10 Great Books on Writing

10 Great Books on Writing

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

The best advice for writers is to read, and read widely. Dip your toes into styles and genres you don’t normally read and take note of how those writers crafted their work.

But you also need to read books about writing. Writing is a solitary act but it doesn’t have to be an isolated journey. Books that explore the craft and practical considerations of writing are great companions along the writer’s path. This is a list of 10 of the books that helped us at various stages of our writing expeditions.Obviously it is not an exhaustive list, just a toe-dipping exploration.

Writing Down the Bones Natalie Goldberg. Gwynn’s first “writing book”, she’s reread it many times, as well as Goldberg’s other books in a similar vein Wild Mind and The True Secret of Writing. Writing Down the Bones helped Gwynn get her head around being a writer and trusting her muse. Nathalie’s Writing Practice method (like freefall) showed Gwynn how to go deep into her subconscious to find the good stuff.

A Passion for Narrative Jack Hodgins. It’s been around since 1991. And, sure, it’s meant for developing writers. But Ruth won’t ever let it go because it is the book that moved her from writer to WRITER. To quote her: It was like having him on my shoulder, nudging me along as I learned more deeply about the craft with every page I turned.

Bird by Bird Anne Lamott helped Gwynn hone her attitude to writing and gain the confidence she needed to really start getting words on paper. Personal anecdotes give advice on everything from writer’s block to finding your voice and the value of writing “shitty first drafts”.

On Writing Stephen King  Ruth loved this one so much she got the basic book, the CD for listening and the large-print version in case her eyes give out. More than a how-to from a master of storytelling and horror of all levels, this book is a fine companion for any writer who loses their way.

 

Plot versus Character Jeff Gerke. Gwynn writes from setting, then characters, and then tries to fit it all into a plot. This book recognizes both the pantster and plotter and leads them each through processes to a well-balanced novel: memorable characters and a good plot.

The Emotional Craft of Fiction Donald Maass. After taking a workshop with agent and bestselling author, Donald Maas, Ruth was compelled to get his latest book. And it’s a doozy with examples and exercises to sharpen your emotional intelligence as a writer, dig deeper in your scenes and keep readers reading.

The Writer’s Journey Christopher Vogler is Gwynn’s go-to book on story structure. Evolved around the Hero’s journey concept, Vogler adds in what works in story that has come out of myths, fairy tales and movies.

An Introduction to Poetry  X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, ed. — this is one of Ruth’s go-to’s whenever she’s feeling stuck with a poem. It’s a basic college-level textbook but one that’s filled with poems and the thoughts of poets on poetry and life. These are voices of a rich cultural diversity, from ancient times to modernity, all trying to figure out the world and our place in it.

Fruitflesh Gayle Brandeis. While Gwynn also turns repeatedly to An Introduction to Poetry, she also finds this book of stories, meditations and writing exercises a constant inspiration when writing poetry. Brandeis seems to have the power to inspire, challenge and free the sensual.

The Angela Ackerman/Becca Puglisi series (Negative/Positive Trait Thesaurus, etc.) Ruth has the Negative Trait Thesaurus and Gwynn has the Positive Trait Thesaurus (we share) but we’ve spoken with enough writers to know that each book Ackerman and Puglisi puts out has become a practical resource that goes beyond suggesting appropriate body language or emotional responses. Also great for those moments when you’re stuck and need to surprise yourself with your character’s good or bad behaviour.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t make note of our own writing resource book, Inspiration Station. Published in 2010 with Piquant Press it was packed full of prompts and ideas to keep writers’ pens moving. Our first non-fiction publication proved to be a popular handbook as one way to keep the retreat feeling alive long after writers packed up and headed home. It’s been through two printings and is presently sold out, but Inspiration Station has gone back to the revision table and you can look for a new edition and format next year.

Out of the box poetry

Out of the box poetry

Gwynn Scheltema

One way I free up my creative mind is to box it in. Sound contradictory? It is, but it works. Forcing my brain into constraints forces it to find new ways out, to connect things that are not normally connected and to reach for ways to use available concepts or images or ideas that aren’t the easy default but something deeper.

Using constraints is not a new concept, and it applies to all creativity, not just writing. Composer Igor Stravinsky described it this way: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit… the arbitrariness of the constraint only serves to obtain precision of execution.”

Here are some constraints that I use to start poems. Notice, I say “to start”. Some of these tactics may produce a finished poem, but more often they simple set my mind in a new direction. After that I ignore the constraint and let the new idea lead me where it may.

Anaphora

Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or lines to create a sonic effect. When the initial writing is done, you can remove the phrase and just work with the images and thoughts you’ve generated.

I find it good to pick a focus, like a place, time, person or experience and use phrases like “On Saturdays…” or “My Aunt Emily…” In London…” etc., as well as general introductions like “I remember…” or “I don’t remember”, I believe…”, “I want…” or “If I could…”

Joe Brainard wrote a book length poem about his life in the 1950s called I Remember. Here is an excerpt:

I remember a piece of old wood with termites running around all over it the termite men found under our front porch.

I remember when one year in Tulsa by some freak of nature we were invaded by millions of grasshoppers for about three or four days. I remember, downtown, whole sidewalk areas of solid grasshoppers.

I remember a shoe store with a big brown x-ray machine that showed up the bones in your feet bright green.

Lipogram

A lipogram is writing that excludes one or more letters. Here is a short poem by Daniel J Webster that excludes the most used letter in the English alphabet: “e”.

Most common of all marks from A to Z,
It’s tyrant to orthography, and smug
That not a thing of worth is said without
Our using it. . . .

Univocalism

A poem using only one vowel. Canadian poet Christian Bok is famous for his collection Eunoia, a collection of five univocal prose poems (which run into many pages each), one for each vowel.

Here is an excerpt from “A”

Hassan Abd al-Hassad, an Agha Khan, basks at an ashram – a Taj Mahal that has grand parks and grass lawns, all as vast as parklands at Alhambra and Valhalla. Hassan can, at a handclap, call a vassal at hand and ask that all staff plan a bacchanal – a gala ball that has what pagan charm small galas lack. Hassan claps, and (tah-dah) an Arab lass at a swank spa can draw a man’s bath and wash a man’s back, as Arab lads fawn and hang, athwart an altar, amaranth garlands as fragrant as attar – a balm that calms all angst. A dwarf can flap a palm branch that fans a fat maharajah. A naphtha lamp can cast a calm warmth.

Opposites

Take a poem you find interesting (your own or someone else’s) and write a line opposite in meaning to each line in the poem. For a bigger stretch, keep to the same form and/or rhyme scheme.

Excerpt from PETALS
by Amy Lowell

Life is a stream
On which we strew
Petal by petal the flower of our heart;
The end lost in dream,
They float past our view,
We only watch their glad, early start.

STONES
by Gwynn Scheltema

Death is earth
On which we pile
Stone by stone the cairn of our mind;
The beginning found in birth
We build up all the while,
Only to miss their sad, final end.

Imitation

Imitate a poem, even incorporating phrases from the original poem. If you use this only as an opening up exercise to find your own thoughts, make sure you eliminate the original poet’s words in your poem. If you keep any of them make sure to acknowledge the original poet.

Excerpt from “PATTERNS” by Amy Lowell

I walk down the garden paths,
And all the daffodils
Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.
I walk down the patterned garden paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
With my powdered hair and jewelled fan,
I too am a rare
Pattern. As I wander down
The garden paths.

Imitation exercise:

PATTERNS REPEATED
After Amy Lowell

I walk down the garden-paths,
And all the peonies
Are full and showy, like happy children
I walk down the patterned garden-paths
In my husband’s shadow
With painted smile and high bred manner
I too am a rare
Pattern.  As I wander down
The garden-paths.

 Riffing off a concept

Wallace Stevens wrote a poem called “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” in which each stanza is a mini-poem, but all of them refer to a blackbird in some way, to unite the whole. This is a great way to start writing a poem. Think of 13 (or 14 or 16 ) ways of looking at anything: sunsets; lovers; baking apple pie; train journeys…..

 

First and Last

Here, take two lines at random from any text. Make it truly random by getting someone else to pick them. One line becomes the first and one the last line of your poem. When you’re done, remove the borrowed lines.

Poet John Hewitt recommends this tactic because “…it gives you something to start from. If you know what your last line has to be, you start to think of ways that you can get there. If you know that you have to write a poem about the constellation Orion, you go out and stare at the stars. You are no longer dealing with a blank page. You know that at least one of those words is going to be “Orion”. That’s a place you can start from.”

And one more thing

It is important to realize a constraint is a tool. It helps bring focus to a poem. You won’t always want restraints, but when you are stuck, a constraint is a good way to get the words flowing again.

Last word

Gilbert Sorrentino, poet, novelist, critic and professor says “Generative Devices are consciously selected, preconceived structures, forms, limitations, constraints, developed by the writer before the act of writing. The writing is then made according to the “laws” set in place by the chosen constraint. Paradoxically, these constraints permit the writer a remarkable freedom. They also serve to destroy the much-cherished myth of “inspiration,” and its idiot brother, “writer’s block.”

 

 

 

Celebrating Poetry during NPM

Celebrating Poetry during NPM

Gwynn Scheltema

I love April. It’s a month of budding trees, long-asleep bulbs poking through the earth, warm sun on my back and the promise of summer to come. And April is National Poetry Month (NPM)—a chance to read, write, share and support poetry on a national scale. I love it!

I also love the story that started it all: Back in 1996, members and staff of the Academy of American Poets headed to the steps of a post office in New York City where individuals waited in line to mail their tax returns. The story goes, that they handed out copies of T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land, which begins, “April is the cruellest month….”

In 1998 Canada followed their lead and today, NPM brings together schools, publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, and poets from across the country. This year, 2018 will celebrate the 20th anniversary of NPM in Canada!

Reading poetry

If you don’t have poetry on your bookshelves, there is plenty out there to sample. You might want to start with the Poetry Foundation website where you can search poems by poet or poem title or explore their collections by topic. You can listen to audio clips of poetry read aloud and browse their magazine Poetry, the oldest monthly poetry magazine in the English-speaking world.

Another great website for classic poetry and prose is Project Gutenberg. This volunteer-based site offers over 56,000 free eBooks mostly of older works for which copyright has expired. Here is a great spot to sample poets like Keats, Wordsworth, and Robert Frost.

Or consider having a poem delivered to your inbox each day. Sign up at Academy of American’s Poets.org to receive original new poems during the week and classics on weekends. Poetry Foundation also offers a poem a day by email or via an app on your phone. If you’d rather begin small, try Carol Rumen’s Poem of the Week published in The Guardian.

Writing poetry

Just like the reading version of a poem a day, Writer’s Digest runs a Poem-A-Day challenge each year curated by Robert Lee Brewer, author of the blog Poetic Asides. Each day during April, Robert posts a prompt and invites poets from around the world to write and post their poems and comments on the postings. He also chooses a daily winner and an overall winner for the month. Writescape’s Ruth E. walker won one of the daily challenges with a poem she wrote at our Spring Thaw retreat that year.

If you are new to poetry, perhaps consider taking an online course to get you started and inspired. MOOC (Massive open online courses) offers a wide variety for studying poets or writing poetry like this one from California Institute of the Arts.

Sharing poetry

During poetry month, poets and lovers of poetry encourage activities to celebrate poetry. In my region, Poetry in Cobourg Spaces (PICS), along with convenor James Pickersgill, worked with Ted Amsden, Cobourg’s poet laureate, to create a poetry event on Earth Day.

The public plus local schools were invited to submit to a poetry contest. The poems had to be on topics directly related to Earth Day, like the environment, our planet, ecology, nature, organic gardening and/or farming, evolving human awareness of other living organisms, climate change, greenhouse effect, and pollution. The poems were to be 24 lines or less and the winners read their poems at ceremonies at Cobourg’s Ecology Garden on April 22, Earth Day at dawn!

Also in my area, a group of poets, equipped with vintage typewriters brought people’s stories to life through poetry in a unique public art installation.

At the Shelter Valley Folk Festival five Green Wood poets talked with people and created poetry, non-stop, for over three hours. Beginning with the question “what brought you here to this moment?” the poet and person talked for 15 minutes before leaving the poet to capture the essence of the conversation. It was all pecked out on a typewriter in public view. Identified with a number for anonymity, the poem hung on a clothesline, both as a public art installation and a personal gift for the person to take away.

I love it!

One of the spin-offs that came out of NPM is something called Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day. Also celebrated in April—this year on April 26—Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day encourages people to carry a poem with them, and share it with others throughout the day. This day is celebrated not just in North America, but in Europe and Australia too. Some of the activities that everyone (not just poets) are encouraged to get involved with are:

  • Start a “poems for pockets” giveaway in your school or workplace
  • Urge local businesses to offer discounts for those carrying poems
  • Post pocket-sized verses in public places
  • Start a street team to pass out poems in your community
  • Distribute bookmarks with your favorite lines of poetry
  • Add a poem to your email footer
  • Post lines from your favorite poem on your Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Tumblr
  • Send a poem to a friend

Supporting Poetry

Of course, like writers, poets struggle to make a living from their art. So I challenge you to buy a book of poetry this April. No idea what to buy?

Visit some of Canada’s poetry publishers: Brick Books; Black Moss Press; Hidden Brook Press and Guernica Editions. Or check out these 16 collections recommended by CBC last fall. Or the 10 best of 2017 recommended by Canadian League of Poets. When in doubt, head to your nearest independent book store.

Poets also appreciate attendance at their poetry readings. A quick Google search of “poetry reading” and “Northumberland” gave me 3 readings in the next three weeks I could attend including this one at the Cobourg Poetry Workshop.  Notice boards in coffee shops often have reading flyers, and if your city boasts a university, there are bound to be readings connected with them too.

Let us know in the comments how you intend to celebrate National Poetry Month. So much poetry to explore. Only 30 days in April. Better get busy!

DID YOU KNOW

A Writescape retreat alumnus, Ingrid Ruthig, recently won the 2017 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for the best first book of poetry, This Being. This national award, sponsored by the League of Canadian Poets, places Ingrid firmly in the midst of such well-known poets as George Elliott Clarke, John Newlove, John Barton and Pearl Pirie.

And she spent her Spring Thaw retreat time focusing on her poetry. We think it was time well spent.

GPS for the subconscious

GPS for the subconscious

Gwynn Scheltema

I call it mind mapping. You might call it clustering or brainstorming. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that this visual technique works to generate ideas and get subconscious thoughts down on paper before you lose them.

What is mind mapping?

Mind mapping is a my non-linear way to organizing thoughts without my internal critic getting in the way. At the same time it allows me to link and organize those ideas, so that the finished exercise is something I can work with.

Sound contradictory?

Perhaps, but it is based on some interesting studies on the way we think. Ralph Haber’s study of memory, found that we have nearly 90% success rate recalling images rather than words. Tony Buzan’s research found that those who took notes using key words learned more effectively. Mind mapping combines keywords and visual representation.

Mind map mind set

Start with an open mind and playful attitude. Mind mapping is a “brain dump.” Expect that many of the ideas you produce will not be useful. That’s not important. You can harvest the valuable nuggets later.

Your brain works best in short, intensive bursts (5 minutes or so), so once you begin, work fast and write down only key words, symbols, images, phrases … not sentences. Strive for an explosion of ideas.

Write with a pencil, your favourite pen, coloured markers, crayons or whatever helps to make you feel creative. Same goes for the paper you choose: with or without lines, coloured, big or small.

Where do you start?

Begin with one central keyword or concept in the centre of the page. Starting in the middle of the page gives the creative right brain a head start, as our non-creative left brain is used to starting in the upper left-hand corner.

You can put the keyword in a circle or a cloud shape or not enclose it at all (this is a creative process, so there are no “rules.”)

You can use an idea you want to work with or a random word picked from a book or given to you by someone else.

Then what?

I started with the word GERANIUM.

Write down/draw anything that keyword suggests to you, and then a word or symbol associated with that new thought, and so on, until you have a chain of linked ideas moving out from the central theme. Do not judge your ideas at this stage; simply write them down.

Put an idea down even if it seems unrelated – your subconscious probably knows more than you do.  DOCTORS OFFICE showed up on one of the branches. What does that have to do with geraniums? Seemingly nothing now, but when I organized the ideas afterwards, the link became clear. (I’ll explain later).

Keep your hand moving. If ideas slow down, take your hand back to the central concept and begin a new branch. Draw empty lines, and your brain will move to fill them automatically; or inject more energy with a different colour pen.

Eventually you’ll have several trains of thought, all different from each other and yet linked by the central concept. You can now organize them to fit your purposes.

Organizing and using your mind map ideas

Ways to use the ideas you’ve generated can be as varied as the ideas themselves.

Say I’m looking for an idea for a non-fiction article. Perhaps my first instinct around the word GERANIUM is to do an article on container gardening, I take a highlighter and highlight all the ideas that fit in any way with that slant. In the example, I’d highlight: POTS, RED, HANGING, TRAILING, VERANDAH, PATIO, SUMMER, SCENT. Hmmm….. boring!

But in the process, the word SCENT reminded me that geranium leaves can be used to scent and colour sugar. The mind trail on HERBS, TEAS, SPA suddenly becomes more interesting. A non-fiction article on “Using Flowers for Special Teas” now has possibilities. I might do another mind map now with the word TEA in the centre.

Use a mind map over and over

But don’t stop there. The same mind map can be used several times, at different times for different styles of writing.

The phrase DOCTORS OFFICE has me curious. I follow the branch back towards the centre, trying to work out what PINK and SUGAR have to do with it. Then it hits me… when I was a child, our doctor used to hand out tiny cylindrical candies that smelled like scented geraniums. I realize that I haven’t seen them in decades. What other sweeties from that era are no longer around? Hmmm….. Another article? A scene for my novel? A short story? Things are brewing now.

Later, it strikes me as interesting that I have two trails that contain the word VERANDAH, and I’m drawn to the references to LATIN WORD; SECRETS; SCHOOL FRIENDS; IVY; OLD BUILDINGS; ENGLAND. I think I feel a poem emerging…..

Even the trail that started out with the boring POTS; RED, ended with SQUIRREL; CRINOLINE: HIBISCUS. Now I realize, that’s a story my subconscious has unearthed about a little critter that came to my garden last year. He loved hibiscus shoots, and …

When should I do a mind map?

Use a mind map whenever you want to generate new ideas. Use it to focus in on a particular problem area. Use it to expand something you are already working on. Use it to reveal hidden subconscious perspectives on a seemingly boring topic. Or just do it for fun and see where it takes you. Quick. Easy. Worth it!

DID YOU KNOW

The perfect spot to be creative – and mind map to your heart’s content – is at Spring Thaw 2018 on beautiful Rice Lake in Keene, Ontario. Come for 3 or 5 days and escape to write with Writescape.Tailor your weekend to suit your needs.There is an agenda and formal programming, but you choose what sessions and activities will work for you.

One way I write a poem

One way I write a poem

Gwynn Scheltema

Outside my window the snow is piled layer upon layer. It’s quite beautiful, but it does seem like winter has been here FOREVER. There is a spot near the pathway where bulbs will poke through in spring, and although it is mid-winter, I still look there in the hope of seeing a crocus nudging its way to the sun. But, nope! Not today. It’s as if winter knows how I feel and is teasing me, telling me to be patient. I feel a poem coming on…..

Poems are inspired by many things, and each poet usually has a preferred way of entering into a poem. For me it is an image, often an image from landscape, an image that evokes an emotion in me, an image that begins to tell a story…

Emotion first

Painting a pretty picture with words is all well and good, but if the picture is flat and emotionless, you don’t have a poem. I believe a poem’s prime function is to connect with the human heart, to evoke a reaction in the reader, to find common ground with emotions and experiences we all know.

So I work with the emotion first. I mentally or physically jot down what emotions the scene evokes in me and what that makes me think of. Even if my thoughts don’t seem to “match” or if they “fight” with each other, I just let the random subconscious thoughts bubble and land on the page:

 hope to see a crocus – frustrated with winter already – amazed at how those squirrels survive out there in the cold – awed by the beauty of everything – awed by the determination of a tiny flower pushing through all that snow – anticipation of spring coming in just a few weeks – resignation that there is still winter to live through – teased by winter – foreverness -winter teaching me a lesson in patiencepromise….

 
Emotion in context

Then I ask myself if there other times in my life that I have felt some of these emotions? This helps me relate what I’m seeing and feeling to “universal” themes.

 

waiting for Christmas as a child – anticipation of anything exciting – my mother telling me that “patience is a virtue”- watching a small child struggling with shoelaces – waiting for a lover who has gone away – bad dreams and how they are gone in the morning

Sensory details next

Then I list all the specific details I notice about the physical scene or image using all the senses and remembering extensions of the basic five senses like texture, quality of light, and temperature. And I always ask myself “What is missing?”

 

layers of snow – fluffy – heavy, bare knobbly branches – purple shadows – black squirrels – lake covered in ice that will leave soon – grey sky – cold – no warm sun- no crocus poking through – imagined honey smell of crocus – chatter of squirrels – creaking branches …

 
Metaphor

Then I ask myself what some of those images remind me of. Again, I don’t worry about it “fitting”. Just let the subconscious thoughts fall on the page

the creaking branches and knobbly branches remind me of my bony arthritic fingers – the squirrels are like busy moms dashing about making sure everyone has the things they need – layers of snow like blankets- ice is a blanket too  – crocus and saffron spice – sun like a returning lover

Finding nuggets

I read through my notes and see what jumps at me; first impressions, no overthinking:

  • hope to see a crocus- foreverness- anticipation of spring
  • waiting for a lover who has gone away
  • bare knobbly branches- ice that will leave soon
  • arthritic fingers – sun like a returning lover – saffron spice

Reading through this list I’m starting to get a feeling about spring being almost human like a lover – how that lover is gone but will return when the time is right if I can just be patient and determined like a crocus. And I really like the word “foreverness”.

First pass

Trees wave knobbly fingers

ice on the lake fades against grey sky

it bides its time

before it moves on

so my love can return

I will be a honey scented crocus

waiting under the purple shadowed snow

foreverness

waiting for spring and my love’s return

waiting for the saffron sun to warm me

once more

 

Hmmm. It’s got some decent images, but it’s too wordy and too obvious. I need to let the images speak for themselves. Style is too linear and conversational. I need to get rid of unnecessary articles and other words. Knobbly is too soft a word. Images need focus to give the contrast of cold colourless hard winter (lover gone) and softer brighter spring (person in love waiting and hoping) And as much as I love the word foreverness, I’m not sure it fits. I also need to give it a title (a well-chosen title will set up expectations and help with defining what the poem is about).

Refining

SAFFRON LOVER

Bony tree limbs wave

gnarled knuckled fingers

lake ice stretches to grey sky

bides its time

before moving on

 

as the patient honey saffron crocus

nudges to the sun

beneath purple shadowed snow

I wait for spring

and your return

 

So there it is for now. It’s got a way to go, for sure, but it’s started and on the page.  Now, I’ll let it rest a couple of days or weeks and come back to it. Distance will tell me what changes – if any –  to make next.

DID YOU KNOW

Image result for saffron crocus flower

Saffron spice is harvested from the stigmas of a crocus flower. Each saffron crocus bulb produces only one flower and each flower produces only three stigmas.  To get 1lb of dry saffron requires 50,000–75,000 flowers which require about 20 hours of labour to pick. 

It reminds me of counting words!

Add to your word count this spring with 5 days away at Spring Thaw retreat. Get written feedback and a one-on-one consultation with Ruth and Gwynn.  You can tailor your weekend to suit your needs.There is an agenda and formal programming, but you choose what sessions and activities will work for you.

Reading outside your genre

Reading outside your genre

Gwynn Scheltema

My last post was about defining what genres we write in. Which got me to thinking about what genres we read. And the value of reading outside our usual genres.

Books that move me

I love language and wallowing in words. I love to reread evocative passages, to stop mid story to share a sentence with my husband that I find particularly beautiful or thought-provoking. I like skilled play with fiction forms. Consequently, I often gravitate to literary fiction. Story is important to me, but plot is not. I prefer internal character struggles rather than thrilling events, or fast-paced action. I’m happy to spend time in people’s heads, seeing the world from their perspectives. Recent reads (which I highly recommend) have been: The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.

I also like the books I read to be set in exotic places, in other cultures, and affected by political or natural turmoil that I am never likely to be faced with. I like to learn about other customs and occupations. The Bonesetters Daughter by Amy Tan (historical fiction), Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenston (non fiction/memoir) and In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner (historical fiction) fit that bill.

Broadening my reading horizons

But I’ve also had to spend a fair amount of time this year away from home, and have found myself reading books passed on to me or chosen for me by others, books I likely would have walked right by in the bookstore.

I learned a lot in the process. Reading time is limited and with the books I have to read for a variety of reasons, the time left for reading for enjoyment is really limited, but I was reminded that broadening my reading horizons was a necessary—and enjoyable— part of being a well-rounded writer and editor.

What I learned from the books that found me

Of the books that found me, let me tell you about just three of them. Turns out, I enjoyed them all, and reading as a writer, I learned a lot too:

The first one: Spud by John van der Ruit is a YA humorous coming-of-age story set in a fictional private boys school in South Africa in 1990 around the time of the release of Mandela. It’s written in a diary style like The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole.

Apart from bringing back a lot of memories of my own schooling in an Anglican Church School in Zimbabwe, Spud reminded me that humour is a great foil for addressing tough and often brutal circumstances. This book tackled bullying, attempted rape, mental illness as well as the usual problems of growing up, boarding school and relationships. It showed me that sometimes less is more, and that young boys and girls face many of the same problems. Structurally, the diary format allowed much to be said without embellishment or long drawn-out scenes. It allowed room for things to be left unsaid.

The next: The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling, listed as a contemporary mystery thriller, is a multi-voice fiction about a seemingly ordinary small-town and what really goes on behind closed doors.

Rowling’s dialogue in this book is superb. She handles the dialogue of different ages, cultures and socio-economic characters in way that their speech and dialect is distinct, authentic and utterly believable. I had a hard time getting into the book because there is an enormous cast of characters, and Rowling “head-hops” a great deal, but once in, I was hooked. From this book, I learned that multiple viewpoints can work well as long as each voice has their own story not more or less important than the others.

And the third: Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler is a memoir by Trudy Kanter, an Austrian Jew who used her connections as a hat designer to escape events in World War II and find safety for herself and her husband Walter. Like Spud, this book handled grave situations with humour. What really struck me though, was how Trudy spent a lot of time talking about hats and fashion and parties and décor and other things that at first seemed frivolous and inappropriate for the dire war situation and terrible and frightening circumstances she was facing. But then I realized that that was Trudy’s coping mechanism. It got me thinking about the different ways different people use to handle a given situation. Just because I might handle a situation one way, my characters (and readers) might do something completely different.

Other reasons to read out of your usual genre

Stephen King famously said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Yes, you should read extensively in the genre you write to become familiar with it on all levels, but reading on a regular basis outside your genre, outside your comfort zone, makes you a better well-rounded writer. It clears the cobwebs away in your creative brain. Gets you out of a rut. New perspectives, new craft approaches and new possibilities. Same-old-same-old in your reading leads to same-old-same-old in your writing.

Who knows, you may discover a new genre that really speaks to you. Perhaps that coming-of-age story you’ve been struggling with as an historical romance might be better reworked as a dystopian YA. But you have to read some dystopian YA to find out.

And not just different genres, but different writing forms: short stories, poetry, plays…  Each form can teach you different writing skills that will help with your novel. Plays are excellent for studying dialogue, poetry can remind you about image and metaphor and the economy and power of words.

So take the plunge, be adventurous, make a pact with yourself to include a new genre or new form when you pick up your next book. You’ll be glad you did.

DID YOU KNOW

Ruth and Gwynn are off to the Niagara Region this month to deliver a workshop that explores writing in different styles and genres, called What’s in Your Writing Closet. If your group is interested in this or any of our workshops, explore our on demand workshop options.

 

 

Fun with Terminology

Fun with Terminology

Gwynn Scheltema

National Punctuation Day

“Yes, Virginia, there really is a National Punctuation Day!”

National Punctuation Day (NPD) claims September 24 for a celebration of punctuation and its importance—a sentiment close to this editor’s heart. Founded by Jeff Rubin in 2004, he encourages people who value correct punctuation and spelling to post pictures of errors spotted in everyday life.

Just a bit of fun, to be sure, but good things have come out of NPD too. StudioSTL,(a non-profit that brings together authors, educators and artists with youth ages 6–18 to develop writing skills to be used in life, work, and school) raises money each National Punctuation Day for their free writing programs and raises awareness for the value of correct punctuation.

The return of the interrobang‽

FontFeed credits National Punctuation Day with the revival of the interrobang. For those, like me, who have no idea what an interrobang is, Wikipedia defines it thus: “A sentence ending with an interrobang (?!  or  !? or ‽ ) asks a question in an excited manner, expresses excitement or disbelief in the form of a question, or asks a rhetorical question. For example: You call that a hat‽” To create one in calibri, press alt8253. Well, who’d’ve thought‽

 

CAPS LOCK DAY

And as if that’s not enough, on October 22, it will be CAPS LOCK DAY?! This day was the brainchild of Derek Arnold of Iowa who was peeved by people using ALL CAPS to emphasize themselves on the web. He proposed that on this day EVERYONE USE ALL CAPS FOR EVERYTHING TO SHOW HOW ANNOYING IT IS and to poke fun at people who use this annoying typing style, in the hopes of bringing some sanity to the Net.

Of course, CAPS LOCK DAY has an underlying humour, but as with a lot of humour, there is a kernel of truth (sometimes a whole nut tree) to be unearthed.

A Sky Full of Poems

The use of humour reminded me of a poetry book I had as a child called A Sky Full of Poems by Eve Merriam (American poet and writer; 1916 – 1992). She had a series of rhymes and poems to help understand grammar and poetic terms.

Here are a few excerpts for you to enjoy that speak to homonyms, homographs, cliché, simile and metaphor:

From the poem “Nym and Graph”

A sound-alike is a homonym
Sing a hymn, Look at him.

A spell-alike is a homograph
A general staff, A walking staff.

//
Said Homograph, “From my point of view
I once saw a saw saw then a sink sink,
I saw a fly fly and a rose that rose up,
I sat down upon down,
I felt a felt hat,
And met a fair maiden at the fair.”

//
“Now tell me Homograph, can you
See things from my point of view?
For I, sir, aye, yes I eye a dear deer
And a hare with hair that is half of a pair
While I pare a pear beside a new gnu
And shoo a bare bear away from my shoe—
And all this I do at ten to two, too!”

From the poem “A Cliché”

//
Warm as toast, quiet as a mouse
Slow as molasses, quick as a wink.          

Think.
Is toast the warmest thing you know?
Think again, it might not be so.

//
Is a mouse the quietest thing you know?
Think again, it might not be so.
Think again: it might be a shadow.
Quiet as a shadow
quiet as growing grass
quiet as a pillow
or a looking glass.

From the poem “Simile: Willow and Ginkgo”

The willow is like an etching,
Fine-lined against the sky.
The ginkgo is like a crude sketch,
Hardly worthy to be signed.

The willow’s music is like a soprano
Delicate and thin.
The ginkgo’s tune is like a chorus
With everyone joining in.

//
My eyes feast upon the willow,
But my heart goes to the ginkgo.
 

From the poem “Metaphor”

Morning is
A new sheet of paper
For you to write on.

Whatever you want to say,
all day,
until night
folds it up
and files it away.

The bright words and the dark words
are gone
until dawn
and a new day
to write on.

 

DID YOU KNOW

Eve Merriam was a pen name. She was born Eva Moskovitz. Another author who writes under a pen name is our guest author at Turning Leaves 2017, Vicki Delany who also writes under the pen name Eva Gates.

Smile Poetry 101

Smile Poetry 101

Gwynn Scheltema

In last week’s post based on Irene Livingston’s humorous poem, “I Cannot tell a Lilac”, I spoke primarily about light verse and nonsense rhyme, but along the way, mentioned a few other poetic forms connected with humorous poetry. Here’s a quick explanation again of the general forms, light verse and nonsense rhyme, followed by an alphabetical primer on 5 other specific humour forms.

Light Verse

Poetry on light-hearted or playful themes written primarily to amuse and entertain. Although the genre often uses elements of nonsense verse, like made up words and grammatical play, it is technically competent and possesses a sophisticated level of wit.

Image result for oh the places you'll goDr Suess is a master at light verse. Sales seminars use the Green Eggs & Ham story to illustrate the 5 most important selling techniques. Oh, The Places You’ll Go! is a popular adult graduation gift.

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself 
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

 Nonsense Rhyme

Poetry that subverts language conventions and logical reasoning. Humour comes from its nonsensical nature, rather than wit or a punchline. Uses elements like rhythm and rhyme and is whimsical and humorous in tone. Although these poems are also known for the use of made-up words, these words are still used with recognizable grammar and syntax, and each nonsense word is a clear part of speech.

Image result for hitchhiker's guide to the galaxyEdward Lear and Lewis Carroll popularized the form in the late 1800s, but more contemporary examples can be found in the “Vogon” poetry found in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and in this sample from John Lennon’s “The Faulty Bagnose”:

The Mungle pilgriffs far awoy
Religeorge too thee worled.
Sam fells on the waysock-side
And somforbe on a gurled,
With all her faulty bagnose!

Bouts-rimés 

Bouts-rimés (French: “rhymed ends”) originated from a literary game invented in the early 1600s. They are verses created when the poet receives a list of rhyming words from another person and uses them in a given order to produce a result that makes at least partial sense.

John Keats produced “On the Grasshopper and Cricket” (1816) in a bouts-rimés competition with his friend Leigh Hunt. Here’s an excerpt:

The Poetry of earth is never dead:
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper’s—he takes the lead
In summer luxury,—he has never done
With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.

Clerihew

A Clerihew is a comic biographical verse invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley in 1905. Clerihews are written as four-line verses of two rhyming couplets, the first line almost invariably ending with the name of a person. A form of roasting, the humour comes from putting the listener’s sense of rhythm on edge with its purposeful varied line length and awkward rhyme as well as its off-the-mark treatment of the named subject. Here is an example by Edmund Bentley called “Cervantes”:

The people of Spain think Cervantes
Equal to half-a-dozen Dantes:
An opinion resented most bitterly
By the people of Italy.

Epigram

Epigrams in poetry (they appear also in prose formats) were originally meant as an inscriptions suitable for a monument, but now the term refers to any short, pithy verse especially if it is sharp and moralistic.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834 produced an epigram that neatly sums up the form:

What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole,
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.

Limericks

These days, limericks are probably the best known form of humorous poetry. Limericks first appeared in medieval times, but were popularized in 1846 by Edward Lear in his Book of Nonsense  We all recognize the distinctive form and “punch-line” ending. They are often bawdy too.

In terms of form, a limerick consists of five lines. The first, second, and fifth lines rhyme and must have seven to ten syllables and the same verbal rhythm. The third and fourth lines are always shorter (five to seven syllables) and have to rhyme with each other and have the same rhythm.

Here’s a fun example from Rudyard Kipling:

There was a small boy of Quebec,
Who was buried in snow to his neck;
When they said. “Are you friz?”
He replied, “Yes, I is—
But we don’t call this cold in Quebec.”

 Macaronic

This form dates back to the a comic Latin verse form that incorporated common dialect words and gave them mock Latin endings for effect. The same technique is now applied to combinations of modern languages.

This sample from Charles G. Leland called “To a Friend Studying German” plays with English and German:

Vill’st dou learn die Deutsche Sprache?
Den set it on your card
Dat all de nouns have shenders,
Und de shenders all are hard.

Your turn

Although these forms produce verse that is light and makes us smile, I’m sure you can appreciate the work that goes into creating them. Fancy trying your hand? How about posting a limerick below about writing.

DID YOU KNOW

In addition to a bouts-rimés being a form of humorous verse, it is also a form of constraint poetry: poems written within strict conventions. Gwynn gave a workshop on “Playing with Constraints” in Ottawa for the Tree Seed Reading Series. If you would like to organize a poetry workshop for your group, check out our On-Demand Workshops options.

I Cannot Tell a Lilac

I Cannot Tell a Lilac

Gwynn Scheltema

Now that the blooms are spent, I’ve been pruning my lilacs. I miss their heady scent and pendulous flowers, but each year when they are in blossom, I think of Canadian poet Irene Livingston’s poem “I Cannot Tell a Lilac.”. Ruth and I chose that poem as the first place winner in a contest for a poetry book collection called Open Window 111 (Hidden Brook Press 2002)—sadly now out of print.

I Cannot Tell a Lilac

I remember being intrigued by the playful title and hoped that the poem would not be overloaded with cliché references to the lilac blooms and scent we all know so well. But like the Stephen Leacock Poetry Prize winner that she is, Irene Livingston delivered surprise and delight!

The poem was fun, light-hearted. Livingstone played with semantics and form; she invented words. The poem danced to a happy bouncy rhythm; it had a quiet humour. The rhyme was subtle and skilled. None of it was forced. Everything from the images to the word choice was deliberate, but had the feeling of a careless, happy-go-lucky throwing together of thoughts and feelings. And at the end of it, I could smell the lilacs, see the ponderous blooms hanging low and feel the promise and warmth of spring. It remains one of my favourite poems.

Here are the first few lines of Livingston’s poem:

I’m cycling along so nicely, in brightfully
spritzing four o’clock sun-stream, when I suddenly
spy, with my little eye, a bushlet of fabulous lilacs

“Oh lilacs!” I cry to the halcyon Sunday street.
“Methinks I will toodle on up to the door,
give a light tap-tap and inquire as to
whether I might be permitted to snap off
some sprigs of vosnifferous, luminous blooms……

Is it Nonsense?

Words like “brightfully” and “vosnifferous” take me back to childhood nonsense poems that were fun to read but seemingly made no sense. Like: “”Hey diddle, diddle / The cat and the fiddle / The cow jumped over the moon…” and Lewis Carroll’s “The Jabberwocky”:

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe

But “I Cannot Tell a Lilac” isn’t nonsense. It’s the story of a young child riding a bike through the neighbourhood and being so overcome by the lilacs that he wants to pick them… with funny results.

So if it’s not a “nonsense poem”, what is it? Nonsense rhymes and “I Cannot Tell a Lilac” are both forms of light verse, a genre that includes a myriad of “fun” verse forms from epigram and clerihew to boute-rimes and macaronics.

Encyclopædia Britannica, defines light verse as “poetry on trivial or playful themes that is written primarily to amuse and entertain and that often involves the use of nonsense and wordplay. [It’s] frequently distinguished by considerable technical competence, wit, sophistication, and elegance.”

Light Verse Grows Up

Light verse has been around since Greek and Roman times. The Greek Anthology contains many epigrams. The Roman poets Catullus and Horace used innuendo, wordplay and satire.

In Medieval times light verse took on a narrative form and was often bawdy and irreverent but with a moral undertone. The limerick also made its debut around this time as did fable stories like Pierre de Saint-Cloud’s 40,000-line Le Roman de Renart  [Reynard the Fox] written in 1174.

In the 18th century, mock-epics joined the genre, like Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”, and Lord Byron’s verse novel Don Juan. Light verse was still filled with innuendo and moral judgement, but took on a sardonic and casual tone.

In 1846 Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense  popularized the limerick form:

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”

IImage result for captain reecen the late 1800s Lewis Carroll introduced nonsense poems, like “The Jabberwocky” I mentioned earlier. W.S. Gilbert’s Bab Ballads introduced absurdity like in this excerpt from “Captain Reece.”

Of all the ships upon the blue,
No ship contained a better crew
Than that of worthy CAPTAIN REECE,
Commanding of THE MANTELPIECE.

A feather bed had every man,
Warm slippers and hot-water can,
Brown Windsor from the captain’s store,
A valet, too, to every four…..

IImage result for 2 little whos by e. e. cummingsn the 1900s, poetic forms introduced by Dadaists, Futurists, and Surrealists, and the distinctive techniques of the Beat poets and e.e. cummings confused the boundaries between light verse and serious poetry. Flippant and irreverent tones were actually seriously intended. Poetry that began in an amusing way ended sometimes in bitterness or terror. What had been playfulness with grammar and syntax became forms of their own such as this excerpt from e.e.cumming’s poem “[2 little whos]”

(far from a grown
-up i&you-
ful world of known)
who and who

(2 little ams
and over them this
aflame with dreams
incredible is)

Today, I believe the line between serious humorous poetry and light verse is firmly blurred. Wit and satire, absurdity and irreverence abound in both forms. But for me, in light verse, I still look for the elements I found originally in “I Cannot Tell a Lilac”:

  • a quiet understated humour
  • playing with semantics and form
  • inventing words
  • a happy bouncy rhythm
  • subtle, skilled rhyme
  • evoking a feeling of entertainment and delight.

 

DID YOU KNOW

Irene Livinston won her Stephen Leacock Poetry Prize in 2001 at the Orillia International Poetry Festival. But did you know that the first winner of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour also honoured poetry (with a satirical twist) —Paul Hiebert’s novel Sarah Binks (1947), a fake biography of “The Sweet Songstress of Saskatchewan”. The Canadian Encyclopedia describes the book as “a comic creation which derives from Canadian literature while simultaneously making a contribution to it.”

The 13,000 Km Workshop

The 13,000 Km Workshop

Gwynn Scheltema

While caring for my post-operative mom in Zimbabwe this winter, I signed up for a creative writing class. Although it was an introductory class, I knew that coming away with just one new skill or “ah ha” moment that moves my writing forward would make the day worthwhile.  Besides, I needed to do something that would get my head (and pen) back into writing.

The facilitator was John Eppel, an award-winning poet and novelist, and newly retired English teacher. I didn’t know his work, and with no Internet connections available to me, I arrived without expectation. There were sixteen of us in the group, seated on dining room chairs gathered in a circle in his living room. We were all ages, and a good mix of men and women. I relaxed. This all felt comfortable and familiar.

In his introduction, I learned that John was primarily a poet, and had been raised in a small mining town not too far from my own home town of Bulawayo. Like me he had been through the Rhodesian civil war of the 60s and 70s, but unlike me, he had remained in Zimbabwe, teaching English at a private school and for South African Universities. He told us that the day would be spent not “learning how to write”, but learning about the power of words. Perfect! I love words. Today I would be a happy word-wallowing hippo.

And the day delivered—in spades. There were many “ah ha” moments. Here’s one about paradox:

“Philosophy gives up at paradox, but that’s where poetry begins.”

Poetry begins? A paradox is a situation, person or thing that seems to combine absurd or contradictory elements that prove to be true. I liked John’s explanation that dual meanings in words allow room for reader interpretation, and the wobble in logic makes the reader stop and think about what is written, even if only at a subconscious level.

He’s right. Take this line from D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Mountain Lion.”

….blue is the balsam, water sounds still unfrozen, and the trail is evident…

If water “sounds still” there is no noise, but if it is “still unfrozen” is must be running and therefore making a sound. A paradox, but one for me that now suggests new sounds, perhaps the creak of ice forming, or pop of a bubble trapped in the forming ice.

Image paradox

Now stretch that concept to an image (a cluster of words to which one or more of our senses respond.)

Image paradoxes, like word paradoxes, merge opposites. In the well-loved poem by Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” an image that has always intrigued me is in the line:

…Of easy wind and downy flake.

I realize now that image is a paradox. What is a “downy flake”? “Downy” suggests soft and warm (life), yet “flake” suggests stone-sharp and cold (death). By using opposing words together, the image attempts to evoke a simultaneous experience of living and dying—which, (not coincidentally) is the theme of the whole poem.

Symbol Paradoxes

But John Eppel took it a step further. He introduced me to symbol paradoxes. First he explained: “A symbol is an image with a more fixed connotation than other images.” We all recognize a white dove as a symbol of peace or a red rose as a symbol for romantic love. Symbolic images gain even more power when they are used in an opposing way.”

A unicorn is a symbol of purity and also, paradoxically, of lust. In the play, “The Glass Menagerie”, the glass unicorn represents fragile Laura’s lust for self-absorbed Jim and also her lack of sexual experience. The breaking of the glass unicorn becomes a symbol for Laura’s failed attempt at seduction.

 

Heady stuff for sure, but it fired up our discussion over lunch. We all agreed that it was freeing and motivating. I couldn’t take home the Zimbabwe summer sunshine, but that day exploring paradoxes on the other side of the world travelled home with me. Now, I’m inspired to drag out some of my poems that “aren’t quite there” and see if working in a few paradoxes might make them sing.

 DID YOU KNOW?

Spring Thaw, our upcoming retreat, is the perfect opportunity to play with paradoxes in your writing, and focus on your work in progress and receive feedback from two skilled editors. Join us for three days or five on the shores of Rice Lake for an all-inclusive escape to write.