Pickets

Marcella uses the hand shears rather than a power weed-eater

so the white pickets won’t stain green.

At dawn she is up watering the roses, red and white ones

in front of pink shutters.

Now, the sun rises in the late July sky

to wick the water from the soil,

drawing it up with an invisible straw.

You can only be so meticulous, then, once in a while you have to act and pull a weed, even if it uproots something nearby.

Her muscles tense, she bends, digs, tugs. She is strong today. The roots come clean.

She looks at the sun. “Scorcher,” she mutters, and drags out the hose for another round.

 

Then

 

Marcella gets on the bus and goes downtown

and stands and links arms with her neighbors:

African-Americans or girls dressed in rainbows.

She passes out bottles of water, reminds them to hydrate,

there is a chance of bloodshed so she is ready with a medical kit

in a fanny-pack, to keep the blood from staining

the streets. And even

when the sun goes down she stands erect, waves her carefully-lettered picket sign,

feels the burn on her shoulders, revels in the blisters on her heels

waits to go limp in the arms of an officer and (hopefully) a gentleman,

who will take her down to the station and book her. Meanwhile,

Marcella worries only about

the roses at home, red and white and

the people on the street, black, and blue, and LGBTQ.

She is strong today, but– did they get to the root?

Have they gotten enough water? Are they thirsty still for justice?

 

Writer’s Thursday: From Whence The Evil Writer’s Block?

From Whence the Evil Writer’s Block?

In a previous article I noted that

The question of “what is art” is a deeply involved philosophical question which I don’t intend to address in full here (or perhaps ever) but one critical aspect of artwork is that it is a product of some sort of intentional working out of a problem or puzzle that often times the artist has created for themselves. It means finding a way to say something, to address an issue in society, in a fresh way, and that takes intent. Much of writer’s block can be said to stem, then, from a lack of hope. Intent-crushing despair. Such despairing statements as “nobody will publish this book anyway” or “nobody reads this blog anyway” or “nobody understands me” kill the working out of the puzzle, while the statement “I will make myself understood” is a statement primarily of hope, for we feel that if we are understood, someone may also come to a life-changing conclusion, we will have made an impact. Once we’ve made that statement, we have voiced an intent to do it. What we speak with intent is what we do.

We need to back up here. If you’re an aspiring writer—who has been an aspiring writer for some time—without actually writing, it may be time to reevaluate. It’s easy to fall in love with the idea of being a writer. As readers, we begin to learn to admire writers while we are still young. They have made us giggle or ponder some wonder of the earth, say, dinosaurs. It’s harder to begin to believe that we actually have something unique to say.

Saying that unique thing which comes from us, while referring to writers who have gone before but without plagiarizing either their voice or content takes some development. Developing our voice is a stylistic thing, to be sure, but it goes along with content. An example from a voice I admire: Kurt Vonnegut’s voice always matched his message.

When I was a college student, one professor encouraged me to continue to speak up in class. “We need your perspective,” he said. I still remember that when I wonder if anyone will care what I have to say. My professor recognized something valuable even then.

Should everyone who admires writers try to be a writer? Probably not.

How do you make that determination? I can’t say in general, though I’m confident in a few conversations I could help someone sort that out. My friend Doug Fike says that each of us has a message, and people to give that to, and a delivery method. Perhaps writing is your delivery method, perhaps not. I think it could be quite freeing to discover that writing is not your medium. The same sort of relief I felt when I stopped carving stone.

Once you’ve decided for sure that writing is for you, and begin to develop your voice, matching it to your message, you’re going to need regular infusions of hope, like a daily cup of coffee. I’m not saying it will be as easy to get as coffee is. Hope is connected to your wish for meaning and connection with others, and it’s so critical in getting past writer’s block.

What good is a voice with nothing to say? My wife says that until she was four years old she hardly spoke. Her mother took her to the doctor or a speech therapist or some other “authority”, and they said, “She’s perfectly fine. When she has something to say, she’ll speak up.” Perhaps it was just that her older sisters anticipated her needs. “Mom, Megan is hungry.” She was also taking a lot in, no doubt about it.  If you think you might be a writer, and might have something to say, but aren’t sure, then just keep taking it in. Read. Read a lot. This is such common advice for how to become a writer that I’m going to leave it at that.

But where do you get hope, then? Intellectually, it’s optimism. Emotionally, it’s positivity. Spiritually it’s acceptance of your voice as valuable to the world.

Ultimately, if you’re grappling with writer’s block, one question to ask yourself is “do I have hope for this project? Do I have hope for the people who experience this project?” If the answer is yes, perhaps there’s another problem. After all, a lack of hope isn’t the only thing that keeps you from writing.

I’m curious to hear your take, readers. What other issues do you think cause writer’s block?

Writers: Big Blocks vs. Legos

I played with Legos as a kid. Along with baseball cards, Legos were pretty much my favorite toy. As a younger boy (back when swallowing a Lego might have meant I’d perish) I played with bigger blocks, building towers and gleefully knocking them down.

When it comes to time management, though, I think the block of time you need for writing something may have something to do with the end result length of what you’re writing. For writing a novel I like big blocks. Blocks of time allow me to immerse in the fictional universe. The big blocks also allow me to complete larger chunks of the tower that is to become my novel. If you ever tried to build a tall tower with Legos, you know that they don’t have the integrity that large blocks of wood have. This is why we build actual houses out of wood blocks called too-buh-fawers.

For writing non-fiction, I prefer Legos, er, I mean short blocks of time. The non-fiction world is something I’m already immersed in, and it’s not as much fun to write about. Also the length of what I’m writing is much shorter, like this blog for example. Hmm. I thought of a comparison. I threw the idea out there. This is how I believe nonfiction should go. Tell the idea. Then, the piece is over.

Writers keep on a writin’

Hey writers, it’s writing Thursday again here on my blog, and I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Motivated New Year (not just January or November, either).

In our writer’s group last Thursday night (meets monthly for accountability and support) we talked about setup. Here’s our video on the topic.

Knowing your basic setup is great, but how do you maintain disciplines of writing (if you write daily or even once or twice a week) or really disciplines of any kind (how many calories you consume) when your normal setup gets upset by holiday travel?

Maybe you’re hosting people, maybe you’re with relatives, but usually a holiday week means somethin’s gotta give, and there’s a good chance your normal setup will suffer.

My main tip here is pretty simple: have a plan. You may know what your situation is going to look like, and there’s always Uncle Harv who arrives at the last minute throwing everything off kilter again.

The second tip is that you may have to squeeze it in the cracks instead of having a nice three hour block.

The third thing is, to avoid discouragements, appropriately adjust your expectations. Maybe you usually write 10,000 words a month, adjust that to a lower number. Or, if you’re like Justin, you have two weeks off school and you actually have more time. Find space to push yourself, either way. That’s how you get it done!

Again, everybody have a wonderful holiday and keep on a-writin’.

Writing Thursday, #3 in the series: Improving your abilities in Language

Getting better at Language:

Last week I talked about sharing authentically from your heart, and some differences to think about between being a poet or musician and a novelist / screenwriter / actor.

When it comes to sharing your heart, you have to understand the language (context as well as tongue) that you’re writing for. So how do we get better at understanding the language of our medium and genre?

As with heart, more isn’t necessarily better when it comes to vocabulary, either. Still, the tools at your disposal should be as broad as possible. So the building block of language is vocabulary.

That’s an easy 5- minute exercise to come up with: Read through the dictionary for five minutes every Wednesday. Look at five words. Note the ones you didn’t know before and make a flashcard for each. Don’t assume you’ll really learn the new word without looking at it seven times.

But the bigger question is how to grow in your ability to understand the Language — that is the context of your medium and genre — so that you’re well prepared to write in that realm.

This points to an exercise that is a lot longer than five minutes. The only way to immerse yourself in the language of landscape painting, for example, is to look at a lot of great landscape paintings, preferably in person. The only way to immerse yourself in the language of mystery novels is to read a lot of them — and the best ones you can find.

I wrote a literary novel. My editor asked at one point whether I was trying to write the Great American novel, and I said, “why would I try to write anything else?”

Eco says that “When the writer (or the artist in general) says he has worked without giving any thought to the rules of the process, he simply means he was working without realizing he knew the rules. … Telling how you wrote something does not mean proving it is “well” written. Poe said that the effect of the work is one thing [heart] and the knowledge of the process is another.”

It’s also been said that while Joyce was writing long, flowery sentences, Twain used sentences such as “It was a man.”  Part of using language effectively, both in the details of vocab selection and in the broader scope of speaking the language of the genre and medium, is to begin to walk unnoticed by the reader.

A popular Facebook meme says that you should never make fun of someone who speaks broken English — it means they know another language. At my son’s soccer games, the parents of Spanish-speaking families like to cheer for J.J., but they call him Yay-Yay. I love it, because I love that they root for my kid as well as their own, I see in this cheering the heart of a dad who wants all the boys to succeed. So the point is, when you’re not fluent in language it’s just going to be obvious. It doesn’t mean that you can’t write something with heart, so you shouldn’t stop writing any more than those dads should stop cheering. No! Keep going! In fact, it may give the writing a naive quality that somehow sings and may become considered great even if your language isn’t flawless. But on the other hand, fluency in context when you’re making something is worth working towards and attaining if you want to improve your abilities. Studying the language in terms of vocabulary is the building block, but reading the best literature in the category is understanding the culture that language fits into: and the best thing about this is to see how writers restrain themselves in terms of how they use the vocabulary they have, which certainly exceeds what they use: What you’re not saying is often more important than what you are saying.

Writer’s Group: Setting a really great goal

What sort of goal pushes you but is attainable? That’s what Justin and I have decided to push ourselves and our group toward, so that each one is making headway in writing their book.

I’m setting this blog up a few days in advance. I committed to 15,000 words this month and I have just over a thousand left, two days to go. I’ll attain my goal. I’ll push for that last amount partly because I’m leading and it would be poor leadership if I don’t lead by example, and partly because I’m serious about meeting my goals anyway. And partly because I’m committing to it once again, with 51 hours to go.

We fully expect that the writers in our group will publish their books sooner, more frequently, and with more quality than if they were not in the group.

Yesterday I sent my editor my final comments on the first round of corrections for the full draft. In less than two weeks, my goal is to finalize all the copy and send it to press. I’m ambitiously shooting for publication, for books in my hands, by December 1.

Set your goals just low enough that you can attain them every month, and just high enough that it will take effort. Both of these are important. You MUST attain your goal each month, otherwise you become discouraged. You must also set it high enough that you have to work for it. Otherwise it’s not a goal. Think of it this way: if you say “my goal is to eat three square meals a day” but you already do that anyway, as sort of a natural course of events, it’s not really a “Goal,” is it? But if you change the goal to something like this: “I will eat small portions including hard boiled eggs and carrot sticks six times a day, making sure to chew my food completely, and cut out sweets for the next eight weeks” there is a pretty good chance you can do it, and a pretty good chance it will take some conscious effort. Just like health and fitness goals, writing goals must be attainable to keep up your enthusiasm and courage, and hard enough to let you know there’s effort involved. Best of luck in November, when many people write short novels … but you could be writing novels every month with just a little more regular discipline and accountability!

Writer’s Group: Wrapping October (already!)

Next Thursday night, on the 22nd, it’s time again for Writer’s Group.

Two things to do in the next week if you’re participating. First, watch the video on relevancy and inspiration, you can find it on the Writer’s Group page here.

2. Start thinking about what sort of goal you want to set for November. November is that month when lots of people write a whole novel. Personally, I’m thinking about doubling my target from September/October and going for 30,000 words in four weeks from Oct 22 to Nov 19. By the end of October, we should be just about done editing my nonfiction project, and a 30,000 word goal in November would put me close to 2/3 done with my next fiction trilogy rough draft: I’d be over 120,000 words!

Maybe this November is your time to finish off the draft for your first book. But I think any month can be your NaNoWriMo. It depends on your schedule and determination. Is this your month to double your goal? Maybe it’s not. Be realistic! Nothing builds your energy for writing like hitting your realistic targets month after month.

This group is effective. Our participants hit their goals. If you want to start attending the writer’s group that meets monthly, send me an email to find out what the requirements for participation are. If you want to let others know how you’re doing this month, please comment!

UPDATE: I’ve written 13313 words this month. Under 1700 to go to meet my goal next week. How are you doing?