Tag Archives: Writing process

Setting Memoir Parameters

Tiger sleeps in a cat cave on the couch

Now that I have your attention with that cutie-face, I want to pick your brain.

I’ve got a problem I haven’t yet figured out. What keeps me from finishing my memoir is that the arc of my story takes place over too long a period of time. It’s about my relationship with my father, and that is a lifetime relationship, of course, because it continues even after his death a year and a half ago. But even if I put a cap on it with his death, it still covers a lot of ground.

The other day I read Sherrey Meyer’s post Five Ingredients Memoir Writers Must Have and realized that I should write a post about my problem–just in case anybody has any advice. So advise away.

I know that there is great benefit in finding a defining year or particular experience because the more discrete the chunk of real life a memoir needs to cover the easier it is to write. Excusez-moi if this sounds insulting to writers with a project that fits that description, but those are the stories that perhaps beg to be written. My story doesn’t beg; it mocks me.

But how to find a discrete story where the protagonist takes decades to learn something? Or some things?

My son used to have a picture book called Leo the Late Bloomer, and although my son was meant to relate to it, in truth I related to it. I’m a late bloomer in a lot of ways.

In the case of my memoir story, an additional reason it took me so long was that there was certain key information that I didn’t learn until 2008. More new information continued to come to me through 2015.

Checking out my half shelf of writing technique books, I soon discovered that most of the books don’t deal with this problem. But then I noticed a book I have mostly ignored (because I didn’t read it for class): Writing & Selling Your Memoir by Paula Balzer. (Who wouldn’t like that bit about “& Selling” added to the title?!)  A chapter called “Setting Your Parameters” caught my eye. Yes, that is exactly what I need to do. Figure out HOW to set my parameters.

Balzer argues that the place to begin the memoir is at the moment of discovery. I like the way my book opens with an incident that sets up the initial mystery in my life. It’s a somewhat shocking event, at least to the mind of an 11-year-old. And it created the mindset by which I lived in ignorance for many many years. Is it a moment of discovery? For me, it felt that way. It was the discovery that a big secret existed in my family–and that the secret carried great emotional power for my father.

My full first draft has now been read by four people. Three of them were a group package, so to speak, so I lump them together because they could have influenced each other. I will call them group B. The other reader was my Stanford mentor/tutor. I will call her group A. Both groups are memoir “experts” who teach and write memoir. The advice of group A and group B completely contradicted each other. I mean completely. They want me to revise the book in opposite directions.  Actually, I did revise to somewhat follow the advice of Group A before sending the manuscript to Group B. And everything I did for Group A, Group B didn’t like. They argued for the way I had originally been planning my story before I even started the program at Stanford.

Neither group addressed the problem with the big humongous fruit tree of life I’ve had to pick from for the book.

So I’m reeling from the contradictory advice, but that is all just spinning on the surface because the underlying problem is how to handle the parameter setting.

Or is it? I’m getting confused. Maybe I’m imagining the parameter setting as a problem since neither group even mentioned the problem. Maybe the real problem is one I can’t identify–a problem that caused two completely different readings. Maybe my tale just sucks.

The way I ended up shaping the story (taking into account a lot of advice haha) to send to Group B was to feature that moment of discovery scene as a prologue and then jump forward 40 years and begin the story itself in present day, using a back and forth movement between present and past by chunks of chapters (a few chapters in present, a few in past, like that). Maybe I should start with that moment of discovery and proceed in chronological order and tell the story in a more classic storytelling structure.

Whatcha think, peeps? More whine wine?

 

Shanah Tovah (Happy New Year) to my Jewish readers! A good week to everyone.

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Filed under #AmWriting, Books, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing, Writing Talk

What Are Your Writing Customs?

Some of you probably remember a post by my friend poet and writer Carla McGill last year called “Poetry, Loss, and Grieving.” It’s a beautiful essay and has had a lot of readers.

Carla just started her own WordPress blog! Please go visit and welcome her. Blogging is all new to her, especially the technology, so she can use a lot of support. Also, you’re going to love her blog. It’s about writing and called Writing Customs. Be one of her first blog followers! And follow her on Twitter, too, here. You will love Carla’s posts (I promise). She’s so thoughtful and insightful and a wonderful writer and person.

I’m still trying to catch up with work and visiting with my mother, so don’t think I’m off writing a novel or something hahahahahaha. I hope to be back Monday.

Go tell Carla what YOUR writing customs are!

P.S. This is a chandelier at the Wrigley Mansion I visited with my mother and my husband. It’s Waterford crystal and Arizona amethysts!

 

 

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Day 30 of Tupelo Press 30/30 Project: Where Did It Go? #poetry

DAY 30

LAST DAY OF THE 30/30 PROJECT FOR ME!!

Reminding you that I will be taking down these 30 posts in the very near future :).  Maybe you’ll see them in the future in some other form or “location.”

 

 

This post has been EDITED. The disappearance of that last poem: a mystery. It went the way of the other September poems–back into my writing box.

 

If you have enjoyed reading these one day poems, you might like my book Doll God where the poems have had a little more time coming into the world. It’s now a Finalist in the New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards!!!

 

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Filed under #AmWriting, History, Inspiration, Memoir, Poetry, Tupelo Press 30/30 Poetry Project, Writing, Writing goals

Three Questions: Luanne Castle

Editor Jenn Monroe of Extract(s) lit magazine asked me some very thought-provoking questions in today’s interview. Also, check out the excerpt from Doll God also published May 1 in Extract(s): http://dailydoseoflit.com/2015/05/01/excerpt-luanne-castle/

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Filed under #AmWriting, Books, Doll God, Dolls, Interview, Literary Journals, Nonfiction, poems about dolls, Poetry, Poetry book, Poetry Collection, Research and prep for writing, Writing, Writing prompt, Writing Tips and Habits

The 30/30 Challenge of Tupelo Press, and How I Proved I Have a Screw Loose

I’ve gone and done it. I must be crazy.

Throughout September, I will be “running” a poetry “marathon” for the Tupelo Press 30/30 project. By donating in recognition of my efforts, you will be supporting a fabulous independent, nonprofit press.

I promise to write a poem a day for 30 days. Since it took me decades to cough up not even twice that for my first poetry collection Doll God, you can see what a feat I am trying to accomplish.

To help preserve poetry as an art, it’s important to support the independent presses and literary magazines. These are the places that publish nearly all published poetry today. It hasn’t been a positive era for them. I’ve seen many lit magazines close up—and when the presses go out of business, we often don’t even hear about it.

Every dollar you donate will go toward the operation of the press, enabling it to continue publishing beautiful books that would not get picked up by large commercial publishers. You can read the daily poems, as well as the bios of this month’s poets, and donate here.

As incentives to donate, I am offering the following:

  • For a donation of $10, you tell me what subject or image you want to see in a poem, and I’ll write that poem.
  • For a donation of $20, I will dedicate a poem to you or someone of your choice.
  • For a donation of $40, I will send you or someone of your choice, a signed and personally addressed copy of my book, Doll God.
  • For a donation of $55, I will send you or someone of your choice, a signed and personally addressed copy of my book, Doll God, and I will dedicate a poem to you or someone of your choice.
  • For a donation of $100, you get two copies of Doll God and two dedications!
  • Remember that if you donate $129 for a Tupelo Press subscription, you will receive the 10 free books of their current series.

For any of the above donations, including the subscription of 10 books, please remember to click or write my name in the honor field. Then email me at luannecastle@gmail.com and let me know what dedication or subject you are interested in. If you “earned” a copy or two of Doll God, please give me your mailing address and to whom you would like the book(s) addressed.

Again, you can read the daily poems, as well as the bios of this month’s poets, and donate here.

If you decide to help keep Tupelo Press publishing its amazing variety of books, THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!!

Wish me well, please. It starts tomorrow, and I’m nervous as can be!

 

###

If you are not able to donate, the other poets and I would still love for you to read our first draft work. I love feedback. Every day, I will post a link to that day’s poem over here so feel free to critique or pat me on the back (or the head, if you think that is more appropriate after reading the poem), encourage me, tell me what you like or what you don’t like. Or tell me a funny story or something completely unrelated that the poem reminded you of ;). Or just say hi in your own incomparable way so that I remember there is a world outside poetry. Gonna be an intense month!

One more thing: by November 1, I plan to take down all September’s 30/30 posts.

That’s us poets in the photo 😉

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Filed under #AmWriting, Blogging, Doll God, Inspiration, Literary Journals, Poetry, Poetry book, Poetry Collection, WordPress, Writing, Writing goals, Writing prompt, Writing Tips and Habits

You Wanted to Hear What That Flash Nonfiction Course Was Like?

Marie from 1WriteWay and I completed our Flash Essay on the Edge course. It was offered by Apiary Lit, which offers editorial services, as well as courses they call workshops.

The course instructor was talented writer and teacher Chelsea Biondolillo. Her prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, Passages North, Rappahannock Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Shenandoah, and others. She has an MFA from the University of Wyoming and is a 2014-15 O’Connor Fellow at Colgate University. You can check out Chelsea here or do a search for her pieces in online magazines. Her knowledge of the genre and generosity to share that knowledge with her students was outstanding.

I took the course because I hadn’t written for months, mainly because of my father’s illness and death. Knowing the way I operate, I figured that a course would force me to focus and get a little writing done.

As planned, Marie and I evaluated the course when we were finished. We are both posting a list of the pros and cons of the course, as we saw it. At the end of the list, I’ll give you my additional impressions. Check out Marie’s post because she will give her own impressions.

Course Textbook

PROs

  • The teacher prep was outstanding. She provided a wealth of readings, which were useful in showing me what flash nonfiction can look and sound like.
  • The course was only four weeks, so I found that to be very manageable. If it had been longer, I would have been too stressed during the summer and at this time in my life.
  • The instructor generally gave useful feedback, seemed qualified in the subject, and was very nice. She seemed to love her subject.
  • The instructor was accessible, responding within the same day if there was a question or concern.
  • Other than a problem I will list under CONs, the website was pretty easy to negotiate.
  • The online classroom had various forums that enabled you to share your work with the other students and have discussions.
  • The writing prompts were generally interesting, but I didn’t feel tied to them, which was good.
  • The course was not graded.  I could focus on what I wanted to turn in, not what I thought I had to turn in in order to get an A.
  • The course got me writing without adding stress to my life.
  • I got more writing done in this past month than I would have otherwise.
  • I feel that I know where to go with flash nonfiction now. It would be ideal to get more feedback down the road on attempts at Flash Nonfiction, but at least I feel much more comfortable with the genre from taking this course.
  • Above all, I had fun with the readings and the writing.

CONS

  • Although there were forums available, we had no real discussion of any of the readings. We were not strongly encouraged to interact with each other. We had maybe one discussion prompt during the whole course.
  • The readings and essay examples were available through either some kind of Adobe program that took a bit of time to figure out, or through hyperlinks that weren’t always easy to download.
  • We posted our written assignments privately to the instructor so I had no way of learning from what others had turned in or from reading instructor comments on the work of others. I didn’t care for this method as it diminished what I could learn from the course by a hefty percentage. I suppose this is the difference between the workshop method and a traditional style class.
  • We felt isolated in this class and had little interaction with anyone but each other and the instructor.  In the discussion forum, one other student interacted with us, and another made a couple of independent comments.  Other than that, it was a strangely quiet class.
  • Two platforms were used for the course:  an online classroom and a blog, so sometimes I had a little trouble negotiating the course. Sometimes I had to login in two places. This inconvenience turned out to be less of a problem than I first anticipated, but it could be streamlined.  The blog material could have been included on the classroom platform.
  • Since I don’t know how many people were in the course, I don’t know the instructor’s workload. My belief is that in a course that is short in length, the instructor should return assignments in short order. The lag time between turning in an assignment/beginning reading for a new lesson and getting the instructor’s feedback on my previous assignment was a little too long for my comfort.
  • The price at $199 was a little steep for four weeks and no discussion/no workshopping.

***

 I want to make clear that I am really glad I took the course. Apiary hired a qualified instructor and offered a solid, contemporary course. There was so much that was right about the course. But I think it needs a little tinkering to make it better in terms of both learning environment and the economy of the course.

The above list really hits the main points of what I liked and didn’t care for about the course. The oddest thing for me was working in such an isolated environment. I’ve been in many workshops, and this isn’t a workshop. In workshops, your work is presented to the teacher and classmates. Typically, you receive feedback from both the instructor and at least a fair number of peers. I learn this way from what several people have to say about a piece. And I learn a lot from reading the work of others and seeing what all, especially the instructor, have to say about a variety of writing.

That said, there are people who hate workshops, generally because they have had a bad experience with one. I also find it fun to diss them sometimes. But, overall, they are an effective way to improve one’s writing.

The class seemed eerily quiet, perhaps because it wasn’t a workshop. But if we had had discussions about our readings, that would have provided some connection between students.

One other student (besides Marie and me) did participate in the class as much as possible. The course had a feature that she and I both used. It was called the Work-Sharing Blog. We were allowed to post anything we wanted to and see if anybody would give us feedback. It was not encouraged by the instructor or the course setup, but this other student and I both took advantage of it. I was thrilled to get feedback from her and from Marie on a piece I’ve struggled with.

I’ve taken online writing courses from a variety of schools/companies. They all have their pros and cons. For what I wanted this summer, Apiary’s course satisfied me fairly well.

If you are looking for an online writing course, my suggestion would be to decide how you want to learn and then ask questions. If you want a workshop, ask if all students will be sharing their work with the class and if the class will be providing peer feedback. Will there be guidelines for providing that feedback? The guidelines protect the writer from snarky or downright mean classmates. If you don’t want a workshop, ask those questions, too. Be aware that the majority of online writing courses are workshop-based.

Have fun! It’s so rewarding to get motivation, specialized readings, and writing feedback all in one place.

Once I get my thoughts together on the subject, I’ll post something about the genre of flash nonfiction, to give you an idea of what we were working on.

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Filed under #AmWriting, Creative Nonfiction, Editing, Essay, Flash Nonfiction, Inspiration, Literary Journals, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing, Writing goals, Writing prompt, Writing Tips and Habits

New Poems and Old Ancestors

Although I haven’t been writing this spring–on purpose, I might add–when I started my new poetry project last fall I focused on creating poems out of the genealogical research that I do for my family history blog The Family Kalamazoo. It makes sense to narrow in this way, as I am always spreading out in too many directions. However, it’s difficult to write poems about a subject that is so personal to my family. It makes sense to write a poem about a maple tree or a new baby because these subjects are universal, but what makes someone else’s dead ancestors interesting to readers? That is a difficulty.

So far I’ve had one poem from this small grouping published, and that was in December. It was in the online journal Blast Furnacebut here is the poem, a prose poem:

When Your Grandfather Shows You Photographs of His Mother

You identify yourself in the antique image. Long slender neck, narrow torso, your face tipped to avoid the light. Your hands rest in the valley between your thighs sharp under yards of stiff calico. Your face long, well-sculpted by a lean diet and youth, nearly but not ascetic. Blue veins clutch the temples under translucent skin, a milky film that just contains you. In the next photograph your black dog Carlo poses at your side.

But Carlo isn’t your dog. Three degrees separate you across the time dimension. You never beat a man with his horse-whip for using it on his horse, though you wish you had that sort of courage and that sort of hands-on life, or burned all the books except the family Bible, praise her lord. And yet you hold your bodies as both shields and thresholds.

Because a face never reflects the same, every photo sees something else. You’re your father under the red star and your mother’s grandmother in the morning sun. But not your mother who is the image of her aunt. You never did let her kiss you. You see Carlo and his mistress in another photograph, and her smile is so familiar. Now the gauzy mask of your mother’s face floats across her-your features. Another light source and hour. Another shift of the hologram that is you.

If you happen to be one of the three people who read this blog from the first post you might find the subject recognizable. I rewrote that first blog post into this prose poem. I am fascinated with how we look like our ancestors and relatives, but in some lights, various shadows, or on different days, we might look like a completely different person–or share his features. It’s as if our general counteance is always shifting.

This is the great-grandmother I wrote about in the poem. Even I find our resemblance (when I was younger, of course) astonishing. The black dog in the one photo is Carlo.

My idea with the poems is to create a chapbook–a publishable collection that is smaller than a full-length poetry collection. Maybe around 20-25 poems. And I want to focus on my female ancestors. These are the people difficult to research because they don’t show up in old documents and newspapers as shopkeepers, dog breeders, or politicians. What was the day-to-day of their lives really like? I am trying to find out by researching and then allowing the material to develop into poems. At the moment a poem is completed, I feel that I have brought to life the experience of one woman.

It’s difficult to find literary magazines to send individual poems to because the subject matter is not contemporary and only universal in the notion of the project as excavating the lives of generations of women. In other words, I need to find places that specialize in or are sensitive to the intersection of history and poetry.

Are you interested in two unrelated subjects that you have been able to connect in your own life?

In case you are wondering why I am not writing on purpose, it’s because I was writing so much for so long that I knew I needed a period where I don’t take on any old or new projects. I’m resting my brain. Except for blogging, of course, dear peeps.

***

I have a DOLL GOD Giveaway going on at Goodreads right now. Hop on over there and sign up if you want to win a free copy!

CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP FOR A FREE COPY OF DOLL GOD

 

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Filed under Book Giveaway, Memoir, Photographs, Poetry, Poetry Collection, Research and prep for writing, Vintage American culture, Writing, Writing goals

Read All About It Here: The Work-in-Progress Blog Tour Stop

UPDATE:  just wanted to add in here that a new review is up for Doll God.  Reviewer Gautami says “A few poems also comment on the scientific reality of life, yet the metaphysical and spirituality is never far away.” I love that she noticed that as that is never far from my mind when I write a poem.

Thanks to Sherrey Meyer, who blogs here for  inviting me to participate in the Work-in-Progress blog tour. Sherrey is writing a memoir based on a dysfunctional and abusive mother-daughter relationship. The twist is that, when Sherrey was 57, she discovered that her Southern matriarch mother needed to escape abuse herself.

Sherrey has completed a first draft of the memoir and is eager to begin a rewrite. Sherrey is widely published in various anthologies. She credits her love of words (and her editing knowhow) to her publisher father.

Thank you so much, Sherrey, for thinking of me and my memoir. It helps me get focused back on this intense writing project. You’re an inspiration with your dedication to the craft!

Synopsis of my book:

Secrets create a painful wound at the heart of a family. Dangerous emotions, such as anger, fear, guilt, shame and curiosity, grow from this wound.

Memory must be excavated scrap by scrap, salvaged, and pieced together to create a new story of origins and identity. With the building of the story, the wound begins to heal, and the resulting emotions dissipate.

Thus it is with my family. My book is the story of an old family secret that infects the present and creates a dysfunctional father-daughter relationship–and the quest for answers that allows the father and daughter to learn and forgive.

Status of my book:

Although I wasn’t ready to finish my first draft, I had to pull something together for the final step to completing a certificate in Creative Nonfiction Writing at Stanford University. This step is a tutorial where I am working under the guidance of Julia Scheeres, author of Jesus Land and A Thousand Lives. She has now read my manuscript and given me revision suggestions, which I am working with. Things have been so hectic with the publication of Doll God and my father’s illness (not to mention that traffic blockage I wrote about last week!) that I don’t get much time to write.

Here are brief excerpts from my first three chapters of Scrap:

Prologue

1966

Dad popped his gray-streaked head into my open doorway on his way to the kitchen. Not much bigger than I, he seemed to fill the space. “Get dressed for ballet class!” His voice was a brief bark.

Chapter One: Frank Talk

Thanksgiving 2009

The drive south from our home in Phoenix exposed the flat desolation of the region. The only sights were the occasional saguaro and the roadside ostrich farm where travelers can stop and feed the animals. Since ostriches have a reputation for being downright mean, we had never stopped there on trips to my parents’ winter condo in Green Valley, twenty-five miles past Tucson. I’d brought up the idea once. My husband of over three decades said, “Sure, I want to get snapped at by a big bird and then by your father. I don’t think so.”

Chapter Two: Nuclear Fallout

2008: the year before

“Doesn’t look like much,” Mom said, as we pulled into the parking lot of the Titan Missile Museum.

The main building was low to the ground. A few small buildings, which looked like garages or tool sheds, and large equipment were scattered throughout the fenced property.

If I hadn’t known where we were, I would have thought it looked like a work site with a few trucks and what seemed to be oil tanks, not a nuclear missile site.

The work-in-progress blog tour rules:

  1.  Link back to the post of the person who nominated you.
  2.  Write a little about and give the first sentence of the first three chapters of your current work-in-progress. Sherrey gave more than the first sentences, and I like that idea, too.
  3.  Nominate some other writers to do the same.

Tag. You’re it!

I was thrilled that these writers have agreed to take part in this work-in-progress blog tour. Please stop by their sites and get to know them and their work.

RENEE at Unpacked Writer  teaches college writing. She has published creative nonfiction and won awards for her writing and is writing a book about her adventures as a young special education teacher in a small and remote Alaskan village. Renee describes herself  this way:

My interests might find me behind a camera, an acetylene torch, spending a day with a legislator, at the farmers market, or with my nose in a guidebook mapping an adventure. Usually, I’m responding to thoughtful student writings and preparing ways to get students to think about writing.

Most days find this mid-life mother of teenagers, behind the wheel of the mommy-taxi, revising writings, volunteering in the community, figuring out how to prepare a healthy meal everyone can or will eat, or shooing our urban chickens from our kitchen door.

I am a mother, writer, traveler, wife, thyroid cancer survivor and writing instructor.

During the work week, MARIE is a public health data analyst.  After hours, she is a writer, compiling a nice tall stack of first drafts that she rather dreads having to sort through.

Marie started writing when she was about 9 years old, but she was never very confident (if at all) about her writing talent, and it was easy for her to “give up” periodically, in spite of the support she got from mentors and fellow writers. Once she got a “real” job (cue public health), it was hard to argue with anyone that she should or could expect to do better by writing. She’s made a lot of detours on her path to happiness, but finally she’s woken up to the fact that she’d rather be writing than anything else (ideally, in her pjs with a pot of hot tea for fuel).

Through her blog, www.1writeway.com, Marie has discovered a truly wonderful community in blogging, one that has been so supportive that  she no longer hesitates to say, “I am a writer.”

A born and bred Brit, SHERRI lived in California for 17 years before returning to the UK with her three children in 2003.  She began her writing career a few years ago while caring for her Aspie daughter.  Since then, she has been published in magazines, anthologies and company websites and launched her blog, A View From My Summerhouse. Today, she lives with her husband, daughter and two cats in the West Country of England where she keeps out of trouble writing her book (a memoir), walking, gardening and taking endless photographs.  Her muse, a garden robin, visits regularly.

You can reach Sherri at these online locations:

Blog link:  http://sherrimatthewsblog.com/about/

Facebook Page:  https://www.facebook.com/aviewfrommysummerhouse

LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/sherri-matthews/60/798/aa3

Google Plus: https://plus.google.com/103859680232786469097/posts

Renee, Marie, and Sheri, thank you so much for agreeing to take part in this WIP blog tour. I look forward to reading your posts in the future.

How about you? Do you have a work in progress?

 

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Filed under Blogging, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Nonfiction, Writing, Writing goals

Break Out, Go Ahead and Do It: Part I

I asked the Poet Laureate of Rockland, Maine, Carol Bachofner, to write about a poetic subject important to her. In this piece (which I am posting in two parts–today and then next Thursday), she explores her journey re-creating herself as the sort of poet she envisioned. Maybe all artists have to search to redefine their artistic identities to remain creative.  See what you think.

by Guest Blogger Carol Bachofner

In the early 2000s, I faced myself coming and going in a kind of convergence between form and something “not form.” I needed expansion. I was fortunate at that time to have poetry mentors who sit cleanly in the “new expansionist” camp: David Mason, RS Gwynn, Dana Gioia, and BH Fairchild to be specific. I would describe myself as a new expansionist and count these poets as friends and mentors still. Having said that, I do see myself and my writing now as breaking ground — if only with a tiny hammer. I have not lost sight of my familial roots either, which have led back to ancestor William Dunbar (Scots poet of the 1600s). Despite the age and depths of my roots as a poet, I find myself searching for small breaths of innovation to keep myself and my poems moving forward. I see my contemporaries doing the same, thus debunking the criticism that new expansionists just want to make it old. I wanted to be “that poet,” one who would write the most memorable of poetry, find something new and exciting for my writing life. But instead I settled into a rather ordinary poetic life, satisfying and full, but pretty ordinary.

A breakthrough came for me in 2001while I was living in London. I spent time several days a week in the British Poetry Library located on the 5th floor of the Royal Festival Hall. One day, I came upon a children’s book that changed my writing. It was not a book of great acclaim or literary merit, but it had some language that, for me, was haunting. The story, about a hare in winter, was written by a Scots writer whose tale was poetically told, in a kind of verse that seemed to be prose and poetry combined. I decided to write a poem using some of the author’s rich language approach. I made my first pass at the poem, based upon translation and a parallel presentation, putting together a Scots language version with my translation side by side on the page. Although I did not (still do not) speak the language, I set about doing a translation, one phrase at a time. I still look at that parallel structure from time to time to please myself as a “translator.” As the messages of the story began to unfold in translation, so did the poem itself. I share it here in its final version, minus the original Scottish:

Peace, Tamh

What does one do but look
in a poem to what goes on out there …
Roland Jooris (Flemish poet)

White, cold white
stinging every bare unsheltering hill
Earth you dressed yourself up to be bare
watching snowfall, pleating snow
under doors, over meadows, over moors

The gusts of our longings dizzied us.
We warmed each other,
but the day did not endure

Silence, silence
O’ to be in the circle ‘round the hearth!

The skies are bruised in their seasons
Threads of breath from snowdrifts
travel for miles through the silence
shining white secret, it’s tinkling murmur,
well, that won’t be silent

White waves of stars at time of darkest moon,
a flag of truce for all tribes of the universe.
We are waking.

Then I Chose the Sonnet

Over time, the sonnet form has been adapted into something other than the form we were taught in school, something we can to choose to remake or reinterpret for a contemporary setting. We can open it up and break it into parts, shapes, and employ any manner of contemporary poetic gestures in so doing. Gerald Stern somewhat famously rendered the sonnet “American” by expanding it to more than 14 lines and abandoning obvious rhyme and meter. That got my attention, for its very boldness if nothing else. I found myself more and more attracted to the sonnet. To be honest, I had avoided the kind of regulation the sonnet took beyond what I needed to learn the mechanics of the form, the academic nuts and bolts. But here I was now, drawn to it like a moth to a streetlamp. I spent time, years, reading as many sonnets as I could reasonably do, from Shakespeare to Millay. I began to write sonnets. I wrote traditional ones (mostly terrible ones) and a few break-out ones. I was ready to accept another breakthrough moment.

What can form and an open attitude do to get you out of a rut in your poetry writing? It can redefine your aesthetic, give your writing system a jolt of energy. For me, it keeps me from writing the “same” poem even when focusing upon a particular topic over time. I recently sent off a manuscript that is rife with fractured forms and the whole seems to me to be a most pleasing concoction of what I am capable of doing with words. If I can please myself, I have at least a decent chance of pleasing my readers. Oh, certainly I do want to please you!

I have dared to bend, break, and reassemble form. Let’s look at this a bit in detail. I chose the sonnet, a form I’d rejected for the first half of my writing life. I thought the form stuffy. I hated the way all the sonnets I was reading felt artificial. I admit that my resistance comes a bit from “old stuff” in early college days when New Criticism was fading and free versifying was breaking down those walls. There is no doubt in my mind that I have pretty much always been teetering on the edge of a kind of cosmic divergence between constrained form and free form. If only…

Carol's office

Carol’s office

My very first experience with breaking open and “reassembling” a form occurred not long after this experience with translation. The resultant poem has somewhat traditional rhyme, a turn at line 9 (breakout from rhyme scheme included), and a rhyming couplet that is not exactly a couplet but rather part of a rhyme scheme that morphs into a couplet (fgfgg). Before sharing the broken open form, here is how the poem I wanted to write would look in traditional style (as a block of writing). Take a few minutes and look at all the tradition in this sonnet. There is meter, rhyme that is not entirely predictable, and the look of it screams SONNET! Ordinarily, I’d be proud to have this be my final draft. I’d be told it was a “good” sonnet.

But, for some reason it is not all that satisfying to me. It needed my further attention. You be the judge here. I trust you to see what I saw in the light of innovation and adventure.

Snow, a sonnet

From gardens of the fertile sky, a
fall blossoms made of air b
It’s God’s design that we might sigh a
as we see them sifting here. b
Each flower cut, is folded, sent c
flying stringless, pure, white kites d
to soften up the firmament c
with their muted spiraled light. d
Even the saints will try to shake e
the rumors they’ve been told f
of death that overtook a child g
who wandered in the dazzling cold f
blinded, lost and then beguiled g
by winter’s flowery, frozen smile. g

I think you can see how constrained the subject is due to the structure. It did not feel the way I felt doing the translation. Not at all. It was (is) tight, bordered, and rigid, with the possible exception being the rhyme break at line 9. More on that later when you have looked at the fractured version. The structure needed, wanted to be less rigid. Grief is not rigid. Snow is not rigid. I needed to do something so the poem could say its message. I needed to fracture and reset the bones of the poem.

Let’s look at what opening this poem up on the page did for it:

Snow

From hidden gardens of the fertile sky.
fall showy ice-spun blossoms made of air.
It’s God’s design
that we on earth might sigh
as we watch them sifting silently here.
Each pristine flower cut, is folded, sent
flying stringless, pure.
Latticed crystal kites
drift soft across the star-blank firmament.
From deep within the muted spiraled light,
saints and angels try to shake the news,
the frightful rumors they’ve been told:
of death
that overtook a child of two
who wandered out
into the dazzling cold,

blinded, lost, and then beguiled
by winter’s flowery, frozen smile.

If you look closely at the broken version of the poem, you will find the structure of the sonnet there (the “couplet” is there in its own way). It (the message) drifts down and settles, as snow does. It doesn’t overwhelm the message, but instead allows the message to settle on the reader as well.

Can you find the places where the rhyme lives? What about the turn? Does the turn happen somewhere different from the traditionally-structured version? What do you see as successful or not in this second version? Which pleases you and your particular aesthetic about sonnets? Does the breaking of form unsettle you? Is the second a sonnet at all? Only you can decide. But it pleases me to present it to you here.

Come back next Thursday for the rest of Carol’s essay.

Do you think that all artists have to search to redefine their artistic identities to remain creative?

About the guest blogger:

Carol W. Bachofner, MFA Poetry Vermont College of Fine Arts, is currently Poet Laureate of Rockland, Maine (2012-2016). She founded (2010) and directs the annual Poetry Month Rockand, a city-wide celebration of poetry. An indigenous woman (Abenaki), she writes with a strong sense of place through narrative poetry. Her poems have appeared in such notable journals as Prairie Schooner, CT Review, Main Street Rag, Bangor Metro, The Comstock Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Cream City Review, Naugatuck River Review, and others. Bachofner teaches poetry in her community and “on the road” via workshops and conferences. She has four published books of poetry: Daughter of the Ardennes Forest, 2007; Breakfast at the Brass Compass, 2010; I Write in the Greenhouse, 2011, and Native Moons, Native Days, 2012. In 2011, Bachofner was a runner-up in the Maine Literary Awards, one of three finalists in the short works/poetry category. Visit her web site www.carolbachofner.com for links to her blog, and her facebook page or to contact her for workshops. or contact her by email at poet.laureate.rcklnd@me.com.

Carol Bachofner headshot

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Filed under Essay, Nonfiction, Poetry, Poetry book, Publishing, Writing, Writing goals

Assigning Stars to Books I’ve Read

HAPPY THANKSGIVING, AMERICAN READERS!!!

After I started transferring my memoir reviews over to Goodreads, I had to go through another critiquing process: assigning the number of stars to each book. What goes into that analysis is different from writing a review. A review focuses on all the ways the reader (the reviewer) reacts to and interacts with a book. I can love the experience of reading a book without thinking that overall the book deserves the highest score possible, 5 stars.

Also, there are books I want to give a 4.5, but I don’t know how to do that. Do you have to assign a 4 or a 5? No halves?

And what does a 5 mean? Does it always mean that I think the book is the most engaging story? Not necessarily because some books aren’t about the narrative. Does it mean that the book has the most literate, well-crafted sentences? Often times it does mean that. But not always. I am using 5 stars to mean a book that I can see myself reading again, should the occasion arise. And a book I can advise others to read, without qualification.

It kind of astonishes me how stingy some people are when they assign stars to books on Goodreads. I suspect those people have never written anything themselves ;).

Here are some unexpected stars in nature:

And here:

Speaking of book reviews, I plan on writing one for Julia Scheeres’ memoir Jesus Land in the near future.

This winter I will complete my tutorial in the Stanford program. In the tutorial I will be working with an instructor who will read my whole book draft (the memoir) and give me feedback for revision. Researching the Stanford instructors I realized that I so wanted to work with Julia Scheeres, especially after I read her Jesus Land.  Oh, what a book! Imagine my excitement when I got the email saying that my request had been approved and that I get to work with Ms. Scheeres this winter!

But I have to go work on my draft which needs another year’s worth of work before it’s ready. And I only have until the end of December. Good thing we’re not having our Thanksgiving dinner today. Pumpkin pie Saturday!

 

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Filed under Book Review, Creative Nonfiction, Editing, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing, Writing goals