Literary Citizenship & “The Write Crowd”

The Write Crowd by Lori A. May is a great little book on literary citizenship, a topic I’ve discussed on the blog in an earlier post. Geared toward writers, chapter 2 is titled “The Writer and the Writing Life,” the book has good ideas for promoting literary citizenship for readers as well.

May starts the book with the chapter “What is Literary Citizenship? An Introduction.” She writes: “most often, contemporary writers refer back to Walt Whitman’s efforts in advocating a society connected through literature,” (2) so even though the phrase ‘literary citizenship’ seems new, it isn’t. Writers have a long history of promoting not only their own work, but the work of others, in an effort to enhance the common good. Now the common good not only applies to local communities, but to the World Wide Web, encompassing societies in ways Whitman couldn’t begin to comprehend.

May gives solid advice throughout the book, with one of the earliest pieces being one all writers are familiar with, but may not—like me—follow through on—the writing comes first. But if we focus on just the writing, we lose out on much more: “participating in the broader community, in engaging with others, and sharing our skills and passion with peers and emerging fellows, there is so much joy to experience outside of our individual worlds. We become more.” (11). It’s important to protect the writing time, but not to the point we exclude others. Writers need not just readers, but other writers.

May’s advice throughout the book fits writers (and readers) of all types—big city or rural (like me), those with a knack or willingness to work with organizations—established or built from the ground up—or introverts who’s day job drains them of energy, and mingling with more people is the last thing they can handle (again, like me.) The section “Creating Connections Online,” in Chapter 4, is the one I find most helpful because it fits where I’m at in life right now. May writes about Matt Bell, a Michigan author, but also a reader, and he uses his blog to post an ongoing reading list, seeking to connect to like-minded readers whose reading tastes run toward the unconventional and indie presses (48). I am first and foremost a reader, and sometimes finding fellow readers is just as difficult as finding fellow writers in my rural community, so examples such as Matt give me ideas for finding and connecting with others sharing my own reading and writing tastes.

Plenty of the ideas in May’s book are also free to do—so not having any spare cash isn’t an issue. Volunteer at a local organization, or a national one—an appendix in the back lists different organizations in need of volunteers. The chapters in the book cover a wide variety of topics, and one can find something of value in all of them.

After reading The Write Crowd, there are no more excuses for not doing even a small bit of literary citizenship. If you’re reading this, you have internet access, so send a tweet. Start a blog. Post on Facebook and share with the world at large your favorite books and support your favorite authors.

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From LoriA.May.com
From LoriA.May.com

An Imposition of Joy: poetry, art, and inspiration–by Gabrielle

One of our own bloggers–Gabrielle Brant Freeman–has started a kickstarter project titled: An Imposition of Joy: Poetry, art and inspiration.
From her kickstarter site:
Challenge met! Almost. Help me turn my 100 poem social media poetry experiment into a book complete with art, prompts, & writing tips.

Do Your Homework

posted by Nick Hinton

How do you make a character convincing? You give them realistic dreams, hopes, fears, and failings. You need to know their history, their present, and their future. If you fail to give a character a back story that feels true or a fear with no backing readers will know. If there are holes in your characters, your readers will find them. So what can you do? Flesh out your characters. Your protagonist may only take up twenty pages in a short story, but you need to have more information. Even if it doesn’t make it to the final draft, or even the second draft, you should know the details of your character’s life.

One way I like to go about filling out characters is to interview real people. If your character is a teacher, interview a local teacher. If you are writing about a bartender, go to a pub (during off hours), tip well, and ask for their story. Not everyone wants to be interviewed, but enough will that you can find someone. Ask them about their daily routine. Why do they prepare in the ways they do? What are the problems that are obvious to someone in that profession that aren’t clear to an outsider? You can get some great background information for your characters this way.

Your goal should be to create a character who is believable in their profession to both laypeople and experts. You want the computer programmer in your crime story to feel authentic to your grandmother and to the software engineers at Google. However, one pitfall of this engorgement of character information is putting too much of it into your story. It’s useful to know how the waiter in your story serves their customers and the shorthand they use for taking orders. But does that level of detail need to be visible in every story? No. Much of the information you come up with on your characters will serve to bring them into focus in your mind, and as a result they will be clearer to the reader. Think of all those small details as being marked ‘for your eyes only’. Your reader won’t know what they are, but they’ll know if those details are absent.

Feeling Foreign

I’m currently reading the Millennium trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo being the first book in the series), which is set in Sweden. I have never been there, nor to any Scandinavian country. I don’t have friends or relatives from the area, and I have only ever met a handful of people of Swedish descent. I have no helpful background for Stieg Larsson to use when trying to evoke the sense of place in Stockholm. However, Larsson is successful in giving me a feeling of place when reading his novels. He combines tactile sensations of food and drink along with a deep immersion in Swedish locations and names to create a strong sense of place.

 

The food and drink of a place is an easy way to describe a place to someone who has not been there. In the Millennium trilogy, everyone is drinking coffee. All the time. Drinking coffee is not an exclusively Swedish activity, but the frequency of the act of drinking it strikes me as something foreign. I take coffee in the morning and afternoon, but Larsson presents it as a cornerstone of life. Important characters are eating dinner? Have a coffee. The sneaky antagonist is plotting his revenge? Over coffee. A protagonist can’t sleep? Put on the coffee! The story of the Millennium trilogy is rooted in Sweden, and Larsson ties something I have experienced to a sense of place I haven’t yet developed. He’s bridging the gap for me.

 

As a side note, Larsson’s use of coffee would not be as effective if he repeated ‘they drank coffee’ hundreds of times. He describes the type of coffee (black vs espresso, instant vs cafe). He tells the reader if the coffee warms the character’s hands or if the mug at the crime scene is cold. He shows us swirls of milk and cream and foam. As a writer it is important to provide these sensory details to the reader. Without them your world can come across as flat or lifeless.

 

Another way Larsson makes the trilogy feel authentically Swedish is the sheer volume of characters with Swedish names. It might seem trivial, but think of it as immersing the reader in the people of the area. If there were three or five or ten characters in The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (the third book in the trilogy), the names would evident but not pervasive. I don’t have exact figures, but you would need multiple sets of hands to keep track of all the Swedish names of people and places. What that means for a writer wanting to immerse their reader in a new place is that you should consider naming locations or minor characters you might normally give no more than a pronoun. Say they drove through Sandwich on their way to Chicago, or that the mailman’s name is Kristov. The added detail will help your reader feel a sense of place.

 

Five Reasons Poetry Is Just Like CrossFit

  1. It makes you feel powerful.
    “and he said: you pretty full of yourself ain’t chu //
    so she replied: show me someone not full of herself
    and i’ll show you a hungry person” (Giovanni 19-21).
    Knowing you’ve captured an image or a moment in words is just like a PR — you know you’ve just done something special, difficult, and new, and you want to tell everybody about that surge of power that just ran through you. Hence all the social media posts about achieving writing mileposts and CrossFit goals. Just so you know, not only did I finish a poem I’ve been working on for a few weeks today, but I also actually jumped on all my box jumps. No step-ups. 
  2. You hope other people will notice, but you’re doing it for yourself first.
    “To gain your own voice, forget about having it heard. Become a saint of your own province and your own consciousness” (Ginsberg).
    So it’s been six months since your last acceptance. So what? You will either sit down and write more and write better, or you won’t. You’ll either grab that jumprope and try to master double-unders or you won’t. I’m betting you will. 
  3. It’s a challenge, and you’re up for it.
    “I once told somebody that writing a sestina was rather like riding downhill on a bicycle and having the pedals push your feet. I wanted my feet to be pushed into places they wouldn’t normally have taken” (Ashbery qtd. in Guthrie).
    Sestinas are a challenge. Six end words. Six stanzas. An envoi. A complicated rotating pattern. Sounds like the “Bear Complex” WOD to me.
  4. You don’t have to be good at it to be a part of the club.
    “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
    the world offers itself to your imagination,
    calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
    over and over announcing your place
    in the family of things” (Oliver 14-18).
    Go to an open mic or a poetry reading or a poetry workshop. You’ll see. It’s just like being in a CrossFit box. Whether you’re Rx or scaled, let’s get it!
  5. It lays you bare. (You look better naked.)
    “We live so often in a damped-down condition, obscured from ourselves and others. The sequesters are social—convention, politeness—and personal: timidity, self-fear or self-blindness, fatigue. To step into a poem is to agree to risk. Writing takes down all protections, to see what steps forward” (Hirshfield).
    Ok, ok. Poetry might not make you look better naked (although a well-chosen, well-timed recitation probably wouldn’t hurt), but it does strip you down. Writing and reading poetry gets at the core, at the human center. CrossFit will eventually help you look and feel better, and, let me tell you, after a WOD involving wall-balls, calorie rows, sit-ups, and burpees, you’ll feel closer to every single athlete in that box. There are no societal masks when you’re writing your heart out or when you’re on your back on the chalk-spattered floor gasping for air.

Giovanni, Nikki. “Poem For A Lady Whose Voice I Like.” Poetry Foundation. 2015. Web. 12 March 2015.

Guthrie, Camille. “Why Write Sestinas?” Poetry Foundation. 16 April 2013. Web. 12 March 2015.

Hirshfield, Jane. “Why Write Poetry?” Psychology Today. 6 Jan. 2014. Web. 12 March 2015.

Oliver, Mary. “Wild Geese.” Poemhunter.com 2015. Web. 12 March 2015.

 

The Memoir Dilemma


post by litsense

My current dilemma about finishing my memoir, besides the serial procrastination, is that the people I write about will not like that in the process of exposing myself, I will expose them too. My mother may not like what I have shared that makes her appear self-centered, and my husband might be embarrassed to read what I was really thinking so many years ago. It’s my story, I tell myself, my truth, but that argument feels weak against the cold of the back of a shoulder turned against you. In any event, I think any writer who writes about their life and their family has to face this fear in order to write the story they feel they have to tell. Lee Gutkind offers this:

Writing true stories about family goes beyond the normal complications of writing creative nonfiction, because you are digging deep into your own roots and personal foundations. Once you begin to do this, you are relinquishing, to a certain extent, whether deliberately or not, the safety and security of your house and home and family. Your parents, spouse, siblings, cousins, and everyone else may continue to comfort and love you, but they will probably never again trust you completely. They will always wonder what you are going to write about them next.

Of course, the other side of the equation is that they might also treat you with a bit more care and respect because of the power of your pen. So, it’s not all bad.

Bottom line, if you write about your family there is a risk, and the decision is if it is a risk worth taking.

A Dead Letter in Reverse: Melville’s Bartleby

From Jeffery Schrecongost at South85:

I was assembling my ENGL 112 course syllabus the other day, and, in reviewing Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” I was reminded that an argument for Bartleby as antiestablishment hero is not indefensible. The harmless, if not initially loveable, chap is curiously comedic in his hell-bent defiance and awkward introversion and can ultimately be viewed as a martyr for individuality. Conversely, an interpretation of Bartleby as individual-to-a-fault can be successfully supported as well.

Read more of Jeffery’s post at South85

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If You’ve Ever Dreamed of Becoming a Best-Selling Author-A Caution

then you may want to read Kevin Kaiser‘s article over at Writer’s Digest: The Dark Side of Being a Bestseller. Kevin says:

The thing is, there is a dark side to being a bestseller. There are secrets they don’t share publicly.

 

I know because I’ve worked inside the Publishing Machine for nearly a decade, advising multi-million dollar bestsellers and publishers on everything from creative development to grassroots marketing. I’ve been equal parts strategist, editor, and counselor.

 

Bestsellers carry secrets, and if they were to share a few it might be these.

 

Read the rest of the post; well worth it.

Kevin has a lot of good information in his weekly newsletters, and I look forward to reading them every week.

Find Kevin on Twitter

Kevin’s blog

Check out Kevin’s webpage and especially his podcasts.

Drama, or Melodrama? The Fine Line of Emotion

Drama, or Melodrama? The Fine Line of Emotion

by Rhonda Browning White

 

Successful stories are emotional stories: we connect with that which moves us. A writer’s work is at its best when the reader feels emotion alongside a character. We must take care not to cross that very fine line and overdramatize a character’s feelings; otherwise, a reader will be about as patient with the emotional scene as with a toddler’s temper tantrum.

An excellent example of understated yet powerful emotion is present in Leslie Pietrzyk’s “The Circle”, a Pushcart-Prize-nominated short story appearing in the Winter 2013 issue of The Gettysburg Review. “The Circle” relates the stories of two characters—one a young female narrator grieving her husband’s recent death, the other a grief counselor named Ruth who is in denial of the cancer that’s taken root in her breast—deftly juxtaposed and intertwined. Death and cancer: two painfully grim subjects that if not handled correctly, especially when examined in one short story, risk leaving a reader morose and depressed, potentially swearing off the author’s work forever. The last thing needed in a story of this gravity is melodrama, but there is equal danger in making light of such serious subjects through use of glib dialogue, inappropriate humor, or unrealistic character actions.

Fortunately, Pietrzyk’s “The Circle” conveys honest emotion through the body language, dialogue, and the internal thoughts of both of her point of view characters, without veering across the line into melodrama. One case in point is the recent widow’s bleak expression of hopelessness when describing the room in which her support group is held:

“Drab, large, as shapeless as something with four walls could be, so that while the room was rectangular, the boundaries felt ill-defined. Alternating between stuffy and chilly. Windows high up on the walls, offering squeaks of light but no view. Fluorescent lighting with a slight buzz. An unplugged coffee maker on a long table covered with a plastic, red-checked tablecloth with dark brown burn circles where someone had set down something hot. It was a room where sad people collected, people with vast problems. She stared at a wall calendar with a picture of a European castle, wondering why something seemed off, and finally realized she was looking at last month’s dates.”

Pietrzyk doesn’t tell us her character feels hopeless, nor do we see the young woman moping, shoulders sagging, as she drags herself into the room. Why? Because that would be melodramatic. Instead, as we see the room through the character’s eyes, we feel her heavyheartedness.

We see a concurrence of bleakness—this time expressed through anger—in grief counselor Ruth, when she refuses to call her doctor, refuses to schedule a breast biopsy, and lies to her friends about doing both. We feel her resentment when she takes control of what she worries may be the short amount of time she has left.

“People ramble through grief at their own pace—tiptoes to raging bulls—and Ruth does not judge. It’s not a race.

“No, what Ruth finds disturbing is the steady gnaw of anger as she listened to the widows speak that first night. She’s been tired lately, maybe, or about to get her period. Maybe that ill-advised Mexican meal. But today, home after work, after not calling the doctor, she realizes why: those bitches are alive, and she is dying.”

Again, the expression of emotion is restrained, yet ruthless, and in a story that deals with difficult topics such as death and cancer, this is crucial. There can be no histrionics, no clichés, nor any falsely callous song and dance. This careful balance when walking the fine line of emotional expression in writing is what allows readers to engage and immerse in the story and experience truthful emotions alongside and through our characters.

 Gettysburg Review Winter 2013

 

 

 

Forget the card. Give a poem.

by Gabrielle Freeman

It’s that time of year again. Three full aisles of inflated red mylar, plastic wrapped heart-shaped boxes, and stuffies everywhere from teeny-tiny to I-could-use-it-for-a-bed. An entire section of folded cardstock replete with card-sized words about love. Pffffttt I say.

All of the writing I’ve sampled in the following poem works. All. Of. It. Ditch the card. Send your lover a poem.

Valentine’s Anaphora

I want to say something about love.
I want to say something about
standing at the edge of the sea, about
sleeping next to “her sepulchre there by the sea” (Poe).

I want to say I’ve felt the sand against my cheek.
I’ve felt the spray, wet and cold, against my cheek.

I want to say “In the madness and soil
of that sad earthly scene / only then I am human
/ only then I am clean” (Hozier-Byrne).

I want to say I’ve felt the dirt clenched
in my palms. I’ve felt the earth grit and stick
against my splayed palms.

I want to say “You know what / you know with your hands,
wish the night blacker since / blackest
is forever” and “You cannot now comfort me.
/ So disown me. The soil is free.
Within it lives all that matters.
/ One day, I’ll see you down there” (Marvin).

I want to say the sand and the soil, the dirt and the earth, scream
want and desire and, oh god, love.

I want to say “grab my fingers gently,
/ slam them in a doorway, put my face
into the ground” (White).

I want to say something sweet and subtle about love
like that.

Hozier-Byrne, Andrew. “Take Me To Church.” Hozier. Rubyworks, 2014. CD.
Marvin, Cate. “Plastic Cookie.” poets.org. 2015. Web. 12 Feb. 2015.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “Annabel Lee.” Poetry Foundation. 2015. Web. 12 Feb. 2015.
White, Jack. “Love Interruption.” Blunderbuss. Third Man Records, 2012. CD.