Monthly Archives: June 2013

Phonetics, the short course

POSTED BY: Louise Hawes

During a recent visit with my family, I watched my two-year old granddaughter take a bath in her new favorite phrase: whoopsie daisy. If she dropped something, she said it, and saying it made her eyes larger than ever, her mouth smile wide around those last lazy syllables. If she fell, or stood up, or found something that had been lost: whoopsie daisy. If she saw something that looked lopsided or silly: whoopsie daisy. The joy, the delicious relish with which she pulled out this all-purpose word condiment, was contagious. Soon were all using it, for everything. We named things Whoopsie Daisy. We sang Whoopsie Daisy. We used it as encouragement, in sympathy, to express appreciation. It sounds good everywhere, always. It’s just plain fun to say.

Whoopsie Daisy (originally whoops-a-daisy) has gotten me thinking. About how often I choose a word based on its aural/poetic satisfaction, other things being equal. If I’ve got a choice, for example, between barbarous and cruel, give me barbarous every time! And felonious?  Hmmmm. Luscious on the tongue, and much more satisfying than illegal. Decrepitude and dilapidation are two more juicy sounds that sing songs about less than savory concepts.

And speaking of how the sound of words can often be more attractive than their meaning, I guess I should mention “Silent Night.” When I was my granddaughter’s age and listened to folks singing the line, “Sleep in Heavenly peace,” I heard, “Sleep in Heaven, Leapies.” I assumed Leapies were something like cherubs, and that they ran around a lot, played hard, and their parents had to be forceful about putting them to bed.


The word for this sort of mishearing is Mondegreen, a lovely word all by itself. It was coined by an American writer, Sylvia Wright, who misheard a line of a ballad: While the balladeer sang, “They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray, and laid him on the green;” Wright heard “They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray and Lady Mondegreen.” Whoopsie Daisy! One earl and one lady down. More grizzly, sure. But a lot more fun to say!

Mondegreen’s of your own to share?


by | June 28, 2013 · 2:30 pm

Grab Bag by A.M. Jenkins

Note:  This is Amanda’s post, not Sarah’s.  Sarah is merely the conduit.

As I work away on The Novel That Is Beyond My Capabilities But I’m Damn Well Going To Write It Anyway, I find myself very much looking forward to the upcoming residency. Why? The lectures given by graduating students. Grad lectures are always a juicy grab bag of writing topics; it’s like getting to pick the brains of 20+ very smart writers who have read and thought about things that I either haven’t gotten around to, or am completely unaware of.


I remember in July 2012 sitting in Noble Hall listening to Mary Winn Heider’s lecture on the use of dreams as a narrative tool. At this point, TNTIBMCBIDWGTWIA had a single dream stuck in there somewhere around the one-quarter mark. I say “stuck” because it stuck out like a sore thumb, and when I thought about it I had a lump in my stomach knowing that it was just plain dumb, a cheap way to shoehorn in backstory. But as I listened to Mary Winn, it began to occur to me that the dream (which I loved very much, although I was embarrassed about it) could actually be used to deliberately drive the story forward.


So here I sit a year later, with four dreams in the story, each one serving the triple purpose of providing backstory, raising stakes, and cranking up the emotional tension for my MC (and, it is to be hoped, the reader). 


And as I finally (finally!!!) reach and pass the tipping point of understanding TNTIBMCBIDWGTWIA, so that I am now merely floundering in the usual writing sense rather than in desperate, give-it-up-you-fool-you-will-never-be-able-to-write-this-book panic, I recall with much gratitude Ingrid Sundberg’s mind-blowing lecture on the architecture of story (you can read some of Ingrid’s ideas at her blog: One of the keys that has helped me move past my ms’ tipping point was seeing my story as not as one plotline, but two–two questions/hooks that have to be kept in the reader’s mind, two that can have their own (perhaps multiple) “threshold scenes” as the book moves into the middle and beyond. 


Here’s Ingrid, bringing to our attention a quote by John Truby, from The Anatomy of Story:


Three act structure and Aristotilean terms (i.e. rising action, climax, denouement) “are so broad and theoretical as to be almost meaningless…they have no practical value for storytellers…[They are] surprisingly narrow…extremely theoretical and difficult to put into practice…Three act structure is hopelessly simplistic and in many ways just plain wrong.”


To this I say, “Yeah. Yeah! Thank you, Ingrid!”


I never know, going into residency, which lectures will have a seed that sparks an idea for me, or gets me over a writing hump, or introduces me to a new writer, or affirms an instinct I was leery of trusting. Sure, we get a list of lecture titles and descriptions beforehand, but you never really know. The deliciousness of the grab bag lies in the range and depth of its surprises.


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Not so secret gardening #2

As Ms. Biomass and the Secret Gardeners class of Vermont College of the Fine Arts know, mucking around in an artistic project and mucking around in one’s yard can feel amazingly similar.  I’ve been exploring some of the connections in my blog,  Today, I’m thinking about roots.

May 22 (8)I was live-and-let- live about weeds for the most part when I moved into this house almost two years ago.  After all, some of them are charming–like this one that reminds me of stories my sisters and I made up and acted out when we were kids, using yellow “people” like that one as our star players.

I liked dandelions, too.  Until they stomped into the yard and sat down and started passing the party around.  This spring, between reading and commenting on student packets and sweating out my own novel revision, I dug in.  Literally.

Yes, I knew that unless I got down to the tip (which I rarely did), the dandelion would grow back.  All I needed to know was that I was chilling that party out for a bit.  And as spring unfolded, I got more and more interested in looking at dandelion roots–and the roots of ivy and bindweed and other bully weeds I was tackling.  If you don’t tackle some weeds, their roots can soon look like this.

DSC04330That’s pokeweed.  (Every speck of root left in the ground can grow into a new plant.  Talk about biomass!)

I’m the first to say I want to learn how to write a novel more quickly.  This one–which will come out in September–has taken me four years.

Anna+was+HereBut it’s hard to grow a root that goes down deep and straight and strong and that supports the rest of the plant.  (Even a lot of dandelions don’t manage it.)  Sometimes, it simply takes time and a lot of poking in the soil this way and that, always listening for pulses of sunlight and the heartbeats of worms.





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This spring the garden got away on me.  In this west coast rain forest if you glance away for a couple of nanoseconds in April the gangland boss aka morning glory marshals the forces of dead nettle, buttercup and dandelion and declares that the wild rumpus shall start.  An early and repeated exposure to The Secret Garden instilled in me a fondness for weeding.  But even so, I was daunted by the task that awaited me in late May.  I set aside an entire day, suited up, grabbed my trowel and set to.  The pile of weeds grew and grew and by mid  afternoon my spiritual kinship with Mary Lennox was wearing thin. Then a word popped into my head.  Biomass.  This is a word that I have only recently encountered and embraced.  Biomass, I said to myself.  I’m certainly generating a lot of biomass today.  Wonder if this biomass will fit into the compost bin.  It was oddly comforting. I was reminded of a moment when I was reading a collection of monster poems to a preschooler.  This kid kept peeking at the monster illustration on the cover of the book and then slamming the book open so as to hide it.   It obviously both frightened and intrigued her.  Then one of the poems included the word “ogre.”  She closed the book again and pointed to the cover.  “Is he an ogre?”  “Definitely,” I said.  Her whole body relaxed, the monster put firmly in his place by naming. It seems as if finding the precise word is as good a coping tool at 61 as it is at 4. Maybe our fundamental job as writers is as simple as this: finding the right word and passing it along.


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advice to me

If I could travel back in time and talk to myself at age 29, the year I decided I was going to write seriously, this is what I might say to me:

  •  You’re going to live to be at least 60 – wear sunscreen.
  •  So Martine, all that bad stuff you’re writing? Ya, you just have to get that out of your system. It’ll take a few years, but have some faith in yourself.
  •  You’re going to have days when you’ll want to give up. Don’t. All wannabees give up. All real writers do not give up. Think about it.
  • The minute you stop trying to write like the newest big name, or write what’s in style, or write what you think people want to read – the moment you start writing the book you want to read, that’s the moment you’re going to start making headway.
  • I know you want to be published – the ultimate affirmation. But Ann Lamott is right: publishing is like plastic surgery – almost everything you hope it will do for you is an illusion. You will find out this is true on the day you publish your first book and you still have to clean the toilets.
  • Don’t worry, none of your children will grow up to be juvenile delinquents, in spite of your chosen profession.
  • Oh, honey, you’re going to be poor. But you won’t have any regrets. Promise.
  • There’s this funky little school called Vermont College of Fine Arts – go there.
  •  In a couple of years there’s going to be this little company called Apple. Go empty your bank account and buy some shares at $16 each…


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