Monday, September 26, 2016

Masterclass: Backpack Literature by XJ Kennedy and Dana Gioia Chapters 1-3

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          In continuation of the masterclass post of August 29th, I’ve completed the first three chapters of the textbook Backpack Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing 4th edition by XJ Kennedy and Dana Gioia. It’s as informative and engaging as the authors promised.

          Even if you don’t want to complete the writing exercises, I highly recommend reading the text filled with pieces by Somerset Maugham, Aesop, Bidpai, Chuang Tzu, John Updike, William Faulkner, Edgar Allan Poe, Jamaica Kincaid, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Anne Porter, Katherine Mansfield, Alice Walker, and Raymond Carver. (At the end of each writer’s piece there is a list of questions. Answering them will make you both a better writer and a better reader.) Then read the Writing Effectively points, Checklist, and Terms for Review at the end of each chapter—that’s an education in itself.

          The Writing Effectively section lists items to consider for each chapter’s topic. The Checklist is a series of questions to ensure you aren’t leaving anything important out of your work. The Terms of Review are concisely defined.  

          In the future, if I need more information or inspiration about plots, points of view, or characters (the topics of the first three chapters) I’ll pick this book up first for clarification.

          Then there are the Writing Assignments and the More Topics for Writing sections at the end of each chapter. You can choose to complete any or all of them, whatever you feel you need to improve your writing. I read them all, considered my answers, but only had time to write one piece for each chapter.

          My completed writing assignments:

I wrote down the answers to most of the questions after each piece in all three chapters because they forced me to pay attention. This attention to detail is important in every piece of writing whether you are the reader or the writer—and an active reader makes for a better writer.

          For Chapter One, rather than analyzing another writer’s plot, I worked on writing my own fable.

          For Chapter Two, I wrote a different point of view piece. I chose to write from Homer Barron’s point of view in “My Affair with Miss Emily.” No specifics to avoid spoilers.

          For Chapter Three, I wrote a short essay on what motivates the narrator to overcome his antipathy to the blind man in “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver. This was my favorite of the short stories which surprised me as I had strong negative feelings about one character. No more specifics to avoid spoilers.

          I made the right choice to audit this class. The chapter lessons are clear, comprehensive, and well illuminated by the various writers. The questions and assignments are thoughtful and creative. Also, the Writing Effectively points, Checklist, and Terms for Review at the end of each chapter are worth the price of this textbook.

          I’m looking forward to completing chapters 4-7 which I’ll discuss in my post on October 24th.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Ten Poems to...series by Roger Housden

From Kate’s Writing Crate…     

          Poetry is something most people identify with school—bad flashbacks of memorizing poems or analyzing them to death.

          I’ve since realized poetry enriches my writing and my life. I’m in awe of the poet’s genius.

I think all writers would benefit from reading poems.             

          Poets are a cut above as most writers could write fiction, nonfiction, short stories, essays, articles, etc. Poetry, not so much.

          Poets use few words on a short canvas. They write concisely and precisely conveying what we cannot find the words to say.

          “…great poetry reaches down into the depths of our humanity and captures the very essence of our experience. Then delivers it up in exactly the right words. This is why we shudder with recognition when we hear the right poem at the right time.” Introduction to ten poems to say goodbye by Roger Housden, page 13.

          This is the last book in his poetry series that includes ten poems to change your life; ten poems to open your heart; ten poems to set you free; and ten poems to last a lifetime. If you want to read poetry but don’t know where to start, this series is a good one to begin with.

          Housden chooses each poem reproduced in his books. After the poems are his essays sharing what the poems mean to him and to humanity.

          In response to Mary Oliver’s poem “Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches?” on pp. 61-64 of ten poems to set you free, Housden wrote on page 65: “Mary Oliver’s body of work is a pure litany of rapture, a song of ecstatic praise in honor of the physical world.” (As she is one of my favorite poets, I completely agree.)

After reading “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” by James Wright, Housden noted on page 79 of ten poems to last a lifetime “…That shocks me awake to a greater aliveness still, awake to a sensation, below words, of the complexity, the beauty, the tensions, that make up my life.”

I had never read Naomi Shihab Nye before, but I love her poem “The Art of Disappearing” on pp. 91-92 of ten poems to last a lifetime. She reminds readers why to decline invitations from people you barely know, lost touch with or don’t care for—time-wasters all.

On pp 35-36 of ten poems to say goodbye, “How It Will Happen, When” by Dorianne Laux is about the death of her husband. Through little details, she shares her grief and the passing of time.

Housden shares, “…Only one of my close friends has died, and no one I have ever lived with. Perhaps it is because I am a stranger to the grief in this poem that it felt like an initiation of sorts when I first read it, a baptism into a dimension of being human that I never knew. A poem can do this for us.”

Yes, it can.

Monday, September 12, 2016

What Do Artists Do All Day? Katie Paterson is Creating The Future Library

Kate’s Writing Crate…

          Recently, artist Katie Paterson was highlighted on the BBC America show What Do Artists Do All Day? She was working on a sculpture created from wood from 10,000 trees—every species in the world including the oldest tree (over 4,000 years old) and the tallest tree in England. The samples are all polished rectangles of various sizes. In the art piece, the wood “grows” from ground level to a canopy high above so people will be able to walk into the sculpture like walking into a forest.

          While this was an interesting project, Paterson explained she had another wood project she was working on called The Future Library. To complete this project, she has planted a forest outside of Oslo. In 100 years, these trees are to be felled, pulped, and made into paper for books.

          In the meantime, 100 authors are being chosen now, one each year, to write books that will be printed on this paper. The first author is Margaret Atwood. The second is David Mitchell. Their books are only to be read as part of this project.

          Will paper books still be prevalent in 100 years? Will people know how to pulp wood and make paper then? I guess instructions will be included with the 100 manuscripts just in case. It’s difficult to believe that things we take for granted today may be faint memories a century from now.

          Of course, this happens all the time. I just read an earlier book (1989) written by a current author. In it, a woman couldn’t call for help from her bedroom because a receiver was off the hook in her kitchen. This was a minor shock to me as cell phones have made this problem inconsequential. How much more of our everyday lives will be inconsequential 100 years from now?

          I keep considering that someday our culture will be considered primitive. How is this possible with computers, tablets, wi-fi, etc.? We’ve sent a Rover to Mars! Except 100 years ago imagine how modern people felt with indoor plumbing, electricity, and now ordinary household appliances.

As a writer, I’m interested mostly in the authors writing books that won’t be read for up to 100 years. They are writing through time. Knowing the audience will have different sensibilities, will that change their work? Or will they just stay true to themselves and write it as just their next book to give the future audience a feel for life as it is now?

          A book takes a lot of time and effort to finish. Imagine, after all that work, getting no appreciation or feedback from your audience. Of course, if the project is completed as planned, the authors will have whole new audiences.

          I hope Katie Paterson’s Future Library is a success. I’d like to think book readers continue on long after most everything else is obsolete.

UPDATE: Reported on BBC the next day: Sony’s new digital books bringing characters to life by swiping the illustrations from the page on to any table top where they danced around were highlighted at a Tech Expo in Germany. It’s getting harder to believe books on paper will be available 10 years from now let alone 100.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Reads for Writers: Backpack Literature by XJ Kennedy and Dana Gioia

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          It’s September so I’ve decided to go back to school—well “audit” a writing class using the textbook Backpack Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing 4th edition by XJ Kennedy and Dana Gioia. I’m going back to Beginner’s Mind to remember things I’ve forgotten and learn things I never knew.

In the preface, authors Kennedy and Gioia believe:

“…that textbooks should not only be informative and accurate but also lively, accessible, and engaging…read with enjoyment and which will inspire [students] to take their own writing more seriously…” (page xxx)

          I wish I had taken a class like this in college!

          In this textbook, there are short stories, poetry, and plays by many well-known writers including John Updike, Amy Tan, Tim O’Brien, Kate Chopin, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Anna Deavere Smith, and August Wilson along with some classic writers like William Faulkner, Emily Dickinson, and Shakespeare. After reading these pieces, there are questions then writing assignments. This will sharpen my critical thinking and writing skills as well as introduce me to some writers new to me.

          After the questions at the end of each chapter, there is a Writing Effectively section about the chapter’s topic like plot or point of view followed by a Checklist for your writing and then a Writing Assignment as well as More Topics For Writing. I will complete or just review items as I wish since I’m auditing this class.

          If you are a beginning writer or you need assignments and deadlines to get you writing or you just want to hone your skills, this textbook in the 4th, 5th, or any edition may work for you.

I’ll let you know how it’s working for me. There are 30 chapters. My plan is to complete a chapter a week. I’ll post an update of the course as the masterclass post of every month until completion, September through April. Then I will write a summary in May.

I love to read. I love to learn. I love to write. I think I’m going to love this “lively, accessible, and engaging” textbook.

Professionally, I publish on average three book reviews, seven essays, and four articles a month while also working on writing projects. I edit two monthly magazines as well as work as a freelance editor. I’m adding this textbook project to my writing schedule because I believe it will be fun and educational while improving my writing across the board. Writers write! Deadlines rule!

Monday, August 29, 2016

Why Write a Blog?

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          I cannot stress enough how important a blog is for a writer. A commitment to fulfill assignments and meet deadlines is what makes you a better writer—a professional writer, paid or unpaid. Plus it’s a blast!

          When Cheryl suggested starting a blog, I was nervous, but excited. We both wrote down long lists of ideas. We thought we could write two or three times a week if we alternated days Monday through Friday. However, after discussing our jobs and family obligation schedules, we decided to write once a week at the beginning and go from there.

          Writing once a week turned out to be the perfect blog schedule. It gives me time to continue with book reviews. A two- or three-times-a-week blog would have cut into my reading time which would have meant posting reviews less often as well as made me resentful. I love to write, but reading is just as important to me.

          I get cranky when my To-Be-Read pile is low. Happiness isn’t just the good book I’m currently reading, but also knowing there are more good books waiting for me. Reading is relaxing and inspiring.

          I believe every book is a writing primer as well. It tunes our ears so we know when a voice works and when it doesn’t. We see when settings and characters are vividly alive and when they are flat. We get a feel for pacing, point of view, and plot, too. It’s the best kind of learning because it’s hidden in fun.

          I’m a writer because I’m a reader. I loved books as soon as my mother put them in front of me while we read together. I read early and often. If my mother wanted some quiet time, she put down a stack of books next to me. I stayed put turning pages until she called for me.

          I’m a blogger because I’m a writer. Writers write. Commit to writing and you will be pleasantly surprised at what you produce with the pressure of a weekly deadline. This is the 4th anniversary of this blog—and I’m often surprised by and still pleased with most of my posts.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Reads for Writers: Snoopy's Guide to the Writing Life edited by Barnaby Conrad and Monte Schulz Provides a Masterclass

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          As a reader, I always love finding books that appeal to me. As a writer, I am twice as pleased when the authors also provide masterclasses within their books.

          Masterclasses take place when performance artists and musicians work one-on-one with students. Writers don’t generally have this option, but I have found some books to be masterclasses for characters, backstories, plots, settings, voice and/or creativity.

          I read three highly recommended novels for my post this week, but two failed to keep my attention and the third was good, but not masterclass good so I searched my bookshelves and decided Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life met all the criteria.

Before you dismiss this as a joke, 32 authors/writers including Ray Bradbury, Sue Grafton, Elizabeth George, A. Scott Berg, and Elmore Leonard penned essays on The Writers’ Life based on their favorite comic strips of Snoopy sitting in front of his Olivetti typewriter on top of his doghouse which illustrate this tribute to writing.

In the Foreword, author Monte Schulz writes about his beloved father, Charles, their relationship as well as how important literature was in their lives.

“When I was young, my father gave me some of his favorite adventure books to read, like Driscoll’s Book of Pirates and Red Rackham’s Treasure. He wanted me to become as entranced by the storyteller’s art as he was…He own reading was astoundingly eclectic. He loved poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction…” (page 3)

“Once I’d reached the age where literary art is appreciated as much as bravado storytelling, my father began recommending literary books for me to read. Years later he told me that one of his fondest wishes had been that one day I’d grow into an appreciation of literature so that he and I could share and discuss the same books, some he would find to read, some I’d share with him. And finally we did…” (page 4)

“…Without a doubt, my father used Snoopy the author to express his own love and frustration with the creative process, to illuminate the writer’s life by poking fun at the often incomprehensible divide between author and publisher while showing the amazing resilience of the everyday writer struggling for acceptance and acknowledgment…” (page 11)

          In his Introduction, Barnaby Conrad gives readers a glimpse into Charles Schulz’s writing life describing his working day, writing space, and some of his habits that he caught while interviewing him for The New York Times Magazine. Schulz shared his views on writing, art, music, and genius as well.

In the 32 essays by other authors/writers, they offer advice, reflections, and warnings that are enlightening. Not every essay appealed to me, one even offended me, but here are a few quotes I loved:

“My biggest piece of advice is don’t use desperately boring description to elaborate on something technical or dole out heavy explanation...The reader will ignore it and be bored. Describe it in dialogue. The vision in the in the mind of the reader flies so much faster, and the reader actually understands and enjoys hearing what the characters say about it.

                                                --Clive Cussler (page 36)

“The rules for writing a best-seller are simple:

·        Take an idea you really, really like.

·        Develop it until it is brilliant.

·        Rewrite it for a year or two, until every word shines.

Then bite your nails, hold your breath, and pray like mad.

                                                --Sidney Sheldon (page 40)

“The joy about writing is that as long as you write from your heart, a thousand English degrees cannot compete with that. And remember, an editor can always correct your spelling and fix your grammar, but only you can tell your story.”

                                                --Fannie Flagg (page 69)

“To me, writing a book is a two-part process. The first part, and probably the toughest, is starting a book…

The second part, which I’ve always considered much easier, is completing the book. It’s much longer than starting, but also considerably easier—because now, momentum is on my side.”

                                                --Jay Conrad Levinson (page 112)

“I always tell my writing students to become completely aware of their bodies as they write. I tell them that their minds will lie to them all the time, but their guts will never lie to them. You know when you are afraid, don’t you? You feel it; you don’t think it. You know when you are excited, too…you have to learn to apply that gut reaction to your writing…”

                                                --Elizabeth George (page 123)

I wish I could reprint Elizabeth George’s entire essay as she gave great advice, but you will have to discover it for yourself. She ends with:

“I think the writing life is the best there is. It’s also the most challenging. It’s filled with a heck of a lot of difficult moments, but overcoming them is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.” (page 124)

          I have to agree.



Monday, August 15, 2016

A Chance to Connect

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          Every book I look at on my shelves inspires me. These authors could not know how their work would be received, but they persevered. What if they gave up and didn’t finish their work? How much poorer my life would be without their books.

          We cannot judge how our work will affect others. We can only complete our work and give it a chance to be discovered, a chance to connect with readers.

          Focus on writing even as you take in life around you wherever that may be. Jot down impressions and notes if you can’t stop and write full sentences.

Be persistent.

Writing is an adventure. You can plot where you want to go, but twists and turns appear on the page regardless.

          Writing happens on so many levels: what you see or hear now, what happened in the past, what you imagine—and what you don’t.

          You cannot imagine exactly how your life will be changed when you send your work out into the world, but, for writers, that’s what we do.

          Imagine that. Be inspired by that. Do that.