Poetry Power

national poetry month
Since 1995 April has been National Poetry Month. I’m not a poet, but when my Creative Nonfiction teacher (Amy Ritchie Johnson) gave the class an assignment  to write a nonsense poem, I had to come up with something—and here it is!


What’s the difference between a beet,
A round, red, sweet beet?
It must be trees—a trillion trees
With billions of buds and billions of bees.
Why that answer? Why? Why?
Because two salmon swim in the sky.
A motorcycle has no doors,
No roof, no windows, no mats for floors.
But that’s okay. It does not matter.
We’re saved by chocolate peanut batter.
And Grandma rides old lady bikes
With three tall wheels. She vaults over dykes.
And when those thoughts go bump in the night,
They leap from corners to laugh in the light.
I cover my eyes. I cover my ears.
I shake in my shoes and scald in my tears.
My brain is swollen, cracked and black.
Six special spiders sit stitching it back.


It was a fun exercise.


poetry power
I first became aware of poetry in high school when Mrs. Fischer, my English teacher, gave us a quote for the day to memorize. It was often Emily Dickinson, but sometimes Shakespeare or Poe. I memorized “The Raven”—also “Bells” and “Annabelle Lee.” Poe has been a favorite ever since, along with Sherman Alexie, Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan.


poetry power
The Academy of American Poets was founded in 1934 in New York City with a mission of supporting American poets at all stages of their careers and to foster the appreciation of contemporary poetry. On their website, poets.org, you can buy books, keep up with poetry, and sign up for a poem a day—for free!


poetry power
If you’re not a poet, why bother? Consider the words of Tracy K. Smith, U.S. Poet Laureate.
poetry power
Who are your favorite poets?

A Wrinkle in Time Redux

tuck austin associates wrinkle time redux
(L-R: me, Christina Cox, Kristi Tuck Austin, Lenore Gay, Diane Major)
Last Friday 5 A Wrinkle in Time (Re)Readers met at Bowtie Cinema for the movie. Great conversations before and after. I’ve often said that I never met a boring writer! And frankly, socializing was the Friday night gold; the movie, on the other hand, was barely bronze.


wrinkle in time movie poster
[Photo Source: Collider]
In the interests of full disclosure, I admit to a bias against Disney movies. They have “prettified” great fairy tales, which I find hard to forgive. But that said, there are specific reasons I think that in this case the book is much better.
One expects some things to be cut when a book becomes a movie. I, for one, didn’t mind that two of Meg’s brothers were cut. They played virtually no part in the book. On the other hand, I’m disappointed that all the science was cut, limited to a few scenes showing science-looking equipment. And contrary to the book, Meg’s father uses the phrase “wrinkle in time” right up front.


oprah mrs which wrinkle time redux
[Source: HelloGiggles]
But my biggest disappointment was that the movie changes the characters! In the book, Mrs. Which is barely there physically, having difficulty maintaining a corporeal form. In that role, Oprah Winfrey is the opposite. She is introduced as larger than life, a giant with sparkling makeup and clothes that reminded me of armor. Even at a human size, she dominates every scene in which she appears, and I was constantly aware that I was watching Oprah Winfrey playing a role.


wrinkle in time redux
[Source: Cosmopolitan]
I found the performance of Reese Witherspoon very appealing. I liked her insouciance and asides. But in the book Mrs. Whatsit never doubted Meg, her commitment, or her ability.


evil charles wallace wrinkle time redux
[Source: Disney Wiki]
I didn’t really mind the combination of the ultimate evil and the IT. I wasn’t sure what their separate spheres were in the book. And in the movie, I liked the images of the evil snaking out into the universe.


Which brings me to what I liked about the movie. Disney does special effects well. I especially liked the images of Mrs. Whatsit flying through space with the children on her back—though in the book, I don’t remember that the children also flew.


wrinkle time redux
Storm Reid and Deric McCabe were great as Meg and Charles Wallace! They were believable, rich, and true to their characters in the book.


I applaud the cross-cultural, cross-race depictions. On the other hand, by the end of the movie, I felt as though making sure every couple as well as the three Mrs. were multiracial was a bit forced.


Last but not least, where the book is sophisticated the movie is a sledge hammer: light and love conquer darkness and evil. But I guess however one gets the message, the message is good.
wrinkle in time 1970
[Source: Wikipedia]
Read the book and see for yourself! What do you think?

Apples and Oranges in Fantasy Fiction

As you may recall from earlier posts, I recently read the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas, and I committed to reading A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle before the March premiere of the movie.


I’ve now started reading A Wrinkle in Time, and I’m stunned by the sharp contrasts between the two. While both are fantasy fiction, they are virtual opposites on the major dimensions. Here are a few I’ve noticed so far.


Age in WITMeg is approximately 13, Calvin (her love interest) is 14, and Charles Wallace is 5 years old. Meg and Calvin are typical teens in a realistic school when the story opens.


Age in TOG: Celaena/Aelin is approaching her 18th birthday when the series begins and ages to 20 over the series; her early love interests Sam, Cael, and Prince Dorian are approximately her age; her later love, Rowan, is hundreds of years old. Celaena excels as a trained assassin. Her love interests are assassins, warriors, and magic wielders.


Affection in WIT: Meg and Calvin hold hands, Calvin puts his arm around her (so far).


Affection in TOG: Lots of sensuality, moderately explicit, including nudity, sharing beds, and sexual union.


Commonality: In both books, the heroines feel safe and protected by their loves.


Assistants in WIT: Gentle, helpful assistants in the form of supernatural beings with names such as Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, The Happy Medium, and Aunt Beast.


Assistants in TOG: Fae Warriors, a shape-shifter, Ironteeth witches, assassins from the desert, armadas from other kingdoms


Evil in WIT: IT, a bodiless telepathic brain who controls people, making them do the same things together in the manner of robots—absolute conformity; and The Black Thing, who is the source of all evil in the universe, and that’s about all the specificity about him.


Evil in TOG: The ultimate evil is Erawan, who enslaves others to be his minions (e.g., the King of Adarlan) in conquering everyone, everywhere using death and destruction, torture, beings who can take over another’s skin, and a magic “key” that allows him to gather beasts from the realm beyond the portals and create animal/human hybrids.


Why these stark differences? I can only speculate. It may be partly that the target audience of WIT is younger than the target audience of TOG. Then again, WIT was published in 1962 and TOG was published in 2012. Maybe young adults now are older than they were fifty years ago.
Stay tuned: I’ll blog again when I finish A Wrinkle in Time.

Stories Within Stories

stories within stories h hawk
[Source: Amazon]
H Is for Hawk is my most recent book purchase—as in, I downloaded it to my Kindle last night. I am looking forward to a great read.


Yesterday, the teacher in my Creative Nonfiction class read aloud from Macdonald’s book as an example of exceptional nature writing—though if you look it up online, it’s labeled a memoir. The section she read revealed the process Macdonald went through before finally naming her goshawk Mabel. The writing was rich and compelling.


stories within stories macdonald hawk
[Source: wbur]
Several people in the class had already read the book and they all praised it to high heaven—which isn’t surprising, given that it’s not only a bestseller but also the winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction, the Costa Book of the Year Award, and the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger in France.


Class discussion revealed a very complex book. It’s factually fascinating, with all sorts of information about falconry and training a hawk. It has quite a lot about an earlier British falconer White. And it’s about grieving her father’s death. As Dwight Garner put it in The New York Times, “Helen Macdonald’s beautiful and nearly feral book, H Is for Hawk, reminds us that excellent nature writing can lay bare some of the intimacies of the wild world as well. Her book is so good that, at times, it hurt me to read it. It draws blood, in ways that seem curative.”
Over lunch, another long-time writing friend whose work I admire said H Is for Hawk is her all-time most loved book. Who could resist endorsements such as these? Would you care to read with me?

Helping Hands for 2018

You may recall that I am enrolled in a Creative Nonfiction class at the VMFA Studio School this spring. The first day of class Amy Ritchie Johnson distributed a page of books labeled “resources” and “writing craft.” Resources turn out to be books she considers to be well-written examples of the the variety available in creative nonfiction—ranging from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) by James Agee and Walker Evans to a couple of local blog writers.


Under writing craft, the first book listed is Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (1986) by Natalie Goldberg. If you’ve ever taken a writing class, pretty much anywhere, you’ve probably come across Goldberg fans. Writing Down the Bones is now out in the 30th Anniversary Edition. Yep, it’s been around that long—and is still relevant as ever, including writing advice and get-going exercises.


helping hands 2018 also natalie goldberg
If Writing Down the Bones is already an old, familiar friend, check out some of her other books. Consider her memoir and poetry. But if you really want to focus on writing craft, you can do that, too.


old friend wild mind natalie goldberg
So, I wasn’t surprised to see Writing Down the Bones on the class booklist. But seeing Ursula K. Le Guin there knocked my socks off.
steering craft 21st century guide sailing sea story
Apparently this book first appeared in 1998. This is now the 2015 edition. Le Guin labels the book “a handbook for storytellers—writers of narrative prose.” And it is just that. As you can see by the chapter titles, she’s organized it by the nuts and bolts of saying what you mean.


helping hands 2018
Although the topics sound mundane—if not actually boring—the book isn’t. Each section has excellent exercises and variations, and a very informative discussion of the topic. The extended sailing metaphor wore on me a bit, but the book is a very manageable 140 pages.


selected books ursula k leguin
Although I read some of her fiction decades ago, I never knew of her as a writing teacher. She died recently and this is her only book on the craft of writing. Buy it!
helping hands 2018 anne lamott
I’ll mention just one other book on the recommended list. I’ve had Bird By Bird on my shelves forever but haven’t read it. Maybe this year.


poets writers inspiration
Last but not least, consider this bi-mothly magazine for writers. This is the January-February issue and could be useful all year with the 52 IDEAS TO BOOST YOUR CREATIVITY IN 2018. You can see from the cover what the main topics are for this issue. In spite of the focus on poetry, much of the magazine is of interest to virtually everyone.


Lots of the contents never age, but the classifieds section is the exception. Calls for submissions and contests can be time sensitive.


Bottom line: there are a lot of helping hands for our craft. Take one or two—or more!

In Praise of Rereading

praise rereading dorothy sayers
For decades my escapist reading—with few exceptions—was mysteries. Once you know who did it, what would be the point? The one exception for me was Dorothy L. Sayers.  My motivation for rereading the Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane mysteries was to discover the early clues and figure out how she built to the big reveal. But I also discovered that Sayers’ characters—clear, distinct, and appealing—grew and developed.


I seldom read non-mysteries then, and rereads were even rarer. Two of those exceptions were Austen and Mitchell. They both were mirrors reflecting a period in history and characters that reside in real people, regardless of historical period.


praise rereading diana gabaldon books
Not too long ago I read and then reread Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I reread because this is a far ranging saga. By the time certain characters play a major role I’d lost track of earlier cameo appearances. On rereading, I could appreciate how intricately interwoven the people, places and events were. Having written only two books with repeating characters (Dark Harbor and Tiger Heart) I marvel that the details didn’t trip over each other, that they didn’t contradict themselves, and that the characters matured (as opposed to changed).
new genre new year maas
More recently I read Sarah J. Maas’ series Throne of Glass. And now I am rereading it. Partly that’s because of the great experience rereading Gabaldon. But in addition, Maas has created a whole new world. As fantasy fiction, she’s created a new physical world, but also new history, new creatures, and new personal powers. The first read familiarized me with these aspects of the series. Like Gabaldon, Maas has characters who grow and change over time—but her timeframe is much more compacted. And as a series targeting young adults, I became very aware of the meta-messages inherent in the plot and characters.


winston graham books
My experience is that rereading a series is especially gratifying. Perhaps it should be required—in the interest of fully appreciating the author’s creativity and craft.


I’ve now committed to reading A Wrinkle in Time between now and March 9, prior to the movie premiere. It was touted as a reread. For me, it will be a read. My youngest daughter has read it many times. Her older daughter has read it. Her younger daughter received it for Christmas but hasn’t read it yet. Could I resist such a recommendation?


And the best part is, this is the first book in a series. There may be more rereads in my future!


Bottom line: Reread a favorite you haven’t read for several years. Is it as good as you remembered? Better? Different? Let me know.


Wrinkle Re-Read

Writing Carries Metamessages. Are You Aware?

The January-February issue of Smithsonian included a two-page spread about books whose heroines changed lives. “The bravest and brainiest girls in literature have been breaking the rules for 150 years.” This resonated with me. Consider the metamessages contained in works of fiction.
[Source: Sarah J. Maas]
[Source: Sarah J. Maas]
You may recall that I recently blogged about fantasy fiction. At the urging of my 13-year-old granddaughter, I agreed to read the Sarah J. Maas Throne of Glass series. It’s fantasy fiction, complete with diabolical evils, biologically created monsters, witches, Fae heroes, magical powers, and a driving determination to save the world. The female protagonist is a trained assassin.
throne glass maas
[Source: Sarah J. Maas]
After I finished the series, I talked with my daughter about the metamessages her daughter was likely absorbing from this series. Here, in no particular order, are the points I raised.


—Women can be as strong, capable, super smart, and evil/vicious as any male.
—Men can/should follow a capable woman leader.
[Source: Sarah J. Maas]
[Source: Sarah J. Maas]
—Men can/do admire/love women who are smarter/more capable than they are in at least some ways.
—There isn’t just one person to love. If you lose a love, you can love another.
—The person one loves in youth or in a certain circumstance isn’t likely to be the love of one’s life/soul mate as an adult.
[Source: Sarah J. Maas]
[Source: Sarah J. Maas]
—Former enemies can become allies or even friends.
—Men and women can be allies and friends even without a love interest.
—Sex should be a loving act, intentional rather than just happen.
[Source: Sarah J. Maas]
[Source: Sarah J. Maas]
—One can go through some really shitty situations and thrive later.
—Those who are different (witches, Fae, etc., in this series) are accepted or not based on behavior.
—Good people can do bad things or make mistakes.
—Life circumstances are powerful. Bad beginnings can be overcome.
[Source: Sarah J. Maas]
[Source: Sarah J. Maas]
On the other hand, not all the messages are sterling, feminist, humanist values.
All heroines and heroes are gorgeous! And usually have special/magical powers.
The ends justify the means.
Violence is a way of life.
[Source: Goodreads]
[Source: Goodreads]
No doubt Maas intended at least some of these messages. But all of them? Sometimes readers see things in my work that I didn’t plant intentionally. Bottom line: As a reader AND/OR writer, be aware of the metamessages in literature. What seeds are you planting? What “truths” are you absorbing?

1968 Was a Hell of a Year

smithsonian 1968 hell year
The January-February issue of Smithsonian is a must read. Whether you lived through it or not, you will learn something new on every page. (Well, maybe not the ads at the back!) Many people living through turbulent times experience some segment of the turmoil so deeply that it changes them forever, but I’d venture to say few grasp the whole.
And if you were a child in ’68—or not even born yet—you definitely need to read this. The year still reverberates through our lives, and this issue of Smithsonian is a vivid panorama of the times.

smithsonian contents 1968
The grief and anger surrounding the Vietnam war are made clear, from the war itself to the riots during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Popular culture is highlighted: the Beach Boys and the Beatles in India and teen sensation Frankie Lymon. It was a year of protesting the Miss America Pageant, and getting the first pictures of earth from outer space. What Martin Luther King, Jr. was doing days before his assassination, and the legacy of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination—it’s all there. It was a year of violence, but also of innovation as the groundwork was laid for personal computers and the internet.

Issues of street violence to threats of world hunger made 1968 a year of fear and anger. Read all about it!

What’s So Funny?

whats so funny new yorker january
As you’ve probably gathered by now, I’m a fan of The New Yorker magazine. I like their covers. I like their cartoons. And I especially enjoy “Shouts & Murmurs.”  This particular issue has one that totally cracked me up.


whats so funny shakespeare
It is a parody of a modern-day interview with Shakespeare. It purports to be newly discovered quotes from interviews with the Bard when he was promoting his work. Shakespeare says things such as, “I hate getting notes from theater owners. They’re always, like, Romeo and Juliet shouldn’t die and stuff. I thought that was a cool ending. I don’t know.” I’d recommend getting this issue for that article alone.


whats so funny new yorker
This week’s “Shouts & Murmurs” takes on the current issue of the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea. It is unabashedly making fun of Trump, and if you are a fan of the president, you would think it insulting rather than humorous. But If you are a Trump supporter, you probably wouldn’t be reading The New Yorker much anyway.


whats so funny usa north korea
But as a writer, it is worth reading regardless because it is a good example of what some—lots of?—people find funny.


Wikipedia lists 23 genres of comedy in this format:


whats so funny forms humor
Consider the various forms of comedy. What do you find funny? And would any of them enhance your writing?

Creative Nonfiction = Literary Nonfiction = Narrative Nonfiction

naked drunk writing adair lara
I bought this book recently because I’ve enrolled in Creative Nonfiction, a class that begins later this month at the VMFA Studio School. I haven’t taken a writing class in years, but why not?


Once upon a time I took a class with a title something like “Writing Memoir Using Fiction Techniques.” It was a great class. And now there is a whole genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives written to entertain. There’s quite a good Wikipedia essay about it, and/or you can check out www.creativenonfiction.org.


Once I started thinking about it, I realized how much of my pleasure reading is some version of creative nonfiction.


Dean King is a Richmond writer who is a master of the form. He brings history to life, whether he’s writing about a shipwreck off the coast of Africa in 1815 or the legendary American Hatfields and McCoys.


Three of my other favorites are Bill Bryson, Charles Panati, and Mary Roach.


Charles panati books
Each is an educator in his or her own fashion. Panati gathers fascinating bits and pieces, often organized around quirky themes.


mary roach books
Mary Roach researches current themes and issues, including their historical roots and cross-cultural connections. And she’s humorous!


bill bryson books
Bill Bryson varies between historical research (e.g., Mother Tongue) and personal experience (e.g., A Walk in the Woods).


And then there are the personal adventure stories. The first of these I read was Woodswoman by Anne LaBastille about living alone in the Adirondacks, isolated by winter.
woodswoman anne lebastille
The next creative nonfiction book on my agenda will probably be Wild (2013) by Cheryl Strayed. Obviously, I don’t jump on the lists of just published books! But I expect a thrilling read.
wild cheryl strayed
Bottom line: Creative nonfiction can be as varied as fiction. And why not try writing a genre I so enjoy reading? I’ll keep you posted.