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Sunday, December 31, 2017

Storytelling through popular song

“I was never trying to write a hit.  I was just trying to write good songs and get a message out, and it was my great good fortune to be popular.” – John Denver

Born on this date in 1943, Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., best known by his recording name John Denver, wrote more than 200 songs and recorded more than 300 in his relatively short lifetime, becoming one of the world’s most popular folk/country/soft rock singers and performers.  Among his hits were the song known as Colorado’s “unofficial” anthem, Rocky Mountain High, and West Virginia's "unofficial" anthem Country Roads.

A great storyteller, both with his songs and while writing about his love for and activism on behalf of nature, he also wrote beautiful tales about people and relationships.  Among them are the very moving Poems, Prayers and Promises, often sung at funerals, and the beautiful Annie’s Song, sung at countless weddings.

And who couldn’t love his raucous Thank God I’m A Country Boy – which I always thought spoke to any kid who was raised on a farm or ranch.   In his lifetime, which ended in a tragic plane crash in 1997, Denver’s songs sold a remarkable 33 million copies and they continue to be re-recorded and listened to by new generations.
                          To put a little cheer into the end of the year, here is Denver’s happy-go-lucky Grandma’s Feather Bed.  Enjoy …. and Happy New Year!

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Saturday, December 30, 2017

A poetic foundation

“I began as a writer of light verse, and have tried to carry over into my serious or lyric verse something of the strictness and liveliness of the lesser form.” – John Updike

Born in 1932, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner John Updike was a novelist, short story writer, art critic, literary critic – and poet.  He authored 20 novels, a dozen short story collections, several children’s books and 8 books of poetry, the last in 2009, the year of his death.        Updike wrote poetry for most of his life. In his teens, he was already publishing poems in magazines, and his professional writing career began in 1954 when The New Yorker accepted one of his poems.  His first book, The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures (1958), was a poetry collection.   For Saturday’s Poem, here are Updike's In Extremis and November.

In Extremis
I saw my toes the other day.
I hadn't looked at them for months.
Indeed, they might have passed away.
And yet they were my best friends once.
When I was small, I knew them well.
I counted on them up to ten
And put them in my mouth to tell
The larger from the lesser. Then
I loved them better than my ears,
My elbows, adenoids, and heart.
But with the swelling of the years
We drifted, toes and I, apart.
Now, gnarled and pale, each said, j'accuse!
I hid them quickly in my shoes.
                    The stripped and shapely
                    Maple grieves
                    The ghosts of her
                    Departed leaves.

                   The ground is hard,
                   As hard as stone.
                   The year is old,
                   The birds are flown.

                   And yet the world,
                   In its distress,
                   Displays a certain

                          * From A Child’s Calendar

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Friday, December 29, 2017

Humor, intensity and good examples

“My lessons didn't come at my father's knee. Like all good lessons, they were learned from example.” – Ted Danson

Born on this date in 1947, Danson is not only an award winning actor but also an author and producer.  He has starred in numerous television series and movies and is a leading environmentalist and activist for ocean conservation.   His first book was written on the subject:  Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them, co-authored with Michael D'Orso.

A native Californian, his activism toward clean oceans and the environment began when he would walk the beaches with his kids and find himself “unable to explain why the water was so polluted that they couldn’t go swimming.”

Nominated for numerous Emmys, Golden Globes and People’s Choice Awards, he has won several in each category – primarily for his comedic roles, especially on the long-running series “Cheers.”  While he has taken on more serious acting roles and the serious efforts on behalf of our world’s oceans – including continued writing on the topic – he said humor still is important in his own life and for the world.  
“When people are in the midst of really heavy stuff and still have a sense of humor, I admire that,” he said.  “Humor can bring people under the tent. And a good joke can deflect some of the intensity surrounding a serious subject.”

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Thursday, December 28, 2017

Reacting to your 'internal universe'

“The writer needs to react to his or her own internal universe, to his or her own point of view. If he or she doesn't have a personal point of view, it's impossible to be a creator.” – Manuel Puig

Puig, who was born in Argentina on this date in 1933, was primarily a novelist, although he wrote a number of television and movie scripts, including one for his own best-selling novel Kiss of the Spider Woman.    
                               Puig’s writing style often reflected elements of his work in film and television, such as montage and the use of multiple points of view. He also made much use of popular culture in his works.   Because of his political views, he was exiled from Argentina in 1973 and spent most of the rest of his life in Mexico, where he died in 1990.

While writing for film was his first love, he found himself drawn to write fiction, something he began in the early 1960s.  “I didn't choose literature,” he said.  “Literature chose me. There was no decision on my side.   I felt the need to tell stories to understand myself. “

Since his death several of his previous screenplays have been produced, and half-dozen of his novels have been translated and reprinted in English language versions, including his first best seller, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth.    “Whenever I write, I'm always thinking of the reader,” he said.  “I allow my intuition to lead my path.”

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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Thoughts, Ideas, beginnings

“You become a reader by reading the literature, not by reading the handbooks about it.” – Aidan Chambers
Born on this date in 1930, Chambers is a British author of children's and young-adult novels. He won both the British Carnegie Medal and the American Printz Award for his wonderful Postcards from No Man's Land (1999).  And for his "lasting contribution to children's literature" he won the biennial, international Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2002.
First a teacher and an Anglican Priest, Chambers started putting down his stories – and several plays – to share with his students.  In 1967, he left both teaching and the priesthood to concentrate on writing, lecturing, and editing. 

Chambers gained a reputation for straightforward writing that treats his young readers with both respect and the understanding that they can comprehend the same difficult world and ideas that adults deal with.         He has written several books for teachers and librarians on the topic, including The Reading Environment and Tell Me: Children, Reading and Talk.   He also has been encouraging for young readers to become young writers and to treat their ideas as great starting points for sharing their thoughts and experiences.

“When you are in your teenage years you are consciously experiencing everything for the first time," he said. "So adolescent stories are all beginnings.   There are never any endings.”

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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Finding joy in every writing day

“As a writer, I need an enormous amount of time alone. Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It's a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write. Having anybody watching that or attempting to share it with me would be grisly.”– Paul Rudnick

                                 Rudnick, who will celebrate his 60th birthday later this week, is an American playwright, novelist, screenwriter and essayist.  First catapulted to fame for his work Addams Family Values, his plays have been produced both on an off Broadway and around the world.    Ben Brantley, when reviewing Rudnick’s The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told in The New York Times, wrote that, “Line by line, Mr. Rudnick may be the funniest writer for the stage in the United States today.”

An award-winner for numerous works, his humorous essays appear regularly in The New Yorker.         He also writes screen reviews, and stays busy with works for the stage.  He's currently collaborating on a musical adaptation of the book and movie The Devil Wears Prada.

Rudnick says joy should be part of every writer’s life.  “There is only one blasphemy,” he said, “and that is the refusal to experience joy.”

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Monday, December 25, 2017

Faith and the spirit of Christmas

“Faith is believing in something even when your common sense tells you not to.  We all can be Santa Clauses, you know?  All we have to do is have faith in ourselves, because when you have faith, you’re somebody.” 

That’s a line delivered by Kris Kringle in the wonderful Christmas show “Here’s Love,” the musical version of the Christmas Classic “Miracle on 34th Street.”

I delivered that line while playing that role on stage – my opportunity to become Santa Claus and help change the mind of a cynical little girl and her mother about who and what Santa is all about.   “Being” Santa carries a huge responsibility because so many children see and believe.  I was lucky to be cast and to embody that role, if even for just a few short weeks. 

I hope you carry the spirit of Christmas with you as we end this rather cynical year and push on into a new year.  You just have to have a little faith!

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Sunday, December 24, 2017

Use your gifts faithfully

“For the creation of a masterwork of literature two powers must concur, the power of the man and the power of the moment, and the man is not enough without the moment.” – Matthew Arnold

 Born on Christmas Eve, 1822, Arnold was an English poet and cultural critic who worked many years as a fulltime inspector of schools.  Those duties required him, at least at first, to travel constantly and across much of England, both spending time in countless railway waiting rooms and also reaching and interacting with thousands of school children, their parents and teachers.  It was during that time that he not only became a writer but also a writer of and for the entire nation because of his broad interaction with people from all regions and walks of life. 

While he wrote prose and literary criticism, it was his poetry that gained Arnold the most fame.  Sometimes called the third great Victorian poet, along with Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning,        he eventually was elected "Professor of Poetry" at Oxford.  As such, he became the first in this position to deliver his lectures in English rather than Latin.  Arnold’s groundbreaking move set a precedent for generations of other professors at the school. 

As a teacher, he had simple advice for his students:  “Use your gifts faithfully, and they shall be enlarged; practice what you know, and you shall attain to higher knowledge.” 

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Saturday, December 23, 2017

Perfecting a feeling in language

The poem is a form of texting... it's the original text. It's a perfecting of a feeling in language - it's a way of saying more with less, just as texting is.” – Carol Ann Duffy

Born on this date in 1955, Duffy is Poet Laureate of Great Britain (since 2009) and  Professor of Contemporary Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University.  Her poems address issues such as oppression, gender, and violence in an accessible language that has made them popular in schools. 

Named an Honorary Fellow of the British Society in 2015, she has won numerous writing awards both in Great Britain and internationally.          Among her award-winning works are Selling Manhattan, The Christmas Truce, and The 12 Poems of Christmas.  For Saturday’s Poem, here is Duffy’s,

     Christmas Eve

Time was slow snow sieving the night,
a kind of love from the blurred moon;
your small town swooning, unabashed,
was Winter's own.

Snow was the mind of Time, sifting
itself, drafting the old year's end.
You wrote your name on the window-pane
with your young hand.

And your wishes went up in smoke,
beyond where a streetlamp studied
the thoughtful snow on Christmas Eve,
beyond belief,

as Time, snow, darkness, child, kindled.
Downstairs, the ritual lighting of the candles.

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Friday, December 22, 2017

Using that unique writing voice

“It's good to have mysteries. It reminds us that there's more to the world than just making do and having a bit of fun.” – Charles de Lint
Born in The Netherlands on this date in 1951, de Lint emigrated with his parents to Canada in 1952 and grew up in Ottawa, where he still makes his home.  De Lint writes novels, novellas, short stories, poetry, and lyrics but primarily is a writer of fantasy fiction for adults and teens.  He has written widely in the subgenres of urban fantasy, contemporary magical realism, and mythic fiction.  Leading sellers among his nearly 100 titles are The Blue Girl, The Onion Girl, and Moonlight and Vines.

                Also an essayistst, critic, and folklorist de Lint’s a regular reviewer for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and has been a judge for the prestigious Nebula Award and the World Fantasy Award.    A teacher of creative writing as well, he and his wife MaryAnn Harris share a love of music and perform together often.  The multi-talented de Lint plays multiple instruments, sings and often writes the songs, examples of which can be heard on Harris’s album Crow Girls or on his own, Old Blue Truck.  
His advice for new writers is simple:  “Don't forget - no one else sees the world the way you do, so no one else can tell the stories that you have to tell.”

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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Things that give your writing power

“The nice thing about writing a novel is you take your time, you sit with the character sometimes nine years, you look very deeply at a situation, unlike in real life when we just kind of snap something out.” – Sandra Cisneros

Born on this date in 1954, Cisneros – whose name means Hope in English – is a Mexican-American writer best known for her novel The House on Mango Street and short story collection Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories.

“One press account said I was an overnight success. I thought that was the longest night I've ever spent,” she said after spending many years developing House on Mango Street while working as a teacher, counselor, college recruiter, and poet-in-the-schools.

Now the recipient of numerous writing awards including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, she was named for one of 25 new Ford Foundation “Art of Change” Fellowships in 2017.           A key figure in today’s Chicana literature movement, she has maintained a strong commitment to community and literary causes, including assisting up-and-coming Latina writers.

“I am a woman, and I am a Latina,” she said.  “Those are the things that make my writing distinctive. Those are the things that give my writing power.”

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Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Sharing a love of life

“Look at everything as though you were seeing it for the first time; or the last time.” – Betty Smith

Born in Brooklyn, in 1896, Smith wrote one of the all-time best sellers A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.   Smith started writing in her 30s after putting her husband through school while also raising 2 young daughters.  She studied journalism and creative writing at the University of Michigan after convincing the Dean to allow her to audit classes even though she had never gone beyond 8th grade.

She became among the most “listened to” students in her college classes because she literally spoke with a voice from life experiences.   She lived life intensely and cared passionately about matters that others could only guess at, and her professors recognized that fact.  Ultimately she was rewarded with full admittance and Michigan’s prestigious Avery Hopwood Award, the most prestigious writing prize bestowed by the University.           
                                 In 1928, Smith started writing for newspapers and news syndicates, eventually moving into creative writing and penning A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  The 1943 novel also became a hit movie, winning the 1945 Academy Award.  Between then and 1963, she wrote three more best sellers, including Joy in the Morning, another top-grossing book and movie.

Ever an optimist, Smith, who died in 1972, said “I came to a clear conclusion, and it is a universal one:  To live, to struggle, to be in love with life – in love with all life holds, joyful or sorrowful – is fulfillment. The fullness of life is open to all of us.”

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Monday, December 18, 2017

Writing surrounds our lives

“Writing surrounds us: it's not something we do just in school or on the job but something that is as familiar and everyday as a pair of worn sneakers or the air we breathe.”Andrea A. Lunsford.

Lunsford, author of the great writing texts Everyday Writer and Everyone’s An Author, is a faculty member at two great writing venues, Stanford University and the Bread Loaf School of English near Middlebury, Vermont.   She also serves as chair of the Modern Language Association’s Division on Writing.
Robert Frost also liked to spend his summers teaching at the Bread Loaf School, which gets its name by virtue of its location – on Middlebury College’s mountain campus below Bread Loaf Mountain.

Great writing and great teaching about it – whether in literature, creative writing or theater – has taken place at Bread Loaf since 1920 using tools developed by teachers like Lunsford, whose marvelous texts have given us all the gift of her writing advice and skill.  But, she's quick to say that it's a group effort.  
                                   “I believe that all writing is collaborative,” she said in a “How I Write” conversation. “No matter what you’re doing, even if you’re sitting by yourself at your computer, you’re collaborating with somebody, something you’ve read, or some voices you’ve got in your head, or your friends, or something, there’s some kind of collaboration going on.”

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