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February 2017

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Feb. 20th, 2017

flower

The lingering gaze

The best part of a home-improvement show is, of course, the big reveal, where they take you through the newly built or renovated space and show you how it looks.

On some shows, the film editing is done in an extremely annoying manner. The camera pans slowly over an area, but just before we can absorb what we're looking at, there's a jump cut to some other area. Sometimes the screen will split, showing three or four areas simultaneously. It's all jump cuts and sudden flashes. After five minutes of touring the place, I feel as if I haven't really seen anything, because the eye hasn't been allowed to linger anywhere.

That lingering gaze is one reason I enjoy reading above video or audio of any kind. When I'm reading, I can speed up or slow down at will. I can reread certain lines. We now have the ability to freeze, fast forward, and rewind through other media, but it isn't quite the same. A mumbled or rushed line is still mumbled or rushed in replay. With reading, I decide on the volume and pacing of every line. I build all the scenery, and I may add details that aren't specified in the text but seem to fit. I can stare at everything as long as I want to. I can let a really good line of dialogue hang in the air without abruptly stopping the background music and turning the characters into mannequins.

People do like having control, and maybe this is one reason reading has endured as long as it has. I love the ability to savor.

Feb. 11th, 2017

flower

Hints of change

Thursday's (scant) snowfall is still melting. But today I found a witch hazel bush in full bloom, and spied some shoots of spring bulbs peeking above the soil.

In every season are hints of the season to come. If this were a book, we'd call it "foreshadowing."

In the happiest scenes in books, we often plant a seed of disturbance, a suggestion of trouble to come. In the darkest scenes, we make room for a glimmer of hope. One thing we know: the change will always come.

Feb. 5th, 2017

flower

Percolating

I don't know if every writer experiences this phase of writing--maybe some writers jump from project to project with full force and no pauses--but it's typically been part of my process. I'll call it "percolating," for lack of a better word.

It's the phase when I have part of a story--a character, a voice, a basic plot or situation--but not enough to start writing. Something's bubbling away in my brain, but it's at a subconscious level. I get glimmers, slivers of dialogue, flashes of partial scenes. I try sketchy outlines, I do stream-of-consciousness writing exercises. I do a lot of thinking.

During this phase, I often write scenes and openings that don't go anywhere. Starts and stops, trial and error. I am finding my way in to the story. I am waiting, but part of me is working. The progress is invisible. But a change is happening.

Jan. 30th, 2017

flower

When life happens

We make plans and schedules, and then life happens. Illness, an uptick in workload, the need to move, a family crisis, an exciting new adventure--whatever it is, it obliterates the schedule and elbows aside the plans.

For those whose writing thrives in periods of sustained quiet and concentration, writing can take a backseat during such upheavals. If at other times we're able to put writing on the front burner, during times of chaos we just can't.

Sometimes all we can do is take notes until the dust settles. The words will come.

Jan. 26th, 2017

flower

What matters

A couple of months ago, when I had the chance to mentor other writers and they asked how you find stories and how you know what's worth pursuing, I said, "Write about what matters most to you." That is, write the story that won't leave you alone, the one that's on your bucket list, the one that insists on being told. Write what you care about.

It was a good reminder to myself, too.

Jan. 21st, 2017

flower

Between projects

Between writing projects, one waits. Listens. Reads. Tests ideas. Practices patience. Cleans the bathroom. Trusts. Wonders. Doubts. Keeps the mind open. Takes notes. Makes false starts. Lathers, rinses, repeats.

Jan. 12th, 2017

capemeareslthouse

Connections and disconnections

I just finished Delia Ephron's book of personal essays, Sister Mother Husband Dog. A quote that stood out to me:

"All I want is for someone not to change something I love. All I want is for someone to keep it simple."

She's talking about the relentless march of technological upgrades, about which I agree--I don't see the point of arbitrarily moving buttons from the left side of the screen to the right, or vice versa. Or adding dozens of new features that I didn't want and never use. Or hiding the menu so you can't find what you need. But those sentences, pulled from their context, also can stand on their own in a more general sense. We've all lost what we loved, or seen it change for the worse, at some point in our lives. We've all had a perfect thing or place or situation that deteriorated, or closed down, or moved away. It was going along so well ... and then it wasn't anymore.

But then--if I want to go down that rabbit hole, I can also reread Joan Didion's Blue Nights, an entire book that meditates on loss, and change, and how swiftly it all occurs.

I'm also reading Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby. It's coincidental that I've been reading this at the same time as Ephron's book, but both books deal with losing mothers to chronic, personality-changing illnesses--Alzheimer's in one case, alcoholism in the other. In both books, the mother-daughter relationships were complicated and not warm-and-fuzzy even before the onset of illness.

I like finding multiple books that deal with the same subject. It enables me to consider it from even more angles. It's as if the authors are bouncing ideas off each other through me.

Jan. 8th, 2017

flower

Browsing

With the advent of the internet and book blogs, I've changed the way I find and choose books to read. I found myself making so many notes of books I saw mentioned online that I eventually made a consolidated list. I try to get the books from the library when I can; I'll order them or get them at a bookstore otherwise.

The list is long, about 200 books. I've read scores of them, but of course I keep adding to the list. Even when I tell myself firmly that's enough for a while; I won't add more until I get through some of what's already there. But then an irresistible new title comes to my attention--a favorite author's brand-new release, a friend's book, a sequel to something I loved, a memoir that speaks to my current situation--and on the list it goes.

It's fun to have a list of anticipated reads all ready, to never be at loose ends wondering what to read next. I like the process of choosing the next armload from the library, checking them off on the hold list, and picking them up when they're ready. I like having books delivered to my doorstep.

But I do miss the days of wandering through bookstores or libraries, choosing books at random, finding something in front of me that I might not have found otherwise. And in the past month, I treated myself to browsing sessions, one at the library and two at local bookstores. I came home with books that weren't on my list.

I'm not going to live solely by the list. Sometimes it's fun to wander, to say to the bookshelves, "Surprise me."

Jan. 5th, 2017

flower

Rhythm

I haven't talked about prose rhythm in a while, but it's something I'm very aware of. Poetry isn't the only kind of writing that has a rhythm.

I've noticed that when I scroll up my blog feed page, I can tell who wrote which post even before I read the actual words or see the name at the top of the post. It has to do with the patterns people use when they write. Some write in long, dense blocks of text. Others write long posts built from short paragraphs. Some use short sentences with frequent line breaks. Others use mostly pictures.

I've noticed that many writers who write for Harper's magazine favor very long sentences, and I began to wonder whether that was just the editorial preference, and how much the editors shape the prose that way.

I first noticed prose rhythm in the writing of Jack Kerouac, where it's knock-you-over-the-head obvious, especially in works such as Desolation Angels and Visions of Cody. Similarly, his friend and colleague Allen Ginsberg wrote poetry with long breathless lines, Howl being the prime example (though Ginsberg's work does not sound exactly like Kerouac's). Hemingway is another writer whose rhythm stands out, in his case for shorter, plainer, sentences. Every writer has a distinctive pace and tone and meter, a distinctive way of shaping language as if to a tune that only he or she can hear. Often we start our careers so beguiled by another writer's rhythm and style that we ape it, whether consciously or not, in our early efforts. But we learn to tune in to the inner musician and turn up the volume, to find our own rhythm.

Jan. 2nd, 2017

winterhike

New Year's ideas

I won't call these resolutions. Maybe they're aspirations, or reminders, or ideas. Whatever.

1. Pay attention.
2. Speak up.
3. Know what to take seriously and what not to take seriously.
4. Goof off.
5. Ask why and what if.
6. Say the nice thing you're thinking.
7. Keep in touch with nature.

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