Tuesday, July 29, 2014

STARS GO BLUE




Today's guest post is by Laura Pritchett. Wyoming's borders are straight but porous, so at this blog we define “Wyoming writers” very loosely. Laura lives in Colorado but she qualifies because she is of the West, and definitely for the West. 

Laura is author of the novels Stars Go Blue, Sky Bridge and Hell's Bottom, Colorado, as well as Great Colorado Bear Stories (nonfiction). Over one hundred of her essays and short stories have been published in numerous magazines. She's also a writing coach and leads a hellova workshop.


Without further ado, here's Laura:  


We writers know that every book presents a challenge – or probably should. The particular challenge of my new novel Stars Go Blue—and what I think makes it unique—was this decision to tell from the point of view of someone who can’t find language.

The novel is told from alternating points of view: a man (Ben) with this Alzheimer’s, and his semi/sort-of wife (Renny), his primary caregiver. How to write about Ben’s confusion without confusing the reader? How to write about Renny’s exhaustive caregiving without making readers exhausted and annoyed as well? These were the writerly considerations I struggled with.

In particular, it was Ben’s voice that was tricky. There’s only one other book (that I know of) written from the point of view of the person with Alzheimer’s -- Still Alice (secretly, I’d been hoping mine would be the first, and then I came across this one). I think it’s a lovely book, but not close to what I wanted to write. Figuring out how Ben could communicate his story—well, that was the real trick for me. Ben’s voice, I decided, would be like music, a soft poetry and imbued with place. He often invents words for ideas and objects, and in this way, he became a wise poet.

Renny’s voice is the opposite: solid and direct and more concerned with the facts and figures of life. They are both tired and diminished somewhat, but have important things to say. At one point, I met with author Kent Haruf, who has been a mentor of mine. The gist of our discussion was the need to keep the book short and powerful, because, yes, you can only have a character like Ben narrate for so long. And I remember him saying something like, “and never describe it as a quiet novel. It’s not quiet. It’s only small in terms of page count. But it’s a huge book. Make sure you make it huge.” (I’m not sure I did that, but I tried).

Many writers unknowingly guided me, by offering up examples of what I wanted to write—for example, there are some great lyrical short (but powerful) novels I deeply admire: When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka, Atticus by Ron Hanson, The Tie that Binds by Kent Haruf. These are all short novels that burst with energy. That is what I wanted.

Why did I feel the need to write this book? For the same reason I always write: To better perceive and possess my life. In other words: to understand my life better – and then live it more fully. In this case, it came from a desire to love my father, who, about ten years ago, was diagnosed with dementia. These last ten years have been marked by my walks with him across the family ranch. As a writer, I wanted to better understand him, the disease, the man he was becoming via words. The irony struck me on many occasions: As he increasingly lost words, I increasingly gained them. I started to write more about him. For many years, this writing was (unsurprisingly) from my point of view, my take on the whole thing. But then I started to write from his point of view. I wanted to understand his life as well as my own.

My writing process? Mornings are usually fiction; afternoons are non-fiction. I write both regularly – and I need both genres, depending on my story or state of mind. I am a bit of a workaholic; I write whenever I can, wherever I can. This is probably out of necessity more than natural impulse – by the time one balances teenagers, life, travel, teaching, and so on, you just cram writing in without any fuss.

There are two things that are always circling around in my mind when it comes to writing: metaphor and place. Metaphors are the stuff of real communication, in the end. In this case, for example, I used water as metaphor. I listened to my father talk about water – always a topic of interest to ranchers in the West – how it’s so varied, versatile, ubiquitous, necessary, and ordinary. What he said often resonated with me as a metaphor to what was happening to his memories and his mind.

Related, place is enormously important in all my writing, both fiction and nonfiction. I’m sure that’s because place is important to me as a human being. I find my solace, my center, and my ideas while outside, engaging in the natural world. I hike or walk every day (whether in Colorado or New Zealand). Since my center is so tied up to place, it’s difficult (or probably impossible) for me to write about characters who are oblivious to place. As a writer, I think I've found ways in which place can contribute to plot and characterization – which is essential. You can’t just go on and on about place. Readers want to hear a story, and they want to see people moving through that story. But place can help you do that.

"Writing is an exercise in longing," writes Isabelle Allende. Indeed. In the end, I write because I long to express my love (or sorrow, or joy, or whatever the case may be) about people and place and issues. I believe that stories help us perceive and possess our lives. I can better understand my love for my home place and my father and mother, for instance, only after I have written about them. Writing this novel first helped me love deeper. That’s what I’m always longing for.


Lynn chimes in...

I just finished reading Stars Go Blue. As I read, I kept a notepad next to me, with the goal of jotting down lots of important writing stuff to share with you all, including insights on how author Laura Pritchett performs her fictional magic.

First entry: Intimate 3rd person, present tense; lots of water images.

That was also the last entry because about page five I lost my footing and slid down the chute of story. I also did not  give another thought to Laura Pritchett (who’s that?) because I was with Ben, Renny, Anton, Jess, Satchmo and the pregnant waitress from the truck stop.

So instead, how ‘bout I tell you how the book affected me as a reader?

• The way I entered the mind of Ben, then Renny and ping-ponged back and forth, getting so lost in each character that the end of the chapter, and subsequent change in point of view, always came as a surprise.

• How parts of the story read like poetry and sent me to that place, like a good poem will, where I’m not sure I could articulate my understanding, but I completely "get" it.

• How it’s been a long time since I had that feeling of simultaneous dread and anticipation at the approach of the last pages.

• And that surprise at the end: Her? She’s the one to take over the story? Followed instantly with: But of course, who else?

• And how I never asked—like I sometimes do with stories set in the West—if the author had actually been out here. This book portrays  the West I’m familiar with and I swear these people are my neighbors.

I’ll go back to the book and re-read it, looking for clues as to how Laura managed all of this, because I’m a good writing student.

But later. Right now I’m still thinking about the story and missing the characters.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

We want.... a SHRUBBERY!

One that looks nice. And not too expensive.
"Almost anyone can write. Only writers know how to rewrite. It is this ability alone that turns the amateur into the professional."
William C. Knott


One of my favorite Mark Spragg moments at the last Wyoming Writers conference was when he discussed how he sometimes got too cute, too in love with a phrase or sentence that didn't belong. His editor flagged one of those lapses with a note: "Why don't you save this for your book of witty f**king sayings?"

I'll come back to this thought. For now, let's talk shrubbery.

My husband doesn't like to kill or even discourage plants. Sort of a Plants Rights Activist. For years, he refused to let me trim the shrubs, with one exception: per city ordinance, the sidewalks had to be kept clear. Along the walk, I hacked them in a sharp line. On the top and other three sides, they put out sprawling limbs. For several years it looked as if the cotoneasters wore mohawks.

Where I trimmed, I hadn't just lost the excess. The shrubs filled in, become thicker, more attractive. Just like my writing when I revise it. Where I cut, it leaves room for words and thoughts that matter. The writing becomes more solid.

I finally persuaded my husband to let me trim the other three sides. Once the long and rambling shoots were off, the gaps were evident, as if the shrubs had developed some form of cotoneaster pattern baldness. I have faith that if I keep trimming them back, they will take shape over time.

Cutting words can be painful. Even a writer like Mark Spragg sometimes can have trouble getting the last of the clutter out. But revising doesn't just take out the unwanted material. It makes room and space for more good writing to fill in the gaps. So don't  be afraid to cut pieces from that poem or prose. You may end up with more than you started with.

And... 

for those of you who read the title and were hoping for your Monty Python fix, here 'tis:

Friday, July 18, 2014

Book Review: The Coffee Break Guide to Business Plans for Writers

by Susan

Not long ago, I was advised to create a business plan for my writing, so I was excited to find The Coffee Break Guide to Business Plans for Writers on the new book shelves at the Laramie County Public Library.

This slender paperback is on a needed topic and offers some good tools, but falls short of the mark in some regards. Amy Denim breaks the planning down into manageable chunks. She tailors the concepts of business plans for a writing business, and even renames business plan sections with more writerly names, such as "blurb" for what's typically known as the executive summary. The writing is friendly and down to earth. She lays out the to-dos clearly. Additional resources are offered on the Coffee Break Publishing website.

However, The Coffee Break Guide focuses almost exclusively on book writing, not any of the myriad other choices writers have for making their living with words. Business writing, magazine freelancing and the like get only a cursory one-page mention as a way to pay the bills while churning out novels. The book also seemed vague on financial planning topics.

Amy Denim lists The Secret as one of her recommended titles, and that book's influence is clear in The Coffee Break Guide. Some of the advice seemed to me less plan than wishful thinking, especially since book publishing is a fickle business. In particular, I questioned her concept of creating a 25-year plan in a rapidly changing publishing environment. Those who find the principles in The Secret useful may find this book of more benefit.

I would describe The Coffee Break Guide to Business Plans for Writers as useful, but incomplete. Writers may want to peruse the front of the Writers' Market for more information on what pay to anticipate. One of the books Denim recommends, The Right Brain Business Plan by Jennifer Lee, is geared toward creative professions and looks useful. And at least a look-through of some traditional business plan resources wouldn't hurt.

Publication information:
Coffee Break Guide to Business Plans for Writers: The Step-by-Step Guide to Taking Control of Your Writing Career by Amy Denim
Denver, CO: Coffee Break Publishing, 2013
ISBN-13: 978-0615946856

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

SUMMER MODE

post by Lynn

Maybe I should act like a coach, prodding you into productive action. Seat to chair! Fingers to keyboard! It’s time to exercise plot and point of view and revision!

But that would not be honest. Because today I am in summer mode, and if anything, I’d like to take you by the wrist and pull you down into the grass with me. It’s summer, and I don’t want to spend hours at the computer.

I want to spit seeds and listen to the swish of warm wind through the maple. I want to throw a tennis ball for Luna the span-triever. I want to pick flowers I know are weeds, but that I think are pretty anyway.

That’s my agenda today. And you know what? That's okay. Downtime has restorative qualities. Play has its place in the creative process.

But don’t take it from me--listen to these folks:
What do I want to take home from my summer vacation? Time. The wonderful luxury of being at rest. The days when you shut down the mental machinery that keeps life on track and let life simply wander. The days when you stop planning, analyzing, thinking and just are. Summer is my period of grace. 
- Ellen Goodman
Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer day listening to the murmur of water or watching the clouds that float across the sky, is hardly a waste of time. 
- John Lubbock 
Play is the highest form of research. 
- Albert Einstein 
So, come on. Let's go soak up summer--before it goes away again. As long as we keep a notebook in our pockets to capture the images and thoughts that bubble up, it qualifies as writing time.

Trust me on that.

Let's go outside and play!

Photo by Aunt Lynn



Friday, July 11, 2014

WyoPoets features Writing Wyoming's Lynn G. Carlson

by Susan

Our very own Lynn G. Carlson is the featured poet over on the WyoPoets site today. Check out the link to learn more about Lynn and for a sample of her poetry.

Each month, WyoPoets asks one of its members to summarize their writing lives, poetry backgrounds and inspirations for their Featured Members page. This is a chance to learn how WyoPoets members get their poetry onto paper. Each poet’s voice clearly shines through.

WyoPoets is an organization for those who write poetry for publication and/or as a hobby. Although most members are in Wyoming, it welcomes poets from any part of the world. WyoPoets provides a base for mutual help and inspiration by encouraging interest in poetry through writing, publishing, studying, and sharing poetry in its many forms.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Writing as a Help to Healing with Art Elser

Art Elser during the time he served in Vietnam.
Guest post by Art Elser

The first serious poem I ever wrote was in 1993. I felt a strong need to express my grief over the death of my mother-in-law, a very special person in my life, and the joy I felt that she was finally free from the pain of her cancer. Then, in 1995, after dropping our daughter off at college in Philadelphia, we went to DC and I visited The Wall. Seeing the names of classmates, friends, and 58 thousand comrades in arms etched into that black marble, moved me to write a second poem.

In the late 90s my son was in college and would often ask about my role in the war, so in 1999, I decided to write a memoir about that year and the emotional trauma that resulted from it. That book, What's It All About, Alfie?—we called our son Alfie as he was growing up—brought up a lot of pain that I had to deal with. I worked a couple of hours almost every evening after dinner on the book. cried lots, and had lots of nightmares, daymares, and flashbacks. I also uncovered a lot of anger at politicians who lied to us and mismanaged that war.

Writing not only brought stuff I had repressed to the surface, but also seemed to help me deal with it. More and more seemed to surface after writing Alfie. I turned to poetry to tell about what I felt. I wrote a poem about a grunt who was suffering flashbacks, although I was not a grunt, but I supported them almost every day. My cousin suffered flashbacks and emotional problems for many years. Incidentally he read Alfie, and reading my story seemed to prod him to get help. Another poem I wrote is about a patrol being blown apart by a booby trap set off by a young boy, similar to an incident that happened to a patrol near one of my bases.

Since Alfie, I've written many poems about my experiences, some very recently. A sound, smell, sight, will trigger a memory or a flashback and a poem starts. My writing process begins with chewing over the memory in my head for days, sometimes weeks. I often journal about it and do free writing exercises to pin down memories and emotions. Those writings help get the poem into a draft.

I think writing about deep trauma helps because to write well, one must also revise well. When I revise I look for the right words, syntax, and structure. That means I have to look the memory right in the eye, think hard about it, and recognize the emotions it evokes. That, I believe, is how serious writing can promote healing. At least it seems to have helped me. I no longer have heart pounding flashbacks or nightmares that keep me terrified for days. I no longer wake up shaking and soaking with sweat at night from a dream I don't remember but do know terrified me.

The trauma never goes away, but it becomes easier to deal with. Or I could be a raving lunatic. After all, I am a poet.

-----

Art Elser saw combat in Vietnam as a forward air controller. He has been published in Owen Wister Review, High Plains Register, Emerging Voices, Science Poetry, The Avocet, and Open Window Review. His chapbook, We Leave the Safety of the Sea, received the Colorado Authors' League Poetry award for 2014.




Susan chimes in...

Art was kind enough to send me both his book about his war experiences, We Leave the Safety of the Sea, and also The Healing journey -- Morning Haiku to Repair Hearts. The latter was a book of haiku co-authored with Christine Valentine when he was healing from another trauma -- a massive heart attack. The two exchanged haikus every day while Art worked his way back from the fog of illness. The chapbook contains poems selected from their exchanges. 

Art's poetry is compelling. Many of us have found healing in our writing; not all of us have shown that in the writing we've shared. Reading his work, I was able in a sense to take the journey with him, and I am  grateful for that gift.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

BEARS, COWS AND FLIES, OH MY!

Photo courtesy of the
motion-activated camera at Uncle Cleve's cabin :)
When it comes to my reading habits, I'm as omnivorous as a black bear in August.

Here’s a recent sampling:
The Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (third time through, first time in last decade)
Married Into It by Patricia Frolander
The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland by Cathryn M. Valente (Young Adult)
Writing Wild by Tina Welling
Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King
Tinkers by Paul Harding

As for my reading tempo, I am more like a cow. I read at a grinding pace, ruminating over the story/information and writing about it in my journal. I am a bovine moving its cud from stomach to stomach, making sure to absorb all the nutrients.

Photo of Swiss cow by Lynn Carlson
I’ve heard—you have too, I'll bet—that a writer must be widely read and up-to-date on current trends in their particular genre. The good news is I’m pretty widely read due to the fact that I’ve been a life-long reader, my undergraduate degree is in English/Journalism, and I come from a book-loving family. My husband and I like to read out loud to each other. I read books to my vision-impaired mother. All of this has accumulated over time.

But staying up-to-date? I read recently that in the 1600’s, a reader of the English language had access to about 2,000 books. I have close to that many in my house! Then there’s the library, the internet, my Nook, my generous family and friends who keep giving me books… how’s a writer to keep up, and still find time to write?

Plus, I’m still leapfrogging in my writing from creative nonfiction to fiction to poetry, so staying up-to-date in “my” genre is impossible.

I give up.

But there are these flies buzzing around my ear that say, “When you try to get published, you’re going to be laughed out of the room because you haven't read X, don't know anything about Y, and haven't even heard of Z.”

Okay, dear reader, help me out here. What’s a bear-like, cow-like writer to do with these pesky flies?