Monthly Archives: May 2018

So, How Does that Make You Feel?

It took me awhile to understand that creating an emotional experience for the reader is really what my job as a writer is about. And that this is what we all are after when we sit down with a book. Sure we want a good story with clever plots turns. We want language we can relish. We want an intellectual challenge or an exploration of a social issue or of a person or world different from our own.

But bottom line to all of that is the hope/expectation that this will take us on an emotional journey. Books that do this are the ones that we recommend to our friends, that our kids ask us to read over and over, that stay with us sometimes for a lifetime.

Recently I picked up The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass. He makes the same point. Even better, he talks about how you, the writer, can create an emotional journey. Because, as he notes, not every published novel does that. “The sad truth,” he says, “is that television commercials can stir more feelings in thirty seconds than many manuscripts can do in a three hundred pages.”

So how can we best a Charmin ad? Maass offers some ideas and techniques that I thought would be fun to share over my next couple of blog posts.

I strongly agree with Maass’s first point: the reader is the one creating the emotional experience. We writers are giving them the triggers:  “(Readers) don’t so much read as respond. They do not automatically adopt your outlook and outrage. They formulate their own. You are not the author of what readers feel, just the provocateur of those feelings.”

But what those feelings are won’t be universally agreed upon, as anyone who has been in a book club can tell you. Everyone is unique. So, Maass suggests that, “The most useful question is not how can I get across what characters are going through? The better question is how can I get readers to go on emotional journeys of their own?”

 Maass says there are three primary paths to creating an emotional response from the reader. Outer Mode: showing. Inner Mode: telling. And something he calls Other Mode: a combination of showing and telling and other techniques to create something that is emotionally “chewable” for the reader.

So let’s talk about Outer Mode in this post.

Outer Mode is good old showing–showing what the character is feeling through their behavior, dialog and visible responses, rather than the character (or the narrator) telling us what they are feeling.

Most of us pretty much know about telling and showing. It’s the difference between “I was terrified” and “My heart beat a staccato rhythm that said run, run, run, but I couldn’t move. I could only scream.”

Of course, there are a lot of techniques involved in using show or tell well, but the most important trick here, says Maass, is not so much in knowing how to use show. But knowing when to use show. He says showing works best when the character’s feelings are highly painful, including highly painful or difficult for the reader.

I love the example he uses from The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick. Quick’s main character, Pat Peoples, is mentally ill. He’s just been released from a mental health facility to the care of his mother, but he is convinced he will soon be reuniting with his estranged wife, Nikki.

When I finally come out of the basement, I notice that all the pictures of Nikki and me have been removed from the walls and the mantel over the fireplace.

I ask my mother where these pictures went. She tells me our house was burglarized a few weeks before I came home and the pictures were stolen. I ask why a burglar would want pictures of Nikki and me, and my mother says she puts all of her pictures in very expensive frames. Why didn’t the burglar steal the rest of the family pictures? I ask. Mom says the burglar stole all the expensive frames, but she had the negatives for the family portraits and had them replaced. Why didn’t you replace the pictures of Nikki and me? I ask. Mom says she did not have the negatives for the pictures of Nikki and me, especially because Nikki’s parents had paid for the wedding pictures and had only given my mother copies of the photos she liked. Nikki had given Mom the other non-wedding pictures of us, and well, we aren’t in touch with Nikki or her family right now because its apart time.

We know what’s going on even if Pat doesn’t. We don’t have to be inside Pat’s head to feel emotional about this scene. In fact, it might be too painful to be inside Pat’s poor demented head and his determined belief he and his wife are still a thing. Instead, the reader gets a different experience. Not only do we feel Pat’s sad blindness, we feel his mother’s desperate efforts to spare his feelings. And it’s all made more poignant by the fact that it’s funny in a horrible way.

A key ingredient in effective showing of emotion says Maass is “subtext.” When there’s a feeling we’re not being told, but that we can sense. “It’s the unspoken emotional truth. When we discern it, it’s a surprise.”  And a pleasure.

Maass says there’s even a way to describe a character’s inner states without actually telling the emotion. It’s still “showing.” Here’s his example from Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “Now I Lay Me.”

That night we lay on the floor in the room and I listened to the silk-worms eating. The silk-worms fed in racks of mulberry leaves and all night you could hear them eating and a dropping sound in the leaves. I myself did not want to sleep because I had been living for a long time with the knowledge that if I ever shut my eyes in the dark and let myself go, my soul would go out of my body. I had been that way for a long time, ever since I had been blown up at night and felt it go out of me and go off and then come back. I tried never to think about it, but it had started to go since, in the nights, just at the moment of going off to sleep, and I could only stop it by a very great effort. So while now I am fairly sure that it would not really have gone out, yet then, that summer, I was unwilling to make the experiment.

Without even knowing context (this character is a victim of wartime post traumatic stress disorder) we can feel his suffering. Maass says writing with a lot of subtext works especially well for the big feelings—death, deep fear, deep loss, love.

Maass offers a writer’s exercise if you want to bring effective showing into your work. Basically he suggests that you:

– Pick a moment in your story when your main character is moved, unsettled, disturbed. Maybe a moment of choice, of needing something badly, having learned something shocking, feeling overwhelmed. Now write down all the emotions you can think of for this moment—obvious and hidden.

– Now write how your character would behave, act. What’s the biggest, most explosive thing your character could do? What would be symbolic? “Go sideways, underneath or ahead,” Maass advises. “How can your protagonist show us a feeling we don’t expect…?”

– Add a detail in the setting that only your main character might notice or notice in a unique way. (I particularly like this technique. It’s very powerful. Not only can the detail be symbolic, but it replicates the odd disassociation we can feel in an emotionally powerful moment. The funeral is NOT the time to notice the dandruff on the corpse’s shoulders, but, of course, you do.)

– Finally, Maass says to delete all the emotions you wrote down in the beginning and let the actions and dialog do the work. Of the emotions you evoke, he asks, “Do they feel too big, dangerous, or over-the top? Use them anyway. Others will tell you if you’ve gone too far, but more likely, you haven’t gone far enough.” (The italics are mine, because this is what I have to battle time and time again! I have a fear of getting melodramatic, she said between lips trembling like the young leaves of the aspen.)

In the future, I’ll talk about Maass’s ideas about Inner Mode and Other Mode and other techniques for evoking emotion. As Maass says, “I want to feel more as I read. Don’t you?…I don’t care about what you write, how you write it, your choices in publishing, or what you want out of your career. What I want is to feel deeply as I read your work.”

As a writer that’s exactly what I hope to do. Maass’s book is a good start.

 

 

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The Art of “Controlled Chaos”

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The Skagit River Poetry Festival is being celebrated this weekend (today through Sunday) in La Connor, Washington. Some big names, along with local hero-poets, are on the list as presenters and guest readers – most notable is the three-time Poet Laureate of the United States, Robert Pinsky. I’ve attended the festival just once, when the organizers invited my sister Mary Cornish to be one of their presenters and workshop leaders. The setting is idyllic, of course – quaint La Connor, a small town on the banks of a slough where the Skagit River approaches the sea. The town sits at the western edge of the Skagit Flats, home to world-famous tulip fields. My father once had a small shop -“The Blue Heron” – of his handmade jewelry on the main street of town.

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La Conner, Washington – Mount Baker in the background, Cascade Range

I’ve been debating with myself whether to attend this year, and still haven’t quite decided. Robert Wrigley is leading one workshop; he’s a wonderful poet, and I worked with him briefly when he came in as a guest to talk to my MFA class at the University of Washington. Love his poetry. But I’m not sure his 2018 workshop interests me enough. Instead, I’m thinking of signing up last minute for a Sunday workshop called “Controlled Chaos: The Long-Armed Poem” with Ellen Bass, simply because I find her description of the workshop irresistible. It speaks to what I believe about poetry, and I want to share the description with readers of Books Around the Table. I’d love to study with someone who says this:

“A certain kind of poem reaches out a long arm and sweeps disparate, unexpected things into its net. It scoops in a great deal of material that is more or less obviously related. It doesnt hug the shore. It doesnt walk a narrow line. It retains a kind of wildness. It can seem untamed. And yet all the elements have enough magnetic or gravitational attraction, enough resonance, that the writing feels organically whole. To write this kind of long-armed poem, to allow the excitement, tension, and passion of chaos into our writing, we have to open the doors. We have to be willing to be surprised, startled, even shocked. We have to be willing to experience the most essential state of creativity, the state of not knowing, of being open, of being willing to be changed. In this workshop, well look at examples of the long-armed poem and I will give some practical suggestions for how you might experiment with bringing more controlled chaos into your own writing.”

“Controlled chaos” – yes! I love that phrase. This is often my goal: to embrace “the state of not knowing.” This holds for my poetry for children, as well as my poetry for adults.

And here is another element of the description of the workshop I like – Bass’s instructions about what participants “might want to bring”:

“….any or all of the following: a snippet of overheard conversation, an image from a dream, a quote from a book you’re reading, a line or two from your journal, a memory that’s been on your mind, a handful of words that have caught your attention, a song that’s been going through your mind, something you saw recently in nature or in a city.”

Like I said, irresistible. So why resist? I’ll drive south on Sunday, across the Skagit Flats, taking along some possibilities. A line in a song. An overheard conversation. A handful of words and a desire to play. Essential: a willingness to experiment with controlling the chaos through poetry.

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To see the Poetry Friday round-up this week, go to Sloth Reads.

Here are my contributions: a poem by Ellen Bass titled “Enough” [see note in comments] and a poem by Robert Wrigley titled “At the Beach.”

Enough

Enough seen….Enough had….Enough…
Arthur Rimbaud

No. It will never be enough. Never
enough wind clamoring in the trees,
sun and shadow handling each leaf, never enough clang
of my neighbor hammering,
the iron nails, relenting wood, sound waves
lapping over roofs, never enough
bees purposeful at the throats
of lilies. How could we be replete
with the flesh of ripe tomatoes, the unique
scent of their crushed leaves. It would take many
births to be done with the thatness of that.

Oh blame life. That we just want more.
Summer rain. Mud. A cup of tea.
Our teeth, our eyes. A baby in a stroller.
Another spoonful of crème brûlée, sweet burnt crust crackling.
And hot showers, oh lovely, lovely hot showers.

Today was a good day.
My mother-in-law sat on the porch, eating crackers and cheese
with a watered-down margarita
and though her nails are no longer stop-light red
and she can’t remember who’s alive and dead,
still, this was a day
with no weeping, no unstoppable weeping.

Last night, through the small window of my laptop,
I watched a dying man kill himself in Switzerland.
He wore a blue shirt and snow was falling
onto a small blue house, onto dark needles of pine and fir.
He didn’t step outside to feel the snow on his face.
He sat at a table with his wife and drank poison.

Online I found a plastic bag complete with Velcro
and a hole for a tube to a propane tank. I wouldn’t have to
move our Weber. I could just slide
down the stucco to the flagstones, where the healthy
weeds are sprouting through the cracks.
Maybe it wouldn’t be half-bad
to go out looking at the yellowing leaves of the old camellia.
And from there I could see the chickens scratching—
if we still have chickens then. And yet…

this little hat of life, how will I bear
to take it off while I can still reach up? Snug woolen watch cap,
lacy bonnet, yellow cloche with the yellow veil
I wore the Easter I turned thirteen when my mother let me  promenade
with Tommy Spagnola on the boardwalk in Atlantic City.

Oxygen, oxygen, the cry of the body—and you always want to give it
what it wants. But I must say no—
enough, enough

with more tenderness
than I have ever given to a lover, the gift
of the nipple hardening under my fingertip, more
tenderness than to my newborn,
when I held her still flecked
with my blood. I’ll say the most gentle refusal
to this dear dumb animal and tighten
the clasp around my throat that once was kissed and kissed
until the blood couldn’t rest in its channel, but rose
to the surface like a fish that couldn’t wait to be caught.

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Poet Ellen Bass


Wrigley

Poet Robert Wrigley

Wrigley

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE ON READING AND WRITING

“We read books. We write poems. We belong to ourselves. Does your story have room for me? My story has room for you – ways to enter in, ways to feel our lives reflected or confirmed. Ways of finding greater confidence. We’re all here. We can do it.

“We live on the edges of stories we don’t hear. Every person walking past us on your beautiful Bellingham pier is full of stories…”

Poet, humanist and teacher Naomi Shihab Nye took the stage April 28 at Western Washington University to deliver her Arbuthnot Honor Lecture, REFRESHMENTS WILL BE SERVED – Our Lives of Reading and Writing.

naomiX3It was a luminous presentation, full of stories from her 42 years of working and writing with students from all over the world. Her attitude is ever curious. When a student from Afghanistan asked her why she choses to spend time with kids, she answered, “Because I want to remember what you know.”

She spoke of the importance of asking for stories before they are lost and proposed ways to keep the flow going, like writing on various papers: found papers, round paper placemats, post-its, etc.

She talked about the way writing works: “Nothing is too small to work on.” And “One person’s story encourages another.” And “Each thing gives us something else – another way of thinking, a new thought, more compassion for people who have trouble finishing their work.”

She reminded us that when you feel beleaguered as a writer or a citizen, reading will fortify you.

Near the end, she read her poem KINDNESS. She told us she did not write this poem; it was a gift and she was the scribe. It came to her on her honeymoon, after she and her husband had been robbed. This poem has seen me through hard times and I loved hearing her read it.

KINDNESS

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

–Naomi Shihab Nye, 1995

P.S. Earlier this month, walking around Green Lake, this great heron reminded me of another poem that speaks to us in trying times, from poet, writer, activist and farmer Wendell Berry:

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The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

– Wendell Berry, 1998

P.P.S. William Stafford, Oregon’s beloved poet and mentor to Naomi Shihab Nye gets the last line here: “If you are having trouble writing, lower your standards.”

 

 

 

Curious Maps

In her poem The Map Elizabeth Bishop said ” More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers colors. ”

The Curious Map Book contains many cartographic gems from the British Library.
Some are delicate and some are indelicate.

The Rose of Bohemia, (now the western part of the Czech Republic) was drawn by Christoph Vetter and engraved in 1668 by Wolfgang Kilian. Prague is the center of the rose.

This allegorical map of the Baltic Sea as Charon was created by Olof Rudbeck Jr. of Uppsala in 1701.

Geography Bewitched!  is a series of maps made by Robert Dighton, London in 1793.

This character seems to be suffering from loch jaw.

John Bull  is bombarding the Bum-boats in this  map of England and France by James Gillray of London in 1793.

Dame Venodotia – a map of North Wales is from 1851. Her torso is Gwynedd (the name of the town in Pennsylvania where I grew up.)
Peer closely at this image to see hidden animals and people.

This map, made in 1854 by Thomas Onwhyn shows the four main protagonists of the Crimean War as animals.

Eliza Jane Lancaster (also known by her stage name Lilian Lancaster) created this map of Spain and Portugal in 1868.

In recent times the tradition of allegorical and animate maps has been carried on wonderfully by Peter Sis. Here are some of his drawings.

And the last word on maps goes to Saul Steinberg in this conversation from 1963.

Postscript:
Alice Provensen died yesterday at age 99. You can read her obituary here. Her work is beautiful, smart, real, soul stirring and delightful. Thank you Alice Provensen.

provensen king of cats copy