23 Nov

My last post was six months ago.  I’ve missed all of you.  DSC01687

My excuses?  Being back in Corvallis where we can hang out with dear friends and family; several birthday parties including my own; two Saturdays of highly successful fiction writing workshops (See the underexposed photo of Linda Elin Hamner and me, both of us excited about sharing with a roomful of writers).  Add in several delightful Monday afternoon memoir workshops — a new teaching setting for me — each writer with an important  story to tell.

My last session of chemo was in mid-July, and so, now with new energy, I’m walking, swimming, and getting many things done for the first time since last December.  What joy I took in pruning the neglected roses, washing some musty windows, doing research on how to self-publish the fourth Katie book, Second-Chance Summer. By the way, my first step was to read the manuscript through — the first time in a year.  I was overjoyed to find it’s still a good book!

Some self-publishing companies mark up their printing costs to cut into author royalties.  Some have unfriendly contracts.  CreateSpace offers a direct line to Kindle and Amazon and uses its own printer; the others use Lightning Source as a printer.  BookBaby seems to be user-friendly, mostly because fellow writer Margaret Anderson says a real person will answer the phone when you call.  I’ve almost decided, however, to go with Wasteland Press because of its friendly contract and ratings, and because it has a policy of a good number of “free” paperbacks to the author, which recoups some of the cost.

The cover artist, Tuesday Mourning,  has sent the new cover artwork, and it is beautiful.  When Second-Chance Summer is available in paperback and e-book, you’ll see fireworks in this part of town.

DSC01705The newest member of the family

Salty, a rescue dog, came to us in late October after a long search.  She’s too big to be on Jerry’s lap (notice her long legs dangling off), but try telling her that!  Seven months old, and growing.  Yes, we call her “Salty Dog” after the bluegrass tune (and the drink).

Some good books

DSC01690The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston.  (One of the “Top Ten Literary Memoirs” on a website I found.)  I’m a third of the way through and am captivated by her ability to tell stories.  Her message, which isn’t immediately apparent is a powerful argument against the denigration of girls in Chinese culture, and for recognizing the worth of writers.

I also re-read The Grapes of Wrath along with Working Days, which is the journal John Steinbeck kept while writing the novel.  He wrote the entire book during the summer of 1938 after doing what must have been a marathon of mental plotting.  His goal was to write 2000 words a day.  I loved it that he lost confidence in the middle of the writing and had to force himself to continue.  Sound familiar?

A Powerful Prompt for Memoir Writers

The writers in my summer memoir workshop could not stop writing once they got going on this.  Furthermore, the resulting drafts were good ones:  filled with emotion — anger, understanding, compassion.  This three-part prompt will also work for you.  Try it!

1.  Write for ten minutes about the mysteries that existed when you were young.  Begin with “When I was young, I didn’t know . . . “

When I was young, I didn’t know why my dad scolded my mother for loading up the kitchen cupboards with canned goods.  “One of these days, they’ll fall down,” he said.  I also didn’t know why Mother insisted that I dress up more than all the other kids.  Hat and gloves?  Sheesh!  Or why I could invite some children in to play, and not others.  The more I think about this, the more questions come up.

2.  Write for ten minutes about what you DID know about those cupboards or the dressing up or whatever.

3.  Finally, write as long as you can, beginning with the word “MAYBE.”

Maybe my mother remembered the depression and thought we might run out of food.  Maybe Dad thought she was hoarding, and did she think he was going to lose his job? Maybe he was embarrassed by her need to hoard . . .

If you can write in response to this prompt, I would love to hear how it went.

Happy Thanksgiving!  And to all of you who are participating in the “Write a Novel in a Month,” I send the best of luck.  You’re almost done!


2 Apr


Before we start talking about delicious books, please mark your calendars for two Saturdays in Corvallis:  June 15 and June 22.  Linda Elin Hamner and I will team-teach fiction basics:  characters, dialogue, plot, and fantastic beginnings.  If you know of someone who might be interested, please let them know.  More details later, or e-mail me.

The Tucson Festival of Books

On March 9 and 10, Book Heaven came to town in the form of the wonderful festival held on the U of A campus. Completely organized and run by volunteers, this is the fifth year for this amazing festival.  With more than 100,000 attendees, 450 authors, and over 300 exhibitors, the annual Tucson Festival of Books   is one of the top five book festivals in the U.S.  with author signings and presentations, writing workshops, vendor booths, and more.  Sounds like heaven?  YES!

I studied the massive schedule and chose to attend five panels. The first one featured Chang-Rae Lee, Korean-American novelist and Pulitzer nominee, whose writing is described as lush, sensuous.  His latest book is The Surrender.  He’s fascinated, he said, by accents and voices, perhaps because when he came to the U.S. at the age of five, he could not speak English, had to listen hard to learn the language.  He loves seeing his characters persevere in the face of adversity.  To him, endurance is triumph.  Mary Doria Russell, author of Doc, which Jerry and I read and enjoyed last year, said she loves expressing the strength of family.  She wanted to present a picture of the Doc Holiday who was formed by his very strong Southern family — not the gambler we think of.

I went to the next panel to see Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife,  and enjoyed her account of how her own life echoed the life of her main character (impending divorce) at the time she was writing.  Also at the table was Chitra Divakaruni, Indian-American author of Oleander Girl, Sister of my Heart, and The Mistress of Spices.  The third author was Alice LaPlante, who wrote a book I loved, Turn of Mind, told from the amazing viewpoint of a woman who is accused of murder, but who has Alzheimers.  All three talked about sisters, friendship, and women in changing cultures.   They love it, they said, when readers attribute deep meanings to their writing — meanings they themselves didn’t realize were there.  Chitra observed that she thinks the text may have its own intelligence, its own life, and the author is only part of it.

The next panel featured Ann Hood, author of 13 books, the latest one, The Obituary Writer, which I just finished reading on my Kindle.  I recommend this book, beautifully written as sort of a mystery, but full of compassion for all those who grieve. When she was asked where that seemingly endless compassion comes from, she told us about her daughter’s death and how she fully recalls the pain of the years that followed.  When she was finally able to write again, she wrote The Knitting Circle in which the characters are facing grief.  Her latest book, not out yet, is an edited one, Knitting Yarns, with essays contributed by Jane Smiley and many other well-known authors

Finally, I went to see Susan Vreeland who wrote Girl in Hyacinth Blue,  but the star of that panel was actually B.A. Shapiro, whose book, The Art Forger, I immediately downloaded onto my Kindle. Her knowledge of the details of fine art, painting, and forgery are fabulous.  As I read, I was right there dabbing paint alongside of the very likeable protagonist.  This tense forgery story is based on the actual 1990 art heist from the Gardner Museum in Boston — a mystery that’s just now beginning to be solved according to an AP account of March  19 (

The pile of books in the photo above includes a mystery, Burn, by Nevada Barr who was also at the Festival, ( I liked it, even though it was creepy); a dated, but fun book — Sea Jade by Phyllis Whitney;  a mystery by Louise Penny; and Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather.  Also, I just read two new-to-me memoirs:  Ruth Reichl‘s Not Becoming My Mother and Joan Dideon‘s Blue Nights in prep for a memoir workshop I’ll do on April 18.

Happy reading to you! 


7 Mar

Amy stroking a Navajo rug at the SW Indian Art Fair

February brought dear visitors who also brought writing questions.  Mariana who’s writing a middle-grade novel, arrived first, and we spent a couple of days dreaming up new jewelry projects at the Tucson Gem Show.  A week later, my daughter Amy came to preach a sermon at the UU church in Sierra Vista.  Of course, she needed to write her sermon, something she’s better at than I am, but on Saturday, we made time for the SW Indian Art Fair on the U of A campus, admiring the rugs, the silver-and-turquoise jewelry, the baskets, and, of course, the frybread.  While enjoying all that Tucson has to offer, Mariana, Amy, and I talked about little things and big — beads, knitting, life and death, plans for the future.  And writing.

Mariana, after reading my last blog post, had reworked her chapter to include more dialogue tags — ones that characterized AND furthered the plot.  Because of her additions, not only could we could see the setting, a most interesting one, but we could also feel the growing tension in her characters.  Adding tags improved the chapter.  But I’m never satisfied and kept wanting more tags, more details of scene, weather, and emotion.  I pointed to line after line.  “What about here?” I asked.  “And here?”

“How do you find a place to insert another tag?”  she asked.  “Are you doing it by ear?”

Partly by ear.  But there’s something easier.  I use the THREE-BEAT RULE.

A few years ago, Cynthia Whitcomb wrote about the “Three-Beat Rule” in her monthly column in “The Willamette Writer Newsletter.”  Her words immensely improved my own dialogue writing.

When we’re talking in real life, we tend to ramble.  Sometimes, we even lapse into rants or lectures.  Just because it happens in real life doesn’t mean we have to repeat these habits in our writing.  No reader wants to be lectured or bored by a character — even if that character is innately boring.  (We can use summarized speech to show boring characters.  He talked on and on about the fiscal cliff is a good example of summarized dialogue.  We know he’s boring; we don’t need to make the reader plod through every sentence.)

What is the three-beat rule?

Give your character three beats of dialogue.  Then, figure out how to interrupt the flow of words.

A beat is a sentence or a phrase.  Consider this passage:  Mother’s voice shrilled through the night.  “You kids get in here.  I’ve called you too many times.  You never listen to me.  I’m not telling you again.  I come out here one more time, you’re grounded the rest of the week.”

The real mom probably was frustrated enough to rant like this.  But for better writing, let’s prune these five beats to three.  Remove two of the five sentences — any two.  Something wonderful happens:  What is left packs more wallop, and the mother’s frustration is still clear.

The other thing we can do is interrupt the speech with a tag.  In the above passage, Mom’s repeating herself.  But what if every sentence she says is important.  Count to three and insert a tag.  Count another three beats and insert another tag.  Let’s try it:

Mom’s voice shrilled through the night.  “You kids get in the house.  You got homework.  You got chores.”  Under the dim light they saw her lean hard against the porch railing.  Her voice came softer now.    “I can’t do it all.”

Notice how the final sentence takes on importance.  It’s standing alone.  It’s spoken in a different tone of voice and with different body language.  It makes us sympathize with this shrill mother.

Mariana took a look at the novel she was reading.  “This author is doing it,” she said.  “The three beats.”  She hadn’t noticed this technique before and that’s good.  The three-beat rule does great writing work, but it isn’t obvious.  That’s good writing craft — something that does the job and doesn’t call attention to itself.

To do at home:  Take a look at the dialogue in your own story.  Apply the three-beat rule. Prune away the unnecessary words.   Add interruptions in the form of another person speaking, or as a tag.  (Go ahead and add an explosion if it fits!)  Whatever you add should be important to the story, just as the mother showing her fatigue is important.  Remember that any old detail won’t work; make your details significant, concrete, sensory,  — important.

On the health front, chemo sessions continue as the cancer marker goes down.  Jerry and I are planning a trip to Grand Canyon in early April, where I intend to gape at the views from the South Rim.  He, being himself, intends to go down to the canyon floor and back up in one day.

Yes, he can!  He’s been climbing to Romero Pools almost every day since we got to Arizona.  Fit, he is.


Look ahead to workshops in character, dialogue, plot and first pages taught by Linda Elin Hamner and me in mid-June.  Linda and I have been gleefully planning these since last summer.  Please circle June 15 and 22 on your calendars.  At Imagine Cafe in Corvallis.  More details will come.

Amazing Dialogue Tags and Life

24 Jan
cactus antlers

cactus antlers

Written Jan. 17, one week ago:  Our freezing snap is over at last.  Temps have risen back to where we like them.  My daughter Rebecca snapped this goofy pic of us on one of the Catalina trails.  (She’s the one with the hair.)

Three weeks ago, when I couldn’t sleep, I worked on an essay about foods that have lived in my mind over all these years: dog biscuits, fancy Jello salads, the first cherry pie I made, the Christmas chili con carne, one particular green pepper.

The parts I added to the essay that sleepless night were about my cancer.  My Tucson writer’s group liked the new section, suggested I put a bit of it at the beginning and make the rest the new ending.  My Corvallis group also liked the new writing and suggested I reduce the middle by a thousand words.  (A good idea, darn it.)

How could I write an essay about what I put into my body over 70 years and leave out carboplatin and taxol?

Tomorrow (January 18) I go again to the U of A Cancer Center, a building surrounded by gardens planted with prickly pears, barrel cactus, cholla, and palo verde trees, plus benches where you sit in the sun and build up courage to go inside.

After meeting with my gynecological oncologist, I’ll proceed to the infusion center upstairs, get settled in a comfy recliner and get hooked up for saline, more steroids, anti-nausea drugs, an hour or so of carbo, and then antihistamines followed a few hours of taxol.  As you can see, half the infusions are to protect me from the toxic chemo.  Jerry and I will talk and play cribbage.  I’ll knit, read, sleep, think.  We’ll talk with people who have much worse cancers than I.  They help us keep things in perspective.

Important note from today.  On the 18th, we discovered that the chemo is really working for me.  My numbers once again decreased by more than half.  Good news.

I’d rather be chatting here about writing, so let’s get to it.

The Power of Dialogue

In memoir or fiction, once you get your people talking, your story will come to life.  When readers sit in on actual discussions, arguments, or repartee, they are transported out of their own worlds into the world you have created.

Writing good dialogue is not easy.  (Is ANY part of good writing easy?)

In my workshops, we cover three areas:

1) The technical rules of how to place quotation marks, periods and commas.

2) How to sculpt the spoken words – making them sound natural, making them “say” more than is on the surface.   Elmore Leonard is my guru for this.

3) The craft of writing dialogue tags – those words that tell us who is doing the talking.

Let’s save everything else for another day.  For now, let’s look only at tags.

What’s The Point of Tags? 

They identify who is speaking.  Well yes, we already knew that.  But there’s more.
They characterize the speaker through gestures, posture, actions, tone of voice, and thoughts.
They add tension.  Mood.
They move the plot forward.
They give information.

When Must We Use a Tag?

Whenever the reader might get confused about who is speaking.  In a story for adults, we can write many dialogue exchanges without using tags.  In a story for children who read more slowly and with more effort, we need to give more cues.  Simple tags let us know when Cassandra is speaking, and when it is her twin sister Cleo.

Does it Always Have to be “He Said”?

“Said” gets the job done.  Believe me, the reader will hardly notice it.  On the other hand, if we get inventive and use synonyms for “said” such as “exhorted,” “exclaimed,” “enunciated,” “articulated,” “cajoled,” the reader immediately starts noticing the fancy synonyms more than WHAT is being said.  Stick to simple tags of “said,” “replied,” “answered,” “asked,” or an occasional “whispered” or “called.”  They work just fine.

It’s a temptation to write lines of dialogue with few tags.  But if we do, we often end up with the “white room” syndrome of voices nattering on in a place that has no weather, no sense of what year it is, no furniture or props, and worst of all, the characters wear NO CLOTHES!

Get Creative; Have Fun! Use Descriptive Tags

Descriptive tags identify the speaker,  and add a gesture or action.


“You have crossed the line,” Jack said, leaping off his horse and drawing  his antique sword.  [If we’d stopped after the word “said” we wouldn’t know about the horse or the sword.]

“Let’s play,” Noah said as he tugged on my sleeve, pulling me toward the broken train set. [Same for the train – a broken one, poor kid.]

“I will never forget your kindness,” Celia said as she tucked the tattered lace handkerchief into her cleavage.

“Thanks for nothing,” Dana said, brandishing a bunch of celery and forcing  her cart in front of mine in the Trader Joe’s checkout line.

We need to avoid stupid action that doesn’t characterize.  (I do this all the time and have to fix it later.)  My character nods, smiles, stands, sits (gestures any hack writer could come up with).  My stories start out with a cast of bobble heads!  Later, I turn those nods into something more interesting.  Nodding, smiling, etc. do little work for us.  They are a waste of paper.  Besides that, they indicate agreement — always boring.

From my examples, we see props and gestures and clothing show something about the character.  Take a look at the descriptive tags and see what you can deduce about age, agility, poverty, attitude, culture, and setting.  All this is a good start, but as we continue to layer, we’ll also try to incorporate clues about mood, tension, and plot direction.

Each tag should be worth the space it’s taking on the page.

Go Further!

Gestural tags are complete sentences — descriptive tags without the “said.”  You will recognize them whenever you see a complete sentence – one that identifies the speaker just as all good tags should do.  These give the reader a break from those descriptive tags that tend to have the same rhythm of using the word “said” and the comma.

Examples of gestural tags:

“My baby’s starving.  Help me, for God’s sake.”  The beggar’s trembling hands thrust out the dirty bowl.

“Believe me, Madam, I will never forget your kindness.”  She wiped her eyes with a lace handkerchief that had seen better days.

“You dumb jerk.  You crossed the line.”  Nathan brandished his antique sword and leaned close.

Placement of Tags

Clever things you can do with tags go on and on.  Choose the kind of tag you want to use (simple, descriptive, gestural) and then play around with where in the speech to place it.

Really?  Really!  This makes a huge difference!

Let’s play with the gestural tags above, bearing in mind that you can do this placement thing with all three kinds of tags.

“My baby’s starving.  Help me, for God’s sake.”  The beggar’s hands trembled as he held out his bowl. [Tag placed last]

The beggar’s hands trembled as he held out his bowl.   “My baby’s starving.  Help me, for God’s sake.”  [Tag placed first.  Does one sound better than the other? Maybe.]

“My baby’s starving.”  The beggar’s hands trembled as he held out his bowl.  “Help me, for God’s sake.”  [Tag placed in the middle.  Did something happen to the emphasis of his speech?  Definitely, better.]

Try this again, placing the tag after “Help me”  and before “For God’s sake.”

Is this trial and error worth doing?  Yes, it is.  Separating speech by tags tends to add strength or emphasis to certain lines especially to the one at the end.  Take a look at your own writing.  Circle each tag.  Can you make the tags more interesting, more “telling, ” can you  make them do more work?  Can you change their placement to add emphasis to certain words?

Writing Exercises For You

TO DO:  In your writing, find simple tags and rewrite them into descriptive tags or gestural tags.  Try giving your characters a task to perform as they speak.

TO DO:  Break up speeches that seem too long by placing significant gestures and actions – ones that do work – into the middle of them.

TO DO:  Comb through your writing to find “nodding and smiling” actions that are lazy.  Replace them with powerful tags.

TO DO:  Add layers of significant, specific details in your tags.  They help you show the reader, by allowing him or her to participate in your story.  The more your reader can fill in the significance of the grimy lace handkerchief, the broken-down toy train, the hostile shopper, the more alive your writing has become

Writing Prompt

Loosely taken from Bernays & Painter’s “What If?”

Write a scene of two people having a tense discussion – one worth eavesdropping on — one with five or six exchanges.  Perhaps one person is disclosing a secret, betraying a confidence, trying to smooth something over, or lying.  Important:  Give at least one of the speakers a task, chopping onions, cutting the other person’s hair, trying on swim suits, or whatever you think of.

Use all three kinds of tags if you can or use no tag at all, wherever it’s best.

Maybe Mark’s fingers can tighten around that knife; maybe the chopping will grow in intensity as the conversation escalates; maybe tears will fall that have nothing to do with the onions.

Let us see Maria’s scissors clip the air near her daughter’s ear as she makes a point.  Let us see her stop to kiss the blonde ringlet she’s just removed.

Let us see Irene tug at the bottom of the swim suit or fling one that’s too small over the dressing room door.  Who’s she talking with?  Are they friends, or enemies?  The undercurrents of their dialogue will make this clear.

If your exercise is no more than 300 words, I’d like to see it.  Want to send something to me?

Happy Reading!

21 Dec

DSC01538As you can see, the poinsettias grow huge in Arizona, and guess what!  You can leave them out on the porch if you want to.

I’ve been cookie baking, wrapping presents, going to concerts, and, of course, hiking the trails.  We’ll both go out to Catalina State Park tomorrow — Jerry to climb to Romero Pools, me to trek Romero loop, which is not quite so strenuous.

While I wait for him to reappear, I’ll sit under a Palo Verde tree and read.  Right now, I’m reading two books at once.  The short one, which is almost due back to the library, is  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.  Quick synopsis:  Harold, recently retired and in a loveless marriage, gets a letter from an old friend who is dying.  He very abruptly decides to walk 600 miles, the length of Great Britain, to deliver his reply in person.  He believes that as long as he walks, his friend Queenie will live. As he travels, he relives his life, meets people as crazy as he is, and reconciles his losses and regrets.

I love this book because I love Harold.  And hey, I want Queenie to stay alive as much as he does.

The second book, a longer one, is by one of my favorite writers — Richard Russo.  Nobody’s Fool is funny because of the quirky characters and their wonderful dialogue.  I quote from the back cover:  “[This] novel follows the unexpected operation of grace in a deadbeat town in upstate New York — and in the life of one of its unluckiest citizens, Sully, who has been doing the wrong thing triumphantly for fifty years.”

These characters delight me because of their humanity, their flaws, and their wonderful sense of humor.  Nothing beats the treasure of laughter.

May your coming days be filled with good books, good friends, and most important of all — love and laughter.

Write About the Holidays

26 Nov

Jerry and me with the Saguaros

What do Tucsonans do on their holidays?  Thanksgiving Day, Jerry and I climbed the trails in Catalina State Park along with hundreds of other people.  They weren’t there for the silence or roadrunners or coyotes or javelinas.  Holidays in Tucson are the grand excuse for the whole family to get out hiking — wishing Happy Thanksgiving to everyone they encounter on the trail.

Last year, we first discovered this tradition on New Year’s Day in the Tucson Mountains.  These trails are not gentle pathways; the grandparents, the moms and dads with a baby in the sling, and all the little ones climb up amazingly rugged terrain.  Once they reach the viewpoints they hand cameras to anyone who will point and shoot their happy group.

Thursday, after we returned from Catalina State Park, we put the turkey into the oven and read our books out on the deck.  Clear skies; temps in the low 80s.  See the photo below.  Lucky us!

Here’s a Writing Prompt

Holiday traditions are often memorable.  Janet Burroway in her book, Writing Fiction (see earlier post), tells a story of two picnics — one in which the weather is fine, the food is delicious, everyone gets along.  Ho hum.

Then she tells about the picnic when the blanket was spread on top of a nest of ants, there was no corkscrew for the wine, rain suddenly poured down, and during the dash back to the car, they were chased by a mad bull.

Which picnic is worth writing about?  Looking back at your own life, which holiday tradition or dinner is worth writing about?  The ones that had some disastrous element, of course.

So here’s the prompt:

Write about a holiday dinner or other tradition that has stuck in your mind for some reason.   Take us to your table with specific and sensory details — Name names like the mushroom dressing that Rebecca hates, Christopher’s buttery yeast rolls, Grandma Jan’s famous apple pie.  Give us all the smells.  Let us hear the ticking of the grandfather clock or the football game still on in the other room.  Let us see the faces of the people around the table, including the way they chew, or how they go to the kitchen to sneak more wine.  Let us hear some dialogue, especially the kind of talk that raises questions, creates tension.

A Bit About Craft — Powerful Verbs

Once you’ve written your holiday piece, go back and kill the adverbs.  Adverbs are weak compared to nouns and verbs.  Am I suggesting that we NEVER use them?  Not at all.  After all,  think of J.K.Rowling and Vickram Seth, author of A Suitable Boy, one of my favorite books.  They love adverbs, and they have certainly done well.  However, I think the rest of us should treat adverbs with great suspicion.

Why is that?

Instead of grabbing an adverb, let’s take the time to discover a strong verb – one that won’t need an adverb to make its meaning clear.  Let’s take the verb “to walk.”  At first, we’re lazy and use the following adverbs:  He walked briskly, slowly, haltingly, fearfully, quietly, erratically, despondently, crookedly, uprightly, evenly.  You can think of more adverbs, but don’t do it.  Instead . . .

Take a moment to replace “walked plus adverb” with one word that does the same job.  “Marched,” “sauntered,” “hobbled,” “tiptoed,” and so on.  Thinking up these new verbs takes brain energy, but your new verb shouts out specific meaning for your reader and your writing takes on the energy you gave it.  Besides all that, each time you replace a verb and an adverb with one strong verb, you save a word and lower your overall word count.

Time to soak up some sun.

Day after Thanksgiving, 2012

See you next time.

Powerful Prose

6 Nov

Bite That Bullet

Recurrent ovarian cancer is not curable; it’s manageable . . .  with diet, exercise, and chemo.  My future will undoubtedly be a series of chemo and remission, chemo and remission.  Many women manage to do this and maintain a good quality of life for many years.

Last April, even though my CT scans showed tumors, I decided to put off chemo because I felt too healthy.  Chemo makes you sick, and I didn’t want to go there.  Also, the research shows that starting chemo right away as opposed to later doesn’t seem to make an overall difference; it may just add up to more chemo and a lower quality of life.   I’ve continued to feel great, and we’ve had a super wonderful healthy energetic carefree delightful summer and fall.  Unfortunately,  in spite of all those adjectives, a miracle didn’t happen.  My cancer has continued to grow.  I’m now scheduling four rounds of chemo, starting soon after Thanksgiving.

All this is to say that I remember my chemo brain of two years ago.  This blog may go in spurts and pauses for a while.  What I say may not even make any sense.  Who knows what my befuddlement will bring us.  It could be interesting.  Stay tuned.

Power in our Writing

A couple of years ago, I taught a course called Powerful Prose.  The first class was a banquet as we tasted our wonderful language — listening to the noise words make.  We filled our platters with alliteration, made-up words, preposterous ideas. We talked about why some phrases are “catchy”:  Leave it to Beaver; Breaking Bad; Gone With the Wind; Make Love Not War; Power of the Press; and so on.  (Why are those memorable?  Is it because of the shortness of the words?  The repetition of consonants?  The rhyme?)

All of the above.

Learn to Listen

Little children are tuned into the sounds of words.  “Trip Trap Trip Trap went the three billy goats gruff.”  “Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin.”  These lines NEED to be read out loud.  Once we begin to read silently, we lose some ability to listen to the sounds of words.   How can we get that back?

For starters, in class, we made lists of words that intrigue and delight us.  We shared these with a buddy, speaking each word with great attention to how it feels in the mouth, how it hits the air.  My list had these words: artichoke, bountiful, bodacious, outlandish, to name a few.   Parsimonious . . . a good one.  I want to say this word over and over.  I keep a back page of my notebook for more words:  punctilious, scappoose, plainsong, brunch.

Fool Around

In class, we read out loud from Gertrude Stein, Jabberwocky, and a Just-So story.  Nonsense flowed, and we began to loosen up our ideas of what makes a proper sentence, a proper story.  We noticed prose rhythms, the effects of consonants and vowels, long words, short sentences.  We noticed powerful verbs that surprised us with flexibility of meaning.   At home, you can reach for a book of poems or prose by a good writer.  Forget about meaning.  Read out loud, with great attention to the sounds.  PERFORM them.  Have fun.

“Steering the Craft” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Writing Prompt

Many of these ideas come from Ursula LeGuin through her book, Steering The Craft.
On page 26,  BEING GORGEOUS, she says:

Write a paragraph to a page (150-300 words) of narrative that’s meant to be read aloud.  Use onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, rhythmic effects, made-up words or names, dialect — any kind of sound-effect you want.

Write it for children, if that’s the only way you can give yourself permission to do it.   Have fun, cut loose, play around with word sounds and rhythms.  This is a read-aloud piece, performance prose.

This can be done more than once, by the way, as a warm-up piece.  I’m interested in what happens when YOU follow this prompt.  Did you find a voice that you don’t often use?  Did you hate doing this?  Love it?  Share the piece in your writer’s group.  It’s not for critique; it’s for enjoying.  Please let me know what happens.