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Writing to Learn About You

18 November, 2015


The Guardian recently ran an intervew with one of my favourite writers, Marilynne Robinson. The question and answer that I found most illuminating suggests why we write.

Q:  The trilogy made up by Gilead, Home and Lila has had immense success. But what has it meant for you?

Her answer:

There’s a way in which, nonfiction or fiction, you learn your own mind, you find out what matters to you, what the questions are for you . . . .

And with fiction, you can put the problem out in front of yourself in a three-dimensional way, and work through it, and that’s very, very interesting.

Why do I like her response?

It’s usual for writers to focus on their readers, real or imagined.  But it’s worth remembering that through our writing,  we also have the opportunity to learn something about ourselves.

We generally know this when we write nonfiction,  especially when what we write links with our personal experiences and beliefs.

But what about fiction? Reflecting on some of my short stories, I realise fiction also provides a way to know  and understand myself.  I discover personal insights from the choices I make in telling a story—the setting, the issues that drive the story, and the characters I develop, especially in terms of how they act and why.

Does your fiction help you understand ‘what matters to you, what the questions are for you’?



Compost Ideas for Writing Insights

6 November, 2015
Worms and fruit fly pupas under the lid of a h...

Worms under lid of garden bin. (Wikipedia)

I had planned an industrious day working on my current writing project. The morning went well. Now the whole afternoon stretched ahead, empty of other commitments or tasks.

Then the phone rang. It was the King Poo people letting me know they would arrive later to drop off my order of worm-castings, a natural fertiliser I use to get my garden ready for summer. I stopped work to wait for them, and after they left returned to my desk. But getting back into the writing flow proved impossible.

I remembered a guest post on WritingCompanion, from Kelly, who wrote about the advantage of giving your brain time to compost ideas. Mental composting is not the same as procrastinating. The latter takes us AWAY from our writing. Composting is more like a creative, focused pause, which can lead to new ideas and enrich our writing. It reminds us that sometimes there’s an advantage in NOT writing, in holding off rather than pushing on no matter what.

I realised that I was tired, depleted of ideas. To keep on writing would be a mistake. I shut down the computer, with the plan of letting my subconscious work on my topic. When I returned to my desk, perhaps this mental composting would bring forth new ideas and insights.

Overcoming that dreaded writer’s block

14 October, 2015

Another helpful post from our local Librarians With Altitude, here in the Blue Mts.

Source: Overcoming that dreaded writer’s block.

Why Writers Should Blog

24 September, 2015

Do writers need to blog? Or is it a big time-waster when they could be working on their writing project?

Anne Allen gives her take on this issue, with 10 reasons why blogging can help writers and their careers.

When writers tell me they want to start blogging, I usually ask, What do you want to get out of it?

Some writers think blogging provides a sure path to becoming rich and famous. They aren’t aware of how time consuming it can be to post regularly and build up a readership.

Others start a blog because they want to share information and build a community. But it can be demoralising if only a few read their blog, fewer still sign up to get posts, and even fewer leave a comment.

So why keep blogging?

If any of my posts help other writers, that’s great. But when I set up my blog, I decided to use it to help me discover more about writing.

Developing a number of posts about writing issues has helped me—

  • assess writing issues and ideas that catch my attention
  • write more succinctly, due to my self-imposed maximum of 1,000 words
  • become attuned to writing matters, given that writing one post often leads me to material I can use for a future post.
  • find and read the work of others who blog about writing.
  • learn what interests readers by checking which of my posts attract the most clicks.

I’m not a consistent blogger. But I don’t beat myself up about that. Blogging doesn’t need to be an iron-clad contract.

I see blogging as dropping the bait to see what attracts.

The Comma Queen and New Yorker Style

17 September, 2015

I enjoy reading books about usage–vocabulary, punctuation, grammar. Many delve into complex arguments about why ‘X’ is ‘X’, or why ‘X’ was once ‘X’ but is now ‘Y’. Not quite the nail-biting excitement of a mystery novel.

So I’ve come to expect books about the English language to be illuminating, but not humorous or personable. That is, until I read Between You & Me: Confessions of a comma queen, by Mary Norris.

Norris has worked for over 30 years in the copy department of the The New Yorker, grappling with usage, spelling, and punctuation choices.

If you’ve ever wondered about ‘that’ vs ‘which’, the use of past or present in travel accounts, the choices for achieving gender-neutral language, this book will help. Norris gives her opinions, without getting too technical or restrictive. I even discovered a couple of new usage issues, in terms of American vs British English.

She also lets readers know a little about her life and interests. One of her early jobs was milk delivery. Milkmen dropping off a bottle of milk at a house would alert the resident by yelling ‘milkman’. As the only female doing milk delivery, she Thought about yelling milk lady or milkmaid, but settled on milkwoman. If only she had lived in Australia, where the common term milko would have covered both sexes.

Norris covers a lot in this small book—gender issues in language, the use and misuse of hyphens and other punctuation, the rise of swearing. She corresponds with some well-known authors about their language choices, and compares the New Yorker style with that of other publications. Doing so reminds readers that language isn’t set in concrete.

A deviation from correctness is that, like me, she is not a fan of the Apostrophe Protection Society, finding some cultural variations  ‘beguiling’.

She makes the case that the dash is not ‘sloppy’ informal punctuation. It provides a greater emotional force than a period or comma. (Her example is the poetry of Emily Dickinson.)

She also clarifies the copy editor’s purpose:

So much of copy editing is about not going beyond your province. . . .Writers might think we’re applying rules and sticking it to their prose in order to make it fit some standard, but just as often we’re backing off, making exceptions, or at least trying to find a balance between doing too much and doing too little. A lot of the decisions you have to make as a copy editor are subjective.

Reading her book, I had a sense of Norris as a thoughtful, skilled editor, someone genuinely interested in the English language in its many variations.

Her last chapter, Ballad of a Pencil Junkie, was a personal essay about her love of pencils. It took me back to the time when many people found great satisfaction in owning the ‘right’ pen or pencil. She mentions attending a party to celebrate a particular pencil. And I was impressed when she mentioned a book that I kept coming across in material about Henry David Thoreau as a pencil-maker. The book is Henry Petroski’s history of the pencil, titled–what else?–The Pencil.

Her comments about different aspects of language also reminded me of a past–not so distant–when accurate language choice was considered an essential element in serious publications. Now in online material, accuracy of spelling, punctuation, and word choice often seems be optional.

(However, like me, she’s not a fan of the Apostrophe Protection Society, on the grounds that some variations–such as the green grocers’ historical variants–can be beguiling. 

Norris provides an appendix, with a number of books on language that she finds helpful. I hadn’t heard of a couple, so will be checking them out.

Mary Norris. Between You & Me:  Confessions of a comma queen. 2015. Text Publishing, Melbourne, and W.W. Norton & Co. NY.

Vanity Presses Play with Writers’ Hopes

16 September, 2015

Marsha Durham:

A robberfly with its prey, a hoverfly. Insecti...

Robberfly with its prey, a hoverfly.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The article below, from my local library’s blog, provides a useful overview on how vanity presses prey on unpublished writers, while often promising them everything.

I hope it helps writers who are interested in a contract with a vanity press to understand the poor odds they will face in terms of getting their work
* published
* distributed widely and appropriately
* publicised sufficiently to encourage sales
* recompensed in terms of royalties.

The article identifies the unprofessional tactics used by one scammer-publisher. It is a cautionary tale about how these crooks prey on their clients’ dreams of seeing their cherished manuscript published. Many writers are sucked in after their manuscript has been rejected by a number of legit publishers.

The lesson in the article is for writers to ask questions about costs, distribution, and royalties–and to get on the web to see if anything negative has been written about the publisher.

However, it’s easy to be misled. Such publishers raise writers’ hopes by giving overly positive information about potential sales.

One writer was over the moon when a publisher—unfortunately, a notorious vanity press—selected his novel to publish. The writer talked about how his book would get international publicity when the publisher attended a well-known, international book fair. However, the publisher may not have had any intention of attending the fair. Even if the publisher did show up and had a display table, this author’s book may not have been on show.

It pays to ask questions, check the person or company out on the Internet, and ask reputable writing associations for information.

Originally posted on Writers in the Mist:

This is a great article that just brings out the potential dangers of Vanity Press publishing (that is paying a publisher up front for having your book published).

View original

Culture in writing–valuing or exploiting?

7 September, 2015
English: Silhouette of a yoga practitioner.

Silhouette of yoga practitioner. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yoga fiction? I’d never heard the term until I read an article in the online mag, Conversation, titled ‘The Difficult Position of Yoga Fiction’.

It started me thinking of how I’ve never included yoga experiences in my own writing. And that’s odd, because I’ve been an off-and-on yoga practitioner for much of my life and identify with it.

I started when I was a young contract teacher working in Far North Queensland, Australia. My yoga instructor was the 70s-something wife of a sugar cane farmer. Her incredible physical flexibility inspired me. She taught yoga at the community centre in a small town dominated by a sugar refinery. I worked at my practice, despite the challenges on doing yoga in the tropics. During the annual Wet, the heavy downpour on the centre’s tin roof made it impossible to hear my instructor. The intense humidity brought out all sorts of creepy-crawlies. I worked through the asanas, pleasantly high from the fumes of the lcoils lit to keep the mozzies at bay.

I have practised yoga in many locations–a uni town in Oregon, Sydney’s Chinatown, a church hall in an Italian Catholic suburb, a primary school gymnasium, a loft studio in a mountain town, a fitness centre dominated by gym junkies.

Along the way, I tried to learn acceptance. The big challenge came at a weekend yoga retreat. The space was double-booked, so my yoga companions and I found ourselves sharing the property with a group of non-yogic, cigarette(?)-smoking, hard-drinking Trotskyites. We endured their loud, boozy parties at night. The were still sleeping in the early morning when we did our pre-dawn sun salues and chants.

Along my yoga path, I’ve tried different styles. The most bizarre was a form of ‘strong’ yoga. The instructor Said that achieving the right mind control would mean that someone could run over me in their car, and I would survive, no injuries. (I passed on that one.)

Given the yoga thread in my life, why have I never used it in my writing? Perhaps it’s because I’ve never read much literature that includes yoga. I enjoyed one yoga memoir (yogoir), Claire Dederer’s Poser: My life in twenty-three yoga poses.  The book links each chapter to a yogic pose, which collects to an aspect of her life. And I skimmed Elizabeth Gilbert’s famous book, Eat, Pray, Love, but I couldn’t get into it.

The Conversation article questions if the influx of yoga literature is a ‘good thing’. Yoga fiction is apparently now a major category in English-language literature, so large that it has sub-divisions— yoga comedies, yoga murder mysteries, and yoga chick lit.

However, the article comments that yoga is not a culture-free commodity, something for writers to insert into their story, nothing more than a exotic literary prop to spice up a character or a setting.

It’s similar to the ubiquitous kangaroo showing up in Aussie Outback movies. Or African jungle scenes, where the call of the Aussie kookaburra is spliced in as a bit of culture-aural exotica.

The Red Kangaroo is the largest macropod and i...

Red Kangaroo, which appears on Australia’s Coat of Arms. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If writers focus on yoga’s trivial elements, readers may never be aware of the centuries of tradition that underpin the discipline. Even the sense that yoga has a rich background may disappear. No wonder that India has now appointed its first national minister of yoga.


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