Archive | August, 2012


23 Aug

Notice a couple of new links on the right.  Thought you’d enjoy them.

Piano Lessons, by Noah Adams

I just finished re-reading a good memoir, Piano Lessons by Noah Adams, the host of NPR’s “All things Considered.” When I read it five or so years ago, I liked it, but thought its appeal was limited to music lovers.   I’ve changed my mind now.  This book is really about any person who has been an “adult beginner” at anything.  I think of me and my harp,  and me and my Spanish lessons.

Why is it so hard as an adult to learn something new?  I think it’s because we worry so much about being perfect right from the start.  Kids know better.

Piano Lessons covers one year, the year Adams decides to buy a piano and learn to play. He’s obsessed with the challenge, but avoids taking lessons.  Later, he invests in a home study course.  Late in the year, he attends  a wonderful retreat in Vermont, in which he learns to play better, but mostly learns the courage to perform in front of others.  (Getting rid of that need for perfection?)

It would take more than a week in Vermont for me to start speaking Spanish to a live person, or to play my harp with anyone else in the room.  But Adams overcomes all kinds of shyness and reservations, and gives himself (and the reader) a very satisfying ending.  His voice is so “normal,” you forget he’s a celebrity and is used to broadcasting to millions of strangers every day. He sounds like the guy next door.

My friend Bill read this book in June, loved it, dusted off the keys, and plans to sign up for that workshop in Vermont.  He’s starting to write again, too, a great story about growing up in Texas.  Bill is renewing old loves – piano and writing.  It’s never too late to act on our passions.

As we breathe new life into our lives, let’s talk a bit about writing craft.


Fiction writers want to know how to make their characters come to life, how to make them walk off the page, how to make the reader identify with them.  Here are the highlights from a workshop I’ve presented.

Remember Old Mother Hubbard?  The one with the hungry dog?  Of course, you do.

We recall how she looked in our book of nursery rhymes – gray hair, wearing the long skirt and the apron.  So 20th Century.  Let’s toss that apron.   OUR Mother Hubbard will be a modern woman.  We don’t know her yet.  Let’s start with how she looks.


We must ask questions about her age, height, weight, posture, hair color, face, voice, and on and on until we can SEE her.  Perhaps this hip lady rides her bike to the farmers market wearing jeans  and a sequined sweatshirt, singing Beetles songs in a low alto.  Her huge purple tote bag  holds her little dog (the hungry one) as well as her current knitting project (caps for newborns) and a big bunch of sunflowers.   Can you see her?


Where does she live?  LA?  Pacific Northwest?  Dream up her house, her furniture, what’s in her refrigerator, what’s in the trash can.  I see her living In Philomath, in a house that she inherited from her dad, with fruit trees out in back and a big porch in front.  Her refrigerator and her trash can are empty.  Oh yeah, – the cupboards, too.

What’s going on? Has she been robbed?  Was there a fire?  In my mind, she’s been giving things away, and it’s gotten out of control.  Because her former husband (the one she threw out) was a pinch-penny, she’s been too generous.  Her kitchen  (and her bank balance) have gone from bountiful to bare.  How does she feel about this?  I think she’s oblivious right now, but that will change as soon as her dog asks for a bone.  Or, maybe something else will happen?


She has kept a few favorite things.  What are they?


What about that former husband?  Any children?  Have they abandoned her?  Time to do some serious daydreaming.  If you’re like me, you daydream on paper.  We’ll start writing about her.


Let HER explain things to you.  Give her a journal to write in, if she won’t talk.  Place her in sticky situation and listen and watch how she reacts.  Listen to the unique way she speaks.


Ask penetrating questions:

What does she fear more than anything?
What keeps her up at night?
What is her plan for five years from now?
What is her dream?
What is her biggest regret?

Take time for these very important questions.  Accumulate many pages of notes.  They will provide the clues to your character, and also for the entire story.


At this point each writer in my workshop has imagined a unique Nora Hubbard.  No wait!  For some, she’s turned into a Monique, a Frankie, maybe even a Barbie!

Developing a character should take days – days of daydreaming, clustering, free-writing,   Please do that work for your own characters, major and minor ones.

Once your main character is up and alive, we can bring a complication into her life – something significant that will get her story rolling.  Plot will be the subject of a later post.


Now that we have a character who interests us, we can describe her (telling) and we can put her into action (showing).  Both methods will work fine for us.

Here’s an exercise adapted from a good book on writing, “What If?” by Bernays and Painter.

TELLING:  My character (name) is the sort of person who . . .

SHOWING: Put the character into a scene of action, so we can see and hear and deduce what she is like.

My example from memoir:  My mother was the sort of person who loved to control a roomful of people.  I remember one Sunday morning when she called us to the living room.  There, heaped on card tables were her treasures – trays, butter dishes, candy dishes, glittering with  sterling silver, silver plate, silver look-alike finishes.  Her gray hair stiffly waved, wearing her dark blue skirt and a no nonsense top, she pointed each of us into a chair.  “I am not going to live forever,” she said, with a slight tremble in her voice.

Can you see her?  Lucky me.  My mother provides great material.

Please let me know how this works for you.



17 Aug

Dog-eared and loved

Janet Burroway’s book, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, tops my list for writers of fiction or memoir.  I have two editions, the third (1992) and the seventh (2007).  There’s now an eighth, that sells for $66. 

It’s possible, however, to buy an earlier edition for much less, and any edition will do.  (Try checking for used books at your favorite independent bookstore.)  They’re easy to find since it’s been used in countless college writing programs.  I found my first one twenty years ago in the used books section at the OSU bookstore.  

“There are a few lucky souls,” Burroway writes, “for whom the whole process of writing is easy, for whom the smell of fresh paper is better than air, whose minds chuckle perpetually over their own agility, who forget to eat, and who consider the world at large an intrusion on their good time at the computer.  But you and I are not among them.”

She’s definitely speaking for me!  ANY excuse will keep me from beginning the first draft of anything.  Somehow, over the years, I’ve learned that getting through the pain of that awful first draft is the only thing that will lead me to the revising, the part I love.

Chapter headings:   

  • The writing process
  • Showing and Telling
  • Characterization
  • Fictional Place
  • Fictional Time
  • Story Form, Plot, and Structure
  • Point of View
  • Theme
  •  Revision

Every section in this book contains writing examples.  Discussion questions follow these.  Then, come the exercises that give us a chance to practice.  (My former students will recognize some of these.)

My friend Naomi used this book with her writing group,  going chapter by chapter, doing the exercises and discussing them.  Took many months.

In the first chapter, Burroway advises keeping a daily  journal (where no editor can see and make comments), doing free-writing (like doing scales on the piano to keep the writing muscle strong), and clustering (which frees up the mind to make meaningful connections).  Ten minutes a day will lead to twenty or thirty, and suffices to get words down.  Then, if you’re like me, you can go through the rest of the day saying, “I AM a writer.  I wrote this morning.”

Snarky, but it works!


                                — has to do with showing and telling.  

Details — using lots of them, she says, will lure the reader into the world of your book.   But these can’t be Lands End Catalog details.  We need to select the best ones.  What does she mean by “best ones”? 

CONCRETE details that appeal to the senses of smell, taste, touch, vision, and hearing.  My friend Ken assessed each of his pages in terms of the “The Smell Factor.”  He tried to get at least one smell onto every page. 

 SIGNIFICANT details that convey an idea or judgment.  For example: “The windowsills were painted green” is concrete because it’s visual, but it’s not especially significant.  Try this: The sills were a peeling, pea green.  (The reader “gets it” that there’s decay here.)  Of course, when you go back to make your sentences more active, you might write: Strips of dull green paint hung from the window sills.  It’s obvious that this place is going to be a fixer-upper, and we didn’t TELL it; we SHOWED it.

Writing Prompt 

(with thanks to Janet Burroway):  

Look in the mirror.  Jot down all the details of your face, hair, mouth, eyes, etc.  Make your details as concrete as possible, using the five senses. 

Decide which of those details will convey how you would like others to see you.  Do you want to be seen as sophisticated?  Intelligent?  Younger and full of fun?  Older and wiser? 

Select the details that will convey this picture to others and leave out the rest. 

Write a short description of this face, using the “best” details and leaving out any adjectives that simply tell that you are older and wiser or whatever. 

Share this with a friend to see if the details you chose did the work you intended.  
Imagine significant details for each of your characters, this time, describing more than his or her face.  How about posture, actions, voice?  

When you write in this way you are in collaboration with your readers. When we describe everything for them, readers miss part of the fun.  When they can draw their own conclusions from a few significant details, we’ve entered a grand partnership.  

Good writing?  Yes!

Anyone out there who has used this book?   What’s YOUR  favorite part?  Please share!


10 Aug


Those of us who belong to writer’s critique groups may resist the rule of the “Vow of Silence.”  Let’s say someone has read your piece and is giving feedback.  Can you be quiet?  Can you listen?  I know, I know.  It’s darn near impossible to listen to someone who obviously doesn’t understand your piece.  You feel MUST tell them they’re not “getting it,” and besides, they are probably talking about the part that is your favorite part.  Or the part that REALLY happened that way.

I tell my students to wait.  To listen.  To be silent!

Why is that?

When you defend instead of listen you’re going to miss good feedback.

  • Open your notebook, not your mouth.
  • Write down everything your reader says.
  • Clarify any confusion.
  • Say thanks.  Tell them you’ll look at it in the morning.

The next morning may show you that the reader was way off-base (they often are, by the way), but it will also tell you that something  about your writing needs fixing.  Perhaps your words confused him; perhaps your character is acting in an unbelievable way; perhaps you added distracting info that threw your reader off (See the writing prompt below).   In any case, by writing the comments down, your attention was drawn to a section that is possibly flawed.  Now, you can work on fixing whatever wasn’t working.


What is it about compliments that gets us confused and embarrassed?  We say, oh yes, I’m good at dialogue; I don’t need to write that down.  Or we say, they must be kidding about that grand metaphor or those good sensory details.  Please write positive comments down and look at them in the morning along with the comments that weren’t so positive.  Enjoy a compliment.  Learn to recognize and value the good things you do so you can REPEAT them!

What a concept!  Repeating GOOD habits? Am I crazy, or what?


Think of a place you love — a particular beach, a forest, a room, perhaps a place you can no longer go to.  Using lots of sensory details (smells, tastes, touch, sights, and sounds), describe this place in ways that will show the reader how much you love it there.  Do not use the word “love” and do not tell the reader how you feel about this place.  Let him “get it.”


Write again about the same place, but this time notice that it’s no longer pleasant.  (Any location will have details that speak one way to us one day, and another way on another day.)  Perhaps this time you will notice a bad smell, or a disturbing sound that you never noticed before.  Perhaps, there was always decay there, but you overlooked that before.  Show the reader how much you dislike this place without telling him.  Let him “get it” through the sensory details that are in this new piece.


The sensory details we select for our descriptions will influence the reader.  Out of all the possible sensory details you might use, be sure to choose the ones that will do the right work for you — will convey an emotion or evoke a certain response in the reader.


1 Aug

Days at the Waldport beach house always revive my writing energy.  Staring at the waves, walking the beaches, watching the gulls.  On top of that, for a few days, my writing gurus (both of them) were with me and gave me good feedback on an essay.  “Getting to the Heart,” which is partly about artichokes, but is really about communication and finding a voice and being heard. 


MIS-communication,  a big problem in our times.  How was the Colorado shooter able to live for months of collecting his arsenal and booby-trapping his apartment without anyone noticing odd behavior?  Was everyone on their cell phones?  Not paying attention? 

On the other hand, in the news this morning was the story of a nineteen-year-old in Portland who noticed a man lying on the ground next to his lawn mower, jumped out of his car and administered CPR while someone called 911.  The man who wasn’t breathing, now is alive.   Not only was that young man paying attention, he cared enough to stop and ACT. 

Back to the essay which now is about my voice, but needs to be about everyone’s voice.  When thinking about the essay you are writing, ask yourself:  “What is my writing’s occasion?  Why am I interested in this today? Is something in the news today that gives urgency to your topic?

Writing Prompt: 

Who made you feel as if your stories were not valuable?  Did someone take away your voice?

Carry it further: 

Write a letter you will never send.  Tell that person how he or she left you voiceless.  Now, write a letter back to yourself from that person — a letter that attempts to explain his or her actions. 

What you may find:

You will gain reader sympathy and identification.  The letter that you imagine coming back to you from the person who stole your voice may give you new insights.  Possibly, you will even come to understand why this terrible thing happened.  I predict that your writing will be less whining, more compassionate, and thus more appealing to the reader.  Sure enough, there will be outrage (completely justified), but your anger will tempered with understanding — a sure way to gain reader sympathy. 


1 Aug
My gurus at the beach by annewarrensmith
My gurus at the beach, a photo by annewarrensmith on Flickr.

As you can see from the photo, my friends and I are at the coast, reading and discussing two wonderful books: 

Both books are memoirs, but are very different from each other. 

The JCO book is full of descriptions of her writing process and glimpses into her real life.   She is such a prolific writer with more than 100 books and collections and essays and poems that have won too many literary prizes to count.  In her journals we find her obsessive work ethic and her preoccupation with her characters and always planning the next book.  She worries that her work isn’t popular, but cannot stop writing huge, dark stories that many readers find hard to read.  Getting a glimpse into her mind for the ten years of the journals is a wonderful experience.  I loved reading about how she gets an idea and seems to know the title from the very beginning.  Then, she compiles hundreds of pages of notes as she does research about the time and place and dreams about the characters.  Only then, when it feels right, does she begin Chapter One.  She writes clear through, sometimes finding that her characters surprise her and the plot may go in unexpected directions.  Later, she does a revision.  And then, she’s done! Another 600-page novel.  Done!

[Why does it take me more than a year to write a children’s book?  Six months (or more) to write a short essay?]

“Wild” is one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read.  Cheryl Strayed decided in the mid-nineties to rescue herself and a life gone awry by hiking the California stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail — alone.  She wasn’t well prepared for the wilderness, and the tale of how she survives and also heals herself is spell-binding.  She’s a terrific writer besides and shows us all that good memoir can be with character growth and change, tension, humor, setting as character, and more.  Everyone I know who has read this book has had trouble putting it down.  Some are reading it for the second or third time.  Highly recommended!