You may have heard me quote my friend, novelist and memoirist Judy Goldman, when she talks about the most important question a writer can ask him or herself. It’s simple. “Did I write today?” Not how many pages, or how many words, Judy goes on to say, but just ask if you did it.
Well, I’m asking that questions every day. And just like eating whole foods and reading what’s going to make my writing better, I have to wake up with that goal firmly planted in my psyche, and I have to do my best to achieve it each day, even if some days I fail. Otherwise my muse will go find somebody else who doesn’t mind sitting at her keyboard typing or scribbling on her legal pad toward inspiration and eloquence. Continue Reading »
Hello everybody. If you weren’t in Harrogate, TN this weekend, at the Lincoln Memorial University Mountain Heritage Literary Festival, you missed a fine gathering. Listen to keynote musician Scott Miller sing “Appalachian Refugee,” which he sang for us on Friday night:
Here’s a scene storm word list from “Appalachian Refugee.”
Thank you to everyone who attended the festival this weekend and for making it such a success!
Well, the Gorilla is back and we’re dancing! My two weeks off turned into a much longer break. But the urge to blog is back, and just in time to talk about summer homeschooling for the fiction writer. Someone once said that a writer has homework every day of his (or her) life. So, how do you study? Who do you study?
This summer I’m going to study the short story. Even though I’m working on a novel, I believe the short story, like poetry, has a lot to teach the novelist about attention and compression as a formula for tension at the local level, the level of sentence and paragraph,the level of the very words you choose or don’t choose.
To explore this relationship of language and pressure, I’m going to reread and reread several story collections published not so very long ago and a couple that have been around a bit longer. I’ll read straight through some and dip down into others. The key is a regular diet of short intense stories I wish I’d written:
This week I’m teaching at the Tennessee Young Writers Workshop at Austin Peay State University. TYWW is a program of Humanities Tennessee, the same organization that offers us the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville on the second weekend of October and Chapter 16–Tennessee’s excellent virtual center for the book. For more information on these programs, visit Humanities Tennessee’s website: www.humantiestennessee.org
This is a terrific workshop because all the young people who attend want to write. We don’t have the make them write. They are writing on their own volition, and not just in class. They write in the their free time. They write in groups with someone offering a prompt. They gather in clusters of like-mindedness and share their work for critique. They are thick-skinned (sometimes after a rite of passage for first-year participants) and they understand that their goal is to become a better writer every day, every time they pick up the pen, and that becoming a better write may require them to lower their standards and write badly before the good stuff can come. These young writers understand what it means to write toward their stories, to feel around in the dark for the things they need, the objects and gestures and lines of dialogue and the surprises their characters give them. The elements they find in the dark illuminate the story they are searching for or illuminate how a story they already know can be best told.
What struck me early this week is that these young writers wrestle with the same issues all writers wrestle with. Growing up or growing older doesn’t cure you of insecurity, a vocabulary curve, an unhealthy obsession with adverbs. Writing well is always work on some level, and it is work writers should embrace will all the enthusiasm of this crowd of young writers. They can learn a lot from writers who have achieved some success. But we can also learn a lot from them.
Go be enthusiastic about writing. Don’t fall victim to that stereotype of the tortured writer. Accept the joy of your obsession and go take joy in it, even if it sometimes brings you to tears.
One of my favorite exercises is to ask students to list as many one syllable words beginning with a particular letter of the alphabet as they can. Each of us has an active vocabulary (words that come easily to us in speech and in writing) and a passive vocabulary (words we know the meaning of but don’t use readily). As a writer you need as many words at your disposal as you can muster. This exercise helps remind the writer of words he or she knows but might not think of when writing a first draft. And many one-syllable words are good solid specific nouns and verbs. They work like bricks to build a strong image or sentence.
The next part of the exercise is to write a story with only one syllable words. Only proper nouns can be multi-syllabic. Try it. You’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish with only one-syllable words.
This week’s Scene Storm Word List comes from the letter C and all are one-syllable words:
I don’t know how to make a small pot of soup; my husband doesn’t know how to plant a small garden. While three 400-foot rows of beans means a lot of picking, and people are starting to run from us when they see us coming with sacks of yellow crooked-neck squash, all those beautiful vegetables will make for some good soup this winter.
What excess do you see in your life? What excesses do your characters have, either self-imposed or thrust upon them?
Assignment: Write a scene where a character’s excess comes into play.
Assignment: Write a poem about your excesses or the excess of someone you know.
Scene Storm Word List: Here are 10 verbs associated with gardening. Use the in a scene or poem that has absolutely nothing to do with gardening.
I’m delighted to send the Scene Storm Word List to you from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, TN. While I don’t officially become Writer-In-Residence until July 1, I’m here at the festival teaching a fiction workshop and pitching in any way I can, learning the ropes from the co-director side of the fence. I’ve seen how smoothly things go from the attendee/faculty side of things, now I know about all that work the staff does to make that smooth ride for the rest of us! Somehow I suspected as much. Continue Reading »
Big news! I am honored and delighted to inform you that, as of July 1, I will be the Writer-In-Residence at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, TN. LMU is located an hour north of Knoxville, Tennessee and five minutes from Cumberland Gap, where Tennessee, Kentucky, and my home-state of Virginia come together. William and I are thrilled at the prospect of living in those beautiful mountains.
Lincoln Memorial University has a long and rich literary heritage, including graduates such as writers Jesse Stuart, James Still, Don West, and others. Other writers-in-residence have included Emma Bell Miles and, most recently, Silas House.
While at LMU, Silas House, along with co-director Denton Loving, founded the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival, now in its sixth year. The festival will be held this year on June 11, 12, and 13, and boasts an impressive list of staff and guests: Gurney Norman, Caroline Herring, Ann Pancake, Anne Shelby, Ron Houchin, Sue Massek, Kate Larken, Amy Greene, Bev May, Linda Parsons Marion, Jeff Daniel Marion, Judy DiGregorio, Maurice Manning, Silas House, and Denton Loving, with help from Sylvia Lynch and me, Darnell Arnoult. Additional expected literary sightings include the likes of novelist Pamela Duncan. For more information about the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival, visit: www.lmunet.edu/mhlf/
Silas leaves big shoes to fill. Fortunately he’s not really leaving; he’s just moving up the road to Berea College, where he will hold the National Endowment for the Humanities Chair in Appalachian Studies beginning August of 2010. Silas will be stirring up some more literary magic across the line in Kentucky. We at LMU, however, will keep hold of his wrist or ankle or pinkie finger. House has agreed to remain a co-director of the festival, and he and I hope to find additional ways to foster collaboration between LMU and Berea creative writing programs.
Silas recently co-founded, with Jason Howard and Marianne Worthington, the online literary journal Still: The Journal, based in Berea and named in part for LMU graduate and well-loved author of the novel River of Earth, James Still. The current issue of this fine journal may be found at http://www.stilljournal.net/.
Here is a photograph of the writer’s house at LMU, where I’ll be staying until William and I can find a new home for his forge and welding studio and we can get ourselves and our dogs relocated—I hope on a nice piece of property large enough for a couple of good horses. William is pleased we won’t be any farther from The Big South Fork, and he’s already heard rumors there’s good riding in the Chuck Swan Wildlife Management Area on the peninsula surrounded by the waters of Norris Lake.
I’m already making short-term and long-range plans to get more folks invovled in creative writing at LMU. Keep checking Dancing with the Gorilla for more about the LMU Writer’s House and what’s on the calendar and on deck for creative writing at LMU!
For more information about Lincoln Memorial University and the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, visit www.lmunet.edu.
Today’s Scene Storm Word List comes from Mountain Heritage Literary Festival guest fiction writer Ann Pancake’s novel Strange As This Weather Has Been:
I feel particularly fortunate and grateful today. But there are folks in the Nashville area who may not feel as fortunate at the moment. They are alive, but they have lost a substantial portion of their belongings and suffered extensive damage to their property. Some have lost loved ones. Nashville itself has lost some of its historical artifacts. While the city has patched itself back together for the short term, work is still ongoing for long-haul recovery. Continue Reading »
I’m busy at work today cleaning and sorting and trying not to lose any ground with my anti-clutter campaign, which I began at the first of the year. I’ve just gone through the house dusting and tossing and putting things in their proper place. I’m referring here to areas I’ve already purged several times. I still have not cleaned off the top of the refrigerator or the upright freezer. I’m short. The tops of those appliances don’t bother me–if I don’t think about them or don’t need something that’s artfully stacked on top of them. After writing this post I’ll enter into the Twilght Zone, a.k.a my office, and see what’s hiding in there.
Sorting and purging can uncover things you love that you’ve forgotten about—out of sight, out of mind. The act of sorting and purging can also inspire. Ideas may begin to germinate as you find notes and articles you’ve forgotten about, books covered with dust. Maybe you made notes on a good idea and they are buried in the hurry and rush of everyday living and stacking, or maybe notes were tucked into the pages of a book you were reading at the time. Sometimes our best future emerges out of our rediscovered past. Continue Reading »
How easily one week turns into three. I took one week off to spend with my granddaughters, Ella – 5, Vivian – 3, and Emerson – 1 going on two. What a joy it was to be with the girls full time for five days. Then I needed a week to recover. When you are chubby and out of shape, you feel it after a week with three little girls 5-1 years old! Then some important business came up and I had to be out of town and concentrating on some things other than blog posts. So, here we are, three weeks since the last posting of Dancing with the Gorilla.
Isn’t that how writing is? We take a day off and it may turn into two, and then three, and then seven, and then a month, and then a few months. How easy it is to plant that seed of “putting off” and then let it grow. Continue Reading »