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Steering the Craft Exercise One, or, Splashing in the Pool of Sound

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Steering the Craft Exercise One, or, Splashing in the Pool of Sound

A while ago, my book club read Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin. The book is compilation of ten writing exercises (most with multiple parts, so it’s more like 15 or 20 exercises), along with explanations and examples. (See my other post about Steering the Craft here.)

The very first exercise was probably the most fun, and one which Le Guin suggests can be done many times over. It’s about the sound of language. Most children, she says, “enjoy the sound of language for its own sake. They wallow in repetitions… they fall in love with musical or impressive words and use them in all the wrong places.”

When I read this, I immediately thought of my husband. Le Guin says many adults lose their adoration of aural language when they learn to read silently. But Paul is not one of those people. He splashes around in the pool of sound like a happy baby elephant. When I do yoga, he calls it “yogurt.” I made shepherd’s pie the other night, and he called it “Keebler’s Pie” because he “just likes the way that sounds.” He calls his computer his “comp-troller” and pronounces champagne “champ-in.” Just for fun, mind you. Because he likes to play with language.

Paul also likes to play with rhyme. Oh lord, does he love rhyming. He likes to sing made-up songs, and it’s also not uncommon for him to say something and then start saying words that rhyme with it, usually making his way around to words that aren’t even real words at all. For example, we might have a conversation that goes something like this:

Him: Are you a bear?
Me: Huh?
Him: Are you a bear who likes beer?
Me: Yes.
Him: Are you a beer bear?
Me: Sure.
Him: Are you a near bear?
Me: I guess.
Him: Are you a bleer bear?
Me: You’re weird.

No, I’m not actually a bear. Photo credit.

 

His word-play used to annoy me because it made no sense and I’m a logical person. But now I understand that he’s not trying to communicate anything (except perhaps his love). He just likes to play with sound. It’s fun for him. So now I play along with him, and we have conversations that consist of nothing but rhymes and nonsense words. As a writer, it’s good for me to splash around in the pool of sound.

And Ursula K. Le Guin’s first exercise in Steering the Craft is simply that: playtime in the language pool. She says:

Exercise One:  Write a paragraph to a page (150-300 words) of narrative that’s meant to be read aloud. Use onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, rhythmic effects, made-up words or names, dialect — any kind of sound-effect you like — but NOT rhyme or meter.

I tried it several times, and the hardest part was making it a narrative (a story) and not a poem. Below is one of my attempts. Try it for yourself!

 

Mad Scientist Man is in the living room lab, solving equations to save the world.

“I’m making dumplings for dinner,” I tell him, and he says he knows — he can smell ‘em.

Pretty Kitty purrs and rams her head against his leg. She wants to play, but he pushes her away. He’s got equations to solve and a world to save.

“Honey bun? Dinner’s almost done.”

But he’s busy with his work, so I eat alone. Pretty Kitty mews, and I give her some.

I wash the dishes — Pretty Kitty’s and mine. Both us know how tonight will go. He’ll stay up late with math and do physics in the bath. When his tummy growls like a bear in heat, he’ll make a midnight snack of crackers and cheese. And in the morning I’ll clean crumbs as he lies down to sleep.

Mad Scientist Man is hoping it’ll happen tonight. He’ll solve the equation. Save us with science. But sometimes I wish he’d just come to bed and do a little work on me instead.

Here's a pretty kitty.

Here’s a pretty kitty.

*P.S. If you decide to read Steering the Craft, I highly recommend you get it from the library. It’s out of print, and the price to buy it is absurd.

May Memories: Why Meditation is Like Writing

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May Memories:  Why Meditation is Like Writing

May Memories:

Today we flashback to a post I wrote six months ago:  You Can Go Your Own Way:  Why Meditation is Like Writing.

Paul and I are still trying to meditate together once or twice a week, but I often find it extremely difficult / boring / frustrating.  I often think that writing is my preferred method of meditation.  I’ve started writing “morning pages” as suggested in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (see my post about that), and I’m wondering if this should just take the place of the whole lotus-position-concentrate-on-your-breathing thing.  Still, I’m going to keep trying meditation as long as Paul will do it with me.  It certainly can’t hurt, and sometimes it’s nice to sit quietly on the floor next to my man and listen to his breath going in and out.

Eva and Paul

Eva and Paul

May Memories: How to Get Published in Literary Magazines

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May Memories:  How to Get Published in Literary Magazines

May Memories…

Today we are flashing back to a post I wrote a year ago:  How to Get Published in Literary Magazines.  Just as helpful now as it was in 2014.

Although many journals are closed for submissions during the summer months, summer can be a great time to do some research, read some lit mags, and make yourself an organizational submission spreadsheet.  So get to it!

check

If you’re lucky, your work might get excepted AND you might get paid for it! (But don’t hold your breath on that one…)

 

May Memories: 10 Ways Your Hair is Like Your Life

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May Memories:  10 Ways Your Hair is Like Your Life

May Memories:

Today we flash back to a post I wrote two years ago:  9 Ways Your Hair is Like Your Life.  At the time, I had just gotten a haircut and was very unhappy about the way it looked.  Similarly, right now I am now having some really terrible hair issues.  So terrible and disheartening that I don’t even want to write about them, and all I can say is that I’ll probably be wearing a hat every day for the next two months.

So it’s probably good that I take the time today to remind myself of these nine life lessons from two years ago, and add a tenth one on for good measure.

WHY YOUR HAIR IS LIKE YOUR LIFE…

1. There will be good days and bad days.

2. You can’t recreate the perfect day.

3. Yours will never be like someone else’s.

4. Don’t be afraid to try new things. 

5.  Sometimes you do everything right and it still doesn’t work out.  

6.  Sometimes it surprises you — in good ways and bad.  

7. Work within your limitations and find a way to be happy.

8. Don’t spend too much time worrying about it.

9. Enjoy it while you have it.

10.  Hair is just the stuff growing on top of your head; the really important thing is what’s going on inside of it.  

 

This is what my hair looked like two years ago.  It's actually worse right now.

This is what my hair looked like two years ago. It’s actually worse right now.

 

This Ain’t My First Ropes Course, or, The Fear of Starting Something New

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This Ain’t My First Ropes Course, or, The Fear of Starting Something New

Over the weekend, my husband and I went to Sand Creek Adventures in Jordan, Minnesota to do their high ropes course.

“Is that some sort of newlywed thing?” my students asked me when I told them of my weekend plans.

“No,” I said. “I just thought it would be fun.”

And it was. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and I was feeling good as I climbed up the cargo net towards the first element. But when I reached the small platform, forty feet in the air, my fear set in. I took a tentative step onto the wobbling tight rope.  Immediately my mouth grew dry and my legs quivered. Why was this fun again? The fun would be when I finished.

I shuffled across the rope towards Paul. “Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh,” I repeated over and over. I was scared… but I knew I could do it.

Because this wasn’t my first high ropes course.

Here I am about to do the Leap of Faith at a ropes course about four years ago.

Here I am about to do the Leap of Faith at a different ropes course about four years ago.

The first time I did a ropes course was in college, in a class called Adventure Games. (See my post about that here.) There was one element on which there was nothing to hold onto, and I remember standing on the narrow wooden beam, high above the ground, with one arm wrapped around a tree.  I was unwilling to let go of the tree in order to proceed across the high beam, and I stood like that, absolutely frozen with fear, for at least fifteen minutes. Below me, my belaying partner waited patiently, shouting up words of encouragement.

“You can do it, Eva!”

“I really don’t think I can.”

I really didn’t think I could do it, but finally I started to move, inch by inch, across the beam until, to my great relief, I reached the other side.

And that was the moment when I realized that I had the power to accomplish something hard, something scary, something I wasn’t even sure I could do. I had the power to overcome my fears.

Eva doing a flying trapeze class.

Eva doing a flying trapeze class.

I have to admit that I’ve been feeling some fear these days about my writing. The past five months I’ve been working on revising two of my novels. But my agent has finally said that we’re done revising (for now), and so I’m free to start writing new stuff. This is exciting, but it makes me feel like I’m on a platform, about to step onto a very long and very wobbly tight rope.

The other day I was listening to Sara Zarr’s podcast, This Creative Life. She was having a conversation with E. (Emily) Lockhart, author of the best-selling YA novel, We Were Liars. At one point, Emily mentioned, “the joy of revising and the agony of drafting.” I was appreciative because I often share that sentiment.

So many authors seem to bemoan the revision process and say the real joy of writing is in the creation of something new. And don’t get me wrong, I find joy in creating, too. But it can be awfully scary. Because what if I have no more good ideas? What if my writing is juvenile and clunky and just plain bad? What if I freeze up in the middle and don’t have what it takes to finish?

Luckily, this won’t be my first novel.

I have written several now, and each time it’s scary. Each time I get stuck somewhere along the way and feel afraid, but each time I make it to the other side…eventually. And every time I finish at novel it serves to prove, with even more certainty, that I have the power to accomplish something hard, something scary, something I wasn’t sure I could do.

The Bozon Swings at Sand Creek Adventures.

Back on the ropes course, I finished two tight rope elements and the “Charlie Chaplin walk” before I got to the Bozon Swings. I stepped onto the first swing and laughed out loud as I sailed back and forth through the air. “These are scary, but they’re fun!” I shouted to Paul, reaching for the next swing and stepping onto it. It was a long way to the platform, but I knew I’d get there eventually.

The fun — and the relief– certainly does comes when you finish, tbut you can also have fun while you’re in the air, in the very middle of a challenge.

Ropes4

 

Wait Till Helen Comes & The Darkness in YA

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Wait Till Helen Comes & The Darkness in YA

When I was in third grade, my best friend and I had the same favorite book: Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn. We used to race each other to the library on library day because there was only one copy, and we both wanted to read it for the umpteenth time.

Wait Till Helen Comes was a creepy book for a third grader. It’s about twelve-year-old Molly, whose manipulative step-sister is drawn to the graveyard behind their house and then begins exacting revenge on the family with the help of her ghost friend, Helen. I was a sensitive child, and I’m not sure why this didn’t give me nightmares except for the fact that I always kind of wanted a ghost friend of my own (though not for revenge purposes, just playing ones).

In addition to Wait Till Helen Comes, I also devoured any other Mary Downing Hahn book I could find, all of which rather dark. There was The Doll in the Garden (anything with old dolls and dead girls is creepy), Dead Man in Indian Creek, which is pretty much what it sounds like, and Following the Mystery Man, which is about a girl who gets kidnapped by a handsome stranger.

The question is, why did sweet little eight-year-old Eva (and tons of other kids) like these dark books?

This was what the cover looked like when I read it.

This was a question posed last weekend at The Loft Literary Center’s Children’s and Young Adult Literature Conference during Megan Atwood’s session on “Darkness in YA.” First Megan asked us what makes a book dark, and we listed: violence, death, drugs, mental illness, horror, mystery, etc. (I might also add ghosts, kidnapping, depression, despair, and creepy dolls to that list.) Then she asked us, why do we like to read this stuff? Are we sickos? Why do teens like to read this stuff? Are they sickos?

People responded that the darkness helps young people who are going through similar issues feel less alone. People said that darkness in YA is realistic and truthful. I said that darkness can be gripping. It’s exciting and dangerous and scary and makes for a page-turning story.

But maybe there’s more to it than that.

Here I am being creepy with a pumpkin.

Here I am being creepy with a pumpkin.

First of all, my Mary Downing Hahn phase was in elementary school. So teens and adult are not the only ones wanting to read about the dark side of life. I was hungry for it at the tender age of eight.

The fact is, children are a lot smarter and more aware than we often realize. We try to protect them from scary things, but that means we end up lying to them, hiding the truth.  Third grade happened to be the year I learned Santa wasn’t putting presents under the Christmas tree, my parents were. I felt utterly, furiously betrayed. I wrote in my diary, “I just realized Santa Claus isn’t real. I feel like a jerk and a FOOL!” There’s nothing children hate more than realizing a secret has been kept from them.

One reason kids and teens want to read about darkness is because it feels like the revelation of a secret that’s been kept from them.  It confirms their mounting suspicions that the world isn’t always a safe and sunshiny place like adults have tried to lead them to believe. And you know what they say about knowledge and power — embracing the scary things in life can feel much more empowering than pretending they don’t exist.

The other night I was watching the new Kurt Cobain documentary, Montage of Heck, and remembering how I fell in love with Nirvana in eighth grade. There was something about those dark lyrics and those dark music videos (emaciated Jesus in a Santa hat climbing up his own cross) that were both terrifying and powerful, and at the time I needed a way to express the overwhelming feelings I was having:  anger, confusion, shame, sadness.  I wouldn’t have listened to Nirvana if it didn’t speak to me in some way.  When given a choice, children and teens are often their own filters; when they’re not ready for something, they don’t read it, or if they do, it flies right over their heads.

When it comes down to it, in the heart of every one of us — adult or child — there are dark places and light. Human curiosity often tends towards the morbid, doesn’t it? Instead of ignoring my own dark places, books like Wait Till Helen Comes and music like Nirvana let me explore that darkness, try to understand it. Some people worry that “darkness” in YA and children’s literature will harm children, will give them “dark” ideas they wouldn’t have otherwise had.  But the truth is, the darkness is already there inside each of us, and pretending otherwise is denying the complexity of the human experience.

Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” video is seriously awesome and seriously creepy. Photo credit.

 

Getting Paid to Write in Mexico (and Why Writers Write for Free)

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Getting Paid to Write in Mexico (and Why Writers Write for Free)

A little over a month ago, I said to my then-fiance (with a grin on my face), “Guess what, babe? I got another non-paying job!”

“Um, congratulations?” he said. This is a running joke with us. He’s not a writer, so he can’t quite fathom that in this line of work, especially early on in one’s career, a writer rarely gets paid. (And if they do, it’s a check like this one:)

check

In case you can’t read this, it says that I will receive a check for $3.90 for my story “Girl Fishers” in Cafe Irreal. Hey, I was excited.

A few years ago now, I flew, on my own dime, to Mexico to teach a workshop at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference 2013. Did I get paid for teaching the class? Well, no. I was just happy they accepted my proposal and gave me a free place to stay. Besides, I thought it might look good on my resume.

In 2014, I accepted an internship as a blogger for Carve Magazine. “How much are they going to pay you?” Paul asked. I laughed and told him nothing. But again, I figured it would be a good experience.

And recently, I became the Features Editor for Compose Journal. Yet another non-paying job that I am (to Paul’s befuddlement) excited about.

Then, something amazing happened…

It was a week ago — the day after Paul and I got back from our wedding in Virginia. I checked my email while eating breakfast and was dumbfounded by what I saw. Without even applying for it, I was being offered a writer-in-residence position for five weeks this summer in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

The Parroquia in the main square of San Miguel de Allende.

The Parroquia in the main square of San Miguel de Allende.

The specifics are this: I will be put up in a beautiful house with two other artists and given a small food stipend. I can spend most of my time writing and having adventures, but I will also get paid for teaching a three-hour fiction workshop once a week. The pay depends on how many students sign up for my class, but even if no one signs up, I’ll still get $650, which is enough to cover my airfare.

Of course, I was slightly conflicted. I literally just got married, and now I was going to say, “peace out, Paul, I’m going to Mexico for five weeks.” On the other hand, how could I turn down the opportunity to get paid to write? It didn’t take long to decide that my answer was yes. (And hopefully Paul will be able to use frequent flier miles to come down and visit me while I’m there.) My class is open for registration, so check out the website.

I don’t think I would have gotten this offer were it not for all the non-paying writing-related jobs I’ve had. I put in a good word for myself with the San Miguel writing community when I taught the workshop down there in 2013. And it certainly doesn’t hurt my reputation that I’m a regular contributor to a prominent magazine (Carve) as well as an editor for a lovely journal (Compose). Plus, I now have an agent for my novel. Heck, I sound downright qualified to teach a fiction class and get paid to write!

mexico1 003

Eva in San Miguel, summer 2009

 

But honestly, I think the number one reason why Nate (who is in one of the fine people running the San Miguel Artists in Residency Program) thought of me is that he’s always been impressed by the number of pieces I’ve had published in various journals and literary magazines. And that — reading and submitting to literary magazines — is a whole other non-paying job that I have slaved away at for years. My list of publications may look impressive now, but trust me, it was born of spreadsheets and submission fees and hundreds of rejections.

If I haven’t made my point clear, it’s because I have several, and here they are in numbered form…

1.) You have to write because you love it, not because you think you’re going to get paid.

2.) But sometimes, all that hard work you did for free might end up paying off.

3.) You should really consider coming to San Miguel this summer. Take a fiction class with me, a creative non-fiction class with David Ramsey, and/or a photography class with Marcio Fayre. It’s going to be a fun and productive time.

 

Mexico 2 008

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