Category Archives: writing

Renaming

My first lesson gleaned from studying Mark Morford‘s columns in the San Francisco Chronicle is how concisely he adds meaning by simply renaming things.

For example, in his column entitled “When History Spanks,” he talks about the Republican campaign team and refers to them once as “vile, cold-blooded tacticians” and then as “these Rove-trained dung-flingers.” Apart from the humorous element, renaming is also a tidy way to cram a lot of opinion into a quick statement. I can see a more clumsy writer saying instead, “The campaign team members, who were trained by Karl Rove to fling dung,…” Doesn’t pack the same punch.

To rename is to cleanly insert ideas and impressions without pausing to go down an explanatory side street.

Naming is a very powerful act. Think of how profoundly important it is to choose the name of a child or to be the first to discover a new species or star and have the honor of establishing its moniker. Imagine the god-like power of the people who “found” certain islands, rivers, mountains, and even though their own name may be forgotten, generations of people have referred to that particular chunk of earth by the title they designated.

To rename is to reclaim this power and use it to your own ends.

Gertrude Stein had this to say about nouns, which represent the basic act of naming: “Things once they are named the name does not go on doing anything so why write in the nouns.” Why, indeed, continue in one’s essay to refer to something or someone by a noun that has become an empty shell, like an anonymous finger pointing. Instead, assume the divine right of a writer to express the world as you see it, which includes the essential job of creating a fresh, revealing name to replace the old lifeless one.

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Autodidact curriculum

Some folks, after being plied with a couple of brewskis, might shyly admit to having fantasies of being a star quarterback, a rock god or maybe even royalty. My confession: I fantasize of being a syndicated columnist.

My first hero was Molly Ivins, who unfortunately for the world of words and intelligence has passed on.

But I’ve found someone else I’d like to learn from: Mark Morford of the San Francisco Chronicle.

I love to read him for his wit and intelligence, but I hate to read him because he gets away with so many “illegal” writing conventions that come fairly naturally to me (I am NOT saying I can pull them off as well as he can) but that I am told to drop from my writing because “it is not allowed.”

Similar to how, fifteen years before the Harry Potter phenomenon, I was told by my fifth grade creative writing teacher that I shouldn’t continue my story about the magical girl but should focus on “reality.”

One of Morford’s apparently successful infractions: using second person.

I’ll be writing an essay and I’ll want to build an imaginary scenario for the reader. Without making the conscious decision, I find myself talking to the reader, inviting, suggesting, seducing their imagination to follow me down some rabbit hole where we might get a glimpse of a new world, or at least the old world turned on its head. It works so well to say, “You.” But you’re not supposed to.

And yet week after week he uses this tactic, among many others, to great effect.

Though it’s been a couple of years since I took my last class, still I spent enough years being indoctrinated into the scholarly method that I think I will give myself some study materials to figure out what makes Morford’s writing so damn good. I have a pile of his articles that I will inspect, analyze, but above all, enjoy.

I will be writing at least one follow up blog post to let you know what I’ve discovered.

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My Original Inspiration

When listing my favorite writers, my husband comes second, then Ousmane Sembène, Carlos Fuentes, Assia Djebar, and Beryl Markham.  It’s impossible to list every author I admire and can’t get enough of, so I just toss out whichever names come to mind at the time.

But my husband is always second.  And the name I always put first, and I know my husband doesn’t mind, is my father, Lewis Horton. 

A few months ago my Dad sent me an article from his local paper written about his recent publication of a short story in an anthology called Big Water.  He has one whole shelf of a bookcase filled with anthologies and magazines that he’s been published in over the years.  

But that shelf is not the reason I list him first.

I have watched him practice his craft since my earliest memories.  Every evening he would retire to his bedroom where he had a desk and a typewriter (now he has a computer and an office in his home).  He would be in there for at least three hours.  

A few years ago he finally had his first book published: Escape From Mexico.  It is a memoir of his adventure on a weekend leave in Mexico while he was in the US Army.  It is a funny and exciting story, so well written that at the end, when he is describing his escape from a Mexican prison, I couldn’t help wondering if he made it out alive, even though I knew perfectly well he was sitting at home the very moment I was reading it!  I admire him so much for teaching me that even if it takes 20 or 30 years, you can get published.

And now, after over five years of trying to sell his second book, he has again succeeded.  I don’t even know the title yet, but I will definitely post an update when it gets closer to publication.

He is also my favorite writer because when I read his stuff, it is a guaranteed laugh.  I’m not sure if other people find it as gut-bustingly hilarious as I do, because they don’t have the added advantage I have of being able to hear his voice and see the facial expressions he would be using when telling the story.  Reading his work is never just me in my own head digesting meaning; it has visual and audio effects as well, which makes for a lot of fun.  Any sense of humor I have I attribute to his example and influence.

I got a lot of great stuff from my mother as well, just as good but in a whole other realm, interests such as cooking and baking, sewing, gardening, mothering, and having faith.  I owe her just as big.

But when I see his picture in that newspaper clipping, holding up a book in which yet another of his stories has been published, and when I hear that, finally, he will have another book on the shelves, I am proud that I have a father who had a dream, went for it, and continues to pursue his craft and explore his talent.  I hope I have inherited at least some of his determination, and that I can be even half as successful.

Thanks, Dad.

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“Each instant…”

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“Each instant is a place we’ve never been.” — Mark Strand

And here you are with me.

Even though as you read this, I have gone off somewhere else, to another place.  But I was here in this moment of now once, as you are.  I was aware of the letters on the screen, how they were coalescing neatly into words that you recognize, that trigger “Aha!” because we’ve seen them all before.

The familiarity of the words does not prevent them causing an almost imperceptible shiver down the spine at the moment we realize the mysterious dance of human communication.

Each word I write has been used countless times before, worn along the edges so that they slide effortlessly into your mind and fall into the groove of understanding, but you’ve never heard them exactly as I say them to you now.  Each time is the first time that you look at the screen today, at this hour, with the new experience you have acquired since yesterday.

This instant now is another place we’ve never been, many thoughts away from the first sentence, where you took my hand and I yours and we walked a ways.  We ended up here, in this other place, this new instant, looking each other briefly, perhaps affectionately, catching the awareness there inside the eye, before saying farewell, until next time.

May the places you go and the instants you live today feed your soul.

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Comments on comments

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a long time.  I don’t think the time will ever be right, but I’m tired of having it floating around in my head.

Figuring out how the comment function “should” work in this medium has been awkward at times.  When I first started blogging, I would encounter blogs where leaving a comment met with a “Your comment is awaiting moderation.”  I check back and the writer never approved it.  A perfectly innocuous comment, agreeing with what the poster said.  I take that as my signal never to return.  Why do these people have their blog public?

Some writers are vigilant about commenting on everyone’s comments, and this is great.  It makes it a real conversation, back and forth.  But sometimes when I start to do this, it feels forced.  Sometimes I know that a comment does not require a response.  At the same time, I don’t want to make the commenter feel unheard or unappreciated.  That is a dilemma I struggle with.

There is one blogger whose writing I admire for its humor and commentary on pop culture.  I’ve left a couple of well-crafted comments, hoping maybe to strike up a conversation or let her know I like her work, and she has never responded, nor has she ever visited my site, according to the blog stats page.  She doesn’t get many comments on her site, maybe a couple for a post on a good day, or else I would just make up the excuse that she is too busy and overwhelmed by her readership.  Though I feel like a little kid standing in humble admiration, I continue to visit her page because it is worth it, even if she doesn’t have time for me.  (At least she doesn’t moderate my comments into the cyber round file!)

Another blogger whose writing I very much enjoy brought up the desire for honesty in comments, an idea to which I myself subscribe.  Respectful honesty: to me, I’ve always thought this is the goal of communication, right?  

But now I think, maybe not always.  Sometimes maybe it is good to have a place to come and just get support from people.  This world tends toward the hostile, and sometimes even respectful honesty feels hostile when you’ve had enough strife in the rest of your day.  Sometimes we just need people to relax with and not feel like we’re being criticized or picked apart every minute.  This is definitely legitimate.

A recent foot-in-mouth comment of mine leads me to consider the nature of individual blogs, what their purposes are.  I above all want to be respectful of people’s intended audience and atmosphere.  I think the most disrespectful comment is the one that tries to tear the fabric of the blog without consideration of its nature.

Which leads inevitably to the question, what is the nature of my blog?  I get the sense from people’s comments that they are inspired to think about the content, and sometimes have a good chuckle, when reading my posts.  I confess I’ve never had a disruptive comment.  Luck, I suppose, or lack of traffic!  I don’t feel like I’ve clarified the purpose of my own blog in my mind, other than having a forum to express myself and see how people react to it, how they can add to it or spin the topic in a way I hadn’t thought of.  I do really like the idea of making people laugh.  I think this is a valuable objective.  I want to cultivate my own sense of humor and learn not to stand in the way of others’.

Lately I’ve taken to commenting on some of the articles on the website of the local paper.  Most of it is democrat/republican sniping, and I like to jump into the fray if I feel there is something worth addressing.  I know the paper welcomes all comments so they can sell ads to advertisers, so there is no danger of disrespecting a certain atmosphere that someone has worked hard to create.  As you can imagine if you are familiar with how I operate, I don’t launch personal attacks or try to ridicule anyone individually.  But neither do I hold back much on what I really think.

But blogs are a different kind of public forum.  I am so blown away by bloggers who open up themselves to the world and try to make honest, real connections.  I am equally impressed with readers who take the time to digest and react in their own words to what the blogger has offered up for thought.  I have always loved books and words, and I’ve always loved to sit around and chew over some issue or other with friends, but this experience on the internet combines both activities and takes them to a whole new level.  It is amazing to be in a global conversation and I have not stopped being overwhelmed at how lucky I am to be participating in it.  Really, it is unprecedented in the history of humans.

I look forward to many years of experimenting with this great exchange.

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Translation: The Ultimate Word Puzzle

I’ve started a new project that I’m liable never to finish, similar to most of the brilliant ideas I get.  I recently finished reading a book called “L’Oiseau de France” by Jean Jaussein, and I’ve now set about to translate it.  It is set in WWII and tells the story of a French soldier held prisoner by the Nazis.  

Surprisingly, it has a comic edge to it, not in subject matter but just in the way he tries to lighten up his description of the characters and the sometimes humorous things they do as they try to deal with their situation.

The writing style reminds me of Hemingway in its simultaneous depth and simplicity, which I always admire.

I am intrigued by the idea of trying to translate the slang of the period.  I wonder, should I use British or American soldier lingo from this era?  There is something distinctly false about substituting another culture’s slang for the original, since slang is such a personal form of communication that is quite rooted in a specific time and place.  But it would give the anglophone reader an atmosphere of WWII.

My main dilemma, as I work my way through page 3 of the original text, is that I still am not sure if there is already a translation published.  Not that anyone would publish mine, (not that I will even finish it!), but it would make it more fun to think that publication is a possibility.  I’ve looked online and come up with nothing.  About a week ago I emailed the publisher to inquire about the existence of an English version.  So far no response.

So until I find an answer, I will pretend that I am the only one, and I will gleefully struggle over every word, concentrating my mind not only on the true meaning of the work but also on the nuance of each phrase, the intention in each line of dialogue, never neglecting the suggestive importance of even a single definite article.

I am always aware that I hold in my hands someone else’s art, something they too must have struggled over and wanted to get just right.  And then when they’ve got it as close to perfect as it can get, someone wrecks it all by putting it through a mental wringer and squeezing it into a new-sounding shape that supposedly represents what they meant to say if only they’d been speaking that other language.  

How rude!

But I love it.  I love to teach people to understand another language so they can read it for themselves, but failing that, I love to bring a really great text a little bit closer to a lot more people.  And I love that this involves a brute force wrestling match with meaning itself.

Unless you too are a language aficionado (translation: nerd), you have not an inkling of the giddy, delicious fun of which I speak!

Trust me, dude, it’s awesome.

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Success

Instead of believing that publication is the prerequisite of success, I now consider the act of submitting my work for publication as the indicator of accomplishment.  And I find that I have succeeded yet again!  🙂

Thanks to the inspiration of Kweenmama, Joy and Kimmelin, I have finally composed and sent out the manuscript for a children’s book that has sat unwritten in the back of my mind for twelve years now.

It occurs to me that, to get a piece of work in the mail, one has to believe that it is good enough to see the light of day.  But at the same time, believing in the merit of the work leads to difficulty in accepting its rejection by those who hold the keys to the presses.  I personally find this push and pull to be quite painful.  But if I play a trick on my mind, and tell it that the point is not to see the work in print, but simply to be bold enough to send it on a tour of the world, then maybe I can feel successful with the mere act of submission.

I would say I am keeping my fingers crossed, but that is energy best used on other things.  I have already done all there is to do: I have crafted the story to the best of my ability, I have researched the market, and I have mustered the gumption to seal the envelope and put it in the mailbox.

Now I can relax, take a breath, and decide on the next project.

To publish or not, that’s their problem now!

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First Anniversary

As I reflect on passing the one year blogging mark, I am humbled and grateful for the experience.

A year ago my husband’s best friend was visiting us from Wales. He showed me the blog he had just started ( Movie Waffle  — A more witty and intelligent film review site could never be found!) and the idea of having an outlet for my thoughts was irresistible.  I had to be a copycat right then and there.

At first, seeing my words “in print” online was just as excruciating as it ever had been to see them genuinely in print. I remember the first time I got an essay published in the local newspaper, I stayed up all night wondering what stupid thing I’d said that the whole town would laugh at (and not in a good way) over their morning coffee.  My heart was racing when I heard the paper hit the front door, and my eyes could hardly focus as I scanned over my article.  Other than the stupid title they had given it, there was nothing particularly ridiculous about it.  Nothing to lose a minute’s sleep over.

Nobody read any of my first blogs.  Literally.  Not a soul.  That’s the great thing about WordPress: you can see precisely how few readers you have.  You can watch that hit line drag along the bottom of the graph, trawling for discouragement.  

But after a while, maybe it’s the sheer consistency of its horizontal straightness, you start to feel comforted by the fact that you can say anything you want and no one is there to judge.  You start to loosen up, speak your mind, send your internal editor off to play on Myspace and just sit with your authentic self and her thoughts and emotions.  You keep writing, now not with a desperate longing to be read but just to craft what it is you really want to say, even if no one is there to hear it.  (Yes, a tree falling in the forest really does make a sound!)

Then, after months of cruising and commenting on blogs, you find you have commented on the blogs of some writers who actually come to check out your blog.  You find that you enjoy the companionship, that you derive just as much satisfaction from reading and commenting on their posts as you get from seeing your own blog read, something that might not have happened at the beginning when your blog was new and you were so focused on developing it.  As happens in so many aspects of life, you find that once you have let go of what you so desperately wanted, in this case a community of intelligent and entertaining folks, then it comes to you in its own time.  Perhaps it has to be earned, by hanging in there and not giving up.

Or so I like to think.  I don’t know how representative my experience is of the majority of bloggers, maybe there are those who are highly popular immediately, and contrary-wise, those who never find an audience.  But this year has been such a great learning experience for me as a writer and I am really enjoying this new phase of interacting with some wonderful bloggers.  I hope they are getting as much out of my blog as I am from theirs: this is my new goal for year two.

And my Year Two wish to myself and my fellow bloggers (forgive me on this sentimental occasion one appalling cutesification): May the words be with you!

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Submission

The first time I submitted a piece of writing for consideration in a publication, I was 13.  I sent a poem to a local lit mag, very tiny thing it was, and I won some prize or other for my age group.  I was hooked.

Since then, I have periodically sent off my poems and essays and had some published in newspapers, magazines, online sites, and even a day planner.  The great majority have been summarily rejected, which I understand is the way the world works, not just in the publishing world but also the realms of employment, dating, even gardening; a sizable chunk of the desires we pursue and the projects we design do not take root.  I took some good advice a long time ago and started a “Rejection Slip Collection,” so that every new one I receive is a successful addition to my folder.  I see my moment of triumph being when the envelope slips into the mailbox slot, signifying that I have overcome my internal naysayer, who thinks that I have nothing of any import to add to the universe, and I’ve gone ahead, spoken my mind and submitted it for approval anyway.

 

But in the last few months that I’ve been blogging, I approach my submissions with a new attitude.  I do not feel as desperate to be accepted by an editor.  Sure, it would be wonderful to have the stamp of approval of a power player in the field, to see my name in the lights of the published word, but now, worst case scenario, I post my words on my blog.  There feels to be just as much chance for them to be read on the internet, where someone might be inspired to comment and thus make a personal connection with me, as there is for them to read me on the page, where the following silence would ring in my ears.

 

I can feel the power of the internet, the autonomy it gives us as readers and writers, the independence from the whims of the editor.  This can be a bad thing, as any old rot can appear “in print” online for the world to suffer through, or most likely ignore.  And I do not want to be misunderstood as disparaging the word that nestles itself on a piece of paper, because anyone who knows me is certain that one of my favorite circumstances is to be surrounded by books.  But as a plan B, when no one in a position to validate my voice chooses to do so, the fact remains that I cannot be silenced.

 

And neither can you.

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