Australians have recently embraced the USA Halloween tradition, partly due to multinational stores such as Woolworths carrying Halloween merchandise. This year, I had a different experience, joining neighbours for a Day of the Dead party, a Mexican tradition. We gathered at one home, decorated with colourful skeleton paper cutouts. A table/altar was set up, where we could place something related to a deceased friend or relative. I enjoyed finding out more about my neighbours in terms of whothey chose to talk about and why.
I chose my grandma, Maude Nelson, a shy woman who bore five children and followed a strong religious faith (Methodist).
She was always busy—sewed a quilt for each of her 13 grandchildren, tatted a lovely lace doily at age 90, and lived to almost 100. A Kansas farm woman, her days involved caring for chickens and geese, gathering eggs, managing a huge veggie garden, canning the produce for future winter meals, and feeding workers during the June wheat harvest. She rose early, getting breakfast ready while her husband, Clyde Alvin, milked the cows. I never saw her idle, except on humid, hot summer afternoons, when she was sitting upright in her chair, tatting or doing other work, and fell asleep for a short time.
As a kid, I practised on their old player piano, and looked at WWI 3D photo images on their stereoptiscope. I loved roaming the wheatfields with their dog Sport, eating rabbit for dinner—my favorite, and fishing for catfish in the muddy rivers and ponds.
It was fun to go shopping with my grandparents in the nearby tiny town of Turon KS. There Grandma met up with her friends, and Grandad played cards in the pool hall. No respectable woman would enter the place, so when it was time to go,Grandma sent me in to tell him. I was fascinated how much she knew about kinship lines in that small community. I’d ask her, ‘Who’s that?’, and she’d explain that the person was my third cousin on my mother’s side, and someone ‘twice removed’ on my father’s side. Like I said, a very small town! She knew who lived on each farm or in each house, and their background. These ties were strong, and meant people knew they could count on each other whenever troubles struck.
When I was young and thought it important to be famous—to be SOMEONE—I asked if she too wished to be known beyond Turon, beyond Kansas, and even beyond the USA. She let me know that it was not much of an aim, compared to living a good life. Years down the track, I see her point.
Objects I still have that bring back memories of her:
- The metal knitting needles that she threaded her homemade doughnuts on, then spooned vanilla icing over them and let them drip dry.
- An early friendship quilt, with the embroidered names of her friends.
- Old postcard albums from traveling relatives. All the messages are written in pencil, probably because carrying ink and a quill pen would have been difficult.
- Her wedding dress, so tiny, and grander than anything I ever saw her wear, even on the Sundays when she dressed in her best to attend church. Clyde didn’t go to church but observed the Sabbath in his own way, adding a jacket over his clean shirt and overalls, and playing Solitaire rather than working.
- A couple of books, although I never saw her read anything except the farming newspaper, Capper’s Weekly.
- An old oak rocker that I’ve recently restored, plus a standing cabinet Victrola that I took home after she told me she was going to chop it up for firewood.
Maude Nelson Durham was quiet, supportive, kind, and she showed me in so many ways that she loved me. And I loved her.
PROMPT: Try writing a prose piece of a poem that captures something specific and telling about someone who has died, someone you feel moved to write about.
- What were their good and bad points, their strengths and weaknesses?
- In what way did they affect you at the time?
- Is there a particular incident you remember that showed their personality, character, beliefs?
- Has anything changed in terms of your view/assessment, then and now?
- If you could time travel back, what would a visit with them be like? What would you notice in terms of setting, conversation, actions?
IN FREEFALL. Source: 1417191 sports.desktopnexus.com.jps
After five years, I was freefalling again. No parachute, just my trusty laptop and some story ideas.
Freefall is a special type of writing, led by Canadian educator Barbara Turner-Vesselago, who teaches the technique internationally. The technique involves loosening up, letting ideas fall onto the page/screen without trying to manipulate or edit them. The aim is spontaneity, avoiding too much decision-making while getting a first draft down on paper.
It took time and intent before I could comfortably leave my normal writing routine and involve myself in a new approach. It helped that the residential week reduced the number of interruptions I usually contend with, and that the week had a set structure:
- Write in the mornings and give Barbara a draft before lunch. The no-talking rule in the morning helped keep the focus on writing.
- Meet briefly with the group before lunch. Each person commented on their morning’s writing experience, and others listened but were not expected to respond.
- Enjoy free afternoons. I tended to write, walk, take photos, or go to one of the nearby villages for coffee and a wi-fi connection.
- Regroup before dinner for readings and discussions. Barbara read out some of the material submitted that morning, without identifying the authors. Listeners could respond, mainly in terms of the effect the material had on them.
The workshop took place in a spacious, secluded house on a property in Yarck, Victoria. My bedroom/study had a view out to spring-green pastures and a small pond—a tranquil setting to write, dream, and ponder.
Freefall differs from some writing programs in that writers are invited to pursue to engage with their ideas before worrying about structure, logic, and storyline. The aim is to get ideas down on paper/screen, no matter how odd they seem, without correcting, rewriting, or planning. Let a word or phrase carry your imagination somewhere. Stay engaged in the flow, without trying to control what comes to mind. As I did not finish the week with a tidy collection of polished pieces. But I discovered that I could come up with surprising and powerful material, which I could then work on later.
In Freefall, participants do not criticise someone’s work, delve into technical issues, or suggest how the material could be improved. Instead, feedback focuses on where listeners sense power, authenticity, and connection in the work.
An important aspect of Freefall is to forget about playing it safe, and ‘go fearward’. The fearward approach can lead to material that is original and strong. And that’s exciting. The result may be rough draft that captures something honest and powerful, and when polished later, it seems likely to find appreciative readers.
Does it work? Late in my Yarck week, I wrote about a complex topic, related to a death in my family. I had tried writing about it several times, over some months, but I always became bogged down in a mess of details.
This time when I sat down to write, a phrase popped into my head. I wrote it down. Then another phrase appeared, and another. I jotted it all down, with no backtracking, checking, or rewriting. It felt like automatic writing, with me no longer calling the shots as the creator, but simply receiving. When it felt right to stop, I put the draft aside. Later, I reread it and was surprised that not only had the confusing details fallen away, the main element of my story was clear and powerful.
Rebecca Solnit recently presented 10 tips for writers. The ones I most appreciate are about shaping and protecting a sense of oneself as a writer. It’s not enough to have a vision of what you want to accomplish in terms of your writing project. You also need to find and maintain the passion and joy of writing. Otherwise, why keep at it?
Many swear they want to be a writer. But the ones more likely to succeed are clear about their writing goal. This focus keeps them on track, both in terms of what they write and how much time they engage in writing and writing-related activities, e.g. reading and research.
Solnit warns about revising prematurely or too often. It’s a common pitfall, enjoying the fun of lovingly recasting little bits of prose and ignoring the major task, developing a substantial draft.
Feedback may seem a great idea, getting a reality check about your material. But its benefit depends on when and what kinds of comments are given. Some writers don’t mind getting quite diverse views about their work. They take what seems useful and ignore the rest. But other writers can become confused and demoralised when they get conflicting opinions about their work to date. It’s worth remembering that if you incorporate everyone’s ideas, you’ve lost your way. What you’ll end up with is a dog’s breakfast.
SOURCE: Literary Hub, Sept 13, 2016 online issue. 10 tips for writers. Accessed 18 Sept, 2016.
Starting kindergarten opened a world of colours for me. New crayons, the playground’s garish orange and green merry-go-round, poster paint for art projects. And after learning to read, I discovered picture books. My home had few books and none for children. But what a treasure-trove of story and image at school and in the children’s section of the public library.
At school, I was immersed in the exploits of Dick and Jane, Tip and Mitten, my imagination spurred by each book’s illustrations. At the town’s library, I gorged on ghost stories, even though the ghoulish illustrations gave me nightmares.
But by the time I was in years 5-6 at school, I had to adjust to the fact that few books for older kids included illustrations.
Now, how great to see a return of visuals for readers. The graphic novels, but also more books include a visual motif.
The nonfiction hit, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating—about a bedridden woman who finds pleasure watching her tiny snail guest—is more charming because of the miniature drawings of snails in the page margins.
Another non-fiction book, Annie Proulx’s Bird Cloud, starts each chapter with an illustration. Below is her sketch of the Wyoming land where she intended to build her dream house. (Spoiler—things don’t go as planned.)
My latest visuals-in-lit find—on the ‘freebie’ cart in my local library—is a classic. Samuel Butler wrote The Way of All Flesh in the latter 1880s. It was based on his unhappy childhood, and he would not allow it to be published until after his death.
The 1903 novel is a bitter portrayal of small-minded, cruel adults, mainly his parents. For readers, the story’s emotional sense is deepened due to the unsettling illustrations.
Some are realistic, such as this one depicting the young protagonist, Earnest, being bullied by his father, a minister of religion.
Some are symbolic, e.g., Earnest’s enmired life:
The illustrations are so stunning that I had to find out more about the illustrator.
Donia Nachshen, illustrator
Donia Esther Nachshen (1903-1987) was two years old when her family fled a Jewish pogrom in Russia and eventually settled in London. She attended the Slade School of Fine Arts and by the 1920s was working as book designer. Her illustrations graced the works of famous writers—Enid Blyton, Samuel Butler, Feodor Dostoyevsky, Anatole France, Nikolai Gogol, and Oscar Wilde.
During World War II, the British government hired her to design posters to boost morale on the home front and participate in the war effort.
Another ‘booky’ visual
At the back of Butler’s novel, I discovered another visual artefact, now extinct due to technological advances—the library borrowing card! My copy had been in a school library, and a card at the back of the book identifies student borrowers, their form (class), and due date.
I love the convenience of having online access to my local library, reserving books via my computer. But I also feel a slight sense of loss. Remember the traditional library’s card index, which often revealed serendipitous finds? And does anyone browse non-electronic bookshelves anymore?
——Microsoft Word was my preferred writing program—until I started a large writing project. Then I found it frustrating having to scroll back and forth to find material, and making changes by cutting and pasting.
I needed a writing program with more support and oomph. After trialing five—some cute but superficial, some much too complicated—I found one that stood out as writer-friendly, powerful, supportive, practical, and versatile: SCRIVENER.
After using it for an extended time, I love it, and here’s why.
1 Screen, 3 Major Functions
In Scrivener you can change your desktop so that it has 3 parts—Binder, Editor, Inspector—and work with all three at once.
Binder is short for the traditional 3-ring binder. I like to think of it as a filing cabinet drawer, with folders of anything relevant to my project. When I find new material, I capture it by putting it in a new file/folder in Binder.
The information in Binder keeps me focused on the ‘big picture’. Every file and folder is shown as a column, enabling me to create a useful hierarchy of material. I can emphasise this hierarchy through colour-coding, e.g., orange to identify my main headings, green for details, etc.
Binder is flexible so that I don’t need to commit to a firm outline at the beginning of a project. When my ideas change, I can easily move material to a new location by clicking and dragging it to its new spot.
The folders in Binder can hold different kinds of material—not just drafts and finished chapters, but also photos and drawings, music files, electronic articles, etc. That means that all my source material stays in Scrivener.
The central section of the Scrivener desktop is similar to a word processor screen. I can shift from the three-section screen to a single screen, where I can blank out everything except the file I’m working on. That’s useful for keeping focused while drafting.
I sometimes split the Editor section so that I have two screens. That’s handy when I want to view two locations within one file or compare two separate files. When I’m revising a long document I no longer need to scroll back and forth to cut and paste.
This section is useful for adding notes about a file—its creation date, POV, status (e.g, draft, revised draft, whatever). I can add notes to myself, such as reminding me to recheck a fact. It’s more efficient than scribbling ideas and notes on paper.
Scrivener automatically saves my work every few seconds. Worth buying the program just for this feature.
Supports Writing by ‘Bits’
After using Scrivener, I stopped categorising my material by form—e.g., article, news item, interview, chart, photograph. Now I think of it all as information bits.
It supports how each writer prefers to write. I started my current project by gathering facts and views—some immediately relevant, some not but still interesting—plus many questions I wanted to assess. I soon had a mosaic of facts and conjectures, one that threw up some new possibilities. F
Another plus when writing in infobits is that it enables me to use short free periods to write.
Great technical support
Good technical support is crucial. I’ve had queries/issues twice, and Scrivener’s help desk was great in terms of timing and assistance. (Special shout out to Jeff, Scrivener’s wunder-tech.)
It’s hard to believe that such a comprehensive program costs less than $50 US. Some blogs and sites offer discounts. But to ensure getting the most recent program, you may want to buy it from the official Scrivener site: https://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php
Excellent training options
Scrivener is such a comprehensive program that newbies have much to learn about how to use it. I muddled around, then decided to seek help. There are plenty of Scrivener experts running courses or providing useful blogs.
I highly recommend the online training course developed and taught by the amazingly knowledgeable and helpful Gwen Hernandez. She authored the Dummies Guide to Scrivener, is generous in providing help, and charges only a modest tuition fee for a comprehensive course.
I was recently asked about the new Scrivener app. I tried it out on my iPad, and it’s fine. It would be useful for notes, photos, references, etc. But much depends on the kind of writing project a writer has in mind. I prefer writing at my desk, with two monitors, a full-size keyboard, and a mouse.
I enjoy hunting for inspirational books about creativity and specifically about writing. Recently I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2015 book: Big Magic: Creative living beyond fear.
After her mega-seller, Eat Pray Love, Gilbert wrote Big Magic to discuss and promote creativity.What affects our desire to create? How can we develop as artists?
According to her, too many worry that they have lost out in the creativity stakes. They sabotage their dreams through endless self-criticism. For example:
- I have no talent, or not enough.
- I’ve left it too late, all my creativity has dried up.
- My creative work may be rejected, and then where would I be?
- I worry that I won’t find a market for my work.
- I won’t be accepted because I don’t have the right experiences or the right education.
- I fear creating something honest because it will upset others.
Gilbert suggests separating internal creativity (input) from external success (outcome). The job of writers is be actively creative. At the same time they need to accept that they cannot control success.
Gilbert provides many inspiring examples about the magic that evolves when we get serious about pursuing a creative life.
She comments that in the past, the term genius was not a personal attribute–She is a genius–but a force or spirit that helped the individual artist. Well, yes! In the 1800s, Ralph Waldo Emerson said that the writer of Walden, Henry David Thoreau, was led by his ‘muse and genius’, a dominant force that shaped his ‘opinions, conversation, studies, work, and course of life.’
For , Gilbert the ‘magic’ of creativity includes her sense that ideas actively seek a creator, such as a writer, to develop them. Odd, but she provides examples that suggest it’s crucial to develop ideas immediately when they present themselves.
To start exploring your creativity, you might start with this tough question that Gilbert poses:
What would you do even if you knew that you might fail? What do you love doing so much that words—failure, success—essentially become irrelevant?
Well worth a read.
A couple of weeks ago, at the end of autumn here in the southern hemisphere, a friend collected her unripe tomatoes and gave them to me. Since then, I’ve been making different versions of green tomato pie. (Yes, it’s a dessert, not a savoury dish.)
As I chopped the tomatoes, childhood memories surfaced. My grandmother, knowing it was my favorite pie, always made one in tomato season if I was staying with her. At the time I took it for granted, but now I treasure it for the loving gesture it was.
Years later, in Australia, I worked on the outskirts of Sydney where market gardeners had their fields. I often bought green tomatoes from an elderly Italian farmer who kept a roadside vegetable stall. I could tell that he was puzzled when I searched through his tomatoes for the greenest ones. But he didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Italian.
As a writing prompt, the phrase remembering a food may elicit rich ideas.
- Do you have a pleasant memory about a particular food? Or a bad or scary memory? Is there food that leads to nostalgia?
- What about a hilarious food episode, real or imagined?
- A food ritual, from the past or present.
- A particular food, related to a specific place, such as a restaurant or a neighborhood.
Once you select a food to write about, consider if you want to write as if you’re in the past, or in the present reflecting on the past. Or try fiction, perhaps by exaggerating the real-life food experience you had.
One of the writing-about-food pieces I love is Garrison Keillor’s recitation on his radio program, about sweet corn. He talked so lovingly about this humble food that I wanted to go out immediately and buy a few ears .
I was amused to find his additional comment about sweet corn:
Sweet corn is our family’s weakness. We were prepared to resist atheistic Communism, immoral Hollywood, hard liquor, gambling, dancing, smoking, fornication, but if Satan had come around with sweet corn, we at least would have listened to what he had to sell.