Saturday, February 11th, 2012

Review: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is one of those ‘famous’ books on writing that writer-type folks talk about whenever the subject of good-books-to-learn-writing-skills comes up. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time.

However, I found it very difficult to get through.

The premise of the book is based on a wonderful 30-year-old memory: Faced with the insurmountable problem of writing a book report on birds, Lamott’s 10-year-old brother is in tears and wondering how he’s going to get it all done. Their father puts an arm around his shoulder and says, “Bird by bird, Buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Fabulous advice.

But I realized after reading the introduction the book was not for me. It’s written in a literary style, a bit verbose for my tastes, and the takeaways aren’t what I need in my writing life right now. In my mind, Lamott spends a lot of time rambling about she thinks about things, rather than adding any concrete “how to” to the information. And there are a few chapters where she talks about something that happened to her, and you’re sort of left to wonder what she wanted you to get from the aside.

In the first chapter, “Getting Started,” Lamott talks about writing the truth and writing what’s real. She advocates starting with writing down everything you remember from school and kindergarten and holidays and such, along with your feelings and what you knew at the time. If you keep hacking at it, you’ll find the truth, or what’s real to write about. And that’s where you should start writing.

As a writer of speculative fiction, this isn’t what I needed (or wanted) to hear. I make things up. And while my stories might contain a kernel of something that happened to me (or someone else I know) it’s not going to resemble anything in the way of this exercise. The feelings, the emotions, yes – else how could you identify with my characters? – but the rest doesn’t make sense for me.

(From a genealogical perspective, on the other hand, I find this chapter fascinating. And, I might have to give it a whirl when I find the time.)

Other chapters in the book offer sound advice for beginners:

  • Start small. (Especially if you are easily overwhelmed by large projects.)
  • It’s okay to write terrible first drafts.
  • Stop being a perfectionist. Perfectionism is “the voice of the oppressor,” according to Lamott.
  • Plot grows out of character.
  • Care passionately about what you write.
  • Trust what your inner voice – your intuition — is telling you about your writing.

Then there’s a chapter called, “School lunches,” where Lamottt talks about a writing exercise she uses in her classes. Everyone writes down what they remember about school lunches and then they compare. She says when they discuss the differences of lunches throughout the states, it’s where they “see in bolder relief what we have in common.”

She gives some examples of what she wrote, which seem over dramatic. I think they’re supposed to be funny, but aren’t to me. It’s like she’s trying too hard.

One section of the book is called, “Help Along the Way,” where I suspect Lamott meant to suggest some useful tools for writers. But she spends an entire chapter discussing index cards, where the advice amounts to “Always carry something to write on.”

In another chapter, “Calling Around,” Lamott advises, “There are an enormous number of people out there with invaluable information to share with you, and all you have to do is pick up the phone.” Again, good, but we don’t need entire chapters to get the point across.

Two chapters, “Writing Groups” and “Someone to Read Your Drafts” are all about finding critique partners and getting feedback on your work. These are the two best chapters in the book. They contain good information, especially for beginning writers, and I agree with most of what she says.

(Unlike Lamott, I don’t advocate getting feedback from relatives, because in most instances they’re too afraid to hurt your feelings to tell you what you need to hear.)

The chapter on writers block is encouraging, but not instructional. There are no suggestions for how to overcome it (although an earlier chapter on writing letters could be useful. Lamott does not tie the two together.)

If you want to learn more about the author Anne Lamott, read this book. There are long passages about what she thinks about the writing process and how she handles it. She’s admittedly neurotic about it, and makes the assumption that most writers are as well. I disagree.

If you’re looking for concrete examples on how to write, new tools for your toolbox, or tricks of the trade, I’d look elsewhere.

Two chewed pencils.

Friday, February 10th, 2012

Writing Prompt – National Umbrella Day

Umbrellas Leaning Against a Wall in a Temple in JapanFebruary 10 is National Umbrella Day in the United States.

(I didn’t know this until I sat down to write this post.)

Seems kind of silly to me. (But fun, too. For some reason it makes me wish it were raining today.)

I suspect that “National Umbrella Day” must be the product of a greeting card company, because I can find no congressional evidence of a “national” day being declared for it.

Do you have a favorite bumbershoot? I have this wonderful golf-sized umbrella that I got free from drinking lots of Lipton Tea. It’s red-and-white-striped with the Lipton logo. It’s my go-to umbrella when it’s raining…and people laugh and laugh because it’s so huge. But it keeps me dry, so I’m keeping it.

Here’s Your Prompt:

  • Write a poem using the imagery of an umbrella. It can be any kind of umbrella: rain umbrella, beach umbrella, an umbrella in a mixed drink, one of those silly hat umbrellas, etc.
  • If you journal, write a letter to your children (or nieces and nephews) about the time you needed an umbrella and didn’t have one.
  • Consider the things that “umbrella” is a metaphor for: a shield for protection, something to hide behind, as a cover from risk, or a folded umbrella representing untapped potential, etc. Write about the time you or a character in one of your stories could have used an umbrella — metaphorically.
Friday, February 3rd, 2012

Writing Prompt – Death

Angel Gabriel taken at Holy Redeemer Cemetery - Baltimore, MD  - by Kelly A. HarmonSomeone in my family died this week.

It was unexpected, but not surprising. Still a bit of a shock to hear on the phone.

Human nature being what it is (and this being my family, I guess), the first order of business was a tussle over which family plot my uncle will be buried in.

(What – your family doesn’t have any death real estate?)

Grudges can be held, apparently, into the grave…and for decades beyond.

And we learned there’s going to be an autopsy. Required, apparently, by the state.

Since there’s time between death and burial preparation, the phone lines have lit up among the older generation in the family. People who have not spoken to each other in years, finally have a topic to bring them together.

Funny how that happens.

After you get over the initial impact, that kind of “out of the blue” call gets you to thinking about, well, death.

Here’s Your Prompt:

Caution! Some of these prompts may cause you to come to terms with death.

  • Plan your own funeral.

    (If this seems morbid to you — consider that you’re doing your family a favor by letting them know what it is you want to happen upon your death. It saves them the time of speculating (perhaps agonizing) during the initial grieving process. With luck, it will ensure that they lay you out in your favorite outfit, instead of something pulled off the rack at the funeral home.)

  • If you can’t plan your own funeral, plan one for someone else. Be creative: plan a funeral for your Great-Uncle Harry who always slipped you a fiver when he saw you, and never forgot your birthday. Do it up right. Conversely, create a special ‘funeral in hell’ for that neighbor of yours with the dogs that never stopped barking, the wild parties every day of the week, and the police raids which happened on a regular basis.
  • Your grandmother dies and leaves you $75,000 in her will. How do you feel when you hear this? What will you do with the money?
  • Write a story — starting with the reading of a will — where the most unlikely person in the room inherits all the cash and assets. This is the black sheep of the family — the runaway, the drunk, the drug user. Everyone hates him (or her). Speculate why this person inherited everything. Was there a relationship with the deceased that no one else knew about? What happens with the family dynamics now that this person inherits?
  • Your spouse or partner dies suddenly. Write their eulogy.
  • Write your own eulogy. How do you think people will remember you?
  • You’ve just learned you have terminal cancer. Write what happens for the next week of your life.
  • Write the funeral scene of the villain in your current work in progress. Or, write the funeral scene of your favorite evil character from a book, movie or television series.
  • And now for some obligatory quotes about death:
    • I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, and in short, I was afraid. ~ Thomas Stearns Eliot
    • Let death be ever daily before your eyes, and you will never entertain any abject thought, nor too eagerly covet anything. ~ Epictetus
    • Death destroys a man, but the idea of death saves him — that is the best account of it that has yet been given. ~ Edward Morgan Forster
    • Our scripture tells us that childhood, old age and death are incidents only, to this perishable body of ours and that man’s spirit is eternal and immortal. that being so, why should we fear death? And where there is no fear of death there can be no sorrow over it, either. ~ Mahatma Gandhi.
Friday, January 27th, 2012

Writing Prompt: Tall Tales

Geese Postcard by W. H. Martin - 1909
“Taking Our Geese to Market”
W. H. Martin

Decades before the software program Photoshop was a gleam in anyone’s eye, photographer W.H. Martin was creating photo montages. Judging from the few postcards I’ve seen, his themes were mostly agricultural, with some based on “old wives tales.”

All the ones I’ve seen tell a tall tale.

According to Wikipedia:

“A tall tale is a story with unbelievable elements, related as if it were true and factual. Some such stories are exaggerations of actual events, for example fish stories (‘the fish that got away’) such as, “that fish was so big, why I tell ya’, it nearly sank the boat when I pulled it in!”

Other tall tales are completely fictional tales set in a familiar setting, such as the European countryside, the American Old West, the Canadian Northwest, or the beginning of the Industrial Age.

See Wikipedia for more information about tall tales.

Here’s Your Prompt:

  • Write a tall tale about what happened to you today.
  • If today is too hum-drum :(, write a tall tale about another day in your life.
  • Re-write a tall tale you already know with yourself as the main character, and using modern day events.
  • Like Martin, create a visual pictorial of a tall tale: draw it, use photography software to create it, or tear pictures from a magazine to make a collage.
  • Write an exaggerated poem about something that happened to you yesterday.
Friday, January 20th, 2012

Writing Prompt – Liberty, or Lack Thereof

Give me liberty, or give me death.

~ Patrick Henry

Loss of liberty (or freedom) isn’t always an issue of being dominated by someone (or something) else, such as being bound in chains, or incarcerated in a cell, or being subject to some governmental curfew.

Sometimes it’s about danger, or embarrassment.

The main character in my novel work-in-progress has had her liberty curtailed. Not only is she being hunted down by demons, but she has been bitten by one, causing deeply horrible changes in her appearance.

So while she’s not literally bound in chains, she fears for her life if she goes outside (and so stays in as much as she can), but she’s also partially disfigured — which embarrasses her. So, whenever she goes out, she covers up.

Oh, give me liberty! For even were paradise my prison, still I should long to leap the crystal walls.

~ John Dryden

Sometimes our desires bind us.

Have you ever worked at a job which you absolutely hated? But did it for the money? There’s always a choice to live with less, and yet…

A day, an hour of virtuous liberty is worth a whole eternity of bondage.

~ Joseph Addison

Here’s Your Prompt:

  • Write about someone who’s physical liberty has been taken away by incarceration, kidnapping, bondage or curfew.
  • Here’s a specific example: write about a group of people who are suddenly under martial law. The law restricts their movements in certain parts of town and requires that they return to their homes before dark.
  • Write a journal or diary entry about a time you felt you’d lost your liberties.
  • Write several stanzas of haiku about liberty (or freedom, if you need to watch your syllables).
  • Put yourself in the place of the villain: the person kidnapping or incarcerating someone else. Write about why you might do this, and how you might keep control of the situation.
Friday, January 13th, 2012

Writing Prompt – Forgetfulness

Finger with a Red String Tied Around ItI was halfway home from work today when I realized I’d not scheduled the writing prompt for today.


I’ve had so much on my mind that I forgot.

So… in honor of forgetting, today’s prompt is about forgetfulness.

Here’s Your Prompt:

  • Your character forgets something very important. What happens?
  • One of your characters forgets something she thinks is no big deal, but her best friend/ significant other/ spouse completely disagrees. Write the argument that ensues.
  • If you journal, use either of the two above prompts, only from your point of view.
  • Write an acrostic poem using the word Forget or Forgetful.
  • Here are some famous quotations about forgetfulness to spark you:
    • It is the lot of man to suffer, it is also his fortune to forget. – Benjamin Disraeli
    • Though the past haunt me as a spirit, I do not ask to forget. – Felicia Dorothea Browne Hermans
    • There is a noble forgetfulness–that which does not remember injuries. – Charles Simmons
    • When out of sight, quickly also out of mind. – Thomas a Kempis
Friday, January 6th, 2012

Writing Prompt – When the Urge Strikes

Alien Highway  - The Most Desolate Stretch of Road in the US, according to the NY TimesI was heading to work Wednesday morning this week — my first day back in the office after a long Christmas Holiday — when I’d finally reached the exit for the highway.

The signs loomed above me: east in one direction, west in the other. Usually, I’m on autopilot at a little after 5 a.m. in the morning, and veer eastbound strictly out of habit.

But Wednesday I had the strongest — the strangest — urge to take the westbound ramp and just keep going.

The closer I got to the ramp, the stronger the urge grew, so much so that I had to grip the steering wheel hard and make a conscious effort to make the left hand turn instead of drifting into the right hand on-ramp.

Even after I made the turn and was heading east, something inside me cried out for a U-turn (impossible on this divided highway – I would have spent time playing the clover leaf should I have succumbed to my urges).

Urges are motivated by something, either conscious or unconscious, and I’ve yet to decipher what my motivation was.

We could argue that it was some ghostly pull inspiring the desire to drive westward, but it could have simply been that I had such a blast with family and friends over the holidays that I was reluctant to end that euphoria by schlepping back to work.

Another motivation could be that work is such a heinous place (yeah, it has its moments) that I didn’t want to go back. Somehow, I think my westward urge would have manifested before Wednesday morning if that were the case.

Whatever the reason, I managed to suppress the desire and arrive safely to toil at my workaday endeavors without further incident.

Here’s Your Prompt:

  • If you’re a journal or diarist, write about the time you succumbed to the will of an urge. What was your motivation? Did you anticipate the action with glee only to end in despair? Did giving in prove wildly exciting? Do you have any regrets? Do you wish you’d given in to more urges?
  • Write a story or a scene in which a character falls prey to an urge that is completely out of character for him. Why did he do it? What was the motivation? Did it end badly or well??
  • Write a story or scene about a character who stands firm against an urge…something she’s not known for doing. Where did she find the power to resist? Does the scene end badly, or well? Does she regret not giving in, or feel self-righteous that she was able to stand firm?
  • Some quick prompts:
    • a friend urges another to rid herself of a (real or perhaps not) physical imperfection
    • a wife urges her husband to overcome a sexual inhibition
    • a psychologist urges his patient to face a truth
    • a student urges another to deface a university building
    • you feel the urge to tell a lie to someone close to you

Photo obtained from NY Times Web site.

Friday, December 30th, 2011

Writing Prompt – Hopes and Wishes

Shooting Star - Derivative Work by Thomas GrauWe’re a people who live on hopes and dreams.

We make a wish on a falling star, crack open a fortune cookie with hope, and blow our desires into the wind on dandelion seeds.

It’s like we’ll find any excuse to make a wish:

  • blowing out all the candles on a birthday cake
  • seeing the first star of the night (Star light, Star bright…)
  • tossing coins in a well
  • breaking wish bones
  • when the clasp of your necklace touches the charm (while you’re wearing it)
  • an eyelash that’s fallen out

Let’s make good use of those wishes by writing about what comes from them…

Here’s Your Prompt:

  • You’re walking down the beach and you find an old scotch bottle half-buried in the sand. The cork is in place, and it’s been sealed even further with one of those wire cages used to keep champagne corks in place. On top of the wire is duct tape, making certain that cork never comes out.
    But you can’t help yourself: off comes the tape and the wire, and out comes the cork. A stream of dark blue smoke snakes out of the bottle and solidifies into a genie. He or she is beautiful beyond belief, and in age-old style, offers you three wishes for rescuing him (or her) from the bottle.
    It’s not until after you make the wishes that you find out that the genie is really a demon, and it has it’s own special way of fulfilling your desires…
  • Have you ever wished for something good for you, that might have been detrimental to someone else if it came true? Write what might have happened. Or, use this idea as a springboard for a story: the wish is what starts the trouble…
  • You’re granted a wish where you can choose two of the following: love, health, success or wealth. You’re life will be filled with the opposite of the two you don’t choose. So, if you don’t choose wealth, you will be poor. If you don’t choose health, you will be sickly, etc. Which do you choose? How do you cope with the other?
  • Use the above scenario in a story. Here’s the twist: One character may choose any of the four attributes for himself, but he must bestow the other three (one each) on three of his friends. (None are ‘penalized’ with an opposite of the other gifts.) How does your character make the choices? Does he tell his friends what he’s done? Why or why not? How do these changes affect their relationships?
  • Someone says to you, “I wish you were the President. Things would be a little better around here.” Poof! You’re the president. How would you make things better? How do you rally the House and Senate around you to get things done? What happens if you can’t convince them to see your point of view?
  • Don’t want to fight the House or Senate? Poof! You’re a tyrant, a despot, a dictator, or (simply) the leader of a country with no governmental checks and balances. What beliefs have you built your country on? How is it working? How do you fix things when they aren’t working to your satisfaction?
Friday, December 23rd, 2011

Writing Prompt – A Day In Court

Judge's GavelSo…

Things have been pretty quiet around the blog lately. I’ve been baking lots of cookies, and working more than I want to at the day job, but it’s been hard to concentrate on the writing stuff — mostly — because I was being sued and had to go to court.

In short: I was leaving a parking lot nearly three (3!) years ago when a man backed out of a parking space and struck my car. He brought suit against me this July. He claimed it was my fault, and he sought recompense for doctor’s bills, pain and suffering, damage to his car, etc.

The amount he sued me for elevated the case out of the lower court and we had to go to trial.

My lawyer successfully defended me, so all is well. (Now, maybe I can get back to the writing.)

A funny part of the story: I learned I was being sued by advertising. I received three letters in the mail, all from attorneys offering to represent me, before I’d even been served.

Here’s Your Prompt:

  • Involve one of your characters with the law: have them be sued (or sue someone) and need to go to trial. Or, have them witness an event at which they have to testify. Worse, have him or her be held up at gunpoint, or be standing at the register when someone comes in to rob the establishment. Tell what happens.
  • Create a fictional legal system to use in a short story or novel. Design the laws (and the reasons for them), how they are broken, and what the punishments are. If the punishment includes working off the debt, define how this is accomplished. If lawbreakers are punished with incarceration, design the jail system and holding cells. If punishment includes banishment, include information on where people are banished to (the living conditions, the environment, what they’re provided with, etc.). What other ways are people held accountable for their deeds in your world?
  • Imagine a world where no laws exist. How does the world function? Is it a good or bad place to live in? How do people protect themselves against (human) predators? How could a legal system evolve? Would people want it to?
  • Define our legal system as you would to a child.
  • Write about the time you broke the law: Have you broken the speed limit? Ignored a ‘Do Not Litter’ sign? Walked off the path in a public park? Were you caught? What happened? Did you talk your way out of the situation? Did you have to pay a fine? Did you go to jail?
  • Imagine being arrested for a crime you didn’t commit. The evidence against you looks bad. It’s so bad, that if you didn’t know you hadn’t done it, you would have thought you’d done it. Does the jury find for you or against you? Write how the trial proceeds.
  • Imagine you are an attorney when “the case of the century” is handed to you to prosecute or defend. You know the outcome of the trail will change the world as you know it. What is this case? What is your argument as the prosecutor or defender? What will happen if you win or lose the trial?
Friday, December 16th, 2011

Writing Prompt – How about a Little Rebellion with Your Tea?

Painting of the Boston Tea PartyToday is the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, a key event in the American Revolution.

On December 16, 1773, after officials in Boston refused to return three shiploads of taxed tea to Britain, a group of Colonists boarded the ships — some dressed as Mohawk Indians — and destroyed the tea by throwing it into Boston Harbor.

(Governing officials thought Colonists would give in, accept the tax, and purchase the tea. They had no idea that the burgeoning American Spirit would incite such rebellion.)

Here’s Your Prompt:

  • Write about rebellion: a time in the world’s history, or a time in your history. Have you ever gone against the establishment? Or fought for something for which you believed you were in the right?
  • Write a rebellion into your current manuscript: it could be a tiny little thing (breaking a small infraction) or the telling of a war.
  • Write about tea. Do you like or not? Do you drink it often? If not, when are you compelled to drink it? Are you a ‘ritual’ tea drinker…. following a precise set of rules for the heating of the water (and the teapot) and the correct timing of the brew? Or, are you a ‘boil a water and toss a bag into it’ kind of person?
  • Do your characters drink tea? How about coffee? Beer? Soda, whiskey, wine? (Do you find your characters consume the same foods you do?) Write a scene where one of your characters drinks something other than what you have him normally drink. Do his actions change? His thoughts? Does this make the scene better or worse?