A Suitcase and The Kitchen Sink
I have always believed that one’s life events shape the person they become. Each person has a suitcase filled with life’s experiences, memories, successes, and failures that each in some way contribute to his or her personality. When creating my characters, I think about the suitcase the characters have that make them behave the way they do. My personal suitcase contributes to my writing. Namely, in this case, my history as a native Minnesotan and my love of reading adventure and mystery novels all make for a very packed bag. (go to my blog at gailleecowdin.com to read the whole story about the Kitchen Sink.)
An Argument for Good Grammar
How many times have you asked your parents a question only to have them respond: "go look it up," "because I said so," or asked them to spell-check a term paper only to have them question why you chose to use an apostrophe in "Bachelor's Degree" and not "Bachelor of Science Degree?" Does the comma go inside or outside of the quotation marks? When do I capitalize a word? When do I use "which" and when do I use "that" in a sentence? Why is any of this important? We moved dozens of times across a dozen states during my childhood, but the most memorable years were spent in Dallas, Texas. My mother was a single parent, working long hours as a secretary for an international freight warehouse. She was proud of her near-perfect typing and shorthand skills; she was especially proud of her writing skills and stressed that if I wanted her to listen to what I had to say, I was to "enunciate" and use good grammar. That comment was usually followed by an eye roll on my part and the back of her hand, but the end result is that I'm a relatively good writer and a stickler for good grammar and punctuation. The point of this essay is that our email communications, blog articles, social media posts, and public communications are sprinkled with hashtags, pointless flying tildes, possessive punctuation that shouldn't be, and random punctuation. We're becoming a generation of lazy writers and speed readers racing to a literary finish line, overlooking the delicious pause of a comma, and the finality of a period. I've recently been asked to act as co-director for our local writer's group (here's the link if you're interested: Village Lake Writers & Poets). I created the website and post frequently on our group's blog. I would encourage any of you who are interested in becoming writers to post on your group's blog site, or share (as I will this article) essays from your own blog site both as a participant, and to perfect your craft. As you write, however, I would ask that you "enunciate" and use good grammar. My mother would be proud. Hopefully, you felt the eye roll. I'll leave you with an answer to the "which versus that" puzzle from Shundalyn Allen on the Grammarly blog: Which vs. That: How to Choose In a defining clause, use that. In non-defining clauses, use which. Remember, which is as disposable as a sandwich bag. If you can remove the clause without destroying the meaning of the sentence, the clause is nonessential and you can use which.
And then what happened?
I've been lucky enough to take Neil Gaiman's master class on writing this week. Today, I wanted to share a little that has really stuck out to me. Perhaps, I relate to it because I'm a discovery writer. Plotting and planning in detail does not work for me. I go in with broad, vague ideas and ask hundreds of questions along the way. Neil defines a story as something that keeps you turning the page and doesn't leave you feeling cheated at the end. Wondering 'what's going to happen next' is what keeps us turning the page. In order to foster this emotion in our audience, we have to care. If we don't care what happens next, no one else will either, and they'll stop turning the page. So how do we do this? 1. We have to discover, deep down, what the story is really about. Some call this theme, others might call it the story-worthy problem to be solved. You could simply ask yourself, what is it you want to say? Neil also says that a good story tells the truth by using lies. Think about that. Our characters don't exist, essentially making them a lie, but they can share a truth that people will connect to. The fiction around this truth is what leads the reader without spelling it out in lecture or sermon. 2. Create conflict. Early readers may want to create happy peaceful worlds. Sadly, this doesn't make for interesting reading. Don't shy away from the problems that need to be addressed. How do you know what the conflict is? By asking #3. 3. What do your characters want? This is the question that opens the door to what happens next. If you're stuck, ask this question. Make sure you have at least two characters who want something at odds with another character. In the end, only one of them can get what they want. By asking what they want in each scene and chapter, you can decide if they try and fail, try and succeed but make things worse, try and discover it wasn't what they wanted after all, etc. In the end, characters always get what they need, not what they want. Are there places in your current manuscript where you need to dig deeper into what your characters want?
Changing Two Little Words
Back in 2002, when I was writing poetry regularly, I wrote a sonnet about experiences of childhood/teen year summers at my grandparents' place along the Rhode Island shore. A Petrarchan-style sonnet, I was quite happy with it—except for the last line. I never could get the last line right. Over the years I changed it a dozen times. Well, that may be an exaggeration. Probably not more than a half-dozen times. But it was never right. It's one of my poems I know from memory, and from time to time I would mull it over. Last week I was reading some of C.S. Lewis' collected letters when I switched back to the poem. The change came to me. Two words that made a world of difference fit into the meter and gave significant substance to the poem. Well, at least I think they do. Here's the poem. You can read my longer blog post about it at Two Changed Words Make a Big Difference | David A Todd. It took only 19 years to complete.
Exercise for the Writer's Brain
Say we were having coffee this morning and I convinced you to run a marathon with me this year. You haven't run in some time and so know you must train, but you’re a little stiff and really hate exercising in the heat and so decide that all you really need to do is yoga. Specifically, downward dog and a couple of sun salutations. That’s it. You’re going to perform these two poses for 10 minutes a day until race day. Your goal? Well, maybe not finish in first place, but you’ll finish and maybe even get a medal in your age category. Let’s equate this to our writing goals. Goal (because good goals are always measurable): To produce the great American novel in 12 months, to secure a publisher willing to provide a $50K advance and a follow-on book deal. Training: Write 1000 unedited words a day. Does that mean you’re going to open your draft and write until your word count reads 1000? That’s a little like downward dog.
Does that mean you’re going to open your draft and write for a bit, then update your blog? That’s a little like downward dog and a couple of sun salutations. I never liked to run, but when I worked, I ran every day. Sometimes I filled in at my daughter’s high school soccer practice when they were short. Some days I swam. Some days I biked. Some days I actually just did yoga. In 2006, at age 53, I ran the HFP series Triathlon races—7 races in 4 months and actually won in my weight class: women over 145 pounds. As a writer, your preference may be prose, short stories, poetry, essays, or maybe you just like to blog. But practicing all of these forms, plus practicing other art forms like painting, sculpture, knitting, coloring, music, or just doodling will make you better at your preferred form. And it wouldn’t hurt to throw in a little yoga.
Generations: a writing prompt.
Today’s writing prompt: this chart only goes back to the 1600s. Imagine life in year 1AD and the parings of ancestors required to birth the miracle of you. What a story that would be. It indeed takes a village.
About a year ago, I opened an account with an online grocer called "Misfits Market." The produce and pantry goods are of good quality, just beaten up from handling and so not suitable shelf-goods for the general consumer. If they're lucky, these goods find their way to a food bank; more often than not, they're simply tossed. Wounded birds who could still fly if given a chance--still beautiful for their song if not their feathers. That's a bit what retirement has felt like, to be honest. Two weeks ago, my co-director with this writer's group and I stumbled on an opportunity to use a century-old building as the primary meeting spot for our group: the Dug Hill Cemetery and Community Center in northeast Bella Vista. The building hadn't been used in several years by humans, at least. Mice, spiders, and all manner of woodland creatures, flora, mold, and heaven knows what else had claimed the shiplap walls. But the school bell worked and as my friend and I roamed the grounds of the cemetery, I felt the hairs on my arms raise as they do before a storm. And I took notice. The Trustees have allowed us to lease the building. To clean up the weeds and fallen branches, to scrape and caulk and paint, and to endear ourselves to this grand old building. We plan to use the space for writer's meetings and workshops; a space for small performing artists; a space where musicians can teach the next generation the love of music: a community space for Bella Vista. The community is starting to breathe life into our new home. For the second Saturday now, we've had volunteers appear, rakes and caulk guns in hand. Volunteers working and sweating and sharing stories of their youth and life before retirement. We have no money yet...that will come. For now we're reaching deep in our pockets and pulling from our own garages and storage shelves to give back to this little building. This little community center. By the way, my birthday is November 8th and Christmas is just weeks after, so if you happen to see Santa, I'd like six gallons of white satin Valspar (interior), two gallons of white exterior Valspar, six tubes of white paintable caulk, a used 32" x 80" wooden exterior door with left-hand hinges, a couple of panes of glass, and volunteers. Lots of volunteers.
Home Sweet Home
In 2015, Village on the Lakes Writers and Poets was established in what locals call "Old Bella Vista" in the Civil War era log cabin across from Bella Vista Lake. Life was good. The beautiful old homestead housed artists, musicians, yoga teachers, and one of the best little coffee shops around. As one would, I took for granted that this special retreat would always be available to the community and to me. And then it wasn't. The pandemic struck, but even with business closures and the cessation of public events, Northwest Arkansas continued to grow. A network of trails buzzing with activity sprang up across the landscape breathing new, young life into our neighborhoods connecting Bella Vista with Bentonville, with Rogers, with Fayetteville, and with one another. With change comes new opportunities for growth. One of those new opportunities resulted in our beloved Artists Retreat Center being sold. Good things will come of the sale...more opportunities for growth, for networked communities…and an opportunity for us to find a new home. Wednesday morning Village Lake Writers had our monthly meeting at Java Dudes in Rogers. Joanie and I shared a ride and on the way home and talked about options for meeting spaces. I mentioned the little church in Gravette and other potential historical buildings in the area when she offered "why not the little white church behind the Goodwill?" I didn't know of a little white church behind the Goodwill and so on the way home we stopped by. It's perfect. A Civil War era building nestled on a quiet lane with an old community cemetery circled by post oaks and tall pine trees. The building that had been a church, an old school house, and a community center had been vacant for several years. Joanie made some calls and we connected with one of the Cemetery trustees who welcomed us. It was as though the building had been waiting for us, a new generation of writers, artists, poets, and students. A networked community. An opportunity for growth. A new home. We're planning events in November and December, but first we need to sweep the floors, tame the brush, and give thanks. More to come. Our new address is: 220 Town Center, Bella Vista AR 72714. Home.
Just Keep Writing!
It's late in the day, too late to start a large project, so I thought I might try creating a multi-media collage of some sort with old newspaper, ink, paint...whatever I could find that would capture the golden and rose-brown shadows of light on the lake out my library window. I sorted through my brushes and papers and acrylics and found everything but inspiration. I wanted old newsprint with bold classified sections and adds with the Marlboro Man selling sin to young women with over teased hair and bold pink plastic earrings. I wanted to paste LOVE on my canvas with a glue stick, smear it with acrylic and scrape the remains of the day with a pallet knife to reveal the masterpiece that my YouTube art instructors claim represents my soul. Sifting through my archives of old correspondence, I found a couple of files containing notes and newspaper articles belonging to Ellen Hunnicutt, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize in 1987 for her first novel: In the Music Library. Ellen taught creative writing at the University of Wisconsin, published stories in "Boys Life" and numerous journals. In addition to the Drue Heinz, she received the Banta Award for her second novel: Suite for Calliope in 1988. She lectured at writing seminars and birthed another generation of writers. She had a pot of vegetable beef stew bubbling on the stove when I came to visit, and made a special trip to the store for white bread and whole milk for my girls. She pursed her lips while considering dinner conversation, then would shift slightly and smooth a napkin, or arrange a fork so as to punctuate her thoughts wordlessly. Ellen was my mother-in-law, my friend and even today, almost 18 years after her passing, Ellen is my mentor, whispering words of encouragement through the files of class notes and research she left behind. I started tonight's journey looking for paint and paper and ended with a digital collage of sorts; I think she would approve. I'll leave you with an article written by Robert Kiesling, published in the UWM Post on Tuesday, September 6, 1988 (page 7) and some quotes from Mom: "If you're writing about a subject you don't know about, the reader knows it immediately..." "Making order on the outside is preparation for making order on the inside." [So, do a small task first, like cleaning out a drawer or closet to establish a disciplinary pattern.] "It's hard to live life; harder than people think." "The thing is just to keep writing." (Finding Ellen: Just Keep Writing, March 1, 2021, Donna Hanson)
Meetings Have Returned
[This is an excerpt from a post at my blog, An Arrow Through The Air. Here's a link to the original.] Whether the pandemic is over or not, it’s good to be coming out of it. To go to the grocery store and not wear a mask. To go to church, not wear a mask, and get a cup of coffee (while staying 6 ft. distanced the whole time). To have long-interrupted groups meet for the first time in over a year. Yes, while we realize the spread of the virus isn’t over, and questions remain as to the effectiveness of the vaccine against all mutations of the virus, it’s still good to open up. One group I belong to has been meeting. The Northwest Arkansas Letter Writers took a few months off, then decided to meet outdoors. I joined this group in March 2020 and attended one meeting before the pandemic hit. These are people who enjoy writing letters, on paper, that get sent through the mail. We have been meeting at a church not too far from me, under a drive-under at the back door, skipping the coldest and hottest months. That was good to keep seeing each other and talk about our letter writing activities. Another group I’m a member of is the Scribblers & Scribes of Bella Vista. This is a writers critique group. We had our last meeting at a library in early March 2020. The other group I’m a member of is the Village on the Lakes Writers and Poets. This group is a diverse bunch of writers, a fair number being poets. They met once a month at a writers retreat center in Bella Vista, sometimes as many as 20 people. The meetings were about inspiration for and education concerning writing, along with read-around of our work. Then the pandemic hit. The March 2020 meeting was cancelled. By April we were ready for Zoom meetings and did this every month during the pandemic. In June, we met at a pavilion of one of Bella Vista’s parks. One of our leaders led us in an exercise. Now, I hate writing exercises. I’m not sure why; I’d just rather write what I want to write and be done with it. But I took part. The leader had brought plucked off leaves, colored pens, pencils, and sketching paper. We were to trace a leaf (or leaves), then take fifteen minutes to write about it, after which we read our exercise to the group. Not trace. I’m not exactly sure what this craft is called. Leaf rubbing I suppose. My leaf didn’t want to cooperate. I chose yellow as my rubbing color. Probably not the best, as yellow doesn’t show well. The thick parts of the leaf didn’t come through, so I took a green pencil and traced them. As to the writing, I stared at my leaf and couldn’t think of a thing. Then I took note of the dendritic pattern of the leaf and remembered an e-mail discussion with a now-deceased friend, and a train of though came to mind. Here’s what I wrote and read to the group. Dendritic Passage
As the trace of the leaf shows more prominently the division of segments—i.e. the spine and the hard, thick parts, so is my writing life and all that has brought me to this point. These start at the periphery and end at the bottom of the stem in what is called a dendritic pattern.
Dendritic? Yes, that’s the term. We used it in hydrology to describe the nature of a drainage basin, coming together from the far-flung edges and arriving at the main channel. But I think the word comes from the natural sciences, for I first heard it from Gary, a zoologist by education who ended up his career in computer systems. Branches coming together but with a fabric between them is what makes a dendritic pattern.
As I look at this leaf from an unknown plant and see its dendritic pattern, I see my writing. Each little spine is a genre that captures some of my time and results in a book or story. The latch-key teen experiences resulted in the Danny Tompkins stories. The many places visited early in adult life are being turned into the Sharon Williams stories and Operation Lotus Sunday. My love of God’s story and His word & church has moved to a branch that is the church history novels and At that point the leader said “Time.” When I read what I had to the group, someone talked about the dendritic pattern of the nervous system. I later looked up a dictionary definition, and both the pattern of a tree and the nervous system were used in the definition of dendritic. And the word “dendrite” for the first time came to my attention. Guess I should have figured that. This is not a profound post. I have no conclusion to draw, no inspirational thing to write. Just an observations. Groups are coming back. I took part in a writing exercise. I did a craft-like thing and lived to write about it. All is not right with the world, but it was better that day when we met.
I am on the board and a member of Village Lake Writers and Poets here in Bella Vista. We recently were fortunate to acquire a lease for the historic Dug Hill Chapel as our new home and meeting place. In the picture you can see a small cemetery behind the building. Over the years, the Chapel has been a church, school and community center. It speaks to us. We will be busy refurbishing, cleaning and renovating the little building to meet our needs. It’s the time of year that the ghosts of the past speak out to us. We are so excited to begin this new adventure in this old building.
And so I write … WE LISTEN
Can you hear it?
Voices of ancient spirits whisper—
Speaking to the future,
Carrying songs of praise,
Prayers of anguish, struggle,
Searching with hope.
Soft scratchings of
Murmured memories rise
While the tolling bell
Calls bodies to gather:
Teens and twenties,
Settle at once together
Learn, and share
Occasional raucous laughter, and
Whispered shared secrets.
The shadowed walls speak of
Taught and learned,
Etched into hearts and minds
Richly layered with thick, slathered paint
Applied with steady hands
Year after year after year.
At last, bits peel away
Revealing pointed adjurations
Shavings of wood,
Reminders to remember.
Teaching voices from the past.
Curling tendrils of
Words and wisdom
Filled with aching, overarching hope.
The spirits speak to us.
Before I begin, I'd like to welcome our new members and encourage you and them to write and share blog articles from their personal blog sites or, as the spirit moves, pen something from scratch here. I'd ask that you refrain from speaking on the big three: sex, religion, and politics. I know, I know, what's the fun in that? This morning, I'll share one from my personal blog site entitled "Resolute." Have a great day...write on!!!