Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Post in Praise of Maria Popova's "Brain Pickings"

This is a plug, a plug for one of the most worthwhile, intelligent, well-researched, thought-provoking blogs anywhere on the internet. Brain Pickings, written by Maria Popova, is consistently packed with insight, and with explorations of fascinating written works both old and new. I am never disappointed when I follow Ms. Popova down the rabbit hole. In evidence, I submit a short section from her blog, her answer to an 11 year old girl's question "Why do we need books?"

Some people might tell you that books are no longer necessary now that we have the internet. Don’t believe them. Books help us know other people, know how the world works, and, in the process, know ourselves more deeply in a way that has nothing to with what you read them on and everything to do with the curiosity, integrity and creative restlessness you bring to them.
Books build bridges to the lives of others, both the characters in them and your countless fellow readers across other lands and other eras, and in doing so elevate you and anchor you more solidly into your own life. They give you a telescope into the minds of others, through which you begin to see with ever greater clarity the starscape of your own mind.
And though the body and form of the book will continue to evolve, its heart and soul never will. Though the telescope might change, the cosmic truths it invites you to peer into remain eternal like the Universe.
In many ways, books are the original internet — each fact, each story, each new bit of information can be a hyperlink to another book, another idea, another gateway into the endlessly whimsical rabbit hole of the written word. Just like the web pages you visit most regularly, your physical bookmarks take you back to those book pages you want to return to again and again, to reabsorb and relive, finding new meaning on each visit — because the landscape of your life is different, new, “reloaded” by the very act of living.
Looking for something worth reading? Go visit Brain Pickings. Looking to keep the internet a home for more than cute cat videos and celebrity gossip? Make a donation to Brain Pickings. Thus endeth the plug.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Creativity vs. Mindfulness

This summer, I read a lot about the practice of mindfulness - being present, in the moment. I felt it was work I needed to do, something with which I struggled. My mind has a tendency to wander, to get lost in the forest of thought, and I was feeling some negative effects of that tendency, such as leaving my body when my husband was talking to me about something, or losing track of where I was going when I was driving, or eating an entire meal without really tasting it, or worrying so much about the next things I had to do that I failed to notice the beauty right in front of my face. You know - little stuff like that. So, I read up on being present. I read books by Thich Nhat Hanh, and books about Christian contemplative practices, and Barbara Brown Taylor's AN ALTAR IN THE WORLD. And I practiced being mindful and present as I walked, as I ate, as I moved through my day. I started honoring a digital Sabbath every Saturday so I would choose presence over technology. I mean, I worked on this stuff.

But just now I am reading a book called THE CREATIVE MIND, by Nancy C. Andreasen.  It explores the nature of creativity, examines a wide range of studies on the subject and looks at the current neuroscience behind it. One section struck me today, a  section delineating what appear to be common threads to the creative process. The first such thread, or stage, is a kind of trance, an entering into another world, "a state apart from reality." I recognize this stage. It's something of an out of body experience. I sometimes liken it to going down the rabbit hole. I have talked about this stage in the process with other writers, too. It is a necessary step in the evolution of a creative endeavor.

And yet, you cannot enter this "out-of-body", creatively fertile mental state if you are practicing being present, being in your body. There is a kind of tension between the creative process and the practice of being present or mindful.

I must admit, I felt a slight eureka sensation as I struggled to articulate this idea for myself. I felt I had glimpsed, however briefly, the reason that I am prone towards absent-mindedness and struggle with mindfulness.

To have the raw material that makes poetry and fiction sing, a writer ought to practice mindfulness. After all, how can you fully evoke the sensations of a given place or experience if you don't allow yourself to be present and experience sensations in your own life. On the other hand, the writer must cultivate the capacity for non-presence, for that out-of-body "state apart from reality" in order to enter fully into the creative realm.

Perhaps if you are prone to creative endeavors you are also likely to struggle with mindfulness in your day to day life. Perhaps the line between presence and wandering is blurred for the creative mind. Perhaps this is where practice comes in. If you regularly engage in the writing practice and in mindfulness, your skills at slipping into and out of the two states - presence and the creative zone - become stronger, and more within your own control. Or perhaps it is a fool's game to attempt to control such things.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Teaching Children about Writer's Block

Last year, I explicitly taught my third graders about the term "writer's block." It was a remarkable thing to see how it changed their view of getting stuck or not knowing what to write about. They still got stuck, but suddenly, they knew this didn't mean they "couldn't write." They knew, instead, that this was something real writers, published writers, experienced and gifted writers, have struggled with throughout history. It made them part of the writing community.

Mind you, I didn't just tell them what writer's block was, I gave them some strategies writers use to try to break through writer's block. Their faces lit up in recognition as they realized some of these strategies are things they themselves have done, or could try. "I do that!" "That's what I do!" Getting up and stretching intentionally, in an effort to break through writer's block, with the goal of getting back to your writing, is very different than aimlessly wandering around the room sharpening pencils and annoying other writers.

It wasn't a fancy or complicated lesson. I simply told the kids that getting stuck happens to even the best writers, that it has a name, that they are not alone in this struggle, and that there are things they can try to help them get past it. I gave them a list of strategies, told a little about my own writer's block experiences, and about which strategies I or my writing friends used, and asked them to mark any of the strategies they thought they could try. I also gave them a visual, a quick sketch of a stick figure walking into a wall. We talked about the strategies as ways of dealing with the wall - one brick at a time, or digging underneath the wall or flying over it or going around it, etc. - thinking differently about it, in other words.

I revisited this lesson this year, with similar results. Suddenly, my students are seeing themselves as writers (which has been the goal all along, but it hit a new level after this conversation). "Is there an age limit on how old you have to be to publish a book?" asked one young man. "Can writers get ideas from other writers?" asked another, whereupon I told him about critique groups, and how writers plan times for working alone and times for connecting with other writers, and that it's important to know how to help yourself move through writer's block when you are working alone, but that another day I could teach them about writing groups.  At the end of the lesson, as we transitioned to the computer lab, the room was still buzzing. "Ms. McGean," announced another young author, eyes shining, "I broke through my writer's block today!"

When your enemy has a name, it loses power.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Grass Harp: Writing That Takes Your Breath Away

Some writing just takes your breath away. My writing friend and critique partner recently recommended THE GRASS HARP, by Truman Capote. It is a novella, a form that seems these days to elicit both love and disgust. It is beautiful. Breathtaking. And I'm only on Chapter One. Here's an example:

We reached a field of Indian grass at the same moment as the sun. Dolly's veil flared in the morning breeze, and a pair of pheasants, nesting in our path, swept before us, their metal wings swiping the cockscomb-scarlet grass. The China tree was a September bowl of green and greenish gold: Gonna fall, gonna bust our heads, Catherine said, as all around us the leaves shook down their dew.
Such a short passage, with so much going on! You have to stop and take it in. You have to slow down, to notice. The words make the world magical, without ever introducing any magic. It takes your breath away.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Be Specific!

Be specific. Make the mundane memorable.
I've been on a binge of nonfiction reading this summer, which is odd since fiction is usually my go-to summer read. But the heart wants what the heart wants, and this summer, my heart wants nonfiction. I am reading it first for the content, but it's hard not to read with one eye on the writing style, which has ranged from the highly academic, loaded down with the kinds of words and sentences found in an Ivy League senior thesis, to warm, simple and intimate, elucidated through anecdote.

The latest nonfiction on my bed table is AN ALTAR IN THE WORLD, by Barbara Brown Taylor, whose personal and connected style really speaks to me. She does occasionally get lost in a wilderness of metaphor, but her ability to ground spiritual things in the real world is powerful and engaging. I realized today that part of her magic comes from being specific.  Here's the sentence that pointed me in that direction:
While I was a cocktail waitress I once spilled a whole Singapore Sling down the back of an Australian woman's red fox coat.
 I read this sentence several times. It seemed so exotic and interesting to me. Then I stepped back. This was no adventure on the high seas. What was she really saying? "One time when I was a waitress I spilled a drink on a customer." BORING!  But make it specific and it's almost like a travel brochure. We visit Singapore and Australia and go fox hunting in England all in one sentence, and suddenly this mundane bit of narrative is rich and textured.

For most of us, specificity belongs to the realm of revision, until we're practiced enough for it to become second-nature. On a first draft, you're capturing ideas and broad strokes. It's not the time to linger over every word and wonder "Is this specific enough?" But when you revise, look for those places where you have chosen the overly general word. Then take it further. Not just a waitress, a cocktail waitress. Not just a drink, a Singapore Sling. Not just a customer, a woman. What kind of woman? An Australian woman. Where was the drink spilled? Down her back. What was she wearing? A coat. What kind of coat? A red fox coat. Bam. Be specific and the mundane becomes the memorable. A rose by any another name may smell just as sweet, but it will affect your reader differently.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Secret Word Duck - Use and Misuse of Million-Dollar Words

I've been reading a book called Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, by Jon Savage. I have never had to look so many words up in the dictionary as I read. It's positively giving me a complex. I've begun to wonder if I've lost more braincells than I thought in my middle-aged years. I'm all for expanding my vocabulary, but this book tosses around the million dollar words right and left without context clues, and often with no real justification for using the fancy word when a simpler one would do.

This makes me wonder about that small but potent animal, word choice. In my classroom, I talk about "juicy words." Juicy words are words you can sink your teeth into and savor, words that make the writing jump and sing, words that are saturated with voice. Sometimes, they are words that stand out.

Now, standing out isn't always a bad thing. When you're a diva singing a solo, standing out is your job. On the other hand, when you're singing harmony in a quartet, or you're part of a choral group, standing out is a problem. It's the same with juicy words. Sometimes, they should stand out and make the reader stop, ponder, take notice. In my opinion, this is especially true for poetry, descriptive passages, and certain moments in prose - moments that need to breathe or shock or freeze.

Juicy words aren't always the same as what my younger self would call "big words." Now, I LOVE to learn new big words. I love them best when they capture an idea that eludes my existing lexicon, when they lend brevity to a thought and make it clearer. I love them least when the distance they create between me and my reader, or, if I am the reader, then me and the text, is so great that it becomes the focus of attention, at the expense of meaning or narrative or the thread of thought.

In my opinion, Mr. Savage fell into the latter category in a few places. I have forgotten more of his million dollar words than I remember, and, frankly, I wasn't impressed with them enough to put them in my own toolbox. However, I shall credit him with adding  prelapsarian and ambit to my vocabulary.

"Prelapsarian" describes a state similar to the state of Adam and Eve before the fall. It is built of word parts that fit its meaning, and that I recognize ("pre" - before, and "lapse", as in a lapse of memory - a slip or fall). In one word, it captures a complex and resonant idea that carries with it a collection of cultural images and baggage. I like that about "prelapsarian."

"Ambit" refers to a sphere of influence. It carries the notion of how far something or someone's reach may extend. Best of all, and what I love about it, is that it is the root word of "ambition." This is interesting to me because I am, clearly, a word derivation geek. Plus, I love the idea that this root word is so simple in its structure that an early or struggling reader in my classroom could decode the basic consonant-vowel-consonant pattern of its two parts, and yet it is so underused and uncommon. Simple yet rare. Like an exotic orchid. Or a perfect kiss. Thinking about the relationship between this simple creature and its three-syllable, muscle-bound, popular offspring "ambition" creates a fascinating harmony of contemplation in my brain.

Juicy words. They come in all shapes and sizes. Use sparingly and wisely, with empathy and compassion for your reader and awareness of the impact on pacing and distance.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Rediscovering the Brilliance of Dr. Seuss

This month is Dr. Seuss' birthday, celebrated in elementary schools far and wide. Of course, in this era of short school years and pressures to meet the standards, it's a bit harder to manage a full day devoted to Dr. Seuss, with Cat-in-the-Hat hats and so forth. But I couldn't let the moment pass without some acknowledgment. So, I read YERTLE THE TURTLE to my students, and in the process I was reminded of how truly brilliant Dr. Seuss was.

We think of Dr. Seuss and we think of GREEN EGGS AND HAM, THE CAT IN THE HAT - fun rhymes and childlike simplicity. Those books manage to use words accessible to early readers without being dull as dishwater. Cat?  Hat? Can you think of any more basic rhymes? But that's part of Dr. Seuss' brilliance - the deceptive ease of his rhyme. Read it aloud and it flows, smoothly, effortlessly, from one idea to the next, the rhyme and meter giving the whole text this magnificent lift without ever getting in the way or collapsing into obvious rhymes and predictability. Have you ever tried to write in a Seussian rhyme scheme? It is anything but easy.

But the doctor's genius goes beyond his remarkable skill with language. His books are subversive, revolutionary, political. When I asked my third graders to identify the theme of YERTLE THE TURTLE, they didn't miss a beat. "If you have power," they said, "You shouldn't abuse it."  Think of HORTON HEARS A WHO, a statement about the power of one small person to make a difference in the world against the great and powerful. Think of THE SNEETCHES, a fable on the importance of diversity and difference. The BUTTER BATTLE, THE LORAX - time and again, Dr. Seuss dove boldly into the political arena via his children's books. No wonder. He started as a political cartoonist. And yet, despite the unflinching, often explicitly stated, morals of his stories, he never seems "preachy," a term we writers have been warned against in the strictest of terms when it comes to picture books. Somehow, Dr. Seuss is able, through his humor, his clever writing, his fantastical visions, to hurl these powerful morals at his readers without insult or condescension.

While I was reading YERTLE THE TURTLE, one of my students pointed out that Yertle really shouldn't be claiming he is king of a house and king of a tree and king of all he can see because nobody elected him. And just like that, we were connecting with current events in the Ukraine. The issue of rightfully elected leadership is at play there, just as it was for Yertle. Geopolitics emerges from a children's story about a turtle in a pond. That's the brilliance of Dr. Seuss. Happy birthday, Theodore!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

100 Rejections

A few days ago, I reached my personal goal of 100 rejections. I set this goal a while back as a way to embrace the fear inherent in submitting my work and take the sting out of rejections. I made a rule that all the submissions had to be in good faith, of course, to count towards my total. The 100 rejections represents a number of different pieces of writing, from novels to short stories to poems to picture books, so it's really still a drop in the bucket of what I know I must reach when you play the numbers game. However, I see it as an important milestone. And I plan on celebrating, though I'm not sure how just yet.

As writers, we need to set goals, goals we can control. I can't control what an editor or agent ultimately decides to do with my work, so I don't want to set a goal like "sell this many short stories" or "get an agent by such-and-such date." I CAN control how good the work is, how I decide which pieces to send where, how often I submit, how much I write. I can set a goal like "finish the revisions on this novel by such-and-such date" or "submit this many queries by the end of the year." I figured the only way to reach 100 rejections was to keep submitting, so really my goal was to keep submitting my work. And I did.

I wish I could say that along with these rejections I had some huge and monumental successes. Not yet. On the other hand, I did have some small but notable successes. I sold three short stories. I had a few pieces shortlisted. I had one agent and one publisher  who were incredibly complimentary of my novel. I had several pieces win recognition in contests of one sort or another. All of these kept me going.

Reaching any goal, no matter how silly or small, is a good time to stop and take stock. So, having reached my 100 rejections, I am taking stock. Where do I want to go from here? How do I want to push myself? What is a realistic goal? I know I want to finish the first draft of my dreamscape novel and finish the rewrites on what I'm calling my problem novel. I know I want to continue to create NEW short stories, to improve my "inventory" for submissions. I know I need to get better at the all-important and hated query letter. But what about a goal to push me to keep on submitting and not give up?

If I try for 200 rejections, maybe I'm giving myself too much permission to fail. Perhaps this time, I will set a goal for number of submissions. My 100 rejections represent 127 submissions. Those that weren't rejections and didn't result in an award (honorable mention, 2nd place, semifinalist) or a sale, are ones with no response yet, and perhaps no response ever. So, maybe my new goal will be 250 submissions. That seems like a nice round number. 123 to go.

What are your goals?  How would you celebrate 100 rejections and the determination, tough skin and hard work they represent?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Ender's Game and the Creator-Creation Disconnect

I loved the Ender's Game trilogy by Orson Scott Card.  I am not a sci-fi fan.  I read it with my stepson because he is a fan of the genre and I was trying to bond with him during his adolescence and teen years. A friend recommended it. I loved it not only because it was well-written but because it dealt with deeper themes and did it so deftly and darkly. It is, in my opinion, a remarkable exploration of the issues of prejudice driven by ignorance, and the dangerously fine line between child's play and violent training, and how the adult world manipulates that line. It is a Lord of the Flies for a new age, with the hope that the individual conscience can fight against the darker human impulses, though both are at vicious war inside us. The entire trilogy demands you to ask questions and dispel ignorance before you act on it.

Now it is a movie.  But there is a snag.  Because of Orson Scott Card's raving homophobic side (more than homophobic, based on the hate-filled statements he makes), there is a move in the LGBT community to boycott the movie. I credit this boycott effort with raising my awareness of Card's public vitriol against gays.  I didn't know this about him before.  I only knew he was an author whose work I admired.

I am heartbroken to realize that a man capable of writing such a powerful exploration and excoriation of prejudice and its end results could be such a bigot himself. How is this possible?  How is it that creative individuals can give voice to such noble and beautiful truths in their art and work and be such small-minded souls in the rest of their lives?

This is the same question asked by the play and movie Amadeus. How can a man so clearly gifted by God with a divine musical genius be so heartbreakingly human and flawed and small in how he lives his life? Literature and art are full of similar examples, works of inspired beauty and brilliance created by individuals who are petty-minded, cruel, hypocritical. Human beings, in short, who insist on being human while their work seems to illuminate the human condition in some transcendent manner that causes us to expect more of the creators.

Perhaps this disconnect between the truth of an artist's work and the truth of their lives is a demonstration of the sacred, mystical element of creativity, the notion that something else, outside the self of the artist, is speaking through the artist. If literature and other art is a manifestation of the divine through a human conduit, it would explain why the human conduit never lives up to the beauty of its creation.

Perhaps this is giving creative work more credit and significance than it deserves. Certainly, there are many creative works that fall far short of divine inspiration. But I am not speaking of mediocre creations, static-filled half-glimpses of divinity. I am speaking instead of the work that seems to rise to a level of brilliance that surpasses its creator. Perhaps we human beings are, in some strange way, akin to old radios, ever seeking to tune in to that crystal clear signal transmitted from the divine. So many outside influences interfere with the signal most of the time. But once in a while, on a clear night when conditions are right, the signal comes through, and works of timeless truth are the result.

In case you're wondering, I did go to see the movie of Ender's Game. It was the work of many other artists besides Orson Scott Card, artists who saw the power of his trilogy, not the pettiness of his personal views. I wonder if the attention to his homophobic attitudes that the movie engendered has given Card pause. I hope it has. I myself have decided to separate the man and the work. Whatever his espoused beliefs, at some point in time, the signal transmitted clearly enough for him to write the books he wrote, books that hold no trace of the ugly views expressed by the man himself, except, perhaps, as the impulses of certain characters whose brutality and ugliness are acknowledged as such. If the truth of the books are overshadowed by the ugliness of Card's personal statements, maybe the ugliness wins. Or maybe I am simply justifying my own human failing.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Is the Choice to Write Inherently Narcissistic?

Is the choice to write inherently narcissistic?

This is the question that is rolling around in my brain this morning. To be a successful writer, especially these days, requires an almost pathological commitment to time alone and to the belief that your own thoughts, ideas, stories and visions are not only worth recording for posterity but compelling, entertaining or important enough for other people to more than give a damn about - in fact, so magnificent that other people will spend money and time on them. Beyond this, it requires you to hold this conviction so firmly that you're willing to prioritize the time and effort spent on your writing over hundreds of other things demanding your time and energy.

Mind you, time and effort on writing encompasses more than the actual act of creating - planning, drafting, revising and editing. It also includes the time spent researching possible agents or publishers, submitting your work, or, if you're self-publishing, the time and energy needed to format, edit, track down artists, and launch kickstarter campaigns, not to mention the many and varied activities needed to market your work, self-published or otherwise. It requires time spent at conferences and workshops, whether as participant or presenter, and time spent with critique groups and time spent on twitter and in other online forums cultivating your digital platform. It requires you to believe that all of this deserves a full-tilt level of commitment because your words are just too damn good to languish in a drawer.

Furthermore, writers must read, voraciously, not just at bedtime. Think about the time it takes to read a book. Think about how many books you should read if you want to write. Think about how much has already been written. Let's face it - you could read every minute of every day and still not read even the smallest portion of books and stories already out there in the world. Therefore, to be a writer requires you on some level to believe your words are valuable enough to justify spending time on your work at the expense of reading some of the wonderful work already out there in the world, and that other people should also choose to spend time reading your words instead of someone else's. Doesn't that belief take a certain amount of self-importance?

Full disclosure - I believe there are things more important than my writing life. There are sacrifices I won't make for the sake of my writing. I love being a teacher. I won't short-change my students for the sake of my writing. I love my husband, and my friendships, and my health, none of which I am willing to sacrifice for my writing (or for my teaching, to be fair). Perhaps that relegates me automatically to the role of hobbyist, of "good" rather than "great". Where is the line between balance or moderation and apathy or mediocrity? If "great" requires placing myself and my own stories so far above others, perhaps I must let go of aspirations to greatness. Perhaps I already have. 

One might argue that the choice to write is the ultimate participation in the human community - the choice to dive into the great ongoing conversation of humanity, a conversation that spans time and place, crossing centuries and generations and continents, reaching back into the past and forward into the future. It is a show of faith in the inherent value of that conversation, of human thought and expression, of story. The Taoist part of my brain believes this is the wise view, the balanced view, the healthy view, the view that lets go of sales and publishing and the narcissistic side of writing and embraces an odd kind of humility. There is a humility in the notion that the words, the stories, the ideas are not your own to begin with, but belong instead to the collective human soul, and that the act of writing them and putting them out into the world is the true act of the writer. What happens after that is no longer writing. As Lao Tzu says, "Do your work and then step back."

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