Short Blog for a Short Book

short blog short book
Last week I blogged about Susan Hankla as a teacher. But thinking about Susan, and about the RTD article about her as a poet that prompted that blog, I decided to explore her writing. Besides ordering Clinch River, I also acquired a copy of this 1979 chapbook.

 

There are eight poems in this chapbook:

 

  1. “The Air Is Getting Thin”
  2. “Lost Glove”
  3. “Burning Your Letters”
  4. “Hours”
  5. “Pleasing Mrs. Faris”
  6. “Three Foolish Things”
  7. “A Larger Pain”
  8. “Running Home”
Each poem includes rich images, unexpected transitions, and surprising endings. You can read this book in minutes. Or hours. Or over days. But if you can get access, do read it.

 

Only 350 copies were printed, so there aren’t that many copies floating around—which is unfortunate.

 

Good luck in your quest!

The Upside of Arguing Badly

upside arguing badly
Arguing has a bad reputation. No one wants to be known as argumentative! In my opinion, that’s because disagreements become arguments when they are handled badly. If all goes well, they are more likely to be labeled discussions! Having characters arguing badly is a powerful tool for writers. Here are 11 ways of arguing badly you might not have thought about recently.

 

1 One person is trying to dominate another. A symptom of this type of arguing is shouting. Of course, it doesn’t always work. Often the exchange devolves into a shouting match. Or a non-shouter will eventually just physically leave.
2 Name-calling. Insults up the emotion—often pulling resentment into the mix, leading the insulted person to defend against the insult and veer off the topic of the disagreement and into mutual character assassination.
3 A related tactic is comparing the other person to some disliked other person. E.g., you’re just like Aunt Agatha. Here the reaction depends largely on whether the person compared to Aunt Agatha likes or dislikes her.

 

upside arguing badly

4 Physical violence or the threat thereof—e.g., punching the wall or throwing things. This doesn’t settle a disagreement, it just stops the expression of it, leaving the threatened party to stew silently—and perhaps plot revenge.

5 Kitchen-sink fighting—i.e., throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the argument. This often involves bringing up past grievances, failures, or misdeeds that have nothing to do with what originally started the argument.

 

upside arguing badly
6 Not letting it go. Once the parties are stale-mated, instead of agreeing to disagree one or both parties bring up the issue repeatedly, nag, and/or sulk.
7 Trying to gain allies in the argument. This is simply trying to get others to take one’s side in an argument. It could be friends, neighbors, co-workers, or—perhaps most damaging—family members, especially children.

 

upside arguing badly
8 Interrupting. Not waiting for the other person to finish a point is another great way to up the emotion.
9 Not listening. This is similar to interrupting but not so active. One person is trying to make a point and the other person is reading, watching TV sports, texting, etc.

 

upside arguing badly
10 Make things up. One party simply asserts facts that aren’t. These sound authoritative, informed, and relevant—as in 89% of people do X, or as Abraham Lincoln said in 1873…. They backfire when the truth comes out—as in, the other party knows Lincoln died in 1865. Being caught in a lie escalates the argument.
11 Last but not least, add alcohol. Alcohol disinhibits, meaning that people speak and act more freely. And depending on the amount of alcohol, one or more of the parties may not be thinking clearly.
upside arguing badly
People are creatures of habit. For your characters, establish a pattern of arguing based on his/her typical weapons. Conflict is a beautiful thing!

Learning from Susan Hankla

learning susan hankla
Today’s Richmond Times Dispatch (5/15/18) had an excellent article about local writer and teacher Susan Hankla. It talked a lot about her Appalachian roots and includes seductive snippets from her most recent book, Clinch River. The article focused on Susan Hankla the writer. I want to talk about Susan Hankla the teacher.
clinch river susan hankla
For ten years I enrolled in at least two of her classes per year, usually three. I can just imagine you rolling your eyes and asking, “Why?” Because every class was different, even when it carried the same title. The assignments were her creations, nothing taken from the plethora of writing books and prompts out there. And unlike many writing teachers, Susan created a new syllabus for each class—typically including readings associated with the assignment.
susan hankla
Susan’s teaching covered a broad range of themes. The classes I took with her included such titles as Fiction, Magical Realism, Memoir, Mixed Forms, and Writing Fiction Based on Works of Art. She also offered classes in poetry. Per the Times Dispatch interview, Susan said she isn’t a novelist. Well, I’m not a poet.

 

learning susan hankla
I have now published more than fifty short stories in literary journals and anthologies. Dozens of my short pieces began as three-page assignments in Susan’s classes. For a sampling of some of the weirder ones, often funny, check out my collection in Different Drummer.

 

The RTD article “The World Inside Her” talked about Susan’s inner world. But she was able to bring forth the worlds inside dozens of her students, certainly including me. Many of us came back again and again, beneficiaries of her creativity as a teacher.
susan hankla
Susan’s classes were always structured the same. First day, we received a syllabus for the semester, including assignments, due dates, and class rules. We met once a week. At each meeting, each student distributed their work (3 pages max, double spaced) to everyone else and then read it aloud. Then Susan and each of the students would give feedback. Seeing how ten or so other people working from the same assignment went in ten or so different directions was incredibly enlightening.
 
Even more enlightening was comparing what readers made of my work compared to what I thought I’d put on the page.
 
From high school until my first class with Susan, I had no formal writing instruction. (I’d tested out of freshman composition in college.) I learned the basics of non-academic writing from Susan, AND I learned to give and receive helpful feedback.
 
susan hankla
 
Susan cared passionately about her students. When she “graduated” me after ten years, I felt the loss of her mentorship deeply. I shall always be grateful for the ten years I had with her.

Consider Personal Symbols

I recently read The Thorn Chronicles by Kimberly Loth. This is a 4-book series for an early teen audience.
thorn chronicles
[Source: Goodreads]
It’s a fairly familiar plot line of good versus evil, with an eventual twist of trying to mediate and balance those forces. (Frankly, the books could use a good edit to catch repetitions, omitted words and using the almost-right word, e.g. viscous when the context suggests the right word was vicious.) I’m writing about it because within this series, the two major women characters had symbolic plant connections.

 

The series opens with Naomi, a sixteen-year-old girl, running away from an abusive home. While at home, Naomi gathered strength and peace working in the rose garden her grandmother started. Each chapter begins with a rose the name of which ties to the content of the chapter.

 

The characters age slowly, but they do age. Their save-the-world challenges are so big-stage that the reader (I, at least) must readjust when there is a reference to going to school, being suspended for a week, etc.

 

I’ve read that YA fiction features protagonists who are 3 to 5 years older than the target audience. Perhaps that’s the reason for the shift in the second two books.

 

secrets kimberly loth
[Source: Goodreads]
In the third book, the focus shifts to the POV of a younger protege of Naomi’s. She was 12 or 13 when Naomi befriended her, and is now 15 or 16. The plant symbolism shifts to cacti. Each chapter starts with cactus facts, names, and/or descriptions.

 

lies kimberly loth
[Source: Goodreads]
In the latest book of the series, both women are prominent. Each chapter begins with a plant epigram, either rose or cactus, signaling POV.

 

The point here is that having signature symbols can ease transitions between/among POVs. It needn’t be plants. It could be pets. It could be something astrological, or mineral elements, or whatever your imagination suggests.

 

Bottom line: Consider some symbolic representation for your protagonist and/or other major characters.

What Would You Call a Bunch of Bluebirds?

Many—hundreds? thousands?—of animals have collective nouns to identify a bunch of those animals—e.g., a pride of lions, a pod of dolphins.

 

an exaltation of larks
I used to have a book of such collective nouns titled An Exaltation of Larks. Probably I still have it somewhere, but I can’t find it. So over the weekend, when I wanted to find collective nouns for the birds visiting my backyard, I went online.

 

bluebird
But bluebirds? Zip, zero, nada. No generally agreed upon collective for bluebirds. Perhaps that’s because they generally hang out in pairs and congregate only when migrating.

 

birdfeeder
love my new bird feeders, set up after my birthday. Whether it’s the configuration or the the addition of a suet cage, we’ve never had so many different birds visible from the kitchen window. And I found lots of collective nouns online. In fact, some birds have multiple collective nouns that are generally recognized. So my husband  and I decided to just go with the label we liked best. For example, a murder of crows.

 

call bunch bluebirds
We also have a clutter of starlings (I rather like their bright orange beaks) and a scold of blue jays. Then there is the plague of grackles, beautifully iridescent.

 

Sometimes we are graced by an echo of mockingbirds, or a drumming of woodpeckers.

 

call bunch bluebirds
We have a ubiquity of sparrows, though they were camera shy. The drum of goldfinches not so much so.
I still hope to catch on camera a mewing of catbirds and a dule of doves. But I did catch a member of the college of cardinals—a young one.

 

female cardinal
Our banditry of titmice swarm the feeder—except when I was taking pictures today! But, surprisingly, I got our bobbin of robins perched on the feeder, even though they are ground feeders.
Later in the year, I expect the return of our hover of hummingbirds. For the time being, I am content with our charm of finches—mostly house finches.
And our chime of wrens.
Yes, I love our dissimulation of chickadees. What’s not to love?
But what about the ignored bluebirds? I found one place on line that, while acknowledging that there was no accepted collective noun for them, suggested a sky of bluebirds, or a beatitude of bluebirds, saying throw some options out there and see what sticks. So I’m suggesting a blessing of bluebirds.
 
 
What do you suggest?

The Best Time of Day to Write

best time day write

There are manuals about how to write, what to write, and where to write, but a bigger question for me is WHEN to write.

Often our lives get so busy that even when writing is a full time job, it’s easy to set it aside to take care of “more pressing matters.” Enough procrastinating like that and the work never gets done, so it’s important to find your best time of day to write, block it off, and try for as few interruptions as possible. (Yes, that means logging off of Facebook!)

But when is the right time?

Most people say that it’s best to write first thing in the morning. You have more willpower (your energy hasn’t been diminished by other tasks), the creative part of your brain is more active after sleep, and that time of day is quieter and less hectic than the rest of your day.

But writing in the morning might not be the best move for everyone.

best time day write

What if you’re not a morning person?

As Kevan Lee writes, Mareike Wietha and Rose Zacks conducted a study where they found that morning people best solved problems in the evening, while night owls were the reverse. Lee adds,

The theory goes that as our minds tire at our suboptimal times then our focus broadens. We are able to see more opportunities and make connections with an open mind. When we are working in our ideal time of day, our mind’s focus is honed to a far greater degree, potentially limiting our creative options.

What’s the bottom line?

Even if you don’t know what time of day works best for you, just try to be consistent. By training your brain to be in the writing mindset during a particular point of time, you’ll be able to jump back into writing quicker.

What time of day has worked best for your writing? How do you keep yourself consistent and focused?

best time day write

Tai Chi and Qi Gong for Your Characters

Tai Chi Qi Gong
World Tai Chi and Qi Gong Day was great!

 

The Opening Ceremony was an elaborate Lion Dance from Virginia Commonwealth University. Costumes for the Lion Dance Team and Panda were compliments of The Confucius Institute at William and Mary College. Great fun! It was long and strenuous—and I wonder what sort of college student would join such a team, and agree to perform during finals week.

 

Some of the demonstrations were more reminiscent of the martial arts origins of tai chi, including swords, spear, saber and push hands. A focus on the martial arts application might get your character into interesting situations.

 

But the most frequent application of both tai chi and qi gong is health. For example, one of the groups present was veterans, practicing at the VA Hospital in Richmond. They work with both physical recovery and PTSD sufferers. Do you have such a character?

 

Tai Chi Qi Gong
According to The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, more than 600 academic papers have reported the beneficial effects of tai chi and qi gong practice on physical and mental health. Among these are enhanced balance, flexibility, and agility; increased immunity, muscle strength and aerobic capacity; lower blood pressure, improved heart health, reduced inflammation, and weight loss. Arthritis is a case in point. One of the participants said that she’d been incapacitated by rheumatoid arthritis for years before taking up tai chi—and she moved beautifully.

 

Among the mental health benefits are lower levels of stress, depression, and anxiety; increased mental clarity, focus, and positive thoughts; and a lower risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

 

The practice of tai chi is often called meditation in motion. Maybe it should be called medication in motion. And it is a life-long activity, low impact and slow but as good for you as cross-fit. Do any of your characters have health problems? Why not give them some?
 

Consider Contests

consider contests
The May/June 2018 issue of Poets & Writers has arrived! And it brings thoughts of contests. The listings are very helpful. Each listing tells the genre(s) accepted, the size of the prize and other perks, the approximate number of submissions, the number of awards, the names of recent winners, the new/typical deadline, the frequency of the contest, and an online link for more information.

 

consider contests
The good news about this listing is that it has offerings for single works, collections, and books across genres. It includes publication awards, prizes, grants and fellowships—for writers at any level. The bad news is the same as the good news. You might want to take a more focused approach.
consider contests
If you google contests for self-published authors, you will find a plethora of websites offering lists of possibilities. And you will soon find that the same contests are listed in multiple places.
You can find info for any genre this way. I may be the last person to realize this, but the internet can make your search for outlets a gazillion times easier!

 

Bottom line: consider contests as a way to enhance your visibility and boost your ego—and do it as efficiently as possible.

Tai Chi

tai chi
Come on down! I’m going to be there, performing tai chi moves and qigong breathing with other members from my class. Participants and watchers are welcome. There’s to be a lion dance in the opening.

 

I got involved in tai chi because I wanted to try something new and my sister-in-law had been practicing tai chi for years and telling me I should do the same. Now, this sister-in-law tends to think that everyone should think and do what she does—for she does things for good reasons. This is pretty much the first time I’ve succumbed.

 

So, tai chi is a Chinese martial art. (For alternative spellings of tai chi, go online.) Tai chi is practiced both for its defensive training and its health benefits.

 

tai chi
Tai chi, rooted in Taoist and Confucian Chinese philosophy, has been found to be beneficial for meditative movement and for general health. Focusing solely on the movements of the form bring mental calm and clarity, good for general health and stress management. The three main aspects are health, meditation, and the martial arts.

 

tai chi
My tai chi teacher explains the martial arts application, but the focus is on slow movement, meditation, and health. We also practice qigong breathing. Seated tai chi moves are suitable for older people. Research shows that seated tai chi can make big improvements to a person’s physical and mental well being, including improvements in balance, blood pressure, flexibility, muscle strength, peak oxygen intake, and and body fat percentages.

 

tai chi
Which brings us back to World Tai Chi and Qigong Day. It is the last Saturday in April, annually. At 10:00 a.m. local time, people participate alone or in groups. The idea is that the wave of energy and goodwill will circle the globe, starting in the earliest time zones of Samoa and then traveling around the world until it ends with events in the last time zones of Hawaii, almost an entire day.

 

One of the stated goals of the day is to provide a global vision of cooperation for health and healing purposes across geopolitical boundaries, and also an appeal to people worldwide to embrace wisdom from all the cultures of the world. Who can argue with that?

 

tai chi
One breath… One world.

Setting as Character Notes

setting character notes
 
Some of you will remember that last week I spent a day in Savannah, GA, taking a NOGS (North of Green Street) Garden Club tour of “Hidden Gardens.” They do one about this time annually. These gardens were small and walled. And as we toured, I thought about what theses gardens  said about their owners/creators.

 

setting character notes
Of course there were flowers. We could, perhaps, talk about the language of flowers and what the selection of plants might reveal. But, frankly, that seems a bit esoteric. instead, I want to focus on what people chose to put in their gardens in addition to the flowers.

 

setting character notes
Below I have grouped pictures of artifacts by garden. For each grouping, consider the character/s of the people who created and/or enjoy these gardens. As you page through, just jot down your first impressions.
Garden One
 
Garden Two
 
 
Garden Three
 

setting character notes

Garden Four

Garden Five

 
At this garden, the Garden Club woman hosting made a point of mentioning that this bronze fountain was imported from France in 1830.
Garden Six
 
In addition to the chandeliers in this garden, there was a gas grill, a bar, and a half-refrigerator.
Garden Seven
 
 
Garden Eight
 
 
Using setting elements as character notes is a fine old tradition. Consider Jane Austen’s Rosings Park, Pemberly, and Cheapside houses. Although these pictures emphasize garden ornaments, but objects reflecting character could equally well apply to paintings, bric-a-brac, furniture, Hummel figurines, etc. Think about it.

 

setting character notes