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Thursday, December 31, 2015

That 'amazing, surprising' literature

“Science fiction is an amazing literature: plot elements that you would think would be completely worn out by now keep changing into surprising new forms.” – Connie Willis

A fellow Coloradoan who makes her home in Greeley – where she studied at Northern Colorado – Willis is one of science fiction writing’s trailblazers and an inductee in the Science Fiction Writers Hall of Fame. 

Born on this day in 1945, Willis has won more major awards than any other writer – an  an incredible 11 Hugos and 7 Nebulas.  Her 2010 novel Blackout/All Clear won both, and just preceded her being named by the SciFi Writers Association as a “Grand Master,” their highest honor. 
                           An English and elementary education major, she combined her teaching with short story writing for more than a dozen years before the awards (and income) started piling up from her writing.  She’s been a full-time writer since the mid-1980s.

While much of her writing is grounded in the social sciences, she often weaves technology into her stories in order to prompt readers to question what impact it has on the world.  And, several of her works feature time travel by history students and faculty of the future University of Oxford—sometimes called her Time Travel series.

An advocate of meticulous research and exquisite detail (check out her books Passages or Remake for two terrific examples), she encourages new writers to do the same and never in just one take.  “I have never written anything in one draft, not even a grocery list,” she quipped, “although I have heard from friends that this is actually possible.”

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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Words - the most powerful drug

“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.  - Rudyard Kipling

And Kipling, who was born on this date in 1865, used words in the most powerful of ways, creating great novels like The Jungle Book and The Man Who Would Be King, epic poems like Mandalay and Gunga Din, and collections for children like The Just So Stories.

Despite that, he is probably most quoted on or around Mother’s Day when his saying “God could not be everywhere and therefore he created mothers” is used in various renditions.

One of the most popular writers in the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he is widely regarded as a major innovator in the art of the short story.  His children's books are classics of children's literature; and one critic has described his work as exhibiting "a versatile and luminous narrative gift.”

He was born in Bombay (Mumbai), India, where both his parents and the setting became integral parts of his writing and creative process.  His father was a noted sculptor and professor and his mother a socialite and driving force behind her son’s successes, teaching him reading and writing early and encouraging him to "think beyond yourself and your
  own world and tell everyone’s stories.”

In 1907, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first English-language recipient. The prize citation read: "In consideration of the power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas and remarkable talent for narration which characterize the creations of this world-famous author."

“If history were taught in the form of stories,” Kipling said about his writing,  “it would never be forgotten.”

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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

That 'image in your mind'

“Writing well means never having to say, ‘I guess you had to be there.’” ― Jef Mallett

Not to be confused with the founder of internet company Yahoo!, Mallett is  the creator and artist of the nationally-syndicated comic strip Frazz.   He also has authored several books for both kids and adults, including one I’ve enjoyed, Dangerous Dan. 

Mallett, who makes his home in Michigan, planned to be a nurse or an EMT, but both his athletic and artistic skills kept getting in the way.  A standout athlete in high school and college, he is an avid triathlete, having completed his first triathlon in 1981.  Since then he not only has participated in many more but also completed the grueling Iron Man competition. 

While drawing is his first artistic love, he also has long enjoyed writing and, in particular, putting the two together.  He has several award-winning comic strips and political cartoons to his credit – in each case where both the words and the images are powerfully presented.    A political cartoon, just like a political opinion piece, can and should be a powerful expression on behalf of a cause.  His own causes have ranged from Habitat for Humanity to support for the USO, which in turn supports U.S. Servicemen abroad.

“An opinion should be the result of thought,” he said,  “not a substitute for it.”

 Frazz by Jef Mallett

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Monday, December 28, 2015

That helping hand holds a pen

“It was on my fifth birthday that Papa put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'Remember, my son, if you ever need a helping hand, you'll find one at the end of your arm.’” – Sam Levenson

Born on this date in 1911, American humorist, writer, teacher, television host, and journalist Levenson was originally a Spanish teacher in Brooklyn, New York.  But, once he started writing humor pieces he was sought after as a columnist and that led to his stand-up comic routine.  He 
appeared a record 21 times on the Ed Sullivan Show 
and multiple times on The Tonight Show.

Once he got more into writing, he focused on nonfiction and wrote the bestsellers Everything But Money (1966), Sex and the Single Child (1969), In One Era And Out The Other (1973), and You Can Say That Again, Sam! (1975).

Poetry was another of his somewhat hidden talents and he is credited with authoring the well-known poem "Time Tested Beauty Tips,” the favorite of actress Audrey Hepburn, who has sometimes been falsely attributed as its author. Levenson, who adored children, said he was inspired to write the poem for his grandchildren and in memory of his parents.

He pointed out that while his parents were not wealthy, they cared about what their kids did and encouraged them to read, read, read.  “Any kid who has parents who are interested in him and has a houseful of books is never poor.”

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Sunday, December 27, 2015

Those valuable daily reflections

“I started writing one afternoon when I was twenty, and ever since then I have written every day. At first I had to force myself. Then it became part of my identity, and I did it without thinking.” – David Sedaris

An American humorist, comedian, author, and radio contributor, Sedaris first burst onto the scene in 1992 when National Public Radio broadcast his essay "SantaLand Diaries,” which have since become one of NPR’s standards for the Christmas season.

Sedaris went on to publish six best-selling collections of essays and short stories in a row, the best-known being the absolutely hilarious When You Are Engulfed in Flames.  (The title comes from a guide for guests in a hotel in which he was staying).

A native of New York, he grew up in North Carolina and – as noted above – started writing down thoughts about growing up, family life, heritage and various and sundry jobs.  It was while reading from this diary at a comedy club that he was “discovered” by NPR’s Ira Glass, who arranged for him to do his SantaLand essay.

Sedaris, of course, is a firm believer in keeping a diary or journal, and not 
only because it has served as the basis 
for most of his award-winning work.

“I've been keeping a diary for thirty-three years and write in it every morning,” Sedaris said.   “Most of it's just whining, but every so often there'll be something I can use later: a joke, a description, a quote. It's an invaluable aid when it comes to winning arguments. 'That's not what you said on February 3, 1996,' I'll say to someone.”

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Saturday, December 26, 2015

Stir a flower; trouble a star

“All things by immortal power. near or far, to each other linked are, that thou canst not stir a flower without troubling of a star. – Francis Thompson

Saturday’s Poem is by British poet Francis Thompson (1859-1907), who wrote three books of poetry, a number of short stories, and several essays, including one of the best ever done on the poet Percy Bysche Shelley.   He battled both debilitating illness and depression for most of his short life and died of tuberculoisis. 

He is perhaps best known for writing key phrases that became the focus or central theme for other writings or actions.  His term “With all deliberate speed,” was used in the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Brown vs. Board of Education.  And his phrase “Love is a many-splendored thing” became the title of a novel by Han Suyin, and of a popular 1955 movie and hit song by The Four Aces.  Authors J.R.R. Tolkien and Madeline L’Engle both cited him as a key influence on their writing. 

Here is his short poem
Go, songs
Go, songs, for ended is our brief, sweet play; 
Go, children of swift joy and tardy sorrow: 
And some are sung, and that was yesterday, 
And some are unsung, and that may be tomorrow.

Go forth; and if it be o'er stony way, 
Old joy can lend what newer grief must borrow: 
And it was sweet, and that was yesterday, 
And sweet is sweet, though purchased with sorrow.

Go, songs, and come not back from your far way: 
And if men ask you why ye smile and sorrow, 
Tell them ye grieve, for your hearts know Today, 
Tell them ye smile, for your eyes know Tomorrow.

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Friday, December 25, 2015

Writers' words at Christmas

A few “wise words” from writers about Christmas.  Happy Christmas everyone!
“I sometimes think we expect too much of Christmas Day. We try to crowd into it the long arrears of kindliness and humanity of the whole year. As for me, I like to take my Christmas a little at a time, all through the year. And thus I drift along into the holidays — let them overtake me unexpectedly — waking up some fine morning and suddenly saying to myself: ‘Why, this is Christmas Day!’” ~ David Grayson (journalist and biographer)

“As long as we know in our hearts what Christmas ought to be, Christmas is.”~Eric Sevareid (longtime CBS News reporter, novelist and essayist)

“Our hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmas-time.” ~Laura Ingalls Wilder (written when she was a magazine editor in Kansas before her Little House days)

And a few words from me:  May Peace be your gift at Christmas and your blessing all year through.

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Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Merry Little Christmas

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," a song primarily written by Hugh Martin (with an assist from Ralph Blane), was introduced by Judy Garland in the 1944 MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis.   Frank Sinatra, whose 100th birthday we celebrated a couple weeks ago, then recorded Martin's 1950s version that became the standard that we so often hear at Christmas.   

In 2007, ASCAP ranked "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" as the third most performed Christmas song and the 76th most performed song of ALL songs that had been first written and recorded for the cinema.
I shared thoughts on the song a couple years ago after hearing an interview with Martin about the song's genesis.  Martin said developing the song was “a moment that just came to him” as he thought about Christmas, and being together with family while vacationing near his family home in Alabama.  It became a “writer’s moment” if you will.

Martin said one of his favorite versions was done in the 1970s by the incomparable Karen Carpenter. So on this Christmas Eve day, here’s that version.  And Merry Christmas everyone!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Slow and steady is the pace

“The storytelling gift is innate: one has it or one doesn't. But style is at least partly a learned thing: one refines it by looking and listening and reading and practice - by work.”  – Donna Tartt

Born on this date in 1962, Donna Tartt is a writer whose pace is something I like to point out when I am talking about my own – which runs to the “slow and steady wins the race” type.  Usually one every 10 years.

Her novel The Little Friend, released in 2003, won the WH Smith Literary Award, and her 2013 book The Goldfinch won The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction – not a bad track record.  On top of that, she was named to Time Magazine’s “The 100 Most Influential People of 2014” list.   

A native of Mississippi, Tartt started serious writing as a first-year student at Ole Miss under the tutelage of fellow Mississippi author Barry Hannah, who was serving as Writer-in-Residence at the University.  Struck by her enthusiasm and ability, he enrolled her in his Graduate writing class.   Eventually she transferred to the renowned Bennington College (Vermont) writing program.   Her experiences there, along with her vivid imagination, led to her best-selling first novel The Secret History in 1992.

“My novels aren't really generated by a single conceptualspark,” she said.  “It's more 
a process of many different elements that come together unexpectedly over a long
 period of time.”  Like a decade, a timeline I can truly identify with.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Those seeds that you plant

Today, I am coming from the funeral of my Aunt Alyce, a woman who helped raise me when my mother was left alone with 3 small kids and no one else to whom she could turn for help.  To say she had an oversized impact on my life would be an understatement, and I thought of her again this morning when I saw this quote.

“Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” 
– Robert Louis Stevenson

My aunt was a “seed planter,” not only for me but for hundreds (perhaps thousands) more, and so many of us didn’t get that last chance to thank her personally before her sudden and unexpected death from a stroke.  As we approach Christmas, I encourage you to thank a person who “planted the seeds” that made a difference in your life.   It will, indeed, be a gift that will have meaning to you both.  Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

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Monday, December 21, 2015

That 'high tech' feeling

“Print-on-demand publishing is the new farm system for new voices in fiction. Authors who have compelling things to say, who can market their stories in compelling ways, will succeed.”  - Daniel Suarez

More and more publishing houses are going to the new print on demand technology and no one can speak more to how successful the technique is than Suarez, whose novels started in that fashion before being “mainstreamed” by Dutton, one of the Big Five publishers.

Suarez, who was born on this day in 1964, is an IT specialist whose career as an author began with a pair of techno-thriller novels, Daemon, originally self-published under his own company Verdugo Press, and then Freedom, picked up by Dutton along with a re-release of the first one, which also has been optioned for a movie. His latest book, Influx, won the 2015 Prometheus Award.

 A former systems consultant to Fortune 1000 companies, Suarez loves writing, but also stays involved with technology, designing and developing mission-critical software for the defense, finance, and entertainment industries.  He said he loves writing but sometimes pushes the wrong buttons with his topics.

“When you write a high-tech thriller and then people in the defense establishment start calling you - people I can't name - you feel maybe you've hit a nerve.  Oh well.”

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Sunday, December 20, 2015

'I could tell their stories'

“I always tell people that I became a writer not because I went to school but because my mother took me to the library. I wanted to become a writer so I could see my name in the card catalog. – Sandra Cisneros

Cisneros (born on this date in 1954) is an American writer best known for her acclaimed first novel The House on Mango Street and her subsequent short story collection Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories.   She is the recipient of numerous awards including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and is 
regarded as a key figure in Chicana literature.

A native of Chicago who now lives in San Antonio, TX, Cisneros worked as a teacher, a counselor, a college recruiter, a poet-in-the-schools, and an arts administrator before her writing successes.  Since then, she has maintained a strong commitment to community and literary causes. In 1998 she established the Macondo Foundation, which provides socially conscious workshops for writers. 

It was gaining an understanding of her own social and cultural background that gave her the insight and courage to write from those perspectives.  “Cultural environment became a source of inspiration.  I could write of neighbors, the people I saw, the poverty that the women had gone through.  I could tell their stories. 

“One press account said I was an overnight success,” Sandra said.   “I thought 'that was the longest night I've ever spent'.

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Saturday, December 19, 2015

Sharing smiles like roses

“As individuals, we are shaped by story from the time of birth; we are formed by what we are told by our parents, our teachers, our intimates.” – Helen Dunmore

My choice for "Saturday's poet" is British writer Helen Dunmore, who said growing up in a large family (her parents also came from large families) was a great influence on her writing because, "In a large family you hear and observe a great many stories."   The writer of award-winning poetry and a couple dozen books (mostly for children), she said writing books for kids has given her a special grounding in her craft.

“Writing children's books gives a writer a very strong sense of narrative drive.   Children will not pretend to be enjoying books, and they will not read books because they have been told that these books are good. They are looking for delight.”

Among her clever children’s books are Aliens Don’t Eat Bacon Sandwiches and Go Fox, two of her several of her works taught in British elementary schools.  Here’s "Saturday's Poem" by Dunmore.  

Smiles Like Roses

All down my street
smiles opened like roses
sun licked me and tickled me
sun said, Didn’t you believe me
when I said I’d be back?

I blinked my eyes, I said,
Sun, you are too strong for me
where’d you get those muscles?
Sun said, Come and dance.

All over the park
smiles opened like roses
babies kicked off their shoes
and sun kissed their toes.

All those new babies
all that new sun
everybody dancing
walking but dancing.

All over the world
sun kicked off his shoes
and came home dancing
licking and tickling

kissing crossing-ladies and fat babies
saying to everyone
Hey you are the most beautiful
dancing people I’ve ever seen
with those smiles like roses!

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Friday, December 18, 2015

Getting some 'satisfaction'

“Songwriting's a weird game. I never intended to become one - I fell into this by mistake, and I can't get out of it. It fascinates me. I like to point out the rawer points of life.” – Keith Richards

Born on this date in1943, in the London suburb of Dartford, Kent, Richards started life on the go as his family was temporarily evacuated from their home during the Nazi bombing and rocket campaign of 1944.   In 1951, while attending primary school, Richards first met and befriended Mick Jagger in what would not only become a lifetime friendship but also the start of a musical dynasty, leading ultimately to their being enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The pair founded the Rolling Stones as a rhythm and blues and jazz group when they were still in their teens and never looked back, although it wasn’t until they changed their style to straight rock in 1964 that they really hit their stride, mostly on songs written by Richards, the biggest (and longest-lasting) hit being I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.

Despite their image as the “anti-Beatles” – a counter to that other wildly popular British boy band of the day – “It was a very, very fruitful and great relationship between the Stones and The Beatles. It was very, very friendly,” Richards said.

While writing music is his forte’, Richards also wrote his autobiography and memoir Life, which was a worldwide bestseller and showed remarkable command of writing style.  But, like some of his songs, it was jabbed at by some critics as being a bit ambiguous, to which Richards replied,  “I look for ambiguity when I'm writing, because life is ambiguous.”

To hear a great recent interview with Richards, done on NPR’s show “Fresh Air,” go to this link.  I promise that you WILL “get some satisfaction.”  http://www.wbur.org/npr/441412552/keith-richards-the-fresh-air-interview

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Thursday, December 17, 2015

The 'right word at the right time'

“When I need to know the meaning of a word, I look it up in a dictionary.” – William Safire 

Born on this date in 1929, just days after the Great Stockmarket Crash, Safire grew up in the turmoil of the 1930s to become one of America’s best-known authors, columnists and journalists.  He also was an off-and-on speechwriter for President Nixon and Vice President Agnew, including penning the famous Agnew line describing those opposing their policies as “Nattering Nabobs of Negativism.”

A stickler for language uses and demands, he was perhaps best known as a long-time syndicated political columnist for the New York Times and the author of "On Language" in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, a column on new or unusual usages, and other language-related topics that he wrote right up until his death in 2009.  He also is the author of The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time.  

A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, he disdained fellow journalists and writers who used what he termed “insiderisms” to try to attract or dazzle readers.  “Do not be taken in by 'insiderisms,’” he once noted.  “Fledgling columnists, eager to impress readers with their grasp of journalistic jargon, are drawn to such arcane spellings as 'lede.'  I say, ‘Where they lede, do not follow.’”

Lede, by the way, is the longtime journalistic term for the “opening” of a story, supposedly containing all the key or important information needed. Safire always delighted in adding a key “nugget” of info. later in his stories – “just to keep the readers on their toes.”

Safire on “Meet The Press” 
 As a native New Yorker who revered the artistic scene of the Big Apple, he also was a longtime supporter for and writer about the arts both by and for the public.   “One challenge to the arts in America,” he encouraged,  “is the need to make the arts, especially the classic masterpieces, accessible and relevant to today's audience.”

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