Monday, July 12, 2010

The Writer's Eye

Writing prompts from friends and mentors sometimes do the job. But what triggers a writer if his prompts must come from within? What I want are more sparks, more flint applied to steel, drawn from my own insights and not the prompts of others. Years back I photographed villagers in Pakistan and across Africa. That passion had me seeing the light in everything; the yellow light at dawn, roseate tones at sunset, the bruised purples of a lingering dusk. Light, evanescent light, invisible until it slices sideways through new foliage or maybe buttercups. Until it graces an old woman’s profile, telling her life story in lines and shadows. I was a danger to my friends back then, prone to slamming on the brakes without warning – “Look at that light, will you?”

As a writer, how can I find those special themes that make me want to hit the brakes and cry, “Did you see that?” It takes a searching soul, wandering through life with wondering eyes, always in learning mode. It takes experience, to know the contrast that points to something rare, to find garnets in the sand. It takes words enough to frame the nuance, capturing life’s butterflies in ways not seen before. Only those who live fully immersed in life can write of love from having loved, of loss from being sucked into its vacuum. I long to capture life, to hold it there inside a latticework of words, each meant to burnish memory. I yearn to share my special insights with you, my intimate stranger, my reader. That, my friend, is goad enough to drive me on, searching for the story lines of life.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Writers Over 40

Page Lambert, in Connecting People with Nature, challenges recent opinions that writers over 40 have a slim chance of writing anything of substance. “Writers Over 40 Rock,” she counters. Now that I am over 40, and 50, and 60, and Yes, 70, I thought I might weigh in. My 71 year old musings follow.

Why Can’t We?

To those who say We Can’t, I have a two-word answer: Norman Maclean. A River Runs Through It, his first book, appeared when he was 74. Beyond that, the question leads down three paths:

Why Don’t We?

1. So many writers are searching for their identity. In our autumn years, we may have found ourselves, discovered peace in that place, and lost our raging angst.

2. There is a quiescence, a satiety, that comes with a long life well lived. The Waylon Jennings ballad, A Couple More Years, captures this with: “You’re headin’ somewhere, but I’ve been to somewhere, and found it was nowhere at all.” At least not somewhere we need to revisit.

3. After 40 we may find ourselves at some pinnacle of power, some apex of authority, or just plain overworked because we are especially experienced and competent. Who has time to write while imprisoned by our careers?

Why Should We?

1. We are unique. No one else walked in our footsteps, saw life as we did. And we are important. What we saw, what we thought has value. Might there be a hunger for what we alone can write?

2. Who else can capture the essence of what once was, to burnish it as memoir, and offer it as roots to those who will succeed us?

3. Our words provide sea anchors in the headlong rush of impetuous cultural change.

Why Must We?

1. Because our mind, the central component of successful aging, needs the exercise. Given the choice, we all would have our minds outlast our bodies. Other than learning a new language, becoming a writer may be the next best strategy.

2. Or just because there is a story inside that needs to find its wings.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Ten Handy Edits

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s pithy advice, ‘Murder your Darlings” gives the writer an acidic editorial razor; Never, ever, fall in love with your own words. Instructors of creative writing repeat this maxim almost ad nauseum. For me, I need to focus my editing, pinpointing one or two specifics on each read-through. I push all my nonfiction drafts through these types of edits, murdering my darlings all the while.

1. Outline: Do all the main sections fit? Are the transitions clear? Do the section lengths match their contributions to the overall story?

2. Verbs: Check tenses for consistency within sentences and paragraphs. Emphasize present tense, active voice, fewer syllables. Use strong verbs. Much of the author’s voice, of her ability to capture and hold a reader, lies in verb and metaphor choices.

3. Read Aloud Edit: Absolutely essential. Check the flow and meter, the rhythm, find wordings that jar, isolate words that don’t fit or aren’t the author’s voice when read aloud.

4. Brevity: Cut all the crap that is tangential or irrelevant, shorten the sentences.

5. Minimize The 1st Person: Reduce the number of “I”s. No one wants to read your “Dear Diary” ramblings.

6. Time Line: Are the movements in time easy to follow, does the story move right along? Flashbacks can help with back story but avoid too much jumping around in time.

7. Past Participles: Simple past tense is usually a much more powerful phrasing.

8. Prepositional Phrases: Keep them to a minimum, use only where essential. Never more than one in a sentence unless absolutely necessary.

9. Metaphors and Word Choice: Wallace Stegner insists that words must be correct in all their meanings. Others might be familiar with more standard meanings. Using words with special meanings to the author alone, or to an inner circle, loses the general reader.

10. One Last Slash and Burn – Take No Prisoners Edit: Back off. Let the writing cool for a while. Create that emotional distance that must precede your final “darlings” pogrom. Then return with an editorial vengeance. Cut to the chase. Get rid of everything that is not essential to telling the story. Usually this means most of the spurious flavoring, the nonessential back story. Fear not. This literary Sophie’s Choice is ultimately cleansing.

What editorial foci help you the most?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Readability Statistics: Are They Meaningful?

I am a recovering scientist. In my prior life, my writing was copious, erudite and replete with $50 words. Copious, erudite and replete being examples. I even won awards for writing arcane trivia with a lavish lexicon. As I moved into literary nonfiction, however, a senior editor advised me to cut the crap. She told me I would be publishable only if I wrote at the 7-8th grade comprehension level and got my characters per word down below 4.5. A journalism professor cautioned me about the SMOG Index (Simple Measure of Gobbledygook) which penalizes words of three syllables or more. But then a noted nonfiction writer, a professor of English, told me in rather pithy terms that readability stats would not make me a good writer, that they were a distraction, and that I was wasting my time. I felt caught in the middle.

To find some answers, I analyzed several 1000 word writing samples from each of the godparents of nonfiction, those writers I strove to emulate. On the list were Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Barbara Kingsolver, Joan Didion, Terry Tempest Williams, and others. I also sampled more than 50 others for comparison, including contest winners, essays in selected literary journals, lesser known book authors, and the like.

“And what to my wondering eyes did appear” but a really strong, narrowly defined pattern. Averages calculated for each of three groups, nonfiction godparents, edited literary journals, and contest winners, all fit these parameters. There were almost no exceptions. The editor had been right. Characters per word averaged below 4.5 in all cases. Sentences were short, punchy, averaging between 15.1 and 16.6 words. Measures of Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease fell between 72.4 and 75.6, which, within a range of 1-100, is basically homogenous. Average grade level for full comprehension measured between 7.7 and 8.0, again nearly identical. Average SMOG indices for each group were either 6.7 or 6.8. And last but not least, passive voice occurred in less than 5 percent of all sentences written by these authors. Parenthetically, the lesser known authors violated every one of these parameters, always leaning in the direction of worse writing.

My English professor friend was also right. Readability statistics cannot turn anyone into a great writer. Soul and substance are key, and the art and craft that captures them in a latticework of words makes for greatness. But, like chalk lines on a sports field, readability statistics loosely set the boundaries within which the game is played. And, like it or not, many editors and agents have come to expect submissions to fall within these same gridlines.

What are your own readability stats? Compare a first draft with a finished product.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Power of the Prompt

Professor John Calderazzo looked over his graduate nonfiction workshop class after the first week and gave us an assignment; “Write 1000 words on a moment that changed your life.” Lots of things had changed my life, I thought. Most, it seemed, were slow lessons learned the hard way, beaten into my intransigent skull by life’s insistent mallet. But, a moment? I had to think for a while. As I did, the brilliance of this assignment emerged, and left me wondering what makes for a great prompt.

First, and foremost, prompts focus the mind. Strip away the periphery for a brief period and aim at some particular core. This one merely sought a life changing moment. No ambiguity there. Second, while the target may be clear, the path toward it remains open ended, eliciting a full creative response as options come to mind. Third, a great prompt should lead into an arena laden with emotive or sensory memories. John's prompt is a classic in this regard. If the writer recalls a truly “life changing moment” how could she not write of it with passion and verve. In a classroom, the prompt must also strike some universal, something likely to be meaningful to each individual with their own unique life trajectories. Last, and singularly notable in this particular challenge, the assignment drove the students into some of their most intimate places, which John then shared as he critiqued and provided feedback on their writing. The bonds that emerged then grounded his critiques of each person’s work for the rest of the semester.

My life changing moment, just an instant really, became the shot I fired as a hunter that put my name and my “trophy” into the world record book and so filled me with remorse that I cleaned my rifle one last time and quit hunting on the spot. The full essay is forthcoming in the August (Fall) issue of Pilgrimage. Absolutely worth the wait.

Monday, May 17, 2010

To That Most Intimate of Strangers

So many times an author starts, “I write because . . .” Despite the esoterica that follow, the question seems almost hackneyed. I’d rather ask, “To whom do you write?” For if we truly answer that, will we not also find the reason why, seen though a different lens?

Tens of thousands of older Americans would write their memoirs. Nines of thousands will never publish a single page. Yet still they write from within the autumn of their lives, hoping that their words will live beyond them, bring who they are and what they’ve been to others. Most say it’s for their kids.

We write for those whose feet have followed other trails. With them we share our wonders seen or devastations, the joys we felt – our agonies. From sharing comes an inner warmth, a sense of felt community.

We also write to those who’ve wandered down the same life paths as we, encountered those self-same brambles, borne the scars of flesh or psyches torn. “You’re not alone,” our stories offer them.

And as for me, I write to you, my reader – my most intimate of strangers. I don’t even know you but I will assume our intimacy for now. For if we are bound that closely I cannot lie to you, and that will keep me grounded. The stories that I tell must then be true.

I must assume a bond of trust for we are going exploring, you and I. In my words, and in-between my words we’ll seek out unknown places. I’ll capture wisps and freeze them in a lattice work of words. Then, tremulously, for they reflect my secret self, I’ll hold them out to you.

To Whom do you write? And Why?

Friday, May 7, 2010

To Blog or Not to Blog

That, indeed, is the question. Six months ago, I would have laughed derisively. Blogging? Never! Not me. Then, coincidentally on the day I quit Facebook, I gathered with other writers to share aspirations and agonies over coffee. In an earlier, more earthy life, I would have called this a bull session. The conversation turned to writers’ platforms. The technorati nattered on about virtual presence, FB and Twitter, blogs and websites, page hits and unique visitors until they grabbed my reluctant attention. Words like “indispensable,” “critical” and “gotta have one” hit me like a cold shower.

Still skeptical, I attended the Northern Colorado Writers Conference and found whole sessions touting platforms. Coffee breaks flowed with chatter of blogging and tweeting, and something called “driving visitors” to sites. They weren’t discussing stretch limos either. To Ben Barnhart, editor of Milkweed Press, I asked, “Ben, you can’t really expect to measure my marketability using social media populated largely by the under 35s.” Ben replied simply, “Sorry, but it’s a major trend in our industry today.” The coup de grace, however, came with Google’s response to my search for “writer’s platforms.” From hundreds of relevant pages, two stood out. Christina Katz, in The Writer’s Digest, makes a persuasive case for “Why All Authors Need a Platform.” Then Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen reduces the challenge to 10 essential steps toward “national visibility” via a platform.

So I cave. Ten steps – National visibility? I can do that! Kerrie Flanagan, CEO of Northern Colorado Writers taught a blogging class. I joined. I was so far out of my league that I must have seemed a sluggish student.

Yet the doubts persisted. With a blog, there is no editor to weed out the crap. And the blogosphere (I so hate that word) is liberally tainted with unmitigated excrement. But there are pearls to be found, and it is getting better – virtual Darwinism at work. Blogs do connect people and provide metrics on those connections. Because blogs link people, blogs can market things; an author or her writings for example. A good blog spawns dialog, and that exchange begets new ideas, creativity, personal growth. These several things, then, transform blogs into a positive social force on balance. And make me believe that I should start one. But the most persuasive logic of all may be in a Terry Tempest Williams quote: “I write because you can play on the page like a child left alone in sand.” Perhaps that is reason enough.