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Saturday, April 30, 2016

It's always about the language

“Poetry is, first and last, language - the rest is filler.” – Mark Strand
Canadian-born (on Prince Edward Island where Anne of Green Gables was set), Strand eventually studied in America and became an American citizen where he had a distinguished career as a poet, essayist and translator.  He died in 2014 at age 80.

In 1990 Strand was appointed Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress and in 2004 he received the Wallace Stevens Award, given to "recognize outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry.”  The Stevens also
 provides a cash prize of $100 thousand        
 – which makes it the richest prize in poetry unless a poet happens to win the Nobel Prize.

Which is not to say he didn’t do well in the awards department.  Strand received numerous prizes for his work, including a MacArthur Fellowship (The “Genius” grant) in 1987, and the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, for Blizzard of One.  Known for his highly personal touch, he said "Pain is filtered in a poem so that, in the end, it becomes pleasure."

Here, from Blizzard of One is Saturday’s Poem:

The Everyday Enchantment of Music

A rough sound was polished until it became
a smoother sound, which was polished until
it became music.
Then the music was polished until
it became the memory of a night in Venice
when tears of the sea fell from the Bridge of Sighs,
which in turn was polished until it ceased
to be and in its place stood the empty home
of a heart in trouble.
Then suddenly there was sun and the music came back
and traffic was moving and off in the distance,
at the edge of the city, a long line of clouds appeared,
and there was thunder, which, however menacing,
would become music, and the memory of what happened after
Venice would begin, and what happened
after the home of the troubled heart broke in two would also begin.

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Friday, April 29, 2016

What you meant to say was...

“Editing is simply the application of the common sense of any good reader. That's why, to be an editor, you have to be a reader. It's the number one qualification.
As an editor, I have to be tactful, of course.”
—Robert Gottlieb

Born on this date in 1931, Gottlieb is both an editor AND a writer, but it’s his editorship for which he is best known, having served as editor of The New Yorker for a number of years and editor-in-chief at book giant Simon & Schuster for 30 years.

While at S&S, he discovered and edited Catch-22 by the then-unknown Joseph Heller, and during his years there he edited works by almost every major writer – both of fiction and nonfiction. 

Gottlieb said it was his love of reading that led to his fascination with dissecting how books were crafted.  “I was the only child, and I know my father had certain thoughts about me. He was a lawyer and extremely literary, but he would have been much happier if I had wanted to be a lawyer, a scientist, an engineer. But what I wanted to do was read.”

For a time he thought that also might mean that he would become a writer, but he said it was something he never really wanted to be.  “I don't like writing - it's so difficult to say what you mean,” he said.   “It's much easier to edit other people's writing … and help them say what they mean.”

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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Be proactive on your story's behalf

“I think writers have to be proactive: they've got to use new technology and social media. Yes, it's hard to get noticed by traditional publishers, but there's a great deal of opportunity out there if you've got the right story.” – Ian Rankin

Rankin, the Scottish crime writer best known for his “Inspector Rebus” novels, did not set out to be a crime writer and, in fact, didn’t think he had “the right story” at first.  He thought his first novels Knots and Crosses and Hide and Seek were more “mainstream,” keeping with the Scottish traditions of Robert Louis Stevenson and even Muriel Spark.   And he said he was a bit disconcerted by their classification as “genre fiction,” worrying they might not draw a reading audience.

Not to worry.   So far, he’s had 25 books published and 10 of them have not only been best sellers, but have been adapted for television movies – a record most writers would love to have.  Rankin celebrates his 56th birthday today at his home in Edinburgh where he sets most of his novels.  One of the fun things about reading his books is to learn more about that Scottish city and the little details he weaves throughout.

Rankin, whose first job was in his dad’s grocery store, 
had lots of “life experiences” (always a plus for a writer)         
before becoming a full-time novelist.  He worked as a grape-picker, swineherd, taxman, alcohol researcher (I’d definitely like to hear more about that job), hi-fi journalist, college secretary, and punk musician in a band called The Dancing Pigs.

“I am, of course, a frustrated rock star - I'd much rather be a rock star than a writer,” he said.  “Or own a record shop. Still, it's not a bad life, is it? You just sit at a computer and make stuff up.”   Pretty good “stuff” too.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Developing your thinking

“Writing in form is a way of developing your thinking - your thinking along with the tradition. In a way, it's not you alone, it's you in partnership.” — Marilyn Nelson

Born on this date in 1946, poet, translator and children's book writer Nelson is author or translator of 12 books and three chapbooks.  Professor emeritus of English at the University of Connecticut, she is the founder and director of Soul Mountain Retreat, a retreat center for new or emerging writers, especially poets.  

Born in Cleveland, the daughter of one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, she was brought up living on military bases, and began writing while in elementary school.  She said she gravitated to poetry and never looked back, although readers of her kids’ books say they’re glad she continued in that genre, too.   After earning a Ph.D. in English, she taught at Connecticut for many years and ultimately was honored by the State of Connecticut as its Poet Laureate – a position she held from 2001-06.

Nelson’s poetry collections include the terrific The Homeplace, which won the  Anisfield-Wolf Award and was the first of three of her books to be finalists for the National Book Award.  In 2012, the Poetry Society of America awarded her the Frost Medal “for distinguished lifetime service to American poetry,” and in 2013, she was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.                                  
Soft spoken and thoughtful in all she says and does, Nelson said a person’s voice is as important in presenting a poem as are the words on paper.  “Many performance poets seem to believe that yelling a poem makes it comprehensible,” she said. “They are wrong.”

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Monday, April 25, 2016

Find a way; tell the story

“I've always believed that a good twist is one that, when it is presented to the audience, half of them say, 'I saw that coming.' And half of them are completely and totally shocked. Because if you don't have the half that saw it coming, then it wasn't fair: You never gave the audience a chance to guess it.” Damon Lindelof

American television writer, producer, and film screenwriter, most noted as the co-creator of the television series Lost, Lindelof is a native New Jerseyite, born on this date in 1973.  Both praised and criticized for his his writing, he says that that’s exactly what any writer worth his or her salt should hope to achieve.  His ending for the Lost series left some viewers and critics mystified, some angry, and some feeling great.

“I love the 'Lost' ending,” Lindelof said.   “I stand by it, but there are a lot of people out there who hate it.”                                               

Regardless of how it ended, Lost received endless praise for its unique brand of storytelling and strong characters and the show never fell out of the top 30 throughout its six seasons on the air.   His current writing project is the HBO series The Leftovers, based on the Tom Perrotta novel by the same name.

“As cliched as it sounds,” Lindelof said,  “if you have an original voice and an original idea, then no matter what anybody says, you have to find a way to tell that story.”

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Sunday, April 24, 2016

A testament to perserverence

“Somewhere along the line, I realized that I liked telling stories, and I decided that I would try writing. Ten years later, I finally got a book published. It was hard. I had no skills. I knew nothing about the business of getting published. So I had to keep working at it.”  Janet Evanovich

Born April 22,1943, Evanovich now has over two hundred million books in print worldwide and is translated into over 40 languages.  After those initial struggles, she gained fame and loyal readers with her contemporary mysteries featuring Stephanie Plum, a former lingerie buyer from Trenton, New Jersey, who becomes a bounty hunter to make ends meet after losing her job.

Evanovich’s writing has combined a terrific and sometimes droll sense of humor (“If you want to cry, you're not going to like my books”) with a knack for setting up mystery, suspense and keeping her readers totally involved.  “I actually really suck at naming books, so lots of years ago, readers were sending in their ideas for titles,” she explained. 
  “What we realized is that they were smarter than us. So we thought, Hey, go for it. So now we have a contest every year.”

Evanovich is testament to perserverance and not giving up.  During those first 10 years of trying she had dozens and dozens of rejection letters for her first books before she finally connected with a romance novel for which she received $2,000.  “I thought it was an astounding sum,” she recalled.  Today, just after her 73rd birthday, she is worth $120 million.

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Saturday, April 23, 2016

Master of 'self' in the picture

Most writers forget that "I" is an important part of the narrative, especially if they use things from their own lives in crafting their work.  The reader becomes the loser when that happens because we miss out on who our storyteller is.  That is definitely not the case with Andrew Hudgins, storyteller and poet, who not only uses scenes from his own life, but does so in a way that draws us squarely into the action.

Hudgins was raised in Alabama where he earned degrees. at Huntingdon College and the University of Alabama.  He also has a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa.   The author of numerous collections of poetry and essays – many of which have received high critical praise.  His The Never-Ending: New Poems was a finalist for the National Book Award; and  After the Lost War: A Narrative received the Poets' Prize.   Saints and Strangers was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Hudgins is the Humanities Distinguished Professor of English at the Ohio State University.  For "Saturday’s Poem," here is his short piece,

In The Well
My father cinched the rope,
a noose around my waist,
and lowered me into
the darkness. I could taste

my fear. It tasted first
of dark, then earth, then rot.
I swung and struck my head
and at that moment got

another then: then blood,
which spiked my mouth with iron.
Hand over hand, my father
dropped me from then to then:

then water. Then wet fur,
which I hugged to my chest.
I shouted. Daddy hauled
the wet rope. I gagged, and pressed

my neighbor's missing dog
against me. I held its death
and rose up to my father.
Then light. Then hands. Then breath.

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Friday, April 22, 2016

Celebrate our Earth

On this Earth Day, a few statements worth pondering from three wonderful writers.  While they wrote or write in different genres for different audiences, each has shared a love for the 
land and care for our resources.               

A recent photo of The Old Man's Wrinkles, a rock formation near Keystone in the Black Hills  

“We are as much alive as we keep the earth alive.” – Chief Dan George

“There are places which exist in this world beyond the reach of imagination.” – Daniel J. Rice, This Side of a Wilderness

“It seems to me nothing man has done or built on this land is an improvement over what was here before.” – Kent Haruf, West of Last Chance

So, Happy Earth Day everyone.  Take a few minutes to do even the simplest things to help save our earth.  Pick up a few scraps of paper.  Drive just a few miles less.  Preserve a single glass of water, or contribute to a fund working on behalf of bringing clean, safe water to remote parts of our globe.  Each of us has a part to play, and if you are among those who can communicate to others through your words, today would be a wonderful day to share some of those words on the earth’s behalf.  She is, after all, the only place we have on which to reside.

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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Words for the right moment

“I'm just going to write because I cannot help it.” – Charlotte Bronte

Bronte, who lived to just age 39 before dying of typhus during pregnancy, was born on this date in 1816.  The oldest of 3 Bronte sisters who survived into adulthood (2 sisters died of tuberculosis), she and her surviving sisters each wrote novels that are still considered classics of English literature. 

In addition to her literary writing, she also had a remarkable lyrical style leaving us with such statements as “The soul, fortunately, has an interpreter - often an unconscious, but still a truthful interpreter - in the eye.”  And “The human heart has hidden treasures, in secret kept, in silence sealed; the thoughts, the hopes, the dreams, the pleasures, whose charms were broken if revealed.”

Charlotte drew from her personal experiences as surrogate “mother” to her 3 younger siblings after their mother died following the birth of sister Anne.  That life experience prepared her for both her first job as a governess and for her writing career that formally began when she and sisters Emily and Anne co-published a book of poetry under the pseudonym Bell – Charlotte as Currer; Emily as Ellis; and Anne as Acton.

While their poems did not succeed, the three women’s subsequent novels – Jane Eyre from Charlotte; Wuthering Heights from Emily; and Agnes Grey from Anne – were wildly successful and led to their revealing their real names to the writing world.   With an innovative style that combined naturalism with gothic melodrama, Charlotte’s writing especially plowed new ground.

Charlotte believed art was most convincing when based on personal experience; so in Jane Eyre she transformed her experiences into a novel with universal appeal.  But, touching on the trials that all authors face, she once lamented “Who has words at the right moment?”  Fortunately for the world, Charlotte Bronte did.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Popular and literary ... seriously

I want to write about serious things, but I want to write about them in a way that makes them accessible to a large number of people - to take them through the argument by dramatizing the circumstances in which these issues are being discussed.” – Sebastian Faulks
Born on this date in 1953, British novelist, journalist and broadcaster Faulks is best known for his historical novels set in France – The Girl at the Lion d'Or, Birdsong and Charlotte Gray. He has also published such contemporary novels as A Week in December  and the James Bond continuation novel, Devil May Care for which he won the British Book Awards “Popular Fiction Award.”

Also honored by the British Crown for his lifetime contributions to English Literature, he has had the rare accolade of being tabbed as “popular and literary at the same time.” English theatre, film and television director Trevor Nunn called Faulks' 2005 novel, Human Traces "A masterpiece, one of the great novels of this or any other century."      

A leading advocate for “read before you write,” Faulks advises writers to be strong readers first.   “I don't know how you can understand other people or yourself if you haven't read a lot of books. I just don't think you're equipped to deal with the demands and decisions of life, particularly in your dealings with other people.”

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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The luxury of 'deadlines lost'

“The deadlines are much, much longer with books. When I was a reporter, a lot of times I'd come in at 8:30 a.m., get an assignment right away, interview somebody, turn the story in by 9:30, and have the finished story in the paper that landed on my desk by noon.” – Margaret Haddix

Anyone who’s ever worked in journalism – particularly on “breaking news” – knows the reporter’s routine about which Margaret Haddix is speaking.  “Write tight and write quick” are the daily mantras for reporters.  The native Ohion (born on this day in 1964) studied at Miami of Ohio before starting her writing career as a reporter in Indiana – writing for newspapers in both Fort Wayne and Indianapolis before making her very successful switch to creative writing in the mid-1990s.

Today she’s best known for her series’ Shadow Children (1998–2006) and The Missing (2008-present) and her best-selling books Running Out of Time and The Girl With 500 Middle Names.  Since switching from journalism to creative writing she has authored more than 30 books and won the                                              International Reading Association’s Children’s Book Award for her body of work. 

As most journalists know, creative writing is a luxury after dealing with the daily deadlines of the reporting world.  “Generally I finish a first draft in 2-6 months, then I set it aside for a while so that when I come back to it I can read it with fresh eyes and figure out how to improve it.  (In creative writing) I can spend as long revising a manuscript as I spent writing it in the first place.”

After two decades as a creative writer, she said she prefers the style.    “It's just so much fun to make up characters, situations, and everything else about a story,” she said.  “I have so much freedom and flexibility to do whatever I want.”

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Monday, April 18, 2016

Wise words for our writing week

A few “wise or thought-provoking words” from a number of different writers – either of essays, lyrics, poetry or novels – to begin the new writing week. 

“When you're learning, especially to write, unless you're some incredibly gifted writer, a young Malcom Gladwell, say, you need to be imitating people. You need to be imitating how they make their work, how they structure it, how they design the pieces. It gives you chops; it gives you moves.” – Ira Glass, writer and producer of the NPR program This American Life
“Writing a screenplay is like being in a bathtub.  Writing a novel is like being in the sea.” – Richard Bach, author and illustrator of Jonathan Livingston Seagull

“Writing ideas are like pizza dough, made to be tossed around.” – Anna Quindlen, author, journalist and opinion columnist for the New York Times

“When you’re writing or composing, time is a very misleading thing.   We can gain experience from the past, but we can't relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don't know if there is one. So write for each day.” – George Harrison, songwriter, composer and performer

“Writing is thinking. It is more than living, for it is being conscious of living. – Anne Morrow Lindbergh

And so, on to another week.  Happy writing and many writers' moments to all.

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Sunday, April 17, 2016

Born to write

No one can teach writing, but classes may stimulate the urge to write. If you are born a writer, you will inevitably and helplessly write. A born writer has self-knowledge. Read, read, read. And if you are a fiction writer, don't confine yourself to reading fiction. Every writer is first a wide reader.”  Cynthia Ozick
A native New Yorker born on this day in 1928, Ozick writes about Jewish American life,  politics, history, literary criticism, The Holocaust and its aftermath.  Much of her work explores the disparaged self, the reconstruction of identity after immigration, trauma and movement from one class to another.

The author of 6 novels, 7 short-story collections and 7 books of criticism, Ozick received a National Jewish Book Council Award for lifetime achievement  in 2010, was a finalist for the National Book Award (for her Puttermesser Papers), won both the PEN/Nabokov and PEN/Malamud Awards, and earned the Presidential Medal for the Humanities. Her short stories have won multiple O. Henry first prizes and her works have been translated into 17 languages.

Ozick’s lyrical fiction style also has earned such accolades as “The greatest living American writer” (from several of her contemporaries), and the title 
 “The Emily Dickinson of The Bronx.”  Meanwhile, her essay style has been called everything from “uncompromising” to “biting” to “brilliant.”  She is one of the world’s definitive writers on American author Henry James.

“In an essay, you have the outcome in your pocket before you set out on your journey, and very rarely do you make an intellectual or psychological discovery,” she said in talking about why she likes both genres.  “But when you write fiction, you don't know where you are going - sometimes down to the last paragraph - and that is the pleasure of it.’

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Saturday, April 16, 2016

Poetry endures for human concerns

“Poetry endures when it possesses passionate and primally sincere clarity in the service of articulating universal human concerns.” Franz Wright

An American poet, Wright won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for his book of poetry Walking To Martha’s Vineyard.    In winning the Pulitzer, Wright joined his father James Wright in winning the prestigious award – making them the only father-child pair to win in the same category.  James Wright won for his 1972 volume, Collected Poems.

Unfortunately the Wrights have another distinction, both dying fairly young from cancer – James at age 53 and Franz at age 62.  But in their short lives they each left us with a legacy of plowing new ground in the poetic world, and I highly commend each of their works to every reader.

Here, for Saturday’s Poem, is Franz Wright’s short poem,

Morning Arrives

Morning arrives
by limousine: the tall
emaciated chairman

of sleeplessness in person
steps out on the sidewalk
and donning black glasses, ascends
the stairs to your building

guided by a German shepherd.
After a couple faint knocks
at the door, he slowly opens
the book of blank pages

pointing out
with a pale manicured finger
particular clauses,
proof of your guilt.

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