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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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Monday, June 19, 2017

Anatomy of writing success

“I'm a fisherman who likes to observe and tell yarns, and so I told stories about things that I knew about.” – John D. Voelker

Born on this date in 1904, Voelker is best known for his book Anatomy of a Murder, written under his pen name Robert Traver.  An avid fly fisherman and practitioner of the law, Voelker almost became a bartender like his father, but was constantly encouraged by his mother to get his education and pursue the law instead.

In law school at the University of Michigan he nearly flunked out, but fought the grade ruling, got reinstated, earned his degree and went on to a highly successful career, first as a trial lawyer, then as a judge,       and finally as a Michigan Supreme Court Justice.     

Voelker wrote his first story, "Lost All Night in a Swamp with a Bear" at age 12 and had his first published piece, a short story called "Iron" in 1934.  By that point he was immersed in the law and so took on a pen name, a combination of brother’s first name and his mother’s maiden name – because he "didn't think the taxpayers would fancy [him] doing [his] scribbling on their time."

Anatomy of a Murder is based on a real case that he won for the defendant in 1952.  It not only was a best-selling book but also an award-winning movie, filmed almost entirely in Voelker’s Michigan hometown and county courthouse, the first time that type of filming had been done.  It has been named one of the best trial movies of all time.

Voelker said he was glad he chose the law and combined it with his love of writing tales.  “Spinning yarns,” he said,  “is a protection against the nuttiness... the greed, and the hate all around us.”

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Sunday, June 18, 2017

Constantly freeing up new designs

“I write the way you might arrange flowers. Not every try works, but each one launches another. Every constraint, even dullness, frees up a new design.” – Richard Powers

Born on this date in 1957, Powers is noted for exploring the effects of science and technology, something he says are essential to modern writing.  “I think that if the novel's task is to describe where we find ourselves and how we live now,” he explained,  “the novelist must take a good, hard look at the most central facts of contemporary life - technology and science.”

A native of Evanston, IL, Powers spent a number of his formative years in Thailand where his father had a key position at the International School Bangkok.  While there, he developed both writing and musical skills, becoming proficient in cello, guitar, saxophone and clarinet, studying voice and vocal performance, and also immersing himself in books, especially the classics. 

His wonderful book The Time of Our Singing is a story about the musician children of an interracial couple who meet at Marian Anderson’s legendary concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.   The book shows off Powers’ knowledge of both music and physics while also exploring both race relations and the burdens of talent.
His most honored novel, 2006’s The Echo Maker won         the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  Since then he’s won dozens of other major prizes, including a MacArthur (Genius) Grant, the Lannan Literary Award and the Dos Passos Prize for Literature.  
                        Now teaching at Stanford, his advice to students is to delve into whatever opportunities arise.  “If you're going to immerse yourself in a project for three years, why not stake out a chunk of the world that is completely alien to you … and go traveling?”

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Saturday, June 17, 2017

We all need poetry

“We all need poetry. The moments in our lives that are characterized by language that has to do with necessity or the market, or just, you know, things that take us away from the big questions that we have, those are the things that I think urge us to think about what a poem can offer.” – Tracy K. Smith

Named the nation’s 22nd Poet Laureate this week, Smith, who was born in 1972, grew up in a house lined with books of all kinds – ranging from Sci-Fi paperbacks to Shakespeare’s sonnets.  Now, as laureate, she has the world’s largest library available to explore – when she’s not busy teaching poetry and creative writing at Princeton.
                                 Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize – for her spectacular book of poems Life on Mars – Smith told Washington Post reporter Ron Charles that her new appointment gives her an opportunity “to immerse myself in the conversation that poetry generates.  When we’re talking about the feelings that poems alert us to and affirm, we’re speaking as our realest selves.”   For Saturday’s Poem, here is Smith’s,

              The Good Life
 When some people talk about money
They speak as if it were a mysterious lover
Who went out to buy milk and never
Came back, and it makes me nostalgic
For the years I lived on coffee and bread,
Hungry all the time, walking to work on payday
Like a woman journeying for water
From a village without a well, then living
One or two nights like everyone else
On roast chicken and red wine.

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Friday, June 16, 2017

Carrying the lamp for editorial fairness

To love what you do and feel that it matters – how could anything be more fun?”
 – Katharine Graham

 Award-winning writer, and publisher of The Washington Post for over two decades, Graham was born this date in 1917.  Today, she’s especially remembered for her newspaper's role in exposing the Watergate Scandal.  I loved reading her Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, simply titled Personal History, and what a history it was, exuding both her joy of working in media and the fun she had doing it.  She and her editorial team revived a so-so newspaper and made it a national powerhouse, and the investigative effort during Watergate stands as a benchmark for “how it’s done.”

A Republican who oversaw investigative reporting of a Republican president, she said politics should never get in the way of good reporting.  “It matters not if a person is from one party or another.  If someone has done something that needs to be exposed in print, then that’s what a good reporter should do.”                      

A personal friend of luminaries like Truman Capote and Adlai Stevenson, who was twice a candidate for U.S. President and served as the U.N. Ambassador, she was awarded The Presidential Medal of Freedom shortly before her death in 2001. The International Press Institute named her one of the world’s 50 most influential and powerful media people of the 20th century in 2000.

“Once, power was considered a masculine attribute,” Graham said when told of the honor.  “In fact, power has no sex.”

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Write the words that won't wear out

“Honesty is something you can't wear out.” – Waylon Jennings
Born on this date in 1937, Jennings grew up in Littlefield, TX, where he learned how to play guitar by the time he was 8 and started in the entertainment business at age 12 – working as a DJ at a local radio station.   In 1954 he befriended rising star Buddy Holly who also became his mentor, collaborating with him on songs, and helping produce Waylon’s first record.
Jennings also became a fill-in player for Holly’s group The Crickets and was with him in Iowa on his final tour that ended in Holly’s death in a plane crash.  Jennings was supposed to be on that plane with Holly but at the last minute gave up his seat to The Big Bopper because the latter was suffering from a bad cold.
Ultimately, Jennings became one of the great songwriters       and singers of country, country rock, and a new genre – founded with Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Jessi Coulter – called Outlaw Country.   He was still at the height of his career when he died in 2002 of complications from diabetes at the relatively young age of 64.

Jennings was known for his support of many social issues and causes, saying it was an easy choice.  “A lot of times people don't want to hear it.  But you know, if some good is done to you, you should pass it on.”

YouTube is filled with Waylon Jennings songs.  A couple I've always enjoyed, both for their tunes and the terrific lyrics are “Luckenback, Texas,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-qj-CnGZd4  and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” here sung as a duet with old pal Willie Nelson, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VkYmvKnZHtE    Enjoy!

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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Writing what you see and hear

“Whenever I write, I write what I find to be the way people are. I never use any symbolism at all, but if you write as true to life as you possibly can, people will see symbolism. They'll all see different symbolism, but they're apt to because you can see it in life.” – Carolyn Chute 
Born in Maine on this date in 1947, Chute is a populist political activist strongly identified with the culture of poor, rural western Maine, although her works speak to other similar areas in the U.S. such as rural Appalachia.  An award-winning writer (both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Thornton Wilder Award) who “knows of what she speaks,” she writes by hand, lives off the grid (no electricity or running water in her home), and raises much of her own food.
 She started writing as a part-time newspaper correspondent, then taught creative writing while finishing her best known, novel, The Beans of Egypt, Maine.  Published in 1985, it was made into a 1994 film of the same name, directed by Jennifer Warren.  She has since published a number of other books and short stories and is a frequent speaker about class issues in America.  She also publishes "The Fringe," a monthly collection of essays, short stories, and intellectual commentary on current events.
Her advice to writers is to just write what you see and hear.         “Every time I think I know what's right and wrong, I end up being wrong. All I want to do is explore. I want to see what people would do. I say, 'What would this person do in this situation?' and I write it down.”

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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Reader, writer, characters: A terrific triad

“The interesting thing about fiction from a writer's standpoint is that the characters come to life within you. And yet who are they and where are they? They seem to have as much or more vitality and complexity as the people around you.” – Whitley Strieber

Born in San Antonio, TX, on this date in 1945, Strieber has split his writing talents between horror stories, science fiction, and speculative fiction with a social conscience – interrupted (both literally and figuratively) by his nonfiction account of being abducted by “non-human visitors.”   That particular book, Communion, while pooh-poohed as “improbable if not impossible,” was a huge bestseller and a subsequent successful big screen adaptation. 
Two of his other books, The Wolfen and The Hunger,         also were made into successful films.  Still going strong at age 72, Strieber had three books out in 2016, including the acclaimed Sci-Fi book Hunters, now set to be made into a new series for the SyFy Channel.

As for what makes for successful writing?   “The truth is, everything ultimately comes down to the relationship between the reader and the writer and the characters,” Strieber said.   “Does or does not a character address moral being in a universal and important way? If it does, then it's literature.”

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Monday, June 12, 2017

Seeing the possibilities in everything

 “I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence I can reach for; perfection is God's business.” – Michael J. Fox

Fox, who celebrated his 56th birthday this past weekend, stays exceptionally busy despite his ongoing battle with Parkinson’s disease, working on causes ranging from finding a cure for the illness to eradicating hunger and housing shortages.                             
                               He remains one of the most well-known faces in acting, never resting on the laurels that came from his earlier successes, especially as Alex Keaton on the long-running TV series Family Ties, and as teen heartthrob/adventurer Marty McFly in the Back to the Future movie series. 

A native of Edmonton, Canada and now longtime resident of New York City, Fox’s acting career almost got sidelined from the start.  The director of Family Ties wanted him for the Alex role, but producer Brandon Tartikoff felt Keaton was “too short (he’s 5-foot-4) and not the kind of face you’d like to see on your kid’s lunchbox.”  But they tried him in the pilot and he was so well-received he went on to be the key figure in the show, winning three Emmy Awards in the process.    At the end of the series, he presented Tartikoff with a lunchbox with his face emblazoned on the cover.

Also a gifted writer, Fox uses his writing skills to spread the word about the disease from which he suffers, ever optimistic that with enough attention and support a cure can be discovered – if not in his lifetime then at least to help future generations.  Lucky Man, his book about dealing with the disease, is a must read for those interested in how to overcome seemingly crushing odds. 
“I see possibilities in everything. For everything that's taken away, something of greater value has been given,” Fox said.   “I like to encourage people to realize that any action is a good action if it's proactive and there is positive intent behind it.”   

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Sunday, June 11, 2017

The opportunity 'to be a mirror'

“Any form of media is an opportunity to be a mirror and reflection of what we are experiencing more in the details of our life.” – Mara Brock Akil

Brock Akil has been a trailblazer for black women, making her impact as an award-winning television writer and producer and creating the highly successful BET show Being Mary Jane, a show centered on the life – both personal and professional – of a successful black news anchor in L.A.     The show chronicles the life of Mary Jane Paul and attempts to address the statistic that within the black community 42 percent of successful women will never marry.    
While she has been a screenwriter for 20 years,     she started her career as a journalist after graduating with a journalism degree from Northwestern and credits journalistic writing as the key to her success. 

“I often attribute my screenwriting to journalism because they drill in the who, what, when, where and why - but we really need to land on that why,” she said.  “That's what I've been exploring in my writing for many years.”

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Saturday, June 10, 2017

Writing powerful poems that matter

“I want to write poems that matter, that have an interesting point of view.” – Maxine Kumin

One-time Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, Kumin was born in Philadelphia on June 6, 1925.   She said an “introspective” childhood led her to writing poetry early and it was a perfect fit for her life and the writing world where she did, indeed, write so many wonderful poems that matter before her death in 1914.          
                                 Among her many awards (far too many to list here) are the Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize for Poetry, the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for the magnificent Up Country, and the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry,    For Saturday’s Poem, here is Kumin’s, 

                                                       In The Park
You have forty-nine days between
death and rebirth if you're a Buddhist.
Even the smallest soul could swim
the English Channel in that time
or climb, like a ten-month-old child,
every step of the Washington Monument
to travel across, up, down, over or through
- you won't know till you get there which to do.

He laid on me for a few seconds
said Roscoe Black, who lived to tell
about his skirmish with a grizzly bear
in Glacier Park. He laid on me not doing anything.

I could feel his heart
beating against my heart.
Never mind lie and lay, the whole world
confuses them. For Roscoe Black you might say
all forty-nine days flew by.

I was raised on the Old Testament.
In it God talks to Moses, Noah,
Samuel, and they answer.
People confer with angels. Certain
animals converse with humans.
It's a simple world, full of crossovers.
Heaven's an airy Somewhere, and God
has a nasty temper when provoked,
but if there's a Hell, little is made of it.
No longtailed Devil, no eternal fire,

and no choosing what to come back as.
When the grizzly bear appears, he lies/lays down
on atheist and zealot. In the pitch-dark
each of us waits for him in Glacier Park.

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Friday, June 9, 2017

Grounded in stories about oneself

“I think any writer keeps going back to some basic theme. Sometimes it's autobiographical. I guess it usually is” – Joe Haldeman

Born in Oklahoma City on this date in 1943, Haldeman is one of America’s leading writers of Science Fiction, best known for his novels The Forever War, The Hemingway Hoax and Forever Peace.  In 2009 he was selected for the Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master Award, followed in 2010 by the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement.  He was inducted into The Science Fiction Hall of Fame in June 2012.

Also known for writing by hand – literally, he writes with a pen and notepad – he said there's something special about writing by hand, writing with a fountain pen.  “And there's something special about writing into a book, to take a blank book and turn it into an actual book.

“I like the physical action of writing down by hand, and I don't just use it for writing my fiction.”

Many of Haldeman's works, including his debut novel War Year and The Forever War (his second book) were inspired by his experiences in the Vietnam War, where he was wounded, and by adjusting to civilian life after returning home.                    

“I think I would have been a writer, anyhow, in the sense of having written a story every now and then, or continued writing poetry,” Haldeman said.   “But it was the war experience and the two novels I wrote about Vietnam that really got me started as a professional writer.”

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Thursday, June 8, 2017

Loving the 'Creativity' that writing brings

“I've always loved writing, and the impulse for me is storytelling. I don't sit down and think: 'What political message can I sell?' I love the creativity of it.” – Randa Abdel-Fattah

Born in June 1979, Abdel-Fattah is a native Australian of Palestinian-Egyptian heritage, bringing an interesting cultural mix to her writing.  She started writing and had her first published work as a 6th grader.  “I’ve been writing stories since I was a kid,” she said.   “I love writing stories.”

She wrote numerous short stories as a teenager and by age 18 produced the first draft of Does My Head Look Big in This? later to become her 2005 debut novel.  The tale of a 16-year-old Muslim girl who decides to wear the hijab full-time, it’s a story of life choices, bias and abiding friendships.  The book and a play based on it have won numerous awards and accolades.

A champion for social justice and human rights, she is a frequent speaker and writer on and regular broadcast commentator on those topics.  She also is a regular guest at schools around Australia addressing students about her books and the social justice issues they raise.   And she loves celebratory events           from all cultures and religions.

“Religious celebrations, and the good will, high spirits and generosity that mark them, are wonderful occasions for understanding the potential of 'everyday multiculturalism,’ and how people from diverse faiths can connect and show they care, rather than go down parallel, sometimes hostile, roads.”

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