Category Archives: writing

Quote of the Day: Categorizing Writing and Writers

Categorization (women’s writing, gay writing, Illinois writing) inflicts upon art exactly what art strives at its best never to inflict on itself: arbitrary and irrelevant limits, shelter from the widest consideration and judgment, exclusion from general excellence.

– Richard Ford

(Come to think of it, I think this really does apply to art in general. I note that Ford refers to writing only in parentheses.)

A Writer’s Prayer

Leave it to Neil Gaiman to write a writer’s prayer made for a humble craftsperson and not some kind of Pegasus-mounting fool. I would add to this, May my deadlines not sting, and may those who draw those lines have warm hearts.

Writing is very cool. It is also a job of work like any other.

A Writer’s Prayer

Oh Lord, let me not be one of those who writes too much;
who spreads himself too thinly with his words,
diluting all the things he has to say,
like butter spread too thinly over toast,
or watered milk in some worn-out hotel;
but let me write the things I have to say,
and then be silent, ’til I need to speak.

Oh Lord, let me not be one of those who writes too little;
a decade-man between each tale, or more,
where every word accrues significance
and dread replaces joy upon the page.
Perfectionists like chasing the horizon;
You kept perfection, gave the rest to us,
so let me earn the wisdom to move on.

But over and above those two mad spectres of parsimony and profligacy,
Lord, let me be brave, and let me, while I craft my tales, be wise:
let me say true things in a voice that is true,
and, with the truth in mind, let me write lies.

Free Mp3 here!

And the Semester Wind-Down Continues…

* final Blue Banner article Turned out well. Turned in Sunday evening, as per my usual reporter’s deadline of Sunday at midnight.

* A 10-page (double-spaced) humanities research paper, 20% of my final grade Turned in this morning! A huge hassle over and done with!

This morning our instructor read the topics of the class’ freshly submitted papers from the thick stack we made on his desk. Burke and his God. The impact of the industrial age on health. Westernization in Japan.

Mine was Lin Zexu and traditional Confucian models.

To his credit, our professor seemed to look forward to reading them.

* My newswriting final project, an 800-1000 word news article on communal housing, is due Thursday at 9 a.m.

It’s going moderately well, with 800 words written last night, but no sources yet because I am having trouble tracking down interviews, and this article requires four.

But I got a nice flow from the information I gathered, and I am learning the trick of choosing a focus and writing economically to that focus, rather than writing a big sprawl and seeing where you focus lies as you finish your first draft.

Since I am wooly minded, I now write out my focus first thing, and write notes to myself IN CAPS to remind me what each transitioned paragraph is supposed to cover.

While both approaches may have their merits, a news story is the place for the former technique. And surely a timesaver overall.

* My humanities final is December 6 at 11:30 a.m. It is comprehensive. Which sucks because a few weeks ago I managed to lose my humanities notebook. I’ve looked everywhere. It’s gone. Note to students: Put your contact info in your notebooks. I wish I had.

* My political science final is in early December sometime. I don’t think it is comprehensive, but only covers Marx and Grieder’s/Hobson’s critique of global capitalism. No word yet from my professor as to when our final is.

Days left in the semester: 14

Rut.

Lately I feel like when I am happy and involved in my work, no matter how many hours my workday lasts, and no matter how tired I get, there’s some kind of furnace of joy inside me that keeps me going like a star. I never get sick and I find time for everything, though heaven knows I miss a lot of fun.

And I feel like when this furnace goes out, when work doesn’t stir me and classes lose the intellectual glamor I savor, I swiftly become befuddled and ill.

I go from competent and industrious to confused and headachy. Over the past two weeks, I have missed 1 1/2 humanities lectures, completely due to forgetting that on Fridays I have class at 11:30.

Last weekend some weird bug kept me on my back all day Sunday, unable to keep food down and most grateful for my Netflix subscription. And this week I seem to be one of the first at the college to come down with that unwelcome seasonal visitor, the common cold.

You know the deal. Dry, gaping mouth and stopped-up nose, sneezing wetly into the quiet of the bedroom as the minutes tick by, closer and closer to the time your alarm will usher you into breakfast, classes, the morning hustle you are in no way ready for.

I admit it. I’m in a rut, and a very bad one.

I am missing classes, flubbing tests, rarely leaving the house due to constantly being ill and out of sorts. A good day feels like a sort of compromise between misery and hope.

It’s been a long time coming. The first real sign of it that I remember came this spring, when I lost my taste for caring for my garden, previously a hallowed activity in my life. The garden looks like shit this year, having received the bare minimum of care to not be a total wreck.

And I must also admit that my sweet house, which I once loved with all my heart, no longer brings me joy. I am more and more overwhelmed daily by all the constantly increasing little matters of repair and upkeep that I don’t have the time, knowhow, money or mental focus to deal with right now.

Leaf-stuffed gutters. The mysterious, growing dark stains under the linoleum near the bathtub. The damned bloody leaking skylight, the Moby Dick of my household existence. The tree that needs to be pruned. The broken locks. The dust that gathers in the corners. Cobwebs. Dirty windows too high to reach from the ground. The little things bug me, and the big things, the leaks, are legitimate possible threats to the value and structural integrity of my home.

My old enemy, the forces of decay.

And as I mentioned before, as I have never painted the interior of this house the colors of my choice, nor furnished it properly (my office especially is done in Early Target). Five years on, I still feel that I have never quite moved in.

I used to tell myself that someday, when school was done and I had a proper full-time income and proper not-a-student-anymore free time again, I’d address all these things, and wasn’t I just happy to have this house at all, never-quite-decorated as it is?

Now I think I’m done with that idea. I think I’d take less and find it suited me more.

I’ll likely be in school for years yet, and I need to either creatively start work on turning my house and yard around, or try something new already.

Changes need to be made. The dreaded thing we all must face, the need for change.

My house, my lifestyle, my life, all very likely need to be reworked. And just like my house overwhelms me with all left undone and gone to pot, so too does my life.

My health’s in the toilet. My asthma, aggravated by stress and lack of exercise, got so bad earlier this week that I couldn’t draw a deep breath without a shooting pain in my right shoulder. I figure my lung capacity, which for some reason dwindles when I don’t exercise and let myself fall back into the slough of isolation, is probably close to 60 or 70 percent.

Eat right, exercise, sell my house and start a new house somewhere else. Turn my whole bloody life around when most days I am doing well just to go through the motions. Is that what I need to do?

I feel like I need to have a closeout sale with my own life. Everything must go.

Today I am going to my mom’s pumpkin-carving party, which I’ve been looking forward to for weeks.

I will tell my little East Tennessee fam that I am thinking of selling beautiful Jen Manor for future homesteads still unknown, and also that I cannot get the Peace Corps out of my head. Dr. Allison says their foreign language training is impeccable.

Nice way to pick up a new language, globalize myself a bit, finally see more than my home country. (What I’ll do with my four dear cats, whom I truly love, is a very real concern. But I wonder if a cohousing situation might make it easier to pull up roots for a few years.)

Today the sun is shining after days and days of rain. This weekend is looking to offer the first really cold days of the year, with temps on Sunday night going down to that magic number, 32. Time to bring in the plants.

Last night I went outside just to visit with the moon. Changed and reduced as I am, I am still me. Beautiful Carolina moon, so bright it made sharp-edged leafshadows on the white fabric of my shirt. The night sky that curious blue-white.

I love to step outside and be struck at how bright it is under full moonlight. How well the world is revealed, how bright and strange and rare full moon nights are, how I never tire of them though I get one a month for life.

I am a child of this planet, bred to wonder it at forever, I suppose.

So. I’ve accepted that I am in a terrible rut, no getting out anytime soon, no magic cure, and the three butter rum muffins I ate last night really did not help. Muffins only temporarily relieve me of the knowledge that my choices are A. capitulation and B. making nearly everything different.

While one is certainly easier it stinks like death, or at least like the stack unwashed dishes that accumulates weekly, which I have neither time nor energy to address.

But in life as with dishes, sometimes the only way out is straight through the mess.

Harry Potter and Why We Can’t Resist a Story About the “Chosen One”

Attention conservation notice: This post is about why I think Harry’s story is everyone’s story, and contains spoilers. Also, it is very long.

potterhallowsbook.jpg

The latest and last Harry Potter novel came out in summer. I’m a fan, but I waited to buy my own copy until just a week or so ago.

I had made a deal with myself. Summer felt too active to me, too hot and eventful, not a reader’s season especially for a book like this which is special in the life of the reader. And I (who love for things to have themes and seasons into which they fit) thought the cozy world of Hogwarts would be far, far better suited to colder weather.

So come autumn and the first cold nights of the year, I bought the book at last.

I loved it, though — no Hogwarts this year, until the end! I missed Hogwarts, which was in many ways my favorite character. The one thing I think the movies truly got, as far as my own vision of the books is concerned, is the richness and grandeur of Hogwarts. From the crimson and ebony of the Gryffindor commons to the sun-streaked darkness of Snape’s tense and musty classroom, where motes of dust moved in long streaks of sunlight over the bowed heads of young witches and wizards…the movies got that one right in a big way.

Why do we love these books so much?

We all love a book about a chosen one, don’t we, with a big destiny and plenty of adventure along the way to fulfilling it.

Destiny stories grab us, I think, because they are all our own story. Hidden worlds grab us because we all enter hidden worlds.

I think we all have a magical destiny of sorts. We know the story of the chosen one, because it’s just a grander version of our own story.

We start out as helpless children, but we receive constant intimations of a world beyond our own, of sex and power and actually buying our own possessions and choosing our own lives. Do you remember how exciting it once was just to go to a restaurant, and sit and eat at the table, like the adults? Magical worlds thrill us because they light up that part of the brain that remembers the magical world we once watched and felt from afar, and finally, almost magically, gained entrance to.

Eventually, we all ascend. We drive cars, drink alcohol, experience intimacy and sex, forge alliances, find power in our skill and enter a strange world called adulthood where we may act as we please, decorate our rooms as we want, take on huge challenges and conquer them and be utterly free to do with our lives exactly as we please.

Don’t you sometimes thrill to lay out of work when you deserve to? To drive a car? To live in a space that’s yours? To eat pretzels for lunch when you’ve had a bad day?

Of course there is plenty of needful added seasoning; Harry’s story also makes it clear that there is evil, and betrayal and bravery, and great suffering and injustice, and that there are causes worth dying for.

But many of his lessons are homelier. Friends are the family you choose, choose well! Powerful helpers — mentors — are there for you and are commonly called teachers. Education is magic in its power to make you into something better, something other. Belonging is there for you, among friends and the extended family you can build for yourself.

I find the book totally pro-education, what with mega-nerd Hermione saving everyone’s skins so often with her preparedness and knowledge, all gained through ardent study. And so many of Harry’s successes come from doing research (or having Hermione to do it). Books, learning, school and knowledge are magical in Rowling’s world.

One of my favorite passages happens when Harry rides a broomstick for the first time, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Here, in an old movie review of mine, is how I describe the scene as it happens in the movie, and a problem I had with the movie’s depiction of the scene as opposed to what I got from the book:

…when Draco makes off with Neville’s remembrall, it is one of the book’s most telling, involving and important scenes. As Harry pursues, riding a broomstick for the first time, he finds something he does well without even trying. He discovers the thrill of mastery, all the headier for being an immediate mastery. Harry has probably just taken his first major step to adulthood.

He zooms over to Draco, who is not sitting quite as well on his own broom, and orders him to return the remembrall. Draco notes Harry’s confidence and skill and quails a bit, flinging the remembrall at the ground rather than continuing to challenge someone who is obviously the better flier. In the movie, Draco makes off with the remembrall and Harry gives chase in a chain of unoriginal technical events that titillate the eye but deaden the heart.

Where is Harry’s discovery, his exhilaration, where is Draco’s capitulation to Harry’s power? Why were the visuals so slavishly copied, but all the meaning excised?

Learning to be really, really good at something is always an entry into the adult world. It’s so powerful it will fast-track you into the adult world even if you are not an adult yet.

This part of Harry’s journey spoke strongly to me at the time because I was learning a new grown-up skill myself. Although I was 31 years old or thereabouts, I was learning to be a writer. That review quoted above began as a long email to friends. A friend suggested that I submit it to a new local entertainment site. And my long, thinky email about Harry Potter became my first published work of movie criticism, and my start as a writing professional.

Putting your hand to something, finding yourself quite remarkably good at it out of the blue… For me it was exactly, exactly, like climbing into some very fast vehicle and finding your ordinary self augmented beyond belief. Doing this new thing, you are better, stronger and more powerful than you were before, and it all comes easily. Jesus, what a thrill!

No matter what age you are when this hits, and it hit me rather late, you are in the middle of a transformative life passage — and one of the good ones, too.

So Harry’s story is my story (I even used to call my beloved old community college Hogwarts), and Harry’s story is everyone’s story, everyone who is willing to put effort into her life, or willing to start trying. His power comes as most of ours does, by entering a hidden world where unknown powers and talents are revealed to him, by surrendering to the process of education, by being hammered into adulthood through a series of trials.

Harry finds and cultivates mastery in a field of interest, chooses a profession, makes the friends who support him… These are all familiar passages.

The story of the chosen one is one of the most compelling and attractive stories to us humans. We must like what it says about us, how it guides us and flatters us and is somehow more true than truth.

Or as Jane Espenson said,

The Chosen One paradigm is the most positive, most comforting, most affirming metaphorical version of change, of growing up, that I can imagine.

Yes.

My generation had Star Wars. (I don’t know what the ’80s/’90s kids had, heaven bless them.) But the milennials have Harry. I frankly SHUDDER to think how utterly obsessed I would have been with this series 25 years ago.

I suppose my generation’s co-optation of these books, which are purportedly for children and young adults, is the psycho-mythic counter to the sheer dreadfulness of everything George Lucas has done since he kidnapped the psyches of millions with Episodes IV-VI.

Ha. I call that fair.

(My favorite diatribe on the awfulness of latter-day Lucas is here.)

The Fragile Human Ego

I moderate a listserv for professional freelance writers. As the group’s gatekeeper, I try to discourage people who have needs outside of what the group offers, e.g. people who want help writing fiction or memoirs. (I don’t keep out newbie freelancers because I find that groups like this are the best resource a newbie can have.)

And I got an email the other day from a person who wanted to join because, she said, all her friends tell her she should write a book.

Oy.

I emailed back, explaining that the group was for nonfiction writers, asking if she was sure she wanted to join.

This was a very stupid move. I was tired (it’s been a rough week) and in a rush and should have said the group was for people looking to do non-creative writing for hire, something like that that better explained the freelance world.

But I wasn’t thinking. Freelance writing is oddly hard to explain, and even bright, educated people hear “freelance writer” and think “novelist.” My own mother still does not understand that I cannot and do not write fiction. (This week, actually, I am writing about community college and golf carts.)

And she emailed back saying yes she wanted to write nonfiction, and yes she still wanted to join.

I got my act together and emailed one more time to make sure she understood what our group offered, as I explained above.

And I got a nasty email back from her.

To her, clearly I was just trying to keep her out. And, well, she didn’t even want to join, didn’t want to be part of our little “cliche” (clique)? We’d only posted 15 messages this year, anyway. So there.

The fragile human ego.

While I admit to suspecting from the start this woman wasn’t right for the group, all I’d done was ask two harmless, if slightly repetitive, questions. Newbie freelance writers are welcome to the listserv, but they have to want to be freelancers, not novelists or short-story writers.

In many ways, there’s nothing like an insult to our writing ability to make us feel bad. One’s writing is a piece of oneself like little else.

But professional writers learn to take criticism, because we get it a lot. I’ve learned to let go of my creations, and no longer feel violated and furious at little changes (even bad ones) made in my precious, precious copy, stained with my heart’s blood.

My writing is still me, but it’s just got fewer nerve endings now, I suppose. Because when I had time to examine my foolish hypersensitivity, it went away. There was, I quickly realized as a beginning professional writer, no good reason to cling to the foolish idea that many beginners seem to hold: That their words are somehow above improvement.

I also quickly realized how much and how quickly brutally honest editorial comments improved my fledgling efforts.

I enjoy good editors and good editing. But when bad editing happens, I sigh and move on. And when good criticism happens I listen. There are few better ways to improve your writing than to have someone who knows what she is talking about spell out everything you are doing wrong.

And liking someone’s writing is always a matter of taste. If I am attracted to someone and he is less than attracted to me, I might be sad. But I also know that chemistry and connection are about many odd little buttons being pushed, and if one person doesn’t like me it doesn’t mean that I am deficient somehow, or completely unwanted by any and all. It just means one man doesn’t like me that way.

And if someone doesn’t like my writing, the same principle applies. My soul won’t wither if you don’t like what I write. I like it, and someone else will, too.

Writing is such an odd profession.

If you want to be a writer, you don’t have to take a test like lawyers do. You don’t have to study for long years like doctors do. You don’t have to get certified, like massage therapists do. You just call yourself a writer.

But being a real, successful writer means being part of an exclusive club not joined just by calling oneself a writer. And we in it are mostly not snobs. And we in it mostly love to lend a hand to newbies. And we who discourage you from sitting at a certain table with us ask only that you earn your place here, just as we did.

We are special, but so are all specialists. To be a writer I think you just have to write, and pay the bills with what you get from writing.

As far as I’m concerned, you do that and you’re in.

The Accidental Diva: My First Month As a College Journalist

Attention conservation notice: The Blue Banner faculty sponsor critique was today, Tuesday. This is how it all went down when my error-packed professor profile got publicly critiqued in a room full of mass comm students.

(Dang, do y’all remember when I used to write about math all the time? Now I write about writing all the time. Feel like I’m finally getting the blog’s title right.)

My first Mass Comm classes continue to sock it to me everywhere I need it. Already in the paid professional work I’m doing this week there’s a big difference in my writing. It’s tighter and less trite.

You may not think of me as a trite writer, and in this blog I try hard not to be. But some editors and some publications have actively encouraged cutesiness, and I’ve picked up some bad habits. Not to mention that triteness is a form of writerly laziness, and a symptom of lack of formal training.

Today in class I sat next to a young writer named Jon who took newswriting in high school. He knew I was a professional writer, and asked me if I was bored with the Newswriting class. BORED???? I am only reinventing myself as a no-bullshit grammar badass. I can’t say that I’m bored, Jon.

But he was. He’s had all this before and is acing every quiz. At this point I’d just like to thank the universe for handsome, self-possessed young men. It’s nice to have someone to talk to as an equal, and interesting to hear that what is transformative and vital to me is ho-hum to my young classmate.

So. Tuesday, today, was the weekly critique of the college paper. It’s done in a lecture hall by the paper’s faculty sponsor, a very cool ex newspaper guy. I grabbed a copy of the paper to review, and to look at my profile of Cynn Chadwick.

I wasn’t happy with the changes made in the Chadwick profile. I’m used to bad editing, so I can handle it.

And I could easily see why the changes made didn’t always serve the article.

Sentences got cut, reordered and chopped up to allow the editors to work around errors I’d made. The editors moved a quote out of its context, making the article read like Chadwick may have been serious when she said an education saved her from being a “crack-addicted prostitute in Weehawken.” If we’d worked together in a newsroom, the editor and I, I could have spotted the problem and made changes that served the article as well as the AP Stylebook. But I don’t get to see or talk to the editors, and the unfortunate changes they made that I could have helped them do better, stayed in.

And so the article was free of my ignorant AP style errors, but some of the changes involved the insertion of generic, listless writing I’d never have committed to paper, and  making it sound like Chadwick narrowly escaped prostitution when in fact she had financial and emotional support all through college, and came from a loving family.

Sigh. LOL I hope someone that loves her is enjoying the hell out of all this. And I hope more students learn about a very unusual and interesting writing professor.

So I went to the newspaper critique not quite nervous, but well aware that my article was the work of a journalistic amateur. I am not nervous about being criticized. I’m not so much thick-skinned as I am confident and very used to being critiqued. It goes with the profession, and it almost always makes you better at what you do.

My first writing mentor really kicked my ass over the bad writing I did as a beginner. He actually almost made me cry. And I am actually very grateful, as he made my writing much better, very quickly. And the faculty sponsor, while honest, is never cruel.

And of course he raved about the article to the point of starting “who wrote that?” chatter, and even declared that my sidebar question (“What kind of student impresses you most?”) should be asked in all future Banner profiles. Which of course is much more the kind of thing that I am used to, but let me tell you, was NOT what I was expecting today.

So far in my college career I seem to be the writer that readers love and copy editors have had to take aside for retraining twice in two weeks. An accidental diva.

Go figure.

PS: I am tired lately, y’all, and working hard all day. I don’t know how interesting my blog will be this semester, or how much I’ll post. We’ll find out together.