Saturday, March 30, 2013

Daffodils, Wordsworth, and Writing

"And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils." --William Wordsworth

Our daffodils bloomed this last week and soon after another March snow fell. I thought the poor blossoms were done for. And yet today temperatures rose, the sun shone brightly, and the daffodils perked up. There's hope for them after all!

In the same week, I came across a poem written by William Wordsworth in which daffodils are featured (published in An Introduction to Poetry, by X.J. Kennedy):

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That flats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils,
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
out-did the sparkling waves in glee;
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company;
I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

A lovely poem in its own right, by a noted and enduring poet (don't you just love the name Words-worth?), but it was the author's discussion on the way the poem came about that interested me most. Some highlights:

"In a celebrated definition, Wordsworth called poetry 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings...recollected in tranquility.' Although in this poem Wordsworth's emotions may have overflowed spontaneously, they were captured on paper only by an expense of effort over a period of years...

"Between the first printing of the poem in 1807 and the version of 1815 given here, Wordsworth made several deliberate improvements. He changed dancing to golden in line 4, Along to Beside in line 5, Ten thousand to Fluttering and in line 6, laughing to jocund in line 16, and added a whole stanza (the second)...

(also) "...It is likely that the experience of daffodil-watching was not entirely his to begin with, but was derived in part from the recollections his sister Dorothy Wordsworth had set down in her journal of April 15, 1802, two years earlier: '...When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park we saw a few daffodils close to the we went along there were more and yet more; and at last, under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful...some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness; and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind...they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever changing...'

"Notice that Wordsworth's poem echoes a few of his sister's very words. Weaving poetry out of their mutual memories, Wordsworth has offered the experience as if altogether his own...(not that he) is a plagiarist but that, like any other good poet, he has transformed ordinary life into art.

"A necessary process of interpreting, shaping, and ordering had to intervene between the experience of looking at daffodils and the finished poem."

Whew. Insights for writers abound in this discussion. Did you notice:

1. Though a lot of writing is spontaneous, it also takes time to make it shine, sometimes years.

2. Revision is key to the best version you can muster.

3. Writers are open to inspiration from a wide-range of sources, often from those closest to us.

4. Writing is the craft of weaving ideas into our own words, transforming ordinary life into art.

5. Between the initial idea and the finished piece, a writer interprets, shapes and orders those things she's writing about. 

I love how all of this came together, inspired by a cheery little daffodil. What has inspired your writing recently?

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Writing is Like a River

"Writing is like a river--the words are ever-flowing. You may have heard of writer's block, but that only means a writer took his raft out of the river. The solution is to get back into the water. Pick a thought--any thought--and write about it. Instant solution. No more block." --Linda Jo Martin

Have your words been flowing freely down the writing river lately, or does your raft need relaunching? To what would you compare the writing life?

Hope the week ahead carries you to many new and exciting writing worlds...

Photo inspiration: a view of the Ohio River from the banks of small-town Aurora, Indiana, just yesterday. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

On Contradictions

"When you encounter difficulties and contradictions, do not try to break them, 
but bend them with gentleness and time." --St. Francis de Sales

The last week and a half has been filled with a few contradictions around here. On one hand there have been great ups--including an evening at the circus in which we took our 4-year old granddaughter for the first time. What fun. Her vocabulary through most of the evening consisted of the words "oh, wow!" at everything she saw. (That is, until she fell asleep during the second half, slumbering even through the roar of nine motorcycles in a cage. Now that's a real contradiction.) On the other hand, there have been a few downs. Like a computer that died. 

Not unexpected since we'd been having problems, and most of the important stuff had been backed up so that's a plus. And the new computer is a beauty--oh, wow!--but the learning curve is steep. Oh, my. More contradictions.

Contradiction: 1. the act of denying what has been said, saying the opposite; 2. a contrary condition, disagreement, opposition; 3. an inconsistency.

Joy and frustration, laughter and gritted teeth, play and work, smiles and frowns, successes and missed goals. The experience of the last few days led me to wonder what others have said about the subject of contradictions. A few gems for the writer in us:

"One of the things I constantly think about as a writer is the way in which people are full of contradictions--there's all this contradictory information inside a human personality." --Justin Cronin

"As human beings, of course, we're all compromised and complex and contradictory, and if a screenplay can express those contradictions within a character and if there's room for me to express them, that's a part I'd love to play, so much more than a character who is heroic and one-dimensional." --Hugo Weaving

"As a novelist, you could say that I am dreaming while I am awake, and every day I can continue yesterday's dream. Because it is a dream, there are so many contradictions and I have to adjust them to make the story work. But, in principle, the original dream does not change." --Haruki Murakami

"Biography--a system in which the contradictions of a human life are unified." --Jose Ortega y Gasset

"The contradictions are what make human behavior so maddening and yet so fascinating, all at the same time." --Joan D. Vinge

"I'm fascinated by the ways in which people express themselves, because their responses are often counter to what they're actually feeling. Like when they're frightened, they tend to freeze. When they're angry, it doesn't always come out as volume. There are wonderful contradictions in the way that people express their emotions." --Edward Norton

"Only by learning to live in harmony with your contradictions can you keep it all afloat." --Audre Lorde

Contradictions. What ones have you been living with, and how are you handling them?

Seems like "being plugged in" to the internet, social networking, and all the bells and whistles carries its own set of contradictions. We love the connections but find ourselves frustrated by the black hole of time and distractions that take us away from our work. Discussions on the subject have been popping up in various places recently. One brave soul has unplugged from it all and lives to tell about it. See Marissa Burt's post, "Unplugged," here at Project Mayhem. Is there hope for harmony after all?

Friday, March 8, 2013

Setting, Landscape, Atmosphere--How Are They Different?

"In every piece of fiction...setting is one of the three major elements--along with characterization and plot--that the writer must weave together to create the narrative." --Connie C. Epstein


Oh, the fun of setting--imagining where the story takes place, how characters respond to their surroundings, drinking in the sights, sounds, and smells that connect the reader to the written word--it's the world-building side of the writer's craft. I've been immersed in the subject this week as I've brainstormed ideas for my WIP. Along the way I've sought the wisdom of others to help open up that world. Helpful thoughts on the subject:

"There are lots of things you can do with setting. Setting adds color to the story. Setting affects characters. Setting lends authenticity to the narrative, and paints pictures in the imagination of readers." --Nancy Lamb, The Art and Craft of Story Telling.

"Settings..aren't just backdrops. Just by where you have the action happening will tell a lot about the action itself and the people involved." --Ansen Dibell, Plot

"Setting grounds your writing in the reality of place and depicts the theme of your story through powerful metaphor. Without setting, characters are simply there, in a vacuum, with no reason to act and most importantly, no reason to care. Without a place there is no story." --Nina Munteanu, scribophile


And yet, expanding on the idea of setting, I came across the concept of landscape, this from Elizabeth George in her book Write Away:

"On the surface, it would appear that landscape and setting are the same creatures, identical twins given different names just to confuse the beginning writer. This, however, would not be the truth since setting is where a story takes place--including where each scene takes place--while landscape is much broader than that...Landscape in writing implies much the same as that which is implied by the word when it's used to refer to a location in a country: It is the broad vista into which the writer actually places the individual settings of the novel, sort of like the canvas or other medium onto which a painter has decided to daub color.

"You need to think about the landscape of your book because if you're able to make the landscape of place real, you can make the land itself real, which gives you a leg up on making the entire novel real for the reader."


But there's more. If the nuanced differences between setting and landscape are not enough, what about the idea of atmosphereJanet Burroway in her classic, Writing Fiction, a Guide to Narrative Craft, puts it this way: "Your fiction must have an atmosphere because without it your characters will be unable to breathe."

"Like many of the terms that relate to the elements of fiction, 'atmosphere' has more than one meaning," Burroway writes. "Sometimes referring to subject matter, sometimes to technique. Part of the atmosphere of a scene or story is its setting, which includes the locale, period, weather, and time of day. Part of the atmosphere is its 'tone,' an attitude taken by the narrative voice that can be described, not in terms of time and place, but as a quality--sinister, facetious, formal, solemn, wry, and so on...As we need to know a character's gender, race, and age, we need to know in what atmosphere she or he operates to understand the significance of the action."

Setting, landscape, atmosphere. Separate entities yet connected.The first puts you in the action. The second contains the story's broader vista. The third enables the characters to breathe. Had you ever considered the varying distinctions? How so? Will you imagine your setting with a different understanding now?

photos courtesy of