Archive | November, 2012

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.

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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.