Posted by: alinesoules | April 20, 2017

Writing and the “T” word

No, not T—-, but Time.  Periodically, I go back to something I heard from Elmore Leonard at a conference, namely, “You either want to write or you don’t.”  Leonard was somewhat irascible at times, but, in my experience, he hit the nail on the head and didn’t mince words.

I meet many people who want to write (someday), have been writing/re-writing/re-writing chapter 1 of a novel for years, wish they had time to write, or talk about writing someday.  In the end, the question comes down to Leonard’s question, perhaps with the added possibility of “do you want to write or do you want to ‘have written’,” i.e., see your name in print.

One of the strange things about time to write is that the more you have time, the easier it is to put off writing (and, probably, other things as well).  When I have a super busy day, I find 15-20 minutes to write, no matter what.  On days when I have a less hectic schedule, I sometimes find myself at the end of that day realizing that I haven’t put fingers to keyboard yet.  That means I sit up late doing just that because I didn’t get to it earlier.

While it’s true that some days get away from you, no matter what, I am insistent that I write something at least six days out of seven.  No one thinks anyone can be a great pianist if s/he doesn’t practice every day, but, somehow, we assume we can defer writing and it’ll be just fine, even great, if we haven’t done it for weeks.  Crazy thinking.  We must practice our art and craft just as much as those in other chosen endeavors.

One of the great things about a blog is that you can use it as a jumping off point.  I’ve been struggling with a couple of my writing projects, but having written this little blog post, an idea has just come into my head for one of them and that’s what I plan to write next—before it slips away from me.

So, pick up your pen and join me.


Posted by: alinesoules | March 5, 2017

Writing and the “G” Word

Recently, I became a Granny for the first time and apart from thinking he’s the cutest grandson in the world (doesn’t every granny think that?), I’ve also wondered about how the beginning of any life affects the many people around that life and how that life is recorded and shared.  The obvious answers include parents who get insufficient sleep, grandparents and uncles and aunts and friends and a host of others who are thrilled, and a baby who is “recorded” from birth mostly in photos and videos.  But where do reading and writing come in?

David Strathairn, the actor, once said that “television and film are our libraries now, our history books,” but more of us than ever are writing—memoirs, fiction, poetry, and “morphed” forms of digital texts and blended media.  Our children and grandchildren will be recorded—eventually—in those forms, but the beginning is photo, photo, photo.  I admit my bias in this matter: I’ve worked in libraries all my life, watching us de-accession physical books, while acquiring more and more electronic books, journals, and other formats.

What writing will this child see?  What will he read?  More to the point, will he read?  Knowing his parents, I can safely say “of course” he’ll read, but I suspect what he’ll read will be very different from the reading I enjoyed growing up—more fact, less fiction, and certainly less poetry (I read a lot of that—still do).  The thought of this saddens me.  I believe in fiction and I worry that there’s too little in our children’s lives.  My grandson has been born into a family that is highly skilled in the computer industry, which makes me confident that, if he is as skilled in math and science as his parents, he’ll have as secure a future as it’s possible for one human being to have.  I just want him to have other forms of imaginative life.  As long as I’m on the planet, I’m going to try to make sure he has stories.

Posted by: alinesoules | January 30, 2017

Writing and the “T” word

A week into our new presidency and I’m inundated by writing about our new president–on Facebook, on blogs, in poems, in short prose pieces–in other words, just what our new president wants:  attention.

I have purposely not written about our new presidency, although I have written about some of the events that have occurred, but I have purposely avoided using the “T” word and I’m going to go on avoiding using it as soon as I’ve finished this blog post.

I believe our new president wants attention more than he wants anything else and I’ve decided we need to stop giving it to him.  We need to protest unlawful and bad behaviors, we need to march in solidarity, we need to contact our congresspersons and tell them what we want.  What we also need to do is minimize and/or eliminate any attention on the president himself.

Success in reality TV has nothing to do with reality.  It has to do with saying or doing anything that will grab headlines and get attention–real, alternate fact, or something else equally outlandish.  The more attention provided, the more unreality, alternate facts, and sensationalism are provided.

I suggest we rebel.  Fight the behavior; refuse to give attention to the perpetrator.  And focus on your congresspersons who are in a position–maybe–to halt or deter actions that we deem unacceptable.

Now, for me, it’s back to writing poetry about life and reality, not alternate facts.

Posted by: alinesoules | January 9, 2017

Singing One’s Way to Creativity

I may be a writer, but I’m also a singer, both as part of choirs and as a soloist.  My choral singing “career” (if one can call it that) has been going strong since I was three years old.  Currently, I belong to a large choir called Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra, which performed last weekend on the University of California, Berkeley campus.   We sang two requiems, one by Cherubini (lesser known) and one by Mozart (well known).

The choir is large, around 200 singers, and when you add an orchestra to the mix, you become a very small cog in a very large wheel.  Regardless, your voice is important and the outcome of the choir’s performance requires your presence.  This is invaluable to me on a number of fronts, not the least of which is its effect on my writing.

Choir singing is both similar to and also very different from writing.  The similarities lie in the importance of your voice, regardless of how many voices are also present and shared with the world.  Another similarity is the uniqueness of you and what you contribute.  No voice is alike (sound familiar?).

The differences lie in the community aspect of choir singing.  Writing can be solitary, although networking and meet-ups and critique groups can make it less so, but, in the end, it is you yourself who must sit down and put words on paper.  No one else can do it for you.  Singing is the opposite.  You may practice at home, but rehearsals and performance are in group.  The advantage of that is having the community as a form of “antidote” to the solitary aspects of writing.

The other difference is in the oxygenation of the body.   Normally, I’m a sleepyhead by 9 or 10 pm at night; however, when I performed last Friday, I was fully oxygenated from deep breathing and when we ended around 10:30 or 11 pm, I was wide awake.  I went out with choir friends to a restaurant and didn’t get home until 12:30 am or to sleep until close to 2pm

Ever sit and write at your computer until your bum is numb?  Trust me, your brain is probably numb, too.  My choir experience has changed how I write physically.  I get up and move around.  I sit at my computer as much as the next person, but when I need to think, I get up and pace around.  I also make sure that I go for a walk at least two or three times a day, unless my writing time is only an hour or so that day.  I work full-time as a library faculty member, so it’s more likely to be a weekend day when I spend hours writing.

The point of this post is that most of us need other activities to inform our writing.  For me, choir singing has proved a wonderful foil for writing–giving me community I don’t have as a writer, but reminding me of the importance of voice and the importance of moving around to keep my lungs oxygenated (which also feeds my brain).

For each of us, that alternate activity may be different.  Maybe you golf.  Maybe you run.  Maybe you quilt.  Maybe you volunteer in a shelter.  It doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that you have something else to enhance your writing.  And don’t forget:  your writing enhances your other activities as well.  It’s an important exchange that enriches our lives.

Posted by: alinesoules | December 6, 2016

When Will My Poem Be Finished? How Will I Know?

Sometimes, I think writing poetry is both a blessing and a curse.  Only poets would spend hours wrestling over a word or a supposedly simple sentence.  We must be crazy.

After agonizing for days, weeks, maybe even months, are we satisfied?  No, because we’re not sure we’re finished.  We’re not even sure that the poems we get published are finished.  We look at them after they come out or, maybe, a year or two later, and see something we want to change.

Even the “greats” experience this.  I once read a poem by Eavan Boland in the New Yorker and, later, in her latest collection of poems.  I’d saved the New Yorker version and even knew where I’d put it.  When I compared it to the version in the book, I saw that she’d made changes.  So reassuring.  If Eavan Boland isn’t satisfied with a version of her poem in the New Yorker, then the rest of us have permission to tinker forever.

At some point, however, poets have to say “enough,” bite the bullet, and send out some version of their work.  If it’s accepted, it’s fixed in that moment in time.  Happily, with Eavan Boland as our inspiration, we can always change it later.

Posted by: alinesoules | November 20, 2016

1913: The Year Before the Storm

Friends who give you great books are priceless.  I have savored and just completed 1913: The Year Before the Storm, by Florian Illies.  Sadly, my German language skills are nil, but I read an excellent translation, thanks to the skills of Shaun Whiteside and Jamie Lee Searle.  This amazing book offers a month-by-month description of selected events that took place before “the war to end all wars.”  Henry Ford put a conveyer belt in his car factory, Louis Armstrong picked up a trumpet, Chaplin signed his first movie contract, Proust began his opus, Stravinsky wrote The Rite of Spring–the list goes on.

Some quotes:

from Thomas Mann:  “And how greatly and severely war is felt as a crisis of moral cleansing, as a grandiose stride of life’s seriousness beyond all sentimental confusions.”  His reference was the war of 1870-71.

from Thomas Mann (again):  “Give us today our daily sheet of paper.”  All writers should relate to that comment. On the same subject:  “I need white, smooth paper, fluid ink and a new, softly gliding pen nib. To prevent myself making a mess of it, I put a sheet of lined paper underneath.  I can work anywhere; all I need is a roof over my head.  The open sky is good for unbridled dreams and outlines, but precise work requires the shelter of a roof.”

Illies shares a story from June 20, 1913, when an unemployed thirty-year old teacher, Ernst Friedrich Schmidt walked into a school “draped in weapons.”  He went on a shooting rampage with loaded revolvers.  Five girls, aged 7-8, died; eighteen children and five adults were severely injured.  A passer-by overpowered him.  His rationale?  He was protesting not finding a teaching position.  It seems that mass shootings are not as new as we think.

And from Illies, talking about Thomas Mann:  “…but only by the sea does one have an uninterrupted view of the soul–and of the mountains before it.”

May we all write with such grace.

Posted by: alinesoules | October 28, 2016

Right/Wrong Way to Read a Book

From the New York Times, Sept. 27, 2016–an interesting perspective on reading.  Potentially useful for classes on information literacy or reading comprehension.

Posted by: alinesoules | October 25, 2016

Writing Resources

Recently, I was asked if I could provide some resources for poetry and for writing generally.  Rather than create a document to share, I thought I’d return to my blog and begin a thread for writing resources, with reason(s) for selecting them, and also create a separate page where I could compile them.

A few months ago, a friend, Cathie, gave me a book that I quickly came to treasure:  Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing, a book that offers multiple treasures.  The insights are amazing and apply to any type of writing.  While you can read the book from front to back, I doubt you can absorb it that way.  The book is divided into small sections that you can “dip” into or work your way through systematically.  Whether Klinkenborg discusses the job of the writer (“making sentences”) or “noticing” or “reading out loud” or “flow,” he touches on the heart of the pleasure and challenge of writing.  I try to read a one-two page section every day and I know that, at the end of the book, I will simply close the back cover and re-open the front cover to begin again.

What’s your favorite book about writing?

Posted by: alinesoules | March 1, 2016

Writing Practices

Finding a writing practice can be a challenge for all sorts of reasons.  Many of us have full-time jobs, families, other responsibilities that have nothing to do with writing.  Sometimes, if our full-time jobs involve writing, we come home “written out” and find it hard to write some more.  Some of us are intimidated by a blank page.  Some of us think we can only write if we have long blocks of time.  Some of us can only write in a certain place.  Some of us think that we’ll get to it tomorrow.  Some of us suffer from writers’ block.  The list of barriers goes on.

Once, I had the privilege of meeting Elmore Leonard.  He was a great writer (unfortunately, he died in 2013) and also a complete sweeper-aside of anything that sounded like “b.s.” to him.  Which included the list of barriers in paragraph one.  When he was the keynote speaker at a writers conference sponsored by the Detroit Women Writers (as it was then known) and held at Oakland University in Rochester Michigan, he gave a speech that was serviceable, but not memorable to me.

What was memorable was what happened in the Q&A after the speech.  A young man, possibly a student at the university, asked Mr. Leonard:  “what do you do about writers’ block?”  At that point, Mr. Leonard trembled with rage.  He leaned over the podium towards the student, who shrank back in his seat.  “Writers’ block?” shouted Mr. Leonard.  “Writers’ block?”  He paused. “You either want to write or you don’t.”

This has stuck with me over the years and served me well.  While I was certainly glad that I was not the target of Mr. Leonard’s rage, I felt it and I suspect so did every person in the room.  Whether it’s about writers’ block or any other issue, his point is absolute.  If we want to write, that’s what we should do—write.  Let’s do it!

Posted by: alinesoules | February 23, 2016

Critique Groups

Last week, I had the privilege of facilitating a discussion about critique groups at a “writers table” hosted by the California Writers Club Mt. Diablo Branch.  I’ve been fortunate to have participated in a number of these groups over the years and I find them invaluable.  Our discussion covered the basics:  how to set up ground rules, ideas for critiquing, group management, and so on, but the question that circled around over and over again was this:  how do I find one?  Perhaps it might be more accurate to say:  how do I find one that’s right for me?

I’ve never really known the answer to this.  Networking gets you closer to finding a group, but finding one where the participants are approximately at your level, are equitable in their approach, and know how to offer feedback in a meaningful way is a tough job.  Right now, I participate in a fabulous poetry group called Greenhearts, organized by Sharon Coleman, an amazing and thoughtful poet who always wants the best for poets everywhere.  She’s the founder and moderator and we are all grateful. Our group members write wildly differently, but they’re all high quality poets and many publish regularly.  Its a gift and I look forward to our almost weekly meetings with joy and anticipation.

I also belong to another poetry critique group that meets in the evenings.  Robert Eastwood leads it and it’s held twice a month at two different homes.  I only go to one (there’s a limit to how many of these groups you can handle), but that group is so very different from the other poetry group that I get very different feedback.  That feedback is less intense than what I receive and share in the first group I mentioned, but the difference is invaluable.

I also belong to a writing group whose members write novels (historical, young adult), short stories, memoirs, many types of prose.  Again, we have a founder and moderator:  Gloria Lenhart.  She says she started her groups (she runs more than one) because she wanted a critique group for her own work, but her energy and dynamism in making it work (now for many years) is a testament to talents beyond her writing talent.  It’s not an easy task.  She has some basic requirements that include not only being willing to listen to honest and well-delivered feedback but also to demonstrate that the feedback makes a difference as new pieces are brought to the group and the benefit of the feedback becomes visible through the writing.

Good critique groups are serious business for serious writers.  They are not “love-ins” nor should they be.  If a group wants to get together to share and enjoy each others’ work, that’s great, but it’s not a critique group.  If you’re just getting together to write independently in each other’s company, that’s great, too, but it’s a “meet-up” not a critique group (I have one of those, too—I love it).

A critique group takes work.  You must be prepared to read others’ work and provide honest, thoughtful feedback that takes time to prepare.  The advantage is that by analyzing others’ work, you learn how they put their pieces together and that’s a bonus because you learn their strengths and can make them your own.

Right now, I feel tremendously blessed to have these groups in my writing life and I thank every one of the people in them from founders and moderators to participants.  Thank you.  You make my writing life and my work better.  I hope I do the same for you.

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