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Archive for the ‘Creative Writing and Literary Criticism’ Category

A great many authors have lately become impatient with the inadequacy of punctuation.  Many think that new signs should be invented; signs to imitate the variation in human speech; signs for emphasis; signs for word-groupings.  Miss Stein, however, feels that such indications harm rather than help the practice of reading.  They impair the collaborative participation of the reader.  “A comma by helping you along holding your coat for you and putting on your shoes keeps you from living your life as actively as you should live it. […] A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make yourself know yourself knowing it.”

 

~ Thornton Wilder, “Introduction to The Geographical History of America” from Ida: A Novel by Gertrude Stein (quote from Stein’s lecture “Poetry and Grammar” in Lectures in America)

 

Ninth draft of the beginning of War and Peace

Ninth draft of the beginning of War and Peace

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In a recent post, I extolled the virtues of a memorable and perfectly timed conclusion.  I examined the detriments associated with the protracted or seemingly unending ending and empathized with lingering finishers.  It’s tricky business, all that summing up and loop closing and requisite symmetrical resonance.  Most of us prefer the gleaming, unencumbered whiteboard of beginnings with all their hopeful possibilities and mystery to the pressure and bittersweet finality of endings.

That is, unless you have commitment issues.

Potential and promise notwithstanding, taking the first step of any new endeavor requires as much mettle and dedication as crossing the finish line, if not more.  After all, a vast expanse of conceivable failure lies between that first mile and victory lane.  Whether the venture is a new relationship, business, exercise regimen, or degree program, its commencement requires long-range vision, ongoing planning, the subduing of distractions, and sheer audacity.

Even determining where and how to begin can be paralyzing, as the fictional artist Lily Briscoe, one of Virginia Woolf’s most venerated characters, knows all too well: “She took her hand and raised her brush.  For a moment it stayed trembling in a painful but exciting ecstasy in the air.  Where to begin? – that was the question at what point to make the first mark?  One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions. […] Still the risk must be run; the mark made” (To the Lighthouse).

Ah, those pesky, irrevocable decisions.

The very idea of an unalterable first mark is enough to dissuade us all from leaving the house in the morning, let alone starting anything remotely adventurous.  That’s why I’m an advocate of first (and second and third) drafts and pencils and the ever-useful and self-serving Plan B.  They allow for false starts and initial missteps without forfeiting the goal.

Beginnings rarely, if ever, define the ending.  Some would even avow that the end is where the journey or narrative begins, that our story lives in the retelling.  According to novelist Walter Mosley, the completed first draft of a novel represents the margin between potential and work of art: “Now that you have come to the end […], you are ready to write it.”  Perhaps that’s what I love most about writing – inherent in the act is the opportunity, the necessity, to revise again and again, sometimes ad infinitum, for as long as the story, poem, or essay continues to enthrall and engage with its prospects.

In life, too, we learn from our mistakes and evolve beyond first attempts.  Through subsequent drafts, we learn to critique and analyze and correct.  We master interactions and dialogue once executed clumsily and eliminate the extraneous.  We recognize the banality in experiences and ideas once thought profound and supplant them with truly meaningful moments and insights.  And we find our soul and our viaticum and the courage to begin, revise, and begin again.

 

This column first appeared in the Orange County Register.

 

"Admiratrice dans l'atelier" ("Admirer in the Workshop") by Étienne Leroy, 1885

“Admiratrice dans l’atelier” (“Admirer in the Workshop”) by Étienne Leroy, 1885

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Like most people, I believe, I love the last bursts of fireworks at the end of a public Fourth of July show.  The pyrotechnicians know we wait for them with anticipation and excitement, eager for the rhythmic, more sporadic booms of the first rockets to culminate in the rapid-fire, snare drum-like rat-a-tat and dazzling sparks shower of the finale.  The end seems ironically endless until, at last, we are oohed and aahed out, breathless and completely fulfilled for that holiday.  And then the rogue pops and whistles begin in random episodes throughout the neighborhood and continue for hours, even days, jarring our bliss.

Huh? I thought we were done with that…?

Ah, yes…the lingering conclusion. I’ve seen this before.  Like those crazy candles on a birthday cake that never fully extinguish after the song, P.F. Chang’s Great Wall of Chocolate, a third curtain call, and then a fourth, the protracted or seemingly unending ending merely delays the inevitable and may even undermine what was or could have been a spectacular and perfectly timed denouement.

Admittedly, we have conflicting feelings about endings.  Firstly, we tend to prefer beginnings with all their possibilities and mystery.  Secondly, there is the pressure to get them just right.  Done poorly, they can destroy the merits of all that came before.  And, frankly, most of us have more practice with starting things than with finishing them.

The written conclusion can be just as tricky as the real life one, as both writers and readers can attest.  Personally, I’ve always been inexorably daunted by the task of summing up.  Perhaps it’s the perceived (and correct, by the way) notion that the last paragraph will singularly uphold or enervate the entire narrative or essay that has me rattled.  Or perhaps the looming deadline triggers what remains of my creativity to gather its things, turn out the lights, and go home.  Then again, it’s hard to write with the Grim Reader snickering over my shoulder.  “Seriously?” he scoffs, crunching an apple and rolling his sockets.  “How many times are you going to say that?”

In On Writing Well, William Zinsser cautions writers about the oh-so-important last sentence: “An article that doesn’t stop where it should stop becomes a drag and therefore a failure. […] The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right.”  He goes on to extol the virtues of striking at the end an echo of a note that was sounded at the beginning, gratifying the reader’s sense of symmetry with its resonance.

There is such a thing as a perfect ending.  The wish only comes true if the candles are blown out.  The bowing and clapping (and fireworks) have to conclude so we can all leave the arena and get some sleep.  And, really, no one needs six layers of chocolate cake.  Ending well, according to Zinsser, is a joy in itself.  Like the epilogue that hints at a sequel, things must end so new things can begin.

 

This column first appeared in the Orange County Register.

 

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Since making my lifelong desire to write known within my immediate professional and social circle, I have come face to face with the quizzical expressions and misconceptions I encountered as a child who lived primarily in an imaginary world. While undoubtedly supportive and well-meaning, many friends are simply unable to conceal their lack of understanding for a “hobby” that requires solitude and a “sacrifice” of social interaction.  They applaud my weekend efforts at my computer (the abstruse Bakhtinian analyses of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the works of Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein’s Ida notwithstanding), acknowledging the virtue of, say, an MFA thesis or a novel chapter, but can’t resist urging me to “not forget to make time for myself and have fun now and then.”

Don’t they see I’m having the time of my life?

I suppose I can appreciate their puzzlement.  In today’s hypersocial society, activities done alone are generally considered to be inferior to activities shared with others.  For every customarily unaccompanied occupation, a club or Meetup group is now available to take the ostensible sting of isolation out of it.  To opt deliberately for tedious exertions done in seclusion, such as reading novels and writing, in lieu of more interactive and invigorating pastimes often prompts questions of physical or mental well-being or, more awkwardly, elicits unwarranted sympathy.  Besides, creative writing is purportedly an enterprise of the right cerebral hemisphere, and I have a left brain job.  Or so I thought.

Over time, as my colleagues began to learn what I was doing when I wasn’t analyzing financial statements and operating the real estate, a few divulged (with, I’m certain I detected, a measure of wistfulness) that they, too, had dabbled in the literary or visual arts in a prior life, revealing an unobtrusive community of hemispheric fissure straddlers – former and would-be authors, poets, painters, and other creative thinkers making their mark in a distinctly analytic arena.  Most of us probably still have the proof of a dormant poetic self – musty journals in boxes in the garage, old files of yellowed paper scraps and cocktail napkins on which bits of prose and poetry are scrawled, or references to particularly resonant passages in the margins of Great Expectations and Wuthering Heights.

Upon learning the secret identities of the accountant-sculptor, lawyer-philosopher, and engineer-memoirist, I was exhilarated by the proximity of this dichotomous kindred.  There was neither bemusement nor pity from these individuals; they understood the need to retreat to a quiet space to create, alone.  As we talked, I saw a light flicker in their eyes, a memory, perhaps, of what used to stir their soul before the freneticism of modern life anesthetized its Ache, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had returned home that night and started digging for the evidence of their own writer within.  At least, I imagine they did.  And if after reading this you go digging, too, write and let me know.

 

This column was first published in the Orange County Register.

 

"Schreibender Knabe" ("Writing Boy") by Albert Anker, circa 1908

“Schreibender Knabe” (“Writing Boy”) by Albert Anker, circa 1908

 

 

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Last month I attended the Orange County Christian Writers Conference.  Having attended the event previously in 2012, I had vacillated before registering earlier this year.  My experience three years ago was a high point in my writing life, as an excerpt from my developing novel caught the attention of publishers and editors and won three fiction awards.  Astonished and elated, I had vowed to dedicate all my free time to completing the book and pursuing publication before the end of the year.

Within weeks, however, the demands of my career and graduate school and life thwarted all my good writerly intentions.  With my creative energy allocated to finishing my course work at Chapman University and numerous guest columns and blog posts, progress on my novel stalled.  There was simply no time to write more than a few chapters for my MFA workshops, and I labored over those small accomplishments.  While I did return to the novel at full speed in 2014 in order to fulfill my 150-page thesis requirement, I have often felt disappointing and even disobedient to God by not finding a way to finish.  Even worse, as the years passed, I began to diminish the merits of the recognition my excerpt had received and question what I had believed was my lifelong calling.  It shouldn’t be this hard, I thought.  Perhaps I heard God wrong.

I had a multitude of excuses for not attending this year’s conference, but a niggling feeling urging me to go prevailed.  I decided to register and attend Friday night’s activities.  I could always skip the Saturday workshops and appointments I had scheduled if I felt at all uncomfortable or out of step with the other attendees.  After checking in, I helped myself to a paper cup of coffee, said hello to my tablemates, and settled in for the keynote address by Sharon Elliott.

I liked her immediately.  She was boisterous and frank, assuring us that rejection and self-doubt would unquestionably be part of our writing and publishing quest, just as they were for countless bestselling authors.  And then she said the most powerful words of the night, the weekend, and probably my year: “Relax.  You heard right.  You’re in the right place.”  Wait, what was that?  Is she talking to me?  In case we missed it, she said it again: “You heard right.  You’re in the right place.”  And at that moment, I knew that I had and that I was.

The rest of the conference was just as propitious and exciting.  Significant connections and new friends were made, and complicated questions about the current publishing industry were answered.  I left on Saturday evening knowing exactly what I needed to do to continue the narrative I began so many years ago.  I heard about platform-building and social media optimization and online branding.  I learned how to submit to magazine editors and why it’s prudent to always maintain film rights.  I was even convinced to…wait for it…tweet, something I vowed I would never do.  Most importantly, I know that I haven’t imagined or misunderstood my calling.  I can relax, because I heard right.  He said “Write.”

 

ENFANT~1

 

This post was published first on the American Christian Fiction Writers website on May 14, 2015.  

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April is National Poetry Writing Month, also known as NaPoWriMo, an annual creative writing event that challenges participants to write a new poem each day from April 1 through April 30.  NaPoWriMo coincides with National Poetry Month, which is celebrated annually in America and Canada.

The project was founded by Maureen Thorson in 2003 and modeled after NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, which challenges participants to write 50,000 words of a new novel in the month of November.  Since its inception, the number of registered participants has grown steadily every year, and many writers’ organizations coordinate NaPoWriMo activities.

For a comprehensive list of FAQs, guidelines, and daily prompts, visit the website at http://www.napowrimo.net.

Have fun, and good luck!

 

napofeature4

 

 

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Presented annually by the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, the Writers Studio brings together a community of writing students to workshop with some of Southern California’s most esteemed professional writers and teachers.

Participants select one of ten intensive four-day workshops in creative writing and screenwriting planned for the 2015 Writers Studio, including The Joy of Writing: A Workshop in Craft and Creativity, Writing the First Novel, Writing the Young Adult Novel, Accessing Your Stories in a Flash: A Short Fiction Writing Workshop, Writing the Personal Essay, and Writing the Memoir.  Enrollment is on a first come, first served basis, and each class is limited to fifteen students.

The Writers Studio fee of $940 includes enrollment in one four-day workshop February 5-8, a continental breakfast on Thursday, a special Saturday guest speaker event, and a Sunday reception.

For more information and to register, visit the website at http://writers.uclaextension.edu/programs-services/writers-studio.

 

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