Posted by: alinesoules | December 11, 2017

Inspiration from my Scholar OLLI students

For the last couple of years, I’ve had the privilege of leading a class called “Writing in All Forms” for Scholar OLLI on the Concord Campus of California State University, East Bay.  For those who don’t know, OLLI stands for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.  The founder, Bernard Osher, makes grants from his foundation to provide noncredit courses to adults over 50.  There are OLLIs all over the U.S. and if anyone can claim a legacy, it’s Bernard Osher.  He promotes endless learning, not just for attendees, but for class leaders, too.

My class is filled with fabulous writers and I’m not the teacher, I’m the leader/guide. I learn as much as the people who attend.  Each session lasts only five weeks (there are three each academic year) and they whip by at a rate faster than Mach 1 because we have so much fun critiquing our writing and talking about our craft.  The class includes novelists and memoirists and poets and short story writers.  Attendees write every type of work from gut-wrenching to humor.  They’re fabulous.  And the stories they have to tell—in whatever form they choose—are amazing.  I learn about their unique lives and marvel at their gifts.

I’m deeply grateful at being offered the opportunity to be a part of this wonderful program.  It’s improved my own writing, given me a community of writers, and blessed me than I could have imagined.

 

 

Posted by: alinesoules | November 6, 2017

Poetry in the Time of Holidays

I have a love/hate relationship with holidays.  On the love side, summer holidays enable me to engage with new experiences that work their way into my writing sooner or later (I call it experiential research).  In fall/winter, I see family and friends more often and connect through annual cards with the people I don’t normally see from year to year.  I recall and reflect on past experiences that also work their way into my writing eventually.

On the hate side, I eat too much after swearing I won’t and, more importantly, watch my writing practice slip off its organized rails.  During summer, I travel and I collapse with sensory overload at day’s end. In winter, I either juggle social gatherings or nest.

Determined to keep up my writing practice this fall, I signed up for NaNoWriMo.  Writing 50,000 words in a month should keep me moving.  For December, I’ve already written an “appointment” in my calendar and set an “alert,” not one, but two.  This year, I’ll see if it works.

I have long advocated a daily writing practice to my creative writing students and I’ve argued that you can accomplish a lot, even in as few as 15 minutes a day.  The trick is to put in those 15 minutes, no matter what the season.

 

 

Posted by: alinesoules | September 19, 2017

Seamus Heaney’s Home Place

Earlier this summer, I had the pleasure of visiting a small museum dedicated to Seamus Heaney.  Located in Bellaghy in Ulster, “home” place is exactly the right term for this very special place.  Museums don’t have to be large to be effective and I found that, in Ireland and Northern Ireland, there are many small museums that are amazingly effective, often more so than their large and famous counterparts.

The area around Bellaghy was Heaney’s home and an inspiration and source for his writing.  The lower floor is devoted to an exhibition about Heaney, but upstairs are two important spaces.  One is for children (most museums I visited in Ireland and Northern Ireland were devoted to providing space for children to explore and create).  The other is for the words of Heaney himself.  You can listen to him reading many of his poems and I spent as much time as possible letting his words in his own voice wash over me.  They are printed, if you want to follow along, but I found that his voice in my ears was worth more than any word on the page.

I have read Heaney’s work many times over the years and was privileged to hear him live as he read his work once at the University of Michigan.  Regardless of the number of visitors, as I sat on the upper floor of the museum, putting on head set after head set, I could retreat into his world, his words, his voice.

Links:

Biography and links to some poems, podcasts, videos, and articles:  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/seamus-heaney

“Digging” on YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNRkPU1LSUg

Seamus Heaney in conversation with Michael Laskey, fellow poet and co-founder of the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. This is an edited version of an interview recorded live at the Poetry Prom 2010 organised by The Poetry Trust.  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/podcasts/75876/seamus-heaney

 

Posted by: alinesoules | September 2, 2017

Writing at the Beach

There’s something about a beach that changes us.  We “un-lax” as opposed to relax, letting go of all but the most basic elements of our lives.  We wake, eat, sleep, walk the beach, go in the water (if it’s not too cold), and generally let time take care of itself.

[Image credit:  http://globe-views.com/dreams/surprise.html]

And then there’s writing.  I took a week to go to the beach and write.  I doubt any of this will be Pulitzer-prize winning prose, but my goal is to complete a messy first draft of Part II of my novel before I leave here.  I came with about 90 pages and I’d like to go home with about 160-170 pages—enough to enable me to start shaping what I hope will be a good novel in the end.

Today, the temperature’s going up to 97F (clearly an off-shore wind), so I anticipate sweltering through the day, but the house I borrowed (such kind friends) has a cooler downstairs, so I may spend the afternoon in the gloom of the lower level in order to keep writing.  And that’s the key—keep writing.  Don’t go back and fix.  Don’t decide to change direction (or change direction but don’t go back and “fix” what came before).  Just keep going.  What happens next?

I completed the first part of the novel intermittently.  I still work full-time and I have to sliver my time into slots to keep going.  I decided this wasn’t the best way to operate for Part II, so I’ve taken the plunge (literally) and am determined to write the worst draft ever of Part II before I head for home in the middle of next week.

Sometimes, I get stuck, but then I remember something I learned from Ellen Sussman at a recent writing camp:  the rule of 3.  If you’re stuck, write 3 possible options for what happens next, even if those options are the most outlandish possible.  Surprise yourself, which is the key, isn’t it?  Surprise yourself.  If you don’t, you don’t surprise your reader and nothing keeps a reader going than being surprised into turning another page.  Thank you, kind friends.  Thank you, Ellen Sussman.  Your gifts make my writing possible.

Posted by: alinesoules | August 1, 2017

Creating legend

I wish I could remember who said the following:  “Where there’s no explanation, there’s a legend.”  Whether you call it legend or story, it’s at the heart of writing.  Even if your prose or poetry appears to have little or no narrative, there’s a legend or story behind what you wrote.

[Photo courtesy of https://www.airbnb.co.uk/s/Lochaline

Some call it experience, but it’s experience remembered and, no matter how accurate, it’s your version and may be quite different from the original event.

Classic legends come from family.  To offer a simple example, I’m named after my Great Step-Aunt Aline, who was born in the mid-1800s. I believe this is fact because her name is listed on the family tree and my mother told me that she named me after her.  So far, so good.  How Aunt Aline got her name, however, is legend and it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s entirely invention.

Supposedly, Aunt Aline’s mother was pregnant at the same time as another woman on the other side of Lochaline, where the doctor also resided.  As the doctor couldn’t be on both sides of the loch at the same time, Aline’s father was instructed to row his wife across the loch when the birth time came to ensure that both women could be attended to by the doctor.  When Aline’s father finally got around to rowing his wife across the loch, he was too late.  She gave birth in the bottom of the boat.  Infuriated, she named their daughter Aline in order to ensure that he never forgot (as if he could).

Legend?  Fact?  Fiction?  Who knows?  But it’s a great story.

Posted by: alinesoules | July 26, 2017

Traveling and Keeping Up with Writing

I recently returned from a fabulous trip to Ireland and England.  I didn’t manage to get to Scotland (land of my birth), but maybe next time.  Our group of teachers and librarians focused on literature—children’s literature in particular—although we managed to take in other literary spots along the way.  The group, known as Nye Travelers, not only “does the sights,” but talks to children’s authors and illustrators about their work.  So fabulous.

[Photo:  I took this in the Lake District, England]

We visited so many wonderful places and were “going” from morning to night.  Many of us shared rooms, meaning very little or no time alone during the day.  At night, we fell in our beds, exhausted in a good way.  It was an amazing journey.

Summer may be the time for rejuvenation and new experiences, but, as a writer, I need to “keep going” with that, too.  My solution was to take a pile of needed edits with me.  As the day began or ended, I found a few minutes alone to work on an edit or two when there was no way I’d find a block of time to write.  It was a great way to keep my work front and center, even as I filled my head with new thoughts, experiences, and sights.  I came home with my work still active in my head and was able to go back to my usual writing routine with hardly a hitch.  In fact, coming back meant coming west, with jet lag making me wake at 3 am for several days.  I simply got up and wrote earlier than usual—a bonus.

Posted by: alinesoules | June 21, 2017

Writing Rites and Rights

Today, my daughter-in-law ends her maternity leave and goes back to work.  Her official work is in a workplace outside the home, although she brings home plenty of work, too.  To support my addiction to writing, I made sure I had “a job” outside the home as well and have done that all my life–kid in day care, separation anxiety, and all of that as my kid grew up.

For many writers, writing at home is where it’s at, and you can read many articles about the right “place” to work, how it should be configured, what time(s) of day are best for writing, but the question remains:  what to do with the kid(s)?

I read or hear about women who wait for their kids to be in bed to find some time to write.  That’s dedication.  Especially when the kids are little, Mom needs to sleep when the kids sleep, if she can.  Otherwise, exhaustion wins.  Writing late at night, early in the morning, when the kids are napping–if you’re a Mom who does that, I admire you.  I could never do it, or, perhaps I should say, I could never do it well.  I’ve been known to fall asleep over my computer keyboard.  Now there’s a facial imprint.  Fortunately, it fades and your face goes back to normal.

What we need is proper support for working parents (yes, Dads, too), whether they work in a workplace or at home.  Few writing Moms can afford day care to enable them to return home to write.  Income, if any, is generally minimal at best.  Yet, in what is still the richest country in the world, social support for child care is sorely lacking.  The feminist movement of the late 60s and early 70s was unable to secure ERA or federally-funded child care or any of the social needs of the bulk of the populace.

When will we wake up and realize that social services are not a bad intervention of our government, but exactly what governments are in place to do–provide the best possible options for the majority of citizens they presumably serve?

This question may sound far away from the writing life, but it could be at the core of a writer’s life and enable some talented writer somewhere to complete a work that changes our lives.

Posted by: alinesoules | June 11, 2017

Writing in the Face of All Odds

In the last month, I’ve had the privilege of leading a class entitled “writing in all forms.”  This class meets once a week for five weeks and there are three five-week sessions every year.  On Tuesday next, I will complete my second full year of guiding this class.  Much of it involves critiquing short excerpts of their work and one of the many joys of this class is the wide variety of amazing stories they present in strong, well-written pieces.  One or two of them have even had their stories accepted and published.

The challenge is what happens when they aren’t in class.  Some of them write regularly, did so before they came to this class, and will do so after the class is over.  Some of them write only when “the spirit moves them” or within the structure the class provides.  When the class ends next Tuesday and is not re-formed until September, my challenge is how to encourage the latter between one session and the next (if they sign up again).  I find this the hardest aspect of this class and I still look for more success at that goal.  I provide prompts to carry them over the summer, but they must choose to use them or find other motivations because, in the end, their inner motivation must kick in.

I was given the opportunity to “teach” this class, but, of course, I am simply a guide on the side, especially when the class if full of good writers who choose to be present and are willing to take suggestions, which I offer to the best of my ability.  But, they must also choose to write.  I hope they do.

 

Posted by: alinesoules | April 29, 2017

What’s in a Preposition?

I was born in Scotland and received my grammar and composition grounding in primary school (grades 1-7) in the 1950s.  We were grilled and drilled in the way our language went together and were taught “right and wrong” ways of expressing ourselves.  Later, I moved to Canada, where I completed high school and discovered that the language skills I’d been taught in Scotland were rich and deep, and that I was blessed to understand English in a way my fellow high school students and subsequent university classmates didn’t fully understand.  Even later, after I moved to the U.S., I discovered my language skills were even further ahead of most of my fellow university students.  I’ve also been blessed with six years of Latin training, one of the best ways to understand our complex English tongue.

Throughout that time, I continued to think of language as having rights and wrongs.  While this attitude and approach still has merit, I am also aware of subtle differences among the three countries where I’ve lived for extensive numbers of years and that what constitutes right and wrong reveals some slippery slopes.  For example, in the U.K., I was taught “different from.”  A is different from B.  That’s right; every other construction is wrong.  In Canada, I heard “different from” and “different than,” and no teacher bothered to correct it.  In the U.S., I discovered that the common expression is “different than.”  So, not an error necessarily.  A is different than B.

Recently, I conversed with an Australian teacher who used “different to.”  A is different to B.  This sounded strange to me, but I’ve grown schizophrenic enough about language to realize that this is a simply a slightly different evolution of the English language as it wended its way across the Pacific.

While there are still many “errors” in grammar I see in student papers (subject-verb agreement, anyone), I’ve grown more tolerant of slight variations (Oxford comma, yes or no?).   I have also learned that language evolves (e.g., whom having been discarded by the Oxford dictionary as now obsolete or, at least, on its way out, not to mention the last vestiges of the subjunctive).  I won’t even start on “lay” and “lie,” which are still very clearly different verbs.  Such changes may sound strange and “wrong” to my ears, but the next generation will think them just fine and, in the end, it will be up to me to adjust.

Grammar, etymology, punctuation, usage—all fascinate me and I deeply enjoy pursuing my native language in all its nuances, which I consider important.  I hope you do, too.   As a parting shot for this blog post, in case you think I’m splitting hairs, I refer you to a newspaper article from March 16 of this year.

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.

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