A Bird’s-Eye View

A Bird’s-Eye View (a new essay about the writing life)

“Maybe you just need some distance.” Words often offered as a gentle suggestion when perhaps your writing isn’t going as planned. Maybe you’ve even said these words to yourself. You keep re-reading the same pages, changing a word or a sentence. Then putting the original word back in. Looking at other drafts and deciding you should have stayed with Draft #3. Or maybe Draft #5 is better. Or maybe…

Therein madness lies. Or at the very least, frustration.

But you have to stick with it, don’t you? Persevere. Now’s not the time to wimp out. You always knew that Draft #2 was your best. Maybe the ending from #4 could be tacked onto Draft #2 somehow. That ending was really good. Some of your best work. Continue reading

Stick the Knife In: Then Twist

Stick the Knife In: Then Twist (a new essay about writing)

I’ve been thinking a lot about vulnerability lately. It’s no mystery why my thoughts keep going there – I’ve been writing a memoir about being a sister for the past two years. Naturally I would feel vulnerable writing about family, right? After all, the funny/but not funny joke in nonfiction and memoir writing classes is: “I want to write about my family, but I have to wait for them all to die first.”

That’s a bit extreme. But it does show the depth of vulnerability many writers experience when even considering writing about personal topics. And family is often one of the most personal. Of course there are many other subjects that are also personal, and require a writer to be vulnerable. Illness, physical or mental trauma, experiencing some event (either painful or joyful) out of the ordinary – all of these have their place on the vulnerability spectrum. Writing about any of them requires the writer to go inward, excavate, examine, and then turn that into engaging prose.

So much easier not to even go there. So much easier not to probe.

Continue reading

In Our Writing We Trust

This new essay was just published in the literary journal The Tishman Review. Read here or visit http://www.thetishmanreview.com/

Whenever I teach a class about writing and publishing, there is always a student who asks, “Aren’t you worried your ideas will be stolen?”  This is probably because of my teaching philosophy, which is to share everything in the world I know that might help them.

I always answer, “No.  I’m not afraid my ideas will be stolen.”  In the first place, the very essence of an idea is that it can’t be stolen.  An idea is an intangible thing.  Add to it the writer’s voice; toss in her version of plot, character, and setting; and you’ve got something that can’t be exactly duplicated.

Maybe there are only two or three or twelve basic plots, as some writing teachers like to point out.  And maybe if that monkey sits at the computer long enough it will eventually type out Romeo and Juliet.  I tell my own students that most good stories are basically about three things: love, loss, or longing (or any two or all of these in combination).  On the surface that might not seem to allow for much creativity, but the beauty of it is that there are as many stories about love, loss, and longing as there are human beings. Continue reading

Song Lyrics As Overlooked Poetry

When I was a 7th grade English teacher, and we had a Poetry unit, I had my students write down the lyrics to their favorite songs to share in class. Then we talked about the lyrics in terms of poetic sense, storytelling, word usage, and emotional resonance. 7th graders love music, but mostly they don’t think they will like poetry (they usually groaned when I announced the Poetry unit).

It was kind of hard not to sing the lyrics, but we made ourselves just speak the lyrics, and had some good laughs over the repetition and corniness of some songs. The whole class would usually burst into song at some point during several readings of the lyrics. It was really kind of fun.

I was reminded of this yesterday when I visited a special exhibit about the Rolling Stones at Navy Pier in Chicago. It was an amazing collection of their guitars, concert posters, photos, videos, clothing, and music. There was one section that had the REAL notebooks that were kept by various band members – notebooks where they wrote down their song lyrics. By hand, with pencils and pens.

Just like the rest of us writers (well, maybe not just like…) they started with an idea, or a feeling, and just started writing. They approach the creative process just like the rest of us non-famous writers. By putting one word after another, and trying to make their words sing.