“Fallen Angels”

Sometimes it can be difficult to come up with new ideas for writing.  One of the “exercises” I have found interesting and often fruitful is to write the “story” behind a visual or musical inspiration.  What work of art strikes your fancy because of the scene that is presented by the artist?  What does the music tell you?  I have been enthralled by several musical works, usually classical, almost always instrumental since songwriter’s are telling a story anyway.

Go to a museum or look through a book of photographs of paintings.  Put yourself into the scene.  Where is it?  What’s going on?  When is it happening?  Are there people in the frame?  What are they doing?  Why?

Listen to a piece of music, even one with a title that “gives away” some of the story—like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazadeor Rossini’s William Tell Overture(no, it’s not the story of The Lone Ranger!)—and write your own take on the tale.  Even better, make up your own story to a piece before you do any research.  Ever wonder about the story behind The Allman Brothers’ terrific “Little Martha”?

One of my favorite paintings for its inherent story is actually one the artist painted to depict a scene from a work of literature.  Francois Cibot’s Fallen Angels(Joslyn Art Museum) is the artist’s depiction of the defeated angels after their battle with God has cast them out as described in Milton’s Paradise Lost.  The expressions on the faces of the two central figures is a study in diabolical planning.  The setting is desolation.  But what are they plotting?  What have they said to one another?  Who are they? Why did they rebel?  What do they think of the outcome?  Study the painting, too, and feel the artist’s emotion—note the spotlighted elements and the details in the background.  In addition, think about the artist!  What was going on in France in 1883 that prompted this work other than his reading?  Or was there other event specific to the artist’s life?

Actually, you can do the same thing just sitting on a bench at the mall.  Who is that woman coming out of the shoe store?  Who is the man who greets her?  Note their body language.  Eavesdrop (creatively) on their conversation.  Why was she shopping for shoes?  Are they getting married, going to a party, headed for a cruise?  Did he surprise her or has he been patiently/impatiently waiting?

Ideas for writing are all around.  If you believe “there’s nothing new under the sun,” look in the dark….

Write on!

DrDan 05-16-2018

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“Compose Yourself”

My life’s calendar has been that of schools since I was five years old.  Even in retirement it hasn’t changed much.  As a former teacher, this is still an important time of the year for me. I have former students graduating—from college or grad school—or the children (and grandchildren!) of former students achieving their own milestones of commencement.

Teaching writing was integral to my curriculum even when I was teaching teachers and not students of English.  I believe written communication to be essential to our discourse, and all too often it is not done very well, especially now that it has become more acceptable to write in abbreviations or hieroglyphics and convey entire ideas in 144 words or fewer.

I was asked many decades ago to give the graduation address to a group of high school seniors for whom I had been their only English teacher their entire four years.  It was an honor, naturally, and I wanted to try to provide them with some “words of wisdom” that they might not forget before they received their diplomas.

That captive audience got another lesson in composition.  I used the jargon with which they were quite familiar from class to try and give them some last few bits of advice before they set out on their new adventures.  I never write down speeches, however.  Typically I just use a few notes to keep my thoughts focused and organized.  No one was using video equipment way back when, either, so my pearls of wisdom are either imprinted in their minds or vague phantoms reminding them more of long hours of writing than graduating.

Despite the lack of evidence, my main points are quite easily recreated.  Whether you’re about to cross the stage and receive a diploma or simply embarking on another stage of your life, I offer you these thoughts.

Live your life as if you were composing the story of your life—you are doing just that, of course. Writing, like living, is a process. I’ve never agreed with the idea that “The Writing Process” is a linear thing, but the elements are clear: Developing an Idea/Theme/Purpose, Pre-writing, Organizing, Writing, Proofreading & Editing, and Publishing.

It’s always easier to write something when you have a clear idea about what you’re trying to communicate. Have a purpose, a goal.  In my own life—and your goals are apt to be much like mine—I can categorize my goals:  the Idea of my life.  The big one is just to live a good life (always an interesting task to define that!) and try to make a difference in the world.  If a student had brought that to me as the theme for an essay or short story, I would have spent a good deal of time helping him/her to narrow it down or break it down into smaller steps, milestones along the way to that Main Idea. What needs to be done to get to your ultimate goal?  Do you need new skills, new knowledge, help from others?  Where will you get it?  Do your research!

Those life conversations with high school seniors included trying to help them decide which college or trade school to attend or sometimes just how to earn that high school diploma. Few graduates really know “what they want to be when they grow up.”  Choosing a college major or deciding on a career at that point can be scary. Usually my advice was, “Go exploring!” Sometimes you just have to do some looking around in order to know which direction to take.

In writing, this kind of exploration and idea generation is part of pre-writing.  Sit down with your doubts and indecisions and just write for a few minutes as the thoughts come to you.  Most of the time they will begin to take a direction if you’re really looking for one.  It can help you get a handle on what you don’t know, as well.  Where do you need to do some more research?  What questions do you have about your idea?  Who can help you?  Where can you look?  What do you already know?

When the next step is understood, that point in your writing/creating the story of your life when you know where you’re going, take the time to do some organizing.  Make a plan.  Have you ever made an outline for your life?  Again, it doesn’t have to be all-inclusive and end with your eulogy. What’s your next goal in your life story?  Organize it and write it a chapter at a time!  Sometimes you don’t even know what the next chapter is going to be until you have written the previous one.  You’ll learn new things, meet new people, acquire new skills, achieve new highs, and survive new lows.  If you have a clear destination, it’s easier to plan the best route to get there.

The fun part is the writing/living!  When you’ve done the prep work and organized/planned how to reach the next goal along the way, start writing.  A few years ago, Nike branded the world with its “Just Do It!” slogan.  When I retired, I rewrote that for myself.  My slogan is, “Do It NOW!”  Write your story as it is now.  Live the life you have now.  Make the choice(s) to be the best you can be at this moment and take advantage of whatever skill set you’ve gained or new insights you’re finding, and take advantage of the people around you now!  Learn from them.  Help them and let them help you.  Your stories are intertwined a little or a lot.  You may even decide that you should be braided together and continue writing your separate stories together for a while.  It can be an advantage if you see it that way.

Have you come to the end of another episode?  Are you “graduating” again…commencing?  Well, then it’s time to start the process over.  Back to thinking about your Goal, your Main Idea, your Purpose.  Is it closer (or maybe even farther away!)?  Has it changed?  What’s next?  Time to prewrite again.  More thinking and planning and researching….  Then re-organize and start writing again.  Over and over and over.

The proofreading and editing parts are always there.  It’s an ongoing process.  You should always take the time to look over what you’ve written and make the necessary edits to keep things clear.  One of the mistakes that many writers make, I think, is doing it all themselves.  I don’t know how many times I’ve written something and read and reread it again and again only to have the first person to read it point out an error of some kind.  It’s nice to have friends and people you admire and whose advice you value. Get their input.  Ask for advice.  We are all writing our singular life stories.  If you’re as sharp as I think you are, you’re aware that all those separate stories are really just one.  We just have different versions.  It’s sort of like having the same story as a novel, a poem, a short story collection, a movie, a play….  You get the idea.  So if we’re all in this together, why not help one another?

The final stage in that linear writing process is publication.  The writer is finished with the work; it has been to the editor; it’s in print.  Now the public gets a look at it.  Your life story isn’t like that, of course.  Every rough draft is out there for the world to see.  Even when it isn’t your best work and you know it, some will criticize your style or argue that you’re writing in the wrong genre or maybe even that you shouldn’t be writing at all!  Now and then you’ll find someone who thinks every word is amazing; you’re the next Shakespeare!  Every day of your life story is precious.  It has the potential to be life-altering not only for you but for everyone around you and, maybe, even some who are unknown to you…or maybe not even born yet!  Just do your best and put it out there.  Keep revising.  Keep polishing.

One day you’ll write the last word to your story.  The final draft will be published.  Maybe it will be the end of an immense tome, thousands of pages of wisdom and insight and joy and laughter and success after success despite the setbacks.  Then again, it might be a short story. Remember that some of the world’s best-known writers are revered for just a few things they managed to create in a very short time before their careers ended.

I hope you’re famous whatever your story.  Write on!

DrDan  05-09-2018

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“My Shadow”

I was very young when I first saw my shadow, a new plaything, a new friend like in Peter Pan, but it would be several more years before I knew Peter and his fantasy. I knew Peter’s shadow was there even when he couldn’t see it.  I learned early that the shadow is always near.

The older I became, the less I thought about my shadow.  I knew it was present, but it was just a shadow.  I wasn’t afraid of it.  I played with it still some times, making shapes, watching it stretch out before me or draw near, seeming to crowd into my shoes before stretching out again behind me as I looked to the setting sun.  The light was there, the shadow merely where I stood soaking up the life.

Other people’s shadows startled me now and then.  I’d take umbrage at the shadow’s impertinence at assuming so much with people I knew and some I loved.  I still don’t know if it is better for the darkness to come all at once, like switching off a light, or to watch the slow eclipse to nothingness.  For those who succumb to their shadows, I suppose it doesn’t make much difference.  Now that I think of it more, though, I believe I want the sudden powerlessness, the short circuit, the blackout.

As I walk in the valley of the shadow, I try to keep it before me, sun at my back, headed for sunset. Late in my afternoon I’d like to turn and go back to daybreak.  Maybe I’ll just walk on into the sun instead.

DrDan

04-30-2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I Am Here to Pump You Up!

Since I left high school (50 years ago!) I have been up and down with my physical exercising.  I’ve had periods where I’ve been waaaay too sedate and gluttonous and ballooned drastically.  I’ve been a tri-athlete, running ten miles a day in an hour, biking long distances, swimming back-and-forth and back-and-forth, lifting, stretching, and over-doing, but, boy, did I look good!

Retirement has been good for me in that I have become an habitué of my local fitness center.  I’m probably there six days a week for at least an hour and usually two.  Although I can’t run anymore (no cartilage in my right knee), I am a fast walker on the treadmill and I have always loved lifting weights. I prefer free weights, but the machines are kinder to my back.  My wife and I like to walk and hike, and I ski any time I can find snow.

So…what has this to do with writing?

It doesn’t take too much of your own research to find the vast amounts of scientific/medical research that support physical health as a boon to mental health.  The best drug in the world is endorphins!  We just finished a Great Courses class on “The Aging Brain.”  Exercise not only keeps the body together longer but it helps prevent mental deterioration.  Some research exists that even shows that a healthy brain grows new brain cells.  I don’t know about you, but I can use all the new grey matter I can get!

The one thing I’ve noticed from my own experience is that I write better and write more when I’m getting some exercise–even a good walk around the neighborhood helps, and I’ve written “drafts” while mowing the lawn.  I do lots of planning and contemplating ideas while on the treadmill.  I can do the same when I’m swimming.  Weightlifting requires more concentration on form for me to think much about my writing then, but the recovery periods, especially after a good long workout, seem to be quite productively creative for me.  Many times I’ve jotted down ideas in my phone while I’m catching my breath or relaxing in the sauna.

The “runner’s high” is not a myth, and I can have the same heightened consciousness after any kind of workout.  I can find solutions to all sorts of problems with the sweat streaming and my heart pounding.  It’s rewarding to take that effort and put it into my writing.  I just have to remember to not sweat too much on my keyboard!

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“Take My Advice”

I’ve had a “forced” hiatus from my writing the last week or so.  Chronic sinusitis now and then sidelines me to the point that I can’t think past changing the channel.  After a couple of doses of my favorite antibiotic, I was actually thinking about my storyline again today. Instead of writing, however, I took a little time to visit some of the tips for writing I’ve gathered in the last few years.  I should have done it sooner.

Even though I taught Creative Writing several times, I’m a relative newbie at prose fiction, especially novel-length prose.  I’m a bit of an introvert, too, so I’m more of an observer than participant in life.  Because of that, writing dialog is my nemesis.  I harped at my students to “Show; don’t tell.”  Dialog, I told them, is the story ALIVE.  I can preach.  I’m still learning to follow through myself.  Twenty minutes this afternoon with some of the tip sheets I have collected the last few years has me a bit inspired to get back to it.

I had forgotten some of the tricks/tips I read again today.  My collection is mostly some short tidbits gleaned from Writer’s Digest, but there are a few others mixed in.  It really doesn’t make any difference what the source might be, my advice for you (and myself) is to now and then go back to class…read some of the advice that is abundant and mostly free.  We’re a good bunch, writers.  We don’t mind helping one another.  It’s out there.  You don’t even have to ask for it.

Just go look for it once in a while.

DrDan 04-17-2018

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“24/7/365”

It has taken me a very long time to learn what I believe is the best technique for writing.  I really wasn’t looking for it, but I’ve been terribly sporadic in my “writing career”–years without doing any creative work at all at times–and complaining that the only writing I was doing was for my teaching jobs.  Curriculum and lesson plans and all the administrivia of the job ate up my creative juices and my time.

That was my excuse.

The technique I’ve learned?  Some. time. every. single. day. WRITE!  Even if I don’t put down a word, I think about what I’m writing or want to write.  I get quite a bit of my inspiration while on the treadmill or driving cross country.

I’ve learned to do research that is relevant to stories I’m telling.  Preparation for fiction by looking into reality helps.  Sarah Orne Jewett told Willa Cather to “write what you know.”  Even when writing about places I’ve lived for years or visited often, a little research helps ground my descriptions.  I’ve discovered that I don’t know as much as I’ve thought about some of my subjects–weather, geography, fashions, language–all sorts of the details that are the color of my fictional worlds.  I look at topographical maps for information about the terrain; I check the time and distance from one place to another (is the character walking, driving, going by train?) and the different routes possible.  I might even look for a video that shows the landscape, or visit a zoo or safari park to get a good look at an animal I’m describing, or a botanical garden literally to smell the roses…or some more exotic flora.  Talking to people who do the jobs I’m trying to describe can provide all kinds of interesting tidbits for description and jargon.

Sensory details are important, too.  I find myself writing the visual description easily, but remembering to include (when relevant) the smells, tastes, touch, and sounds of the environment (or characters) makes it more real.  At times I do a revision, or multiple revisions, just to add one or more sensory descriptions.

One of the hardest things I try to do is tell the story through dialogue.  I was constantly telling my Creative Writing students to “Show.  Don’t tell!”  I rely on several readers to help me keep my dialogue as real as possible.  Dialogue tags are important, too.  A first draft might be one “she said” or “he said” after another, but changing the “said” to some other verb and adding descriptive modifiers (e.g., “haltingly,” “desperately,” “with a sneer”) are the stage directions of narrative.

Narrative means that time is passing.  How long does it take to do a certain task?  What was happening during the year(s) the story is taking place?  Are you sure of the dates?  It’s too easy to look up calendars on the Internet to be sloppy about the details.

All of this puts me more directly into the story I am developing.  In fact, the more I get into a story, the more it tends to tell itself.

The biggest problem in all of this?  Sleep.  My characters are keeping me awake at night.  The story isn’t finished, and they want me to tell it.

This reflection helps, too, just as having someone to talk to about the writing helps.  Trying to explain a character, a plot line, a dilemma to someone else is one way to grow the story and solve problems.

So thanks for “listening” to my writing.

DrDan 04-02-2018

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A Novel Approach

I have wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember (OK, the older I get, the shorter THAT time seems to be!).  When I was in high school, I even earned an award for Creative Writing and an essay contest that won me a trip to Washington, DC.  My college Creative Writing teacher thought I was pretty good.  I wrote quite a bit then.  Then I got married, my first teaching job, my sons were born, two advanced degrees….  I wrote only sporadically.  Usually just short poetry.  Maybe a couple a year.

What was I expecting?  What did I think being a writer entailed?  Oh, sure.  I read all sorts of books from famous writers on the craft and the publishing nightmare.  I suppose I thought “being a writer” was just writing and being published and making a living doing it.  A good living.  Famous even.

Not happening.

When I retired after my wife died, I wrote for many reasons.  It felt good.  It gave me purpose.  I liked being productive and creative.  I tried different things.  I made myself write something every day for a while and produced quite a bit, and short stories and essays as well as poetry.  With the new wave of self-publishing possibilities available with the computer age, I even published a book of the poetry (Dandelions and Other Flowers) I had written over forty years or so.  Haven’t made a dime.  Enjoyed getting it done, though.  And I decided I could honestly call myself a writer.

Writing a long short story (The Wolves of Evanheir) convinced me that I could even write a novel.  I have a great idea (I think), and I started working on it in 2013 or 14.  Then a funny thing happened.  I got married again.  I got happy again.  Both of my sons are married and they have four children between them.  My new wife has three daughters and six grandchildren.  The ten of them range in age from four to twenty-four.  Guess what we’re doing?

But…I started writing again last fall.  Seriously.  Seriously writing.  This winter and spring it’s intensified.  The story keeps pulling at me.  The characters keep shouting that they’re not finished and want out!  The ideas keep coming…because I keep writing.

It’s always been the best advice I’ve ever heard or read, and it’s the best advice I ever gave to my own students when they said they couldn’t think of anything to write.  “Write!”  It doesn’t matter what.  Just write.

So I’m writing about writing on this page.  I spent about four hours on the novel this afternoon.  I need to leave it alone to percolate for a while.  I’ll be back at it tomorrow, probably.  No.  It really isn’t a “novel approach.”  It’s almost cliche.  If you want to be a writer, you have to write.  You don’t even have to publish anything.  Writers write because they really don’t have a choice not to do so.  Even if they’re the only ones who read what they’ve written, they have to write.

Call yourself a writer?  Only if you’re writing.

Sometime this year you may get a chance to read my novel.  I first have to see where it’s going from here…and write it down.

Good luck.

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