Sunday, November 27, 2011

Ruth Stone Is a Poet Worth Knowing

Ruth Stone has passed away at age 96, an inspiration to writers like me, who took up the sport after their youth was spent doing other things altogether.  Ruth, according to William Grimes, writing Nov 24, 2011, was relatively obscure until at 87, she won the National Book Award for her colletion, "In the Next Galaxy."  She was living in Vermont, a feat that I admire in its own right.  As I drifted into using a cane regularly and then into needing a disabled hang tag for my car, I gave thanks for good weather regularly.  I know there is good weather in Vermont, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't last all winter.   In my sixties, I might have simply fallen in love with my chair and sat there forever, should I live where the S word accumulates.  Not that I don't agree with those of you who think it is beautiful.  I recall a snowfall at Snow Mountain Ranch in Colorado, when I was pregnant with my son, when the crystals of snow floating down in the moonlight gave me that "I love you" catch in the back of my throat.  But back to Ruth Stone.  She lived in "rural solitude" near the end of her life; she had raised three daughters as a single parent after her poet husband committed suicide in 1959.  Her poetry was, to quote Mr. Grimes, "fierce and funny, by turns elegaic, scathing, lyric and colloquial."  He quoted a poem, as follows, "Things will be different/ No one will lose their sight,/their hearing, their gallbladder./ It will be all Catskills with brand/new wrap-around verandas."  It was the title poem in her collection entitled "In the Next Galaxy." In an interview in 2001, she said, "I was hanging laundry out and I saw all these ants crawling along the clothes line. Well I just dropped whatever I was hanging and ran upstairs in the house to get a book and write it down. Never keep a poem waiting.  It might be a really good one, and if you don't get it down it's lost."  I love that, because I still dream about certain pieces I never captured on paper. They were really good, I'm sure of that!      best, Laura

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Behind the Scenes View of Rebecca Skloot's Process

Hi readers and writers,
I really found Rebecca Skloot's book on the origin and fate of HeLa cells to be fascinating, and I loved seeing it rise in the best-sellers list.  Now she has given a blog interview that opens up her writing process and her research process for us to see.  In the part at the end, she actually posted copies of pages of her research notebook at the time she first interviewed Deborah Lacks by telephone about Henrietta and found she didn't know her favorite color and longed for more information about her, but then refused to talk more with Rebecca for a year and a half.  She also included a page in which she got advice about how to dig for the information she knew Deborah wanted, using black churches and particularly their pastors, as helpers and sources of information.  I can't think of anything I've read about writing that moved me more than seeing how she had to struggle to get this story.  She wrote and rewrote it until it read seamlessly, weaving together the medical and the personal narratives, but here is the raw material.  If you're interested in how great books are written, I really recommend this blog post:  

Cheers, Laura

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Conflict with Conflict

I’ve been interested lately in “story,”  the underpinning of a lot of creative writing.  And there’s bad news about story for those of us who want to think good thoughts in the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas: story arises from conflict.  The worst criticism my fellow MFA students give to each other’s writing is, “No conflict.  Nothing happening,  No tension.”  A relaxed pair of old men, friends, fishing from a small boat, where’s the story in that?  But let one of them challenge the other to a fishing contest?  Let one be in love with the other’s wife?  Let them be competing for the same high mileage vehicle at the car dealer’s?  Conflict!  Drama!  Story!

I submitted a chapter about Holly, a young girl in North Carolina, getting to know her next door neighbor, an older woman of the Cherokee tribe, living alone in a house attached to an old pear orchard.  I loved envisioning the natural environment and describing it, and having the two enjoy each other across the lines of age and ethnicity.  But of course, I got, “Where’s the tension?  Why should we want to read this, and find out more about these people?”  And yes, conflict was coming, in that Galilani’s friend’s grandson, a Native American boy, was going to scandalize Galilani and his mother by going out with Holly.  But I didn’t want to foreshadow that in the beginning.  So my fellow writers suggested ways I could use language to clue the readers in that conflict was off stage but it was just around the corner.  I’m still thinking it over.  I suspect they are right But I am the same writer who is often accused of summarizing the conflict scene that should be developed fully, skipping over the problems.  Hmm.  I do that in movie DVDs sometimes too, although I’m pretty good about not looking ahead in murder mysteries.  Well, there is no fast forward in life, and as I writer, I must face that and even revel in the details of the scenes of conflict.

I deplore this finding, but I can’t deny it.  Without conflict there is really no reason to tell a story.  With conflict, the reader wants to find out what happened to the characters, how the conflict plays out, is resolved, or is passed down to the next generation, or whatever.  You don’t need resolution for the story, but you do need conflict.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sports Comparison per Carlin

Hi readers and writers,
One reason to have children is that they take you into areas of life you might never notice but for them.  In my case, baseball.  I was a Dodgers fan, but not a well-versed, ask-me-anything type.  But my son is a walking sports almanac and now my daughter, the former opera diva, has decided she wants to manage a baseball team some day.  Suddenly the names of those few women in baseball management have become quite familiar to me.  My daughter's boyfriend recently told me about something so entertaining I need to share it with you here.  George Carlin did a great comedy routine comparing baseball and football, largely in terms of their language (see, it IS related to writing after all!).  If you tend to write fast without thinking through the implications of the words you've chosen, this routine will make you resolve to think more about the messages people receive subliminally from your words.  Here is the link.  You may need to copy and paste the URL into your browser.  Enjoy!

Video of Talk on Breaking Through the Spiral Ceiling

Hi readers and writers,

Recently I gave a plenary lecture to 600 women from DWP at Women's Leadership Legacy Conference, drawing from my memoir, Breaking Through the Spiral Ceiling, to talk about leadership in education.  You can see and hear a half hour video of my talk, made by the fabulous Rob Daly, on YouTube by going to this URL:   

Carolyn Howard-Johnson, who has just released a new edition of her book on Frugal Book Marketing, recommends that you take off from the topic of your book and think what else you could talk about using it as a basis.  Here, I talked about educational leadership easily, although it's not the main topic on which I wrote.  I think this strategy is a real winner, and once I dig out of my MFA semester writing assignments, I am going to look for more opportunities like this. 


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

What's beauty got to do with it?

Dear friends of reading and writing,

I just read an article on a man who studies birds in an interdisciplinary way, in the Yale Alumni Magazine (The bird-filled world of Richard Prum by Cathy Shufro).  I'm sure I'll be thinking about this article for a long time.  Near the end of the article, Shufro describes how Prum changed the way people think about bird coloration.  Biologists have explained the bright colors we enjoy as evidence of fitness, so they are supposed to help a female choose a mate with good genes since he's so fit.  Kind of like advertisers think about great arm muscles and abs for human males, it seems to me.  But Prum could not really buy the theory, and harked back to the ideas of Ronald A. Fisher that females choose those bright males just because they are attractive.  People resisted his ideas until he realized it's about beauty and moved into the philosophy of aesthetics.  Feather art, like human art, he theorizes, is a form of communication via beauty and it co-evolves with its evaluation. As females enjoy red throats, they get brighter and bigger.  As humans enjoy irony in art, it gets ever more ironical.  He has no trouble connecting flowers, birds, and consciously made art in the category of Art, since he defines it as this communication with co-evolution by evaluators.  Who evaluates flowers, you ask?  Bees, birds, all the pollinators.  But what they receive is the joy of beauty.  So I think this is a message for writers too.  Writers need to write for themselves, but in the end, their work will rise or fall based on how well it communicates and how the readers respond.
Photo credits (Wikipedia Commons): Cardinal by a Fish and Wildlife Service Employee, Peach-faced lovebird by Stephen W. Dengler, 2005, via Gnu.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The dark! The dark!

I wonder what fall was like before daylight savings time.  It would have arrived graduaally. Now, it's a think, black curtain across the night so that one night I come outside after work into the dark.  I think about fires in fireplaces, buckets of coal, heavy cloaks, pea soup fog.  My fingers and toes are cold all the time.  But at the same time, as I said in my last post, I anticipate the long quiet season when I get to read many books.  I'm enjoying the speed with which my Kindle lets some of those books appear in my life, although it's tempting me to read before my time really allows.  Here's a blast from my past: I used to order seed catalogs about now every year.  I spent my time in the dark days dreaming over possible summer flowers, ones with haunting names and strange colors and shapes, ones with evening scents to attract hawk moths, ones with secret flowers but large and flamboyant fruits.  Gourds were always on my lists, but the one time I really grew them, they disappointed.  Unlike their vigorous cousins the squashes, they damped off, died of mosaic, died of mold, just had no real urge to live.  I always imagined that all the plants I planned to order from the seed catalogs would spring into life, pushing aside any other plants to overtake all and bloom extravagantly.  But most of that explosion was in my mind on dark evenings of winter.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Inspiration from where?

Dear friends of reading and writing,

It's often hard to start writing.  Books have been written about writers' block.  I sometimes have a hard time, especially if I am trying to write a new type of genre.  This semester, it's poetry in Marilyn Chin's class at SDSU.  But luckily, the day Word's blank page was looming over me, I had seen the search of Gadhafi's trailer in Libya on TV.  They found this scrapbook of cutout pictures from magazines, all of Condoleezza Rice.  I was off and running.  How did he really feel about her?  What else did he do? I looked on the internet, but mostly I imagined and wrote about this creepy and fascinating obsession with Rice.  So, keep a mind open for strange bits from the news, strange smells or sounds, strange impressions of any kind.  They could give you a blowtorch to melt away writers' block.  And BTW, Rice's biography which has more information about the obsession, was released Nov 1, 2011.  Check it out!

 Cheers, Laura