The Polished Paragraph

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April 9, 2014
by Laura S
5 Comments

Dancing like no one is looking; writing like no one will read

Painters must want to paint above all else. If the artist in front of the canvas begins to wonder how much he will sell it for, or what the critics will think of it, he won’t be able to pursue original avenues. Creative achievements depend on single-minded immersion.
Mihaly Csikszentmihaly

Dancing – or writing – like no one is watching. (Artwork by duchesssa at rgbstock.com.)

Like I said a couple of weeks ago, every now and again I go back into my old story files. Occasionally, what I find in there is BAD, embarrassing even. Don’t email me now about my negative attitude; that it’s bad just tells me how much I’ve improved as a writer. There’s one story in there, though, that I wrote and shared with an old writing group. I read it to the members, and… silence poured forth. No one even bothered with a platitude like “Good try.” I’ll just say that the story involved belly button lint, a hangover, and sex. Maybe the group was mortified for me, thinking it was autobiographical. It wasn’t. I’ll add that it was an honest writing effort on my part, and I had no thoughts of publishing anything at that time.

BTW, I’m one of those people who dances in my house when no one but the dog is watching. During the recent Sochi Olympics, I even did some figure skating in the family room. The family did NOT award me a medal, though my husband said I had enthusiasm. And heart. And that’s what writing or hooking or painting or any passion you have is about.

Csikszentmihaly (the guy quoted above) is known for his flow theory, which he described as:

…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.

While I was probably using my skills to the utmost when I wrote that belly button lint story, I’m glad that I’ve raised that skill bar a LOT HIGHER in the past several years. Because I practiced, because I wanted to become a better writer. Of course, I hope that I publish more stories, but when I start one, all that’s on my mind is trying to find the best words, the most interesting characters, and a viable plot. Reader shmeader. The only person I’m trying to impress at that point is me. When I do that, I’ll be ready to astonish the world with my dancing. I mean, writing.

…It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were.
–Csikszentmihaly

What activities do you lose yourself in? Where can they take you?

 

 

 

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April 2, 2014
by Laura S
2 Comments

I know I said that writing’s fun, but I really meant that it’s WORK!

Hard work. (Photo by jmjvicente at rgb.stock.com.)

Sure, last week I extolled the virtues of writing, the fun that I have when I can play with words. And nothing makes me as happy as finishing a new short story and having my group like it. (BTW, they really did like the one I submitted two weeks ago, though it engendered some interesting discussion. Which is good.) But make no mistake, WRITING IS WORK.

The only certainty about writing…is that it has to be done, and not dreamed of or planned and never written, or talked about…, but simply written; it’s a dreadful, awful fact that writing is like any other work.
                                                                               –Janet Frame

It’s true; the only way to be a writer is to put yourself in the chair, pick up the pen (or laptop, if you choose), and write.

I write for a couple of hours every day, even if I only get in a couple of sentences. I put in that time. You do that every day, and inspiration will come along. I don’t allow myself not to keep trying. It’s not fun, but if you wait until you want to write, you’ll never do it.
Dave Barry

And that’s from a humor writer who’s made this reader laugh till I almost peed my pants. But he’s right. And like I mentioned last week, lots of things come up that can get in the way of writing. Someone always wants a piece of my food pantry directing-, parental-, or otherwise dutiful-ass. Or I’m just looking for a way not to put the writerly ass into the chair.

Writing is harder than anything else; at least starting to write is. It’s much easier to wash dishes. When I’m writing I set myself a quota of pages, but nine times out of ten, I’m doing those pages at four o’clock in the afternoon because I’ve done everything else first… But once I get flowing with it, I wonder what took me so long.
Kristin Hunter

It’s about setting priorities. Like Hunter, I wrote that last story, liked it even, and marveled at what an idiot I am that I so often put writing at the bottom of the To Do list. Thus I sabotage myself; by the end of the day, I’m tired and often grumpy. It’s so much easier to sit down with my rug hooking and an episode of Orange is the New Black. Though, the truth is, I write better at that time of day. The fatigue acts to shut down the inner critic and lets me write more open and honestly. Plus, the brain will often let some pretty weird – good weird, that is – and original shit out when the gatekeeper’s not around.

Most of us spend half our time wishing for things we could have if we didn’t spend half our time wishing.
Alexander Woollcott

So, stop wishing you could write more and..work more. I know I have to.

If you’ve been putting off writing for whatever reason, now’s the time to pick up the pen. WRITE ANYTHING. Write in your journal, write your morning (or afternoon or midnight) pages. Write your wishes, for God’s sake! Then keep going…

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March 26, 2014
by Laura S
5 Comments

Do you write just because it feels so good when you stop?

Maybe this is how you feel when you write:

“Because it feels so good when I stop.” (Photo by catalin82 at sxc.hu)

It Feels So Good When I Stop
–Title of Joe Pernice’s debut novel (2009)

Or maybe like this:

“As much as I dislike the actual process of writing, there’s always a point, after a half hour, that I really love it.  There’s a real lightness of imagination that you let happen when you’re writing.”
Ethan Canin

Truthfully, some days I can go either way. That has to do more with how much time I have to write, other things going on in my life (i.e., how many family members, employers, etc., are looking for a piece of my ass at that moment), my mood, if I’ve had enough sleep, if I’ve managed to get a yoga session in, and so on. Friday evening was a good night. Tom was off in his own imaginary World of Warcraft. The kid wanted absolutely nothing to do with either of us. In fact, the only people I “owed” something to was my online writing group.

The Scribes and Scribblers (or whatever we call ourselves these days) have been making use lately of a particular kind of prompt that tends to provide amusement for both writers and readers. More importantly, given our busy lives, it doesn’t take much time, usually 15 minutes tops. It’s an easy process; one member provides five random words. You have 15 minutes to write a “little story” that employs all those words in some manner.

Watch out, some folks are purists and insist on using the words exactly as they’re presented. Me, I think that you can conjugate verbs, make plurals, and so on if it helps you to write a story. Flexing your imagination and writing a story is the WHOLE POINT here.

In case you’d like to try the exercise, I’m sharing last week’s word’s below:

position     pause      provide     prize      package

As you can see, they’re all P words. Not sure about the “random” factor in this group. Still, it was a worthy challenge. And after a few moments thought, I started writing. The alliteration, finally, it just overwhelmed me. I couldn’t help it. If I could use a word that began with P, I did. In fact, I broke out the thesaurus after a bit (or presently). Sure, it took longer than 15 minutes, but, you know, I was having a ball playing with all those words. And the group members, once they read it, all mentioned that the story must’ve been fun to write.

That, my friends, is ultimately why I write. And read and create rugs and hike and cook new things and go out for dinner. Because to do them is fun. And challenging, of course. Any publication, any contest win, those are merely nice benefits. Okay, desirable benefits. But it’s finding yourself “in the zone,” as they say, losing all sense of time, that you know you’ve done something worthwhile for yourself.

Challenge:  Use the 5 words in a story of any length. You have 15 minutes (if you choose) to come up with a little story, vignette, scene, whatever you can manage. Share it here, and I’ll share mine come the weekend.

 

 

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March 19, 2014
by Laura S
3 Comments

The old notebooks, the old files – do they scare the crap out of you?

It’s my turn to submit to my writing group this week. Unfortunately, by late last week I still had absolutely no clue as to what I might write. Again, as the lament goes, my life is getting in the way of my fiction. What to do? Letting the group down is NOT an option.

The all-important notebook. (Photo by lusi at rgbstock.com.)

Actually, I have two choices when this kind of thing happens. First I head to a notebook I keep for jotting down ideas, random thoughts, writing prompts (and my responses), all kinds of things. Sometimes it works and I find something worthwhile like an anecdote or an overheard conversation or a scene or even what could be the beginning of a story. That’s what happened last week. Not sure if the story I eventually drafted has any merit; the group will let me know what they think in no uncertain terms. They’ll tell me what they like, what they don’t like, and changes that might help. After I pull the daggers from my flesh, I’ll evaluate that input and go from there.

Of course, sometimes what’s in the notebook refuses to speak to me. Nada, it tells me. I got nothing for you since you haven’t spent enough time with me lately. And that would be true. I can’t remember the last time I had enough time to do morning pages. Or even afternoon pages. What’s a writer with a deadline to do then?

That’s when I open up the old Word files and see how far back my writing goes. Most importantly, I look for something that might be salvageable. Even an idea would be welcome, one that I could play with, freshen up, see where it might take me today, years later. The data on the oldest story in my “repertoire” indicate it’s from 2006. But that’s not true; that ‘s the last time I revised it. I’d guess I started it somewhere around Y2K. There’s stuff – hard copies – somewhere in a file or two in my office too. And, yes, like much of the old stuff in the Word folder, it’s very, very bad writing.

Writing teacher extraordinaire Natalie Goldberg tells students not to throw their writing out, but to save it in a notebook. And she counsels me about my attitude:

“Keeping in one notebook the good and the bad writing–no, don’t even think good and bad; think instead of writing where you were present or not, present and connected to you words and thoughts–is another change to allow all kinds of writing to exist side by side, as though your notebook were Big Mind accepting it all. When you reread your notebook… then you have a better chance to study your mind, to observe its ups and downs, as if the notebook were a graph. …Somehow in seeing the movement of your mind through writing, you become less attached to your thoughts, less critical of them.”

“We have to accept ourselves in order to write,” Goldberg says. I’d add to that that we must also accept our writing – all of it: old, new, stories the writing group ripped apart, stories I won’t show to a soul, and so on. It can only provide ideas and even lessons for future compositions. It will also show you how far you’ve come as a writer.

Do you save your old stories and drafts? Ever look at them, try to rejuvenate them? Or do they just make you cringe?

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March 12, 2014
by Laura S
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What worlds do you write from?

Cast of “Dallas” – one of my worlds.

“I know I walk in and out of several worlds every day.”
- Joy Harjo

We can all agree that our life experiences profoundly affect how and what we write, particularly when we’re talking fiction. I mean that in more than the “write what you know” sense. You can write sci fi or fantasy or speculative fiction – things that actually haven’t happened to you (or anyone) as an author – yet still have your characters influenced by your own religious beliefs, education levels, health issues, and so on.

My own stories have been shaped in some way, majorly or not, by the various worlds and situations  in which I move. For instance:

  • Several of my stories involve mothers as major characters. Coincidence? I think not. I have a mother, and I am a mother. Granted, these days, the latter tends to be more where my head is at; my more current stories reflect this. In one, “Fruit of Her Hands,” a woman who longs to be a better mother has a second pair of arms implanted. Think of all the things you could do with an extra set of hands. Maybe it works out, maybe it doesn’t.
  • In “Crossroads,” published in get born before it went totally online, Johnna’s lying on a OR table going through a D&C after suffering a miscarriage. And she’s contemplating the fate of her marriage. Yep, I’ve been to both of those places, though not necessarily at the same time.
  • Alzheimer’s and dementia have a profound effect on characters in “Blue Beach Towel” and “Final Acts.” Unfortunately, my husband, his family, and I lived in that world until my mother-in-law passed away in late 2012. Many of the scenes in the latter story take place in a nursing home much like Jamie’s; my dog and I still visit patients and other friends we met there. And we hear a lot of stories. Some true, some sort of true, some not true at all. But they’re all good, moving stories.
  • Finally, Peter Rabbit takes quite the risk when he makes a devil’s bargain in “Rabbit Hole.” For someone who’d once been commended by no less than the pope for all he’s done for Christendom, the poor guy’s in deep doo-doo. I can’t even count all the dimensions involved in this story: Larry Hagman of both I Dream of Jeannie and Dallas; Catholicism in all its “glory”; California wine; the old TV specials made by Rankin and Bass; even Santa Claus now depressed by consumerism and his own increasing irrelevance. I watched all those television shows, mourned when Hagman died last year. Oh, and I’ve got A LOT of Catholic education under my belt given my high school and college experiences.

But maybe Anne Rice says it best:

“Writers write about what obsesses them. You draw those cards. I lost my mother when I was 14. My daughter died at the age of 6. I lost my faith as a Catholic. When I’m writing, the darkness is always there. I go where the pain is.”

 
Tell us: what worlds do you hang in? Where are your story ideas consciously or unconsciously conceived?

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March 5, 2014
by Laura S
4 Comments

Who could you cheerfully kill today? And how?

“I probably have not killed anyone in America because I write, I’ve maintained good controls over myself by writing.”
Sonia Sanchez

Folks I could cheerfully kill on on any given day:

You threw what out your car window? (Photo by Trexor14 on sxc.hu.)

  • The little man who lives in my alarm clock and sets it off at 6:25 a.m.
  • The weatherman who gleefully tells us that there will be yet another polar vortex arriving. And a probable snowstorm to go along with it. “No end to this cold in sight!” Guffaw, guffaw.
  • School administrators who tell me to check my kid’s grades online. Teachers who are just plain too busy to put the grades online.
  • The guys at Market Basket who see me coming and hide items on my grocery list. Items I’m flat out of. Yesterday that was the feta cheese brand I like and Dole raisins. Next week’s a crap shoot. Maybe it’ll be our butter or the “everything” bagels the kid eats.
  • All the moms I see driving their big, old, “safe” SUVs on the interstate and texting away. Usually with a couple of toddlers in the backseat. Great role modeling there, lady!
  • The dick tossing a lit cigarette out his vehicle’s window. The world’s his ashtray.
  • Myself for any number of reasons – eating an extra helping or five, not doing my nightly yoga, forgetting an appointment, losing it with the kid or the husband, not writing for myself…

It’s certainly not a comprehensive list. In fact, the longer I stare at the screen, the more examples I come up with. It’s almost an embarrassment of riches! But Sonia Sanchez, is right. Writing in my journal, in fictional stories allows me a certain flexibility in how I release pressure and even violent thoughts. Humor helps too, I find. Though that might not be the case for you. Maybe you’re the kind who needs to know the caliber of the gun she’s pointing or feel the heft of the candlestick in his hands. I can respect that.

Who’s on your (or maybe your character’s) crap list today? Why? Just how will you off him or her? Go ahead, tell us. And remember, the story is all in the details.

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February 26, 2014
by Laura S
3 Comments

A novel does not (always) constitute success, Mr. Clancy.

Success is a finished book, a stack of pages each of which is filled with words. If you reach that point, you have won a victory over yourself no less impressive that sailing single-handed around the world.
-Tom Clancy

Celebrate your success, whatever it might be. (Photo by ericortner at rgbstock.com.)

Not to argue with the esteemed Mr. Clancy (God rest his soul), but success for most of us is NOT a finished book. It might eventually be, but different days and different jobs bring different goals and, therefore, definitions of what success is.

This coming week is a busy writing one for me, but one, unfortunately, that won’t include much fiction writing. (This is driving me more than a little crazy.) But a week with any writing is better than a week without it, particularly when I’m getting paid for it. Products offered by the Polished Paragraphs include company and personal profiles. I interview you and perhaps those who work for you, then write up a hell of a nice article using my creative juices about whatever it is you’d like stressed – your services, products, and so on. The pieces can be used in organizational newsletters, marketing materials, and press releases.

Last week I conducted a phone interview with this crazy busy woman down South – she owns a successful jewelry store/salon/wholesale business. It was difficult for her to make the time to talk to me. But she did. The next day I emailed the article to her for corrections and approval. She called me back a half-hour later. Mr. Clancy’s completed novel had nothing on the sense of accomplishment I felt when the client told me how well I’d written about her business, that she thought the profile was fabulous.

Some days we just don’t have the luxury to be famous authors or renowned scientists or legendary basketballs players. Those are the days we pony up and do what we have to to the best of our abilities. And that is success. If we’re lucky, like I am, the activity itself provides a sense of enjoyment and challenge. If we’re really lucky, someone notices.

For information regarding profiles and other services offered by the Polished Paragraph, contact Laura at her email:

Laura@thepolishedparagraph.com

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February 18, 2014
by Laura S
2 Comments

The kids are home all week! What the hell does a writer do with them?

“Words are like harpoons. Once they go in, they are very hard to pull out.”
Fred Hoyle

When life gives you lemons, you squeeze’em and make lemonade, right? So, squeeze the kids. Okay, maybe not literally, but what about squeezing  words and stories out of them? Kids say the darndest things, you know. So, it could be fun.

Write away, girl! Write away! (Photo by mokra at rgbstock.com.)

Caveat:  Parents of teens, I do not advise these kinds of exercises unless your kid’s already into word games and writing. My kid would rather chew on her arm than do anything that I, as her mother, suggest might be “fun.”

There are all kinds of prompts and ideas to offer kids to start them on their way into a Storyland of their own making. Many are just scaled-back variations of those we use ourselves. Consider:

  • Pull out a bunch of old family photos, ones the kids aren’t necessarily even in. Ask them to create a story to go with the picture. (Whether a kid can actually write a tale depends on their age. A three-year old’s going to have to tell you what he sees.)
  • Buy them a cheap journal and a nice pen or pencil or crayon depending on their level. Urge them to go on a hunt for words that make them laugh and giggle (like cumulus and limbo), words that make them scratch their heads (maybe catalpa), words that sound cool when read out loud (try Lamborghini), words they like (parachute?), and even words they hate (broccoli). Encourage them to illustrate their words, maybe work them into a little poem.
  • Be tourists in your own home. Pretend that your living room or kitchen is a hotel room. Look around and out the windows. What do you see? Describe it to someone who had to stay home. Draw a picture postcard and write what you did today.
  • If they’re old enough to count syllables, introduce them to haikus. You remember the form: 5-7-5 syllables on the 1st-2nd-3rd lines. There’s no need to rhyme, but for an added challenge, older kids could try to rhyme the 1st and 2nd lines.
  • Here are some story “starts from Scholastic.
  • If older kids wish to try something a little more tricky, provide them with four words having nothing to do with one another. Now have them use them all in a story. For a variation, make it a game and give them 20 minutes to do the exercise. Sample words:  scorpion; mirror; floating; orange  OR  satin; lantern; patient; tunnel.

Remember: This is all about having fun with the words. Don’t make it like school. There should be lots of laughter.

Will these games give you the time you need to get your own writing in? Honestly, probably not. But, just maybe, you’ll start to instill a sense of playfulness and love of words into your spawn. And I bet you’ll feel at least some parental pride and get a few laughs out of their attempts. Unless they’re teens, of course. You’re on your own there. Just like me.

To anyone who manages to cajole their kid(s) into doing some writing this vacation week, I’m very willing and happy to “publish” their stories here. That way they can have the joy of seeing what it’s like to share their work with the bigger world. Just type it into the comments and include a first name.

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February 13, 2014
by Laura S
8 Comments

Online grammar – does anyone care if you spell it “there,” “their,” or “they’re”?

“Trevor realized that the odd thing about English is that no matter how much you screw sequences word up up, you understood, still, like Yoda, will be. Other languages don’t work that way. French? Dieu! Misplace a single le or la and an idea vaporizes into a sonic puff. English is flexible: you can jam it into a Cuisinart for an hour, remove it, and meaning will still emerge.”
Douglas Coupland, Generation A

“People who cannot distinguish between good and bad language, or who regard the distinction as unimportant, are unlikely to think carefully about anything else.”
B.R. Myers

Writing online. (Photo by fish at sxc.hu.)

Let’s talk about online grammar today. (Not texting, however. I can stand just so much.) Read the quotes above and consider where you stand. Judging by a lot of the emails and Facebook quotes I receive, the psychology of Coupland’s quote is at work. And that’s okay for a lot of items – a quick note from a friend alerting you to some event or a time to meet, a reminder of some kind, a response to a funny photo, and such. Sloppy spelling, though, still gets me down.

But I receive a lot of newsletters, sales offers, and posts from businesses and organizations too. It’s not so cool to find spelling and other basic grammar errors – like incorrect applications of their, there, and they’re. And it’s totally cringe-inducing when emails come in from my kid’s school and teachers containing bad English. They usually aren’t that long, so, high school educators and administrators, feel free to take a few moments to scan through your message. Spell-check invariably highlights the obvious problems. Listen to it. That way you’re more likely to keep my respect. Of course, you might also consider hiring the Polished Paragraph to proofread your stuff.

But NOTHING is as bad as finding an error in one of my own emails. I’m freakin’ anal before I hit SEND. For heaven’s sake, what do I do for a living? I find instant messaging an incredibly stressful experience, and not just because I can never seem to extricate myself from conversations. Clearly, I am not immune to mistakes and the hurried nature of our society. Though, in all honesty, I would like to be.

Where do you fall in the online language camp?: “Don’t be so hard on them. They’re busy, and I got the point anyway,” OR “Incorrect grammar, particularly on a regular basis, shows a lack of care in other areas of the writer’s life”? And just for fun, what do you think about Margaret Atwood’s assertion below? Is the Internet and all the information contained on it really driving folks to read, folks who would otherwise be illiterate?

“I got into trouble a while ago for saying that I thought the internet led to increased literacy – people scolded me about the shocking grammar to be found online – but I was talking about fundamentals: quite simply, you can’t use the net unless you can read.”
Margaret Atwood

 

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February 5, 2014
by Laura S
2 Comments

SURVEY: Paper or Electronic and Why?

Kindle Fire HDX 7″ (photo courtesy of Office Max)

Do you prefer to read the old-fashioned way – that is, holding printed paper – or on an electronic gadget?

Laura:

  • Newspapers, magazines, and the like – paper. I don’t like to miss anything, and who does the Sudoku and crossword puzzles online?
  • Books – paper, but in the interest of the environment and a relatively imminent, very expensive, cross-country move, I’m trying to do more with my tablet’s Kindle application. But it’s hard! And I’m not sure I’m doing my eyes any favors.

 

Do you prefer to to write longhand on a pad using a pen or pencil or do you do it all on the keyboard?

 

Hieroglyphs (Photo by zinass on sxc.hu)

Laura:

  • Blogs, jobs, and other Polished Paragraph-related items (e.g., personal and company profiles, newsletter articles) are generally composed on the screen for efficiency’s sake.
  • Personal writing – journals, fiction, and exercises/prompts are at least started on paper using a pen or, more often, a good, old, yellow, #2 pencil. Then the writing’s closer to “home,” you know what I mean?

 

So, paper or electronic when you read and write? Why?

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