. We learned.

What a novelty.

Although I have a great experience for most of my teachers, I can only think of four teachers I have wanted desperately to impress in the course of a primary, secondary, undergraduate, and graduate education. Carol Clay is one of them. Her “Good Work” on that Civil War Exam was one of the highlights of my academic career. I have tried desperately to track down Mrs. Clay, to tell her how much she meant to me. I can’t find her. So . . .

If there is a teacher who has changed your life, let them know. Now. Today. Chances are, they aren’t aware of how much they’ve changed your life. Send them a letter. Write them an email. Tell them. Now. They need to know. Because chances are they are doing this job on a whim and a prayer. Maybe you think they know–you gave then a good evaluation or you once told them you liked them. But when it comes down to it, they need to know that they have made a difference. They need to know that no matter their pay cuts or the issues, that they have made you a better person in some way.

XO

A

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A Failure of Ego

“Writer’s block … is simply a failure of ego.” — Norman Mailer

There is a shark in my computer. It has been swimming around, lurking with a steel sailboat gliding above the page. There is a semblance of conflict, characterization, and setting standing on the shore, watching it. Unfortunately, there are also large patches on blank white space in between all those elements.The picture, then, is not easy to make out, even for me.

In other words, I’m stuck.

For days I have tried to tackle my shark and for days I have added a laboriously extracted sentence or two. So today, rather than torturing myself and the shark, I participated in a little exercise.

I sat in a public place, (in this case the student union building on my campus), hid myself in a corner where I could observe but not be conspicuous (mainly to avoid students approaching me outside my office hours with questions), and just listened, writing down any verbal exchange that caught my ear. I stayed there for about thirty minutes. I didn’t think about what I was writing down, just transcribed fragments on my notepad.

When I got back to my office, I looked over the exchanges I had noted. The back and forth, the rhythms of them shook some cobwebs off my brain. I came away with one line I will use in my story; from that one line I thought of an entire exchange to add tension to the conflict.

I love this Eavesdropping activity and use it often. It is particularly helpful for those who do not have a natural ear for dialogue, hate writing it because it feels forced, or just want some inspiration. You don’t have to be working on something already–select a line you hear to the be the first line of your story. See where it takes you.

“Go to the desk. Stay at the desk. Thrive at the desk.” — William Matthews

 

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Creative Reading

“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent reading in order to write; a man will turn over half a library in order to make one book.” –Samuel Johnson

As my students can attest, I am riddled with pet peeves when it comes to writing: the use of second person in academic essays, repetition of initial sentence words, repetition of verbs, repetition of pretty much anything (although there are certainly exceptions), cliches, comparing vampires to statues, overuse of adverbs, overly dramatic tags, overuse of names in dialogue, any description of passion that mentions fire or burning, naming a main character Jack . . . the list goes on and on. For creative writers, those mentioned above are the more nit picky, forgivable things that I will grumble to myself about, mark, and move on. However, I have two main pet peeves, not so much with writing but with writers:

  1. Writers who cannot/will not/do not take criticism.
  2. Writers who cannot/will not/do not read.

To me, these are almost unforgivable curses. If a writer cannot do these two simple things, they should not write. Or they should not make other people read what they write. Or maybe they should not make me read what they write. I would like to address taking criticism, which is a skill in and of itself, in another post. So I proceed with the second bit of peevish behavior: writers who do not read.

Before I get into the practical and craft building necessity of reading, I will share a story. Several years ago I joined an online writing forum. It wasn’t particularly great, but it allowed a place for writers to brainstorm together and find critique partners. (I’m always a fan of actively working on craft.) One day, a participant referred someone, who I shall call Pedestal, to a book that might help with the piece she was writing. Pedestal replied: “I don’t like to read that much because I feel it corrupts my style.”

This was one of those times I am glad I was behind a computer screen instead of in a face to face environment (my facial features betray everything, an unfortunate impediment that has gotten me into trouble on more than one occasion), because “What kind of arrogant, ignorant buffoon are you?” was probably written on every bit of my face.

It’s like those actors who in interviews (cough *HarrisonFord* cough) say that they don’t go to the movies, like they have such great lives that they don’t have to stoop to mass entertainment like the rest of us, even though that’s what they do for a living. Enjoy your ranch, Harrison. Glad we peasants were not held to your high standards and saw Indiana Jones, even the terrible one(s).

I feel the same way about writers who don’t read–how can you be a part of a community if a.) you only give your own work without appreciating others, and b.) you don’t know anything about what’s come before and what’s happening now in that community? It is downright baffling to me.

Back to Pedestal’s comment on style: certainly there is a possibility of stylistic influence, particularly when reading someone with distinct style. I went through a four month period in college when I was reading Bret Easton Ellis like there was going to be book burning at the end of the semester, and there is no doubt whom I was reading when reviewing my writing from that period. Do I still write like Ellis? No. I moved on to another author, kept writing, and continued to develop my own voice. Are those stylistic elements still present in my writing? Some bits, I’m sure. Less than Zero uses modular design in an interesting way that I play with sometimes. But Ellis was certainly not the first to do character point of view shifts from chapter to chapter. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying does the same thing. I don’t believe it to be presumptive to consider that Ellis read Faulkner at some point. Part of progress and creation as an artist, at least in my mind, is understanding what has come before, even if it isn’t your taste and/or genre, and then asking, “What can I do with this?”

My point then is this: writers must read to understand and appreciate good writing, as well as recognize bad writing. They must read to understand the fundamentals of narrative, grammar, and style so that they may then create in a more effective way. Writers must read so that they may begin to review their own work.

What to read? Read things in the genre you write (if you are in fact a genre writer). Read classics, especially if they aren’t in the genre you normally write/read. Read short stories. Read fiction, Read non-fiction. If you still have no idea where to start, look at the Reading List page. Many of those are available for free online or at the library.Or, go back to your favorite book that you haven’t read in awhile. Reread it and jot down what it is you love about it. I’m doing that at the moment with Blind Assassin.

Personal writing aside, I also suggest keeping a Reader’s Journal. There are fancy versions available, but those aren’t necessary. Use a plain journal, blog, or even just a Word document to write a critique every time you finish any book. Write about your thoughts on the book–what worked? What didn’t? How successful were things like style, pacing, plot, characters, dialogue, setting, description? Is there any technique or idea that you might want to explore in your own writing? Are there any quotes or scenes that you really loved or hated? Note those pages numbers for future use.

“There is then creative reading as well as creative writing.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

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Write Five, Change Seven

“Sit down, and put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.” – Collette

One of the things I constantly have to reinforce in my students is the value of the writing process, particularly revision. They want that one poof of magic where everything pours out and then they don’t want to look at it again. Not to be a hypocrite, I will admit I find myself guilty of the same crime. Somewhere the untapped creativity should flow forth and in a rush of transcendence, words should gush from my mind to the page. I think most people who write have had those times. It all seems so easy–you don’t have to plan anything, you just take a sliver of an idea and zone out. An hour later you have a story. Eureka!

While this is a wonderful experience, freewriting (which is essentially what that is), is only one part of the writing process. Teaching Freshman Comp, I have actually come to grimace at the use of the phrase Writing Process (the same way I grimace at Textual Substantiation). However, as fundamental as it may seem, as writers we have to remember The Process, if only to help us through those times when there is no inspiration or gush.More than that, The Process helps us hone our skills, making us better at what we do.

A writer may have a good head for plot, or a way of stringing words together, or if they are lucky, both. Where The Process comes in is being able to identify strengths and weaknesses, both in the work and in the writer. Sounds easy, yes? If only it were.

Being able to access your own writing is a difficult thing. Sometimes you may not recognize those weaknesses. Sometimes you may not want to. Sometimes you may be too close to really see what’s going on.

The first step in learning to revise your own work is to acknowledge that you and your work are not perfect. Set the piece aside for a few days once you’ve finished it. Forget about it. Then go back. Make yourself a check list of basic components of writing: plot, character, setting, tone, point of view, tense, pacing. Look at how those things work separately and how they work together. Make notes as you read, as if you were reading a work written by someone else.

Then get your pen out and start revising. It may be hard at first.We love our work (which we should). We don’t want to tell it that it’s ugly. But sometimes it is. Part of the revising process is not only recognizing flaws but being willing to change them. Keep in mind that the revision may not be much better; at least you tried it and it may lead to further discovery.

For example, there’s a story I’ve been working on for some time. It’s been through several revisions, particularly tense revisions. It seems like it has gone from past to present and back again half a dozen times. Every time I would come back to it, I would change the tense. I just couldn’t make up my mind. Finally, I asked myself why I was so flaky on committing to one or the other. It was then I realized it was because I hadn’t really clarified the major themes of the story. Sure I’d outlined some ideas about what I wanted to convey, but I hadn’t really articulated them for myself. Once I did that, the tense seemed obvious.

Revising is a critical thinking skill that, like throwing a ball, needs to be practiced to become more effective. This is where writing buddies or writing groups can be wonderful. We see mistakes in other works before we see it in our own. The temptation, then, is to rely on other people to point out all your issues. I am blessed to have a number of sounding boards for my writing; however, when I send things to someone else to read, it is usually at least the third or fourth draft. I’ve been through the work myself for content, style, and errors before I send it to them.

Aside from the actual act of revision to develop the skill, I suggest reading. Read as much as you can to help you get a feel for good writing. Thumb through the books listed under Sources for Writers.

Now get to work.

“I can’t write five words but that I change seven.” Dorothy Parker

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The Profound Musings of Mutts

I am one of those people who is stupid about my dogs. Not in a carry them around dressed up as prosti-tots kind of way, but in a talk to them, make up voices for them, remember to show people pictures of my kids only after they’ve seen pictures of my pups kind of way. Inspired by one of my favorite bloggers, Kendra Parsons (who I wanted to be when I was 13), I present the random thoughts of the Generation Cake Canines as directed at me.

 

Specimen One: Charleigh Stitch Pickles Beaureguard (Border Collie-Australian Shepherd-Sith, voiced by Emperor Palpatine)

  1. Throw it. You just threw it? Well that was fun. Throw it again.
  2. Get out. Yes, you woman. I’m married to Daddy. We’re just using you to clean up after me, feed me, and protect me from the evil thunder gods.
  3. Speaking of . . . Yorkies and cats scare the f–k out of me. I don’t trust anything that can’t fit a tennis ball in its mouth. You can hold me then, too. Forty pounds isn’t that heavy.
  4. Are you sleeping? I’m not. You could throw this ball.
  5. I think we can both agree to drop the charade that I don’t sleep on the couch. We can keep it up when Daddy’s around, but you and I know better.
  6. The stairs are mine. I pooped on them the day we moved in, all thirteen of them. If you try to climb them, even holding a baby and a laundry basket, I will bark at you and try to herd you.
  7. Same is true of the path from our front door to the mail box. That’s mine.
  8. If that other dog that you insist lives here gets out and comes around to the front door to be let in, I’m going to try to distract you. It’s just the wind.
  9. No, I don’t remember where I put my ball. It’s your job to find it and I’m going to cry at you until you do.
  10. It’s no use moving your foot to get it out from under my limp form on the end of your bed. I’ll just groan and roll until I find it again.

Specimen Two: Perdita Jewel (Pit Bull-Dalamtian, deaf and epileptic, voiced by Jimmy Stewart)

  1. If I see someone riding a bicycle or motorcycle without a helmet, I am going to bark. It’s not safe.
  2. I know you claim that there is a big long tail attached to my butt; however, I do not believe you. Therefore, I do not need to watch where I swing it and I can bite that white thing that keeps following me.
  3. No, I will never sleep through the night.
  4. No, I do not smoke doobies when you are not home. I just have a natural squint.
  5. While we are on the subject, I can’t stop giving you the sad eyes. They are the only eyes I have.
  6. I do not want people in my house who are not my family. And I don’t understand what excessive force means.
  7. Remember that when the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Salesmen come to the door. I’m so good you won’t have to say a word, just open the door holding me by the collar.
  8. It’s none of your business what I’m barking at even though I’m deaf. Why don’t you worry about yourself?
  9. I like dog food. Not garbage with cute pictures on it. And real bones from a cow. Or just a cow will work, too. I will not eat any type of fish. I don’t eat things that pee where they live.
  10. Bubble baths smell good and involve my mommy. I’m getting in. I don’t understand how fifty pounds will displace water.

Until next time, Cakesters.

And if you get a chance, check out my new blog specifically dedicated to reading and writing.

XO

A

 

 

 

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Fear and Ignorance

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” Stephen King

Aside from my annoyance at his use of ‘a lot,’ I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. King. Since the third grade I have been writing something–stories, novels, really terrible poetry. Yet I have never termed myself a writer. In part, it’s because anytime I tell someone that I write, they tell me about their novel/screenplay/memoir that they have been writing. Then I tell them great and don’t mean it.

One of the fascinating things about writing is that, save educational shortcomings, most people can do it. We can type or scratch out words to make sentences, sentences to make paragraphs, paragraphs to make stories. But as I tell my students, writing is a skill like any art or sport–just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you do it well. The analogy I usually use is baseball (I teach a number of athletes). Most of us, precluding a physical impediment, can throw a ball. But can we throw it repeatedly in the strike zone with high speed and varied pitches? Probably not. There are only a select few who can and even they must train. Just because I throw a ball for my border collie doesn’t make me Jenny Finch. Writing is the same way. Yet one of the mysteries of writing is that a writer can be brilliant and never make the majors, so to speak. On the flip side, a writer can be mediocre and sell millions.

The goal then, from my humble prospective, is to be good. Reading and writing in abundance are key. In addition, to bring the baseball analogy full circle, I impart the immortal words of Crash Davis: “You gotta play this game with fear and arrogance.”

Blogger Kristen Lamb addresses the issue of calling oneself a writer in her recent entry “Don’t Eat the Butt.”

Please check out the links to various writers and blogs that I find interesting. Also, be on the lookout for more content about craft in the coming days.

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Knowing My Worth

Last year I alluded to some things that were in the works for 2012. Initially, I wasn’t going to talk about this one unless it turned out positively, but after some thinking the past few days, I decided to share.

I am applying to a PhD program in Creative Writing. My final application, writing sample, personal statement, and cv actually left my obsessive revisions today and passed out of my control into the hands of the university, even though the deadline isn’t until Tuesday. The past few months I have been worrying and what-ifing, revising, and judging myself. I’ve made lists of my strengths and weaknesses. I’ve made my family and friends read my statement and writing sample until they are all sick of them. Last semester, the day after I finished administering and participating in final exams, I sat for the GRE (FYI, GRE results are only good for 5 years. So the whole only taking it once thing is a myth. Shockingly, despite being mentally drained, my writing and verbal skills were great. Math . . . eh. I did well on the parts that included stats, logic problems, and data analysis–basically the math I do on a regular basis.)

I am lucky to have three wonderful professors to write me recommendations. However, they warned me that the program I have selected is ridiculously competitive (4 out of 50 applicants accepted). I am very much aware that the phrase “a snowball’s chance in hell” is certainly applicable. And so I have slowly been making myself crazy evaluating myself, changing single words in my samples, and running scenarios. Today I realized enough is enough. I submitted the application because there is nothing that will change in the next three days aside from my continue vacillation between using the word ‘influence’ or ‘inspiration’ in paragraph three of statement.

I know that I will probably not get in the program. Next year I will apply to other programs. And the year after that if necessary. I want a PhD.

I hadn’t talked about any of this before because a.) I’m superstitious and didn’t want to jinx anything, but mostly b.) I didn’t want to be embarrassed when it didn’t work out.

HOWEVER

After much thought, I can say this: I am not a weak applicant. I have a 4.0. My test grades are high. My recommendations should be solid. The personal statement is well-written, focused, and addresses things specific to their program. The writing sample won third place in a state graduate writing competition. I have college teaching experience and realistic expectations.

And I want it badly. I’m a fighter. I went to a two day graduate weekend class–eight hours a day–two days before my first baby was due. That meant driving three hours each way and talking about Thoreau in depth while I was nine and a half months pregnant. (I found out later that my professor thought she was going to have a nervous breakdown because she was so worried I would go into labor.) I ended up missing the next class session because my doctor would not give me medical leave to travel, having had a c-section three days before. I was going to go anyway, but my family refused to drive me. Thankfully the professor didn’t penalize me because I had already turned in all the work for the entire semester on the first day of class. Yes, I take my education seriously. And yes, that professor, the same one who when asked about me by a potential employer simply said, “Hire her now,” wrote one of my recommendations.

So, short of lying about my publications or plagiarizing someone elses short story, there is nothing else I can do to make the application stronger. I have given them the best of me (well, except maybe the math part–I tried to study but got halfway through the review and called my math teacher mother to tell her that her subject is stupid. I can say honestly say that I have never needed to know how to find the slope of the line.)

I am sharing this part of my journey because I decided today that if I don’t get in, it is because there are other people who deserve it more than I do. I should consider my own worth and know that I am not defined by the words Accepted or Denied. And I can start working on next year’s applications to make them the best they can be.

So I challenge you, readers, to take a few moments to jot down what you are really worth. At your work, in your relationships, in your life. Chances are you are more spectacular than you realize. Once you own that, then you can start pushing forward, going for what you want, even if it can sometimes end in disappointment.

As I mentioned last year, aside from matters of shopping (sadly the green sweater was not meant to be), I believe in doing everything I can and then turning things over to Fate.

Here you go, Fate.

XO

A

 

 

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People 2012

I gave a great deal of thought as to what to do for my blog this year. A Year of Lists? Too cliche. A Year of Photos? I’m a writer, not a photographer (If you don’t believe me, look at my college photos from Loch Ness. That’s not Nessie, it’s my camera strap.) A Year of Politics? As I tell my students, we tend to have opinions, strong opinions, about roughly five things. Everything else, particularly the stuff that doesn’t directly effect us, we don’t know enough or care enough about. I’m no different.

So what to do? After much consideration, the answer was obvious: People. My life is shaped by people–living, dead, happy, sad, good, bad, real, fictional. This year I want to talk about people.

And I will begin by talking about one of the most important people in my life: my husband.

You see, today is our seventh wedding anniversary. Some people would make reference to the Seven Year Itch which would in turn cause me to roll my eyes. It’s a movie about a subway grate and a white dress, not a marital truth. What is marital truth? For me, it’s this:

I love my husband more deeply than I did when I met him. Not better, not worse, just deeper. Why? Because our vows have been tested. We’ve done sickness and health, richer and poorer, better and worse. They aren’t just trite vows that we’ve said with clasped hands. The tests have come and gone and we have overcome. But it’s more than that.

He still makes me laugh harder than anyone in the world (except maybe our daughter). Seriously, his George Lucas impression makes me glad my babies were both c-sections so I don’t have to change my pants.

We can still talk for hours about anything.

He can kiss like the devil.

He still slaps my butt and tells me how beautiful I am even though I’ve had two kids and my uniform is yoga pants, a college t-shirt, Toms, a loopy ponytail, and no make up.

Every day is better because he is a part of it.

He still surprises me in wonderful ways that make me love him even more.

Not to get all Debbie Gibson, but I still get lost in his eyes. (And should I ever be noteworthy enough for people to collect trivia about me, that was the first album I ever bought with my own money. I should probably be ashamed of that, but I’m not.)

So . . .

Happy anniversary, Kitten. I love you a million times a billion.

For the rest of you, thanks for reading. I’ll be doing a post a week (hopefully more) for 2012. Until next time.

XO

A

 

 

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