Monday, April 25, 2016

Reads for Writers: Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett 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.

          The April masterclass post seemed perfect for a review of Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett. This book caught my eye for two reasons: I love rain and the cover is beautifully clever. On a white background, tiny silver raindrops fall from top to bottom except for the two inch wide by six inch long space in the center under a black umbrella where the title and author’s name appear.

          I expected to learn many facts and figures about rain and I did in this fun read. Fun? Yes, especially for writers as you will see.

          Here are some of the facts:

Amid the worst drought in California history, the enormous concrete storm gutters of Los Angeles still shunt an estimated 520,000 acre-feet of rainfall to the Pacific Ocean each year—enough to supply water to half a million families. (page 11)

Rain is sex for the exquisite orchid Acampe rigida…When raindrops splash inside, they flip off the tiny cap that protects the pollen…[then] they bounce the pollen precisely into the cavity where it must land to consummate fertilization. (page 16)

In medieval Europe, the 1300s marked the beginning of a five-century climate shift known as the Little Ice Age…The second decade of the 1300s was the rainiest in a thousand years. (page 39)

In his 1615 memoir of the native people of Mexico, the historian Fray Juan de Torquemada described an ingenious local skill, one his men wished they could take home to Spain. The natives knew how to make rainproof garments. (page 96)

The history of the waterproof mackintosh [coat] in Europe (patented in 1822) begins on page 98.

Along the Mississippi, in the third-largest river basin in the world, the same federal government that doled out 160-acre homestead plots to small farmers in a land too dry for corn built levees promised to withstand floodwaters in a land too wet for cities or cotton. (page 144)

In the early twentieth century, Eugene Willis Gudger, an ichthyologist with the American Museum of Natural History and editor of the museum’s Bibliography of Fishes, reported he had authenticated seventy-one accounts of fish rain, spanning A.D. 300 through the 1920s. (page 249)

Villages Cherrapunji and Mawsynram in India vie for the world’s rainiest place receiving close to 470 inches a year…the rainiest metro area in the US is Mobile, Alabama [which] pulls in 65 inches annually. (page 278)

          What I did not expect was for so many writers and authors to be referenced and quoted including in order of appearance: Ray Bradbury, Keats, Isaac Asimov, John Burroughs, William Carlos Williams, Victor Hugo, Charles Darwin, Agatha Christie, Shakespeare, Aristotle, Evangelista Torricelli, Douglas Adams, Jonathan Swift, William Faulkner, Kurt Vonnegut, Helen Keller, Thomas Wolfe, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Alexander Frater among many more. Rain, mighty storms, and their consequences make for good copy.

An author even changed people’s customs on rainy days:

The disdain of the Europeans for umbrellas is noted on page 103.

“Surely that weather watcher Daniel Defoe and his 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe also helped popularize—and defeminize—the umbrella.” (page 105)

Although, the history of the umbrella goes back 3,000 years notes the art writer Julia Meech. (page 106)

In fact, Chapter Nine is entitled “Writers on the Storm” which discusses how rain plays a major part in the lives and works of Steven Patrick Morrissey, Charles Dickens, George Sand, Isak Dinesen, Emily Dickinson, Dante, Thomas Hardy, Longfellow, Hemingway, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, James Joyce, Woody Allen, Mark Twain, and others.

In 1816, Mary Shelley might not have written her classic tale if not for the Little Ice Age.

…The eruption of Mount Tambora the year before dimmed the sun…It was the coldest summer ever recorded in Europe. Shelley and her poet companions [husband Percy Shelley and Lord Byron] had to stay holed up in their villa, huddled over a constantly burning fire. Lord Byron suggested they each write a ghost story. Frankenstein was hers. (page 200)


Many writers find rainy days good writing days.

The Seattle-based writer Timothy Egan…did his own informal study of book authors to figure out if they accomplished their best work in the murk of the dark months. (page 203)

…Seattle transplant Jennie Shortridge said she took seven years to finish her first novel in Denver, with three hundred days of annual sunshine. “When I moved to the Northwest, I wrote the next novel in fifteen months, and subsequent books every two years,” she told Egan “The dark and chill keeps me at my desk.” (page 203)

One writer decided rain was essential to his work.

In the late nineteenth century, a western poet named Joaquin Miller, living in the mountains overlooking Oakland, California, loved rain so much that he created his own personal rain machine to make water roar down on his roof. Anytime he needed some writing inspiration, he could twist a spigot inside his house to summon a shower outside. (page 275)

          I wish I had a personal rain machine as well since rainy days inspire me to write. After I read this book, rainy days now also inspire awe.


Monday, April 18, 2016

Dazzled by Nature

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          After all the time I’ve spent reading and writing about Mary Oliver’s poetry, I’m observing and writing about nature more often.

I was up earlier than usual one day so I took the dogs outside at 5:42 AM a few weeks ago. As we walked out the door, a practically full moon was shining through the many tangled branches of a large maple tree. It was so bright, we could see our shadows.

          When we walked around the corner of the house, the rosy hue of a rising sun was visible along the horizon. Turning my head back to the moon, it looked dark as midnight. Turning back to the sun, it was clearly the break of day.

          We all know night turns into day, but I had never seen it happen this majestically. Both sides had staked their territory. I could only marvel at the beauty of the moment and promise myself I would see this battle again.

          Up and outside minutes earlier than usual meant I witnessed moonlight and daylight in a way I never imagined—in a way I’ll never forget.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Reads for Writers: The Slammed Trilogy by Colleen Hoover

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          Colleen Hoover’s trilogy for young adults, Slammed, Point of Retreat, and This Girl, follows the love affair of the tragedy-filled lives of 18-year-old high school senior Layken Cohen and 21-year-old neighbor Will Cooper. In this romantic trilogy, neither of the main characters is sick or dying, but death plays a big part in both of their families’ lives.

           Furthering the depth of emotions involved, the novels showcase poetry slams—and the poems are not only fantastic, but integral to the plot—as characters can share deeper thoughts through poems than conversations.
          Hoover, who writes eloquent prose, not only includes the illuminating poems the characters perform on stage, she bolds and italicizes words so readers know how they sound and, therefore, have a better sense of how the characters feel.
Hoover’s poetry is vigorous—the poems are part of a poetry slam after all. She uses verbs of muscle and adjectives of exactitude (Mary Oliver's phrase) perfectly. No topic is off limits.
I didn’t include any poem excerpts as the poems need to be read in their entirety as they tell stories. I don’t have permission to reprint a whole poem.
          However, here is Layken’s reaction to hearing the poem “Blue Sweater” at her first slam on page 49 of Slammed:

The lights come back up and the audience roars. I take a deep breath and wipe tears from my eyes. I’m mesmerized by her ability to hypnotize an entire audience with such powerfully portrayed words. Just words. I’m immediately addicted and want to hear more.

          Layken hasn’t yet heard Will, a favorite of the audience and the judges, perform. Her reaction to his poem “Death” on pp. 53-55:

I find myself hoping he gets lost on his way back to our booth so I have time to absorb this. I have no idea how to react…The Will I watched walk up to the stage is not the same Will I’m watching walk toward me. I’m conflicted, I’m confused, and most of all I’m taken aback. He was beautiful…He put it all out there, right in front of me.

…I don’t understand the connection I feel with him. It all seems so fast. I put my hand on top of his and pull it to my mouth, then gently kiss the inside of his palm as we hold each other’s stare…

…It feels exhilarating. Or I feel exhilarated. I can’t tell which. All I know is that I wish the last two hours of my life could repeat for an eternity.

          As much as I enjoyed these novels, Slammed and Point of Retreat from Layken’s point of view and This Girl from Will’s point of view, I would also love to read an entire book of slam poetry written by the multi-talented Colleen Hoover. Like Layken, I’m addicted.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Mary Oliver: Time Well Spent--70 Hours Per Poem

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

April is poetry month so I’m continuing to discuss Mary Oliver’s entrancing books.

Ray Bradbury makes this recommendation to writers on page 36 of Zen in the Art of Writing:

Read poetry every day of your life…it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough…it expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition.

          Mary Oliver, who publishes both poems and prose, discussed writing poetry in Blue Pastures. On page 59, she wrote:

It takes about

seventy hours to drag

a poem into

the light.


          Oliver’s poems range from four to thirty-six lines with occasionally longer pieces. To find out it takes about seventy hours per poem is amazing, daunting—and unsurprising.

          If you have read Mary Oliver’s poems, you know she transports her readers whether to the edge of a pond (“The Notebook” page 44 of House of Light), the midst of the human condition (“Halleluiah” page 19 of Evidence), or inside a painting (“Franz Marc’s Blue Horses” page 43 of Blue Horses: Poems). She does this simply with word choices—the craft of all writers yet she hones them to the stratosphere.

          Oliver reaches these heights by writing and rewriting, reading and rereading. At age 80, she’s been doing this for decades. Her talent shines due to the tens of thousands of hours she has spent writing using the 70-hours-per-published-poem math plus the untold hours spent on her prose. Add on the hours she wrote as a child, student, and unpublished writer until age 28 and it isn’t surprising she is among the best writers in the world.

          Consider a work week is 40 hours. Oliver spends an average of 8.75 work days on a single poem. That’s dedication. That’s commitment. That’s why her poems are compelling, as well as why she is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

          Oliver’s favorite topic is nature. In her poem “Good Morning,” she ponders the vastly different life forms on earth remarking:

                   “It must be a great disappointment

to God if we are not dazzled at least ten

times a day.”

                   (pp. 21-23, stanza 5, in the book Blue Horses: Poems)

          Oliver is often dazzled and shares this in her poems and observations. She knows nature isn’t cute so she writes of death as well as life. Many of her poems like “You Are Standing at the Edge of the Woods” on page 21 of What Do We Know and “Mindful” on pp. 58-59 of Why I Wake Early transform my vision of the world.

          I recommend all writers read Blue Pastures which includes more luminous writings about nature as well as her story of becoming a poet and writer. Here’s how she views her calling:

“Poetry, after all, is not a miracle. It is an effort to formalize (ritualize) individual moments and the transcending effects of these moments into a music that all can use. It is the song of our species.” (page 59)

          Oliver’s advice for all writers which cannot be repeated often enough: give your writing power and time—look for verbs of muscle and adjectives of exactitude. It’s just as simple and difficult as that.

          It’s also what makes Mary Oliver’s poetry dazzling.