Category Archives: Rants

Win a Major Award! (Maybe!)

That inimitable Writer Fellow is at it again!

We at the Dogpatch are huge fans of that Writer Fellow, Mike Allegra. Well, he has a writing contest in the works on his wildly popular blog, HEYLOOKAWRITERFELLOW! Polish up your pens and head on over to Writer Fellow’s blog to put in your two cents worth about this contest.

Source: Win a Major Award! (Maybe!)

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This is What Procrastination Looks Like

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Last year (2014, for those of you as disoriented by the fact that we are in the 2010’s as I am) I drafted Book III in my Dreams of QaiMaj series during NaNoWriMo. I was pretty proud of having drafted 100K words in just one month, and I was reasonably sure that I had a decent draft, too. I planned to give myself a year for necessary revisions and edits, then release the book in spring of 2016.

However, the manuscript of Book III has been sitting under my desk for a year, glaring balefully and snarling every time I approach. This intimidating behavior has thrust me into the depths of perhaps my greatest year of procrastination ever. Which, for me, is pretty bad, considering that I’m the Queen of Procrastination to begin with.

With that spring 2016 deadline looming, I’ve been forced to confront my procrastination problem. The first step is recognizing it.

This is what procrastination looks like . . .

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Compulsive organization. While they are the most impressive visually, the spices are actually the tail end of a year-long purge and organization binge. Many trips to Goodwill were made, many precious heirlooms carelessly tossed aside, many organizing solutions purchased and filled. I can honestly say I am the most organized I have ever been in my life. Thank you, Book III.

This is what procrastination looks like . . .

Shopping! Granted, I’m a starving artist so most of my purchases are at thrift stores, but I’m pretty sure my wardrobe has doubled this year.

This is what procrastination looks like . . .

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Baking. You know the procrastination has gotten really bad when your own mother jokingly calls you Martha Stewart. For the record, I’d rather she were jokingly calling me Ursula K Leguin, but this is where procrastination takes us, folks.

This is what procrastination looks like . . .

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Blogging! I recently reached my 70th post on my 101 Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Wrote My First Book blog. Blogging is particularly insidious because it’s easy to think, hey, at least I’m writing something! Plus, blogging is also marketing, so I’m marketing and writing at the same time. Why would I ever do anything but blog?

This is what procrastination looks like . . .

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Compulsively publishing stuff. Why put out the next book when you can publish short stories you’ve already written? I went from one title to ten in less than a week. Unfortunately, a week isn’t a lot of time in this year’s epic procrastination journey. So I had to find something else to do . . .

This is what procrastination looks like . . .

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Marketing! “Something else” was scheduling a two-week $0.99 promo on Dream of a Vast Blue Cavern on every available ebook retailer and taking the time to book an advertising spot every day of the promo! Go ahead, contribute to my procrastination madness! You can read a great book at a great price and encourage the procrastination devil whispering in my ear, “see, you’re selling books. Who needs to write when you’re selling books?”

This is what procrastination looks like . . .

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Planning. Wait, that’s starting to look suspiciously like working on Book III!

This is what procrastination looks like . . .

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Wait, what is happening here? Am I actually . . . Am I actually starting to revise Book III? This is clearly no longer procrastination.

Maybe the story of my year of procrastination will have a happy ending, after all. Still, I find myself wondering, what went wrong?

Hypothesis #1: NaNoWriMo made me arrogant.

Yeah, I’m pretty sure this happened. My success made me think, I can write a novel in a month, so clearly I can revise a novel in a month, so clearly I’m basically done, and I don’t need to look at this again until Spring of 2016.

Hypothesis #2: My Editor’s comments gave that snarling beast some sharp and shiny teeth.

This probably happened too. The feedback was honest and spot on, but it certainly didn’t make it any easier to approach Book III. Especially when the depth of the issues made it clear that it wouldn’t be a quick and easy revision process.

Hypothesis #3: When I finished drafting Book III I was too close to the material to look at it objectively.

Now that a year has passed, I’m hoping  I can do some of the necessary “kill your darlings” work that both I and my Editor agree is needed to make this a great book. There’s no way I could have done that a year ago.

Hypothesis #4: You can’t stop procrastinating when you don’t know you’re procrastinating.

To be honest, most of the year I thought for sure I was right on track. I didn’t question the compulsive organizing, the baking, or the blogging. It wasn’t until I realized I have just four months to not only revise but also edit, format, send to beta readers, plan the launch and distribution of Book III that I started to wonder what I was thinking. Especially when I’m still having thoughts like, “I’ll get to it in January. January will be a good month,” and “Maybe I should draft Book IV first. You know, just to have it done.”

So what next?

I’m thinking about making a carrot torte for the holidays, maybe learning how to cut flowers out of carrots to decorate it. Then I have a jigsaw puzzle I’ve been eyeing for awhile . . . oh wait, you mean with Book III?

Ahem well yes. I’ve been taking steps here at procrastinators anonymous. If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that baby-steps are my path out of procrastination. Set a small, manageable task, accomplish it, then start the next task. Basically, it comes down to fooling the part of myself that’s afraid of that snarling beast. “Oh, no we’re not going to re-write the whole thing, no. Just read one chapter and make a few notes, that’s all. OK, now read one more chapter . . .”

Using that method, I managed to read through the whole manuscript and made detailed notes for revision.

Then I stalled out again. I realized that a large part of the problem is that I need to re-examine the over-arching vision of the series as a whole. To that end, I’ve been re-reading The Plot Whisperer, looking for insight on how to shape not only the plot of book III but the final part of the Dreams of QaiMaj series.

With tips from that great resource in hand, I’ve been reviewing my notes on the series and re-planning it based on some changes that my Editor and I discussed regarding the outcome of Book III. This might sound very much like more procrastination, but it is actually generating a lot more energy and confidence for me to finally tackle the revisions I need to make to Book III.

Next, this very week in fact, I intend to corral the beast, risking life and limb, and start making actual edits in the actual file of Book III. And now that I’ve stated it publicly, I can’t back out.

To recap, here is what I’ve learned about procrastination this year:

  • It’s usually caused by a deep, visceral fear of failure
  • It leads to a highly organized, well-catered, haute-couture lifestyle
  • It can have the additional positive effect of delaying your project until you actually have the distance and objectivity to do it well
  • You can’t stop until you admit you have a problem
  • The way out of procrastination (for me) is baby-steps
  • Consulting resources and stepping back to look at the big picture also help
  • I’m probably never going to be able to write and publish four books a year, at this rate
  • The fear of public humiliation if I don’t follow through is greater than the fear of failure
  • I’m pretty sure I can start that jigsaw puzzle and finish revising Book III this month

Do you procrastinate? If so what kind of fun things manifest from your particular brand of procrastination? How do you un-procrastinate, when it comes time to do so?

Selah J Tay-Song is living proof that if you persevere, you’ll catch your dreams. She decided to be an author at the age of six. Today she is the author of the Dreams of QaiMaj series, an epic fantasy series described as magical, poetic and engrossing. When she’s not writing, she’s stalking the urban river otters that live less than a mile from her home in the Pacific Northwest.

Author website: www.selahjtaysong.com

Book website: www.dreamsofqaimaj.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/selahjtaysong

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/selah.taysong

Pinterest: http://www.pinterest.com/selahjtaysong

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A Course in Jazz Poetry

This poem came to me through Marcy Erb (http://illustratedpoetry.com/2015/04/14/john-coltrane-poem/), a poet/illustrator. The rhythm and imagery is amazing. Happy National Poetry Month!

Stephen Cramer

It’s official. This Winter Semester, I’ll be teaching a course which has never before been offered at UVM. A course in Jazz Poetry.

It’s been so much fun pulling together a syllabus for this one. In the past months I’ve not only reencountered poems that I haven’t seen in a while, but I’ve also discovered a slew of new pieces (particularly those in live readings). I’ve just recently hammered out the course’s time-line, which should look something like this:

In the first classes, we’re going to examine some of the less sympathetic, and even racist, poetry of the 1920s. Then we’ll quickly shift to look at some of the more discerning writers like Langston Hughes. We’ll spend some time reading and listening to the responses of a few poets associated with the Beat movement (Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Kenneth Rexroth). Then the course will culminate in some of the…

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A Few Thoughts About Charlie

A protest sign — both very Gallic and oddly charming — spotted at the massive unity rally in Paris earlier this month to protest the recent terror attacks there, read, in effect (I’m paraphrasing here): ‘I have very conflicted feelings about this very complicated situation, but I’m out here marching anyway.’

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And one thing you can say about the French: they know how to put on a protest.

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But now that all the dust has settled, and after it seems the entire world has paid tribute to the murdered writers and artists at the satirical publication, Charlie Hebdo — I, too, like any writer or artist, would like to pay tribute to the lives of those poor, unfortunate staff members who worked there and died there.

And yet I too have very conflicted feelings about this very complicated situation.

I feel like I may be stepping into it by even bringing this up; but as the nation of France rushes with political unanimity into ‘war with the Arabs’ — as some of the French themselves are calling it — in response to the recent terrorist attacks, I can’t help but feel like we’ve seen this movie before.

And I thought perhaps now might be a good time to discuss the real-world, political ramifications of any writing, fiction or non-fiction.

 

I currently am at work on a novel with a small subplot involving a commune in 1970s California. This part of my story involves some rather sanctimonious individuals, the type of know-it-all, kale-eating Lefty liberals that people on the political right love to hate. If you grew up in Northern California, like I did, you know people like this. They are the humorless, holier-than-thou types that naturally lend themselves to satire.

Yet I find myself struggling to establish the right tone; I struggle to extend these characters some small modicum of respect — so that they will live and breath like any character on the page ideally should — and yet still let them do the same stupid, self-serving things that my narrative warrants and demands. I’ve been struggling with the tone of this section for months now.

In other words, I guess what I’m saying is, satire in freaking hard to do right.

Now my feeling on the subject is that if you’re doing satire right, you are upsetting the powerful, not the powerless. And when a publication like Charlie Hebdo, which prides itself on satirizing everybody and everything, goes after the sacred cows of Islam, the real targets for their abrasive brand of satire are, naturally, the radical imams and mullahs, the humorless ayatollahs, who deserve to be mocked.

Yet, in practice, the slings and arrows of Charlie Hebdo’s particular brand of outrageousness do not land that far afield. They land — with some real force — on the heads of much closer targets, those Muslims immigrants who live in the miserable, squalid banlieues that surround most major French cities. And anyone who thinks the French Muslim population has any genuine cultural or economic power hasn’t spent much time in France.

So when Charlie Hebdo publishes an image of the Prophet on its cover, they are hardly going after what real power there is in the Muslim world — say, the royal family of Saudi Arabia. Continue reading

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Leave No Character Behind

You know that thing about not putting characters by themselves too often because then it’s harder to have an antag in that protag v. antag equation?

Yeah, that’s not what this is really about, but I was thinking about how people always say that. Don’t put that character in that room by themself unless there’s a Bengal tiger in there for them to tame. That would be cool, having a friend who’s a Bengal tiger, but in the wild, where it could run free and maybe bring you a present of a fish now and then since there probably isn’t a Safeway.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAThen there’s that thing about wanting to know more about the mother, or knowing too much about the mother. If it’s my mother, then god love her, you would have a dilemma, or I would have the dilemma, not to project this onto you. The point is that you could talk to her for a while and you’d know a lot about her but you wouldn’t really know anything about her. Interesting to try to capture that on the page. That’s also not really what this is about.

MeOr that one about how good fiction should read like it’s true. That’s always been a harder one for me to get my head around. I can be gullible, but I knew that Lilliput was a made-up place. And Tom and Becky in the cave? Come on! But there are those stories where we think, yeah, that could be true. I never related that question of the reader wondering about true-ness or lie-ness to my own work so much until I recited part of a story I wrote at an open mic. The story’s about this kid who’s trying to earn money to visit her dead mother’s grave site. She’s afraid of this mysterious guy in town, and she can bake. I know, good luck with that.

Anyway, at this open mic, my recitation went well, and despite being slightly older than my character, I successfully projected eleven-ish and people were touched. Afterward, this woman said how much she liked the story, and that she was from Minnesota and familiar with the setting. Cool. Then she asked if the story was true.

“Oh, no,” I said. “It’s made up.”

Her face fell. If I was writing this into a story, I’d write it that way without embellishment: Her face fell. She looked seriously disappointed, like she wanted to take back everything good she said about the story. Continue reading

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Neglect of a Different Sort

Some years ago Philip Roth despaired at the dwindling number of what he called ‘real’ readers left in the United States, readers committed to reading serious books written by serious writers.

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Back in the Day

By some arcane system of his own devising Roth came up with an exact figure, one which I forget, but by his calculations there were only somewhere around five thousand of these ‘real’ readers left in the country.

Roth was reaching a point in his career where he was finding it harder and harder to see the point in writing books anymore. He also was mourning the loss, I think, in the importance of books and literature in American cultural life. But then Philip Roth has gone through several periods throughout his long and storied career (the awards he has received by themselves take up one full page on his bio sheet) when he was in despair over the nature of the book business.

Who could blame him?

Depending on who’s doing the telling, serious literature has been in serious decline for pretty much ever, a victim of benign neglect or communal and/or commercial indifference. And as many now know, Roth finally gave up writing altogether a couple years ago, and recently gave up (or so he says) reading, too.

Philip Roth threw this ‘five thousand readers’ number around for some time until a friend pointed out to him that while five thousand might not seem like a lot, if he was to line up all those people and have them pass one at a time through his living room, while he shook each of them by the hand, that by the time he got to the end of that line, Roth — any writer, for that matter — likely would be reduced to tears.

Neglect, I guess, is in the eye of the beholder. Continue reading

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Overcommitment

Just returned from the annual August tour de famille on the East Coast and in the Midwest. Well, that’s not really true. We’ve been back since August 26. Really late in the evening on August 25, but our keys were with my husband, and he wasn’t with us. So we arrived at baggage claim at SFO only to realize that it was midnight, and we didn’t have keys to our humble abode.

This event symbolized our August. But now that we’re back, what is my excuse for being late to the post?

Overcommitment. You know you’re overcommitted when you can’t recall what you’re supposed to do next because there are too many things competing for “next.” And overcommitment stalls my forward movement.

I’m working on picture book fiction and nonfiction and literary short stories in addition to giving my novel-in-training some gas. I’ve got two kidlit writing groups in addition to the dogs at the patch. I’m taking a nonfiction picture book writing class where I’m supposed to have a first draft to critique in two weeks. But I just discovered last night that my topic is too complex (or at least the way I’ve envisioned it right now) to move forward, so I spent the evening last night looking for a new subject.  When I originally signed up for the class, I was going to do a biography, but it turned out that the living person I want to write a biography about is wary of saying “yes.” Sooooo, how many times can I go back to the drawing board?

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And it’s a new school year with many library liaison activities, including planning for an author visit, creating a new library “wish list,” and getting new library volunteers up to speed on working with classes.

And new afterschool activities every night of the week. And….I’m supposed to be volunteering for Litquake and visiting my new writing group that meets North of SF.

And then there was the unexpected death of my mother-in-law the night of my father-in-law’s memorial in mid-August that continues to haunt me. I’m not sure if haunt is the right word, unless an intermittent replay of the middle-of-the night knock on the window and subsequent events qualifies. It does explain why my husband wasn’t with us when we returned without keys. He (the guy with the keys) took a side trip to his parents’ home to get things in order.

But I’m a writer, right? And I’m supposed to be getting something done. But at the moment, I’m not doing anything well. Getting anything finished, polished. I run from one thing to the next, often without making a single edit. Just enough time to get started before I’ve got to move on to something else.

The center cannot hold. And I wonder if there are writers out there who work best like this? If there are, I wish I were one of them. But I am not, and I have to make some changes. I hope everyone else out there is being more productive than I am right now.

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Mindfulness: Raisins and the Writer

Mindfulness is the buzz word, isn’t it? Or is it just because I live in California?

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I attended a yoga class last week. The lesson for the day, including climbing like spiders up the wall, was about mindful eating. Each of us was offered a raisin—yes, singular—and instructed to hold it close to our eyes and observe its wrinkles and crusty sparkles.

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Then we smelled it. Essence of sugary, ripe jam.

Then we were asked to listen to it. “Horton Hears A Who,” anyone?

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Yes, we listened to those tiny raisin voices as we held them close to our ears and rolled them between our thumbs and forefingers. Mine squeaked.

“Please, I know you’re going to eat me. Can we just get this over with?”

Yoga is a cruel sport, isn’t it?

Finally, we were asked to put those raisins on our tongues and roll them around in our mouths for a full minute before being allowed to chew.

In much less than one minute, I knew I didn’t have the mindful moral fiber it takes to be a true yogi. I wanted to chew that soggy, yet crystalline, drop of zero taste and swallow. Then I wanted to grab a whole handful of those little squeakers, stuff my mouth, and grind away, turning them into a sweet mass of gumminess. That, my friends, is how you get the real flavor of raisins.

The solitary fleck of grit in the universe of my mouth was—

“Chew!” said the instructor. “Chew! Chew! Chew!”

My train had already left the station.

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I must remember to do this

Let’s move the focus from my flawed moral character to how “one vs. many” plays out with language. Despite the lovely alliteration, repetition and raisins should not be bedfellows.

A whole handful of examples (adverbs being one) will often not make the experience that much sweeter, richer, or more textured for the reader. It usually achieves the opposite. Instead of strengthening the effect, the writer steeps weak tea. Instead of making the prose rich, the writer sews the empty pockets of a pauper. Instead of making the prose more muscular, the writer births a 98 pound weakling.

Shoot me now before I have to read another cliché in a string of clichés.

The moral of the story is this. Whenever you’re tempted to:

  • create characters whose purpose is redundant (or worse, nonexistent), eliminate or combine two or more characters to achieve the same effect.
  • indulge in repetitive sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters that don’t move the story forward, cut and/or combine.
  • use weak verbs “strengthened” by adverbs, select strong verbs and cut the adverbs.
  • create weak dialogue and surrounding exposition that relies on adverbs (commonly called “two-by-fours”) or repetition to get the point across, take the opposite approach. Dialogue means you’re in scene. Show one single telling detail (not two or three or four) that conveys the essence of the character or character’s reaction, thoughts, or physical trait. Extra points for doing this via dialogue instead of in the exposition used to anchor characters in space.
  • give characters multiple actions that convey the same meaning, select one action that’s unusual to convey the essence of your point.

If there is a critical moment or action that begs repeating for fear your reader won’t “get it,” think and think again and then think some more about whether it’s necessary, or whether it’s a matter of finding a better way to say it once to make it unforgettable for the reader.

And to remind myself of these points when I’m revising, I’m going to breathe and think of:

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For Real?

Someone I know lost a very close friend this past weekend. He was only 43 years old and left behind a wife (the love of his life) and two kids, one a 4-yr-old diagnosed a few weeks ago with a rare form of cancer. The child had come home last week from his first round of chemo and a follow-up stay at the hospital, and over the weekend, the father had a massive heart attack in his sleep. In the real world, this is tragic. Extraordinarily tragic.

In the world of fiction, would a reader believe this story?

Ever had someone read your work and say “I don’t believe it happened that way”? I have. And that means I didn’t do a solid job of constructing the fictional dream that draws the “buy in” from readers. I put on the hard hat and built the house with some old rotten planks I found lying around, ones that had seen better days, but it’s a house, right? For some people, the structure may hold, but many will find the whole thing too shaky to be willing to walk through the door.

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I wouldn’t go in there

And it doesn’t matter that it really happened if you can’t make the reader believe it, right?

I just came back from a writing conference where John Gardner, the author of “The Art of Fiction,” got slammed once again. But it’s funny how everyone objects to the “voice” in that book—he’s soooo snotty!!—but few ever refute his points. On page 22, where he explains how to get buy-in, he categorizes three types of writing:

1) The realistic writer makes events convincing through verisimilitude, real world, real details, real responses. This is Alice Munro’s bailiwick.

2) The tale teller writing of ghosts, shape-shifters, or characters who may never sleep depends on confidence and authority, the “quality of voice” to charm the reader or distract the “critical intelligence,” what Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” I’m thinking right now of a recent read called The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper. The narrator’s voice begins powerfully and stays strong throughout the story, and he’s also a master of the “telling detail.”

3) The yarn writer, the one whose lies are so outrageous and entertaining that the reader is pulled along by the brilliance of the falsehood. This one is easy. Think Mark Twain.

Gardner goes on to explain that all three types of writing depend on precise detail. Hmmmm, what details? Well, if your character walks into a bar, your reader knows what a bar looks like:

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NOOOOO!!!!!! Not that kind of bar! This kind…

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Get the point? Fill in the pieces that MUST be known and let the reader fill in the rest of the fictional dream.

If the reader is moved to ask the dreaded question: “Would ____ really have said/done that?” we know the reader has fallen out of the dream and on to the floor.

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Ouch!

And readers don’t like such a rude awakening.

Pay attention to what is real, the emotional core of the moment. Write from that center of authority and—yes, I’ll use that overused word—authenticity. So that is craft, right?

Now comes the “other” part of writing.

One of Gardner’s points that often gets glossed over in this “detail” business is that fiction is not meant solely to entertain or distract us from our personal concerns, but “helps us know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations.”

To do so, we must move beyond craft. Gardner says:

“No amount of intellectual study can determine for the writer what details he (she) should include.” Everything must be chosen “by feeling and intuition. And one of the things he (she) will discover, inevitably, is that the images of death and loss that come to him (her) are not necessarily those we might expect.”

He goes on to suggest that in order to tell the truth, one must empty one’s mind of those images that instantly come to the forefront. Or as Karen Joy Fowler suggests: “I find that if I go with my first ‘gut response,’ it is the easiest, most facile, most seen before image. I have to work harder to figure out what should really happen.”

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Keep throwing the darts until you hit the bulls-eye

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion describes how her husband died, chatting with her and drinking a cocktail while she prepared dinner.

“I only remember looking up. His left hand was raised and he was slumped motionless. At first I thought he was making a failed joke, an attempt to make the difficulty of the day seem manageable.

I remember saying Don’t do that

When he did not respond my first thought was that he had started to eat and choked…In the kitchen by the telephone I had taped a card with the New York-Presbyterian ambulance numbers. I had not taped the numbers by the telephone because I anticipated a moment like this. I had taped the numbers by the telephone in case someone in the building needed an ambulance.

Someone else.”

The details she selects to describe the event and her specific response—she had difficulty eating for months afterward because the trauma occurred at mealtime—leave the reader with no room for disbelief.

But one more thing: She sets the scene with thoughts that everyone has:

“Confronted with sudden disaster, we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames…”

Again, we are right there with her. We know this happens.

But how do you find that magical intuition that knows what details are necessary for the story? Spin a sticky web, and go to sleep. See what you’ve caught in the morning?

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If that doesn’t work, try practice. Just like meditation, you’ve got to show up and do the work of emptying your mind before you fill it up. Think “Zen mind, beginner’s mind.”

So when a young father with a child who’s just been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer shows up in your fictional world, find the details that only you can provide, the ones that “make it real” for you.

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You deserve so much better

Savannah Brown

Savannah Brown

Hello from the Dogpatch! Check out this amazing slam poem by seventeen-year-old Savannah Brown featured on Erika Fuego‘s site, where you will find a delightful, eclectic mix of writing and imagery.

“You Deserve So Much Better” is one of those performance art pieces that makes you grateful there are poets in the world. You can see more of Savannah’s performance art videos at: http://www.youtube.com/user/savanamazing?feature=watch

Thanks to Erika for featuring this video. And go, Savannah!

You deserve so much better.

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