Tuesday, August 19, 2014

On Ego and Ira Glass

 by Susan

I woke up one morning and everything I had ever written had turned to utter dreck. The essay that placed second in a contest? Ugh. Every poem in my notebook was a dud. The embryonic novel-in-progress? What was I thinking?!?

I emailed my trusted friend and co-blogger Lynn, knowing she would have the right words of wisdom. Which she did:


I think it's time you slapped your ego in the face, hard, and said, "Shut up." That's where all that shit's coming from, darling. And if you give it your undivided attention, it will never shut up.

I know if I do not give myself permission to write badly, I will never write as well as I could. It's tough to give up that desire to be perfect every time, the first time, no matter how unrealistic it is. On that note, this is a good time for Ira Glass's take on the creative process. Every time my ego gets the better of me, I need to watch this again:




Tuesday, August 12, 2014

TOPONYMY IS A TRIP

photo by Lynn Carlson
post by Lynn

Toponymy is the study of place names. A toponymist is someone who studies the science and origins of place-names. If all that sounds dry as sawdust to you, I beg to differ.

Because of one little book, I find toponymy fascinating and full of things to think and write about.



“The romance of Wyoming is included in the names of its rivers and mountains, in the titles of its cities and counties…”


So says Mae Urbanek in the preface of her book, Wyoming Place Names (copyright 1967). 

Mae wrote many books (poetry, fiction and what she calls “historical prose”) at her ranch in my home county of Niobrara. She died in 1995. When I was growing up, I’d hear my father talk about Mae but I always misunderstood the name. I thought he was saying “Mayor Banek” and so I had the notion that this person ran the town of Lusk. But I digress…

Wyoming Place Names is a book I sit with often. It has a simple format: place names, in alphabetical order, followed by the county and whatever Mae could dig up on the origin of the name. She threw in stories attached to the place, too, when she found them.

There’s history in those names, to be sure, but much, much more. There’s…

MYSTERY: Bad Medicine Butte. Fremont. Named by Shoshone Indians because of the unexplained death of one of their scouts who climbed the butte to scan for enemies. They found him there, dead, with his face on his folded arms. 

POETRY: Ishawooa Mesa, in Park County. A Shoshone name meaning “lying warm.” (Can’t you just imagine someone stretched out on the mesa in, say, April, letting the wind pass over, sponging up sun and naming this place by how it made them feel after a long Wyoming winter?)

DISCOURAGEMENT: Fourlog Park, Albany. A prospector started a cabin here in the 1870’s, and quit after he had laid up four logs. 

TRAGEDY: Meadow Creek, Natrona. Homesteaders of 1890s thought this a beautiful meadow in which to live. When a big flood in August 1895 struck the tents in which the people lived, they hurried to grab quilts, and get to higher ground. Mrs. Nuby and her three children drowned. Their bodies were caught in piles of driftwood. 

LONGING: Bosom Peak, Fremont. Named for its resemblance to the female figure when seen from Dinwoody area. (No doubt some guy had gone for a very long time without female companionship!)

HUMOR: Drizzlepuss, Teton. A pinnacle where it always seems to rain or hail when a climbing party is taken there by Exum Mountaineering School. 

REVENGE: Dead Man Creek, Albany/Carbon. Named about 1868, when the body of Jack Hockins was found buried in the gravel of creek bed. Hockins had assaulted and killed a girl in the east. His body was found after the brother of the dead girl learned where Hockins lived on this ranch.

Some place names have stories attached to them that smack of a certain WYOMINGNESS: Big Warm Springs Creek, Fremont County. When President Chester A. Arthur, with a military guard… traveled this valley in 1883, they tried to camp on Clark’s place near the mouth of DuNoir creek. Clark ordered them off. General Sheridan called him down saying, “This is the President of the United States.” Clark answered, “I don’t care what he is president of, he’s camping on my property without permission. I want him off.” Camp was moved.

Or a YEAH, WHATEVER attitude: Dutch Creek, Sheridan. First called Hungarian Creek for a Hungarian who homesteaded there. Word was too long for settlers who shortened it to “Dutch.”

Photo by Lynn Carlson
Wyoming Place Names is full of barely-hinted-at tales and half-forgotten voices… so many stories it makes me itch. I’m always reading them out loud to my husband, “Hey, Mike, listen to this…”

Saying that I am a toponymist who studies these place names is a stretch. It’s more like I use them to catapult my imagination into new territory. Sometimes they serve as writing prompts (see below) that lead me into the thicket of story.

So, thanks, Mae Urbanek. I’m grateful you weren’t the mayor of Lusk and had the time and inclination to gather all this information so I could go tripping through the toponymy of our Wyoming. I bet you never suspected that your book would live on to feed my imagination so generously.


Note: Words in italics were taken from Wyoming Place Names, by Mae Urbanek.


Here are two writing prompts inspired by Wyoming Place Names: 

Cache Mountain, Yellowstone Park. Takes the name from creek where Indians surprised prospectors, and stole their horses, except two mules; men had to “cache” what mules could not pack. 

Write a scene where three of the prospectors return to dig up the cache. What do they find?

~~~ 

Nightcap Bay, Teton. A small bay in Jackson Lake named by John D. Sargent, pioneer of 1887: brilliant and erratic, he claimed the bay was visited by an apparition—a man in a boat which appeared at midnight on a certain night each year. 

It’s 2014. You discovered some old journals that reportedly were written by Sargent. One enigmatic entry says “Jackson Lake: October 13, 12:01 am. Three years in a row.” Your friend makes you a $100 bet that no ghost will appear. You take it. You and your friend push the boat away from shore at 11:30 pm on October 12th. What happens?


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Lucky

Guest post by Eugene Gagliano

In my heart, I’ve always been a poet.  Lucky?  Maybe. Sensitivity has been a gift and a burden.  Even in my childhood, I looked at the world differently than my friends.  Especially attuned to nature, I was the guy who stopped to smell a flower, listen to a stream, or study the clouds.  I appreciated small things. 

The view on one of his walks.
My first poem appeared in a middle school newspaper, after my seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Erwin, recognized my ability to write. Later other English teachers encouraged me and my poems appeared in national high school and college anthologies. Today I continue to write and share my poetry.

Recently, I tried to capture my morning walks in June in a poem.  I wanted the reader to share some of the beautiful summer mornings the way I experienced them.  This is how I went about writing the poem.

First, I honed in on my senses, letting one particular morning consume me.  I noted everything. When I returned home, I jotted down my impressions on a note pad, and decided to wait to write my rough draft until after I’d taken a few more walks.  Each day I focused on how the walk affected me, and wrote down my impressions.  I gathered my notes and then began to write the rough draft.
 
Next, I wanted to describe everything my eyes saw in a unique way.  The blue flax that flowered along the road became like spattered pieces of the sky. The leaves of the cottonwoods were like green coins glistening in the early morning sun light, as it floated to noon through threaded clouds.  The rancher’s irrigation wasn’t just watering the land, but creating rainbows through pulsating surges of water. 

Then, I wanted the reader to be immersed in the fragrance of the morning. I spoke of how I breathed deeply of the yellow clover that blanketed the landscape with billows of blossoms that hummed with bees, and the sweet scent of newly cut hay drying in furrowed fields that contrasted with the pungent pleasing corrals of manure.

The early morning sounds needed to be included, like the muffled bellowing of Black Angus bulls and the mountain run off of the gurgling stream, and the meadowlark’s solo song as pickup trucks swished by.

I wanted the reader to see and feel the cottonwood’s bark like wrinkled elephant skin, and the cool metallic sensation of an old iron wheel rusting into eternity.  Even the sweat on my upper lip should be tasted.

The morning walks were beautiful, but they also needed to be grounded in reality, and I had to take off the rose colored glasses and include the rancid smell of diesel fumes and the sickening stench of road kill, all part of the walks.  Then, I remembered seeing the passing blue pickup truck of a friend.  He was driving into another day with the burden of the loss of his son.

After completing the first draft, I put the poem aside for a few days and then looked at it again with fresh eyes.  I read it aloud, then revised and edited. 

Simple walks down a country road held a sensory palette for me, with a seasoning of emotions.  I guess I’m lucky; I see the world through a poet’s eyes.



Eugene M Gagliano’s love of nature developed early in the suburbs just outside the woodlands and farmlands of Niagara Falls. He began writing poetry in seventh grade, and his poems were published in national high school and college anthologies. He has authored several children's books. He taught in grades K-5 for 34 years. Now he is a full time writer and author presenter. 

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