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.


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.

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