Creativity Cross-Pollinates

yves saint laurent vmfa
From now through August 27, 2017, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is featuring an exhibition of the work of Yves Saint Laurent, a trend-setting couturier who built a body of work unique in creativity and originality.

 

A whole section of the exhibit pays homage to Saint Laurent’s artistic influences, including Piet Mondrian (far right in photo above), ancient Greek vases, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and Tom Wessellmann (far left in photo).

 

Artistic cross-pollination is everywhere. A prime example of art to music is Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is A Remembrance of Viktor Hartmann. Viktor Hartmann was an artist, architect, and designer.
Using photos as story starters for writers is a classic technique. Whole books have been based on that premise.

 

I’ve found the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts a fertile ground for launching stories. Several of my published stories began with VMFA exhibits: Buddha Remote, Not Mechanically Inclined, The Naked Truthand Love Me Tender.
 
Bottom line: Attend to non-written art and often inspiration strikes. Look at photos, art exhibits, paintings and pottery. Listen to the lyrics of songs and the emotions evoked by music. Think cross-pollination!

Consider Uncomfortable Words

Dictionary uncomfortable words
 
I had a high school English teacher who much preferred “it isn’t” to “it’s not” because, she said, the latter sounded too much like “snot.” Apparently snot was an uncomfortable word for her. Decades later, I still say “it isn’t.”

 

But that isn’t to say snot should always be avoided. Snot can be a very useful word for writers. The word has connotations beyond the definition and can imply, among other things, social class—for example, a snot-nosed kid—whether spoken by a character or part of the narrative.

 

The Dictionary of Uncomfortable Words is a collection of words that two men (Andrew Withan and Brian Snyder) label as uncomfortable. In that regard, it is personal opinion. They emphasize that this dictionary does not contain “dirty” words, just words that evoke a response of uneasiness in the listener/reader. Consider the power this gives you, the writer.

 

For example, if a character drops words like masticate, undulate, viscous, flaccid, or engorge into his/her speech, it might make other characters uncomfortable. And if the other character is unfamiliar with the word, such as invaginate would be for most people, then that other character could well feel insulted or offended—which could lead to any number of responses by the speaker.

 

Then there is the issue of whether the character/narrator uses uncomfortable words on purpose—and if so, what purpose?

 

Words like faggot, fairy, dike, gay, and queer are fraught with implications, not completely counteracted by a non-sexual context.

 

What words make you uncomfortable? Identify them and find ways to use them to strengthen your writing.

 

If words like lugubrious or luscious don’t readily come to mind, pick up this dictionary. It’s a treasure!
Dictionary uncomfortable words

The Value of a Top-Notch Writing Workshop

nimrod writers workshop
Each summer for more than ten years, I’ve attended Nimrod Hall summer writing workshops. Unfortunately, I cannot attend this year. But you could! There are still a few spaces left.

 

Why am I recommending Nimrod? You could see my blogs from years past. But here is a brief overview.

 

Excellent writing teachers. I’ve worked with all of the Writers in Residence—Cathy Hankla, Charlotte Morgan, and Sheri Reynolds—and they are all great. Published writers all, they give informed comments in one-on-one conferences and lead productive group critiques. And every one of them goes above and beyond the scheduled hours.

 

sheri reynolds
Sheri Reynolds [Source: Nimrod Hall]
Valuable writing colleagues. Attendees are a combination of returnees and newbies. Maybe it’s self-selection, or maybe it’s the atmosphere of collegiality, but everyone wants everyone else to succeed—no back-biting, no competition. All accept the responsibility to read and critique the work of others in their group. They are honest, telling what is strong and what needs work, always delivered respectively.

 

Protected writing time. No meals. No laundry. No childcare. Every morning and as many afternoons as you want can be devoted to your own writing projects.

 

Leisure options. There are several walking trails, swimming, tubing on the Cowpasture River, just to mention a few. Personally, I love going to the nearby Jefferson Pools, where the women’s (and men’s) baths allow me to relax in the historic waters—bathing-suit optional!

 

Great food. Prepared fresh, creative and tasty, and vegetarian is always an option. Meals are served family style, and seating is fluid. Over meals, one can get to know people not in one’s own writing group.

 

Wonderful conversation. Some of this happens over meals, but also at evening readings, while relaxing on porches, etc. I have never met a boring writer!

 

Lasting friendships. I am in touch with Nimrod colleagues all across the country, especially within Virginia. It’s an enduring network.

 

A productive week. I’ve polished short works for submission and edited sections of novels while at Nimrod. The energy is contagious.

 

A bargain price for so many benefits, room and board, for a week. I cannot recommend it too highly!
 
nimrod writers workshop

Exercising Your Creativity

The program is simple. Take an ordinary event and consider all the ways you could add tension, conflict, humor, surprise, etc. For example, having the house power-washed.

 

My house was scheduled for power-washing at 8:00 this morning. At 7:50 a loud—make that thunderous—noise outside the bedroom window made me jump and exclaim. What if it had caused a heart attack?

 

I was asked to back the car up a bit farther from the garage. What if I backed into the work truck? Or one of the workers? Or ran over a box turtle?

 

exercising the creativity
At one point a high-pitched squeal pierced the early morning silence. What if it triggered an epileptic seizure? Caused me to knock the tofu scramble from the stove-top to the floor, and I was running late already? Made the dog howl, the cat leap onto the curtains and pull them down, knocking over the parrot’s cage?

 

Then a worker moved all the potted plants to the far edge of the patio. What if he dropped a pot containing a rare heirloom orchid? Or wrenched his back moving the hanging baskets of rocks? Or dropped a decorative rock on his foot, breaking a toe, and falling through the French doors?
exercising the creativity
All the window screens were removed and set aside, leaning against a tree by the flowerbeds. What if squirrels played tag across the screens, knocking them from the tree and crushing the newly planted begonias?

 

When the washing actually started, what if the water roused a black snake from the foundation plantings? What if it had been a poisonous snake? Or what if an open window was overlooked? Who or what got drenched, and to what effect?

 

exercising the creativity
And I haven’t even touched on the possibilities of one spouse having scheduled the power-washing without informing the other spouse. Or the reactions of the neighbors. Or the dog-walker passing by. Or children who escape to play in the spray. Options go on and on.

 

Your assignment: Choose any mundane activity from today’s wealth—anything from doing laundry to going to the gym to hosting six for dinner—and take a few minutes to consider what if?

A Satisfying Writing Life

I recently read that two things will make or break a writing career. The first was passion that (among other things) wakes you in the night to jot down ideas, steals time to write, learns the craft, bounces back from rejection and criticism, and spurs investment (money implied).

 

The second was a strong submission strategy. By this, they meant, “…a streamlined, organized, efficient, highly functional, easy-to-execute…” strategy. Submitting should feel joyful rather than burdensome, and put the right work in front of the right eyes.

 

All of the above strike me as good, desirable things. And probably they are necessary for a brilliant writing career. But not all writers expect—or actually aspire to—a writing career in that sense. Surely everyone who published writing sometimes fantasizes about writing a best seller, but that is seldom a realistic goal. Perhaps writing is so inherently gratifying that it’s a necessary part of a satisfying life.

 

Satisfying Writing Life
Which brings me to important elements of a satisfying writing life. The first is enjoyment. Taking pleasure in crafting artful descriptions and effective dialogue is key. Then there is the gratification that comes from a job well-done. Every once in a while, I read something I wrote years ago and think, “Damn! That’s pretty good.” Then I smile, and return to writing with renewed energy.

 

The second in my list is writing that suits your purpose. Of course, that means you must figure out why you write. I started writing as therapy for my post-profession depression. As a former academic, I found that cooking and gardening just didn’t engage me intellectually. I did—and still do—enjoy both activities. But I need to keep my brain engaged. So, I enrolled in adult education writing classes and began learning the craft. (I’d never had a composition class, having tested out of freshman comp in college.) Today, one of the greatest joys of my writing life is doing the research to get the story line right, whether that involves the effects of ketamine on humans or the price of gasoline during the Great Depression.
Satisfying Writing Life
Writing as a source of self-esteem doesn’t require being a Steven King or a J.K. Rowling. Praise from fellow writers in classes and critique groups, and from readers, is great for my ego. And every time I have a short story or essay accepted for publication, even with no monetary reward, I feel like someone pasted a gold star of my forehead!

 

Perhaps one of the most common reasons to write, especially memoir, is to leave a legacy for family. This can be a way of letting them know who you are and how you came to be you, and/or leaving a record of their roots and the relatives who have gone before.

 

Many writers have more than one reason to write. In my opinion, why people write is less important than that it contributes to a gratifying life. Be clear in your own mind and heart about why you write, and then choose the path and activities that will achieve your goal.
Satisfying Writing Life

Choosing the Pronoun for Your Purpose

bedford handbook
I read a lot. And the more I read, the more often I’m irritated or distracted by writers who misuse pronouns. Pronouns can be subject (I/you/he/she/it), object (me/you/him/her/it), or show possession (my/your/his/her/its).

 

I came to see you. She gave it to him. The book is yours.

 

Of course, not all pronouns are singular. The plural pronouns serve all the same functionssubject (we/you/they), object (us/you/them), or possessive (our/your/their).
The most frequent offense to my readerly sensibility is confusing subjective and objective pronouns. For example, “Joe and me walked into town.” Or, “The Queen nodded to James and I.”

 

Writers seem most prone to these errors when a pronoun is in a series with proper nouns. In such cases, taking out the nouns makes the correct pronoun obvious. Few would intentionally write “Me walked into town” or “The Queen nodded to I.”

 

Another quick check is to replace the series with a plural pronoun: “Us walked into town” or “The queen nodded to we” glares like a spotlight.

 

Ultimately, correctness depends on intention. “I get a little jealous that Bill is more courteous to Susan than I.” What is correct depends on how that sentence would be completed to give the intended meaning. “I get a little jealous that Bill is more courteous to Susan than I (am)” indicates regretting poor manners. If it should be expanded as “I get a little jealous that Bill is more courteous to Susan than (he is to) I” the “I” should clearly be “me.” In either case, the meaning should be clarified.

 

The above having been said, there are times when a writer can legitimately use grammatically incorrect pronouns. Using the objective as subjective can indicate a lack of education or intellect; alternatively, it can signal a child speaker. For example, “Joe and me went fishing.”

 

Using the subjective as objective can indicate someone striving for elegance, to give the impression of refinement. “The countess was excessively kind to my sister and I.”

 

Technically, the pronoun after is, are, was, or were should be I, he, she, we, or they. “May I speak to Ms. Lawry?” “This is she.”  equals a grammatically correct exchange. If you want to convey formality—or perhaps superciliousness, stuffiness, or age—use this formal construction. However, if you intend a conversational exchange or a casual tone, rephrase.

 

TAKEAWAY FOR WRITERS: Know the rules of grammar so you can use them or abuse them to suit your purposes!
 
writers harbrace handbook cheryl glenn loretta gray

Use Slang and Clichés Effectively

see you later alligator
In my opinion, the best use of slang is setting the time of the story. Using any of the above farewells screams the 1950s. “Gag me with a spoon” is soooo 1980s.

 

Slang has always been with us, evolving from docks, gutters, gambling dens, and society soirees. It changes with the times. That is its strength and its weakness. Used effectively, it lends authenticity to dialogue. But if writing about any time other than the present, tread carefully. Inappropriate slang can ruin the tone and undermine the credibility of the entire story.
dewdroppers waldos slackers rosemarie ostler
As with so many things, there are books for that! When writing “historical” fiction in any genre, books such as this should rest alongside a good dictionary and a convenient thesaurus.

 

A seldom recognized use for really old slang: when used judiciously, it can add freshness to writing.
The Vulgar Tongue Francis Grose
When the meaning is clear but the phrase isn’t current, it can sound creative. E.g., cow-handed to mean awkward, brazen faced to mean impudent or shameless, sugar stick to mean a penis.

 

When not to avoid clichés: when adding authenticity to dialogue. Some say you should avoid clichés like the plague, but at the end of the day, using them is as American as apple pie. Why reinvent the wheel when there are so many kick-ass expressions already out there? Don’t overdo it, but recognize that people really do say things like, “I’m wound tight as an eight-day clock” or “nutty as a fruitcake” or “Keep a stiff upper lip.” Sometimes a repeated cliché can be an effective speech tag for a specific character.

 

Last but not least, browsing a good book of clichés can be informative. Kick the bucket has meant to die since at least 1785!  And keep your shirt on, meaning to stay calm, predates 1854. On the other hand, kick up your heels, meaning show spirit or having a great time, is a far cry from 1500, when it meant to die. So, one more for the reference shelf!

 

use slang cliches effectively dictionary cliches james rogers

Characterizing Characters

characterizing characters building believable characters
This is a great book—especially for the the obsessive and/or anxious writer. It has a 14-page questionnaire intended to help you to really understand your character, so thoroughly that you just know how s/he would behave in any given scene. Then there are chapters on everything from Face and Body to names from around the world.

 

So why not just stop with an endorsement? What more is there to say? Just a few things about making characters vivid and memorable.

 

Actually, I can’t quite imagine eyes like butterflies. Nevertheless, this book highlights two methods of ramping up characterizations: similes and metaphors. Essentially, saying a character is like something, it’s a simile. E.g., “Her smile was like sunshine.” Saying a character is/was something is a metaphor. “He was a rock when Mother died.” As in all writing, avoid the clichés. “She is a diamond in the rough” is a tired example.
 
So where does one look for fresh ideas? Consciously visualizing a character in non-human terms might help. 
 
What animal would X be? Consider the differing implications of spider, rat, rabbit, toy poodle, wren, cow, mule, pig, chicken, etc., etc., etc. Various animals are associated with specific personalities and actions, and labeling a character that way can convey a lot of meaning. Think lap dog.

 

What is X’s astrological sign? Whether one believes in astrology or not, various signs carry lots of implications. The title Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus works on many levels: Mars is the god of war, Venus is the goddess of love, and the planets are millions of miles apart. The Chinese sign one was born under has similar implications. I was born in the year of the Cock, and apart from the personality implications, this should be a very good year for me!
characterizing characters book stones
What stone would X be? Again, some stones carry a lot of weight already. For example, diamonds are hard, bright, glittery, and expensive. What characteristics do you associate with pearls, emeralds, jasper, agate? What about abalone? Quartz? Cubic zirconia? And what about metals? Is X gold, silver, platinum, aluminum, iron, brass, bronze—or maybe mixed metals?

 

What plant would X be? What are the associations with oak tree vs. lily? Rose vs. dandelion? Wheat vs. redwood? I won’t belabor the point. You get the idea.

 

Bottom line: Characterize characters in unexpected ways. You could come up with this sort of writing.

 

attributing words characters

Dulcimer Lesson for Writers

dulcimer lesson writers
In high school I played percussion, but I never mastered a tuneful instrument–which I’ve always regretted. So, I recently started taking dulcimer lessons. The instrument and the music are rooted in Appalachia, as am I. In short, it’s important to me.

But so far, I’ve managed only one lesson and one practice per week– usually the morning of the lesson. This is not the road to proficiency!

clock face
I truly intend to practice, but there’s always something else to do first. Make the bed. Empty the dishwasher. Celebrate my birthday with my bridge buds.

washing dishes
Write my twice-weekly blogs. Submit a short story. Come up with and deliver a couple of tattoo stories to honor Amy Black. Spend Easter with my family in New England. And on and on.

AND THAT BRINGS ME TO FIRST THINGS VS. IMPORTANT THINGS.

It’s easy to fill your life with things that are right in front of you–or that have a date certain–and never get around to some things that are truly more important.

kids room
When my children were little I often lamented the clutter and mess in my house. (I was a psychology professor at the time.) One day a friend with four children just older than mine said, “If they aren’t doing structural damage, don’t worry about it.”

Which brings us to the point: LOOK AT HOW YOU SPEND YOUR TIME AND DECIDE WHICH FIRST THINGS CAN BE MOVED TO LAST. If writing is truly important to you, make time for it.

And so, off to practice dulcimer!


Interested in learning more about writing? Join me at Agile Writers for my class on Write Your Life: Memoir and Memoir-Based Fiction. For more information, visit the Agile Writers website.

Vivian Lawry Agile Writers

Attributing Words to Characters

We are often in need of indicating who is speaking and/or how. In doing so, beware of distracting—or irritating—your reader. Here are my personal Rules of Thumb for making attributions.
attributing words characters
Use “said” 99.44% of the time. It calls least attention to itself. If you are desperate to find an alternative, it may mean that you are making too many attributions. When only two people are talking, you need only the occasional attribution to help the reader keep track of who is speaking. Also, if you embed dialogue in a paragraph of narrative, the subject of the narrative is—and should be—the speaker, so no attribution is needed. For example, Sarah turned to the window. “Whatever do you mean?” N.B. that in this instance, you needn’t add she asked; the question mark says that.

 

Use an alternative only when it clarifies delivery—and then sparingly. Personally, I’ve been known to have a character murmur, whisper, or mutter.

 

Let punctuation do its job. When you’ve used a question mark, you needn’t say the character asked. When you’ve used an exclamation point, you needn’t add that the character shouted, exclaimed, etc. Using ellipses at the end of an incomplete sentence conveys that the speaker trailed off.

 

If you must use an alternative to “said,” make it the most common alternative available.

 

attributing words characters thesaurus
say,  acknowledge, aver, babble, badger, bemoan, brag, comment, enunciate, express, harangue, interject, interrupt, moralize, observe, pontificate, preach ramble, spout, state, vent, voice, articulate, blab, recite, relate, unfold, utter
accuse, blame, charge, impute, rant, rebuke, reprimand, reproach, reprove, upbraid
answer, agree, acknowledge, deny, react, reply, respond, retort
ask, appeal, beg, beseech, inquire, entreat, implore, interrogate, pester, plead, pump, query, question, quiz
assert, adduce, affirm, allege, announce, attest, avow, bemoan, boast, brag, crow, declaim, declare, deny, emphasize, exclaim, gloat, gush, insinuate, insist, intimate, justify, maintain, mock, plead, proclaim, profess, pronounce, purport, rave, refuse, retract, spout, state, swear, testify, voice, vouch
demand, beg, bid, charge, command, enjoin, entreat, importune, insist, order
deny, blame, contradict, demur, deride, disclaim, minimize, protest, refute, scoff, scold,tattle, taunt
describe, define, delineate, denote, detail, outline, paraphrase, portray, recite, recount, relate, state, summarize, tell
discuss, argue, belabor, communicate, consult, debate, deliberate, gossip, jabber, jaw, rehash, talk
explain, account for, admit, apprise, clarify, confide, elaborate elucidate. enlighten, excuse, illuminate, own, prove, rationalize, specify

 

These examples are substantially fewer than half of those listed in a thesaurus. Use them seldom, if ever. As I said before, they call attention to themselves. In addition, using many different words to replace “said” creates a pathetic tone of an amateur just trying too hard. And, finally, most of these variations in meaning are better handled by the dialogue itself, the setting, the narrative, and the punctuation.

 

Last but not least, don’t replace said with words like giggled, snorted, groaned, moaned, etc. These are separate actions, not the method of delivery.

 

attributing words characters
Bottom line: Use your thesaurus and dictionary as aids to narrative and dialogue, not for varying attribution.

Interested in learning more about writing? Join me at Agile Writers for my class on Write Your Life: Memoir and Memoir-Based Fiction. For more information, visit the Agile Writers website.
Vivian Lawry Agile Writers