Troubled Times and the Purpose of Writing

He was a rich kid who lived through his family’s loss of wealth. Later he’d write poetry that in the 1920s won him three Pulitzers.

Yes, poetry that has haunted me for decades.

E.A. Robinson was his name, and his family were Maine lumber barons until the Panic of 1893 crashed the American economy.

His poem, “Cassandra,” used Greek mythology—the wise prophet whom no one heeded—as a call to America, his America of the 19th century:

Because a few complacent years
Have made your peril of your pride,
Think you that you are to go on
Forever pampered and untried?

Robinson’s poem troubled me. I was a high schooler, after all, and a dentist’s daughter. My great challenge in life had been a move from San Jose, California to a small town in Michigan. I had been pampered—very. Our family had a tennis court and I had my horse. I was untried.

But Robinson knew better. He had lived through the shock waves of a decimated lifestyle. He then watched his brother, a medical doctor and family star, abuse drugs and spiral to ruin, before his second brother followed suit.

From such experiences he carved the haunting lines for “Cassandra” and his better known, “Richard Cory.” Why? Because Robinson lived the life of a schope.

The schope, explains writer Walter Wangerin, crossed battlefields in ancient Greece to record who lived, who died, who won, who lost. That was the job: naming what was. And that’s the task Robinson labored over, his commitment stalwart and beautiful. He grappled with his family’s ruin and made a valuable commodity, meaning.

When I confront today’s bewildering turmoil, I repeat the lines from this poet who knew, “Think you that you are to go on/Forever pampered and untried?” and watch and study the turmoil and then return to my work—my writing—to do what I must…meaning make.

Guest novelist Cathy Parker: Yes, writing what you know is exciting!

Write what you know—any craft article or book will so advise you. You read this advice and you think: What I know could put a cowboy to sleep during a steer riding contest.

I beg to differ.

Write Yourself. Today let’s limit ourselves to what you know best: yourself. The trick is to write “you,” as the character, and then supercharge what you know: tweak and twist “yourself,” drop “yourself” into unexpected places and crises for unexpected reasons.

You are the undercoat, and the undercoat consists of your experiences, occupation(s), and personality traits (cerebral, social, loner, mixer, one friend or one hundred, quick temper, calm as the sea at slack tide, voluble, silent, energetic or laid back?). Paint your characters with these traits. Create a “why” for such traits, or create your exact opposite. Or imagine taking such traits to the extreme—the uses are endless.

Pay attention to your idioms. Your pattern of speech. The way you interact with people. What, when and how you eat. Sleep patterns. Your relationship with animals. And on and on it goes. How could you create with what you see in yourself?

Details count in creating characters. Look yourself over. Notice what’s there. Find a way to use it. Your hair for example: what if something interesting happens because of a character’s hair? Maybe your protagonist falls down a crazy rabbit hole because he answers an ad for a clinic treating baldness. Maybe your character’s fortunes change the day she gives up trying for the long hair she’ll never have, and gets a short dynamite cut.

Know, and then imagine. This is only the beginning. You still have your experiences from childhood through school and all the big and little jobs you’ve held or wanted but didn’t get, stayed at or left. Friends. Vacations. Family. All stepping off points for the imagination.

            What you know will give your work truth.

            What you imagine will give your work wings.

            Come on now, go out and write what you now know!

Cathy Parker is a former journalist and attorney. She can be contacted through her website, AuthorCathyParker.com. Her book Power of Three is available on-line, and the sequel, Power Multiplied is available for preorder. Subscribers to Cathy’s newsletter who send digital proof of preordering will be receiving three stories surrounding her Power Rising Trilogy.

Picture by Ashim D’Silva, unsplash.com

Soul Vitamin: Idle Brain Time

Neuroscience rebuffs long-held prejudices against idleness and play. In Autopilot: The Art & Science of Doing Nothing, scientist and engineer Andrew Smart explains that focus actually suppresses our hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex.

This means that when we focus, we decrease blood flow and oxygen to our brains. But when we “space out”—yes, daydream—blood and oxygen supercharge those parts of our brain.

Idle brain time refuels the Default Mode Network (DMN). How important is our DMN? This network gives us our “aha moments.” Consider how vital ideas are in creative work.

So, if we as writers require such moments, how can we have healthy DMN?

1. Allow yourself time where you stare off into space, nap, walk, paint a wall or shovel manure.

2. Give yourself a union break, a sabbath and/or a good night’s sleep.

3. Cultivate solitude.

Excerpt from Creative Juices: A Splash of Story Craft, Process and Creative Soul Care. Available at cynthiabeach.com.

Improving Characterization: Diverse Voices

Joe Harman, the Australian cattleman in A Town Like Alice, habitually concedes, “You’re too right” or “It’s a fair cow.” Merriam-Webster defines the latter slang for me: “exceedingly troublesome.” Who knew? Australians knew.

Our speech patterns are riddled with clues about our geographical region, personality, habits, generation, occupation and so on. What don’t we reveal when we speak?

Think of word choice alone.

  • Age or generation: Do you say “couch” or “davenport,” “chill” or “cool”?
  • Geographical region: Do you say “soda” or “pop,” “runners” or “tennis shoes”?

As we listen, we’ll hear the word our character uses repeatedly as she launches into an angry tirade. Or how another character interrupts and over speaks others.

If a little smile is lifting your lips, you’re right. This is fun.

 

 

 

BRAIN MATTER
Consider It: Study a piece of nonfiction or fiction that uses multiple viewpoint characters (Wonder or Hugh Cook’s Heron River are excellent fiction samples).
How do these writers create different voices? Compare two characters. Cite
examples of how the difference in voice is created (e.g., sentence length).
Write It: Create different voices in your dialogue by brainstorming these
prompts for two characters:
• Name
• Level of diction
• Pet buzzwords
• Favorite swear words
• Preferred metaphors
• Length of sentences or turn-taking

from Creative Juices: A Splash of Story Craft, Process and Creative Soul Care

Why Journaling & Mentors Matter in the Writing Life

Joining me today is memorist Laura Hartema talking about how journaling and mentoring helped create her book, Bering Sea Strong, a story about lessons gained while on a fishing vessel.

Q: You write in your book, Bering Sea Strongthat you often journaled. What role did journaling play in supporting your desire to write a book? What benefits did you find in journaling? Any tips or preferences?

A: Journal writing is our most sincere, raw, and vulnerable. It represents our truth, who we are, what we feel, and how we see the world and our experiences. Our journal is our friendly audience, our best friend, in full support, so we pour “us” out unguarded and uninhibited. It is how our rough drafts should be, without self-criticism and regard to who reads it. Journaling will help you develop that one thing that only you can bring to audiences–your voice.

My book started with me rereading my Bering Sea experiences in my journal. The ink was blurring, and I didn’t want to lose those memories. So, I typed the pages of my time at sea. The scenery was vivid. The dialogue was real. The details were captured in the moment. I started sharing these bizarre, humorous and challenging experiences with people. I kept hearing messages, “Wow, you should write a book.”  So I did. I didn’t know how to write a book, but I learned.

When we journal we may begin writing about one thing, and in the end, it’s about something else. Let your drafts flow like that, not knowing where it leads. You won’t use most of it, but oh, ten percent will be the magic. What you cut isn’t wasted. It is part of the process in pulling out your fantastic story.

Q: You also mentioned in your acknowledgments writer Leslie Leyland Fields and instructor Theo Nestor for their role as mentors. What did having mentors give your writing journey? How did you find these mentors?

A: Mentors will come. It will be a teacher. Someone in a critique group. A writer you admire. You will want a lot of their time, but often their valuable advice will come in nuggets when you yearn for the entire gold bar.

You have to stay determined. Put the energy out there. The further you go down your writing path, the more you will learn and grow, and the more people you will encounter–lovely, gracious folks who will inspire you and help you. I sought out Leslie after reading one of her books. Theo led a critique group of mine. I paid each of them at different times to critique my work. I gained valuable nuggets from both of them. Today, Leslie and Theo have authored multiple books and are successful teachers. Writing felt like a solo journey to me, but they inspired me to keep trudging along. And you must. Keep trudging until you write, “The End.”

For more information on Laura Hartema, author of newly released memoir, BERING SEA STRONG:

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The Backlist: The Flambards Series (1967-1981)

The spirited girl arrives to her uncle’s decaying estate, Flambards. It’s 1908, Britain. In six years, things will change worldwide, but for 13-year-old Christina Parsons, everything in her world has changed already. She steps into the shuttered finery of her uncle, her deceased mother’s half-brother, and the brittle, charged zeal for horses and hunting.

Her parents dead since she was five, she is an heiress—and an orphan on par with Anne of Green Gables.

Christina’s arrival also alters the household of cloistered men: Uncle Russell whose fall during a hunt broke his back and confines him to a wheelchair and port; Mark, the playboy who equals his father’s zeal for horses and hounds, and then Will, the youngest, whose ideas about equality and aeroplanes sends him—and Christina into flight’s first efforts.

K. M. Peyton, a beloved children’s and YA British author, carried Christina’s story—and England’s—into an award-winning trilogy: Flambards (1967), The Edge of the Clouds (1969) and Flambards in Summer (1969) with well-known artist Victor G. Ambrus as illustrator. The second novel, The Edge of the Clouds, won Peyton the impressive Carnegie Medal from the Library Association (CLIP) while the series won the Guardian.

A decade later, Flambards aired as a 13-episode TV-series, arriving a year later to America where I watched and watched, transfixed as wide-eyed Christina.

Then in a rare act—and what became controversial—Peyton added a fourth book, Flambards Divided. The controversy? Twelve years later she added it. And she reversed the love story.

Peyton was a prolific novelist with several other stories translated to screen. Her work also spawned a pony series and boys’ adventure novels. Her own great passions were sailing and horses.

The Flambards Series. These historical novels with its spirited protagonist is delightful—a good read.

A series worth remembering.

A Multi-Vitamin for Souls: Play

Zane Grey, a prolific wordsmith whose eighty-nine novels sold over forty million copies, learned about the importance of play the day he learned about fishing.

As a boy, his parents disapproved of those who fished. According to his biography, it offended their work ethic. But Grey fell in love with rivers and fish and the great outdoors, and when he met Old Muddy Miser, he learned an invaluable lesson:

You must make fishing a study, a labor of love, no matter what your vocation will be. You must make time for your fishing. Whatever you do, you will do it all the better for the time and thought you give fishing.

Old Mudd Miser’s words allowed Grey to put play higher on his to-do list than his parents would have permitted, and through it, Grey found that there was no shame in loving and doing an activity that didn’t seem to gain him much in the world of adult economy.

Why is an activity like fishing not a waste of time? Why might such things, in fact, be like vitamins for us creatives?

Fishing or walking or painting or tinkering “fiddles” with your creative dials, says Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic. It’s about opening our minds through creativity. It’s not about performance or perfectionism. Thus, when novelist Tracy Groot gets tangled on a plot, she knits.

Even Einstein recognized the value of giving ourselves quiet downtime. He names this “combinatory play,” writes Gilbert.

We who get too good at adulting need playtimes.

Apply It: How do you fiddle with your creative dials?

From Creative Juices: A Splash of Story Craft, Process & Creative Soul Care, available Feb., 2019.

Seeing Things: One Writer’s Call

The old weathered post wore a sculpted head, its curves elegant, shapely. Rising from the sand, it framed the right edge of the vista that spread beyond the crest of the hill that led me to Lake Huron.

As a teen living near the lake, I walked along shore to think. Up the hill I’d scramble, my feet sunk in sand. At the crest, I’d pause to gape: that horizon stretch of blue-silver with the post anchoring the corner of the picture I always imagined taking.

Then one day I climbed the hill and—no post. Gone. Disappointment surged through me. Later, when I lamented to family members about the missing post, they said, “What post?”

The post became my symbol for that Something About Me—that part of me that noticed things others didn’t. My physical eye saw details like the post. My inner eye saw other details—emotional currents, nonverbal signals.

This seeing, at times, propelled me into isolation. It wasn’t an attribute I prized. My pain echoed in the words of Lara, the character from the Russian novel Doctor Zhivago. For Lara also asked, “Why is it my fate to see everything and take it all to heart?”

As teachers encouraged me to write—to record what my seeing revealed, this trait gradually became a gift. I began encountering ways of understanding this seeing. Catherine Marshall’s novel, Christy, taught me that God might be the One asking me to see. Christy’s mentor explains, “God had to take my little girl hands off my little girl eyes.” This idea electrified me. I understood. Be willing to see. This was what He asked.

Other reading confirmed my calling to bear witness. Another Russian, poet Anna Akhmatova, showed me how needed is this skill:

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold….Now she started out of her torpor…and asked me in a whisper, “Can you describe this?” And I said, “I can.” Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.

A recognized poet—her power to see and to name—stirred a desperate woman’s hope. I would try. I would try to look around me, to be the one to see. My seeing was a gift, the writing too—to be the one who would.

Excerpted from Creative Juices: A Splash of Story Craft, Process & Creative Soul Care (2019)

 

 

Word Craft and Wood Craft

Longtime nonfiction writer Larry Cheek, who wrote for national magazines like Arizona Highways, learned something of life and craft as he used his hands to build a thirteen-foot sailing dinghy in his garage.

His slow learning and adept noticing, his quiet, patient work along with his frustrations and discouragement, letting his hands learn the feel of wood—when it’s wet enough to bend or dry enough to glue. His hands learned; he learned. And over a year’s time, his hands built his sailboat, Far From Perfect, that in full sail transported him to the dock at Whidbey Island, ready to teach MFA-level writers about writing craft.

Cheek’s woodworking lessons, recorded in his book The Year of the Boat, echo lessons about word working.

Woodcraft teaches how to hone the lip of a piece of wood to fit with another, how to sand and smooth so splinters will not ruin your next voyage. Story craft teaches how to listen so hard to words that you hear beneath them—their cadence, their musicality. How you use dialogue and plot and characterization. How you use words to describe, to bring to life the world of story.

Dream Details: Corkboards and Character Pics

Corkboard lust. I have it in spades. Not one. Not two. Not even three. No, four corkboards hang in my writing room, filled with pictures. Crammed full, I should say.

These pictures guide the most basic ingredient of all in my fiction writing: specific details. They help me see my characters. It doesn’t matter that I’ve now traveled with my characters Trish and Maria and Pastor Goodman for ten years. The pictures support me like training wheels on a kiddo’s bike. They stabilize my mental image of a character’s face, hair, hands, pose.

Old pictures of a young Candice Bergen—yeah, that award-winning actor—saturate my description: the square watch face, the pigtails, the sunglasses on her head. Another Bergen shot in warm light is an extreme close up where her fingers curl around her forward blowing hair. These pictures coax me to see Esther, co-protagonist Trish’s mom.

Another actor coaches my ability to see Trish herself. I had clipped pictures of an Eddie Bauer model—who, like Trish had long blond hair. But then I saw Another Earth and Brit Marling in action. Trish! Marling’s appearance delivered needed specifics: dark level brows, a steady and direct gaze.

And what of Matthew Goodman? The face and hair of actor Bruce Greenwood feeds my imagination. Goodman needs good looks to succeed in broadcast. Greenwood, although now aged past my character, maintained a boyish yet dignified appearance. How? The deep forehead, the thick hair, the wideset eyes.

These pictures and their ready availability on corkboards fuel my imagination—and the dream details I need with which to lull my readers.

Excerpted from Creative Juices: A Splash of Story Craft, Process & Creative Soul Care (2019)