Monthly Archives: February 2013

Shock Your Teeth!

 

In her richly detailed One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty writes of taking train trips with her dad.  As a child, she watched him chart travel time with his large gold pocket watch.  Carefully, she held the “treasure” he would bring out periodically and share: his little metal traveling cup.  She writes of filling it at the water cooler, of raising it to her lips, then  … the clink of the metal tip, a “shock” to her teeth.

A shock to the teeth.  I love that!  So often we privilege our senses of sight and hearing, in writing and life, such that the others go unnoticed, unappreciated.

Here’s a “mouth moment” from a poetry workshop with third graders.  The kids wanted to hear and read aloud certain poems again and again.  They especially liked two lines from Eloise Greenfield’s “Way Down in the Music” (Honey, I Love).

Down in the bass where the beat comes from.

Down in the horn and down in the drum. (p. 16)

The kids giggled, hit certain words hard, whispered others, tapped their desks.

“So, what is it about this poem?”  I asked.  “What makes you want to say it, not just hear it?”

“BeCAUSE”–one little girl practically hopped out of her seat–“I can feel it in my mouth.  I OPEN my mouth and the words … come OUT.”

So, feel that glass of water on your tongue, roll a few phrases round your gums.  Shock your teeth, relish a tasty word.  (I’m off to try this now.  If you want, do let me know what you tried and what words you especially enjoyed.)

~Mary Quattlebaum

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

INVENTION

ONE OF THE most interesting people at our neighborhood gatherings is Jim Lea. He’s in his 90s now and sits in a wheel chair and he’s great to talk to. He is an inventor – his most famous invention being the Therm-a-rest mattress, beloved by backpackers everywhere.

thermarest

Jim started out as a Boeing engineer, one of 50,000 employees laid off in a scary downturn in 1971. Being out of work gave him more time for backpacking. But he was tired of waking up in the woods on a cold, flat air mattress. His inspiration came when he was kneeling on a gardening cushion. He realized the open-cell foam had a memory. He and fellow out-of-work engineer Neil Anderson rigged a sandwich maker to melt airtight fabric to the foam. They added a valve, and the prototype that birthed a multi-million dollar business was created.

jimlea

I asked Jim how he decides what to invent. He answered, “What do you need?”

SINCE THEN, my friends and I have come up with a few needs:

• A website called “MeetYouHalfway.com” into which you enter two locations and find the best meeting place and activities between you and your friend. I googled this idea. Someone is already working on it.

• A slimline Kleenex box with opening on the side for easy dispensing from the car sidepocket.

• A Lift Chair that not only lifts a sitter to standing but pinches her toosh and says, “You’re still hot.” I would hire Denzel Washington to do the voiceover.

I THINK ABOUT INVENTION in terms of writing, too, of course. Jim’s question, “What do you need?” can be a challenging one to answer.

Is there a story I need to tell? All these years of composting life into story have established my writing habit as a way of thinking. I write to find out what I think, thereby identifying need?

Perhaps it’s easier to consider what any particular story needs. What combination of character, voice, emotion, tension, pacing, metaphor, revelation, etc. are necessary to invent a story? I scratch around, trying one thing or another. Maybe for me, like Jim, some time in the garden will lead to inspiration.

Want to get inventive? Ask yourself: What do I need? Then share here your ideas for inventions — as well as the stories that are evoked by how you answer this question.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

My Oscar Dream

I wish I took more time to watch movies. I confess, I haven’t seen but a couple of the nominees for this year’s Oscar fest, but I’m going to be heartbroken if “Beasts of the Southern Wild” doesn’t scoop everything it’s nominated for.

If you haven’t seen it, see it.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The Keeny-Mo

Image

When I was a wee child, I could not pronounce “vacuum cleaner.” Let’s say I was two. So instead, as my mother or father pushed some antediluvian model around our tiny apartment, I cried “keeny-mo” with delight. Perhaps it should be spelled “ceanie-mo.” There is no way to investigate further.

For the rest of his life (he died more than 30 years ago, much too young), my father referred to the vacuum cleaner as the keeny-mo. I have continued to do so, and now my husband has occasionally followed suit.

My father also invented and repeated a few other phrases, one of which got me into a mortifying situation in school. Wait for it. In the shower, he sang uproars. Not operas, but uproars. Now I sing uproars. When he went after annoying buzzing insects with a fly swatter, they were fliggle beasts. And they still are, in my house. He called me by all kinds of endearments which I have now, lacking children of my own, foisted onto the dogs. (My mother, on the other hand, called me less flattering names. In Yiddish, vilde chayah means wild thing with negative connotations, and I was one –and maybe Maurice Sendak was as well. My mother was another story.)

When my father burped, he said, “Thank you, father.” I have no idea why. Sometimes, however, he replaced that with a longer phrase: “Howard Culp [Kulp?], assistant concertmaster.”

One morning, however, he came into the kitchen. “A-one,” he said, “it is a very sad day indeed.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I cannot remember which orchestra Howard Culp was the assistant concertmaster of.”

I offered sympathy—but I also smiled.

Now I fully understand the memory problem and realize his comments were not entirely meant to amuse. Plus I have just tried to find the answer to this Mr. Culp (Kulp?) problem online with no luck, so I, too, will never know. And it bothers me that I won’t.

But I digress.

Mortification:  My father frequently recited poetry following his uproars. These recitations were occasioned by nothing whatsoever, and I was an innocent. “Abu Ben Yitzhok, may his tribe decrease,” he declaimed. My friends from my youth remember this (and more).

So off I go to school.  In some English class or other, probably earlier than high school, the entire class opened the textbook (also antediluvian) to a new poem. The teacher read these words:

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)

Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,

And saw, within the moonlight in his room,

Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,

An angel writing in a book of gold:— *

 You guessed it. I raised my hand. “That’s wrong,” I said. “It goes like this…” And only as I began to recite it did I realize that I was headed for Big Trouble. I choose not to discuss this further; perhaps it is enough to tell you that I was not allowed to stay home sick from school forever. And there may have been a tantrum or two around the dinner table.

Yes, there is a point here related to writing, at least in my own mind. Maybe it’s a stretch. But how can you individualize your characters so they will be unforgettable? What is it about your characters that will make your reader remember and treasure them forever? What constellation of words on the page will make your characters as unique as Eeyore, Charlotte, Toad, and—for me—Leo Schubert, who would have been 97 in 11 days?

And PS: what words or phrases are unique to your own family of origin, now carried to the next generation?

*for the rest of the poem, which is by Leigh Hunt: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173698

9 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Read the Memo

Image

Every now and then, whenever I think the scenes I’m writing are kind of flat, kind of useless, I turn to my personal writing mentor, David Mamet!  Yes, David Mamet, the playwright who won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for Glengarry Glen Ross, as well as a bunch of other awards for his plays and movies!

Well, evidently, he created and was the executive producer of the TV show The Unit, and while he was there he wrote a memo to his writing staff that has become known as a Master Class on Writing.

This memo is great! It’s like a genius playwright’s desperate attempt to remind his staff what writing is all about. In my imagination, Mamet wrote this memo at, like, 3:00 in the morning — angry and frustrated with the scripts his staff was turning in. I mean, this is a long memo, entirely in all-caps, and he didn’t even take the time to correct the spelling and grammar errors.

The man was probably on fire!

And though the memo is about scriptwriting, a lot of what he has to say can be helpful to those of us who write novels and stories for children. It really is the perfect way to remind yourself just what we can accomplish with our scenes when enough attention is paid to each and every one of them.

You can read the whole thing on movieline.com, but here are some excerpts (slightly edited by me to keep this site PG!)

“TO THE WRITERS OF THE UNIT
GREETINGS.
AS WE LEARN HOW TO WRITE THIS SHOW, A RECURRING PROBLEM BECOMES CLEAR.
THE PROBLEM IS THIS: TO DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN DRAMA AND NON-DRAMA. LET ME BREAK-IT-DOWN-NOW.

QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, ACUTE GOAL.
SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES OF EVERY SCENE THESE THREE QUESTIONS.
1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON’T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?
THE ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS ARE LITMUS PAPER. APPLY THEM, AND THEIR ANSWER WILL TELL YOU IF THE SCENE IS DRAMATIC OR NOT.

EVERY SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. THAT MEANS: THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVE A SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD, PRESSING NEED WHICH IMPELS HIM OR HER TO SHOW UP IN THE SCENE.
THIS NEED IS WHY THEY CAME. IT IS WHAT THE SCENE IS ABOUT. THEIR ATTEMPT TO GET THIS NEED MET WILL LEAD, AT THE END OF THE SCENE,TO FAILURE – THIS IS HOW THE SCENE IS OVER. IT, THIS FAILURE, WILL, THEN, OF NECESSITY, PROPEL US INTO THE NEXT SCENE.

ALL THESE ATTEMPTS, TAKEN TOGETHER, WILL, OVER THE COURSE OF THE EPISODE, CONSTITUTE THE PLOT.

ANY SCENE, THUS, WHICH DOES NOT BOTH ADVANCE THE PLOT, AND STANDALONE (THAT IS, DRAMATICALLY, BY ITSELF, ON ITS OWN MERITS) IS EITHER SUPERFLUOUS, OR INCORRECTLY WRITTEN.
YES BUT YES BUT YES BUT, YOU SAY: WHAT ABOUT THE NECESSITY OF WRITING IN ALL THAT “INFORMATION?”
AND I RESPOND “FIGURE IT OUT”

THE JOB OF THE DRAMATIST IS TO MAKE THE AUDIENCE WONDER WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.NOT TO EXPLAIN TO THEM WHAT JUST HAPPENED, OR TO*SUGGEST* TO THEM WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.
ANY[ONE] CAN WRITE, “BUT, JIM, IF WE DON’T ASSASSINATE THE PRIME MINISTER IN THE NEXT SCENE, ALL EUROPE WILL BE ENGULFED IN FLAME”
WE ARE NOT GETTING PAID TO REALIZE THAT THE AUDIENCE NEEDS THIS INFORMATION TO UNDERSTAND THE NEXT SCENE, BUT TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO WRITE THE SCENE BEFORE US SUCH THAT THE AUDIENCE WILL BE INTERESTED IN WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.
YES BUT, YES BUT YES BUT YOU REITERATE.
AND I RESPOND FIGURE IT OUT.

START, EVERY TIME, WITH THIS INVIOLABLE RULE: THE SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. it must start because the hero HAS A PROBLEM, AND IT MUST CULMINATE WITH THE HERO FINDING HIM OR HERSELF EITHER THWARTED OR EDUCATED THAT ANOTHER WAY EXISTS.

LOOK AT YOUR LOG LINES. ANY LOGLINE READING “BOB AND SUE DISCUSS…” IS NOT DESCRIBING A DRAMATIC SCENE. ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SH*T.

ANY TIME ANY CHARACTER IS SAYING TO ANOTHER “AS YOU KNOW”, THAT IS, TELLING ANOTHER CHARACTER WHAT YOU, THE WRITER, NEED THE AUDIENCE TO KNOW, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SH*T.

DO NOT WRITE A CROCK OF SH*T.   

Sure, not all of this applies to us. We’re not writing for a visual medium. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something about keeping our writing dramatic — keeping our readers turning pages!

So, when you need a kick in the butt by a man who knows how to turn a scene, trust me, do what I do. Read the memo!

And don’t write a crock of… well, you get it!!!

🙂

12 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

In the Spaghetti

To me, writing a novel is like sitting in the middle of a giant bowl of spaghetti. You’re surrounded by a heaping mass of character arcs and story threads, so you spend much of your time feeling confused and overwhelmed. IMO, this is not only natural, it’s necessary–if you don’t feel confused and overwhelmed at least part of the time, that’s an indication that your novel may be slight.

Every once in a while, though, you’ve got to step back and try to understand what you’re writing so you can get firmer footing that will help you move forward. Every writer has his/her own method of getting this type of footing. Me, I’m an office-supplies freak, so I like to do my planning by hand.

Here are a couple of blog entries that explain the glory of Post-its:

http://melissawyatt.livejournal.com/185672.html

http://www.julie-cohen.com/blog/2010/09/17/post-it-plotting/

There are as many ways to sort through one’s spaghetti as there are writers. Here is a different, non-Post-it type of organizational thinking from J.K. Rowling:

http://www.slashfilm.com/wp/wp-content/images/jkrowlingpage.jpg

I do love colored Post-its, but I also have three cats, and they like to play with flapping little papers. My Post-it concoctions are fun, but they never last more than a few hours. The method I tend to fall back on the most is just jotting down my scenes as a brief list. A few words remind me what each scene is, and seeing the whole book laid out is often enough to get my brain in gear. Oddly, I almost never look back to see what the list was. Instead, I make a new list every time confusion stalls me out.

But I’ll try any methods that strike a chord with me, and I will shamelessly tweak and bastardize to suit myself. I’ve used planning ideas derived from systems by Carolyn Coman, Martha Alderson, and others. When it comes to combing out the strands of spaghetti, it’s whatever works at any given moment. So…if you have a link that shows a different method—or a different version of the ones above–please post it in comments. Let’s share our resources!

4 Comments

by | February 7, 2013 · 8:01 am

Bob ‘n Me

 

Reading a piece on Robert DeNiro, I discovered that when he’s acting in a film he looks at the rushes every day, and tweaks his performance accordingly.  That’s my approach too, continuous editing.  This led me to wonder what else we had in common, Bob and me.  I have summarized my findings in a venn diagram.

Image

 

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized