Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Excavating, Change, and Treasure

viewpoint from the top of the hill 2016
"My theory in anything you do is to keep exploring, keep digging deeper to find new stuff." 
                                                                                                                        --Blythe Danner

We did it again, hubby and I--walked up a nearby hill that overlooks the valley where our house is. As always, we hoped to be able to see our red roof from up there, but as always (we've taken this walk several times through the years--like the time here) the brush and tangled tree cover on the hillside precluded us being able to see anything but a neighbor's house on the hill beyond and the historic 1860s barn below. But even so, the view each trip was most often about the same. 

Until this time. This time we came upon an excavation site.

Oh, we've known this was happening. A whole collection of new homes would be built on the ridge above us. But until now, building had slowed and the few new homes up there were scattered. But now? Now there is a house being built that will be able to see us from their upstairs windows. Seems a bit intrusive after over 35 years in a neighborhood that changed very little. Sigh.

I've been doing a bit of excavating of my own--in my office, through my books, and through my files. Seems I've done quite a bit of this, too, through the years (such as here), but such an exercise does give occasion to unearthing some gems of writing advice.

Papers long forgotten surfaced containing such words of wisdom as:

"Whatever part of the craft you look at--voice, images, narrative, character--it all begins in the writer's heart. It is from there that the voice, images, narrative, character--indeed the story itself!--emerge. Say it a different way: how much does a writer love his or her story; it's that passion that becomes the obsession that drives all the parts." --Patricia Lee Gauch

"Rhythm used well creates musicality in our stories. A variety of slow and fast beats work toward an exciting and interesting text. Rhythm is like the blood flowing or racing through the body of a story...An author can reinforce a mood or create interest in his or her story by altering sentence length. To increase tension, excitement, or action, try using short staccato sentences. When using description or a pause in action, use longer sentences. A mixture of long and short sentences creates interest. Try reading your story aloud several times. It's a great way to catch snags in the rhythm and flow of a text." --Barbara Santucci

"Tight writing is related to focus. There are two aspects involved, which for lack of better terms I'll call close-up and wide-angle. When taking pictures with a camera, you usually use one or the other, but when editing, you need both. Close-up focus is the line-by-line, word-by-word process of trimming out unnecessary words and phrases to streamline each sentence...Equally important is wide-angle focus, in which you examine the structure, organization, and development of the entire manuscript. Do you have a clear narrative arc that builds inexorably to a memorable climax and then resolves quickly? How much backstory is actually necessary? How much detail is required, and how much is padding? Could you delete the first paragraph? The first page?...When you're tightening a manuscript, read it multiple times. Focus on either the close-up or the wide-angle in each reading--but not both at once." --Paula Morrow

"Writing your book simply has to do with tapping into whatever we have. We all grow up, and all we're doing is simply making use of something that is as common as gravity-memories. When we grow up, our past is not irretrievably lost to us, like the juice squeezed from an orange. The past stays with us. Tap into it for your writing...It's just a matter of extracting it refining it, and purifying it until you're laying out pure wrought iron." --Jerry Spinelli

"Kids aren't afraid of risks. It's a wonder we're all here alive for all the risks we took when we were younger. You'll be more able to do what you need to do and take risks if you kind of let the other parts go. Let the marketing go. Make the marketing the lower rung on the ladder rather than the top rung. The top rung needs to be the writing and the joy that you derive from it, even if you never get published." --Eileen Spinelli

Changing the face of a neighborhood is one thing. Digging through piles of papers and files is another. Though time-consuming, I like my excavating better than what's going on on the hill above us. At least here I can hope to uncover a treasure or two beneath the mess! 

What treasures have you unearthed lately? Any words of wisdom or books you've read that resonated with you? Are there changes going on in your neighborhood?

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Magic of Poetry, and Writer-In-Residence

Cincinnati's Library, downtown location, 2016
"Poetry is an art that exceeds any kind of pinning down. You can't do it. How do you teach that? It's challenging. It's an art form that's wide open but magical." --Jeffrey Hillard

Magical. I hadn't thought of the word in relation to writing poetry before, but once the word was voiced, I knew it was true. Of course the same could be said of any writing since you don't know starting out what surprises will come with the ending, but I think it's especially true with poetry.

The epiphany came over the weekend when hubby and I ventured downtown to Cincinnati's main library to hear Library Foundation Writer-in-Residence Jeffrey Hillard speak. Mr. Hillard is a gifted poet, novelist, editor, and college professor, and author of four books (with three more scheduled for upcoming releases). He is also a great advocate for local and regional writers.

What a great way to spend an hour. Could have spent a couple more!

Highlights of Mr. Hillard's insights:

 1. "Poetry is an extremely experimental enterprise." (Translation? Don't worry about the right and wrong of writing poetry, just try your hand--and heart--at it.)

 2. "Don't wait for a poem, go to it."

 3. "The first line is most important. It produces a kind of jumping off point." 

 4. "Three important things to kick around when writing a poem: imagery, sounds, shape."

 5. "A poem will go through a myriad of changes. Think of the process as 're-entering' a poem, not revision."

 6. "Re-enter and try to shape differently than what it currently is--extend lines, shorten lines. Don't be afraid to tinker with it."

 7. "Step back, go back, give it a day. Later it might scream to go a little further."

 8. "Experiment. This empowers the next draft with more energy or insight. Find out what the poem wants, not what you want."

 9. "Ask yourself, is there a part two? Maybe more lines or maybe the poem actually starts in the middle of the last draft?"

10. "How can do you know a poem is done? You really can't know. Take the version you like."

Oh, my. There's more freedom in poetry than I ever realized. It is...well...a wide-open, magical art! I think I'm going to dabble in it a little more this year.

Along with that, I'm going to check out some of the books Mr. Hillard recommends, including:

The Poet's Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry (Laux and Addonizio)
A Poetry Handbook (Mary Oliver)
In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet's Portable Workshop (Steve Kowit)
A Note Slipped Under the Door: Teaching from Poems We Love (Nick Flynn)
Creating Poetry (John Drury)
The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song (Ellen Bryant Voigt)
Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry (Stephen Dobyns)
The Art of Description: World into Word (Mark Doty)
The Poem's Heartbeat: A Manual of Prosody (Alfred Corn)
Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry (Louise Gluck)

How does the upcoming year look for you? Any new writing adventures waiting to be tackled? Any epiphanies in setting goals? Is there poetry in your cards? Are you looking for a little magic?

(Interested in hearing Mr. Hillard yourself? Check out his interview with crime novelist Trace Conger, podcasted here.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A Butterfly Quilt and How It Came to Be

Mom's butterfly quilt, handed down 2016
"Take your needle, my child, and work at your pattern; it will come out a rose by and by. Life is like that--one stitch at a time taken patiently and the pattern will come out all right like the embroidery." --Oliver Wendell Holmes

A treasured quilt it is, one handed down to me from Mom's collection following her passing last month. I'm sure every quilt has a story--starting with the artist seamstress that stitches it, the choice of fabrics, the reason for choosing the design--but this butterfly quilt made with antique handkerchiefs has special significance for me. And a generational story.

For, you see, three of the handkerchiefs (first row, middle and right; second row, yellow, left) originally came to the family by way of a young American soldier serving in France during the Great War, World War I.

Charles and mother, circa 1917

The young man was Charles, my paternal grandfather. We don't know if he mailed the handkerchiefs ahead or carried them home with him--in jacket pocket perhaps or steamer trunk?--but we do know the intended receiver. He purchased them for his mother. I like to imagine how she must have cherished them, special mementoes not only of a son's love but also of his safe return. How many nights might she have cried into a handkerchief over her worry and concern for him? Went to the mail box to watch for letters?

The handkerchiefs eventually came into my dad's possession, and Mom, the quilter, often talked of using them in a quilt pattern somehow. So strong was her desire to make the quilt, she and I visited a couple of antique stores once trying to find more handkerchiefs to fill in the number needed.

Fast forward to the present, and the finished product. Isn't it beautiful? But I found out something more about this quilt and the hands that stitched it.

We writers have a special relationship, don't we, with our writer friends, critique partners, writers' groups? So, too,  I found, do quilters. I had occasion to talk with one of Mom's quilting friends, Pat, at the funeral and learned that Mom's butterfly quilt was a joint project. Several sets of hands worked on it together, along with my mom.

"Oh, yes," Pat said. "We often met down at the Golden Hobby Shop (German Village/Columbus OH) to quilt. There were seven or eight of us that quilted the butterfly one. You know, we always loved getting together. We all were like sisters. We laughed together, shared our worries and our joys with each other, supported one another through many things." Days later, Pat even mailed me the quilt pattern magazine that the 'girls' drew their inspiration from (June 1990 Stitch 'N Sew Quilts)!

Grandpa could never have imagined the expanded joy his handkerchiefs would bring--not only to his mother, but also to a group of ladies many years later who loved each other and who then made it possible to pass into the hands of another generation those same handkerchiefs in a unique form. No, he was more the 'pick-up-a-wiffle-ball-and-play-with-the-kids' kind of guy. Nor, I'd guess, would he have been aware of the amount of work it takes to create such a quilt. Pat tells me that it can take 300 hours to stitch a regular-sized quilt, 400 hours for a queen-sized spread, 500 hours for a king--and the process can use as much as two football field-lengths of thread. That's a lot of stitches!

Thus, quilters take their needles and work at their pattern, much like writers take their words and work their patterns, too.

Do you agree with Mr. Holmes when he says, "Life is like that--one stitch at a time taken patiently and the pattern will come out all right like the embroidery"?

With love, support, dedication, and courage...caring for one another and cheering each other on...generation to will be so. The beauty of a quilt is proof of it.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

10 Most Beautiful Words, and a Beautiful Lady

photo courtesy of
"Wilfred J. Funk, poet, lexicographer and president of Funk and Wagnalls, once listed what he considered the ten most beautiful words in the English language--'beautiful in meaning and in the musical arrangement of their letters.' His list, compiled after a 'thorough sifting of thousands of words,' is: dawn, hush, lullaby, murmuring, tranquil, mist, luminous, chimes, golden, and melody." (source: One Thousand Beautiful Things, 1947)

Wilfred Funk (1883-1965) was one-time president of his family's publishing business, a company known for producing encyclopedias and dictionaries. He not only made a living with words, he played with words, rearranged them, relished them.

Clara Margaret, at age seventeen
I was reminded of beautiful words this past week as we celebrated my mother's life after her passing the day before Christmas Eve. Kind words. Comforting words. Strengthening words.

And so, following Wilfred's example (his list was written in 1932), I've compiled my own list of Ten Most Beautiful Words in the English Language. Unlike Wilfred, the words on my list may not come from a systematic sifting of thousands of words nor roll off the tongue with any particular kind of music. But they do express the beauty of a special lady, my mom:

          family                         dignity
          friends                        kindness
          love                             loyalty
          compassion              sacrifice
          courage                     grit

She'll also be remembered by the many quilts she stitched, the times around the table playing dominoes with kids, grandkids, great-grands--and the flash of her welcoming smile.

one of Mom's quilts

She will be missed a whole big bunch.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

String, and Variations of: Icy Phenomena in the Neighborhood

December 2015 string phenomenon
"You will find truth more quickly through delight than gravity. Let out little more string on your kite." --Alan Cohen

Okay, another mystery to be solved. Has anyone else seen this phenomenon?

Hubby looked out the front window the other day only to see a small tree in our front yard apparently decorated for Christmas, though it isn't an evergreen. It was draped with what looked like thin, wispy garlands. Upon closer examination, he saw loops of frosted, icy strings. Needle-thin icicles hung on some of the other branches. What, had someone come along in the night to play a trick on us? Maybe a little fairy spun her magic under cover of darkness. Did someone try to fly a kite and got their string tangled, reminiscent of Charlie Brown?

We marveled and we questioned and we wondered.

We conjectured. Maybe the strings resulted from a brave spider attempting to spin a web on a cold morning. But then again, maybe not. For if that were the case, wouldn't we find a design more like this?
icy spider web: google images
Nor were the strings 'hair ice'.  (What? I didn't know such a thing existed until I tried to solve my mystery!) I learned about hair ice when I came across this article: Here's How a Strange Phenomenon Called 'Hair Ice' Forms on Dead Trees, The White Ice Filaments Look A Lot Like Cotton Candy.

hair ice: google images
Nor are they frost flowers, something else I'm learning about...

frost flower: google images

... nor hoar frost... 
hoar frost: google images

...or rime ice
rime ice: google images
Did you know there were so many variations--and names--of ice creations? I sure didn't, and I still don't understand much about what makes them different. But isn't the subject intriguing?

Want to see more? Check out these sites:

The phenomenon found in our yard was certainly not as dramatic as any of the above. Simple strings and threads don't catch the eye with as much beauty and wonder. But still, look what happened. The discovery prompted exploration into a new subject and led to some delightful photos and wondrous images.

What is the name of my local phenomenon? I'll probably never know for certainty. But think of it: ice strings, kite strings, stringing words together--don't they all have something in common? Discovery and delight in the journey. Exploration of the unusual. A reminder to keep your eyes open and notice details. A prompt to let out a little more string on your kite!

Any discoveries you've come across lately that have helped you do this? 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Words and Music, Take 2: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and More

photo courtesy google images

"Books, books, books!
I had found the secret of a garret room
Piled high with cases in my father's name;
Piled high, packed large,--where, creeping in and out
Among the giant fossils of my past,
Like some small nimble mouse between the ribs
Of a mastadon, I nibbled here and there..."

My, oh, my, where did November go? Much activity and a number of details consumed the days, and before I could blink, the month was gone. However, like the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, I nibbled here and there in books. Not only that, secrets were uncovered--though credit goes not to a garret room but to the marvel that we now know as a Google search.

In my last post, Words and Music, I featured an anonymous quote that starts with the line, "Words are instruments of music..." I found it in an old book copyrighted 1947, and was intrigued by the metaphor. Though I tried to find its source, I had no luck. Oh, well, I tried. And that was that.

Or so I thought.

Theodore Tilton
Imagine my surprise when a friend found the source and sent me a link to it. Obviously his research skills are more developed than mine! The words were written by one Theodore Tilton, an American newspaper editor and poet, and are found in his book from 1870, Sanctum Sanctorum, Proof Sheets from an Editor's Desk. In the chapter "Elizabeth Barrett Browning" (p. 51), Tilton wrote: "She knew the true art of choosing words...Words are instruments of music; an ignorant man uses them for jargon, but when a master touches them they have unexpected life and soul. Some words sound out like drums; some breathe memories sweet as flutes; some call like a clarinet; some shout a charge like trumpets; some are sweet as children's talk, and others rich as a mother's answering back. The words which have universal power are those that have been keyed and chorded in the great orchestral chamber of the human heart. Some words touch as many notes at a stroke as when an organist strikes ten fingers upon a keyboard...No finer instance of this skill is found in the whole realm of good English, out of Shakespeare, than in the writings of Mrs. Browning, particularly in those who which pay homage to the affections."

Whoa. Mr. Tilton held Mrs. Browning's writings in high esteem for sure. But more than that was the thrill of discovery all these years later. A mid-20th century writer couldn't find the source for a quote written in the 19th century, but by the 21st century, there it is!

source: About the Brownings
Of course there is so much history in all of this, as is often the case. Reading more about Elizabeth opened up a whole new area of study, and I nibbled Google's smorgasbord about her--things like how she married Robert Browning, another beloved poet of the time, when she was 40 after being an invalid and recluse for a number of years. She was six years older than he. Three years later she gave birth to their only child, a son they nicknamed Pen. A beloved poet, she wrote on a variety of social injustices, including Italy's fight for independence, women's issues, child labor, and slavery. Much of her work reflected her Christian faith. And Tilton, too, has a history himself (here) that included his passion for the game of chess. So much information out there, one can get lost...

Maybe I identify more with Ms. Browning than I realize--a mouse nibbling between the ribs of a mastadon-size wealth of information known as the internet. But December is here, and I'm thinking it's time to get out of the garret and back to the writing desk.

How about you, any subjects you've feasted on lately?

More quotes from Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

"The little cares that fretted me,
I lost them yesterday
Among the fields above the sea,
Among the winds at play." 

"With stammering lips and insufficient sound I strive and struggle to deliver right the music of my nature."

"Earth's crammed with heaven...
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes."

"Light tomorrow with today."

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Words and Music

image courtesy Pixabay
"Words are instruments of music: an ignorant man uses them for jargon; but when a master touches them they have unexpected life and soul. Some words sound out like drums; some breathe memories sweet as flutes; some call like a clarionet; some show a charge like trumpets; some are sweet as children's talk; others rich as a mother's answering back." --Anonymous

I found this quote in an anthology collection copyrighted before I was born. So old in fact, the date is written in Roman numerals: MCMXLVII. Does anyone read Roman numerals anymore?

Anyway, the quote was anonymous back then--still so today since I couldn't find any attribution, even after googling the phrases. But the word picture is as timely now as it was then.

Does the metaphor 'ring' true for you?

Hope your words are making great music!  Enjoy the last days of October...