Finding the Angle

You sit at your desk or take a walk and, as you do, you scratch at your brain’s stored content and loose ends. You want to find an angle for your story and a world backdrop against which your protagonist can experience a moment of his life. Or you plan to write a biography or historical work and you want to find that less familiar person or lesser known incident to investigate. As writers, this is what we do.

And as readers we look for a book that tells a story about the human condition, told in a fresh and compelling way, against a setting that adds depth and meaning. Recently I experienced both of these writerly and readerly feelings. I attended an event where a parade of authors and books marched by, opening my eyes, luring me.

My writer/reader feelings were fueled at the Rancho Mirage Writers Festival 2016, two days and three evenings of panel discussions, short talks (2 authors discuss their books in a session), and individual authors discussing their newest works. And I was struck by the angles that propelled the books and the research.

I haven’t had a chance to read any of these, but I heard the authors speak and am mightily intrigued. (Wish I could have heard them all.) Here’s a brief sketch to illustrate what I’m talking about. The first four are fiction; the remainder are nonfiction.

Redeployment by Phil Klay is a short story collection illustrating the two worlds a military man inhabits: the battlefield and the homecoming. I’ve read war stories that are raw, but my gut response is this book pushes beyond the edge and deeper into the soul of character and reader alike. An inward angle. The book was the 2014 National Book Award Winner, Fiction.

The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks is a debut novel exploring a unique and real situation that occurred during the Civil War as a result of the Battle of Franklin. Hicks writes about this bloody battle and how Carrie McGavock tended the graves of 1500 soldiers buried in her backyard. An angle. The audience was hooked.

Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson puts four students from UC Berkeley into the state of Georgia to protest a Civil War re-enactment. In view of the recent removal of Civil War flags and monuments, it’s topical and a unique angle.

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff recounts the story of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young, a leader of the Mormon Church, and her fight to ban polygamy in the United States. This story is juxtaposed against a modern day murder mystery of a man by his 19th wife in present day Utah. An angle to bring this story into the modern day.

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides puts readers on board the USS Jeanette in 1879 and takes them on a voyage to reach the North Pole. Amazing beliefs about the North Pole ran high and many wanted their country to reach it and claim it. I received a history and science lesson about this era of exploration and national desire. An angle.

Passion and Principle by Sally Denton  made me very curious about John C. Fremont and his wife Jessie. They became a power couple brought down by none other than – I’ll stop here so I won’t be a spoiler. Am I curious about Jessie? Oh, yes.

When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning receives the gold star for finding an angle, a unique part of American history. During WWII, a way was found to put pocket-sized paperbacks into the hands of our enlisted men, often providing their only means of entertainment.

And an author who just intrigues me and whose book I bought is Dinaw Mengestu. He’s a political writer/novelist who defined for me Political Fiction – stories of people who live their lives during times of political turmoil and violence happening in today’s world.

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I left the event with visions of books spinning in my head, inspired both as a writer and as a reader. As a writer to see what made the books tick and as a reader to just soak them in. Note to self: think about my own angles to explore. Read. Listen. Brainstorm with self.

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Writer, Author, Wordsmith?

If you like to write stories, you might call yourself a writer. Okay. If you’ve published a piece or two, you might call yourself an author. Someone may refer to you as a wordsmith or teller of tales or story weaver. But since writing is considered an art,  why aren’t we using the word artist somewhere in the nomenclature?

We’re often told we paint pictures with words. But let’s not forget, we paint beyond a flat surface or one dimension.  We’re super screens, we’re iMax, Cinemark X-D. We’re 3D. We’re car crashes, gun fights, caresses, laughter, banging doors, betrayals. We’re sounds. We’re moods, smells, tactile sensations, taste sensations. We’re characters, their thoughts and actions. We’re relationships, dialogue, emotions. Story telling draws from the entire human condition.  Since writing requires all this breadth and depth, how about we call ourselves, well, story artists?

Courtesy of www.charlottemagazine.com

Courtesy of http://www.charlottemagazine.com – a Little Free Library

If you think about it, the art world has many designations. Artist, painter, watercolorist, narrative artist. Narrative artist would have been a good choice for a writerly title, except this name is taken already by those who do narrative art. Here’s a definition of the term from the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. “Narrative Art tells a story. It uses the power of the visual image to ignite imaginations, evoke emotions, and capture universal cultural truths and aspirations.” Think of the story you see in the picture below.

Now, let’s think about this definition. Writers do this, too, but we “show” and “tell” with words.

The whole “artist” thing grew in my thoughts after reading this Essay by Anthony DeCasper I came across in a recent Glimmer Train bulletin. The essay attracted me for a number of reasons. DeCasper is a graduate of Chico State. My husband was a professor at Chico State, but before DeCasper’s time. DeCasper’s first name is Anthony, as is my husband’s. Although the essay addressed the topic of reading like a writer, DeCasper used the term narrative artist in his introduction, “Well for me, it means always living my life as a writer by seeing and thinking about the world as a narrative artist would.” Good advice.

We hear often about the art of writing. I think it would be nice to include the word artist with what we writers do. I’m simply brainstorming, tossing an idea out there. Any thoughts? I know, I know. What really matters is a good story. What really matters is a story that lingers and resonates with the reader. Wait. How about calling ourselves story artists and, when we’re really good, literary artists? Just sayin’.

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Making the Short List

With the world in flux and, in some instances, chaos, it’s hard to feel secure or that anyone’s in solid control of anything. Political and social events in our own country challenge us daily although we debate, negotiate, protest, pass laws, and utilize the courts. With all this uncertainty, the grandiose statements that run through my mind for New Year’s Resolutions seem kind of hollow, which means I’m planning to focus on parts of life I can control. My usual ten resolutions I like to come up with – some silly, some serious – have been winnowed down to four big ticket items. My short list, my serious list.

Health

I’m going to look after our health, mine and that of my husband who is entering a new passage in life. (I may write about this on occasion. You know, just to talk.) This means to eat healthy, think healthy, be smart with health decisions, and be wise and calm during a health challenge. It means to be proactive with health professionals and health decisions.

Kindness 

Even though someone may be stepping on my last good nerve, I’m going to work on being kind.  (The last good nerve thing is when kindness will have to be coupled with firmness and consistency.) I don’t mean I’m vying for sainthood. I do mean I’m going to engage in acts of kindness – whether it’s a smile, a hug, a hand out or a hand up.  And allow that experience to make me a more fulfilled and worthy person. I want to hold at arm’s length the self-absorption that creeps into the daily saga of living. 

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Relationships

This means to value friends and family with whom I deal regularly. It means to not be blasé, but to give time, to stay in touch. It means to value them at their best or their worst and take them as they are as I hope they will take me and my package of foibles as they are. Each relationship offers something unique to nurture the soul or the funny bone or the depth of character that enhances us. Each interaction can extend our ability to empathize and grow. I want to value and maintain that human connection that can become sidetracked.

Writing

So much I want to do in the new year. A collaborative endeavor with a friend. Work on a new short story. (The idea for the story wandered into my head recently as I sat icing a swollen ankle and knee after my foot tangled with a bedspread while moving at 50 miles an hour because I was running late. The ankle/knee event and the story idea have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Maybe it was the reflection one engages in while icing swollen joints?) A short story collection waits in the wings. Some personal essays are running around in my head.

That’s it. That’s the list. Less is more. Each item on the list is within my purview. Each one offers the opportunity to make me reach deeper into myself and life. Hopefully, this list of four stays with me beyond my hidden resolutions about diet and exercise that will probably hit the skids a couple of weeks into the new year. I do plan to diet (after today’s popcorn, chips and dips, libations, and football games) and walk regularly – at least until February.

The Big Plan is to hang with “The Big Four.” Happy New Year!

 

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Passing the Torch – A Christmas Remembrance

On December 3, 2015, we decorated the tree. This is usually a pleasant time. Except. In the background the TV aired continuous day-after coverage of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, CA. While we placed ornaments on a tree during a time of good will, an hour and 15 minutes away from where we live (about 77 miles) people lost their lives in a senseless shooting.

I’m saddened for the victims and their families for the profound loss they have experienced. December 2, 2015, will forever be etched in our minds as a day of tragedy. Friends who live less than two blocks from the shooters’ home experienced the helicopters, flashing lights, and police activity. Our friends’ place of work went into lockdown.

What noble and higher purpose of mankind is served by an assault on innocent people? These actions beg for a rationale.

I’m saddened and angry. But at who or what? Radical religious beliefs? Arms manufacturers and firearms dealers? Gun laws that are either inadequate or easily circumvented?  Ideologies of intolerance? World-wide cultural and societal failings to build values honoring human life, a sense of belonging, respect, and diversity? Disenfranchised young people? Members of an angry society who flash guns instead of words? A broken mental health system? A broken immigration policy? A lack of tolerance for our own country’s diversity?

What? WHAT?

What do you think?

We’ve buried enough people. The poem below by John McCrae was written during WWI. You can substitute your own location in place of Flanders, a region in Belgium. Most recently, perhaps, the substitution would be San Bernardino. The poppy flower mentioned in the first line has become a symbol of remembrance.

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In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

In the last verse, let’s take that torch and hold it high to continue to build safer, tolerant societies in lieu of war. There’s much to do. I’m in.

Our Christmas tree and all it represents about our great country give me hope. I plan to remember, live in the moment, and look to the future. And do my part to pass the torch for tolerance and understanding.

Wishing you a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

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My novel’s like a tree?

How do you go about writing a novel? Good question. I’ve been reading, studying, and analyzing different approaches by authors and writing coaches. Why? Because I have a novel basking in various stages of undress in both a computer file and three-ring notebook. A bit of a mess.

IMG_2992Putting together a novel seems similar to decorating a holiday tree. You’ve got this tree, also in a state of undress, set up and waiting for you. It stares at you much as an idea does. “Come on,” it says, “do something.” Boxes of ornaments wait nearby. You start with the tree topper, the first salvo, akin to writing that opening sentence. You step back, assess it, adjust it, look at it from several angles. You finally decide it’s looking good.

Then you start hanging the ornaments. Initially, they fly onto the tree, just as your words may fly onto the paper. Then you begin to slow down and get picky or thoughtful, but you’re still rolling. You step back. There are too many ornaments hanging in one spot, not enough in another. Like a story that’s too thin in some places and too thick in others.

Then you start moving the ornaments from branch to branch. Yup, there you go, moving those chapters or sentences around. Some are better in one place than another. Some just don’t fit at all. You keep stepping back and adjusting; you keep rereading and adjusting.

tree-santaFinally you spread the tree skirt around the bottom of the tree – the final sentence. After last minute adjustments to the skirt, you place the presents under the tree and step back. Done. But wait. The tree topper is now askew from all the action of decorating. You adjust it. Then decide to change it from a star to a Santa. Then you change it to an angel. Then you put the Santa back. It’s like the opening sentence or chapter you thought was really working. It so often needs to be tweaked. And tweaked again.

On his website Storyfix.com, Larry Brooks deconstructed the novel The Martian by Andy Weir. I read the analysis and then, intrigued, I read the book, one I ordinarily wouldn’t because it’s outside my usual genres. The story is based on the dramatic question, “Will Mark Watney be able to survive on Mars until a rescue plan can be put in motion?” Using the information in the Storyfix.com post, I now plan to go back through the book and study the novel’s structure more closely. (Haven’t seen the film but the book was an exciting read.)

Several weeks ago, I saw Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander, interviewed by author Eduardo Santiago. I came away with one of Fitch’s techniques for putting together a novel: decide on 12 scenes you can really see and write them in any order. Then sew them together. Eduardo Santiago, on the other hand, revealed he takes a more structured approach. Made for a good discussion. Pantser vs. Planner. I’m a combination of both. Sometimes I just write and discover, sometimes I plan and discover.

An aside. Because I write short stories, I liked this from Fitch: a short story makes a good screen play. More compact. Less cutting. Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx comes to mind. This idea came into the discussion because White Oleander began as a short story. But then the story morphed into a novel and, ultimately, to a film.

I’m closer to having a completed Christmas tree, than I am a completed novel. I’ll keep studying, moving things around until I can step back and say, “Done decorating,” the novel that is – at least the first draft.

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Gratitude Has No Expiration Date

images-3Thanksgiving is coming and we’re spending the day with family, which means plenty of food and plenty of fun. It will be a day when we take a moment from daily routines to simply be together, to enjoy the smallest yet grandest of treasures. A smile, a hug, a quiet talk. And with Thanksgiving on the way, I’m reminded of a gratitude challenge some of us did a while back on Facebook.

I found the file of my posts, written a year ago. Seven days of sharing three things each day for which I was thankful. Maybe you did the challenge, too. Or maybe you keep a Gratitude Journal. The posts are as true today as the day I first wrote them. How grateful I am for

Day one

a husband who is loving and kind; whose loyalty, trust, integrity, character, and opinion I value. Who makes me laugh. Who is strong and comforts me when the world is harsh. And makes chocolate turtles.

parents who taught me the love of reading and the value of hard work; who gave me love, structure, and a stable home. Who sacrificed for my sister and me. And taught me to ride a bicycle.

immediate and extended family; the birthdays, holidays, graduations, and weddings we celebrate; the comfort and support we give each other during difficult times; the laughter we have together. And the desserts.

Day two

close, close friends who share and listen over coffee or lunch or dinner or in an email; who are always there, no matter what, to support, laugh, lend a hand.

internet friends who broaden my world, make me “lol,” touch my heart, and post those intriguing little quizzes.

a community of fellow writers who inspire, encourage, teach by example, and share their talents.

Day three

the women who have come before me – the risk takers, the innovators, the challengers who brought about change – upon whose shoulders I stand, who found their voices so I could find mine, and for the young women who are finding their voices today.

beautiful mornings, as the last remnants of night make way for the sun.

my morning walk and friends I make along the way.

Day four

a baby’s smile.

a friend’s hug.

the velvety soft petals of the rose blooming in the courtyard.

Day five

the arts – writers, playwrights, screenwriters, artists, poets,  musicians, dancers – who touch us with our own humanity; who depict and reflect our world; who cause us to think about our lives, values, beliefs, joys, and sorrows.

laughter that fills a room or a small giggle with a friend that renews the spirit and makes everything all right.

quiet moments when I listen and hear what I think.

Day six

the rule of law; freedom of speech, press, and religion; the right to vote; the beliefs and values that keep us a democracy; our military and their sacrifices.

advances in science, technology, and communications which enhance our lives.

the medical professionals who treat us with care, skill, and compassion.

Day seven

for those who share their joys and sorrows. I know I’m not alone.

for a body and mind that allows me to feel and think, to know emotion and ideas.

for the mysteries of our universe that fill me with wonder.

Thank you. I’m grateful. And there’s no expiration date.

This is truly a time to be filled with gratitude. And to know we live in a country where all of this is possible. I wish you the Happiest of Thanksgivings. May your cup overflow.

Today, too, is a time for prayer for our world. For Paris.

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Allergies, Fog, Prose, and Poetry

UnknownI arrived at a recent poetry workshop (which I’d been looking forward to) with an allergy headache from hell and medicated with OTC allergy pills. During the four hour event, I went from foggy to foggier.  My plight was exacerbated by the windowless classroom having recirculated air. Add puffy, watery eyes, scratchy throat, and a tote full of Kleenex to the mix. Lovely.

(Note: where I live has a high concentration of golf courses. In the fall, the courses are scalped, reseeded, and treated.)

Back to the class. I struggled with a real case of brain fog, trying to absorb new ideas, approaches, and words offered by poet Julie Paegle. Each time we read a  poem, I scratched for meaning and connection. Each time we wrote, I couldn’t find the words I wanted or put them in a pleasing order. I mean, I was working to keep afloat. Talk about being uncomfortable. And no way was I gonna read any of my writing aloud.

Several days later I went through my notes and class writings. Despite the headache, despite the scratch outs and restarts, I caught more than I thought.

It was analogous to working on a story or essay for several hours, emerging unhappy, feeling you’d written garbage, and returning the next day to find some of it could work. I found my class writings had a few springboards I could build on. (Okay, some of what I wrote wasn’t so hot.)

I also remembered that when I feel uncomfortable, I’m often learning, in fact, doing some of my best learning. The headache just gave more meaning to the word uncomfortable.

The class began with our reading three short pieces to decide if they were poetry or fiction which lead to a brief discussion of poetry and fiction, their differences and purpose.

Then we read a poem by Wallace Stevens called “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and tried our own hand at looking at and writing about a particular classroom object in not thirteen but six different ways.

Next, we each received a poem to read, pick a line or two that talked to us, and write our own poem in response to those lines. The poems came from Poem in Your Pocket, which meant each of the poems we received was different. Mine was “The Shampoo” by Elizabeth Bishop.

Lastly, we did an exercise where we responded to a series of questions to help us reach our sixth sense, our intuition, our deep images. Wonderful.

One discussion proved very helpful. With an emphasis on lyric poetry, Paegle encouraged fiction writers to notice particular moments in a story and stop to attend to that moment. To stop and get the music. This idea coincided with the playing of a video of a flash mob in a train station. Her point? Give the reader a small moment of surprise, music, mystery, and a pause – much as the flash mob stopped the stories of the people in the station and gave them a moment. Translation: dig into some of those special moments in a story for richer meaning and reading, using poetic techniques such as imagery, surprise, metaphor, mood, music, the senses, word choice.

So, what I thought had been four increasingly uncomfortable hours turned out to be rich in discovery and ideas, excavated from allergy fog. Thank you to poet Julie Paegle.

paegle-150x150Julie Paegle is a professor in the English Department at California State University San Bernardino, in San Bernardino, CA. Specifically, she is Poetry Coordinator in the MFA Program.

The workshop was through the Palm Springs Writers Guild.

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