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Monday, July 31, 2017

Breathing life and sensation onto the pages

"Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader.   Not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.” – E.L. Doctorow

A lifelong New Yorker – born in The Bronx in 1931 and died in Manhattan in July, 1915 – Doctorow was one of the literary world’s great “crafters” of historical fiction.  He once said that it is the historian's place to tell us about a time in history or an era, but it is the novelist's role to tell us how we would act and feel if we lived in that time or era.

His characters exemplified Hemingway's admonition that when writing a novel, the writer should create living people - "... people, not characters.  A character is a caricature."

I thought about Doctorow and his marvelous writing – books like Ragtime, for example – while talking with a radio interviewer about my historical novel And The Wind Whispered.  "You really put us into the time and place," the interviewer said.  "Did you feel an obligation to make that real to us, so that we would know?"

As Doctorow so succinctly said, THAT IS the writer's obligation.  It is not acceptable to be "mostly right."  We must be completely right in what we share         if we are to remain true to our craft and the great writers who have led us along the way.

“One of the things I had to learn as a writer was to trust the act of writing,” Doctorow said.  “To put myself in the position of writing to find out what I was writing. I did that with World's Fair, as with all of them. The inventions of the book come as discoveries.”

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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Mastering the nonfiction puzzle

“Writing a nonfiction story is like cracking a safe. It seems impossible at the beginning, but once you're in, you're in.” – Rich Cohen
Born in Lake Forest, IL, on this date in 1968, Cohen is a contributing editor at both Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone magazines, and is co-creator, with Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger and Terence Winter, of the HBO series Vinyl.   His works have been New York Times bestsellers, New York Times Notable Books, and collected in the Best American Essays series.             
                                    Sometimes called one of the greatest “cultural and social” historians of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Cohen has won numerous awards – and some criticism – for his works.  But regardless of how his writings are received, they always generate a lot of commentary, whether about people portrayed or the times in which they are set.  He also has been one of the leading writers on people in the entertainment industry, something he says is both interesting and a challenge.

“It's a challenge, writing about actors, especially a good actor, because you can't always tell when they're being honest and when they're pretending - that is, when they're acting,” he said.   “The really good ones don't always seem to know themselves.”

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Saturday, July 29, 2017

Having that 'poetic condition'

“Poets don't have an 'audience'. They're talking to a single person all the time. Robert Graves

Born in Wimbledon, England, in 1895, Graves was a second generation poet (his father was the celebrated Irish poet Alfred Percival Graves) who wrote more than 140 poetic works, including compilations, and also wrote a number of best-selling novels, including I, Claudius, numerous essays, reviews, and nonfiction books.  His treatise on inspirational poetic writing, The White Goddess, published in 1948, has never been out of print.       

 "To be a poet," Graves said, "is a condition rather than a profession."    For Saturday’s Poem here are two short works by Robert Graves.

Symptoms of Love

Love is universal migraine,
bright stain on the vision
Blotting out reason.

Symptoms of true love
Are leanness, jealousy,
Laggard dawns;

Are omens and nightmares -
Listening for a knock,
Waiting for a sign:

For a touch of her fingers
In a darkened room,
For a searching look.

Take courage, lover!
Could you endure such pain
At any hand but hers?
I’d Love To Be A Fairy’s Child
Children born of fairy stock
Never need for shirt or frock,
Never want for food or fire,
Always get their hearts desire:
Jingle pockets full of gold,
Marry when they're seven years old.
Every fairy child may keep
Two ponies and ten sheep;
All have houses, each his own,
Built of brick or granite stone;
They live on cherries, they run wild--
I'd love to be a Fairy's child.

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Friday, July 28, 2017

Moving beyond writing limitations

“I think that we're all, as human beings, so limited. If we want to write about ourselves, that's fairly easy. And if we write about our friends or our families, we can do that. But if we want to project ourselves somewhere beyond our personal experience, we're going to fail unless we get that experience or we borrow it from others.” – William T. Vollmann

Born in Los Angeles on this date in 1959, Vollmann earned a degree in comparative literature from Cornell University and has had a wide-ranging career as a novelist, journalist, war correspondent, short story writer, and essayist.  In 2005, he won a National Book Award for his novel Europe Central.

Vollmann's other works have dealt with the settlement of North America (as in Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes, a cycle of seven novels); and stories of people on the margins of war, poverty, and hope.             In addition to his books, he has had articles and short stories published in numerous magazines and newspapers including Harper's, Esquire, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Book Review.

“When I was writing the first few books,” Vollmann said,  “what I would do is write a bunch of sentences and then go back and expand and explode those sentences, pack as much into them as I could.  So they'd kind of be like popcorn kernels popping... all this stuff in there to make the writing dense, and beautiful for its density.”

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Taking those 'exploratory' writing journeys

“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 darn 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 and teacher of creative writing at USC.                                                      
                          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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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Unpredictable, sporadic and addictive

“Writing's like gambling. Unpredictable and sporadic successes make you more addicted, not less.” – M. John Harrison

Born on this date in 1945, Michael John Harrison is an English author and literary critic whose work includes the Viriconium sequence of novels and short stories, the multiple award-winning 1989 novel Climbers, and the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, its third book Nova Swing winning the Arthur C. Clarke award, given annually for the best science fiction work published in the United Kingdom.  The book also won the Philip K. Dick Award in the U.S.       
                            Among his many awards for Climbers was the prestigious Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature, the first work of fiction to win the prize.

Widely considered one of the major stylists of modern fantasy and science fiction, Harrison’s reach is into all genrés and he has been twice nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature.   “He writes fantasy and science fiction … of a form, scale and brilliance that it shames not only the rest of the field, but most modern fiction,” noted 3-time Arthur C. Clarke winner China Tom Miéville.

Harrison’s works cross the writing spectrum and he also is a noted teacher of creative writing, focusing on landscape and autobiography.  “Every moment of a science fiction story,” he said,  “must represent the triumph of writing over world-building.”

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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Finding the story 'beneath the surface'

“You can have all the information you want in the world. If you don't have the people raising questions and looking beneath the surface, and people being paid to do this, you're not going to find the answers. “ – Lowell Bergman

Bergman, born on July 24, 1945, has had one of the most prestigious careers in American journalism, working 5 decades in both print and television news, earning almost every major journalistic award, and now also teaching journalism at UC-Berkeley. 

A native of New York City, Bergman studied at the University of Wisconsin and UC-San Diego, starting in journalism by co-founding the San Diego Free Press.  After stints at the San Francisco Examiner and Rolling Stone, he moved over to TV as a producer, reporter and then executive in charge of investigative reporting at ABC News.  An original producer of 20/20, he joined CBS News as a producer for 60 Minutes, where over the course of 14 years he produced more than 50 stories, many Emmy winners.

His investigative story into the tobacco industry, was later chronicled in the multiple Academy Award–nominated film The Insider, a gripping I highly commend as one of the all-time best films about investigative journalism.    Since leaving CBS he has combined his love of print, broadcast and teaching, including working 10 years as an investigative correspondent for The New York Times – where he won a Pulitzer Prize for the series “A Dangerous Business.”   And he is both a producer and reporter for the PBS series Frontline.            
  Named by the Society of Professional Journalist for its James Madison Freedom of Information Award for Career Achievement, he continues teaching and mentoring young journalists from around the world and serving as a conduit between student projects and their publication in some of the top media outlets.   “I tell my students that if you have enough preparation, you can handle the big interviews,” he said. “You won't be intimidated.”

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Monday, July 24, 2017

Intensifying the experience of living

Good fiction reveals feeling, refines events, locates importance and, though its methods are as mysterious as they are varied, intensifies the experience of living our own lives. – Vincent Canby

Born in July of 1924, Vincent Canby had the distinction of being both the chief film critic AND the chief theater critic for the New York Times – the only person to ever do so.  As film critic from 1969-93 he reviewed more than 1,000 films.   Image result for Vincent Canby
He then turned his critical eye to the theater where he did the theater reviews until his death in 2000.
He was such a respected writer and reviewer that Bob Hope requested that Canby be the one to write his obituary, but Canby died first.  However, he still received the byline on Hope’s story since he had crafted most of it prior to his own death, and Times editors didn’t think it could be topped. 

The career of Vincent Canby is discussed in the film For the Love of Movies:  The Story of American Film Criticism, a wonderful and insightful piece of writing and movie-making that I highly recommend for all who love the silver screen and those who comment upon it.

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Sunday, July 23, 2017

That 'hard-boiled' writing approach

“A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled.” – Raymond Chandler

Born on this date in 1888, Chandler started his writing career out of desperation after losing his oil company job during the Great Depression.  He found he had a great knack for writing crime stories and wrote for magazines for several years before devising his first novel – an instant hit and bestseller, The Big Sleep, published in 1939.

In addition to his many, many short stories, Chandler published seven novels including Double Indemnity and The Long Goodbye – considered a masterpiece in the genre and named one of the top 100 novels of the 20th Century.   A founder of the “hard-boiled school of detective fiction,” Chandler’s protagonist Philip Marlowe was made even more famous through the acting of Humphrey Bogart, who played him in a number of films adapted from Chandler’s works. 
                                             British author Ian Fleming said that Chandler offered “some of the finest dialogue written in any prose” and mystery writer Paul Levine described Chandler's style as the "literary equivalent of a quick punch to the gut."

“Write ‘actively,’” Chandler said when asked for his advice to young writers.  “And when in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”

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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Always a search for order

“For me, poetry is always a search for order.'' – Elizabeth Jennings

British poet Elizabeth Jennings, born this date in 1926, won many awards for her “orderly” poetry, which as it often turns out were anything but.  She won acclaim and awards for her lyric style including the prestigious Somerset Maugham Award for her second book of poetry A Way of Looking, and the W.H. Smith Literary Award for her 1987 Collected Works, which includes one of her most famous short poems, “In A Garden.”   She died in 2001.                   
                                  For an enjoyable and thoughtful afternoon or evening of poetic reading pick up one of her books.  They will transport you to whatever place about which she is writing.   For Saturday’s Poem, here is Jennings’,

                                     In A Garden

When the gardener has gone this garden
Looks wistful and seems waiting an event.

It is so spruce, a metaphor of Eden
And even more so since the gardener went,
Quietly godlike, but of course, he had
Not made me promise anything and I
Had no one tempting me to make the bad
  Yet I still felt lost and wonder why?

Even the beech tree from next door which shares
Its shadow with me, seemed a kind of threat.

Everything was too neat, and someone cares 

In the wrong way.
  I need not have stood long
Mocked by the smell of a mown lawn, and yet
I did.
  Sickness for Eden was so strong.

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Friday, July 21, 2017

Write every day -- and make it 'right'

“I feel I'm functioning at some level as a journalist because even though I write fiction, I'm trying to get the world accurate.” – Michael Connelly

Born on this date in 1956, Connelly is one of America’s premier writers of detective fiction.  His books, which have been translated into 39 languages and have won nearly every major award given to mystery writers, including the Edgar Award, Anthony Award, and Los Angeles Times Best Mystery/Thriller Award.

A journalist first, Connelly graduated from the University of Florida and started his career on the crime beat, great training for his later work in creative writing.  He is one of the leading advocates for keeping newspapers at the forefront in the media.

“A newspaper is the center of a community,” he said.  “It's one of the tent poles of the community, and that's not going to be replaced by Web sites and blogs.”       

One-time president of the Mystery Writers of America, he has had many works made into movies and television series, including the award-winning Netflix series Bosch.  And, he’s a frequent speaker and panelist on writing.

His advice to all writers is simple:  “Write every day even if it’s just a paragraph.”

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Writer to reader: It's in the soul

“I love writing novels, even if only a few thousand people read them. Here's my soul; I hope it appeals to your soul.”  Mark O'Donnell

Writer and humorist O’Donnell was born on this date in Cleveland, OH, in 1954 and despite his love of novels, he was best known for his smash Broadway hit and subsequent hit movie Hairspray, for which he won a Tony Award.  He also earned a Tony nomination for his 2008 Broadway show Cry-Baby.  He did have two best-selling novels, Getting Over Homer and Let Nothing You Dismay.

An identical twin – his brother was television writer Steve O’Donnell – Mark collapsed and died suddenly in 2012 and no cause has ever been determined.                          

In the years leading up to his death, he had been teaching regularly at Yale where he had many successful students and offered young writers this advice:  “Everybody has parents. As a dramatist, whenever you write a character, you must write their parents as well, even if the parents aren't there.”

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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

That 'Rainbow' Connection

In Colorado this time of year, afternoon thundershowers are prevalent, invariably followed by a stunning rainbow.   So, the other day when I saw yet one more, I was reminded of the wonderful song “Rainbow Connection,” written by the award winning songwriters Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher.

Originally performed by muppet Kermit the Frog (voiced by the late, great Jim Henson), It debuted in the 1979 hit The Muppet Movie (if you haven’t seen that movie, it’s another one of those “Not to be missed” things to put on your list).

Williams and Ascher, both in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, earned Oscar nominations for the movie’s score and this terrific song, which often has been compared with “Over The Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz exactly 40 years earlier.  Both songs are beautiful, make up the opening scene of their respective movies, and reflect each singer's urge to find something more in life.

"Rainbow Connection" has been recorded by hundreds of artists around the world – everyone from Jason Mraz to Willie Nelson and Sarah McLaughlin to the Yale University Whiffenpoofs and the Cast of “Glee.”  The American Film Institute rated it the 74th greatest movie song of all time – not bad for being sung by a frog.

Here's a version by the late Karen Carpenter, whose voice truly took every song to its highest level.  May you find your own rainbow connection in all your writers' moments.

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