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Monday, June 26, 2017

Use the past to write the present

“If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.” – Pearl Buck
Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Good Earth, a novel that paints a compelling picture of Chinese peasant life, Pearl Buck saw the world unfolding around her and chronicled it in a writing style that melded the past and present with clarity and intensity.  Over her lifetime she penned nearly 40 other novels, as well as numerous short stories and non-fiction works. 
Born this date in 1892 in the backwoods of West Virginia, she spent much of her growing up years in rural areas of China where her parents were missionaries.  Throughout her adult life, she was a staunch supporter of multiple humanitarian causes, particularly in support of overcoming poverty faced by children, whether in Asia or America.  
After winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938        (the first American woman to win the award), she utilized her prize money to establish the East and West Association, and the Pearl S. Buck Foundation to address humanitarian issues around the globe, but particularly in helping Asian and Asian American children.    For more than 50 years she spoke out and wrote against injustice whenever and wherever she saw it.
“The truth is always important and exciting,” she said. “Speak it, then. Life is dull without it.”

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Sunday, June 25, 2017

It's a 'nourishing' profession

“People need dreams, there's as much nourishment in 'em as food.” – Dorothy Gilman

Born in New Jersey on this date in 1923, Gilman is best remembered for her Mrs. Pollifax series that was a huge hit on the written page and the movie screen.   Begun in a time when women in mystery meant Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and international espionage meant James Bond or John Le Carre, her heroine became a spy in her 60s and might be the only spy in literature to belong simultaneously to the CIA   and her local garden club.

She started writing when she was 9. At 11, she competed against 10- to 16-year-olds in a story contest and won first place.   She wrote children’s stories for more than ten years under the name Dorothy Gilman Butters and then began writing adult novels about Mrs. Pollifax, a retired grandmother who becomes a CIA agent.

Most of her books feature strong women having adventures around the world, reflective of her own international travel background.  But they also feature small town life and puttering in the garden, something she enjoyed doing – cultivating vegetables and herbs and again using that skill and knowledge in her writing.

Named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, she died in 2012 having authored dozens of books and myriad short stories and pieces for magazines and newspapers.  Her advice to writers was always be on schedule in everything you do.   “If something anticipated arrives too late it finds us numb, wrung out from waiting, and we feel - nothing at all. The best things arrive on time.”

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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Planting the seed of an idea

 “A good question is never answered. It is not a bolt to be tightened into place but a seed to be planted and to bear more seed toward the hope of greening the landscape of idea.” – John Ciardi

How Does a Poem Mean? asked John Ciardi in 1959 and this interesting and insightful teacher and writer suddenly opened the door to the wonders of both writing and reading poetry to generations of young people who continue to study his book in classrooms everywhere.    Born on this date in 1916, Ciardi was a poet, a terrific etymologist, essayist, radio commentator, and translator of one of the most complex writings in history – Dante’s Divine Comedy. 
                            Read Ciardi’s book on how to write and understand poetry, then read his books – Homeward to America and Other Skies, bracketing World War II, to see the breadth and depth of one of America’s best poets.    Also a much sought after teacher, he directed the famed Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont and noted, "The classroom should be an entrance into the world, not an escape from it.”  For Saturday’s Poem, here is Ciardi’s,
I did not have exactly a way of life
but the bee amazed me and the wind's plenty
was almost believable. Hearing a magpie laugh

through a ghost town in Wyoming, saying Hello
in Cambridge, eating cheese by the frothy Rhine,
leaning from plexiglass over Tokyo,

I was not able to make one life of all
the presences I haunted. Still the bee
amazed me, and I did not care to call

accounts from the wind. Once only, at Pompeii,
I fell into a sleep I understood,
and woke to find I had not lost my way.

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Friday, June 23, 2017

An 'exploratory' journey for shape and reason

“There’s a beauty in writing stories—each one is an exploratory journey in search of a reason and a shape. And when you find that reason and that shape, there’s no feeling like it." – T.C. Boyle

Thomas C. Boyle excels at writing short stories, even though he’s also darned good at writing novels, having published 14 of them.  His book World’s End, in fact, won the coveted PEN/Faulkner Award.  But, it’s his short story list that’s most impressive and it continues to grow.  To date, he has more than 100 in print and many more “in process.”    Boyle also is unafraid of sharing his writing skills and serves as Distinguished Professor of English at USC where he founded the creative writing program.

An advocate of the stream of consciousness style – he says start with a word or phrase and then just see where it might take you.  It’s also a great technique for overcoming writer’s block.  Just pick something and start writing.                                   
                             “I have an idea and a first line – and that suggests the rest of it,” he said.  “I have little concept of what I’m going to say, or where it’s going. I have some idea of how long it’s going to be – but not what will happen or what the themes will be. That’s the intrigue of doing it – it’s a process of discovery. You get to discover what you’re going to say and what it’s going to mean.”

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

What writing suspense is all about

“For me, a good thriller must teach me something about the real world. Thrillers like Coma, The Hunt for Red October and The Firm all captivated me by providing glimpses into realms about which I knew very little - medical science, submarine technology and the law.” – Dan Brown

Best known for The DaVinci Code and several subsequent works with the same main character, Dan Brown was born on this date in 1964 in New Hampshire and grew up on the campus of an elite private school where his father was a “live-in” teacher.

Although he thought about a teaching career himself, he seriously considered music instead and was both writing and performing regularly when his career path took a sharp turn in 1993 while he was on vacation in Tahiti.  While there, he picked up a copy of Sidney Sheldon’s bestselling thriller The Doomsday Conspiracy and said he was instantly captivated and decided he, too, wanted to be a writer of thrillers.  Brown’s first three books met with little success before he came up with the idea for DaVinci and the rest – at least for Brown – is writing history.  His books have been translated into 52 languages, and as of 2012, sold over 200 million copies. Three of them, Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, and Inferno have been adapted into films.

Brown says he’s a slow writer because he is constantly striving for the best way to portray each and every scene.  “I often will write a scene from three different points of view to find out which has the most tension and which way I'm able to conceal the information I'm trying to conceal,” he explained.   “And that is, at the end of the day, what writing suspense is all about."           
                                   “I still get up every morning at 4 a.m.  I write seven days a week, including Christmas. And I still face a blank page every morning, and my characters don't really care how many books I've sold.”

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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Weaving an 'intense' curiosity

“The suspense of a novel is not only in the reader, but in the novelist, who is intensely curious about what will happen to the hero.” – Mary McCarthy

Born on this date in 1912, McCarthy was orphaned at age 6 when her parents both died in the great flu epidemic that swept the world right after World War I.  After living in fairly harsh conditions for several years, and separated from her siblings, she was finally taken in by her maternal grandparents who raised her to adulthood and also helped shape her views on politics and writing.
As an adult she not only became a renowned writer and teacher        but also a political activist, particularly as an opponent of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.  Her most acclaimed works were The Company She Keeps and The Group, the latter on the New York Times Bestseller List for over 2 years.  Over the years she authored over two dozen books and won numerous awards including the National Medal for Literature.

As a professor at several prestigious colleges and universities, she said she often told students not to be afraid to include elements of one’s own life in the words that you share.  “We all live in suspense from day to day; in other words, you are the hero of your own story.”

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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A happy song for the ages

“I’d love to say Walking on Sunshine relates to a significant event in my life, like walking out of my front door, seeing a comet and being inspired. But it’s just a piece of simple fun, an optimistic song.” – Kimberly Rew

Rew wrote Walking on Sunshine for his band Katrina and the Waves.  Sung by Katrina Leskanich, it was a massive 1985 hit song that has remained one of the all-time best-sellers – re-recorded by dozens of singers, featured over and over in commercials and movies, and making millions for the band members, who wisely chose to keep the rights.   Besides Rew and Leskanich, the other members are Vince de la Cruz and Alex Cooper.                    
                             “The song changed my life,” said Leskanich, who first thought it wasn’t that great and they might be wasting their time recording it.   “I’ve ended up adoring it.  People are always coming up to me and saying: ‘We played it at our wedding.’”

It wasn’t yet around for OUR wedding, but it did roll up the charts in June 1985, and reached its high point right around this date – June 20 – which happens to be our anniversary.    I liked it then as our anniversary song, and still do.  So, happy anniversary to my wife Susan (our 48th) as we continue “walking on sunshine.”   And here’s the song.  Enjoy! 

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