The Magic is in the Details

Writing

Today I want to point out two magnificent posts from the past week that have made me realize something about my own writing, something that I am going to challenge myself to change. Both these writers captured me with the eloquence of their details–details which made the locations and people that they were writing about  come alive in my heart and  my brain.

Ed, over at Salt ‘n Peppah, wrote this stunning descriptive passage on a day when  New York took a positive step toward change by legalizing gay marriage:

“The Stonewall Inn was barely open this early afternoon. “The gays” typically don’t begin bar hopping until much later in the early evening, so the bar was deserted, except for a short little fire plug bartender named typically, Joe. He welcomed us in immediately as if desperate for company on this miserable Saturday afternoon. Folding our dripping umbrellas and leaving them by the front door, I looked around. You could smell the age and the mustiness of this dark and dingy place. A thick painted tin ceiling and dark poster filled walls hugged us as small tables were tossed about a small elevated “stage” hardly protected by a single red velvet rope. Black and white photos of the now famous “Stonewall Riots” were haphazardly placed around on the deep paneled walls of this establishment. Framed newspaper and magazine clippings of history were draped behind the bar. Somehow the light of day made this bar look like me when I wake up in the morning. Raw and exposed. Pale and puffy. Vulnerable yet somehow as cozy as the thick fleece robe I throw on to ward off the early morning chill.”

(Here’s the link to the rest of his post, called “Stonewall“.) Eds post was powerful because of its timeliness, but also because of  the details. He described a place in a way that showed an emotion and brought into focus the world around us. I wish I could do that. Yes, I know that I am good at ideas and issues, but I feel severely lacking in the details.

As usual  when I read Kathy’s post at Reinventing the Invent Horizon, my awe of people who can  write the details so they strengthen the message only grew.  Kathy is a master at  making details come to life to show the truth in the story she shares. Here’s an example from the post called “Close Encounters with Well-Wigged Old Women and other Adventures in Government-Subsidized Housing”:

“Bea, like Evelyn, had obviously, at one time, been a stunningly beautiful woman, a fact betrayed by facial features that shown through despite her age—high cheek bones and big, blue eyes that still twinkled when she smiled.

Bea was one of the few ladies in the group who didn’t wear a wig, and for a woman well into her 90s she had a head of gorgeous, light brown curls.  True her hair was largely gray, but she retained enough of the brown to surprise you, since otherwise she looked so old and borderline antique.

Bea was also one of the ladies who slept most afternoons, waking herself up every few minutes with her own overly-sized snores.

But then again, Bea never stayed more than 30 minutes at a time, as when nicotine called at least twice an hour, she struggled to her feet from the over-stuffed chair, shuffled her pink-slippered feet across the industrial blue carpet, and disappeared into her apartment several doors down, only to reemerge a few minutes later having snuck a cigarette or two, still insisting upon her return that she had had to use the rest room or make a phone call.  Never mind she smelled like smoke over the tic-tac she sucked and the Avon she had sprayed post-puff.”

The magic is in the details.

I am setting myself a writing challenge this week. I am going to focus on the details of whatever stories I write. I’m going to write stories that have details, not just the rants that I seem to be known for. But, I need your help, because as much as I want to do this, I’m also afraid. So here is how you can help, if you would like. Ask me specific questions. Some of you have read me enough to know that I have had a bizarre life, but for some reason I find it trouble to write about the details of that life. I avoid the specifics, and write more about the sweeping philosophies and lessons learned. Maybe, if you ask me specific questions, I’ll be able to focus more on the details.

I know that is my next step to grow as a writer. Can you help?

In order to help me do this, I decided to create an award that I am giving to Ed and Kathy. I’m not very good at creating graphics, so forgive my lame attempt (and if someone is better at it and wants to improve the details of my design please let me know). But here is the first official The Magic is in the Details Award. Congratulations to Ed and Kathy–ignore this as you will.

 

All Stories Have Value

I spent yesterday in a car, driving Nathan up to Okoboji, IA for the summer. Well, he did all the actual driving, I just watched the scenery go by along with the intimidating clouds and lightning strikes. It took us about 9 1/2 hours, including stops to walk the dogs and a quick trip to Trader Joe’s in Omaha.

On the way we listened to downloaded NPR shows including “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” and “This American Life,” and “The Moth.”

I heard stories. Stories big and stories small. Stories that affect the world, and stories that affected only individuals. And I realized, all stories have value. My story has value.

I want to be a storyteller, because through stories life gains value.

The trip hasn’t been without a little angst. I bring Nathan to a place that wants him, values him, but doesn’t really want or value me. I don’t really belong here, despite the fact that I have a lot to offer this place.

Last summer in Okoboji

But, I now realize that is part of my story. My story involves me learning to let go of jealousy, resentment, frustration. My story involves learning from the journey and learning from others.

My story is all that I have to offer you. In exchange, I hope you will share your story with me. Together our stories have power, beauty, and life.

The Spark of Creativity

Yesterday Sparks In Shadow asked some difficult question in response to my questions about my blog. She said:

As to the topics I find most interesting to read about here — for me it would be anything to do with the writing or artistic process, because I like hearing how other artists tackle the issues I’m also dealing with. (I’ve really got to get back to your previous post about the play writing class/workshop. I need to get back to it when I can immerse myself without distraction.) How do we tend to shape our stories or art? How much do we consider the way our art is experienced by others? Is our goal to make things only with ourselves in mind, or do we want to grow into wider acceptance by incorporating aspects of feedback and certain kinds of structure? How does that feel? How do we handle re-writes or other changes? How much and how do we want to be different, in terms of pushing the limits or heading into abstraction, or do we want to excel at more accepted norms? What does that even mean?”

Ah that Sparks, she likes to ask the difficult questions. ;)

This morning as I lay in bed trying to ignore the insistent whining of Lizzy that I get up and feed her, I thought about the mystery of creativity. 

Two nights ago I crawled into bed to read a little after declaring my intent to write because I want to. I’m reading a book called Literary Women:The Great Writers by Ellen Moers. This somewhat dated book takes a feminist look at the women writers who had influence on writing today, although they may not have had as much recognition as the men. I say it is dated because it was written in 1976 and I think that more women have made impact on the writing world since that time, and received more recognition for that impact. But, I bought this book at a library sale, hoping to find more ideas about women who have been swallowed up into history as written by men.

I’ve been finding lots of interesting things. But as I read two nights ago something sparked in me. A simple phrase formed itself in my mind, “She was not allowed words.” The phrase kept repeating itself in my head, and then grew in urgency. A voice called to me, “You must write this down now or you will regret it!” and the phrase repeated itself again. I jumped out of bed, having moved my dream journal a few days ago when I used it for something else and forgotten to return it, and scrambled around for something to write on. I found two  large index cards and then searched for a pen.

Then I wrote. “She was not allowed words. No woman was.” And a story started pouring out, or at least the beginnings of one. I’m not ready to share more of it yet, but maybe one of these days.

I wrote, filling three sides of the index cards. Then I put them aside until yesterday morning.

Yesterday I woke up thinking about those cards and that story. I’ve heard that story before, I thought to myself. Where have I heard that story? Then I remembered. Several years back I took an advanced course in writing books for young people through The Institute of Children’s Literature. The end result of that course was Giving up the Ghosts the book that still hasn’t found a home. In the beginning of the course, I had to write several book proposals so that my instructor could help me choose the best one to work on. Sadly, I seem to have deleted some of that work accidentally, but I still have hard copies of most of it. At first I proposed ideas for two fiction books and two non-fiction (both having something to do with the arts and theater, one I think about perfectionism). My instructor, after reading my lengthy letter describing my life, nixed the non-fiction saying that it sounded like I needed a break from that stress and pressure. She had me write proposals for four fantasy fiction books that I might be interested in writing. One of them was called Judith of Lexiconia, and told the story of a girl who had the power of words even though girls were not allowed to read them. She discovered that her power extended to being able to write about something, and have that thing come true. [No offense, but I would like to remind you about copyright for a moment. ;)]

My story started years ago, and now it wants to be told. I’m not sure yet if it will take the same form, or where it is going, but somehow the words spoke through me urging me to listen.

Where do those ideas come from? What sparked that moment and made me get up and actually follow that urge? I’ve had plenty of ideas pop into my head during the night, but often (much to my own regret) I am simply too tired or too annoyed to actually write them down. But this time the call could not be ignored.

I remember reading long ago in The Artist’s Way the idea that creative energy surrounds us, with all the ideas floating around waiting to be plucked from the energetic mix. I’m obviously paraphrasing from a long ago memory here; I would quote the book directly, but I don’t know where my copy is at the moment. :( I believe that we are all connected by that creative energy and that some people have more easy access than others.

I don’t always have access, but once in a while the spark ignites and takes me on a journey that is both terrifying and joyful. This time, however, I think I am truly excited for this journey and ready for it, because of the warm support system I have found in the blogging world.

Where does the spark come from? What are some of your answers to Sparks In Shadows questions?


O is for Only Five Sentences

This post will be longer than five sentences. ;)

Marsha Norman

I went to the Master Class taught by Marsha Norman on Saturday. (By the way, she never ended up getting to my scene–all that worry and she didn’t even go. :(. Sigh)

This class was, of course, focused on playwriting, but again I think her advice crosses disciplines and maybe helpful to my friends here.

She asked the group to write down five sentences:

“1. This play is about ________________.

2. It takes place in _________________.

3. The main character wants __________ but _____________.

4. It starts when ______________.

5. It ends when ______________.”

We then shared these and selected some of the memorable ones (there were a lot of people in attendance) for a vote until eventually, as a group,  we narrowed it down to one play that we would produce. (Side note, I knew which one it would be as soon as we had the first voting list–and, no, it wasn’t mine)

Through this process, Marsha pointed out some interesting things:

  • We all want to go to a play that takes place in an interesting location or a place that we want to know more about. But often writers forget about the importance of place.
  • There are some truly universal stories or themes that we all lean toward, for example the lost girl trying to find her way home.
  • When writing the actual play, she said “By page 8 you must let the audience know when they can go home.” (Marsha Norman) In other words, early on you tell the audience what needs to happen for this story to end.

Marsha went on to say, this is how to begin any playwriting process. She told us to do this, tell it to someone, and then LISTEN. The key thing is listening. According to her, if the response is “Oh, that’s interesting” or “that sounds like a good idea” then the play is not worth pursuing. However, if the response is another story, “Oh, that reminds me of the time when _______,” then you have a good idea.

I thought about how it relates to many of us in this community that hope to write an excellent story someday. In particular, Kathy’s story at Reinventing the Event Horizon popped into my mind. She has been working on her memoir of mental illness and sharing with us art and memories from that time. Today, she also shared some beautiful creations from the time when  her “bipolar symptoms have been managed by medication” proving that her amazing artistic ability and creativity move beyond her manic phase. If you read any of her marvelous posts, and then look at the comments below her posts you see something wonderful–you see more stories. Kathy’s stories touch us all in some deep ways, in ways that make us want to look at our own lives and share our own stories.

By Kathy McCullough--this is one of her later pieces.

By Kathy McCullough. This one was painted while she was dealing with the illness.

Her five sentences might be something like this (and these words are mine, not hers):

  1. This is a story about a woman trying to understand her history of mental illness.
  2. It takes place in her mind and in mental institutions in Lexington, KY
  3. The woman wants to feel normal but doesn’t want to lose the creativity and passion that come with her symptoms.
  4. It begins when she becomes overwhelmed by a reality other people cannot see.
  5. It ends when she embraces the true artist that encompasses all sides of her personality.

That, my friends, is a story that resonates with all. Please go visit her site if you haven’t already.

I think I need to start working on only five sentences, and see where they take me.

What are your five sentences?

Notes on Nothing, Notes on Everything.

I’m making a double N post today, because the post I just posted about Nathan wasn’t the one I originally started with and because I have been up since 3am but still cannot sleep. I understand if you choose not to read all of my posts. :) But, to quote a comment from Kaye Peters of Have Coffee . . . Will Write on one of my recent posts, “you’re posting like a woman possessed”. Possessed . . . manic . . . whatever, I’m simply going with the flow right now. So here are a few notes:

More Marsha Norman

“Write what you urgently need to write.” Those were Marsha Norman’s words  when asked if she had ever returned to a work she gave up on. “If it is over two years, don’t try to go back.”

Now, of course she was talking specifically about writing plays, but her point resonated with me. Basically she argued that if you are still struggling with something after two years, then maybe that is not the story that you need to tell. Maybe it is not your story to tell.

I have so many stories that I began but never finished. I have so many possible plans for books and other writing ideas that I couldn’t follow through. I have also always thought that I have a story that I have yet to discover, a story that truly needs to be told. It grows inside me until someday, I hope, it will burst out of me. The words will speak through me.

I just hope that happens soon.

She also talked about characters speaking through her, rather than her creating them.  I have only had a few moments where that has happened. Where the words and the voice of the character just poured through me and into my fingers. It is a powerful sensation, and one I yearn to feel again.

I want to be open and receptive to that energy.

New Thanks

Much to my surprise, yesterday I was honored with another blogging award. The Inspiring Blog award given to me by Dierdre Coppel from A Story Book World.  Talk about inspiring, Dierdre is an incredibly talented writer and artist who does everything from creating her own artwork (including this beautiful award among others) and interviewing publishers and editors, to writing fantasies and delving into the paranormal. I am truly honored that she chose me for this award. Please go visit her site. You won’t regret it.

New Updates

  • My scene seems to be getting good responses. Rumor has it that M.N. might come see it today.
  • My panel went well and led to an interesting discussion on the value of theater in general
  • I apologize for falling behind on reading this week, but I am proud of myself for regaining a little control over this blogging obsession of mine. :)
  • I actually submitted my Moon Lady, which I’ve really titled “Rebirth of Japan” to an art show. Insanity, I know.

I think that is all for now except that I feel like everyone out there (myself included) needs another  good virtual hug. So here you go (and I know I have used this image before, but how can you go wrong with Calvin and Hobbes?)


Gathering Valuable Experiences

 

Wedding Quilt

So many things to write about today, where should I begin?

 

Well, first I must give a huge shout out to Sandi Ormsby at That’s Ahhsome! who gave me the most AWESOME blogging birthday present ever. Please check it out and enjoy. One of the things I love the most about it is how happy Sandi was creating it herself, which ties in nicely with what I wanted to write about today–doing things that challenge ourselves and fulfill us in unusual way.

The idea for this came from a number of places, including the post called “Ten Things I Value Most” at Broadside. Caitlin’s post was very touching and made me think about what some of the things are that I value most. I realized that many of the “things” I value represent experiences I have had–experiences that challenged me and forced me out of my comfort zone to some extent. Some of the things I value are just things, but most of them represent something more.

 

Mementos of Japan

I don’t think I can pick one of these special items as more valuable to me than another, because they all represent my first complete break from my family and move into a world where I function as a strong individual. Although many of them remain tucked away presently, as neither of us felt like this was home enough to decorate completely, they remain significant and always will be. The list of precious Japan memorabilia include:

  • The wedding kimono that I got at a bargain price with my own money–perhaps my most expensive purchase.
  • The handmade teacups that I bought in Kyoto,
  • Chopsticks, well used now, but given to me by various students.
  • A beautiful collection of boxes for food.
  • The door hanging my parents bought when they visited me, complete with a bamboo pole to hang it on that has been a challenge to travel with.
  • The old man and old woman masks that watch over me, promising a long life filled with love.
  • A little green monkey named Midori, that a very special man won out of one of those arcade games with the claw. (Yes, Nathan knows about it and I have actually passed it on to Sarah–that way I could keep it without feeling guilty).
  • Although I didn’t get this in Japan, the quilt made for us at our wedding incorporates many Japanese symbols and is precious as well. If I had not gone to Japan, I would never have ended up in Hawaii where I met Nathan.

 

Wedding Kimono

 

 

    Fuzzy Family

    In addition to Midori, I have a collection of special, stuffed, fuzzy friends that represent a lot of different things. They include teddy bears given by special people, including Nathan, and a stuffed dog named Ralph that came from England wearing an anklet around his neck for me to wear.  Some of them (in particular Desmond the dog, Marvin the Moose, Clara-belle the pig, and Montgomery the mini moose) have traveled with us to have their adventures recorded in a scrap-book. They even went to Norway with me for a conference (as if I needed the extra weight in my luggage). Desmond has had more adventures than Snoopy, I think, and definitely eaten more food. There is also a tiny pink fluffy lamb that I have carried with me since childhood. I don’t know where it came from or who gave it to me, but I know I can never let it go.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

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    Scrapbooks

    I have numerous scrapbooks, although admittedly many of them are incomplete. I’m not a meticulous scrapbooker, but I enjoy arranging pictures to tell some sort of story. My brand of  scrapbooking might be called a creative mess, but they still hold special memories and are precious for that reason.

    Journals

    Speaking of holding precious memories, I still have the very first hard covered journal my parents gave me. It was for a school project, where I wrote my first “book” that is a collection of poems, stories and illustrations all created by me. Little did they know that by giving me that book, they started an obsession with journals that I have had to curb. I have numerous ones–some filled from front to back and some feeble attempts at writing that ended in an expanse of empty pages. Some contain more diary-like entries, some more creative ones. A few contain morning pages when I worked my way through The Artist’s Way. These journals represent many times in my life, but more importantly they represent the words I hid away out of fear of showing them. It has taken me years to overcome that fear, and you read the results today. The steps that led me to blogging daily were, I believe, an important part of my writing journey:

    • Writing, writing all the time, but fearful of sharing anything
    • Submitting some poetry and getting it published (only to learn later that it was a scam)
    • Writing a doctoral dissertation and then submitting it for awards where politics defeated it.
    • Deciding it was time to pursue my dream of writing other things and taking a distance learning course through the Institute of  Children’s Literature
    • Getting a couple of articles published
    • Taking the advanced course and then the book writing course through the Institute.
    • Writing an actual book, that still has not found a home. Sharing that book Giving Up the Ghost with friends in a writing group, who encouraged me to write a blog.
    • Woman Wielding Word history was made

    Tap Shoes

    A few years ago, when my daughter was taking Tap and Jazz, I decided it was time to challenge myself and do something out of my comfort zone, so I signed up for Tap. We ended up performing in the same recital together, and we had a blast. The tap shoes represent a variety of activities that I try to challenge myself with every year–things that force me to break out of my shell a little bit more. Those activities included:

    • taking the course in writing I mentioned above
    • taking voice lessons. Yes, I have been in musicals, but I was always afraid my voice wasn’t good enough, so actually taking one-on-one lessons was scary for me. They ended badly for an unrelated reason that is a story for another time.
    • taking a poetry workshop
    • going to a writing seminar
    • this year, learning how to play piano
    • next, taking an art class

    There you have it folks, some of the things I value the most. But it isn’t really the things, it is the memories and what they represent in my journey through self-discovery.

    What do you treasure? What stories do those things share?

    [Note: My computer hates me today, so I will have to add images later on.]

    Where Do Stories Come From?

    I stayed home today, thanks to a stomach that seems intent on making life as uncomfortable as possible and a wonderful hubby/partner/lifesaver who was willing to cover my class so that I could stay curled up with books and warm tea.

    Today I am reading the final book in the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series,  The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan.

    I admit, I am addicted to so-called Young Adult fantasy series and anything to do with magic. Sometimes the things written for adult readers simplydon’t take me where I want to go. To me, a good book for younger readers is simply a good book. There are plenty of poorly written ones out there, and I definitely have my favorites, but a story that can capture the attention of a child through not just one book but an entire series of them seems pretty impressive to me.

    But this post is not about what makes good children’s literature, or whether or not Percy Jackson has made my favorites lists. No, this post is about writing and stories.

    Thanks to my commitment to the Daily Post and a slowly growing community of readers and fellow bloggers, I am writing daily. I am writing many different things, ranging from letters to memoir essays, from rants to poetry. But one thing is missing–I haven’t written very much fiction lately. Except for one 600-word story that I submitted to NPR’s Three Minute Fiction Contest (wish me luck) and an invitation to join an adult novel writing class that I cannot afford at the moment,  the story well has run dry.

    As Percy Jackson entered the River Styx to bathe in “all the dreams people had thrown away as they’d passed from life to death” (Riordan 132) I thought about my dreams of writing fiction, and having it read by others.  I love that people are reading some of my personal stories and some of my thoughts about the world. That is a powerful feeling. But I have always wanted to tell the stories that speak through other voices than my own. Now I need to figure out how to do that.

    I don’t want my stories to end up wet leaves of paper on the River Styx.

    But then, I wondered, do I really even have interesting or fascinating stories to tell? I have one book written that is awaiting judgment from certain publishing gods (wish me even more luck on that) before I can send it on its weary road of rejection after rejection after rejection. I thought it was a good story. (If you are interested, I posted this excerpt a long time ago). I have several other beginnings and ideas floating around in cards and in some form on this very computer. But I cannot seem to pick them up . . . the stories have disappeared into the abyss.

    Where do stories come from? When I read these 6 book series, or discover stories that bring readers into worlds that they never leave, or meet characters that I welcome with delight as they return  in story after story by my favorite authors, I honestly wonder where the stories come from.

    Is there a mystical melting pot of poetic language, character and plot that anyone can access? Is there a group of muses that selects certain individuals to inspire and help along the way? Or is story purely from an independent source, from the internal thought processes and life experience of each individual writer?

    Sometimes I find stories pouring out of me from a source unknown. I am not writing them, they write themselves. So that suggests some kind of creative energy that can be accessed by all. I’ve simply lost touch with it.

    My Muse Sleeps in a Sunbeam

    I hope for a combination of creative energy and guiding muses;  because if it comes down to only individuals I wonder if my stories have faded away forever. I would hate to think that the joy I have found in blogging has silenced my inner fiction writer.

    Do you have the desire to write fiction? Do you know where your stories come from? Do you find that blogging affects your ability to write fiction? I would love some insight!

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