Introducing “The Monday Motivator”

Like Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats, I don’t like Mondays.  I find it hard to get motivated, and even though I write every day, sometimes I’m just not in the mood on Monday morning and it feels like a drag.

To beat the Monday blues, I’m going to start posting a weekly quote, called The Monday Motivator.  These posts will be part of The Writer’s Devotional series, and have the same objective … to encourage, inspire, and motivate writers of all skill levels and across genres.

Pearl Buck, Pulitzer Prize-winning American author
Image via Wikipedia

We’ll start with a quote from Pearl S. Buck, Pulitzer Prize winning author of “The Good Earth,” and the first American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.  I think it’s a great starting quote and a lesson I need to learn on an almost daily basis.

“I don’t wait for moods.
You accomplish nothing if you do that.
Your mind must know
it has got to get down to work.”

— Pearl S. Buck

Resources: Pearl S. Buck Birthplace, The Daily Post, I Don’t Like Mondays by Bob Geldof and the Boomtown Rats, The Writer’s Devotional.

 

Daily Blogging in 2011


On the eve of 2011
, I’ve decided to join a challenge set out by the fabulous folks at WordPress.com, the PostADay challenge, where participants commit to a year of posting daily on their blogs.

Gulp!  Big challenge, right?

I’ve been thinking about doing this on my own, but wasn’t sure I was up for it.  Then WordPress made it easier with The DailyPost, an experiment in blogging motivation.  Each day they will post ideas, suggestions and inspiration, hoping it will help its bloggers.  I’ve accepted the challenge and will be using The DailyPost and the community of WordPress bloggers with similar goals, to help me along the way.

If you already read my blog, I hope you’ll encourage me with comments, “likes,” and general good will along the way.  If you’re interested in participating in the PostADay challenge or PostAWeek challenge, this post explains how to get started.

Wish me luck and Happy 2011!

And by the way, if you’re considering your own blog, I HIGHLY recommend the wordpress platform.  It’s amazingly easy, user-friendly, and they do fantastic things like this.  It’s the best!

Favorite Novels of 2010

The presents aren’t wrapped yet, I have more shopping to do, and those flippin’ cookies will not be baking themselves, but I’d rather think about books.  In the spirit of the season and in no particular order, here is a list of the best novels I read this year.

“Girls in their Married Bliss” by Edna O’Brien.  A Dublin bookseller recommended this book after we chatted about Irish authors.  I started reading it on the walk back to the hotel and didn’t stop until I finished.  It was written in 1964, and there are some anachronisms, but Baba is so fresh, funny, and irreverent, I loved her immediately.  The novel is the third in a trilogy about Baba and Kate, who grew up together in the Irish countryside and now live in London, both unhappily married.   The two characters take turns as narrator, and despite Baba’s sauciness and all the laughs (and there are many), the story is dark, cynical, and heartbreaking.  This novel is available in the U.S. only as part of “The Country Girls Trilogy and Epilogue.” I haven’t read the other two stories, or anything else by Edna O’Brien, but her work is on my list for 2011.

“Nemesis” by Philip Roth.  If you know much about me, you probably know Philip Roth is my favorite writer.  Ever.  Period.  It’s not a blind love, though, and his last few books haven’t had the stunning impact on me as “The Human Stain” or “American Pastoral” did.  “Nemesis” is set in 1940s Newark during a polio epidemic.  It is the simple but tragic story of Bucky Cantor, director of the neighborhood playground and ordinary “nice guy.”  The seeming simplicity of the writing and the story put me off at first.  I thought maybe Mr. Roth was phoning it in.  Who could blame him?  This is his 32nd novel and boy, his hand must be tired!  By the end of the book, I knew I’d judged too quickly.  The story might be simple, but it is brilliantly so.  The raging epidemic, the death of neighborhood kids, the life-altering guilt, and where is God in all of this?  Bucky wants to know, so did I.  Weeks after finishing the book, the questions still linger.  That’s powerful writing.

“Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen. It took a little self-debate, but I decided to include this book on my list.  It should be here; I did like it, but I don’t understand what all the big noise was (is) about.  Franzen is an excellent writer and this is a well-told story, but the preachiness was a turn-off, and so was its occasional self-importance/ self-awareness.  Enough has already been said by others about “Freedom,” but I just read this piece from the New Yorker Book Bench blog, and I thought I’d share.  It’s pretty funny, as is the author.  The Year in Reading: Tad Friend.   It’s a great light look at a novel that no one is looking at lightly.

“The Ice Age” by Kirsten Reed. This book cover jumped off the shelf to grab my attention, and the first few paragraphs were just as strong, maybe more so.  Think of a cross between “Lolita,” “Catcher in the Rye,” and “On The Road.”  It is the story of a 17 year old girl who starts hitching and is immediately picked up by Gunther, a mysterious, quirky, older man.  Together they vagabond around the country, staying in seedy hotels or crashing with an odd cast of Gunther’s friends and former girlfriends.  The narrator, as 17 year old girls sometimes do, imagines Gunther is a vampire, but she’s also smart enough to know what a silly fantasy it is.  That’s the thing about our narrator, she’s as cool, goofy, and naive as most teens, but she’s also incredibly astute, more so than most of the adults she meets, and her insights add to this book’s poignancy.   Unfortunately, this book is not available in the U.S.  (Why not?!? — would some smart American publisher please pick this up!), but used copies can be found on Amazon, and I still have my copy if anyone wants to borrow it.

“Lost” by Alice Lichtenstein.  Susan, Jeff, and Corey, three very different and distinctive characters come together after Susan’s husband, 12-years her senior and suffering with Alzheimer’s, wanders off on a frigid New England morning. Alzheimer’s stories can get mired in the sentimental, but this novel does not; it’s beautifully and cleanly written.   Jeff, the search and rescue expert, first judges Susan to be a stoic.  As a biology professor she has a scientist’s mind for facts, but she’s more than that.  She’s also deeply caring and in love with her husband.  Jeff deals with his own trauma as his wife, a woman lost in her own way, repeatedly betrays and humiliates him.  Corey, a 12-year-old rendered mute after a family tragedy, has a secret that binds all three of them.  Each character is lost and in need of redemption, but by connecting with each other, the novel ends on a hopeful note.  Ms. Lichtenstein’s writing is spare and poetic, a perfect complement to the story.

“Bastard Out of Carolina” by Dorothy Allison.  This book has been on my list forever, and I’m so glad I finally read it.  It’s not an easy read, but it’s an unforgettable one.  Knowing that most of the trauma is autobiographical made it even more difficult to take in, and I had to put the book down a few times because it was just too disturbing.  The title refers to Ruth Anne, the main character, nicknamed Bone.  Not only does she bear the labels “illegitimate” and “poor white trash,” she must also endure the physical and sexual abuse of her stepfather.  Her large extended family is an assortment of drunks, fighters,  womanizers, and the women who put up with them.  As screwed up as they are, they are fiercely protective of one another and provide Bone with a sense of belonging and home.   Throughout the book I wondered how someone survives this kind of devastation, and I’ve since heard Ms. Allison say in interviews that writing saved her.  Lucky for us, because she tells this story with honesty, resilience, and grace.

“The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro.  Oh, to write like Kazuo Ishiguro, with that much precision, clarity, and meaning.  Stevens, the main character and narrator, is the butler in charge at an English estate.  He is completely devoted to his employer, Lord Darlington, and blindly accepts Darlington’s words and actions, when they are clearly misguided.  In his loyalty, Stevens’ only concern is the mechanics of running a proper English household.  As the novel progresses, we learn there’s more to him than that, but his commitment to propriety prevents him from sharing that part of himself.  This is a quiet and subtle novel about missed opportunities, suppressed emotions, and a life lived in devotion to the wrong master.  Stevens is a remarkable character and this novel is a pristine example of writing that transports you seamlessly into a different time and place.

Now I need some reading recommendations for 2011.  Any suggestions?

“Miles Davis “Kind of Blue,” Kind of Inspiring

On August 17, 1959, Miles Davis released “Kind of Blue,” the best-selling jazz record ever and considered one of the most influential albums of all time.

“Kind of Blue” has become part of the soundtrack for my novel “For Purple Mountains.” I find the music beautifully rich and moving, but there’s more to it than just that.  The history behind the music inspires me to reach beyond what’s easily accessible.

Mr. Davis was well established and successful, but was starting to feel confined by the boundaries of the bebop and hard bop styles of jazz he played.  Rather than accepting the restrictions, he created his own shit, as he says above.  He didn’t travel the road less taken, he paved a whole new way.

Jazz pianist Chick Corea said, “It’s one thing to just play a tune, or play a program of music, but it’s another thing to practically create a new language of music, which is what “Kind of Blue” did.”

Using pianist George Russell’s theory of improvisation based on scales rather than chords gave the musicians the freedom to explore rhythm and melody.  Their explorations created modal jazz, and it’s influence rippled into musical genres as diverse as classical and rock ‘n roll.

I could go on about the endless, well-deserved accolades, but I’d rather let the music speak for itself.   I’m hopeful that others will hear it and be inspired to go out and create their own shit.  Blue in Green from “Kind of Blue.”

Fred Kaplan’s article on Slate features musical samples and an easy to understand explanation of Why Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue is so Great.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Bukowski

The “Laureate of American Lowlife,”  Time magazine called him.  Charles Bukowski would have been 90 years old today.  He died of leukemia on March 9, 1994 at the age of 73.  Pretty remarkable for a man who was told in his 20s to give up drinking or die.  He never did give it up, but he did take it much more seriously.  In a 1987 LA Times article, he said,

The wine does most of my writing for me.

That wasn’t just bravado.  He meant it.

“Don’t Try” is engraved on his tombstone.  What he meant, I think, is the theme of his poem, “So You Want to be a Writer.”  If you’re a writer, it’s a must read.

Bukowski falls into one of three categories: Love him.  Hate him.  Don’t know him.  Which one are you?

Want more? Visit Bukowski.net.

Learning to Love Poetry Can Strengthen Your Prose

Last week when I posted “When You Are Old” in honor of William Butler Yeats’ birthday,  I wrote that I sometimes use poetry to inspire my writing or help get the words moving when I’m stuck.

Writer Kevin Mackey and others who commented on the post said they do the same.

“I use poetry to remind myself of the beauty that can be wrung from language. It acts as a spur to my own efforts,” Kevin said.

Other comments and conversations I’ve had since then echo Kevin’s thoughts.  But it’s confession time:  I didn’t always like poetry.  I often felt it was inaccessible and that made me feel left out, annoyed, and a little bit dumb.

I stayed away for a while, but I knew there was value in poetry and that I could learn from it.  I wanted to find a way in.  Over time with some effort I finally did.  I’ve learned to appreciate poetry for its precision and imagery, and not strictly for its literal meaning.  “The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide” by Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate was particularly helpful.  It’s a tiny book that uses examples to explain how poetry uses the sounds of words to convey meaning in a rich, melodic, and concise way that keeps the reader entranced.  As a writer, I aspire to that.

To use poetry to strengthen your writing, consider these elements that help make a poem a poem.

Sound: As Pinsky says in “The Sounds of Poetry,” poets use the sounds of words to make an impact.  That can be done through repetition, alliteration, assonance, varied word lengths, onomatopoeia, and on and on (and on).

Try it in your own writing.  Are you working on something that is light-hearted? High drama? Horror? Choose words to convey that feeling, not based simply on meaning, but based on sound.  Do it in an over-exaggerated way.  Let yourself have fun with it.  You can fix it in revision, but you might find that what you’ve come up with is strong and vivid.

Precision: Don’t stop at using the right word or getting the scene right.  Keep on writing (and rewriting) until it conveys the most information without overwhelming.  Think about what other senses can be alerted to engage the reader.  If your character is nervous, how can you show it through his senses.  He feels his hands shaking.  He hears his heart pounding.

Precision doesn’t stop there.  Prose does not have the format limitations of poetry, but it’s equally important to avoid unnecessary words, whether in the form of clichés, useless adjectives, or  pleonasms, a form of redundancy, such as past history and consensus of opinion.

Of course, there is far more to poetry than just sound and precision, but adding these two elements to your writing and revising will make a richer experience for  you and your reader.

For information on “How to Read a Poem (and Fall in Love with Poetry),” this post from the Poetry Foundation is loaded with great insight.  It’s a wonderful site, too!

June 16: It’s Bloomsday Yes it is Yes Enjoy Yes

Today is Bloomsday, June 16, the day all the events in James Joyce’s Ulysses take place.

Named for main character Leopold Bloom, Bloomsday is celebrated by Joyce fans around the world, with a huge celebration in Dublin, where the book is set.  Fans spend the day honoring Joyce, reenacting scenes from the novel, and generally having a wild time.

Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife is lusty and seductive, even crude in comparison to Leopold’s more cerebral nature.  Both Blooms have had affairs and at the end of the book they continue to question the value of their marriage.  Yet in Molly’s 24,000 word unpunctuated stream of consciousness soliloquy that ends the novel, it’s hard to deny the joy she finds at the hands of her husband.

In honor of Bloomsday, the final words of Molly’s soliloquy:

… Yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Happy Bloomsday, everyone.  Yes?

Enjoy Freedom of Speech? Thank John Milton

 

A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.
……………………….—  John Milton

On June 14, 1643, the Parliament of England passed a Licensing Order that put publishing under government control.  The Order forced authors to submit their work to official censors for approval before publishing.

The Order was intended to preserve the publishing monopoly held by The Stationers’ Company, but in effect and in practice, it gave the government authority to control free thought via rigid censorship.

John Milton, who later wrote the epic poem Paradise Lost was called to action when he felt the strong arm of government enforcement after publishing his writings in favor of divorce.  In response he wrote Areopagitica, a passionate and enduring essay on the right to freedom of speech and expression.  Civil liberty, Milton reasoned, is attained through the open discussion of ideas and grievances.

Areopagitica, though widely acknowledged, had little influence on Parliament’s Order, but its importance was never forgotten.  The essay has endured as one of the most important and influential essays of free speech ever written, and it was crucial in the development of the First Amendment of the Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

United States Constitution – Amendment 1

In its eloquence, Areopagitica says that truth, all truth, need only to be heard, openly and fairly, to assure its victory over ignorance.

That is a timeless truth.

If you’re as uncertain about the pronunciation of Areopagitica as I was, this YouTube video can help.

For Yeats: When You are Old and Gray …

A few weeks ago, I posted “Distractions, failures? Yeats had them, too,” about my visit to the National Library of Ireland, and what I learned about William Butler Yeats while I was there.

Today is Yeats’ birthday, so to honor him and spread the joy I’ve had in reading his poetry, I’m sharing one of his poems.  This is one of my favorites, both for its theme and for its slow, ethereal beauty.

When You Are Old

When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face among a crowd of stars.

Reprinted courtesy of poetry-archive.com.

At times, when I’m having difficulty getting the words right or my writing isn’t flowing, poetry helps me break through.  It gives me the in.  I don’t know if it’s the beauty of the words or the lyrical flow, but it opens up that part of my brain that’s not so uptight and rigid, and it allows me to write.

Do you use poetry this way? Do you have any favorite poems that stir your creativity?  Please share them here.

To learn more about William Butler Yeats or read more of his poetry, please visit the Yeats Society.

Happy Birthday to Anne Frank and her Diary

On June 12, 1942, 68 years ago today, Otto Frank gave his daughter, Anne, a diary for her 13th birthday.

Anne began a chronicle of her life that day and wrote most of her diary in hiding at the Secret Annex, a tiny hidden compartment behind a bookcase at her father’s office, where her family and four others were forced into hiding from the Nazis.

Anne wrote about the difficulties of living with eight people in such a confined and secret space. She shared her fears of being discovered by the Nazis.  And she wrote about her life as any 13 year old girl would, the excitement and confusion, the hopes and disappointments.

Anne’s dairy ended on August 1, 1944.  Three days later, the German Security Police followed an anonymous tip and raided the Secret Annex arresting everyone there.  Anne, her sister Margot, and their mother Edith were eventually sent to Auschwitz along with one thousand other women.  Half were sent directly to the gas chambers.  Anne, Margot, Edith, and the remaining 500 were forced to strip and be disinfected, have their heads shaved and their arms tattooed with an identifying number.

Edith died at Auschwitz after Anne and Margo were moved to Bergen-Belson.  Seven months later, Anne watched her sister die of typhus.  She died one week later, just a few weeks before the camp was liberated by British troops on April 15, 1945.  Only Anne’s father survived.

The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank’s diary, has been translated into 67 languages and is one of the most widely read books in the world.

Its importance is noted in its inclusion on these lists:

Anne’s work speaks for itself.  It puts a human face, a young girl’s face, on the unimaginable suffering of the Holocaust.  We are graced by it because Anne Frank put her words on paper.