Thursday, September 20, 2018

Ansel Adams and September's Inspiration

Half Dome, Merced River, Winter, by Ansel Adams, a print (Amazon
"I knew my destiny when I first experienced Yosemite." --Ansel Adams

We finally made it, hubby and I, to the Ansel Adams exhibit at Cincinnati's Taft Museum before the exhibit's closing date. We would have missed a great treat if we had let this one slip from our fingers. I've always admired the iconic black-and-white photos of nature, particularly of our national parks, that Mr. Adams is famous for, but to try and absorb the genius, beauty, and compelling images all assembled in one place as these were, was a tremendous opportunity.

Cincinnati Taft Museum
Ansel Adams, A Photographer's Evolution was on view at the Cincinnati Taft Museum most of the summer, ending September 16. Billed as a showcase of a career-spanning collection of the photographer's work, the display attempted to "trace the evolution of Adams' magnificent style," beginning with rare early scenes from the 1920s and progressing to later prints he made shortly before his death (source). "Spanning the photographer's entire career," words displayed for the visitor at the beginning of the tour stated, "this exhibition reveals Adams as a poet of light both in the field and in the darkroom." The exhibit featured 42 of these marvelous photographs. Mesmerizing and instructional at the same time. Image poet and photographer in the same package. I loved it.

Ansel Adams (1902-1984), photographer and environmentalist, was born in San Francisco. He experienced the aftershocks of San Francisco's great earthquake as a four-year old in 1906. He contracted the Spanish Flu during the 1918 flu pandemic and became seriously ill, taking several months to recover. He aspired at first to a musical career after years of studying the piano. But ultimately, after his father gave him his first camera, a Kodak Brownie box camera, after his first visit to Yosemite National Park in 1916, he turned to photography as his passion and purpose. "The splendor of Yosemite," he wrote of his first view of the valley, "burst upon us and it was glorious...One wonder after another descended upon us...There was light everywhere...A new era began for me" (source).

And so, as I often do, I took a look at this man, Ansel Adams, and what he might have left behind in words as well as art. Highlights of my discoveries:

--"Suddenly I saw what photography could be: a tremendously potent, pure art form, and austere and blazing poetry of the real."

--"Photography is not only what you see, but also what you feel."

--"When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence."

--"How high your awareness level is determines how much meaning you get from your world. Photography can teach you to improve your awareness level."

--"I can look at a fine art photograph and sometimes I can hear music."

--"Today we must realize that nature is revealed in the simplest meadow, wood lot, marsh, stream, or tidepool, as well as in the remote grandeur of our parks and wilderness areas."

--"I hope that my work will encourage self expression in others and stimulate the search for beauty and creative excitement in the great world around us."

--"Life is your art. An open, aware heart is your camera. A oneness with your world is your film. Your bright eyes and easy smile is your museum."

And finally, a quote we writers can identify with:

--"One of the most important pieces of equipment, for the photographer who really wants to improve, is a great big wastepaper basket."

"In 1975," the exhibit noted, Adams "ceased making fine art prints for the open market. He selected 70 negatives he saw as his most important works--known collectively as the Museum Set--and began printing them for placement in museums." Six images in the Taft's gallery were among the 70 Adams selected, chosen from a field of over 2500 photographs attributed to his seven-decade career (source). What an agonizing process that must have been, to narrow such a wide range of images into only a few dozen for display. How does one choose one equally beautiful photograph over another?

September's inspiration: Ansel Adams, photography, poetry in photography, beauty in our world, dedication, passion. What artist--photography or other medium--inspires you? What has been September's inspiration for you so far?
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Friday, August 31, 2018

Flowering Lantana and the Writer in August

in an August garden 2018
Lantana
"If a hot, dry spot is a problem in your garden, lantana may be your solution. This hardworking plant with colorful flowers thrives with little moisture in full, unyielding sun. It's also easy to grow and pollinator-friendly!" --Better Homes and Gardens online

With a mix of hot sun and then some rain, the lantana my husband planted is thriving. And as August 2018 draws to a close, the above description of this flower speaks, it seems to me, of the writer and her seasons, too. Hardworking, yes. Colorful results, hopefully. A few blooming words despite dry spells (writer's block) and driving heat (seasons of burnout). Are we, like lantana, pushing through those things that might hold us back in order to bring forth fruit in our writing gardens? Our words may not be easy to grow like lantana, and we may struggle to nurture them through rocky days, but we can aim to be 'pollinator-friendly,' growing ourselves and offering something of value to others.

Celebrating summer's end by marveling at the remaining colors of the season's beauty. Have your words blossomed this summer or suffered from drought? Are you anticipating a productive season ahead? Can you identify with the characteristics of the lantana flower?
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Saturday, August 18, 2018

Revisiting the Basics: Throughline

photo courtesy google images
"The best fiction has a line of compulsion as strong as a hawser running through it. The reader is compelled because the characters are compelled, each equipped with a 'through-line,' an actor's term for what he 'wants' overall, what he 'wants' in a particular scene. These through-lines are the strands of the hawser, but, complicating the figure, they run at cross-purposes with each other and with circumstances, creating conflict and opposition." --Oakley Hall, The Art and Craft of Novel Writing

...hawser (n.):  a large, stout rope or thin steel cable, used for mooring or towing ships... 

The term "hawser" was a new one to me, not being familiar with boating or, on a bigger scale, towing ships. But now it's a word I've added to my vocabulary. Can't you just see how the braided strands of rope work together to make a stronger product, strong enough to pull a ship, keep it headed in the right direction, and help get it safely to its final destination?

Mr. Hall has certainly come across an apt metaphor for a story's throughline, a subject I've taken more of an interest in following the latest critique of my manuscript, one in which the throughline was mentioned as needing strengthening (thanks again, Cathy :-)

And so I went back to the basics again--to review, chew on, digest how to make improved revisions to my story's throughline and, ultimately, the story itself. I found the following sources helpful:

From Nancy Lamb in her book, The Art and Craft of Storytelling (p. 72): "The best way to travel the length of your story is to grab hold of the throughline--the driving force of the book that you set up in the opening pages--and refuse to let go."

Again from Ms. Lamb (p. 76): "From beginning to end, the throughline is the constant in your story. You can have any number of other things happening in the book. But the matter of what drives the hero and compels him to act is never in question because the throughline is there to maintain the reader's attention and to pull him through the story."

She also elaborates on these thoughts in the online Writer's Digest article What Is The Throughline of a Novel (And Why It's Important You Have One). Here she says, "Some writers think of the throughline as the embodiment of the main character's conscious desire. The character knows what he wants and knows that he wants it. This personal hunger, shared by the viewer, drives the story and shapes the narrative."

Author Nancy Kress, interviewed at Writer UnBoxed, was asked "What is a 'throughline' and how can you use it to make writing the middle of a manuscript easier?" Her answer: "Draw an upside down 'U.' Left-hand leg (call it A) is the state of the character and the situation at the start of the story. The right-hand leg (B) is the story's end, where character and situation have changed (if they haven't, you usually don't have much of a story.) This is the throughline. Your task is to create and relate all the incidents that occur to plausibly turn A into B." Other writers have described the throughline as an invisible thread that binds your story together.

So a throughline? A hawser or rope that pulls the reader through the story. A line of compulsion. The story's driving force. A character's personal hunger. An upside down U that shows the character's growth, change. An invisible thread that binds it all together.

How to strengthen that hawser, that's the question! Ms. Lamb gives insight on the subject in a section of her book subtitled, "Take a Ride on the Throughline," where she lists a series of questions to consider including:

  • What is the primary throughline of my story?
  • What are the secondary throughlines of my story?
  • What does my hero want, why can't she have it, what is the driving force that makes her do, endure, overcome?
  • How does each throughline pull the reader through the story?

And so another revision calls. You can bet I'm going to cast that hawser out there in hopes of pulling a stronger story through the waters to its final port and make it a more engaging ride for the reader at the same time. Let's hope!

How would you describe "throughline"? Any tips on how to capitalize on it so your WIP sails forward with purpose, and not drift into troubled waters?
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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

On Generosity, Critiques, and Valued Feedback


July 2018
"You may wish you knew then what you know now, but remember sometimes...the things you know now were learned from what you didn't know then." --Terri Amshey

Can we speak of generosity? I have a couple of people to thank. Thanks to an agent who gave of her time and resources to read my manuscript and give me much needed advice. Thanks to a friend whom I've come to know and appreciate through blogging who generously offered to read my work and then took precious time to offer a detailed critique that far exceeds anything I've received in the years in which this book has taken shape. 

Both of these responses have come in just the last few weeks. Both were like a bouquet of flowers: a collection of sweet words of encouragement entwined with words rooted in growth and change. Seeds have been planted to make the whole experience of writing a book so much better. And I'm grateful.

Yes, I could say, "if only." If only I knew then what I know now. But then, as Ms. Amshey (above) says, those things I know now came from what I didn't know then. In my case they arrived by way of generous and open hands from those who offered a fresh perspective. I think too many times we seek writing advice, read books on writing, dip into the myriad blogs on the subject of writing, only to come away with a sense that yes, something isn't working but what is that something? When someone then comes along to cut through the fog, we realize what a gift we've been given.

So to Irene and Cathy (you know who you are!), I say thanks. I'm compiling a list of terms of issues that you called out, things like conflict/tension, throughlines, depth, 'episodic.' Then there's an ugly weed that I didn't understand at first but now see more clearly: 'insufficiently digested research'! It just goes to show the old adage, you can't see the forest for the trees :-)

To help along the way, I offer links to a few more articles I will visit in the next round:

10 Tips for (Re)Writing a Novel, by Jolina Petersheim
What I Wish I'd Known, by Cecil Murphey

What has been your experience with critiques--encouraging, constructive, or otherwise? Anything you're particularly grateful for at the moment?
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Saturday, June 30, 2018

Shelby Foote, Dip Pens, and Making Space to Slow Down

on June 2018 walk
"When asked why he wrote with a pen that required frequent pauses for dipping into a fresh supply of ink, the late Shelby Foote, noted novelist and Civil War writer, answered, 'It helps me slow down.'" --quoted in Working it Out, Growing Spiritually with the Poetry of George Herbert by Joseph L. Womack

The bee on the flower showed up to view only after I had downloaded the picture from my phone to the computer. If I had not slowed down first to take a walk, second to take the time to snap a photo, and third to take that closer look, I would have missed the unexpected detail.

Maybe that's what Shelby Foote (1916-2005) experienced when he wrote with an old fashioned dip pen. I'm sure, based on his list of published works, the exercise must have helped him capture extra-special details. Let his record stand: The Civil War: A Narrative in three volumes, along with six published novels, are among his published credits. I'm not thinking of going all the way back to dipping a pen in an inkwell, but I do like to start writing sessions with a prompt or two--often written by hand--to slow down and give the creative side space to kick in. In fact just the other day my oldest granddaughter (age 10) and I did a word association exercise to generate ideas for setting and character names needed for a writing project the two of us are working on together :-)

Additional quotes by Mr. Foote include:

"If you want to study writing, read Dickens. That's how to study writing, or Faulkner, or D.H. Lawrence, or John Keats. They can teach you everything you need to know about writing."

"And I'm a slow writer: five, six hundred words is a good day. That's the reason it took e 20 years to write those million and a half words of the Civil War."

And how about this one:

"A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library."

Yep--and maybe just about any community as well. At least they should be. A good place to slow down anyway.

How's your summer going? Finding time to slow down? Maybe carving out enough time to get some writing done? What is your go-to-technique to slow down and capture that elusive thought?
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Saturday, June 16, 2018

Hands, Hope, and Historic Lighthouses

Lake Erie June 2018
I hear lake water
lapping with low
sound by the shore...
I hear it in the deep
heart's core.
--William Butler Yeats

We went to Lake Erie last week to spend a few days on the shore, to play, to read, to explore. Stories abound with each trip a person takes, I guess, but my story features a light house, 77 steps to the top, a challenge, and--after the fact--a good laugh (seasoned with relief).

Marblehead Lighthouse
While the rest of the family went to nearby Cedar Point Amusement Park, my daughter and I, along with her two youngest kids, explored close-by villages and the historic peninsula housing the oldest lighthouse on Lake Erie: Marblehead Lighthouse in Marblehead OH.

Now if we had given it more thought in advance, would we have made the subsequent climb? In fact, after the fact, our famous words upon reaching the pinnacle were, "What WERE we thinking??!" But the attendant selling the tickets had said, "There's only 77 steps." 77? That's not too many is it?

And so, since the day was a beautiful one, and the view would be so dramatic from the top, we bought our tickets and entered this quaint, historic lighthouse. Did I mention we had a five-year old and a two-year old with us?

Lighthouse staircase
 The doorway yawned open. The narrow cast iron steps rotating up the spiral staircase beckoned. We each took the hand of a little one, and thus we started the climb. The five-year old was so good to help; we had her counting the steps. She's a pretty good counter after all. 'What step are we on now, Ceci?' 'Twenty-seven.' Later, 'Fifty-six.' and so on. It was the littlest one, though, that had the greatest sense of adventure. Little Miss Independent resisted holding her mother's hand. She wanted to do this all by herself. Can you say clash of wills??

All I could think of was, don't look down. Yet, climb we did. It was not Mt. Everest (although grandson called the loft in our condo overlooking the living room Mt. Everest!), but a mountain to conquer none-the-less.

Below staircase looking up
Ours was a small challenge, of course, next to those who made history in this lighthouse. Marblehead, built in 1821, served as a beacon, a guiding light, a source of aid and protection for over a century, from post-War of 1812 through the Civil War, and World War I. Benajah Wolcott, Marblehead's first keeper, was a Revolutionary War veteran. It is said that each evening during the shipping season, Benajah would climb the lighthouse (by way of wooden steps which preceded the cast-iron spiral staircase we climbed) to light its thirteen lamps (source) and then faithfully tend the light until the following morning. He kept records of ships that passed, noted weather conditions, and organized rescue efforts. When he passed away, his wife Rachel took over his duties--the first female lighthouse keeper on the Great Lakes. What a remarkable woman she must have been. The guide at the lighthouse told our group that in the early years lighthouse keepers would carry two four-gallon buckets of whale oil up the steps to keep the lights burning. Now that's a climb!

View of Cedar Point from lighthouse
The lighthouse keeper with the longest record was Charles Hunter (1903-1933). His tenure included the years of the Great War, with log entries reflecting the times: "War started in Austria, Belgium, England, France and Germany (source); and later: "Keeper and Assistant purchased each $100 Liberty Loan Bond." Local tragedies were also recorded: "Assistant found two boys frozen at Put-in-Bay." One log entry tied a local event and tragedy together: "Assistant planted a walnut tree, A Memorial to cousin killed in the war!" A grove of walnut trees stands today on the site, all testimony to that first tree planted.

The two brave lighthouse climbers
"I can think of no other edifice constructed by man as altruistic as a light house," George Bernard Shaw is quoted as saying. "They were built only to serve."  I didn't think of all of this while concentrating one step at a time, holding the hand of a five-year old up 77 steps and back down. But as I reflect on the experience, I think of all the feet that have climbed this monument, all the people who served others in connection with it and all the messages and images this lighthouse and others project: hope, harbor in the storm, helping hands, heart.

We survived our climb and can laugh about the adventure in retrospect. But we can also link hands with those who worked in obscurity, with little or no recognition, with a simple purpose: to reach out a hand to others. One generation to another. As one unknown source put it: "Don't forget that maybe you are the lighthouse in someone's storm."

That's just a glimpse of our summer so far. How is your summer going? Any words written, steps climbed, hands held, hope inspired? Have you visited any lighthouses? Let's share our stories.
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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Always Learning and Another (Writing) Book

May wildflowers 2018
"I am still learning." --Michelangelo

Yes, I'm still learning, too (although far, far away from the category of a Michelangelo!)--and hope that I never lose the desire to do so. So it is, in the spirit of learning, that I've added yet another book on writing to my shelf: The Story Cure, A Book Doctor's Pain-Free Guide to Finishing Your Novel or Memoir by Dinty W. Moore (Ten Speed Press 2017). I've only just begun digging into it, but already I like Mr. Moore's premise: "A Book Doctor is different from a copyeditor or a proofreader. The task at hand is not to clean up sentences, adjust punctuation, or fix typographical errors. A Book Doctor looks at the patient as a whole--the plot, the main characters, the voice, the structure--or, to continue the physician metaphor, the arms, the legs, the belly, and the heart. The Doctor's job is to diagnose exactly why the patient isn't thriving" (p.2).

And if I were honest, it's the heart of the book I'm now drafting that's suffering. May the doctor help diagnose my problem. In fact, in Chapter One, The Story Cure, one section is subtitled "Discovering (or Rediscovering) the Heart of Your Story." I'll have that part of the book dog-eared, I think.

Maybe your problem is where your story begins. That's addressed in Chapter 2: Your First Breath. Maybe it's voice and point of view. See Chapter 5, A Visit with the Throat and Eye Doctors. Or maybe plot and structure? How about Chapter 6, The Strong Skeleton?

Have I whetted your appetite yet? I think most of the material will be familiar to those who have been writing for a while, but why not review the subject matter from such a fun angle?

And speaking of books on the shelf: today's the day to announce the winners of my give-away for the inspirational book, The Short and Sweet of It, When the Right Word is a Short Word, compiled by Susan Cheeves King--an anthology of inspirational pieces written in one-syllable words. Peggy and Cathy, be on the lookout for your copies! You both commented in the give-away post (here) and I couldn't bring myself to pull just one name out of a list of two, so you are both winners! I'll be in touch by email to verify your addresses.

Yes, may we live motivated to always be open to learning and, for us writers, to be open to improving our craft. The journey of life is far more interesting that way.
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