Monday, September 29, 2008

Part Three of the Writing Exercise

This is the heftier part of the exercise, which comes from a book on writing that features exercises by well-known writers (title and link below)and will help you to generate a lot of good ideas. I had a woman in my recent workshop ask about whether or not it was ok to write negatively about her name. She didn't want the name she had, so all of her comparisons were negative ones. She ended up writing a very honest and free piece, which was seemed to be pretty cathartic for her. Who knows what you'll get when you freewrite? From the freewrite, you can glean the parts you like and toss the ones you don't - in other words, rework and revise. For now, just allow yourself to write and enjoy the process.

from Norma E. Cantu in “Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer” edited by Bret Anthony Johnston:

As you read the following questions, you may jot down notes of just relax and let your mind wander as you answer them in your mind. Take your time; read each question and give yourself a minute or so to reflect. Let your imagination fly and you will be surprised to see what comes to you.

1. If your name were a flower, what kind of flower would it be? A rose? A hibiscus? A dandelion? A blossom of the prickly pear cactus or of the gigantic magnolia? What flower would signify your childhood? What about now?

2. If your name were a color, what color would it be? The yellow of the sunflower? The pastel blues of the evening sky? The deep purple of the eggplant? Close your eyes and focus on your name. See it in your mind’s eye. What color is it written in and on what color background?

3. If your name were a musical instrument, what instrument would it be? A blaring trumpet? A soft violin? A piccolo? A recorder? A tuba>? A drum? Close your eyes and say your name aloud. What instrument does your name remind you of? Does it sound like the soft ding of the triangle? The deep notes of the saxophone?

4. If your name were an ice cream flavor, what flavor would it be? Pistachio? Plain vanilla? Mango? Close your eyes and imagine your name in your mouth. What was your favorite ice cream flavor in childhood? What is it now?

5. If your name were a fabric, what would it be? Denim? Silk? Nylon? Rayon? Duct tape? Moire? Taffeta? Take a mental inventory of the clothes you own. Are they mostly cotton? Or synthetics? Do you prefer the feel of wool or of silk? Cloth is very sensual and your name is what clothes your identity/ What fabric is your name?

6. If your name were a city anywhere in the world, what city would it be? Paris? San Antonio? London? Chicago? Hong Kong? Laredo, Texas? Would it be the city or town of your birth? The place where you had your first kiss? What city are you attracted to? You may never have visited Madrid or Helsinki or Boca Raton, Florida, yet it may have a strange attraction for you. Are there any cities that hold that fascination for you?

7. If your name were a street or a highway n your town or city, what street would it be? Pick a highway or a street that you enjoy driving or walking on. Is the one your chose a quiet, secluded road or a busy, much-travelled street? Is it rural or urban? The path that we take often reflect the roads we prefer to travel on. I rarely take the interstate if I can get where I’m going on back roads or city streets.

8. If your name were a food, what food would it be? Italian? Chinese? Mexican? Midwestern? Be specific. Is it pasta? Or is it pork fried rice? Is it enchildas? Or is it roast beef? What dessert is your favorite? What dessert would say your name? After all, we are what we eat!

Freewrite for about fifteen or twenty minutes just letting go and using the answers you jotted down as a springboard for the writing. (Freewriting sounds like what it means: write anything that comes to your mind. The goal is to get down as much language as possible, so try not to lift your pen from the page or your fingers from the keys.) Don’t stop to edit, and don’t worry about commas in the right place or finding the exact word at this point. Just get your thoughts down. This first draft will yield the kernels that will become the finished piece.

Part Four tomorrow...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Highway of the Damned (and the second part of our writing exercise)

I'm on a short residency trip this week to give a workshop and reading in a town about two hours southwest from home. On my drive yesterday afternoon I took note of how different the Susquehanna River looks here. It's wider, flatter (is that possible?) and far more rocky. The water is low here. When I commented on this at the workshop someone said that the river is "younger" where I am, but I don't understand that logic.

Aside from the pleasant view of the river, the rest of the drive was like I was on the Highway of the Damned. I was given the finger for only doing 75 in the overtaking lane while trying to pass a truck. The woman flipping me off was in an SUV with a wheel cover that was custom painted with her pride at being the mother of someone in the Army.

My directions here were horrible. I went west then east then west again looking for the right exit, which was blocked or something, but the hotel I booked is snuggled down in an industrial park just off the highway. When I finally found it, I was given a room key that didn't work. It's a Residence Inn - a series of low buildings that house four to six mini-apartments. My room has a kitchen. Perfect for microwaving a Lean Cuisine at 10 p.m. and watching Cosby re-runs until you fall asleep. Which is NOT what I did.

The workshop was terrific. There were about fifteen people, and they all wrote and laughed and seemed to have a good time. I forgot that many of the people in the area also submitted poems to a contest that I juried this spring. One was chosen to be poet laureate. Attending the workshop were those whose poems didn't make the cut, and also the winner, which was fine, but it made it a little awkward when someone said at the table pre-workshop, "I don't like you. You didn't pick my poems." She was joking (I think), and after the workshop told me that she enjoyed it. Everyone wrote and they all wrote diversely, and the freewrite part of the workshop seemed to crack the inner-critics of some of the writers. I hope I see them all tonight at the reading and they read some of their work. I enjoyed their personalities and what they all shared.

Writing Exercise Part 2

What is the meaning of your name? Jennifer has Welsh origins and means “fair.” If you don’t know the meaning of your name, look it up in a baby name book. How were you named? Who chose your name? Is there a family story associated with your name? What is the historical context of your name – who shares your name? Do you have a nickname? If so, what is it and how did you get it? Jot down any ideas you have for these questions.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Autumn Writing Exercise Part One

I'm off to teach a workshop and then give a reading in Newport today. It will be nice to get out and explore a new area, meet some people and share poetry.

If you're up for writing, I'm going to post a multi-part exercise here over the next few days. Feel free to post your writing in the comments if you like, or just read the exercise, complain about how writing exercises never get you anywhere and then don't write anything at all.

What's in a Name - Part One

One of my new-found favorite games is called “Bananagrams.” It’s a sort of cross between Scrabble and crossword puzzles. Players are given a random assortment of letters and the first person to use all their letters up by spelling out words that connect, wins. Let’s start by anagramming your name. Come up with as many words as you can just by rearranging the letters in your full name. For instance, my name is Jennifer Hill-Kaucher , and that yields the words carefree/hell/refinance /jerk/chafe/injurer/facile/hijacker/funnier/fern/fine. You get the idea. Write your full name down and then play with the letters to see how many words you can find. Post your word list in the comments, or keep it to yourself for later.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Hug (or professional versus unprofessional)

There are a lot of books out there about living the writer's life. There are some well written ones, filled with excellent advice. I've read a few. There are ways to better yourself and your writing and to make the most of your energies, but I'm not sure about the value of teaching someone how to live in a writerly way. You're either a writer because you are writing, or you are not.

Which brings me to something I've been thinking about recently. Many friends of mine keep professional writer's blogs. That is to say they post only about things that are writing-related like book reviews, snippets of their own writing, entries about readings they have given or are about to give, and book announcements. Their sidebars are filled with links to other writers, literary journals and magazines and places where their own work has been published. It's a networking tactic, and a smart one.

Hm. My slip is showing a little. Let me adjust.

A few months ago I worked in a a high school with a teacher I met the summer before. I visited all of his senior classes, and one tenth grade class. We kept a professional relationship, but we were also fast friends. He was smart and funny and made his students feel comfortable asking questions and having long discussions. The last day of my residency, I resisted the urge to give him a hug. A few weeks later, I regretted that decision. He died in his sleep. He was only 39.

So how does this relate? I'm a writer and I am living. And a living writer has things to say other than that she had a poem published, or that she had thoughts about a book she read. Sometimes she has to feel helpless at the dentist, cake dirt under her fingernails, pay bills and feed a family. That's part of the writer's life too. The mundane and the germ-ridden sponge of the domestic.

I don't want to be that person who only writes about the writerly things in her life, and omits the rest as if it never happened because it is somehow unprofessional. I want to lean in and give a hug when I feel like it.

Friday, September 12, 2008

all the little yellow leaves fall

I love love, leaves leaving.

A few days ago while on a walk I was reminded of Dan's "Fall Leaves Variations" and how much I enjoyed that project. When I was a little girl (which I still my mind), and I was staying with my grandparents, my Pampal (grandfather) decided that it was time for me to learn about the seasons. We studied for the week - in spring the flowers grow, in summer it's sunny and hot, in fall all the leaves turn pretty colors then fall off the trees and then winter blows it's gusty snow everywhere. I'm sure he made those lessons fun. I remember most of this from being told about it by my parents. It's a favorite Jenny story. I was never one for leaving home, although I enjoyed my grandparents house a lot - the candy dish, hiding behind the couch, trips to the five and dime, sugary cereals and squirrel watching. Even with all of this I looked forward to the return of mom and dad. My Pampal knew this, and he asked me the day before my parents returned, "What happens tomorrow Jenny?" and I replied, ever eager to please..."All the leaves fall off the trees?"

These synesthete's leaves are for Dan, Pampal, Dad - three men who give/gave me so much.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Journaling in 2008 and Beyond

My friend David pointed out a new Apple product to me this morning - MacJournal 5.1 (released 8/21/08) : Mac journaling and blog software. I read through the product description, and it's another software that promises to make my life easier, everything synched and in place and organized. It's appealing to think that everything can be tidy like that, and you'll have all the time to update, link, post and record all those moments through video, photo and blog entries. For $50 I'm tempted. But I have other software to learn - Final Draft - which I've had since March and am still cludging around with like the most hamhanded of newbs.

The product description for the journaling software included a fascinating little tidbit though - a fact that makes me wonder where they came up with it - "They say that the average human being has 10-20 memorable events that take place a day."

So far this morning I've bolted up out of bed at a lightning crash and tripped over a bag. Two down, eighteen to go!

As a writer, I agree that you should keep track. Should you be totally religious about it to the point of missing out on those 20 opportunities because you spent all your time at your computer synching and linking? I think I just answered myself. I'll keep writing in the old paper journals and occassionally posting so I can live my life.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

At the Light

In September the middle schoolers move in packs, run along the sidewalks. They aim for the local park, where they spend their Friday evening sprinting and training for upcoming track meets. Three ponytailed girls pant at the corner traffic light. One bends over to stretch, places her hands on her knees, her ponytail a sudden divining rod. She will always take the lead. The other girls follow - bend, knee touch, stretch – one after the other, reeds in the wind.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Recently Read/Written


Until I Find You, by John Irving
Took me two months to complete. Retitled in my head as "Until I Finish You." It was worth the time. I can't imagine how long it took him to craft this. Beautiful, lush sentences.

Every story in the recent issue of Quick Fiction.

Currently reading in fiction: Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn
I thought it was going to be about computer geeks. I was wrong. YAY!


Fat Pig, by Neil LaBute
Great dialogue. One of three plays by the playwright all on the theme of body image.

Reasons to Be Pretty, by Neil LaBute
Not as good as Fat Pig.

Kimberly Akimbo, by David Lindsay-Abaire
I loved "Fuddy Meers" which a friend gave to me. This one is just as brilliant. I really like the absurb/real in his writing.

The Faculty Room, by Bridget Carpenter
Hilarious description of setting, funny characters, heavy ending. A little expected, actually. I enjoyed the characters a lot though.

Crave, by Sarah Kane
Like reading poems that are all cut up and thrown up into the air. Wherever the lines land, that's the dialogue. Disconnect, but also some places where there was narrative going on - an intention. I have a collection of her plays to finish now.

The Mistakes Madeline Made, by Elizabeth Meriwether.
I read this over and over. Memorized lines. Played a part in a production of it this summer, which was just what I needed. It's a play that is wildly open to directorial interpretation and I'm glad our direction had good vision.

Currently reading in plays:
The Shape of Things, by Neil LaBute


Sleeping on the Wing, an Anthology of Modern Poetry edited by Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell

Almost Grown, by Jack DeWitt

circumnavigation, by Tara Shoemaker Holdren

Currently reading in poetry:
And it's kind of relaxing, actually, because I'm currently fed up with the poetry world. Not poetry. Poets. I'll come back. Just a little snit, if you will. A tiff. Not the first one I've had and it won't be the last.

Writing and/or Recently Written:

Inner Critic, a series of short plays.
Futzed around with Final Draft, the new software I got for my birthday. Edited some of the scene transitions. Just gave them all to a friend to read. Ack!

Some poems.
Thanks to my friend H., who recommended Sleeping on the Wing. It's the text that she was going to use in the class I was taking from her this summer, but the class was canceled. I've been working on my own. A few I like, a few I don't, all need revision.

A project that's been in the works for two years. The character just lived in my head for awhile, poking his cane at my dendrites. Now there are words.

I have a lot of them, they are weird, and I write them all down.

Not enough of these. I need to get back to it.