Monthly Archives: August 2014

Writing with All Six Senses

photoEscudo_Tianguis_de_Tlacolula_Tlacolula_Header

In just a few days my husband and I leave home once again for Oaxaca, having visited just last year and decided it’s the kind of place we want to spend more time. Slow time, slow food, slow reading, slow walking…time to slow down in general. Oaxaca has many plazas with many benches – great places for slow listening (to very fast music, sometimes) and quiet watching. Last year we had just over a week at a nice B&B, and we experienced the Day of the Dead celebrations; this time around, we’re renting an apartment of our own (with kitchen!) and staying for a month, outside the real tourist season in order to get a better feel for what the town is like for the locals. When we go to the market now and see all that delicious fresh fruit, bread, vegetables – we can buy what we want and cook it up back at the apartment. Time to give different moles a try.

A friend asked me whether I would be doing any writing while in Oaxaca, and I wasn’t sure what to answer – yes, no, maybe? One thing I do know: I’m going to open myself, Diane Ackerman-style, to all the sensory input I can – sights, smells, textures, sounds and tastes (especially tastes – yes!)

Sights – the colors in the markets: flowers, fruit, vegetables, bread…

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fruit market

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 and the spectacular sky, whether stormy or bright…like this view from Monte Alban…

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 Smells – a cup of hot champurrado, especially sipped from a clay or greenware cup made in Atzompa (close your eyes and think steaming milk, corn flour, chocolate, cinnamon, vanilla, anise seed, plus the wet ceramic smell of the cup) and the ripe guavas in the markets(so sweet and pervasive, it can make you giddy)…

Oaxacas hot-chocolate

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Textures – the soft cotton weavings, the hard rock walls, the delicate petals of a squash blossom…

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Tastes – so many! Moles of every color (coloradito, negro, verde, chichilo, amarillo  – here’s a recipe from Rick Bayless), tlayudas, tamales, jugos, pan dulce, pipian, and tomatoes that really taste like tomatoes…

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 Sounds – birds in the trees, danzon music at the Zocalo every Wednesday

Watch this wonderful video of a midnight concert in Tlacochahuaya

and this video of the amazing organ in the church there)….

organ

Seems to me that writing which is not grounded in the senses is writing that becomes slack, abstract and dull. So I’ll let my five senses push me to write in Oaxaca. Plus one more: the sense of wonder. Can’t write without that.

Maybe I’ll be able to put those six senses together on a metate and work them, work them, work them…into a story.

metate

 

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Editing

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“Boldly and bluntly simplify the subject so as to reveal its true essence.”
– Kiyoshi Saito, (1907-1971)

I have spent the last three months preparing to move from Seattle – where my husband and I have lived since 1986 – to London, England. I fly out at the end of the month. These last few weeks have been a lesson in letting go.

I have been going through everything we own to clear the house for incoming renters. I have picked up every object, pondered it, and decided whether to ship, store, or discard it.

This has gotten me thinking about the process of editing.

Editing your life is like editing your own personal narrative. I am an accumulator by nature, but not a collector, nor a hoarder. The difference is that I enjoy getting rid of stuff, if only to clear the clutter to let the better bits shine.

When I am writing I follow the same process. I have less confidence in my words than my imagery, so I don’t mind keeping my words to a minimum. If I can prove to myself that every word has a reason to be there, I feel I have created the cleanest, least cluttered prose possible. It’s less risky that way. Clear the knick-knacks off your literary shelf.

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In my artwork I am constantly editing and revising. I strive to follow the words quoted above. Kiyoshi Saito is a contemporary Japanese woodblock artist and a master of selective visual editing in his imagery. Choosing what details to include and what to leave out reveals the aspects most elemental to an idea.

Get rid of the lesser bits. Pack them away or let them go. Only set your choicest pieces out for display.

My next post will be written from the UK. Just think of me as the Books Around The Table foreign correspondent for the foreseeable future. I look forward to exploring new territory and sending back the best bits to share with all of you!

And now, back to packing!

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Three

In July I painted this Green Summer Day,Paschkis Green Summer Dayand these Ripe Red Apples.Paschkis red ripe applesIn the back of my mind I was remembering something the editor Elizabeth Law mentioned in a talk years ago. She kept a piece of paper pinned up by her desk that said simply; “Red, ripe tomatoes.” It reminded her of how powerful words could be, and every manuscript that she accepted had to deliver as much punch as those three words.

The phrase is evocative because it brings to mind color and taste, but also because it consists of three words. Three is the magic number.

How many billy goats are there?
De Tre Bukke Bruse (The Three Billy Goats Gruff) 1

How many bears?three bearsThere are Three Stooges, Three Musketeers and Three Blind Mice. Witches and fishes grant three wishes – not two or four.Paschkis three fish wishes

I have read that the power of three comes from the Christian religion: the father, the son and the holy ghost. But it could be vice-versa: the threeness might give power to the trinity.
Another theory is that three is a powerful number because the triangle is such a stable form.Paschkis Twist triangleHere are some images from a wonderful book published in 1963:three by three 1963In it the story of a day unfolds in threes.three by three roostersThe extra text on this page was written (many years ago) by my sister Karla who brought this book to my attention (a few weeks ago).three by three huntersThe sun has different expressions as the day goes on. The three foxes have remarkably similar expressions.three by three foxesAnd of course there is:Book of Three

Do you agree that three is an especially powerful number? If so, please tell my why. And enjoy a ripe, red tomato while you think about it.botanical-flore-des-seres-et-des-jardins-de-leurope-tomato-solanum-sp

p.s. If you are interested in adjective order here is an article from Slate. It explores why it sounds normal to say BIG GREEN CHAIR and odd to say GREEN BIG CHAIR, for example.

p.s.s. If you are a close observer of this blog you will know that it is Margaret’s turn to post. Don’t worry – she will be writing next Friday instead of me.

 

Once upon a time…

Time, time
Time, see what’s become of me
While I looked around for my possibilities

Paul Simon – A Hazy Shade Of Winter Lyrics

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I’m on Whidbey Island right now at the 10-day residency for the low-residency program I teach at–an MFA program in writing with a special track for children’s and young adult writers.

We’re a small program—only about 50 students. And that’s deliberate. The goal is to have small classes taught by working writers in poetry, fiction, non-fiction and children’s/young adult. It’s funny but each residency will tend to have a theme for me. An idea or issue that comes up again and again.

This year it’s time. Time in our writing, time for our writing, the timing of our days.

This residency one of our speakers was Linda Urban, author of three middle-grade novels including “The Center of Everything” which got a lot of Newbery buzz last year. One of the things Linda talked about was the use of time in our stories. And offered some exercises to help us play with and understand something about how time is conveyed in writing.

For example, set the timer for two minutes and write a scene from a familiar fairy tale (Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty) in first person, but either in past, present or future tense. At the two-minute bell without pausing start writing in a different tense.

It’s interesting to see how the pace, mood and sense of distance changes with the tenses. Future tense is oddly ominous. Past reassuring. Present urgent and unsettling.

Another exercise is to expand time. Set the timer for five minutes and take a moment in your story and write the whole time about that one moment.

This wasn’t an exercise of Linda’s but of a student who teaches writing to children, Amy Carlson. She has her students start with the moment they are in—this moment of putting pen to paper and asks them to write backward in time from there back to the moment they woke up. According to Amy, this sets different wheels in motion in our imaginations since our brains aren’t used to thinking backward in time. It’s an exercise to free up the imagination. (Amy says the walking backward can do the same thing—challenge and wake up our brains.)

Not just time in our writing, but time for our writing has come up again and again. Do you set your writing time up by words written, hours spent, specific task? For everyone it seems to be a little different.

One speaker suggested a goal of 500 words a day. I know writers who aim for five pages a day. Writers who sit down diligently for four or six or eight hours. Writers who write for 15 minutes a day.

This morning at breakfast, poet David Wagoner talked about the prolific novelist Anthony Trollope who wrote early in the morning for an hour and a half before he went to work. Trollope’s goal was to write 1,500 words in that time. Two hundred and fifty words every 15 minutes. At this rate he produced some 47 novels and numerous short stories and non-fiction pieces. As he noted, “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”

Even so, three hours a day total was apparently his maximum. “Three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write. ”

And from what I can tell most people, like Trollope, seem to have about two to three hours in them. So what do writers do with the rest of the time?

Mostly, we look around for our possibilities.

 

 

 

The Complete OED – Not Concise, Not Compact

OED“Compact” – from the Latin compactus, past participle of compingere meaning to put together closely (com+pangere = to make fast, to fasten.) Used as an adjective = Having the parts so arranged that the whole lies within relatively small compass, without straggling portions or members; nearly and tightly packed or arranged; not sprawling, scattered, or diffuse.

The word was used in 1676 by someone named M. Hale: “The Humane Nature..hath a more fixed, strong, and compact memory of things past than the Brutes have.” Since “the Brutes” can’t talk, I’m not sure how Mr. Hale came to his conclusion. Even so, the idea of “compact memory” intrigues me. I like the way it sounds – almost counter-intuitive. Can memory be compact? Maybe, maybe not. I feel a poem coming on….

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All this gets jotted down in my notebook because I just inherited from a beloved aunt a complete 20-volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition – definitely NOT the “compact” nor the “concise” versions. It sprawls, in fact, and I’m having fun with it. Never thought I would own the complete set, pricey as it is, though I used to dream about it, especially when I was studying poetry in grad school, exploring language at the level of the word, the syllable, the glorious etymologies. My friends and I sometimes gave each other writing prompts that involved the OED, searching through the surprising etymological roots of a given word, then spinning the root a new direction, gathering fresh images and using phrases in surprising and odd ways (and what does “Say it new” really involve if not oddities and surprises?) The OED is perfect for exploring the “brute” side of language (i.e. its wild-animal, unpredictable nature and its “straggling” and “diffuse” parameters.)

Etymology is not unlike genealogy – both words and people have roots that ground them, histories which make an effort to explain them, and spirits which animate them. Both are subject to interpretation, despite the precision with which editors of dictionaries and encyclopedias (as well as genealogical experts) like to operate.  Here’s a typical OED entry, with guides for how to read it.

oxford-english-dictionary-pageI’m so grateful to have this 20-volume “toy” to play word games with (more ambitious than it sounds) and I hope my aunt comes to me in some form or another (a seal or heron is nice, though my dad actually claimed the latter when he died, and my grandmother the former….) so I can thank her. I like the idea that the people I’ve loved and lost come around in one form or another in an effort to stay in touch with me. They bob up or pass by (“passant = passing, transitory, transient, fugitive”) regularly when I’m at the beach, and I’m grateful. I’m sure my aunt will come to me  though I’m unsure still what form she’ll take. I’ll be on the lookout.

The OED set I now have is practically brand new, and I wish my aunt had been allowed many more years to study it and enjoy it. I found a paper tucked into Volume XVI (“Soot – Styx” – I even love those words on the cover – nicely matched, aren’t they?) which has the word “Spirit” written on it, along with the definition. In my aunt’s handwriting, it says, “Spirit – OED – the animating or vital principle in man (and animals); that which gives life to the physical organism in contrast to its purely material elements; the breath of life.” Indeed, the etymology goes back to the root “espirare” – meaning “to breathe.” The word “inspiration” has the same root.

We like to understand and define things. We like to know where the edges are and we usually like things tidy. Life isn’t always like that. Sometimes, it throws the whole 20-volume set at us, and we don’t feel like “the whole lies within relatively small compass.”  As a writer, I work with words, characters, history, roots.  And I work to make sense of things (isn’t that what “story” is – a desire to make sense?) When you lose someone you love, you tell yourself a story that more or less makes sense of it. But in 1898, someone named Illingsworth said, “If matter and spirit are thus only known in combination, it follows that neither can be completely known.”

I can live with that. Some of our stories present the compact edition, “tightly packed or arranged.” Some sprawl. A passing cormorant – a seal, a heron – lingers near us the next time we’re on the beach. We define what we can, and we leave the rest to mystery.

James Murray, principle editor of the OED, in his Scriptorium (also NOT compact.)

James Murray, principle editor of the OED, in his Scriptorium (also NOT compact.)