A Handy Guide to Losing Your Imagination

“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

-Pablo Picasso

On the first day of a weeklong creative writing camp, Joshua, Dylan, and Darcy settled into their seats on the couches. Through introductions I learned that, while Joshua was nine like everyone else, he had skipped to the seventh grade. Last year he learned about outer space and knew the exact number of days it takes to get from Earth to anywhere else in our solar system. He said, irritated, that all he ever writes are essays in class and (no offense, Miss Lyndsay) he does not want to be here. I assured him this wasn’t that kind of class.

I explained the warm-up game: each person will develop a character, and I will interview him or her as that character. I’ll ask questions like: what are your hobbies? Do you have any defining physical traits? If a friend were to describe you, what would he or she say about your personality?

Joshua volunteered to go first. He created a young girl, Lilly, who fit every Hollywood stereotype for misunderstood nerd—straight-A student, shy, duct tape over the bridge of her glasses—but had, for one reason or another, superpowers.

Dylan went last. She hadn’t spoken aside from her introduction, when she couldn’t think of a favorite book or genre she preferred.

“My character is a talking one-year-old baby,” she said, staring at her kneecaps and fidgeting fingers. Before Dylan could say the baby’s name, Joshua interrupted.

“One-year-olds can’t talk, that’s impossible.”

Since taking this job last September, I’ve learned that this moment, when one child polices another child’s imagination, is precisely why Creative Writing Instructor is a necessary job. I am employed to ensure a child’s imagination stays intact, to undo the stigma surrounding wrongness. The rule repeated during every quarterly teaching meeting: No censorship.

“In Dylan’s story, this one-year-old can talk,” I said. “Dylan, tell me about your character’s personality.”

*   *   *

I’m six when I write my first song. It’s called Baby, and it’s not about anyone in particular; I simply believe all the best songs are love songs. I spend the afternoon writing on Dad’s typewriter, one song and then another, until dinnertime.

*   *   *

In 2006, Sir Ken Robinson delivered what’s recognized today as the most watched TED presentation, Do Schools Kill Imagination? Around the three-minute mark, Robinson makes this bold statement: “All kids have tremendous talents. And we squander them, pretty ruthlessly… My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”

He shares an anecdote about a six-year-old girl in art class, who told her teacher that she was drawing God. Her teacher said no one knows what God looks like, to which the girl responded, “They will in a minute.”

Children as young as this girl haven’t yet gained an understanding of right versus wrong in terms of art, and not having that frankly debilitating distinction allows room for creativity.

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original,” Robinson says. “By the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened to be wrong. And we run our companies that way—we stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst things one can make.”

 *   *   *

I’m eleven, and Dad’s prepared pancakes for the family. My mom and sister haven’t woken up yet, so I’m allowed to stack as many on my plate as I want. It’s nice being Dad’s favorite daughter, I think—okay, fine, maybe he’s never admitted that, but he hasn’t denied it, either.

“Dad, what’s it like being a musician?” I ask. Last night I’d overheard him on the phone saying the recording studio at Dave’s house was ready. I want to be like him when I grow up. As it is, I spend every afternoon locked in my room, serenading the invisible audience sitting on my bed with songs I’ve scribbled in spiral notebooks. I have almost enough material for a demo tape. I hope to use Dad’s recording equipment.

“You know, kid, I’m not like those celebrities you listen to.” Dad bites into his pancakes. Sure, I know he isn’t a fulltime musician; he cleans swimming pools fulltime, wears a daily uniform of basketball shorts and t-shirts, stained and riddled with holes from chlorine splatter. He plays a gig or two a month, usually at the marina just south of our home or at holiday parties. But he’s good. Dad’s really good. “Tell me something. What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“A singer-songwriter. You know that.”

Next to Dad are invoices for his customers, a stack of envelopes, and a roll of stamps. “That’s unrealistic, sweetheart. You aren’t that good.”

“But I’m practicing,” I argue, and softer, soft enough that maybe he doesn’t hear: “I’ll get better.”

“I want you to study hard, go to college, get a good, stable job. I know you like singing and writing, but just don’t bet on that. Okay, kiddo?”

He moves his empty plate aside and starts folding invoices and stuffing them into envelopes. I don’t want him to know I feel disappointed, and slightly embarrassed for believing one day I’d follow in his footsteps, log a few hours in his recording studio. I think of the Grammy acceptance speech I’d rehearsed, memorized. Why keep the songs now? There will never be a demo. When Dad asks me to please wet a paper towel for him, I abide.

 *   *   *

Writopia Lab, a nonprofit devoted to teaching creative writing to children and teens, and the company that generously employs me, opened its doors in 2007 in New York City. Founder Rebecca Wallace-Segall delivered a TEDxYouth talk about why writing creatively—as opposed to writing academically—is important for children, even though it cannot be graded or judged by scholastic standards.

She talked about a student of hers, Theo, who was angry about creative writing assignments in school. Theo recognized that he should be satisfied with a platform that allowed him to be who he really was and do what he loved, but he wasn’t. What Theo meant is this: there is a difference between the writing we create for ourselves and to inspire others, and the writing we do to meet expectations.

In early June I met with the regional manager of Writopia Lab Los Angeles, Jan Edwards. That week I struggled with teaching six high school students. One student refused to write dialogue because it was just too hard. Another spent all of class making plot diagrams, but writing nothing. I was most alarmed when I asked the students to develop characters and three named preexisting ones. When I asked them to create a plot line for these characters, one said, “I mean, you’ve watched The Simpsons, haven’t you? That’s the plot line.”

In every group I teach, there is a wealth of creativity, even if it takes some nudging and encouragement on my part. But I’ve noticed that, starting as early as third grade, students want permission for this creativity. A kid will raise his or her hand: “Miss Lyndsay, can my character be a mouse?”

When I mentioned this to Jan, she said, “Kids stop being encouraged to be imaginative around the same time they start being asked to write essays in school. It results in kids feeling ashamed, even of things they one-hundred percent know the answer to.”

She mentions that this shift happens when kids start telling other kids how one must act, look, and dress. Physical identity, and also imagination, is placed in boxes.

Rebecca’s TEDxYouth talk ends with this: “We learn to write because it feels so good to be understood. We learn to write because it’s so exciting to have a storyline in your mind and to execute it in your vision. We learn to write because it’s cathartic to turn pain into power. We learn to write because we need to.”

*   *   *

I pack up my laptop after my first day teaching creative writing to a group of fourteen year olds. I’m twenty-five and in awe of my students’ creativity: on the spot, each one developed a fleshed out character and storyline, something I’ve never done successfully in a classroom. I call my mom—a woman who made copies of the song lyrics littering my bedroom floor and saved them for my older self—and ask why no one bothered to enroll me in classes like these.

“Your dad didn’t see the use,” she says. “You know, he was very talented, and no one supported his dreams when he was younger, either.”

*   *   *

Joshua, Darcy, and Dylan sat around a wooden table drawing book covers for their stories. Joshua wanted to get Lilly’s dress just right, but in his last three attempts, the character’s torso came out either too long or too short. Darcy’s character, a witch, looked like Snow White. Darcy told us she’s beautiful. Isn’t she beautiful?

The Wall Street Journal reported on the importance of imagination in a child’s cognitive development. “Imagination is necessary for learning about people and events we don’t directly experience, such as history or events on the other side of the world. For young kids, it allows them to ponder the future, such as what they want to do when they grow up.”

When Joshua grows up, he said he wanted to be a chemist. He’s good at science. Darcy had a list of no less than eight possible career options, including mermaid. I asked Dylan what she wanted to be.

“An inventor,” she said. “I want to make a time travel machine. The problem is, I don’t know how to do that.”

“You know the best part of being an inventor, Dylan?” I said. “You get to spend your whole career figuring that out.”

Dylan smiled and returned to coloring her book cover. I didn’t tell her maybe that’s unrealistic, maybe study the sciences but in a different field. No. Instead, Dylan got to remain a kid for at least one more day.

The author with her student after a Barnes & Noble reading. Photo by student's father.

The author with her student after a Barnes & Noble reading. Photo by student’s father.

Writing: The Toolbox VI

Dialogue is an important ingredient to any good story. When characters begin to talk, they not only come to life for the reader, they become real for the writer as well. Writing good dialogue is essential to drawing a reader into the character world you’re creating, whether it is in fiction, nonfiction, or screenplays. Characters reveal themselves with their spoken words, but those words don’t always come easy. There are a few tricks, however, to make those words come alive.

I continue my series writing about the collected tools of the craft, based on my long-standing experience of writing screenplays and books.

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Photo credit: Bettina Gilois

 

16. The Disconnect

Tension creates drama. In physics, tension is the pulling force exerted by each end of an object such as a string or cable, or a rod or truss. At an atomic level, tension arises when molecules are pulled apart from each other and gain electromagnetic energy. Every object under tension will pull on the object to which it is attached, to restore it to its relaxed state. This is the nature of drama, pulling and tugging to a restoration of the relaxed state.

One of the simple ways I’ve gotten my dialogue to come to life is by creating tension between the lines of dialogue of my speaking characters. If characters speak to each other in clear and direct sentences and responses, there is little tension and hence little energy to the exchange. Tension arises when people don’t talk directly to each other. It is often the disconnect, the lack of response, the side stepping, the avoidance, the omission, and the changing of subjects between characters that creates a natural sounding dialogue that is rife with tension and drama, and interesting for the reader.

Try writing your characters talking past each other. Have a character ask a question and have the other answer with an unrelated thought. Disconnect between characters reveals their differences, their yearnings, and a power play between them.

Instead of this:

Mother opens door. Daughter stands outside and says, “Hi, Mom.” Mom says, “Come in. Did you bring the fish?” Daughter answers, “Yes, I did. Had to get it from the store in this rain.” Mother says, “Let’s bring it to the kitchen.”

Try this:

Mother opens door. Daughter stands outside and says, “What took you so long?” Mom ignores the question, “Did you bring the fish?” Daughter insists, “I rang the bell three times.” Mother changes the subject, “Is it raining?” Daughter says, “Yes, it’s raining. You can see it’s raining. Did you hear me ringing?” Mother says, “I’m going back to the kitchen. Bring the fish.”

Of course, the tension created through dialogue has to relate to the intended content of the story. But as characters talk with some disconnect, evade answering, side step questions, and push and pull over control of the flow of the conversation, you enliven your dialogue and make your readers engage with interest and curiosity to figure out what is going on between your characters and who will gain the upper hand.

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Photo credit: Bettina Gilois

 

17. Unfinished Sentences

This is a simple one, and it’s a pet peeve for me. Unfinished sentences in dialogue are unnecessary and not engaging. I have seen, in some novice writers, there is a tendency to attempt to create drama by having characters interrupt each other and not finish their sentences (presumably because their characters are so overwhelmed by the drama of a situation they are left speechless). But there is no drama in the unfinished sentence. There are only questions left unanswered for the reader, and a lack of engagement with the reader since the crucial subject of the sentence has been left out. Most of the time when I read an unfinished line of dialogue, I sense the writer doesn’t even have the completion of the sentence in mind, only the desire to create drama through the use of this dialogue device. I find myself wanting to finish the sentence, and being falsely manipulated into feeling something I don’t feel, since I lack information.

“But I was just—“ has me asking, “You were just what?”

“I thought he was—“ leaves me wanting to know, “You thought he was what?!”

There are a few times, very few times, when an unfinished sentence is necessary or called for. And once in a rare while that’s alright. But most of the time, I recommend avoiding this somewhat cheap trick. Allowing your reader the satisfaction of a finished line of dialogue gives them insight into the inner workings of your characters.

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Photo credit: Bettina Gilois

 

18. The Random Page Test

As an exercise in studying dialogue, I recommend taking any book, or perhaps screenplay, and opening it to a random page and looking at the dialogue. You will find in good writing that every page of dialogue is engaging, whether you know what’s going on or not. The dialogue is fresh, unique, natural, engaging, interesting, entertaining, and full of character quirks and personality.

Do the random page test on your own work often. Does your dialogue instantly engage? Is it written with unique and original wording, and with enough tension to make the reader instantly curious? Can you quickly understand what’s going in the scene by what is being said?

In Richard Ford’s short story Great Falls, a young man who was having an affair with a married woman stands outside on the porch with her young son, while the father confronts his wife inside the house. The scene is rife with tension by their disconnected dialogue, the avoidance and omission of the actual subject matter at hand, and the words and thoughts are fresh and unique.

Young man: “I like it out here. Nothing to bother you. I bet you’d see Chicago if the world was flat. The Great Plains commence here.”

Young boy: “I don’t know.”

Young man: “Do you play football?”

Young boy: “No.”

Young man: “I have been drinking. But I’m not drunk now.”

If I open to this page and see this dialogue, I immediately want to know what is going on in this scene. As a reader, I’m engaged and entertained by the artistry of the dialogue, and pulled in by the disconnect and the tension of the exchange.

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Photo credit: Bettina Gilois

 

Dialogue is a key that can unlock a characters mind. Some writers use very little; as a screenwriter I am trained to use dialogue copiously, and I do so whether I write scripts or fiction or creative nonfiction. Dialogue can be some of the most engaging part of reading.

Pay attention to your dialogue. To make it feel natural, create tension by pulling people apart in their speaking with one another. Have characters talk past each other, avoid each other’s questions, and try to take control over the other through dialogue. Make the exchanges unique and fresh and surprising, and you will engage the reader from page one.

 

Previous posts in the series:

https://lunchticket.org/writing-toolbox/
https://lunchticket.org/writing-toolbox-ii/
https://lunchticket.org/writing-the-toolbox-iii/
https://lunchticket.org/writing-the-toolbox-iv/
https://lunchticket.org/writing-the-toolbox-v/

All images courtesy of Bettina Gilois

On Umwelt and Writing About Family in Nonfiction

When I was eight years old, my father brought home a rabbit. He and my uncle had been foraging for mushrooms when they found it cowering under a pine tree. Its leg was broken and it was unable to move quickly but it was otherwise a large, healthy rabbit. Its fur was thick and gray, and it wore a docile, passive expression on its rabbit face, as if the world was simply happening to it and that was just fine. I’m sure that, had my father not taken it, the rabbit would have made fine, fatty meal for a coyote.

The day he brought the rabbit home, I was sitting in the living room of our twenty-first floor apartment in Toronto playing with Legos. My legs were crossed and I was scrutinizing the pictorial instruction booklet that explained how to attach hoses and switches to the pneumatic pump. The door opened and I heard my father plop down his many foraging baskets; I scrambled to my feet and rushed to the foyer. Taking inventory of my father’s haul was a job to which I had assigned myself: an eight-year-old inspector of goods. “I have something special for you today,” said my father, wiping his hands on his jeans. I expected a bucket of belayi—King Bolets, the finest of the wild mushrooms, the ones with the clean white stalks and ruddy red caps—but instead my father produced a plastic bucket I had not seen before. I peeked inside. There, curled up like a fuzzy blanket, was the rabbit, its whiskers curled up against the side of the bucket.

*   *   *

Brett Sigurdson, the nonfiction editor of Mudseason Review, recently interviewed me as a follow-up to an essay I had published with them (“with light steam”). He asked, among other questions, about the difficulty of showing truth and openness when writing about family members, especially living ones. “How did you navigate talking frankly about your family [in the essay]?” Brett sent me this question just before Antioch’s June residency and, throughout the residency, I sat with it, reread old essays I’d written, and considered how my parents have reacted to my work. Generally, they seem to accept it. They are impressed by my retention of specific memories and my assignment of meaning to them. It’s true: my work deals with intensely personal questions of identity, death, and culture. I struggled, in my answer, to articulate how I manage to steer my writing on this admittedly fraught path. Had I, indeed, navigated it successfully? What is the measure of success? Eventually, I settled on the following:

Everyone remembers things differently; everyone brings to a memory their own lens, their own set of biases. I think in with light steam I sidestep some of these pitfalls by being willing to be open and vulnerable, by showing my hand and saying, here: there is no magic.

Really, this idea applies to all nonfiction; it is simply more amplified in the case of family because real relationships are at stake with people who would generally not hesitate to call me out if I misrepresented the truth. And indeed, there is no magic. So what is it, then? What does this proverbial hand consist of? What is it that I’m showing the reader? How do I build trust?

I decided early on, in nonfiction, that I would bring two things to my writing: specificity and a clear point of view. The former is a matter of credibility and immediacy. Including relevant, specific details in nonfiction writing gives the narrator a sense of authority, like he was actually there (in personal essay, he typically was). The relevant part here is important. Rarely will the reader care if my father’s cardigan was red or purple, but they will care about the furrowing of his brow when he scolded me for speaking out of turn.

While specificity adds texture and credibility to personal essay, perhaps my second criterion—a clear point of view—is more important. Because inherent bias exists—because we are reflecting on memory, an already imperfect concept—it is imperative that the reader knows from whose perspective we are writing. Yes, it is implied that the perspective is our own, that we are seeing the world through the lens of our self. But which self? The present day reflective self? The teenage-self? The child-self? This is what I mean by a clear point of view. The reader needs to know these things.

*   *   *

I named the rabbit Elvis because of the way his lip curled up asymmetrically like the singer, and also because the fur on his neck resembled the mullet of Canadian Olympic figure skater Elvis Stojko. My father built him a hutch on the balcony after we realized that he could not live inside the house—after he ate all our houseplants and left tiny wet droppings on the handmade rugs scattered throughout our apartment.

I convinced my father to bring Elvis to class for Show and Tell. My classmates squealed as Elvis hopped around in a circle, sniffing their outstretched fingers, while my teacher stood cross-armed and stiff-legged in the corner and admonished my chuckling father. This is highly unorthodox her scowl seemed to suggest.

*   *   *

I recently came across the concept of umwelt. The term was coined in 1909 by Estonian-born physiologist Jakob von Uexkull, one of the fathers of behavioral ecology. The discipline seeks to examine the behavior of an individual through a biological lens. In his book, A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men, Uexkull writes, “To do so, we must first blow, in fancy, a soap bubble around each creature to represent its own world, filled with the perceptions which it alone knows. When we ourselves step into one of these bubbles, the familiar…is transformed.” The term umwelt—a German word—refers specifically to this bubble of perception; it describes the animal’s (or human’s) self-centric world.

When I read this description of umwelt and the transforming of the world, I was immediately struck by how well this described what I was clumsily trying to explain to Brett about the importance of lens. When I write about the experiences of the child-self, I find it imperative to inhabit the child-mind, to show the reader what I saw and not necessarily all that was there. In this way, the objective world (Uexkull calls it Umgebung) falls away, and we are left with the child’s umwelt, his wide-eyed but terribly narrow worldview. For a writer, this process of inhabiting a different self while shedding objective reality is a peculiar form of self-empathy. I step into a bubble that no longer exists. Or perhaps I construct a bubble based on what latent emotions are accessible to me. Either way, I am drilling deep into my self; and this goes far beyond writing. I am traveling through time. I am exposing myself to the emotions I once carried: the fear, the anger, and the joy. I am choosing to relive an experience, without changing a thing, without the benefit—or sometimes detriment—of the wisdom I had gained since it first occurred. All of this in an effort to occupy the elusive umwelt—to write nonfiction with honesty and vulnerability. Not all writers choose to relive the past—and indeed not all writers should—but for those who do, the concept of umwelt is undoubtedly invaluable.

*   *   *

One afternoon, I returned home from school with a few baby carrots for Elvis. I’d traded half a salami sandwich for them. At this point, Elvis had been with us for several months, and I had grown accustomed to a daily routine of coming home and holding him.  When I stepped onto the balcony, the hutch was gone. I ran into the house, scouring the corners of the house for Elvis, yelling his name, knowing that he was gone. Snot dripped from my nose. I balled my fists into meager weapons and wailed with the impotence of a black and white movie starlet, while my father stood staunch, tall, unmoving. “We took him back to the forest,” he said. “Rabbits belong in forests. He wasn’t a pet.” I wanted to lock myself in my room that night but none of our rooms had locks, so I stood at the door holding the doorknob. This will show them how seriously upset I am, I thought.

Many years later, we celebrated a birthday party at home. It may have been my birthday, or my father’s, or my mother’s. All birthday parties looked the same: thirteen salads laid out on the table; cousins, aunts, and uncles all gathered round; two bottles of whisky, three bottles of wine, one vodka, passed from hand to hand; strong black tea served with one homemade pie and one store-bought cake; post-meal brandy; protracted goodbyes and cheek kisses. I was no longer living at home at this point. I know I was visiting because I was not asked to help clean. Instead, my mother stacked the presents in the corner and sat down at the table with my father and me. We quietly sipped a little more brandy.  My father broke the silence.

“Son, I have a confession to make,” he said. “Do you remember that rabbit you had many years ago? Elvis?” I nodded. To my right, I could see my mother shaking her head vigorously at my father, twisting her finger at her temple, and mouthing the word durak—idiot! My father dismissed her gestures. “Yes, so, Elvis. Me and our neighbor Telman, we ate him.”

I examined my glass of brandy. Memories of Elvis filled my head—fat, awkward Elvis, ambling around our old apartment. I pictured Telman, the gruff but kind Armenian neighbor, skinning Elvis over his kitchen sink, the blood circling down the drain. I masked my wince by finishing the glass.

“Did he taste good?”

*   *   *

The question remains: how do we show the reader that we are, in fact, inhabiting the child-mind, or the mind of our past self? Does it suffice to start a story with “when I was X years old”? Do we use small words to indicate our age? Do we reference popular culture from the era to which we are referring? Maybe. More importantly, we must notice the right parts of the world.

A child sorts through buckets of mushrooms. A child barters for carrots in the cafeteria. A child expresses his rage by manually holding closed a door that will not lock.

An adult makes a witty rejoinder that brings him deep pain.

Photo credit: Alex Simand 2013

Photo credit: Alex Simand 2013

Note to Self

When I was pregnant with my first daughter, my social media photostream underwent the (irritating, irrepressible) transition from Normal Adult Feed to Prenatal and, then, Child-Rearing Feed. There was a lot going on. Life in my postpartum body treated me to some surprises and some alarming changes. I couldn’t do Zumba without peeing my pants a little, for example. I took up Zumba, as another example. Clumps of my hair fell out. Later, it came back. These things were described to me as normal. You had a baby. Bring extra panties.

There were other, more subtle, changes for which naturally occurring oxytocin, also named the “love drug,” was largely to blame. Oxytocin is a hormonal cocktail that causes normal people to stare at their child for hours, never bored, rarely blinking, scarcely believing. Before I had children, I was a sort of caustic non-hugger who only admitted to feeling emotions when persuaded by bourbon. Just hours before my daughter’s birth, when my husband crouched next to me in the warm birthing tub and said how much he loved me, with my eyes shut, I replied, “I have really mixed feelings about you right now.”

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Photo Credit: Mary Birnbaum/Clever Instagram Filter Designers

But then my daughter popped out (not the exact verb, but I’ll spare you) and in the moments after her birth I found myself totally inarticulate. This remains the most unutterable sequence of my life. I was a swollen, snotty, tear-smeared fool with no hope for a witty rejoinder. There is a mercifully non-high-def video to prove it. When it came to the unprecedented explosion of love, my mind was full of light, not words. I was hormone drunk, gaping soundless as a fish.

*   *   *

Writers have lots of choices when they arrange a meaningful scene, but I’ve become fixated on the option of silence. During the MFA residency in June, author and Antioch faculty mentor Brad Kessler gave a lecture on the effective use of silence in literature. He gave examples of authors who write speech-less moments, sometimes to articulate the transcendent or the uncanny. A girl spots a ghost on the moor. A man looks up a flight of stairs and sees his wife anew. A woman prepares dough for bread. He said a lot that I can’t pretend to paraphrase, except to repeat this: Writers and readers meet on the page in moments of ineffable stillness.

There’s a lot of discussion in writing programs about showing versus telling. If we trust ourselves as writers and if we trust those who read us, we won’t fill pages with superfluous exposition and ready-made feeling. If we get it right on details and observation, a connection will be forged between the author and the reader. Among the phenomena that resist description is love, and yet we use words to triangulate a meaning. We can’t resist trying. I’m attempting to learn to write with precision and care in order to be truthful, sometimes about the unspeakable. I am here to confess that I’ve been slacking on the matter of trust.

*   *   *

Facebook was apprised within an hour of my child’s sacred arrival. I started snapping pictures right away because it was the only thing I could think to do. Soon I discovered Instagram. Now my pictures go to Facebook via Instagram. The last time this happened was earlier today. My daughter had, on impulse, penciled a short note about her love for me. Her hand at printing is still unsure. She pressed very hard into the paper, was unsatisfied with the writing and erased it vigorously. She wrote her note over again and then, satisfied with her straight lines, presented the gift to me. I read it back to her as she sat in the bathtub with a washcloth draped over her head. Her face was rosy and embarrassed. I thanked her and then I raised my phone and took a picture of the note and my girl.

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Photo Credit: Mary Birnbaum/Clever Instagram Filter Designers

The compulsion to post pictures is not shared by all. My own husband is not on Facebook. But quite a few folks—there are 300 million active monthly users of Instagram—do feel compelled to share. Some parents post pictures of their kids in order to keep far-flung relatives apprised of baby progress. My own in-laws live in Kansas. They don’t get to see my kids as often as they’d like. The “good” news for them is that, in the three years since downloading Instagram, I have posted 1,020 pictures. Approximately 90% of these are pictures of my two daughters. I just checked. And yes, the numbers make me as uncomfortable as you think they should. I’m not here to comment about social media/narcissism/the selfie polemic in any general sense. What’s important is the problem of my artistic cop-out.

In a recent NPR interview, George Pelecanos talks about his ritual of riding his bike around, photographing people and locations so that he can use them in his stories. At home, he reviews the pictures to get the details right. This struck me as a useful tool. But I am not using pictures as useful means to an end. To be honest, I’m not even that concerned about updating relatives. Raising my phone has become a knee-jerk response to the sublime.

Susan Sontag expressed some very pointed, prescient notions about the photographic medium when she wrote “In Plato’s Cave,” the first essay in her collection On Photography. When she published the piece in 1977, Sontag lamented the advent of “sleek pocket cameras that invite anyone to take pictures.” I just read the essay on my smart phone, the one with 800 pictures still stored in memory. Earlier today I watched Michael Jackson dance to Billie Jean on it. I typed part of this blog post into my phone’s Google Docs app. Applying Sontag’s arguments to the 2015 social media scenario is not a task I can ably attack here, but I will venture that her ideas still apply: “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.” One-thousand-twenty pictures later, yes, I’d say addiction is something I might be dealing with. She also talks about photography producing a semblance of subject, not the truth of the subject itself. And: “Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph and move on.” Unsure of other responses, indeed. Mind blown, in an oxytocin-induced stupor, for example.

I am not a trained photographer. I have a vague notion that a shutter is something like an eyelid that opens to admit light. But the Instagram application offers enough clever effects to make even the meanest Android fumbler occasionally feel like Stieglitz. Here is where the danger arises. Maternal love has got me in its hormonal tether and it’s the subject on which I manage the least writerly traction. When my heart starts to ache, I snap a picture. I crop it. I scroll through an array of available filters to cast sentiment on it. I use a canned trick of light. The moment has been described, so I send it into the Internet in a plea for connection.

I’ve been using the act of posting pictures to social media as a placeholder for something so far unspeakable. An Instagram filter is mood bought cheap, and I should be wary of the bad bargain, because often the truth of my love is on the line. We write to make some sense or connection or both. You deliver a baby at 2:30 p.m. on a hot August Friday and your whole world splits apart. What enters is blinding bright and unfiltered. A midwife sets your daughter’s curled, purplish body on your breast. Your face crumples up in an odd mirror of your baby’s. Five years later that daughter is moved to write you a note about love.

Unspeakable things are difficult to articulate, but not always impossible. In his lecture, Mr. Kessler gave examples of masters who succeeded–through sequences of silence, through moments of apt detail, close observation and care–in communicating the preternatural. What halts me in describing life’s fraught moments is mistrusting my ability to get it right, and not trusting the reader to come along if I try. I’m discounting the reader’s aptitude for filling the silence with their own important meaning. This is a mistake, because every time I slap a filter on something instead of plumbing the deep vocabulary of silence, I miss a chance for communion. Because, as it turns out, I am not the first mother to love her child.

Slowing Down #1: Taking the Bus

During a two-hour question-and-answer session at our June residency, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo told the Antioch MFA community, “Commerce is fast, art is slow.”

I took that to mean, if you want to make something that didn’t exist before—something layered and meaningful, something unexpected—you have to take it slow.

That’s a challenge for me. I came to the MFA program after several years’ full-time teaching in a university, during which time only deadlines compelled me to write. I wrote for performance, and I had a busy life. I would wait until the last few weeks before a gig and then go underground, working day and night to finish.

A couple of years ago, I left my position at the university and went to Rwanda for a big, fast job. When it was done and I was home, it occurred to me that if I wanted my work life to be different—which I did—I would have to change the rhythm of how I spent my days. I would have to make new habits. I had no idea—and still don’t fully know—how profound that transformation may have to be.

I had a car. That car was part of me, part of who I was. It was a tomato-red 2002 Volkswagen Golf and, oh, I loved that car. I was a savvy driver. I knew the fastest route to anywhere in LA, any time of day. Just ask me. Me and that car, we were zippy. Hands-free on my cell phone, I was back and forth between GPS and Waze on little streets no one else knew were there. Meanwhile, Siri was taking dictation, sending text messages, emails. I was in a hurry.

One weird globally-warmed ninety-eight degree day last April, I noticed the air conditioning in my Golf was not working. I called my mechanic, Mauricio at Jomag in Silverlake, who’d been taking care of her since the end of the VW warranty. He said to bring her in, leave her there for an hour or two. I took the bus downtown (home) to await his diagnosis. An hour later, he called. It was bad news, the worst possible scenario: the compressor had gone. A new one would cost a minimum of a thousand bucks.

I recalled my accountant Mark’s objections when he learned I’d spent fifteen hundred to replace a timing belt, the first and only major work I’d had done in the twelve years I’d had her. “It’s the beginning of the end,” he barked. “Get rid of that heap.”

It wouldn’t get hot for a few months, right? I could keep her until then. I told Mauricio I’d be there in an hour to pick her up.

Ten minutes later, another call. More bad news. When his guys were moving the car into the lot, they saw the brakes were shot. The rear pads were worn down to the metal; the front weren’t as far gone, but he wasn’t sure he could save them.

How much? Another six to eight hundred.

I Googled “Blue Book, 2002 VW Golf”—four-door, power windows, power brakes, moon roof, monster sound, well-loved, in good shape. She was worth less than twenty-seven hundred dollars. And all the bodywork I’d refused to have done—the scratches and dents that prove you’ve lived lively, taken some risks—meant she was worth even less.

I did the math. I could try not having a car. I live downtown, at the hub of LA’s transport network. Within a few blocks of my building, there are buses and trains. Add to that Zipcar, Enterprise, Uber, Lyft. Plus, if I didn’t have a car, I wouldn’t have to pay the Tribune (owners of the LA Times) a small fortune every month to park in their lot.

Choosing not to replace the car was the beginning of a conscious slowing down. It would no longer be possible to schedule appointments back-to-back, morning to night, with an optimistic half-hour in between to get from one place to the next.

But within a week or two, I was aware of a deeper shift. On the Culver City-bound train one afternoon they announced we had “come into contact with an automobile.” No one was hurt, but we had to wait for the police to proceed. I made a phone call to the person I was to meet and sat reading in the motionless train for forty-five minutes. If we were stuck, it was not my job to find another route. Time in transit became that kind of sweet stolen time I’ve always relished on planes and trains, where what needs to get done (moving from place to place) will eventually get done. Or won’t. But it’s not up to me to make it happen.

This is about writing. Clearing the way for writing.

Most of what needs writing—what is worth writing—takes some digging. It’s not easy and, for me, it doesn’t come in one fell swoop. It takes some dribbling—like Jackson Pollack. Then comes the investigation of patterns, then new brush strokes, based on what’s been evoked by the dribbling. Bit by bit. And a commitment to that process on a regular basis is a commitment to going where the writing wants to go.

Russo spoke about how Elsewhere, his recent memoir about his mother, seems to some of his readers—and perhaps to him—to be a skeleton key that unlocks the autobiographical source of meanings in his fictional work. In those funny, funny novels, he is digging deep into his own raw material which is, at base, so dark. He’s going, by virtue of who he is, where he has to go. He said he was afraid writing outright about his past in Elsewhere might destroy his ability to write another novel, but he chose to write it anyway. And it didn’t.

Slowing down.

Travel time has become reading and writing time. I started the first draft of this post Friday afternoon on the number 2 Sunset Boulevard bus, moving west towards Hollywood. I did the first edit early Sunday morning on the 733 Venice bus on my way to the beach.

Waiting for the bus and taking the bus has brought with it a gradual, visceral understanding that we are not in charge. We do the work. We plant the seeds. We exercise humility, and back away from the need to muscle things into existence. We invite things in. We give them room to enter.

Zelfportret, waiting for the 108 west at Broadway and Slauson.

On Writing Outside Our Lived Experiences and Acting As Trans Allies

I met Wryly last June, when they were known as Wendy. This would change within a couple months. One December night, we walked along Venice Beach during Antioch University’s MFA winter residency. As long as I’d known them, Wryly had gone by they/them pronouns, but it wasn’t until December, perhaps ushered by the name change, that I became deliberate in using them.

That night I told Wryly that there was a lot I didn’t understand about being trans, specifically its lexicon. I didn’t know sex and gender weren’t synonymous. I was, simply put, ignorant, but still receptive. I expressed fear that I didn’t have a voice in the conversation; this, as a cisgender woman, was not my conversation. Wryly put their arm around my shoulders. “Believe me, we need more people like you.”

During this June’s residency, Wryly and I attended a seminar, “Writing & Privilege” by Kyle Sawyer, a queer activist working for racial and social justice, and founder of the nonprofit organization, Building Allies Together. His seminar posed a question I’ve long wrestled with: how do I write a fictional character who identifies differently from me? My protagonists are all white, cisgender women, not because I wish to limit what readers are introduced to—in fact, I want the opposite: an expanded, diverse, even complicated scope—but because I don’t want to get it wrong. I don’t want to appropriate. I don’t want to offend.

During the seminar, a male student asked about writing from the female perspective, to which Sawyer offered this advice: do the research, go to events, talk to people. It is easy to rely on stereotypes when writing characters outside the author’s lived experience, but “it’s important to challenge the common tropes of many groups, to remember that certain language is heavy with symbolism and expectation,” Sawyer said.

In December, I taught a winter break writing camp for teenagers in Santa Monica. One day, a student—we’ll call her Jenny—came into class with pages and pages of character development. She’d explored her fictional characters deeply, knew what frustrated them, what they envied, what gestures they made when they were sad. And in the middle of these lush descriptions Jenny included something along the lines of “Carol was born with male genitalia, but identifies as a woman. She is seventeen. Her mom no longer speaks to her.” The description went on from there. It was as if, yes, Carol’s trans identity was significant—significant enough for her mother to reject her personhood—but Carol was also defined by always carrying no less than three novels in her backpack and how she couldn’t help but buy holiday presents for friends, even though she made little money working at an ice cream parlor. Which is to say, Carol, like all transgender people, was a whole person.

“Being trans is not a character trait,” Sawyer told me when I reached out to him for an interview. “It is important that we, as writers, remember that a character’s demographic cannot and does not define that character.”

Sawyer ended the seminar on this note: it is not up to the oppressed to defend themselves; rather, it is the privileged class that must stand beside the oppressed. I asked Sawyer about the responsibilities of allies. What can we do to help?

“Listen to what those of the marginalized classes are saying,” Sawyer said. “The responsibility of an ally, I think, is to speak out against oppression, to stand with those who are directly affected by the systems of oppression, and to do whatever possible to build a stage to raise the voices of those often silenced. The responsibility [of the ally] is not to speak for, but to stand with. It is a very important distinction.”

In a video titled “How to be a Trans Ally,” Emotions the Poet, spoken word artist and fellow Antioch University MFA student, says, “being a trans ally is a verb.” Emotions offers these suggestions: employ, house, and love a trans person. Affirm trans people as whole humans—let them know they are more than just their bodies—and respect their pronouns. (At Creating Change 2014, Laverne Cox, transgender actress and activist said, “When a trans woman is called a man, that is an act of violence.”)

Midway through Sawyer’s seminar, Wryly reached for my hand. I knew why. A week before, a mutual friend said he refused to refer to a trans person by his or her or their preferred pronouns. I’d first advocated on behalf of the LGBTQ community twelve years ago in my ninth grade history class. To me, being an ally is common sense. Isn’t it?

My argument then, and my argument today, is this: one single person will never be able to live every possible experience. Because we cannot continue to believe the world should exist without diversity—that’s the mentality that recently shot up a historically black church and flew planes into the World Trade Center—we must act empathetically. To deny someone their personhood or inalienable rights, to protest against a community in any capacity—whether it’s in a Facebook post, a rally, or simple defiance against pronouns—is violence. It’s bigotry. It’s ignorance.

In 2014, fifty-five percent of LGBTQ hate crime homicide victims were transgender women, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. This same report found that fifty percent of transgender homicide victims were women of color. Thirty-five percent of all victims were gay or bisexual men.

In 2011, the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National LGBTQ Task Force conducted the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, the largest study of its kind, with 6,400 participants. The survey found that the sample was discriminated against in the workplace and was “nearly four times more likely to have a household income of less than $10,000/year compared to the general population,” and forty-one percent of respondents reported attempted suicide. Twenty-nine percent reported police harassment.

It should be noted that many statistics for the trans community remain opaque, including one gaping oversight: we haven’t any idea how many people identify as transgender or gender non-conforming. This is true for many reasons, not least of which is the fluidity of gender and the restrictions of the traditional gender binary. Facebook, for instance, offers more than fifty gender options, whereas the United States Census Bureau inquires only about a person’s biological sex.

We stand in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on marriage equality, yet marginalization and discrimination against the LGBTQ community persist. (In fact, after the SCOTUS decision, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott promised to take direct action to protect religious liberties by allowing state workers who believe marriage is the union of one man and one woman to refuse same-sex marriage licenses.)

Saturday night, I attended “Queer Voices, Queer Visions,” a Lambda Literary Emerging Writers Retreat reading, featuring what that organization considers the nation’s most promising LGBTQ writers. Yes, some writers wrote directly about being gay or lesbian or trans. But others wrote about the earthquake in Haiti or a brother’s colon cancer diagnosis. It was a reminder that our similarities are greater than our differences.

Consider your own otherness, whatever it is that marginalizes you. Where do you feel judged or discriminated against? Each of us has at least one aspect of our character that connects us to an oppressed class, not amongst the privileged. When—not if—you can, make another person feel comfortable and accepted because of (not in spite of) their otherness—wouldn’t you want people to do that for you?

In the case of trans people, it may be as simple as referring to someone by their preferred name and pronouns, or writing stories about a whole character who just so happens to be trans. In the case of all people, it’s as simple as understanding we are all whole, that what marginalizes us is but one aspect of a larger identity. Remember, an effort to make another’s life easier does not make yours any harder.

Writing: The Toolbox V

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper. E.B. White

One of the greatest challenges of the writing process is not the writing itself, but the inception, the starting, the beginning of writing: sitting in a chair on a new day to write a new page, a new story, essay, or script.

Writing takes concentration and immersion. The battle against procrastination rages daily; the resistance to take the plunge is constant, the hesitation before the leap almost inevitable. The private hell of the writer is the unsung heroic quest. How can it be explained just how much grit it took to resist the urge to check emails or “like” another dog on Facebook? There is no medal of honor for the uncommon valor of tackling the uncertainty and doubt of the new day of writing. But there are a few tools that can help along the way. I continue my series writing about the collected tools of the craft, based on my long-standing experience of writing screenplays and books.

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13. Take Your Time

At the beginning of a writing a project, there is that slow burn that wants to take its time, before it develops into a raging fire. I don’t worry about fanning the fledgling embers at first. It’s important to protect the new creative process. Too much air will extinguish the young flame of inspiration. Every change requires adjustment. I am not concerned about the page count on the first few days during which I’m just getting my bearings. I need to feel the world, immerse and go under first, before major strides can be made. I build in time for smoldering. I research and dream and think and feel the characters and their stories before they begin to inhabit me. When characters start talking by themselves, I know I have finally entered the world and am in that zombie dream state. I will vehemently fight to stay there until the end. Once the pictures and dialogue come effortlessly, I know the path has opened up before me, and all that remains is to scale the mountain to the top. Before I’m comfortable and acclimated, I don’t push myself into frustration. I just let the writing catch its flow.

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14. The Daily Page Count

I am an immersion writer. In order to write, I have to dive deep into the material. And in order to stay focused and keep the words flowing, I have devised one trick that works for me: page counts. I like numbers. I like page numbers and word counts—numerical trickery for the mind. Like mile markers that show your slow progress to your destination, I watch the pages and words and take heart that, despite the arduous climb, there is progress being made and the distance keeps shrinking. Every morning, I set a goal for that day’s page count. When I write screenplays, that daily number is usually twelve pages. When I write a book, the number is fifteen or twenty. The number is arbitrary and varies with each project, it could be a five hundred word article, or a five page essay—as long as there is a goal. I might not always reach that goal or I might write beyond it, but the goal helps me gauge how I’m progressing throughout the day, and gives me a feeling of satisfaction that inspires me to write the next day. The daily page count means I don’t stop until I’ve reached my goal. I will write from morning until midnight if necessary, to get it done. There’s a great deal of satisfaction in having met my goal for the day. It keeps me going and that is what matters most.

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  15. Outline

This is a controversial one. There are many writers who don’t like to outline, never outline, or begin writing to find the story as they go. I’m not one of them. I don’t like to outline, but there are many reasons why I do like to have an outline—one that is as detailed as possible—to guide me through the writing process and keep me on track. I write many stories that are based on true stories set in real life, for instance, and it is imperative for me to know what parts of real life are being kept for the narrative, and which are being omitted. I also usually have to write fairly quickly under a deadline, and the outline saves a lot of time. Writing with an outline, even when that outline might change, cuts down on a lot of doubt and anxiety. It keeps the narrative on course and forces me to conceive of my story before I even begin to write, which includes developing my themes, metaphors, and meaning. My outlines will contain a numbered list of all my planned scenes, details about character motivations, intentions and feelings within those scenes, details about the locations and settings of each scene, and the dramatic progression which sets up the narrative for the next scene. I’ve seen many young screenplay writers end up having to re-conceive their scripts once they reached the third act because they found the set-up wasn’t working and they had written themselves into a corner. It could have been avoided by looking at the big picture. The creative process is something to nurture. Find tricks to keep it going from day to day. Don’t force it, let it flow. And consider having an outline, as it might minimize the doubt and maximize the output.

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Previous posts in the series:

https://lunchticket.org/writing-toolbox/
https://lunchticket.org/writing-toolbox-ii/
https://lunchticket.org/writing-the-toolbox-iii/
https://lunchticket.org/writing-the-toolbox-iv/

All images courtesy of Bettina Gilois 

How To Tell If You’re A Writer

You might be a writer if all of your books are at the bottom of your bag because you packed them first.

You might be a writer if you see landscapes in descriptions. The cumulus clouds drifted high above us; the water lapped its wet tongue at our toes.

You might be a writer if you mouth the words “he said” when your friend tells you stories. You avoid modifiers, though, because that’s B-league.

You might be a writer if you can’t leave your notebook behind, not even when you travel to exotic locations. Panama. Iceland. Machu Pichu. Vacation? No. New place to scrawl words.

You might be a writer if you don’t know what some of your biggest idols look like.

You might be a writer if the smell of books arouses you.

You might be a writer if you are prepared to employ your friends’ personality traits in fictional characters.

You might be a writer if Alzheimer’s terrifies you more than any other mortal disease. You would rather your body wither than your mind.

You might be a writer if you find yourself gravitating towards words, reciting them repeatedly under your breath, simply because they sound good. Deforestation. Defenestration. Slipstream. Slipshod. Reshod. Relegate. Renegade. Reengage. Reprimand. You are concerned that this is a sign of Alzheimer’s.

You might be a writer if you think the word meandering is really fucking cool.

You might be a writer if a part of you becomes excited about a bad breakup. You think that poetry comes from misery.

You might be a writer if you have ever heard the word duende.

You might be a writer if, when someone asks you if you’ve read a work written in a foreign language, you immediately ask, “which translation?”

You might be a writer if you are able to state that you are a writer without examining your shoelaces. You still think it’s a conceited thing to say.

You might be a writer if you’ve heard the above quote numerous times, but cannot attribute it.

You might be a writer if you have something to say about Oxford commas, semicolons, and how lists are best written in threes.

You might be a writer if using a thesaurus feels dishonest, duplicitous, deceitful, dishonorable.

You might be a writer if you write in thought interruption because—squirrel!—your mind works that way.

You might be a writer if you become secretly and unreasonably resentful when a peer uses a word that you do not recognize.

You might be a writer if your brain overflows with fleeting profundities, but you find them impossible to grab hold of.

You might be a writer if you caught the sentence-ending preposition above, and you’ve already rearranged the sentence in your mind.

You might be a writer if your head is full of words you can spell and define but not pronounce.

You might be a writer if you find the following sentence funny: “I looked out the tiny window at the airplane’s carefully constructed wing. It was riveting.”

You might be a writer if you see tragedy in flippancy.

You might be a writer if you fall in love only reluctantly because of your resistance to the ideal. The perfect partner is boring, you think. Flat. One-dimensional. Give me character flaws. Give me emotional instability. Let me cavort with crazy. Let me tango with terrible. I only jive with jealous.

You might be a writer if you can’t stop alliterating, even though you know it’s terrible.

You might be a writer if you find it difficult to have experiences because you are always wondering if this would make a good personal essay.

You might be a writer if you defer emotions for when you are alone and able to put them to paper.

You might be a writer if you assume strangers cannot possibly notice you staring at them. You are, after all, the invisible narrator.

You might be a writer if you read every one of these reasons why you might be a writer, because you already know you are.

Adobe Bookstore. Photo credit: Alex Simand.

A Third Path in the MFA v. NYC Debate

When my brother was little, his bedroom was a minefield of broken things. He took stuff apart, wanted to see how it worked. Toy cars, radios. He was just as happy with hand-me-down junk from our grandparents’ basement as he was with something new from the store. It all had the same dismantling fate. Beware, bare feet. Bits of Hot Wheels in the plush carpet awaited a trespasser’s vulnerable step. The greatest gift to our family was a huge denim bag that closed with a bright red drawstring and, when fully opened, was laid flat in a gigantic circle. With the bag spread out on his floor like a round tablecloth, my brother could work happily for hours, and then our mom would cinch up the drawstring and stuff it in the closet. Easy clean-up and foot-friendly floors.

There’s a debate in the literary world about the merits of attending an MFA program versus simply experiencing life and writing. (Here’s the book, a Slate piece, a New Yorker piece, New York Times, Salon, and a personal essay series on the topic at Zoetic Press.) I find the whole discussion fascinating, and it’s worthwhile not because there’s any right or wrong way to hone a craft, to develop an art, or to live a life, but because the robust discussion is like my brother’s parts-strewn bedroom floor. Working writers are taking apart their experiences, holding magnifying glasses to their lives, and offering advice to emerging writers. How did they build their writing life? Where did they learn to do what they do? What experiences gave the best bang for the buck? How do they make a living? What path do they recommend?

So far, my eighteen months in AULA’s low-residency MFA program have been deeply gratifying. But, in my time here I’ve found a third path that offers invaluable experience for an emerging writer. If we’re talking about bang-to-buck ratio, hands down, the advice I’d give to any writer is the advice Antioch’s MFA program director, Steve Heller, offered to me in my first term when I came to his office and asked what I should be doing to support my interests in writing and teaching: find a literary journal, volunteer to do whatever needs doing.

I’ve been serving on Lunch Ticket since a few months after that conversation, and do not intend to exit soon. I have found that the main qualities I seek in the MFA program—to develop as a writer, to develop skills and credentials for professional growth, and to connect with a community of writers—are deepened by serving on this journal. Lately I’ve been trying to sort out the reasons why. Here are a few:

Develop as a writer. Like my brother with his toys, being a writer means taking things apart, trying to figure out how they work, or why they don’t. As a reader for the Creative Nonfiction submissions that come in, I’m always unscrewing sentences, holding a magnifying glass to the bits, shining a flashlight on myself, on my attention, on my reactions. While reading, I map the structure of a piece, take note of the style, voice, story. I discern levels of polish, and whether a piece feels complete, or if it still needs work. Reading for a journal is much different from reading already-published work. It offers the opportunity to read pieces from writers across a broad spectrum of skill and artistry. Much like how yoga is good cross-training for a runner, reading submissions is good cross-training for a writer. There’s as much to learn from pieces that don’t work as from pieces that do.

Develop skills for professional growth. Like every shiny toy car that my brother dismantled, publications have a lot of moving parts. They’re all nuts and bolts on the inside, full of web pages and publishing schedules. I could have paid for a WordPress class, but being on the Blog team has provided hands-on learning. Being a reader on the CNF team has meant learning how to write clear analysis of a piece to back up my opinion of it, and to effectively discuss submissions with my co-editor and our assistant. Working with the copyeditors, and copyediting the Blog, has meant a sharper eye to typos, formatting, and grammatical issues. Being Blog Editor has helped me hone my developmental editing skills while working with the wonderfully varied voices of my fellow bloggers.

Connect with a community of writers. Most literary journals are built and staffed just like Lunch Ticket—with writers. We all know the solo journey of writing, the lonesome company of sitting with our thoughts. Being part of a journal means having a lifeline to people grappling with their own solo paths. Here at Lunch Ticket, everyone struggles with time, how to balance art and life, how to write authentically, how to get over fears. We check in with each other, and every person on Lunch Ticket knows the hesitancy of a submissions button, the hope of an acceptance, the sting of rejection. We read each other’s work when it’s published, and share the links with our other communities. Corresponding primarily through email, half a year usually goes by before we see each other face-to-face. Still, we are connected, and we bolster our individual writing journeys through our shared work on the journal.

Perhaps one of the most emotionally valuable benefits I’ve found is that working on a journal puts rejection in perspective. I imagine most journals want as many submissions as possible. We do too. Generally, the higher the quantity, the higher the quality. And yet the volume of submissions can be humbling. So many to read. And then I find an essay that floors me. I know the whole pile was so worth it just to find this one piece. I vote to publish it with a resounding YES, only to be countered by another reader’s tepid “hmmm.” We discuss it, and every time I am reminded that, when it comes to reading personal essays or poems or stories, there is no such thing as objectivity. What hits me with its beauty struck another as overwrought. Or my co-reader reminds me that we just accepted another similarly-themed piece a week ago. Sometimes, simple timing plays into the mix. So, too, does basic space limitation. We send the rejection letter, hoping that our careful wording buoys the writer more than it stings her ego. We are all that writer. We want to be buoyed up with hope, at least enough to send us back on that lonesome journey of sitting with our thoughts, writing them down, and sending them out.

My little brother’s all grown up now. Like most older sisters, I am constantly shocked at how much taller he is than me. Who knows where that bag with the drawstring ended up. I imagine it was passed on to another kid when my brother outgrew it. I am tickled by the thought that now, decades later, the bag might be spread on some kid’s bedroom floor, holding all the components of a toy car so that after she tears it apart, it can be put back together. This is what I’m hoping for myself also, from my time at Lunch Ticket. That this opportunity to unscrew other writers’ sentences helps me put  together my own. That learning the nuts and bolts of this journal gives me courage to submit to others. And that long after I receive my MFA diploma, Lunch Ticket stays cinched together, continuing the community of writers, because we buoy each other up.

Tricksack

Tricksack

 

Nous Sommes Charlie (and Muhammad)?

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There was much debate around the PEN American Center’s decision to honor the satirical cartoon newsmagazine Charlie Hebdo with the Freedom of Expression Courage Award at its literary gala earlier this month in New York City. Critically-acclaimed writers who were scheduled as hosts declined to attend. A little over two hundred well-esteemed writers and poets signed a letter of protest against the award, including Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Ben Lerner, Joyce Carol Oates, and Vijay Seshadri. They detailed in their letter concerns about Charlie Hebdo’s work “valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”

A debate swirled (and still swirls) from PEN’s decision: Why were these defectors of the literati wrong in taking their stance, and why were they in the right to do so? Is this an issue of promoting freedom of expression, or did Charlie Hebdo traffic in hate speech? Shouldn’t PEN be able to take a stand against violent acts on writers and artists committed by extremists, and isn’t that its mission statement? Should we all take a crash course in understanding why and how Charlie Hebdo’s satirical cartoons are made?

What the writers’ dramatic stance clarifies is the validity in speaking up and making controversial opinions known. Whether or not these literary artists were “right,” the truth is they took the opportunity of a global stage to make a statement against Islamaphobia. Was this the best opportunity to do so? That is also up for debate. But because they did take a stand, it called to attention the viable concern that Islamaphobia and prejudice against immigrants is growing, especially in the Western world.

There are challenges in reaching a well-rounded perspective on a complex issue like this. I try and avoid a knee-jerk reaction on a news or media event that “Of course they were wrong,” or, “Of course they were right.” It’s never as simple as that. Reaching a conclusive opinion often takes a little more time than scanning news articles or Facebook status updates.

Social justice is a primary component of the MFA Creative Writing program at Antioch. For me, social justice involves being connected to what’s going on in the news and media. My undergraduate degree is in News-Editorial Journalism (old-school print journalism) from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. It was my first experience in studying writing, for better and for worse. During one of my first journalism classes, I remember asking my grizzled, suspender-wearing professor, with his clean white shirt rolled up at the sleeves, if I could borrow a pen. He growled back, “Aww, what’s a reporter without a pen?” Words to take to heart.

When I studied journalism, I learned that objectivity is the apex to which you write. The more you take yourself out of the story, the better the story. (Over time, I realized that this is not the most ideal self-definition to have as a writer.) Writers and journalists are only human, and it’s inevitable they bring their own biases to a story, whether an op-ed or an investigative report. Knowing what your own personal biases are concerning an issue you’re writing about—in terms of politics, race, socio-economics, or simply the limits of your personal knowledge—has an effect on what and how you write. This also goes for critical reviews of books or other arts. It’s a dubious practice for book reviewers to just outright say “I hate it” or “I love it,” for example. Gut instinct speaks to your emotional response, but critical assessment communicates more than just an opinion, and is more useful information for a reader.

In journalism, it’s easy to become your own best skeptic about your writing (and worst enemy). For every step in reaching a well-researched and conclusive opinion, you have to ask yourself: what would be the opposing point of view here? For example, if I’m assuming that those who objected to PEN’s decision to award Charlie Hebdo were in the wrong, what tangible evidence do I have to assume I’m right? (Journalists can also never, ever assume anything—otherwise they run the risk of ending up in deep, bottom-of-the-ocean trouble, much like Sabrina Erdely for her piece on campus rape for Rolling Stone.) As a research and writing tool, it’s valuable to draw from as many reliable sources as possible to inform your personal opinion and interpretation of a topic or issue.

The value of old-school news-editorial journalism is changing. Readers bring their own set of preferences for what outlets they choose to read, follow, and listen to on a day-to-day basis. There are a wider range of perspectives available to readers than the traditional stereotype of the hard-drinking, notebook-and-pen-in-hand, white male news reporter on the beat. But media and news consumers can also get overloaded with options for where to get their “news of the day,” without synthesizing that information into decisive opinions.

Writers and media consumers alike can benefit from having some knowledge of how a journalism story is put together. The Poynter Institute is one free and online resource available for learning about journalistic writing and how to form a critical perspective, as well as constructive opinions on issues that impact the world around you.

Secret Gardens, House Finches, and Apricots: Finding Voice and Purpose In Mundane Moments

Me in the secret garden a few years ago.

Me in the secret garden a few years ago.

To the right of my house, hidden past four raised beds of squash, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and cucumbers, further past two wild patches of mint, there is an old secret garden. There, morning glory grows wild, climbing our two-story house, twining into our rain gutters, pulling them down, and covering our wooden fence. There, also, mature rose bushes thrive. Each spring these roses house hummingbird nests, give me fragrant roses to bring inside, and send out wild shoots of rose plants. Though it is easily seen from our dinning room’s large picture window, it is the piece of land I spend the least time attending and caring for. In truth, I can hardly call it a garden; it is a wild, untamed patch of our home with its own story.

As our main garden has slowly filled in with vegetable plants, fruit and avocado trees, wild-growing blackberries, and herbs too many to name, I’ve turned to other places to cultivate and plant. Last summer, for example, Edward and I painstakingly pulled up our front lawn with pix-axes over a hot and humid July. In the midst of California’s current historical drought, it made no sense to continue pouring water into a lawn that refused to stay green, and only fed and sheltered grubs. Now, nearly a full year later, it is full of native western plants. Swallowtail and monarch butterflies, finches, sparrows, dragonflies, and bees gather and call it home. Our native garden is young, still finding its voice, but it has already begun to sing its song and tell its story.

The native garden this spring.

The native garden this spring.

The air above the native garden is a highway—swallowtails skidding to the backyard, hummingbirds sitting a spell on tree limbs, bumblebees wrestling their fat bodies into the throat of violet morning glory blooms, and June bugs flying drunk in airstreams. Even the leaves refuse to die without saying something—singing loud, final songs, as the same airstream carries them down the sidewalk. I cannot help but be reminded, witnessing the young voice of my native garden; we all have our own songs and stories, too.

This week, while attending to the wild, secret garden, I wondered about its story. What song, what story, what purpose does it hold? Last fall, Edward and I installed a raised bed there, a place to grow shade-loving vegetables like carrots and lettuce through our hot summers.

“Isn’t it too shady to grow anything here?” Edward asked while I arranged the cinder blocks for the bed. “Don’t you need more sun?”

“It’ll be an overflow and experimental bed.” I stopped and started talking excitedly with my hands. “I can try new plants out, finally figure out how to grow carrots, probably even grow lettuce in August.”

Truthfully, I did not have a sure answer to his questions; I do not know if shade will help me produce more food, or if more sun is always better. I see the bed as an opportunity to figure those things out. Our summers here in California’s Inland Valley are brutally hot. Weeks pass, one after another, stacking days upon days of triple-digit temperatures. Heat-loving tomatoes stop growing, and everything but citrus takes a break August through September.

Edward watering squash plants.

Edward watering squash plants.

Edward followed my lead, and went about filling the cinder bed with soil. Not long into his work, he came running from around the corner, finding me in the main bed. He was not running excitedly to tell me something, or bring me to see something he’d discovered, he came running from a hummingbird. Though we had neglected this garden over the years, she had already begun to sing her own song, to write her own story full of characters with lives and purposes of their own. We learned we are just visitors, and hummingbirds are very territorial.

When Edward went back, he worked more respectfully, taking up less space and being mindful of the nest in the rose bush the hummingbird was protecting. Eventually, the bed was raised, and last season we grew Brussels sprouts and trochuda cabbage. I’m still trying to figure out the carrot thing, however.

But something else has begun to happen. This garden has begun to teach me about what we do with our lives, how we live out our purpose in ordinary time, more specifically, how we live out the quiet moments of our lives.

Last week, my two and a half years of creative writing study culminated into a final thesis. It is 177 pages with its title pages, acknowledgments, table of contents, etc., but more specifically, it is 52 pages of poetry, and 102 pages of fiction. Somehow, during my pursuit of becoming a better novelist and completing my first novel, I wrote a poetry book, and became a poet.

As my mentor signed off my final manuscript, and I realized my poetry book was full and complete, hollowness set in. For the past seventeen months, those poems were my creative focus and purpose. I poured myself into writing those poems, then editing them, arranging them, naming, and polishing them. They gave my writing life purpose and dedication.

A morning glory flower.

A morning glory flower.

Today, with the extraordinary moments witnessed and recorded in that poetry book, what do I do with the ordinary time of today, until the next moments of reverence for a new subject comes? What about tomorrow, after the book, the degree is finished? While working through extraordinary goals we often think that work and that effort is hard and demanding, but I have come to differ. The hard work is witnessing the mundane, the quiet, the ordinary time of our lives and finding the same passion, grit, reverence for those silent moments as we have for the loud moments we can announce on our social media streams. Those quiet, dusk moments of our lives without enough light to photograph. Who are we then? When we put the projects down, who are we; who are we when we settle down with ourselves, come down from the high of extraordinary, and live in ordinary time?

While sitting on the edge of a cinder block, in my secret garden, planting a Black Diamond Watermelon, a bird flew from the gutter above me and around to a heavy thicket of morning glory vines. Perched, it began to chirp amongst a chorus of chirpers, and soon after, a hummingbird flew out, dipped its body near my head, before flying off into a nearby tree, out of sight. I turned my attention back to the bird singing from the morning glory vine, noting its strawberry red throat, its tan body, and short-pointed beak, all clues to help me discover the name of this rare visitor. A few hours later, while sitting still with my journal, I noticed the same bird sitting on a branch, eating a ripe apricot across the yard. His strawberry pink throat matched the blushing apricot and as he took moments to pause between pecking at the apricot, he’d sing a quick note.apricot

I had to fight myself to sit still, to watch him from afar, knowing if I came close, he’d scurry off and leave his afternoon lunch. Some minutes later, when he flew off, I started poeming. Once I realized he was done eating the apricot, and not coming back, I walked over, sat beneath the tree and decided to poem from there, with the sun on my arms. On the ground a half-eaten, ripe apricot caught my attention. I held it, inspected it, pushed my nose into its cleaved flesh, smelling the sweet, musky floral scent of a sun-ripened apricot. I instantly knew why my feathered visitor kept singing.

I left space in my poem for the bird’s proper name, something, I imagined, rare sounding that I’d never heard before. A name to give my poem a flair of the extraordinary. Later, after going through my regional bird book, and researching online, I learned this fellow was an everyday house finch. Colorful in his mating plumage, I failed to notice the ordinary in the extraordinary in front of me. Or, is the bigger truth that I failed to have reverence and awe when witnessing the mundane.

This, my friends, is what we do in the quiet, humdrum time of our lives. We follow the paths of birds, we investigate and smell sweet fruits in the sun, we get still and listen to the birds sing, the bees humming their glassine wings—this is where we truly find purpose, passion, and meaning, when we are wildly present and able to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. It is this time, between the extraordinary seasons of our lives, which defines us and guides us towards our purpose(s).

I believe we truly live during ordinary time. Not the big moments, but the quiet moments. Those times we are preparing for the bigger moments, we are writing the stories and singing the songs under our breath, waiting for the extraordinary times to sing our stories on the big stage. The big stage is for the world, but the quiet, everyday moments are for us, for us to be present and purposeful in song.

I’d like to share a recipe for a quick hand pie to eat during your ordinary, in between time. It is just as comforting as a morning treat with coffee or tea, as it is in the evening, warmed for dessert. To my kids it’s a homemade pop tart, to Edward and me, an old-fashioned hand pie. Either way, it’s homey and good in the best kind of way.

Boysenberry Hand Pies/Pop Tarts

Boysenberry Hand Pies/Pop Tarts

Boysenberry Hand Pie/Pop Tart

The best thing about these hand pies is the contrast between the tart berry filling and the sweet icing on top. The flaky dough serves as the perfect backdrop; it’s sweet enough to help round out the tartness of the boysenberries, but not too sweet. I use a good quality vegan margarine for my dough, but feel free to use all butter. The key is ice-cold margarine/butter, ice-cold water, and quick handwork. Of course, you can use what ever flavor of jam you like!

Pie Dough

3 ¾-4 C. all purpose flour

3 sticks of margarine/butter, diced and ice-cold

3 tbl. Sugar

¾-1 C. ice-cold water

Directions:

  1. An hour before you plan to make your dough, cut up your margarine/butter into cubes and put in the freezer. Chill 1 cup of water.
  2. To Make Dough: Measure 3 ¾ cups of flour into a large bowl, add the sugar, and mix well to incorporate. Add the cubes of butter, and then cut it into the flour with a pastry blender/cutter, or two forks. When the butter is the size of small peas, slowly stir in the ice water. Start with the lesser amount of water, and add enough extra water to make the dough hold together. It’s okay if there are dry areas. If the dough is too wet, add in extra flour.
  3. Separate the dough into two disks, wrap in plastic wrap, and put in the refrigerator to chill. In the meantime, make your filling.

Boysenberry Filling

1 C. seedless boysenberry jam

Squeeze of lemon juice

1 tsp. freshly grated lemon zest

1 tbl. cold water

1 tbl. cornstarch

Directions:

  1. In a small saucepan, add the jam, lemon juice, and lemon zest. In a separate small bowl, mix the water and cornstarch to make a slurry. Add the cornstarch slurry to the jam, and cook over medium high heat until the jam begins to thicken, about 3-4 minutes.
  2. Once thickened, put the jam in a small bowl, and set aside to cool. (Note: to cool quickly, place the small bowl of jam into another larger bowl filled with ice water. Stir the jam continuously, until it cools and thickens.)

Assembling the Hand Pies:

  1. Cover your work area and rolling pin with flour. Roll out the dough into a rectangle roughly 9 x 15 inches long and about ¼ inch thick. Cut the rectangle into nine rectangles, about 3 x 5 inches big. Set aside, then do the exact same thing with the rest of the dough. (You may have dough left over.)
  2. In the center of the first set of rectangles, spread about 2 tablespoons of the thickened jam, avoiding about ½ inch of the edge. Be generous, but also mindful that if you put too much jam, it will squeeze out when you put the top layer of dough on top. Too little, and your hand pie will be dry.
  3. Once each rectangle is spread with jam, moisten your finger in water and wet the edges of each rectangle (the ½ inch area without jam), and then place one of the second set of dough rectangles on top. The water will help seal the two layers of dough together. With a fork dipped in flour, press around the edge of the pie, crimping the two pieces of dough together. Set aside, and repeat the process with the remaining pieces.
  4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and place the prepared pies into the refrigerator to cool while the oven preheats, about thirty minutes. This gives the margarine/butter a chance to harden again, which helps to create flaky dough.
  5. Cook the cooled pies for 25-35 minutes, or until they are golden brown. Set aside to cool while you make the icing.
  6. Icing: To make the icing, mix 1-1/2 cups of powered sugar with 2 tablespoons of milk, 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract (or less if you prefer, but I always use a lot of vanilla), and 1 teaspoon of light corn syrup (optional). You do not have to add the corn syrup, but I find a little helps the icing to not flake off it dries. Whisk well, adding more sugar to thicken, or milk to thin until you reach your desired consistency.
  7. Ice the cool pies, shake on candy sprinkles, and enjoy!

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Making the Time Count

Lately, I have had a gnawing feeling. It is in my throat and sometimes it moves to my stomach. It seems to start as soon as I think about what I have to do. It really begins to pulse when I think about what I haven’t done. I am suffering from…procrastination: the scourge of writers, the plague of completion, the seed of doubt.

Please, is there a cure?

As far as I know there isn’t one. If there are sports psychologists that spend hours with professional athletes coaching them through their doubt with guided imagery, talk therapy, hypnosis, maybe even past-life regression, there have to be writers’ psychologists, right?

Here’s how I imagine a session would go:

“Doctor. I can’t seem to write anything. And when I do, it’s no good.”

“Well, have you written anything at all? And how do you know it’s not good?”

“I just know.”

“Has anyone besides yourself read it?”

“UH-uh. No.”

“Then how do you know?”

If a writer’s therapist were to ask me if I have written anything in the past week, I would probably say no. nothing.

But, if I were to actually print out what I have written, the pages here and there, the one-liners, pages from my notebook, I actually have written quite a bit. The two-thousand-words-a-day practice, which I adopted from reading Stephen King’s On Writing—the only book he wrote that didn’t leave me permanently terrified of swimming in the middle of a lake, or walking past sewers—is something I have tried seriously to do for years.

Somehow, even while battling procrastination, I can just about reach my quota of words throughout the day. Call it muscle memory. The words are not always connected, and not written at the same time. I think my writers’ therapist would say that’s a good place to start and, “Now, let’s try and structure your time better.”

Right now, I don’t have the distraction that so many people do: a full-time job. I need one, though, and I am looking. I am preparing myself to lose the large chunks of time that I am so spoiled by, and I know I am going to have to use super powers to focus in order to finish my book, or any articles, or whatever project I am working on.

What about the millions of parents, single and paired, who write and publish and work? They are doing it. It’s harder than it looks, but maybe it’s also easier than I think. Mia Couto, the Mozambican writer currently nominated for the Man Booker International Prize, is a full-time biologist. Atul Gawande is a practicing surgeon and public health researcher, a regular contributor to the New Yorker and has written three best sellers.

I have decided to approach procrastination as a constructive challenge while I am working towards finding a job. What do my favorite writers do? Well, Virginia Woolf had a writing shed. Having the space to write was so important to her that she wrote an entire book about the political and social significance of personal creative space in A Room of One’s Own. She recommended writing for several solid hours at a time and had tea brought to her by servants. Okay. Maybe I shouldn’t look to an early 20th century writer for complete guidance. How about Haruki Marukami, the author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, or 1Q84? He gets up early and writes for three or four hours, sometimes more, and then runs or swims. Every day. Susan Sontag would get up every morning at eight and write for as long as she could. She wouldn’t answer the phone, or open her mail, and she never went out. Occasionally, she would meet one friend for lunch, but never more than twice a month. In the evening, after five, she would allow herself time to read. My favorite is Roald Dahl—he had a writing hut too. In it, he surrounded himself with things that made him happy (chocolate? peaches?). He sat in a big chair and wrote with a notebook in his lap for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. Even if he didn’t have an idea (which was seldom), he would sit in the chair and just think.

There’s a pattern developing. Boundaries and time. Recently, I changed my writing quota from two thousands words a day to writing at least two hours every day in the morning and two more in the afternoon. What a gift! Writing in blocks of time instead of a word count feels less forced. I end up having more time to write better. I don’t feel as scattered and I know I have accomplished something. Still, I sometimes find myself checking email in case something exciting is happening somewhere where I am not, glancing at Amazon to see if there might be any Italian shoes with red buckles on sale, or eh, eh, cough, getting a drink of water. I have to make my time allotment worth it, so now I have started setting my alarm. Depending on my state of agitation, I set the alarm for between thirty and fifty minutes. It seems to work. The alarm allows me to know that a break is coming at some point, I can get up for five minutes, and then get back to work.

What I really want to say is, I love to write, and sometimes it’s hard. But I am finding if I take my half-hour block and write, and stop thinking about my future best-seller, and just stay in the moment, it’s not as daunting. Sometimes I love what I write and then hate it two days later, what was I thinking? What writer doesn’t experience that? I think it’s impossible to look at one’s material and not have judgment. We all do it. What I have learned, and have to keep re-learning nearly every day is, it takes time, it takes discipline, and I need to trust myself. I think my writers’ therapist would agree.

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Writing: The Toolbox IV

Let’s talk. About dialogue. About speech. About sentences.

As a screenwriter, dialogue is one of the mainstays of my craft. In fact, it’s one of the only two tools I am allowed to use to bring a story to life: dialogue and action. It’s like writing with one arm tied behind my back.

Sentences are vital to the reading experience and the communication of meaning. They are more than conveyors of information. They are more than the sum of their content. It is important to look at the building blocks of a sentence. Sentence construction affects everything, and with every choice of sentence formation, a new meaning and a new perception is born in the reader.

I see sentences as pictures. To me they have color, texture, shape. They are sensory experiences, with flavor, sound, and a feel of their own. They are word images, letter pictures. When I write, I want my sentences to look good, literally. I don’t want the seams to show. I don’t want the reader to see the writing choices. I want my sentences to appear as though they were born perfect and could be no other way when, in fact, much work and thought went into their construction.

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I continue writing about the collected tools of the craft, based on my years of experience. Here are a few of my tools for writing effective sentences and dialogue:

10. The First Line

The first line of dialogue, and the first sentence of a work of prose, is like a name. It’s the first impression a reader gets about a person, a character, and even the writer. If it’s a good name and a good sentence, you make a good impression.

In screenwriting, the reader of a script is the gatekeeper, the one to recommend a script to their superior, or not. The power of thumbs up or down often lies in the hands of an intern, an assistant, a nary beginner, but if you can’t get past the first reader, you’ll never make it on the screen. How will you get past the first reader?

When people browse a table of new book releases, you will see them pick up a book, read the first few lines and either buy it or put it back down. The first line is a great opportunity to engage the reader quickly, and perhaps make the sale. Ideally it also encapsulates the meaning of the entire work.

In the script of Bull Durham, the first line of a voice-over dialogue is: “I believe in the church of baseball.” That statement encapsulates everything the movie is about as well as the character. It captures the film’s characters’ obsession, and devotion at all expense, to the game of baseball.

In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, the first line of dialogue is: “It’s your best work, Basil, the best thing you’ve ever done.” Of course, these are the famous first/last words for the entire book, which end in disaster for the central characters.

In Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky),  the first line of the book is: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This portentous line prefaces the entire book in summary of theme and meaning, and projects the coming tragic story.

In Huxley’s Brave New World, the very first line of dialogue on the first page is: “And this,” said the Director opening the door, “is the Fertilizing Room.” It is the core summary of the subject of the book, a perfect teaser.

In Joan Didion’s collection of essays, The White Album, the first line is: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” This line captures the heart of her musings on murders and migraines, The Doors and the Hoover Dam. Stories are the fabric of our lives, and Didion grabs her idea with the first sentence.

In Robert Towne’s Chinatown, the first line of dialogue the protagonist speaks is: “All right, enough is enough. You can’t eat the Venetian blinds, Curly. I just had ‘em installed on Wednesday.” This first line serves not only as an attention grabber, but it gives away the subtleties of Gittes’ life. He’s a low rent private who deals with guys named Curly. Venetian blinds are a luxury to him. He takes the kind of cases that are sordid and sad, the kind that make grown men cry and eat Venetian blinds. This will all come to haunt him later.

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11. Empty Dialogue

Don’t write empty dialogue. Empty dialogue is the kind of exchange that gives the reader nothing in characterization or drama: “Hello.” “How are you?” “Fine.” “Come in.” “Sit down.” “How have you been?” “I’m fine.” These are exchanges we have spoken and heard a million times in our lives. Find a new way to say an old thing.

If you find you’ve written an empty line of dialogue, cut it if you have to. It’s better to have silence. Let a character walk into a room without the usual greeting, perhaps in silence, and the reader immediately wonders what is going on and is quickly engaged.

Open a produced screenplay of a well-liked movie to any page, and you won’t find a boring line of dialogue in it.

In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, Phil, the nurse, comes into the room of the cancer patient, and instead of asking, “How are you?” says, “How’s the day then?” The difference between these two lines is the difference between the reader being mentally asleep or awake. A new way of saying things is exciting for the mind of the reader, and the well-worn path is tedious or so uninspiring it becomes invisible.

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway is introduced to Daisy for the first time, and her greeting to him is not “I’m pleased to meet you,” but “I’m p-paralyzed with happiness.” New ways of saying things in dialogue not only excite the reader, but also create vibrant, compelling characters.

In The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, the first line of dialogue, Carmen greeting Philip Marlowe as he enters the house, is not a boring, “How do you do?” it’s “Tall, aren’t you?” Marlowe responds wryly, “I didn’t mean to be.” This first exchange could have been boring, but never in the hands of Raymond Chandler. It’s vibrant and fresh and grabs us right away.

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12. Line Leaks

This is a personal pet peeve. I believe in strong lines. Direct lines. A clear sentence is muscular, energetic, compelling. When I teach my screenwriting students about dialogue, I tell them to revisit their script when they’ve written their first draft and slash every “Well,” “Ok,” “So,” “Look,” from the beginnings of their dialogue lines. I tell them to cut every word that requires a comma at the beginning of a sentence. In every day life we often resort to these “time buyers.” But they clutter the line. They leak the energy out of the sentence. And they weaken the content.

“Well, I want to go to the fair now,” is not as good as, “I want to go to the fair now.”

“So, when did you arrive?” is not as good as, “When did you arrive?”

“Ok, what did you have in mind?” is not as good as, “What did you have in mind?”

We put these little buggers into the beginnings of sentences out of habit, out of a desire to sound natural, but this is often at the expense of clarity and energy. Try it out on your own work. Don’t let the energy leak out. See how many “well” words you find at the beginning of dialogue, and see how much better the line reads without it.

These are a few practical approaches to sentences and dialogue. There are more, and I will share them in upcoming posts. In the meantime, be bold, cut the clutter, get to the point, and make it fresh!

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Previous posts in the series:
https://lunchticket.org/writing-toolbox/
https://lunchticket.org/writing-toolbox-ii/
https://lunchticket.org/writing-the-toolbox-iii/

All images courtesy of Bettina Gilois 

Heart Connections: Into and Beyond the Particular

I recently gathered with a small group of friends to watch a documentary that was made two years ago about our friend Renee in her final months of life. Nine chairs were arranged in a half-circle to transform the Santa Monica office lobby where we met into a theater. On the lobby’s granite welcome desk by the basket of teabags, paper cups, and hot water kettle was a box of tissues. A serene painting of watery blues and greens was taken down so the wall behind it could be used as a projection screen. While we waited for two latecomers, someone passed around homemade doughnuts. We did not talk about Renee. Later, when the nine of us sat dabbing our eyes in the projection’s glow, I kept staring at the mounting hook we’d left in the wall. Here she was, two years after cancer, with a thirty pound picture hanger in her forehead. I wondered what she’d think of the memories we’d hung on her.

Renee lived with an open curiosity about other cultures and their methods of healing, and she gambled with her life to find out if they’d work. She lost, in the end, which means we all lost. By the time she started chemotherapy, her cancer was advanced, and from then on everything was a cocktail of radiation, chemo, medical marijuana, and, later, morphine. Despite this, when I think about Renee what I remember most immediately isn’t the cancer or the treatments, but her gratefulness and grace, and how I learned that a person can move through life and death—both—with a sense of wonder, and with fierce kindness. Even in the last months, she was concerned about others. But how are YOU? she would ask, interrupting the cancer talk. After she lost her hair, before she dyed it platinum and skulked cancer-chic across a fashion runway for the last time, she told me, Just before I was diagnosed, I had been looking for a new teacher. I believe that is why I have cancer. Yoga, meditation, nutrition—I studied them all deeply. It was time for me to find a new teacher.   

Renee Heidtman in 2012. Photo credit: Valerie Brown

Renee Heidtman in 2012. Photo credit: Valerie Brown

 

The day before the nine of us sat together in that still lobby to watch a filmmaker’s collage of our friend, the most powerful earthquake in the region’s recent memory rocked Nepal. The wreckages from the quake, the aftershocks, the avalanches, and the difficulty of aid deliverance to isolated villages has the current death count near six thousand expected to rise beyond ten thousand. The horror of the news quickly filed itself neatly in my mind among other mass-horrors wreaked by the intersection of Mother Nature and human development: Hurricane Katrina, Haiti’s earthquake, Japan’s earthquake and tsunami; and those wrought by civil unrest: the Arab Spring, Central African Republic, too many to name.

At the risk of sounding ignorant, or worse, uncaring, that I group these events in a lump shows how little I truly know about them. So far, living here on the San Andreas Fault System for the past nine years, I am precariously privileged. I feel concern, sympathy, and worry for the people caught in these traumatic events, but my heart yearns for something more specific. Large numbers like “six thousand” awe me with their hugeness, but they are almost beyond my grasp. Thinking about villages like Langtang, which was entirely wiped out in the Nepal earthquake, is as unfathomable as the Hubble telescope photos of galaxies.

While watching the documentary interviews of Renee’s younger sister Rita, I realized that the particularness of individual stories is what helps my heart comprehend not just pain and suffering, but love and yearning, care and concern, desire, fear, hope. Even as relief efforts excavate through rubble and seek to reach remote areas, it is the tragedy of a singular person that I knew that has me tearing more tissues from the box. On the drive home after watching Renee’s documentary, I wondered if there was a young woman in Nepal whose body was fighting the same cancer at the moment the fault lines shifted. Was there a younger sister caring for her when the earth gave way? Had someone been praying for a new spiritual guide, and is now marveling with regret, Be careful what you wish for?

Lately I’ve been reading submissions for Lunch Ticket’s creative nonfiction team. It’s an honor to do this work. I believe there’s no greater teacher for a writer than the written word, and what I learn from the pieces I read is priceless. One thing I’ve noticed is that many very good submissions that we ultimately reject fall into two camps: the first tell a particular story about a particular person, the second tell a general story about an idea. Both often contain beautiful prose, delightful imagery, good intention. What many essays miss, however, is a recognition that the reader aspires to connect with the writer.

The essays in the first camp share the writer’s personal experience. They are often a memory of an experience, or a tribute to a loved one. I understand the need to write these stories down. I want to write about Renee, to document her, to preserve her. And yet, few readers of Lunch Ticket knew Renee; few will truly care to read my tribute. If I want an audience of anonymous strangers to read a story about Renee, I need to create a connection from my heart to the readers’. Renee is a person whom I loved, but just as she reached beyond the situation of her illness to find a deeper meaning, I need to write beyond my love for her to find a connection with you.

The essays in the second camp simply don’t get specific enough for the reader’s heart to truly comprehend. I heard this morning that a fifteen-year-old boy was found alive after being trapped for five days under rubble in Kathmandu. His face is in the paper; he could be my fourteen-year-old daughter’s classmate. He has a name—Pemba  Tamang—, he worked at the hotel whose rubble he was buried in for those five days, he ate ghee to survive. I don’t mean to be dismissive or crass, but Pemba Tamang means more to me than the six thousand others. Already, with only three facts about the boy and a photo of his face, I worry for him, I care for his well-being, I wonder about his future and how these events will shape him, I think about his family. I have to remind myself that I don’t know him at all. I feel I already do.

There’s a strange alchemy that occurs when a writer tells a story in such a way that a reader can relate. If the devil’s in the details, the heart is too. Through a balance of detailed writing in exposition and scene, a good essay can bridge the chasm between strangers. The onus for building this connection is on the writer. It is the details of the writer’s specific circumstance, and the writer’s introspection about it, that creates the gold of creative nonfiction.

photo credit: Casey Noel

Renee Heidtman in 2012. Photo credit: Casey Noel

 

On Journals: The Journal of Jules Renard

In the digital age, there is an incessant drive to “share” what you’re thinking, doing, eating, writing, not writing, obsessing about. This starts to feel like a bright and shiny red alarm button, urging me to cast my words out into the world: comment on social media posts or online articles, rant about a television show in a blog post, and send a story, essay, or poem out to a publication before it’s ready, just to see if they’ll take it. I try and second-guess myself before I do anything too rash, and ask why it matters if I do send my thoughts or opinions out into the digital universe, whether they are random or well-articulated. What am I actually saying with this Tweet? Do I like the publication I’m sending my work to, and why? Or do I just see a “Submit!” button and want to click “send” for the endorphin rush of anticipating a response?

Or, am I too hesitant about engaging on social media, too cautious? After all, if you don’t make your presence known, it’s only known to yourself. It’s a modern day conundrum: to share or not to share. Still, in order to contribute to the social conversation happening online about any topic—instead of just throwing your opinions against the wall like a wet noodle and hoping they’ll stick—you have to have a well-rounded and thoughtful perspective on that topic. For me, there is at least one social conversation online I find relatively easy to contribute to: books.

“What’s your favorite book?” is one of the most difficult questions to answer outright. Many writers will say is its just too vague and leading: favorite when I was a child? When I was a teenager? As an adult? To read while traveling? On the workday commute? While lounging around on a rainy Sunday afternoon? The possible differentiations are endless.

If I could rephrase the question for myself at this given point in my life, I would ask: what book made me think I could be a writer? What book gave me the audacity to even consider that such a scenario would be possible? How could I compare with all of the other writers out there (and whose numbers are increasing?) Why would anyone care about my words over all of these other words?

The Journal of Jules Renard is a book I picked up on a whim at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books several years ago. It details the French playwright and novelist’s journal entries each month from 1887 to 1910. Some entries consist of past memories and are longer, but some are just one line. For example, in December of 1891, Renard writes: “How vain is an idea! Without the sentence, I’d retire.” Or this gem from July of 1895: “All our criticism consists of reproaching others with not having the qualities we believe ourselves to have.”

It is a book that revealed to me as a writer that my words matter because they matter to me, and that I need to write them down. If I share them, then maybe I am all the better for it, but if I don’t, then they are also fine to remain as my own kind of proof of existence in the world. I know that writers are often told that it’s pointless to toil away in obscurity. That said, to articulate an idea into actual words and sentences, it takes time. This can be difficult to achieve if you are craving an opinion or feedback on what you’ve written preemptively.

What strikes me the most about The Journal of Jules Renard is how easily Renard’s entries translate into the modern day. One of my favorite excerpts is from June 1902: “The writer must create his own language, and not use that of his neighbor. He must be able to watch it grow.”

I don’t always keep a journal myself, but at times when I’m wrapped up in a fit of emotional frustration and need to vent without subjecting all of my wailing to a kind friend’s ear, I journal either by hand or on a computer. Journaling is a good place to go when I feel emotionally boxed into a situation and can’t find a way out. It’s also how I dialogue with myself on paths to take out of serious issues or nagging concerns.

I admire the diligence with which Renard administered his journaling without the distractions of the modern world, and the book itself is a window into his life, in general and as a writer. If you had to ask yourself: How would you define the difference between the thoughts that are yours alone, and the ones that you share online?

A more recent book that also speaks to the value in journaling is Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (Graywolf), an essayistic take on her diary entries over the span of twenty-five years. In an article about Manguso’s book in The New Yorker, Alice Gregory writes: “In her memoir, Manguso makes the striking decision never to quote the diary itself. As she started to look through the old journals…she became convinced that it was impossible to pull the ‘best bits’ from their context without distorting the sense of the whole.”

What book (or books) you’re reading can say a lot about you as a reader—whether or not others have heard of it, have read it themselves, and where they place it in their own esteem. Another way to look at this question is why a book matters to you not just as a reader—but as a writer.

Clearing The Writer’s Garden of Weeds

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Spring weeds in my garden.

Over the past few weeks, my husband and I have set about clearing, prepping, and planting our garden for the main summer season. Though we live in a climate that boasts year-round growing, summer feeds us color—it is the season we eat rainbows, stuffing our mouths with sun-warmed fruits, painting our bellies, while outside the sun yellows, browns, and reddens our skin. It is the season that waters our mouths when we speak of gardening, as we anticipate the taste of peach, purple, yellow, red, orange, and green-streaked fruits and vegetables.

Earnestly, Saturday after Saturday, we’ve crawled and stooped around our yard, pulling spring-blooming weeds of dandelion, hay grass, mallow, and crabgrass, careful to leave what mint and plantain weeds we have growing alone. Ritually, we go out in spring clearing; mentally, I take note of what new and old weeds have come, choosing to let some run wild, pulling invasive weeds we have no use for, and keeping what I’ve learned to use.

“Weeds are like thoughts, distractions, in a writer’s mind,” I called over a thick patch of dandelions, deeply rooted and setting seed, to Edward. “If my writing mind is a garden, weeds are the distractions that come, intruding, covering up my meaningful thoughts, ideas.”

Edward is an accountant, and though he would tell you he does not have a creative mind, is not artistically-inclined like me and our two kids, his spreadsheets and budget-work often astounds me. He understands numbers the way I understand color, language, and sound.

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Wild spring grass/weed seeds.

“Think about it.” I pulled and pulled at a deeply rooted, thorn-filled dandelion, eventually falling backwards from my squatting stance to a seating position.

“I’m listening,” Edward said.

“Like this dandelion I just pulled. It is like a distracting idea when I’m trying to write. If I don’t deal with it, root it out, it will grow deep roots and suck energy, light, and space from my real ideas, my creative ideas. It will muddy the colors I’m trying to see.”

“Okay,” Edward said. He continued to clear his patch of hay grass beneath our peach tree. With blooming calendula and lavender flowers, and newly spent peach blossoms nearby, bees were loud and busy buzzing around him. I wanted to work where he was, letting the bees glide their yellow, black bodies over me. But the thrill was giving me goose pimples, and I was afraid my excitement, my adrenaline would get the bees riled up, leading to my bare arms getting stung.

“Seriously, it is a great metaphor.” I sat in the dirt, staring at the broken dandelion roots. “Take this dandelion. I know I didn’t get the entire taproot. If I don’t do the work of digging down deeper, and getting it all, it’ll come back, stronger. But, if I would have come here two, three weeks ago, the roots would have been weak, I would have easily pulled it up. Now, I have to worry about the roots, and the seeds the wind may carry—I have to work harder to clear this one weed from the garden.”

“I see.” Edward continued to pull and listen as I went on making sense of my writing practice, my life in the thick of weeds and soil.

Soon, the weed patch was too thick to talk and pull, and with my point made, my mind began to think about all the weeds I have growing in my writer’s garden, my mind. Fear. Doubt. Impatience. Insecurity. Comparison.

As we made progress, the shape and space of the garden bloomed. After fifteen years of gardening, and a lifetime of watching my grandparents work their garden, I’m familiar with weed-clearing magic—the joy found in reclaiming space and form. What looked abandoned and wild hours ago soon appeared well-kept, tamed.

Our peach trees appeared wider, our apricot tree taller, the Black Mission fig tree, more mature this year than last, with large, green-lobed leaves. Without the weeds, and the confusion and spatial noise they brought, I could see new forms, colors, characters. The fig leaves were hands giving high-fives to the few clouds scattered in the sky. The bright yellow calendula flowers smiled the same gummy grin my children smiled when their front teeth fell. The lavender flower stalks, somehow, reminded me of the spiral curls that stand up from my hair, combing the wind.

What if I took the same care, and ritually went about clearing my writer’s garden of weeds? What forms, colors, characters may appear without fear, doubt, impatience, insecurity, and comparison? What poems may come if I gave myself space to bloom and feed what nourishes me, instead of thoughts that strangle my voice? 

In my garden, winter is the seworkingeason of lush greens—purple-green broccoli, yellow-green peas, scarlet red and green chard and beet greens, white-stemmed green bok choy, emerald green kale, and dusty-gray green collards leaves.

Summer, however, is the season of rainbows. Purple tomatillos that ripen nearly black beneath brown-yellow husks, lipstick-red tomatoes and peppers, candy-orange sweet peppers, black-green zucchini, butter-orange squash, juicy-yellow corn, variegated grassy green melons—some with stars and moons, others with sea-wave lines running the full length of their bellies. There are green tomatoes, pineapple-yellow tomatoes, indigo-rose tomatoes, peach-colored tomatoes, orange tomatoes, and pink and purple tomatoes, too.

Color riots the summer garden, with red and yellow running the revolution.

I would never allow weeds to grow wild, without abandon in my garden, browning the rainbow I crave to consume. The rainbow that colors my belly, yellows my skin, and scents my hair purple with the sun.

I’m learning I eat my words, too. My poems scent me, redden my skin, balloon my belly, and fuel my hands to do my work. My work of seeing the world anew, in color and form, and creating figurative language that expands what is familiar to meet what I, we, have yet to understand. My work is the work of metaphors, colors, sounds.

Metaphor takes what we do not know, joins it with what we do, so that we may expand, see and understand the world with deeper, richer possibilities.

Metaphors make the fearful familiar, like gardeners make seeds food, and poets, writers attempt to make sense out of confusion. All acts of creating meaning. I tell you, us writers, we don’t just write what we know, we write towards what we need to know. We write to understand, create meaning, make sense.

I make sense of the world through color, then words, then shapes. Fear does not birth the yellow I long to see, the peach and strawberry-red shades that make me dream my way out of confusion. Neither does doubt paint the sky purple, or green for me. Those weedy thoughts muddy my process; they suck the color out of my world.

“I feel joyful,” I said to Edward cradling a new Reed avocado tree in my lap. My hand gently bent its blooming branches, inward, and cradled it from the wind as Edward drove us home from the nursery with a car filled with new seedlings.

“You’re thinking about your summer garden?” He smiled at me.

“No, I’m thinking of the colors, the poems. The hours the sun will redden and brown my back while I sit at the root of these plants. I’m thinking about the bees, lizards, hummingbirds we’ll feed. Us, too. And I guess the grasshoppers and June bugs, too. I’m thinking of all the poems we’re carrying.”

I urge you to define how you make sense of the world, what inspires you. But also, do the work of discovering the weeds you have growing wild, without abandon, some you’ll find use for, you’ll turn into pieces of art, but others, you’ll learn to discard.

This weekend, while I’m longing for summer peaches, I’ll settle for a homey peach cobbler. It’s a little taste and promise of summer’s riot of color soon to come. Here’s the recipe:

cast iron peach cobbler

Cast-Iron Skillet Peach Cobbler

This cobbler comforts and soothes after a long day of garden work. I wanted a taste of peaches that would be just as welcomed in the morning or late afternoon as in the evening for dessert. So, it isn’t overly sweet, but it is peachy and warmly satisfying. It’s wonderful served with a spoonful of vanilla yogurt in the morning or early afternoon for breakfast, and decadent warmed and served with vanilla ice cream on top. Cooking it in a piping hot cast-iron skillet caramelizes the peach syrup and deepens the flavor, so if possible, don’t skip that step.

Peach filling:

4-5 c. sliced peaches (canned [drained], frozen, or fresh)

1/3 c. brown sugar

¼ c. white sugar

2 tbl. butter/margarine

1 ½ tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp. cardamom

½ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

pinch of salt

2 tbl. almond milk

1 tbl. cornstarch

 

Cobbler topping:

1 c. + 2 tbl. flour

1 tsp. baking soda

3 tbl. brown sugar

½ tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp. fresh grated nutmeg

5 tbl. butter, cut into cubes, plus an additional 2-3 tbl. to butter the skillet

2/3 c almond milk + 1 tsp. apple cider vinegar

2 tsp. vanilla extract

1 tbl. turbinado/raw sugar

 

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees, place the cast-iron skillet in the oven to heat.
  2. Place the peaches, sugars, butter, and spices in a small pot over medium heat and cook until the peaches began to release their juices and mix with the sugars, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, in a small bowl mix the cornstarch into the cold milk and form a slurry. When the peach juices just start to bubble/boil, stir in the cornstarch slurry and cook until the juices thicken, another 3-5 minutes. Set aside.
  3. Place 2-3 tablespoons of butter in the cast-iron skillet and let it melt and brown in the oven while you prepare the topping. Add the vinegar to the milk to curdle, set aside. Mix flour, baking soda, sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a large bowl. Cut butter cubes into flour mixture, mix until course crumbs form. Stir the vanilla into the curdled milk, then add all at once to flour/butter mixture. Mix quickly, and lightly, until no white flour remains, but being careful not to over-mix.
  4. Carefully (it will be hot) remove the cast-iron skillet from the oven, and very carefully pour in the cooked peach filling. The skillet will be much hotter than the filling, so be careful that the melted butter doesn’t splash or pop on you. It should sizzle and make a lot of noise, this is good—you want the sugars in the filling to lightly caramelize to deepen the flavor.
  5. With a large spoon, drop spoonfuls of the topping over the peaches, spacing them out. As it bakes, the topping will spread, covering the peaches with a ‘cobbler’ like topping. Sprinkle the turbinado/raw sugar over the topping.
  6. Bake for 20 minutes, until the topping is brown.
  7. Enjoy!

castiron peach cobbler

skillet peachcobbler

Writing Centers

I just submitted the workshop packet for my third MFA residency this June. In a delayed, it’s-too-late-to-change-it discovery, I realized that I have basically written the exact same thing for the third submission in a row. Not only that, I submitted it with errors: a typo, an incorrect verb tense shift, a missing coma. The details of my essay are different of course, but the theme is the same, and I am still struggling with sequential verb tense agreements within a piece. One of the reasons I opted for a career in the creative arts instead of a career in medicine (and it was between the two) was because I was pretty sure if I had a patient I would leave the syringe with the life-saving antidote by the water cooler, would be actively involved trying to locate it as the patient’s blood pressure dropped before I realized where I had left it, and would then be running back at breakneck speed to their bedside, hoping it wasn’t too late.  I get distracted.

For the last three months, I have been a teaching assistant for an “Introduction to the Humanities” class at a nearby community college. Each week, the students complete a module that includes films, readings, and discussions, and which then finally concludes with an essay on what they have learned. After reading their essays week by week, I have come to know the writing patterns of each student: their themes, their grammatical errors, their lack of attention to detail. At the same time, I have also seen the efforts students make to try to be understood. Some of them are really struggling. The sentences are often run-on, the ideas aren’t clear, and the punctuation seems haphazard. They are excited about what they want to say.

It sounds just like me.

I am supposed to be a graduate student, able to write flawlessly with perfect grammar and punctuation, right? If I don’t know something, I should be able to look it up, right? Submissions should be perfect, but sometimes I can’t see the problems. I can’t remember the rules for numbers: do the small ones get written out, or is it the big ones? It’s like someone is always saying, “go north for two blocks and then go west for three;” I am always looking up at the sun, and I am not sure where I am, but I have to get there in a hurry. Sometimes I am embarrassed by my mistakes.

When I discussed my editing problems with one friend, she suggested I read my work aloud. For me that’s not always the best solution, since I already know what I want to say and can control the rhythm. Another suggestion she had was to print my work out and read a page or two at a time, and not all in one sitting. By breaking it up, I would be forced to concentrate on making sure every sentence and paragraph made sense. The final suggestion she had was to ask someone for help. Good idea! Who?

The professor that I am assisting recommended that before the students in the Humanities class submit their midterms, they take their work to the college’s Writing Center. The Writing Center, like the one on so many campuses across the country, has tutors available by appointment and drop-in, ready to assist students with their writing assignments. After reviewing their midterm essays, I could tell immediately which students had followed the professor’s advice. Their work had fewer errors. Their sentences seemed clearer. Their voices had more confidence.  The professor has now made it mandatory that each student go to the Writing Center at least once before the end of the semester.

I am requiring the same of myself.  Antioch University has an online Virtual Writing Center for its students. Any student in any program at any of Antioch’s campuses can submit writing projects to the center online. It is then reviewed by one of several peer consultants who first read what the assignment is, what class it is for, and note areas that may need special attention. Recently, I submitted the first eight pages of an essay that needed to be twenty pages. I wrote that I was having trouble with the conclusion. I said I needed stronger transitions. I was pretty sure I had caught the punctuation errors, but I know even with Strunk and White’s chapter on quotations, even with Purdue Owl’s chapter on quotations, I sometimes get lost in my character’s dialogue; would the peer consultant please be so kind as to mark any errors?

Less than twenty-four hours later, I received a kind letter back with an explanation of some of the things I might pay attention to. The document itself was marked with comments that suggested writing more in some places, or writing less in others. The peer consultant asked me really thoughtful questions like, “Can you tell me what you mean here?” I was smitten.

With her feedback, I was able to extract the remaining twelve pages that I needed. It hadn’t occurred to me to strengthen a particular scene with more dialogue. I didn’t realize I had said the same thing in two paragraphs. She also kindly sent a link for help with punctuation. The peer consultant had simply done a review of my work.  She didn’t give me points or a grade. She made recommendations. Her only intention was to help my work get stronger.

I plan to use the Virtual Writing Center for as many of my projects as I can for the rest of my time here at Antioch. I will be telling anyone who is a student to use his or her campus’ writing center.  I will keep in mind when I am editing someone else’s work that my intention is to help their work get stronger, clearer.  More importantly, I will remind myself that asking for help is what I need to get better at, too. I can ask for that. I can do that.

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For Antioch students, here is the link to the Virtual Writing Center.

Writing: The Toolbox III

There’s more to writing than the writing itself, like there’s more to baseball than the game. The pre-game of being a writer requires training, warm up, preparation, stamina, and perseverance. Writing is not just an intellectual and artistic practice, it is a physically demanding and mentally strenuous activity. It requires strength: strength of mind, strength of conviction, strength of will. The writer must perform; perform every day, and triumph over doubt, attrition, distraction, and the self.

I continue writing about the collected tools of the craft, based on my many years of experience. Here are some more tools I reach for every day I write.

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7. The Ritual

Before each time at bat, Wade Boggs scratched the Hebrew symbol chai into the dirt of the batter’s box, and Turk Wendell scratched three crosses into the mound. A pitcher named Jason Grilli wore a baseball card in his shoe, with the image of his favorite pitcher facing the sole of his foot, and Coco Crisp, had to move his left hand and stomp his foot before taking an at-bat. I am an immersion writer. I need to go deep and stay there. I need to disappear into my writing, like diving into a pool. I have to submerge. At first, I dread the plunge, the cold shock, the effort. Once submerged, however, I adapt, I’m not in the real world anymore, and I try to stay there until I’m done.

To help me keep my concentration, I have my rituals. There are those rituals that begin the day. For me it’s jasmine tea. It’s a candle that stays lit for days, my silent, flickering companion. I like to cocoon, keep the room more dark than light. I keep the windows shuttered. I don’t want to see the street; I want to see the images in my mind. Then there are research rituals. In the “olden days” before the Internet, I collected maps. Any place I wrote about, I had to have a map. Before I wrote a word, I traced the locations with my finger, put myself there in my mind.

These days, I go onto Google Maps, and virtually walk down the street where my story is set. In a sense, research has become ritual as well. I research the foliage, indigenous plant species, shrubs, flowers, and trees, just to imbue a one sentence suburban scene at a mailbox with authenticity. Sometimes one sentence requires five separate Internet searches just to get it right. The reader might not know that only dogwood trees are genuine to the setting I am describing, but I believe they can feel it. Accuracy and authenticity is a ritual in the early stages of writing, since it gives me an edge of confidence and security that helps bring me more quickly into the place of immersion I want to get to.

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8. Hate Away

Starting a new project, even with candles blazing, tea steaming, and maps transporting me to another place, it still is a process to get comfortable with the work. Even after 25 years of writing, it’s not uncommon for me to hate what I’m writing, at first. It’s so commonplace, in fact, I just don’t worry about it anymore. I know I’m going to rewrite, and the work will eventually meet my standards. I don’t let it slow me down. I lay down the tracks. I get it on paper. I make notes and cross out half my page, I write in margins, scatter question marks and squiggly lines all over the place that imply “What were you thinking?” Occasionally I just write “what?” or “no!” or “bad.” But I trust, after a few revisions, bad becomes good.

If we had an x-ray machine as writers, and could diagnose what our new work will require, it would be easy. But we’re like drunken surgeons in the Wild West, a lot of savage exploratory slicing and dissecting, before we find the root of the problem. The key is not to let the patient die on the table. The key is not to stop, not to give up. I keep the faith, I forge ahead, I put stock in my abilities, and I keep going. I once wrote a script at the end of which I jotted down the phrase, “This is the worst thing I’ve ever written.” But I didn’t give up, though I was tempted, and I rewrote and rewrote, until it became the best thing I’d ever written. The key is to keep going.

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9. Learn to Love to Rewrite

Rewriting is your best friend. It’s grace and forgiveness. It’s atonement, and works. It sets you free from the sin of bad syntax. When I was commissioned to write my first script for Joel Silver Productions (an original idea I had pitched them), I went off and wrote my first draft and handed it in when I thought it was ready. I was young and inexperienced, and unsure about a lot of what I had written. I was lucky to have a great producer to give me feedback. It took two hours at Caesar’s Palace, where he wanted to have our conference, and he walked me through every screenplay storytelling technique, and pointed out all the flaws in my script, until the whole thing was solved. By the end of the session he had generously handed me a roadmap to the rewrite, and he said, “It will take you seven rewrites to get it right.” But I had listened to every one of his notes and took them to heart, and I got it right in one session. From then on I was introduced as, “This is Bettina. She’s a really good rewriter.”

It’s essential that you rewrite, and you rewrite well. If you are hired to do writing work, and are not adept at taking notes and rewriting satisfactorily, you are not too likely to be hired again. An editor editing for the first time might be skeptical of your abilities in the rough, but if you take the edits and notes and do a bang-up rewrite, an editor and publisher will take note of your abilities to pull it together, even if the first draft starts off rough. Most of all, rewriting is when you save the patient. There isn’t much that can’t be mended in the rewrite. Yes, occasionally you have to concede defeat, but most of the time, rewriting is where it all comes together. I believe rewriting is where the real writing begins.

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So, whether you light your candle or stomp your foot, get your ritual to get you writing. Ignore the first draft; it’s always a jumble. Make rewriting your best friend. These habits will give you a boost that should keep you writing for years to come.

Previous blogs in the series:
https://lunchticket.org/writing-toolbox/
https://lunchticket.org/writing-toolbox-ii/

All images courtesy of Bettina Gilois.

Mind Maps: The Bridge to Clarity

I walked into the house one night last week, my clothes soaked, my legs jelly. I was desperate for a shower and something to eat.

“How was your swim?” my fifth grader asked, looking up from her drawing. And then, “Wanna read my essay?”

The swimming reference is our little joke, since the studio where I spin is heated. Afterwards, it always appears as if I had jumped fully dressed into a swimming pool. The living room air was chilly compared with the class I had just left, and my hair was dripping down my back. I made a beeline for the shower, calling back to her that I’d happily proofread the essay when I got settled with something to eat. Thirty minutes later, there I was at the dining room table. Plate of food, bottle of water, and plunk! eight paragraphs of penciled cursive. An essay titled “The Middle Colonies.”

I read it carefully—mostly because I want to stay involved with what the kids are doing, partly because I’m the household copyeditor, and a little bit because, truthfully, I always learn something from their schoolwork. She’s on American history at the moment. Her class is studying regions of the country where I was raised but she’s never been. I pictured the layout of the middle colony states, the Delaware River, the old towns I knew in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania which were named after the tribes who, because of the colonies, no longer call those spots home.

I don’t expect to receive life-changing lessons from my kids’ school projects, but this time I did. Life-changing, I tell you. Practical and well-timed. Uncannily well-timed, actually.

You see, lately I’ve been at work on my own research-based essay. The topic is one dear to my heart—the wicked stepmother narrative. I’ve been digging into the lurid stereotype’s history, how it negatively impacts stepmothers and their families, and our society’s need for counter-narratives. I recently completed the first draft of my paper. Man, there’s interesting stuff in my pages, but the structure is in shambles.

My fifth grader’s essay, on the other hand, is remarkable. Her structure is perfect. The entire essay begins by establishing the broad topic. After the introductory paragraph, each additional paragraph opens with a topic statement, utilizing transition words to pivot from previous ideas into new, and then developing the new ideas further with supporting statements. The whole essay is eight paragraphs of clearly organized material. I was truly impressed with her writing. And humbled. Structural organization is exactly what I have been struggling with in my own essay, multiplied by forty pages.

It’s not that I expected my kid to hand in a poorly done project—she hates school, yet takes pride in her work—however, the skilled construction of her writing surprised me. It indicated orderly thinking, an ability to envision a framework for her ideas, and a skilled transfer of her vision into linear, verbal expression. This is exactly what I’ve been struggling with in my own stepmother essay: the architecture. Somehow, it’s the very thing my ten-year-old has mastered.

After the bedtime shenanigans later that night, while straightening the dining room table, I gathered her school papers into a pile. Poking out from the edge of her binder was a folded 11×17 page. I could see circles and lines and words about “The Middle Colonies.” Curious, I unfolded the paper onto the table.

In the center was her topic title inside of a circle highlighted in green. Surrounding that circle were eight others, highlighted in pink, with arms extending to the center circle. The pink circles were sub-topics, labeled with words like “hardships” and “where they came from” and “industry.” From each pink circle was a group of three or four yellow circles, each containing basic supporting facts. Clipped to the 11×17 paper were strips of colored paper with full sentences that corresponded to the ideas in the highlighted circles.

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bubble map

I looked further. In her notebook was a page titled “Thinking Maps®”. There were eight diagrams drawn and labeled: tree, flow, multi-flow, brace, bridge, circle, bubble (the one she used for “The Middle Colonies”), and a super-sized cousin double-bubble. After snooping in my fifth grader’s school binder (I am not too proud to confess), I took out my own notebook and began making notes from her school work.

The next day, I mapped my stepmother essay. I grabbed a pile of blank paper and started with a bubble map. The non-linearity of this map shows relationships between ideas. It’s a web of concepts, and mine extended into multiple layers which plainly showed the research areas my paper examines. Next, I drew a multi-flow map to visualize my thesis statement. This helped me understand the straightforward origins of the wicked stepmother narrative, and the ways it affects society, the family unit, and the individual. A brace map then gave me a picture of the types of psychotherapy theories I had surveyed. Finally, I drew a tree map to translate the ideas sketched on the other maps into a sequential outline.

Seeing my “wicked stepmother” laid out in such an orderly manner untangled the past two months of research work. I can see now that my first draft of the paper is like the essay equivalent of a tornado-destroyed house: pieces of the kitchen are strewn across the front yard, the bedroom is half missing, the living room is snarled up in the playroom of a house down the street. With my maps in hand, I’ve now started putting things back in order. So far, draft two is feeling much more structurally sound.

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brace maps and multi-flow map

Since discovering the mind mapping tools, I’ve been diagramming everything. Over the weekend, my sweetheart and I went on a date to discuss a backyard celebration we’re planning for later this summer. Before our server came with glasses of wine, I had pulled out a few sheets of blank paper and some pens. Food and drink ideas for the party? The decorations? Preparations for the house? All bubble maps.

This morning I mentioned that I was writing a blog post about “The Middle Colonies” essay and the mind maps I found in the notebook. His response?

“She tutors for a reasonable rate.”

He must have forgotten that I’m in graduate school. Even with the family and friends discount, I can only afford a one-time consultation.

However, if you’d like a tutor, let me know. Meanwhile, need a map?

(c) 2015 Arielle Silver

(c) 2015 Arielle Silver

SXSW: Why Digital Media Matters for Writers

The SXSW Interactive conference and festival was held in Austin, Texas last weekend, and I was lucky enough to attend for the first time. Among the chaos of thousands of people descending upon Austin—multiple trade shows, exhibits, meet-ups, bands, parties (free drinks!), food trucks (BBQ and tacos!)—were the educational panels. During a couple of panels I attended, there was wistful mention of wishing you could be in more than one place at once, as it was impossible to go to everything on the official SXSW schedule. (At one panel Martine Rothblatt, author of Virtually Human, discussed “mind-cloning” and the future possibility of actually being in more than one place at once, but that is a whole other topic.)

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Each day of the conference, there was a tough decision to be made: do I check out bands and get delicious local tacos, or feed my brain instead? Although it was tempting, I tried to more often go with the educational option—the one that fed my curiosity about the current state of the digital world we live in, rather than the instant gratification of the here and now.

One of the things I have been working on in my writing is sustained focus and concentration. It is the easiest thing in the world for writers to get distracted from the task of writing, especially if the Internet or a smartphone is within easy reach. Writing itself is a process of focus, and once you do you get on track, then look out!: there’s no stopping you (the phrase “get the juices flowing” would be apt here, I kind of hate that cliché, personally. What does that even mean?)

Once your attention is taken out of that place of focus (maybe, you think, I will just take a break and pop in on Facebook for a sec, and then before you know it, precious minutes have ticked by as you scanned and scrolled through posts of what others are doing with their lives). It can then become very difficult to get back into it. A similar situation comes up in the workplace concerning multi-tasking. I don’t find hopping between multiple projects throughout the day as fulfilling as being able to concentrate on one project at a time.

One panel I attended at SXSW was “Disrupting Innovation: Book Publishing and New Media” moderated by Aaron Lammer, Co-Founder of longform.org, with Iris Blasi, Marketing Director and Senior Editor of Pegasus Books; Ryan Chapman, Managing Director of Marketing and Digital Projects of BOMB magazine; and Jeff Umbro, Digital Marketing Manager of Goldberg McDuffie Communications.

A topic that was discussed during the panel was the eBook, a relatively new digital format that has gained popularity within the last 10 years, but is still in its early stages of evolution.

Blasi mentioned that even if publishers have interest in taking advantage of the technology to make eBooks more interactive translations of print versions—for example, through audio, video, additional content, or enhanced user experience—Amazon has little interest in doing so because they make enough money off of eBooks without that content.

It’s an intriguing question: if you were to translate Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past into an interactive and experiential storytelling narrative, what are the different ways that could be done? How could you convey the essence of a story through a digital format? A couple of examples of interactive narratives include the novella Pry, and book and story publisher, Atavist. Antioch alum and former Lunch Ticket editor-in-chief Lise Quintana is the CEO and founder of Narrative Technologies and Zoetic Press. (Check it out!)

Image from Pry, http://prynovella.com/

Image from Pry, http://prynovella.com/

In considering innovative digital formats as a writer, there is an inherent dichotomy: the only way for me to really write a story that comes from a heartfelt place is often through the age-old and solitary process of putting pen to paper, or typing away at the computer—not figuring out how to involve elements like images, audio, or video to complement the story.

Attending SXSW this year, I was jolted back into the modern age and out of Proust’s. I remembered there is a kind of creativity that comes only from collaboration, not from solitude and quiet. In connecting with the exciting and innovative digital world we live in, I do think it’s ideal to have one foot in the past, the other in the present, and to maintain a semblance of our selves outside of collaboration. As writers, it’s also relevant to consider how we can collaborate on, innovate, and create stories within new formats and through digital storytelling elements.

Winter to Spring: Practicing Patience in the Midst of Life, Writing (& Gardening) Transitions

Lavender Blooms, © Kiandra Jimenez 2015

Lavender Blooms, © Kiandra Jimenez 2015

The first flowers of spring have come, calling all bees, all aphids, lady beetles, and grasshoppers, and waking all young, yellow and red striped potato bugs from the soil. Everything with legs is hungry, thirsty, busy flying or crawling about looking for water or food in the white heads of dandelions, along green leaves, or in the gusts of Santa Ana wind trails above the earth. It is the hum, the busy, the itch of spring stirring in all us.

I am no different than the aphid, hungry for green collard leaves, eager to feel the softness of pea flowers on my skin. Or, the grasshopper, hopping from one plant to another, hard to settle down, unable to be still and just watch the sun and sky grow colors all around. Sit still, I chide myself, settle down and record all the shifts from fuchsia to mauve to brown the peach blossoms have learned to paint.

I don’t know how I can move, be busy and unsettled, in the shift between winter and spring. How can I not be still, not pause amidst so much new life, growth? Somehow, I always manage to stumble here, and not pause or honor the shift.

There are seeds to sow. Beds to clean. Food to harvest. Plants to plant. A whole season to plan for and get ready to embrace, knees dirty, palms muddy, and muscles sore. What of patience? What of slowing down, when there is so much shifting, so many transitions to make.

As always, my garden life reflects my writing life. The garden is shifting from winter to spring, from cool to warm, from broccoli to tomatoes, and I, too, am shifting—from poetry to fiction, from student to graduate, from learning to practicing to producing.

Flowering Cabbage Plants, © Kiandra Jimenez 2015

Flowering Cabbage Plants, © Kiandra Jimenez 2015

Like the cabbage plants flowering in my garden, I am also shifting from one life cycle to another. Like her, my head is split and out sprouts yellow flowers. Unlike her, I struggle with transitioning. I cannot say I know the labor and pains cabbage feels to birth her flowers, but I look at how wide she allows herself to split, how tall she lets her flower stalks grow, how productively she sets and gives her seeds, and I know I am nothing like her. Not yet.

My transition from poetry to fiction writing has been laborious, gutturally painful, at times, and filled with silence. Where I once wrote for hours, I struggle to pen for minutes. Where there were once movie reels playing non-stop in my head, there is stillness and silence. I can no longer hear the stories I thought I owned in my heart.

After knowing myself as a fiction writer for many years, this year I have started to doubt and question my voice. I have examined the stories I’ve told, the images I’ve collected, the words I’ve put on paper and have begun to reconsider my voice. I am a poet. I tell true stories grounded in images, senses, and life as I’ve lived it.

I collect colors, not characters. I hoard the direction the wind blows, the angle sunlight falls, the shape of clouds, not plots and dramatic scenes. I observe and paint the poems I see in the world.

Whereas the cabbage plant cleaved herself open in the face of transition, to make way for her flower and seeds, I have sealed myself shut and shunned what I am beginning to know as true. I came into this writing program to leave with a finished novel, I have already written 292 pages of fiction, of course I am a novelist. Of course. Truthfully, though, my novel is 292 pages away from being finished, and I am not sure I am (or want to be) a novelist.

Late Winter Harvest of Meyer Lemons and Peas, © Kiandra Jimenez 2015

Late Winter Harvest of Meyer Lemons and Peas, © Kiandra Jimenez 2015

What I have failed to heed, to see, to cleave myself open to is the 48-page poetry manuscript I have finished, along with the truth, the earnest truth and discovery that I am a poet. I have failed to fully accept the shift. I’ve closed myself up to growth, and refused to let go of past seasons, ideas of myself.

With great guidance from my mentor, I have learned to be patient and kind with myself during this transition, and it is within this self-compassion and patience that I have found peace. Instead of mourning labels I’ve imposed on myself as a writer, and early goals I made, I’ve shifted my perspective to honor what I have become, what I have accomplished.

The world erupts in color when we cease drawing black frames around it, others, and ourselves.

We must learn to cleave open, like the cabbage plant, and grow tall, stately yellow flowers and seeds. We must not, ever, become too rigid to open, especially as writers. To shift, or change our perspectives, our understanding, our ideas. We must always choose to grow.

My Meyer lemon tree is heavy with fruit. Lemons that started budding a year ago are just now turning orange, sweet, and juice filled. This afternoon, as I harvested a few for dessert, I noticed new buds forming. I couldn’t help but think about how she is transitioning this spring, with last year’s fruits ripe and this year’s fruits beginning to bud. She honors both and allows herself, always, to fruit. I can do that, too, I whispered to her. I can honor the voice I’m leaving and the voice I’m embracing.

Before I sign off, I have a list to help you cleave open and embrace transitions. And, following that list, a recipe for Raspberry & Meyer Lemon Sweet Rolls.

 Ten Ways to Lean into Transitions/Shifts:

  1. Be kind, gentle, and compassionate with yourself while you shift. It is all new; know that you are learning as fast and as earnestly as you can.
  2. Alter your perspective. Don’t be afraid to see things in new light, to change how you view your new world.
  3. Change your reaction. Instead of fear, dread, avoidance, practice acceptance, and embrace what is new. New does not mean bad.
  4. Embrace and honor the shift. Focus your attention on it, explore it, and savor it.
  5. Slow down. Don’t try and rush through the process; don’t be afraid of taking time to shift and transition. Be still.
  6. Trust the process. Have faith that you are going somewhere wonderful, and equally fruitful and exciting.
  7. Acknowledge past fruits. Recognize everything the old season of your life gave you—the tools, the insights, the ideas—honor them and bring them along, into your new journey.
  8. Cultivate excitement. Take on an attitude of pure elation, thrill, and adventure. Who knows in what exciting ways you’ll grow.
  9. Be imperfect. Perfectionism and people pleasing will strip all joy from your transition and growth. Know that you are exactly where you need to be.
  10. Learn and practice accountability. Whether it is by keeping track of goals, or teaming up with a trusted accountability partner, find a way to stay focused and true to your growth.
Raspberry & Meyer Lemon Sweet Rolls, © Kiandra Jimenez 2015

Raspberry & Meyer Lemon Sweet Rolls, © Kiandra Jimenez 2015

Raspberry & Meyer Lemon Sweet Rolls

(adapted from A Treasury of Top Secret Recipes)

These rolls are a welcomed change from traditional cinnamon rolls. Their fruity flavors are a refreshing surprise, and despite their big tastes, the combination isn’t overly sweet. The Meyer lemon and raspberry combination is light, bright, and a wonderful way to usher in spring. Feel free to substitute regular lemons for Meyers, but be warned, Meyer lemons are sweet, so your results may differ.

Sweet Rolls:

 2 ½ tsp. active dry yeast

1 c warm almond milk (105-110 degrees)

½ c sugar

1/3 c melted butter, cooled

2 eggs

½ tsp. vanilla extract

¼ tsp. almond extract

1 tsp. salt

4 c all-purpose flour

 Raspberry-Meyer Lemon Filling:

½ c raspberry jam

2 tsp. Meyer lemon juice

zest of lemon

Icing:

 1 1/3 c powdered sugar

2-3 tbl. Meyer lemon juice

½ tsp. light corn syrup

 

Directions:

  1. To make the rolls: Dissolve yeast in warm milk in a large bowl; set aside to proof. In another bowl, mix the sugar, butter, eggs, salt, and extracts; add flour and mix until everything is well blended.
  2. Pour the flour mixture in with the yeast and knead until a large ball forms either by hand (dusted with flour), or in the bowl of a stand mixer. The dough will be silky, a bit sticky, and thick. Lightly oil a bowl and place dough into bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size (about an hour).
  3. While the dough is rising, make the filling. Pour the jam into a small bowl, add the lemon juice and mix until the jam is smooth and thinned.
  4. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  5. To form the rolls, lightly flour a work surface. Roll the dough out into a 20 x 15 rectangle. Sprinkle lemon zest over the dough and lightly press it into the dough. Spread the raspberry jam over the rectangle, leaving a 1-inch border around the edges. Working along the long side, tightly roll the dough.
  6. Cut the rolled dough into 1 ½ – 1 ¾ inch slices and place the rolls in an oiled pan. Let the rolls rise, covered in a warm place, until double in size (about half an hour).
  7. Bake the risen rolls for 10-15 minutes, until the tops lightly brown.
  8. While the rolls are cooling, combine icing ingredients and whisk well. Add more sugar or juice as needed to achieve desired consistency. Drizzle icing over slightly warm rolls.

Write, Create, Live, Eat Well!

Raspberry & Meyer Lemon Sweet Roll, © Kiandra Jimenez 2015

Raspberry & Meyer Lemon Sweet Roll, © Kiandra Jimenez 2015

Hearing Voices

Being an artist of any kind means hard work. It means pushing yourself to overcome your fears and doubts, and learning to trust your inner voice, the one that keeps telling you, “I have to write,” or, “I have to sing.” It means showing your work to others, submitting pieces for publication and knowing that there is a strong likelihood of rejection. It means getting feedback that doesn’t feel right. It means listening even though the words don’t seem to fit. My inner voice is loud and most of the time we work together. Sometimes though, the voice of doubt, always bubbling under the surface, creeps in and shakes things up.

I haven’t always found the right audience for my writing. Last year, before I started graduate school, I was in two performance-writing workshops. There was something about the chemistry of the classes that was highly unusual, only I didn’t know that until later. For almost a year, we had the pleasure of each other’s company every week while we read our new work out loud.

Audience Including Ambassador LaughingWe found each other hilarious. Our self-amusement was contagious, and for both of our shows, the audience laughed so hard it was practically in tears. Some friends of mine, who hadn’t been able to come to either of the shows but had heard about how funny they were from others, asked if I would read my most recent piece at their dinner party. I don’t know what possessed me to say yes. I wasn’t in a theater standing in front of a microphone not able to see the audience because of the lights, I was at a dining room table, looking at everyone eye-level while they scraped their plates for the last bit of chocolate cake and poured each other glasses of wine. I didn’t have my friend Meghan who set the tone for my piece in our shows, to follow. It was just me and a story about my bad behavior at a doctor’s office. What had seemed so hysterical in prior readings fell flat. Was it the wine? The location? My friends? Me? It didn’t matter. No one laughed. In fact, no one even got it. I was mortified.

I told the director of our performance-writing workshop what had happened a few weeks later. She had asked a few of her students from different classes to come together for a larger public show at an even bigger theater. I was still feeling the sting of my last read. She understood immediately, “it wasn’t the right place.” She warned us all more than once that we can’t predict how an audience is going to react. She told me her own story about performing a one-woman show and how the audience seemed to have taken sleeping pills. Halfway into it, she just wanted to run off the stage but she kept going. It turned out to be a turning point in her work, “I had to do it again right away, otherwise I would have quit from embarrassment.” She then had me read my piece in front of her to refresh it, so that my latest feeling about it was good. “Sometimes, you just don’t connect. There are so many factors when you share your work. People aren’t in the mood for it. They are hungry. They are tired. You are hungry. You are tired. Just keep at it. It’s never going to be heard the same way twice, ever.”

She is so right on.

It’s the same when you are getting even more direct critical feedback. At Antioch we have the incredible opportunity to work with some amazing teachers. These teachers present themselves at a “Meet the Mentors” panel where they explain how they work. We, the graduate students, then get to decide which person will help us get the most from our writing. Truthfully, I am a bit intimidated by the “Meet the Mentors” panel. These mentors are so talented and prolific; not only are they are published and respected for their own accomplishments, but their six degrees of separation connects us with some of the most renowned living writers in the world. The two I had the honor of working with were both straightforward and encouraging at the same time. But I won’t say it’s been easy. During my first semester, my mentor tried very hard to help ground my pieces.

“I never know where you are,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I said.

We went back and forth for six months. He tried very specific assignments, like “get on a bus and ride around your town and describe it to me.” He gave me suggestions on what books to read where the author’s presence was part of the story. At the end of our time together, I still hadn’t gotten it. We were both frustrated.

When the second semester started, I told my new mentor where I had had trouble. “I really want to get this,” I told her.  And when I started my first piece for the new semester, there was a click. Suddenly, I had a location. Suddenly, I was physically in the story, not just this ethereal presence. The work felt different. It felt stronger. I trusted it. Somehow, my first mentor’s words worked their way into my essay. It finally made sense.

“Does this piece seem grounded?” I asked my new mentor.

“Oh yes,” she answered, “very.”

I wrote my former mentor right away, “I finally wrote a grounded piece!”

“Great.” he wrote back, “Stay grounded…man.” I heard that. And, I felt it.

It’s hard trying to find which voice to listen to. There are so many sounds in the world, and sometimes the ones you can’t hear, like the reception at the dinner party, are the loudest. We have to decide which words to take and which ones to leave, but mostly we just have to get back up and start over. Say something nice to yourself: you deserve it.

 

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Writing: The Toolbox II

All writing requires a reading audience. Words are a heap of lines and curves without witness. Until they are perceived, recognized, and understood by someone, words are like sigils without the magic. While musical and visual arts provide an immediate sensorial experience, writing requires a layered mental processing, the dismantling of symbol structures, ciphers, abstractions, and concepts, and the decoding of language by the reader. As writers, we have a special responsibility to communicate. Writing engages the mind of the participant, demands a response, and enacts a virtual and intentional interaction with the reader. There is no trick without the tricked. There is no rabbit and no magic hat, without the reader.

I continue my series on writing craft, based on my years of experience. The tools that I have collected over time are tools I reach for every time I begin a new page that is still blank, or edit a page already filled to the margins. These tools have also helped me to make a living with writing, by adhering to a few simple principles.

IMG_3943waste

 

4. Never Ignore A Note


Not anyone else’s. And not your own. Because the goal is to be understood, and because it’s never perfect the first time around. Feedback is invaluable. Notes are gold. They are your lamplight in the darkness. They are clues when you can’t solve the puzzle. They are answers to problems you didn’t know you have. Good or not, every note has merit, because a note means someone didn’t understand something. And your job is to be understood.

I wrote several scripts for Jerry Bruckheimer and often his way of giving a note was to say, “I didn’t get that.” If one got defensive and tried to say, “Well, what I was trying to do—” he would stop you mid sentence and reiterate: “I didn’t get that.” You have to be able to not only take notes, but also to understand what they mean. When Jerry Bruckheimer said he didn’t get something, I was expected to know why and how I had to address his concern, without any further explanation from him. And I always knew what he meant.

Taking notes requires a similar empathic muscle as writing. You have to feel your characters’ feelings as much as you have to feel and speak to your readers’ feelings. Your readers need to “get it” and you need to know how to make them get it. That takes practice, and taking a lot of notes. From an editor with publishing experience who has critical feedback to give, to a novice reader who just didn’t understand—the witness, the reader, holds the answers in their hands. Reach out and take them. Forget fear. Forget pride. The work comes first.

 

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5. Know Why You Want to Write

When I was just beginning to write screenplays in New York City, I was invited to a dinner with a friend who was an assistant editor at Random House, together with Fran Liebowitz. The conversation was going swimmingly until Fran, who is a sharp and caustically witty person, asked me why I wanted to write screenplays. My mind went blank. It was as if I had never had an intelligent thought in my head, ever. I stammered, “Because of the money.” I was mortified. It wasn’t true, but it was all I could think of on the spot. She looked a lot less than impressed. And it was baffling to me. Why didn’t I have an answer? I’m still cringing today.

As a writer, you will be expected to have an identity, a reason, a passion, a raison d’etre for your work. What drives you? How can you articulate that? What kind of writer are you? The reason readers pick up an author for more than one book, poem, or essay, is that the author gives them something consistent in the writing, and consistently something of themselves. A strong author shares their point of view with the reader, and helps the reader either find their own, form their own, or find a new one through the work. On the off chance you might find yourself sitting across from Fran Liebowitz, make sure you have an answer, any answer, to the question, why do you write. And if you don’t have one right now, make one up. And make sure it sounds good. Don’t get caught with your pants down, like me.

 

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6. Know Your Brand

This relates to the previous point. There is no way of getting around branding. Not once you’re out there being read. The sooner you think about it, the better. As a writer, branding can be your friend. Think of any well-known author, and you will be able to articulate what their brand is. Kurt Vonnegut. Ernest Hemingway. Charles Bukowski. Virginia Woolf. Not only do most writers embrace and deliver a certain style, world, genre, topic, tone, and philosophy, many of them even have a distinctive look. In marketing, management knows that 20 percent of buyers account for 80 percent of profits, because of their loyalty to a brand. If something tastes good, people will buy it again. Make sure you know your flavor.

Branding creates customer loyalty and repeat purchases. That means publishers can sell your work. It will also commit you to be consistent once you have a brand, so make sure you know what you want to be. When author David Sedaris, whose enormously popular personal essays manage to sell book after book, takes a break from his essay brand and writes a collection of short stories, the approval “stars” on Amazon go down. Define your brand, that thing you do, and readers will come back for more.

All three of the above points have to do with your relationship with the reader. As you write, rewrite, and polish your work, take every opportunity to make your work the best it can be with the help of notes and feedback. Be mindful about who you are as a writer. Think about what lies behind your motivation to write, and what readers can expect from you when they come back for more. Do it, and you have the opportunity to create a lifelong relationship with your reader.

 

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All images courtesy of Bettina Gilois

 

 

Translation, Truth, and Writing About the Kids

Things look different from here, on the step/parent side of life. Every day the light shifts and something else is illuminated. Sometimes I write about my kids to understand what shifted, where the shadows now fall on the world, and what the light has revealed of my heart. However, this is not an essay about those light and shadowy things. It is about when the people we love and care for end up in the stories we write. It is an essay about the translation of thoughts to words. It is about the intersection of truth and compassion.

Even in our native tongue, everything is an act of translation. Against all odds, we seek to bridge the gap of different life experiences, varied perspectives, divergent opinions, particular regional understandings, distinct cultural affiliations, restricted vocabulary, limited linguilism. Our individual differences are never-ending. It is a wonder we can communicate with each other at all, so we practice the art of translating our inner world into outer expression. We write our thoughts, striving to convey precise meaning. We hope that our intention is successful despite the probability that something will slip through the cracks. There are, after all, so many cracks between the conception of a thought and the delivery of a sentence.

We seek to bridge the gap that lies between us, so we sit in a quiet room alone with a laptop or a stack of papers, or on a porch with crows cawing from the neighborhood-laced telephone wires, or in a café with the hissing milk-frother, the droning espresso machine, and the latest Damien Rice playing from the speakers. We mumble to ourselves, group letters and words together, rearrange them, erase, rewrite, start over. We stare into space with glazed eyes, the outlines of everything fuzzy, our ears deaf to the song refrain and the voices that drift through the semi-permeable edges of our thoughts.

We are desperate to make sense of things. We must write, because the very act deepens our understanding of the chasms we seek to bridge. We explore and excavate with whatever tool we can find—garden shovel, fingers, cutlery, lover, children, parents—and keep digging through the superficial layers until we hit solid bedrock. Until we hit clarity. Until we find true self-understanding.

I’ve been writing for a few years, maybe three, about my kids. They are not twins, but my two girls came into my life at the exact same moment, six years ago, just after the Thanksgiving pie. It was abrupt, joyful, strange, and like most births, painful. They say there’s no way for a first-time parent to prepare; I found this to be true. It is also true that with every birth of something, there is a death of something else. Don’t misunderstand: I love my girls, and I love my life. Still, I need to understand being an adult in this world, and being a parent from a stepmother’s perspective. I need to know myself in the light of that role. Writing illuminates.

We parents and stepparents need to read other parents’ and stepparents’ narratives to help us through our own, but I’ve often wondered–do we have the right to write about our kids? Like so many other aspects of kids’ lives, they have little say in what we do, what we write. They are busy trying to make their own sense of the world, and have no voice to give consent to their place in our essays. As adult writers we have insight, but that insight is not necessarily a perspective the kids agree with. Even if they did, the kids do not necessarily want the details of their lives to be exposed to an audience of readers. But our capricious kids do not necessarily NOT want the stories shared either.

Earlier this week, writer Andrea Jarrell explored her own thoughts on this topic in her Washington Post essay on writing about kids. In it she asked, “Why do I think my parents are fair game for my work, but I draw the line with my children?” Although Jarrell has chosen not to write about her kids for reasons she states in her essay, her question has led me to the opposite conclusion.

Parents and guardians. Every day, with our best judgment, we make a million decisions weighing the kids’ needs and our own. We sign field trip permission slips. Medical authorization forms. Roller rink liability contracts. Oatmeal or Frosted Flakes? Bedtime early or late? Bath on Tuesday or Wednesday? Cell phone or no phone? Playdate or homework? We weigh the kids’ priorities against our own, and approve a Redbox rental of Frozen so we can finish an essay, an hour of games on the iPad so we can figure out ACA health insurance, a bartered cup of frozen yogurt for a quiet afternoon of income tax expense sheets.

I write about the kids, but really I write about myself trying to make sense of where I stand now: in the kitchen with my ten-year-old making brownies as a Valentine’s gift for her teacher, or behind the camera taking photos of my fourteen-year-old whose boyfriend just pinned a corsage on her wrist for the Winter Formal, or at the barn next to the girls’ mother because on Sundays the riding lesson is the location for the hand-off that happens every-other-day between households.

From this grown-up ground is where I write about my kids. Here, truth and compassion stand side-by-side. Digging for my own truth, my own self-understanding, I want the words I write to be as loving as every decision I make about my girls. There is a Tibetan prayer that I’ve said for years as part of my yoga practice. If I have a guiding light as I translate my inner world into words for others to read, this is it:

May I be at peace.
May my heart remain open.
May I know the beauty of my own true nature.
May I be healed.
May I be a source of healing in the world.

After the essays and stories and books are all written, I hope that my thoughts have been translated precisely. It is a long, long road from one heart to another. There are so many fault lines to cross. I always want my daughters to feel that the stories they’ve been a part of are honest, good, necessary, and loving.

©2014 Arielle Silver

©2014 Arielle Silver

Allowing Room for Ideas to Grow

Redwoods_2Gardening has always been on my aspirational to-do list (along with sewing, cooking, and playing the piano), but it’s also one of those self-enrichment activities that requires actual time investment to get the most out of it. For instance, you can’t just put a seed in a pot and watch it grow into a tomato, or throw some eggs in a pan and get a soufflé. There are specific steps involved, and finding a process to remember those steps by memory, as always, takes time. I probably have the opposite of what Martha Stewart would refer to as a green thumb, and no matter how hard I try, I inevitably end up killing off the plants I receive as gifts (I’ve learned not to buy them anymore)—with the exception of succulents, which have the staying power of camels in a desert without water. I have a friend who grows herbs and vegetables like basil and tomatoes on her porch, an ingenious idea. Who wants to buy a mound of parsley in the grocery store when all most recipes call for is two tablespoons?

Creative activities like gardening can help to reinvigorate the writing process. Gardening does not happen to be one of those activities for me personally, but I have found one of the best ways to connect with my humanity as a writer is to spend time in natural environments. In cities like Los Angeles, it can be difficult to find quiet spaces to enjoy nature. They do exist, but it takes some searching to find them. After living in L.A. for over ten years, this past December, for the first time, I went to a redwood park in Northern California—the Humboldt Redwoods State Park. It was chilly, but there were also fewer tourists. Northern California has six major parks with old growth redwood trees. Old growth forests contain trees that haven’t been cut down and have been left undisturbed. According to the Save The Redwoods League, less than five percent of the old growth redwood forests in California still remain. The oldest redwoods and sequoias in those forests are up to 2,000 years old, and majestic with a presence that feels older than human nature itself.

Redwoods_1Walking around the redwood groves, I noticed some of the trees looked as if they had faces ingrained into their bark. I have been thinking about how, as a writer, connecting with my humanity also means being able to convey other perspectives. As writers, we should care about how our writing connects with readers, even as our writing is a mode of self-expression.

When a redwood tree dies and falls to the ground in the forest, its trunk has nutrients which feed the soil beneath it, causing the growth of more trees. Sometimes new trees begin to grow out of the trunk of the fallen tree, up to four or five saplings at a time. The young trees compete with each other for the light that opens up in the grove, and the strongest among them survives. Nature has its own innate logic, both in connection to and apart from human nature.

If I could describe what a moment of clarity sounds like—when an idea I’ve been mulling over for some time finally comes together—it’s something similar to the wind whispering through the tops of the trees in a redwood grove, over three hundred feet above. Distracted by cell phone notifications, car honks, and a steady stream of white noise coming at us throughout the day, it’s often difficult to hear this sound. Some ideas are just not as strong as others to survive, to be heard, and to be understood. But that doesn’t mean weaker ideas should just be discarded. Writers are luckier than the redwood forests, in a way. We can store our weaker ideas for later in Evernote, phones, computers, or file cabinets, while allowing the stronger ones to immediately grow into essays, poems, or stories. In the meanwhile, we can keep ideas that need a little more time to nurture in the quieter, undisturbed groves of memory, with just enough light to grow. Making time for clarity—whether for you as a writer that means gardening, cooking, or taking a walk in the woods—allows room for, at the very least, one idea to reach its fullest height.

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When Broccoli Bolts Yellow Poems Sky: A Meditation on Patience, Grace, and Humility for Writers

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Broccoli flower being pollinated by a bee. © 2015 Kiandra Jimenez

Broccoli flowers are a riot of yellow. A yellow influenced by green that is bright like metal in the sun. When gardeners set out broccoli plants most never plan to see the flowers. When we eat broccoli florets we’re eating immature flower buds. So, when broccoli flowers come, waving their delicate yellow petal flags, they signal defeat. The broccoli has bolted or gone to seed, and the beautiful purple green buds that were plump and swelling just yesterday have burst into laughter. Though still editable, bolted broccoli’s flavor, texture, and use changes. Whatever promise of soup pots, quiche, or stir-fry that once hung on the gardener’s tongue evaporates.

The first time I grew broccoli I was heartbroken when the buds erupted into flowers. We have temperate winters here in Southern California’s Inland Valley, so I quickly cursed the foothills hugging us in for allowing warm air to sit and spoil my crop. I wanted broccoli for basmati rice and teriyaki sautés, not flowers.

That spring I decided I did not have the climate or the heart to garden through winter. But as a few seasons came and went, I began to rethink my relationship with nature and my garden. What if I viewed my garden as an act of witnessing nature as well as a place to grow food to feed my family? What if I approached gardening unselfishly—for the ants and aphids, grasshoppers and lizards, snails and hummingbirds, and also, for the broccoli flowers?

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Broccoli plant before it bolts. © 2015 Kiandra Jimenez

One morning I earnestly approached my poetry practice with the goal of witnessing nature. I decided against carrying my camera, the way I typically interacted artistically with my garden, and challenged myself to only rely on words to record what unfolded around me. I packed two notebooks, one for regular poems and another for Tanka poems, along with a couple of books of poetry, and a basket for harvesting.

Before I could settle into a seat I was heading back inside to gather my photography bag. The color of the broccoli did it. Greens, silvers, purples—and the sight of the bolted broccoli with yellow, ruffled hands out in prayer to the sky. This time, while seeking to stand witness of what unfolded in my garden, I found beauty in the yellow flowers, not defeat. Instead of viewing the broccoli flowers as a sign of the plant’s end of life, I saw it as the beginning of many more lives.

When a plant bolts, or goes to seed, it has come to the end of its life cycle and is diverting its energy towards producing seeds for progeny and no longer putting its energy into creating fruit. The fruit of the plant often becomes bitter, woody, less palatable—nature’s way of discouraging consumption and securing future crops.

Plants, like us, instinctively live to reproduce, to create future generations. Posterity. When viewed in this light, metallic yellow broccoli flowers boast their own promise of abundance.

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Broccoli plant, some buds beginning to flower. © 2015 Kiandra Jimenez

It took me fifteen years to learn how to witness, be still, and translate what unfolds around me into poems. For years I struggled most with translating what I felt onto the page, and therefore, could not fully hear my voice. While waiting for my voice to develop, I translated what I observed in the world by creating mixed media art. During the same time, gardening fine-tuned my ability to be aware and witness the world around me. As a stewardess of nature I learned to listen and be keenly in tune with the seasons, the flora and fauna, and the weather around me.

I’ve come to realize what links the three practices—gardening, writing, art making—is the art of noticing, being a witness to life.

Poets, painters, and gardeners use the same eye, the same muscle, and call upon the same memories to remember, record, and celebrate what evolves around us. Our acts of creating poems, paintings, and garden beds push us beyond courage and passion and require us to look, notice, and then process what we have experienced. We then seek to translate and define for others what we have experienced, and how we have been moved and changed by witnessing.

We live and want others to live alongside us. We want others to share our awe, our wonder, our shock, joy, anger, and passion, so all of us feel acutely alive and connected.

At times we participate, join in, and ground ourselves with the world, but always, when we are succeeding at being our best artist selves, we are observing, watching, and noticing.

This way of living in tune and aware of what is around us requires muscle built from stillness, openness, and patience—virtues that help us develop into better artists by honing are ability to witness, translate, define, and pen our experiences into art. Living a deep and rich life requires actively choosing to be open to these virtues, and art is born in how we translate, define, and record them on the page.

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Bee feeding on broccoli flowers. © 2015 Kiandra Jimenez

This winter, I tell you, I am no longer a selfish gardener. The plants belong to the lizard and snails and birds as they belong to my family, my poems, and me. There is kindness in thinking of the bee hungry for nectar or the bird needing seeds during winter. Even the aphids have needs—why else would they cluster in large groups, crowding themselves in like a hug? Perhaps they are seeking comfort, warmth, and love, like all of us.

Developing sensitivity to the needs and voices of the tiniest creatures has taught me to be sensitive to the needs of my own voice. Letting my vegetables bolt and phase through a full life cycle is an act of grace and faith—an offer of goodwill to the tiny voices that also depend on my garden, and faith in the spent life of the plant. There will be more broccoli buds, more plants from the seeds spent plants sow.

I have learned to extend this same grace and faith to myself when I struggle on the page. Those moments when my voice winters deep inside my throat, and I wonder if ever more poems, more stories will come. When I am silent like winter I remember the favor of spring, the red riot of summer, and golden harvest of autumn. There will be more poems, more stories to tell from the seeds of goodwill I’ve sown—living I will eventually translate onto the page.

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Spice Roasted Broccoli Casserole © 2015 Kiandra Jimenez

Spice Roasted Broccoli and Basmati Rice Casserole with Almond Cheese Sauce (Vegan)

-Inspired by Forks Over Knives

At the end of a long day of writing, reading, homeschooling the kids, I often need to dig into a warm bowl of comfort. A simple casserole, with easy ingredients to allow me to think about poems, novel plots, and homeschooling lessons while I cook is necessary. Roasting broccoli preserves its vitamins and minerals better than boiling, so I start there, with a long roast. Roasting vegetables also concentrates their sugars and heightens their flavors. I’ve got quite a love affair underway with broccoli this February, so heightened flavor suits me just fine. Here is a simple, but delicious recipe from one of my busy, winter weeknights. It is versatile, so feel free to use it as inspiration. There are notes below with suggestions.

Ingredients:

2 bunches of broccoli

Cumin, coriander, smoked salt

1 red bell pepper

3 stalks of celery

2-3 c. of cooked basmati rice

4 tbl. almonds, roasted and ground into flour

1 c. nutritional yeast

2 tbl. prepared mustard

¼ – ½  c. broth (vegetable for vegan, chicken for others) + more broth for cooking rice

Liquid smoke, a couple of drops or more depending on taste

Bragg’s Liquid Aminos, Tamari, or soy sauce, to taste

Salt, pepper, paprika, nutmeg, to taste

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Wash broccoli. Cut broccoli into florets, and shave the stems down to the tender core and cut into thick chunks. Arrange in a single layer on a parchment lined baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, then season with cumin, coriander, salt, and a few dashes of smoke. Roast until browned, being careful not to char.

2. While the broccoli roasts, prepare the basmati rice with broth instead of water. In a separate pan, sauté the bell pepper and celery with spices until soft and brown. Set aside.

3. To make the sauce: Toast the almonds in a dry skillet till fragrant. Add the almonds to a high-powered blender and pulse until a fine flour or meal forms, be careful not to make almond butter. Add most of the sautéed vegetables (bell pepper, celery), setting a quarter aside for the casserole. Add nutritional yeast and mustard. Pulse to combine, creating a thick paste. Slowly add broth, thinning according to your preferences. Season with smoke, Liquid Aminos/soy sauce, spices to taste.

4. Mix roasted broccoli, rice, reserved sautéed vegetables, and sauce; place in a casserole dish, cover, and bake at 350 degrees until warm.

Recipe Notes:

If you like, add onions and garlic in with the bell pepper and celery in step 2. A half of an onion, and 1-2 cloves of garlic would be a great place to start. If using garlic, add it after all the other vegetables have cooked a while, being careful not to burn it.

This dish can serve as a side or a meal in itself. To make it heartier, add your choice of prepared/cooked protein during step 4, or add it to the finished dish. Some ideas are vegan meat alternatives, chopped chicken, canned tuna, seared tofu, seitan, sausage, and chopped bacon.

You may also add other roasted vegetables to give greater depth to the casserole—Brussels sprouts, chard, kale, turnips, rutabagas—almost any hearty winter vegetable would pair well.

Write, Create, Eat, Live well!

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Spice Roasted Broccoli Casserole © 2015 Kiandra Jimenez

 

Scratching Beneath the Surface

My figure-drawing teacher once told our class an anecdote about being in a master class when she had been student. Her art teacher, at the beginning of the weeklong class, handed each student one piece of very large, heavy, handmade 22” x 24” drawing paper. For the entire first day, students labored with their charcoal, erasing, correcting, shading and listening to the teacher. She suggested strokes and pointed out ways to get better depth while also cheering them on. At the end of the class, the students displayed their drawings.

“We were so pleased with ourselves,” she said. “And then he had us erase our work.”

“Erase your work?” we asked.

“Yes. We wiped the images off of the page with a cloth. And we weren’t happy. The point was,” she continued, “he didn’t want us to fall in love with our work, at least not the first draft. He didn’t want us to be satisfied. He wanted to show us that letting go of our work is essential for making art.”

“For the rest of the week,” she said, “we erased every single day’s work until the last day.”  The teacher was able to show them how much better they all had become. Their work had changed.  The class wasn’t just about figure drawing, it was also about creating a new perspective on how to view their work; they had been given a tool to create some distance. Once they let go, they got better.

I think of this story often, as an exercise even, both when I am working on a drawing and more lately as I write. It’s very easy to be lulled into loving our own work. Who hasn’t met a child thrilled with their stick figure drawing? The satisfaction of creating something hasn’t changed too much for me. But I want to be a better writer and a better artist, and if that means erasing everything and starting over, then so be it.

The American artist Robert Rauschenberg, who in the early 1950s created a series of entirely white paintings, was curious to see if art could be created by erasing art: an erased drawing, a blank page. But it wasn’t really blank. He started by erasing his own drawings, but felt it was missing something. In 1953, another artist, Willem de Kooning, liked the concept of this technique, and gave him a very complicated drawing made with crayons, ink, and charcoal. It took Rauschenberg over two months to erase it using a variety of erasers. The end result was a blank, but obviously drawn-on and erased, piece of paper. It was framed with an inscription by fellow artist Jasper Johns “Erased de Kooning Drawing, Robert Rauschenberg, 1953.”  The frame and the inscription help provide the viewer with a context. The original art on the page is art; removing the art from the page is also art.

Artists have painted over and started over on the same canvas forever. X-rays can detect original work beneath a painting or drawing. The Mona Lisa for example, when examined by X-ray, shows that Da Vinci originally placed her hands in one position and then moved them to another for the final painting. In fact, at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, there are several paintings displayed side by side with an X-ray of the original work to show what is underneath. Both the paintings and the X-rays come with artist’s statements that explain how and why the work changed: more depth from the final angle, better proportions, a better model, etc.  All work has a past that can’t be seen.

As writers, we start over all the time. It isn’t that unusual to begin with a project or theme in mind and watch it take on a life of its own, one that is often unrecognizable. Was that really the intention? Is that really what I wanted to say? I had better start over.

Giving our work to others for erasing, correcting, or editing can also be difficult. I have to remind myself that there is something beautiful about this. Having my work “erased” by contemporary writers is an honor. Maybe if I move my Mona Lisa’s hands over two centimeters to the right, I will have a masterpiece. Maybe I need to completely delete the first page. Maybe my mentor is right and there is only one good paragraph in the entire piece. Beneath all of it, whether it’s visible by X-ray or you can see the dust of an eraser, the process of letting go and starting over draws out the best of our selves as artists and writers.

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One Night, Strunk and White

When my fifth-grader returned home Saturday after a week at Outdoor Science School, she brought a twine necklace strung with acorns and colorful beads, an endless stream of facts about the natural world on the mountain, and several riddles she learned from her counselors. Her week at OSS was the first time she’d been away from home, and so when she ran into the house she was overflowing with excitement about her first trip. The cabins (top bunk!); her meals (dessert every day!); the animals (baby frogs and a corn snake!); the owl pellet she dissected (a mouse skull and a shrew bone!). All day, until she was tucked into her bed and finally lulled to sleep by the tap-tap-tap of raindrops against the window pane, the house was filled with her lispy, delighted, never-ending anecdotes.

Custom LPS by Esme Orr photo ©2015 Arielle Silver

photo ©2015 Arielle Silver

 

I try to be an involved parent. I try to ask the kids engaging questions, encourage them to dig deeper into the events of their day, reflect back to them what they say so they can hear it for themselves, and then allow them to enhance or revise or elaborate. But on Saturday, juggling good parent practices with my overwhelming stack of spring semester work? Let’s just say that while she happily shared her OSS adventures, I alternated between listening and musing on the phrase “what you resist persists.” Open on the table in front of me lay Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. I had resisted it since high school.

That I have not ever read this slim volume is a bit hard to justify. It takes a day to read, and afterwards not much space on the bookshelf. It’s available for free online in pdf format. Most importantly, though, for an MFA candidate with an affinity toward writing, teaching, and editing, it’s an essential tool that cannot be ignored. Eliminate three out of those fourMFA candidate, writer, teacher, editorand it is still necessary. When I recently began serving as Blog Editor here at Lunch Ticket, I realized I cannot continue to ride on my grammar and copyediting intuition. I need the vocabulary to explain my editorial suggestions. I need clear reasoning for my choices. I need cold, hard, plain, simple, black and white—Strunk and Whiteguidance.

Dry, right? Elements of Style, though, is not as much about boring rules as it is intelligent advice. All writers of any genre need to craft clear, effective, engaging, bold sentences. Whether novelist, memoirist, or blogger, not having a handle on these tips is a liability.

In E.B. White’s introduction, he quotes from Strunk’s principle #17 (omit needless words):

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

“That every word tell,” I reread several times. It is a compelling statement. With the drawing and machinery comparisons, it hits home. Unnecessary words and unfocused structure are part of the first-draft process, but a discerning reader can tell a first draft from a polished piece. First drafts hem and haw. They clear their throats and hesitate over ideas. They meander. A discerning reader—an editor, say—may wade through, but a non-discerning reader won’t spend the time traversing rough spots to mine the gems. They will simply move on to another story. Strunk and White’s statement is, in four words, an argument for careful revision. The Elements of Style provides the writer a checklist for that process.

The book begins with basic punctuation and grammar rules that any writer should inherently know, followed by a list of composition principles I wish every blogger, essayist, reporter, memoirist, novelisteven Facebook poster, dare I suggest—would consider. Structure of the parts, and of the whole. Clarity of expression. Parallel construction of ideas. Economy of words. Verb tense agreement.

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Normalcy ©2015 Arielle Silver

While I scratched notes into the margins, my kid bounced off the couch.

“Do you like riddles?” she asked, stopping her dance mid-twirl, arms spread out wide. At ten, truly, all the world’s a stage.

She is an effervescent joy to our family. She has super powers, has been writing a book since third grade, and has well-timed, absurdist humor. It seems, while she has watched her older sister navigate teenage dramas, she dug her heels into childhood, determined to hang on to simple pleasures until life insists on the inevitable next phase. I can’t say if it’s her jokes or her giggles, but at least once a week we alleven the teenagerend up laughing till we’re in tears.

Here’s one of the riddles she brought home from OSS:

Q: One night, a king and a queen went into a castle. The next day, three people came out. What happened?

A: One knight, a king, and a queen went into a castle. Obviously, the homophone is the key. Night/Knight.

Half-listening to her and half-studying Strunk and White led me to consider this riddle from a craft perspective, and I found two other tricks within it that are meant to confound the listener. Sleight of hand is a puzzler’s prized tool, and a riddle’s only goal is to hide an answer in plain sight. When this teaser is spoken aloud, you can almost hear the lack of comma between “a king and a queen”. A serial comma, as I inserted in the answer above, further helps to reveal the three people who emerged from the castle.

The most cunning tricks, though, are the most subtle. As I turned this teaser over, a topic covered in Part II of The Elements of Style came to mind. This is a principle Strunk and White call “express coordinate ideas in similar form.” They write:

This principle, that of parallel construction, requires that expressions similar in content and function be outwardly similar. The likeness of form enables the reader to recognize more readily the likeness of content and function.

Exactly contrary to Strunk and White, this riddle utilizes non-parallel structure to help mask its solution. One k/night is followed by a king and a queen. This use of non-parallel structure is meant to trick the listener.

Until now I’d never dissected a riddle. I suppose if you are a riddler, you might consider using non-parallel structure as a tool to disguise the solution. For other writers, however, our goal is not to confound the reader, but to write as clearly as possible. We puzzle in our process so there is no confusion in our final manuscript. We should always strive to give a reader the clearest expression of our thoughts. For parallel structure, we would write one knight, one king, and one queen or a knight, a king, and a queen. Parallel structure. Clarity of expression. Concise writing.

As my joyful kid twirled her way through the afternoon, and I made my way through The Elements of Style, I found myself siding with past teachers who once waved their copy of this book to the class. Anne Lamott writes in Bird by Bird, “the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”  She goes on:

You need to start somewhere. Start by getting somethinganythingdown on paper… [But] the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

Another joke from OSS:

The present, the past, and the future walk into a bar. It was tense.

With all those mixed tenses hanging out together, I am sure it was. Luckily, this and other things are covered in a beautifully quick read: The Elements of Style.

What, you don’t have a copy?  Get a copy here (or wherever you like to get books), or download a pdf version here.

©2014 Arielle Silver

©2014 Arielle Silver

Writing: The Toolbox

Writing for twenty-five years for a living, I have always written for the reader, for the audience, the assignment, the producer, the director, the co-author, the publisher, the agent, and—as is the case with most writing for hire—almost never for myself. For twenty-five years I have faced those who have paid for my writing services with one question: “Who do you want me to be?” and never asked, “Who am I?”

Writing personal essays in the Antioch MFA Creative Nonfiction program, in addition to my ordinary deadlines of scripts, proposals, treatments, and books, has forced me to face that mirror I usually throw up to others. Revealing my identity is like blowing my cover and imperiling my security clearance. It’s like stepping into the sunlight after years in Plato’s Cave. See how bright the sun really is? Out in the light, I squint, I cringe at my pallor; at a loss, facing a gaping audience, asking me, “Who are you?”


Generally, when I find myself in unfamiliar territory, I do have one advantage: I reach into my toolbox for the tools I have collected over time. These tools have remained the same for over twenty years and they have gotten me through when the going gets ugly. And it always gets ugly.

These are some of my tools of the craft:

1. Forget Needing to Know

I have faced every writing assignment, whether self-imposed or professional, with the same question every time. How will I write this? What on earth will I say? Only after years of asking the same anxious question have I learned not to worry. I don’t have to know. I will figure it out when I get there. I won’t know before I sit down. I won’t know before I think it. I won’t know before I research, before I dream, before I see it, before I start talking to myself and it starts talking to me. That’s when the work truly sparks and animates on its own. I have learned to trust in the internal voice, the dream state, the secret spirit, the program that runs in the background of our daily life, quietly saving information. When it is called to action, it delivers.

I may know nothing about “hockey,” but I know that by the end of a writing project on the subject, I will know everything about hockey. And then I’ll forget it all again, but it’s what we do as writers. We take in life. Run it through our processors. And put it back out, organized into sense and meaning.

 

2. Remember the Reader

For a word to have meaning, it must be read. For a book, a play, an essay to change the fabric of the world, it must be read, and it must want to be read. I spent my early years as a reader of scripts, and after a year of reading the fledgling attempts of inexperienced writers, I came to resent, even hate, every word, every page, every shortcut, every “good enough” effort, which was never good enough. Couldn’t the writer have worked a little harder to grab me from the first line? Have tried a bit more to make this description clear, engaging, and vivid? Couldn’t the writer have bothered to research this a little further? Tried to make the reading a pleasure? To dazzle me, even?

Billy Wilder once said that he had Ten Commandments, and the first nine are “Thou Shalt Not Bore”.

I believe, if you write, you write for a reader. Your meaning doesn’t enter the electric universe until decoded in the mind of another. So make your words count. Make them sing. If you write only to please your own artistic sensibilities, you are missing out on the most magical part of the process: the interaction of your words with the emotions and intellect of a reader. I’ve known enough writers and friends who spent years toiling at their writing, only to put it away in a desk drawer, satisfied with their artistic expression. Untested and unengaged, they’d rather choose to leave their work unedited than approach their writing from a reader’s point of view. You’re certainly free to do that. Ideally, pleasing the reader begins with pleasing yourself. But I say it isn’t truly written until it’s read. So remember the reader, and be kind.

 

3. The Blink

People make decisions in the time it takes to blink an eye. Intuitive judgment happens without our knowing, before it has a chance to reach the processing part of the brain. Malcolm Gladwell discusses this at length in his book Blink.

Your first line is as important as your entire work. Any reader, whether positively inclined, cynical (as I became in those script-reading days), or critical (as any publisher or agent will be), will most likely decide whether they like your writing upon reading your first line. First line, and first page. I spend as much time writing and crafting the first page of my work as I do the working on the dozens of pages that follow. This also applies to the first line of dialogue in a screenplay. The first page of your novel, essay, screenplay, or short story must be perfect, or you’re toast.

Ideally, the first line of any work is not only fresh, engaging, surprising, and compelling, it also evokes the essence of the entire work. It can be subtle, hidden, implied, and only come across by hint. But the opening line of your work should hold within it the germ of your entire idea. Data analysis has determined that a YouTube video only has six seconds to grab and retain the attention of a viewer. Our world is moving ever faster. Attention spans are growing ever shorter. Grab your reader while you can.

 

I will share more of the technique and habits and rules of writing that have worked for me in upcoming blogs. In the meantime, take from this whatever you like and just remember a few things: Don’t worry. Start and you’ll find the story. Grab the reader with the first line. Work hard to earn their attention. Your reader should be treated kindly for making the effort to read your words. Good enough is never good enough.

 

All images courtesy of Bettina Gilois

Shaking Up Your Writing Routine

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This past holiday season, instead of the customary trek to the Midwest from California by plane to visit my parents, my husband Dylan and I opted to stay closer to home. Since Dylan recently switched to a new job, in recent months his schedule had been unpredictable. Also, my December residency for the Antioch MFA Creative Writing program was scheduled later than last year, and finished up just a few days before Christmas. Considering these travel-planning idiosyncrasies, we opted to take a road trip to Northern California from Los Angeles for nine days with stops in San Francisco, Humboldt County, and Napa, in that order.

I recently watched the classic holiday film, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, starring Steve Martin and John Candy, in which Martin goes through a series of mind-boggling obstacles to get back home from a work trip in time for Thanksgiving dinner. It occurred to me while watching the film that there is an element of truth behind that commercial, consumer-driven insistence the holidays are a time of love, family, giving, holiday cheer, and goodwill. If you aren’t taking a plane, train, or automobile to get home for the holidays, anxiety begins to descend; you become an anomaly, a rogue, an outlaw, rather than a family values-oriented kind of individual.

Last Thanksgiving, Dylan and I flew through the designated holiday hoops. We booked a flight to visit my younger sister in Cincinnati, Ohio, and at the last minute because of work, Dylan had to change his to an overnight red-eye. He was awake and conscious in Ohio for approximately eight hours before we flew home to L.A. that Sunday morning. As much as I missed them, traveling to visit my parents in my hometown of Mt. Carmel, Illinois (population 8,000), can be an odyssey of connecting flights, inevitable cancellations, and delays. And then, we would have had to rent a car and drive in the snow and/or ice for a few hours after the flight. On a couple of unfortunate occasions, the travel time because of flight delays has rivaled that of going from L.A. to New York, and then back to L.A.

The obvious, cushier alternative was to stay in California and enjoy sailing through the drive from L.A. to San Francisco, an easy green line to follow on Google Maps the entire way. I was struck by how the holidays were less stressful, once the mind-numbing factor of travel time is taken out. A stern phone call from my mother, you need to be here next year, Erin—confirmed my hunch we had indeed “gone rogue.”

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Mixing up my “holiday routine” ended up having an effect on my writing routine. Although I would not say I have a writing routine I adhere to on a day-to-day basis, since I have been in the MFA program, I have been trying to find one. That in itself becomes its own routine—the routine of trying to find a routine. As a writer, I also find getting out of a routine (much like getting into one) is just as beneficial for the creative process. To mix up the ideas rattling around in my head until the best ones make themselves known. Yet, shaking up a routine is hard to do—it wreaks havoc on a comfortable mindset, until some kind of re-ordering or semblance can be made out of new information.

Detouring out of conventional routine—like taking a road trip for example, instead of a tried-and-true plane ride home for the holidays—can also have an effect on the unconscious, as well as the conscious, mind. If, like me, you have read (or at least skimmed) dozens of craft books and writing websites for advice, you have picked up on this well-known tip: keep a trusty notebook on your bedside table. If you have a dream, write it down right away after waking up, or else it will disappear into the night and become a trail of moonbeam and stars. What this advice does not always explain is what if inspiration strikes in the middle of the night, when there is someone else sleeping next to you? Out of good manners, I prefer not to switch on the light and start writing, forcing Dylan to wake up and stare at me in confusion. I try to leave a notebook in an easy-to-find place, so as to avoid rummaging around for it in the dark, sounding like a burglar or small animal. It’s then easier to steal away to the restroom and scribble in the muted hours of the night.

During our trip, I had three dreams. The first dream carried a complex storyline—it was impossible to get it all down in the middle of the night—and took place in first-person point of view. I was startled into waking up, in thinking that the events of the dream were happening to me in real time. After I woke up from the second dream, I was able to render it into a short story the next morning, almost frame by frame. This dream happened in the perspective of third-person point of view. The second dream was more as if I was watching a story unfold, instead of inhabiting it. It was still vivid enough that I was able to have a pow-wow with my unconscious while I was asleep, and decided that I could remember enough information to sleep a little longer and would write it down later. If I had woken myself back up again to retrieve my notebook and record the second dream, I might not have missed details I wouldn’t have missed otherwise. But sometimes, just getting the gist of how a story is unraveling can be productive in the process of writing. Minute details are not always relevant details.

Why did I have story-telling dreams during our trip, vivid enough they could be rendered into fiction? Where does this kind of inspiration come from? In short: getting out of your head (and your routine) might send you back into your creative process faster than you think.

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*The third dream happened after we returned, post-road trip, and was the result of watching the Twilight Zone-esque, hyper-surreal British show, Black Mirror, which I highly recommend—although, some of the episodes are darker than others, and can cause nightmares. But, if you are so inclined to the genre, it’s critically acclaimed.