Friday, February 29, 2008

Men in Trees

I started watching the show when it first came on. My first reaction was not an impressed one, but then I kept watching because I was home and it was on and it was far more interesting than whatever reality show it was scheduled against. Then it started to grow on me, and not just because I'm secretly in love with Alaska.

Last semester, my schedule kept me away from the TV when it was on, but now I'm catching up. I like being able to watch TV shows in rapid succession, it highlights things I wouldn't have noticed watching the episodes one at a time.

Mostly, these past couple of days, I've been struck by two things: characters and plot. You want archetypes? Men in Trees has got loads of 'em. Last night, I couldn't help but notice one in particular.

Ben is a character who's near and dear to my heart because he's a bartender/bar owner. He's also a nicely drawn bartender archetype-type character. I'm most impressed because it took me so long to notice what the writers were doing. In many episodes he's the one behind the bar who's subtly getting into everybody's business and acting as a foil for a number of the characters. As the show goes on, they develop this really great dynamic between him and Jack. Ben is the one who points out, to Jack, what the audience knows. Ben is the one who gives the "hey man, pay attention" talks.

Also, as the one who runs the one bar in the tiny Alaskan town, he's automatically a character who often fulfills the role of host in terms of bringing people together. His bar is something of a refuge (literally, even, in one episode) and sooner or later, everyone it town winds up there. For the sake of the show and getting plots moving, The Chieftain is essential. It's easy to see, from a writing perspective, why the bar and Ben exist. However, it's also easy to forget about the man behind the curtain and just have fun with the story.

Plotwise - they do a good job of building up relationships and making them unique. So, even when I realized they had two simultaneous love-triangle stories going on, I also realized that making that choice wasn't just a matter of laziness and that there were some interesting things going on by having the simultaneous plots. Cool.

So, while the show does certain things that are fairly easy to see why they were done and where they're going, the writers do a good enough job that the transparency doesn't bother me.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


For my Scottish Lit. class, we're going to have a blog. Since this blog will be out in the public realm, that means the comments of people from my class (and the corresponding undergrad class) will be visible for whoever wanders along. This is fuzzy ground, thanks to the university's policies about student privacy.

Ergo, Margaret has told us that we will all be using pseudonyms to do our postings. Cool, huh?

Of course, this creates a huge pile of possibilities. Should I pick a name which represents some homage to a favorite writer? Should I plug in the name of a character from something I've written? Should I use some kind of name pulled from my family? Should my name reflect my course of study for the class and come from a folk song? Or, given the subject of the class, should I pull my name from a Scottish book, or from folklore? So much to choose from, I just don't know. I get the chance here to call myself anything I want. Fun and intimidating at the same time.

"Come on," you say, "It's just a pen name for a class, it's hardly a major decision."

Yeah, I know. But the writer in me loves names. I love finding just the right name for a character, and if I'm going to be a character, I ought to have just the right name too. Oughtn't I?

I guess the real question here is: if I were fictional, what would my author name me?

How about you? If you were in a book, what would your name be? No, your given name doesn't count.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Don't Read That

So... March?

It's trying real hard around here to be spring. The trees are growing some buds, the weather's warming up, and there's even a new baby around. I guess this month's theme is pretty obvious, isn't it?

'Tis the season of new, and I'm going to latch right onto that and say that this is the month for doing something new. This is the month to break your routine, your habits, and that rut you've unknowingly fallen into.

"Um," you say, "That was last month, wasn't it?"

Okay, we're operating under a similar theme. It's the specifics, you see, that are different. Last month was all about shaking up your writing routine. This month is all about shaking up your reading. We've all got our reading stand-bys, whether they're a specific genre, author, or genre (I love how there are two meanings for "genre"). We've also got those that we haven't ventured into yet. Now's the ideal time to do just that.

I hardly ever read poetry. Mostly, my poetry reading experience has been limited to Lit. Survey classes and poetry workshops, i.e. limited. I've decided that I'm going to work on broadening that experience and picking up some poetry books the next time I'm at the library. In the meantime, I'll revisit my old class books. I feel an itch to re-read Frank O'Hara's "Why I Am Not a Painter."

So, whatever you usually read, I'm going to encourage you not to. Read something else instead.

What's your reading comfort zone? How are you going to go outside of it?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Feb. Post Game

For all that January whooshed by, February has seemed to crawl. Funny, that. I like the irony.

My main stated goal for this month was to shake up my writing routine. I got a fountain pen and made a point of hauling myself out into the world at least once a week to do some writing in a place that had fewer distractions than my home. Consider my routine shaken. Well, then the pen started getting ideas and my pattern further changed when I started writing poetry instead of short stories.

Later on, it got even worse when I decided that this month would be the month that I pulled back from having an audience. I didn't submit to the group. Again, with the funny timing - after making that decision, I was propositioned to do a poetry/fiction reading (which was fun) and I made the decision to enter a poetry contest. The best-laid plans, right?

With all this shaking and contradicting, this month really ran with the changing my routine idea and exaggerated it to the point of general anarchy (but not the hurting kind).

Shaking up the writing routine, first times, and trying new things. It only seems fitting that the tail-end of the month featured the debut of baby Bronwen. Infants, yeesh, talk about anarchy...

So, what have I learned? Dunno yet. Thus far, most months have been pretty easy to sum up, but this one's being contrary about that, too. From this month I got: two poems that I know I like; sorta started on a new routine of setting time aside (though helping out with the University faculty search monkey-wrenched that up a few times); an idea about scrapping my previous ideas about organizing my thesis (again); and I got a fountain pen.

Na Na Na Na Na Ne Na Na Na

Look, It's Tuesday!

Between this post and the last there was a weekend somewhere. I think.

I'm behind on stuff, trying to catch up, and I missed some of my primary goals for this month. Whups. Of course, this month had a bit of an anarchist theme, so I'm left with a quandry of whether or not missing those goals was actually part of reaching my overall goal. Hrm...

Right, busy now. More later.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Bleed: Dialogue

I've talked a bit before about the ways things tend to bleed over into other things. Practicing poetry bleeds over into my fiction writing, watching movies bleeds into telling stories, etc. Everyting somehow relates to everything else.

Today, in Comp. we talked about a great essay by Rosina Lippi-Green titled "Teaching Children How to Discriminate: What We Learn from the Big Bad Wolf." The main idea is an analysis of animated Disney movies and how they stereotype characters with accents. For instance, female romantic leads speak American English, baddies often have foreign accents. Coincidence? I think not.

So, we talk about this essay, which bleeds into a conversation about cinema, which bleeds into a conversation about building characters, which bleeds into... and at the end of the line, we're really just talking about stories. You don't hear a character's voice when you're reading a novel, but the way that character's speech is written makes it possible for you to imagine their voice.

Huck Finn, anyone? Exactly.

I love dialogue. I am enamored with the way my characters talk, and it's something I spend a lot of time thinking about. In Oracle, particularly, I have a couple of specific traits for some of the characters - like the one who hardly ever speaks with contractions, except for when she's talking to certain other characters who are the scruffy types.

Joss is an excellent example of character through dialogue - read anything about the Buffy writer's talking about the topic, and it's very clear how that show worked in this regard - and has mastered the art of building characters within the first few lines they speak onscreen.

Listen to the commentary of Blood Diamond where he's talking about Leonardo DiCaprio's use of accent.

There are plenty other examples, but you get the idea. It's got my brain wheels turning today.

And All I Got Was a Snickers Blizzard

Thursday pages were crap today. I went to Dairy Queen to bribe myself with ice cream, but got nowhere.

I tried poetry, nothing. I tried to think of something fiction-y, nothing.

Not writer's block. I still hold to my principle that "writer's block" is synonymous with "cop out." What happened was a day that got eaten up by other obligations and even when I sat down for my designated writing time, those obligations intruded. I wasn't able to slow down enough to focus on stories becuase I was too busy thinking about everything I had to do to prepare for Comp. 101 tomorrow morning, too busy thinking about getting ready for writers group on Sunday, too busy thinking about...

Most of the time I'm pretty good at shutting that stuff out, but I wasn't able to manage today. This past week or two I've been in a writing slump, too much peripheral stuff going on. Fortunately, things on campus are getting ready to slow down a bit, which will be helpful.

How do you deal with focusing on your writing when there's so much else in your life needing attention? Do you have any proven techniques for shutting the peripheral stuff out? How do you get focused?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

My First Reading

I've read poetry for an audience before when I did speech and debate in high school, but it wasn't my own poetry; and I've read my own writing before, but it was in a workshop class with the knowledge that people were soon to offer criticisms. Never before have I done a reading of my own work to an audience that clapped at the end. Yet, tonight, that's exactly what I did.

I read a few poems and one story to an audience of ten or so 8th grade girls, their teacher, and some folks form the Hungry Eye. All-in all, there were fewer than twenty of us. Here's how it went:

I got to the Arts Center, found the room and after some chit chat, Jo and I sat down in front of the gals.

Me: Everybody's sitting so far back. You're all in the third row.
Jo: I say we take out the first two rows so they're all in the first row.
Me: Or, we could make 'em move.
Jo: No, I know. We'll take out all the chairs entirely and just sit on the floor in a circle.

So we did.

We sat in a circle on the floor and the five of us: Juan, Jo, Juliana, Matthew, and I, read poetry and fiction. Then the gals asked us some questions, and we chatted with them for a while. It was intimate and laid back and kind of reminded me of a night out with the Pirates.

One question: Who's your favorite writer?

I said I'd give them three and I named Russell Crowe, Joss Whedon, and Neil Gaiman. I asked them if they'd seen Stardust and one, whose name is India, said she actually had a copy with her.

Afterward, as everybody was getting their stuff together to leave, I asked India if she'd ever read anything else by Neil Gaiman. Then she mentioned that Terry Pratchett was an author she liked, and I couldn't believe my luck. One of her friends came over, then another and then there were four of us talking about Discworld and I told them all to read Good Omens as soon as they could. To which they said, "Oh, that one! It's on our bookshelf right now."

It was a brilliant evening. I had a ball.

I Loathe Thee, Cursive Writing

For part of an SCWP project, I am currently writing a cursive signature.


It has to look pretty, too, so I'm not just signing like I sign my credit card slips (i.e. Ali E[squiggle]).

I remember in elementary school and middle school when I wrote homework in cursive because that's what the teacher wanted. Then in high school no one cared, or they wanted it typed. I immediately dropped cursive writing and did everything print. A while back, for some reason, I was thinking of the cursive alphabet and I couldn't remember how to write a cursive capital F. No joke.

So here I am, very slowly writing a signature over and over. It's annoying, to say the least.

The worst part is the part where I don't have pretty handwriting at the best of times, and while ugly print writing is pretty standard, ugly cursive tends to stick out a bit.

This brings home the connection between writing and how you write. Fountain pens, typing on a computer, using cursive... all are choices that you make, and there are reasons for those choices. (Handwriting analysis, anyone?)

Handwriting in print and in cursive are two completely different animals. So, while I am someone who tends to do loads of longhand writing, it has been a good decade since I wrote a full sentence in cursive. Go figure, eh?

How 'bout you? When you typically do longhand do you write in print or cursive? Or, do you write in combination where some of your letters are print and some are cursive?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Wednesday Reading

A while back Juan was contacted by a middle school teacher from another town who was planning an overnight trip for her 8th grade class. As part of that trip, the Hungry Eye staff is scheduled to do a poetry/fiction reading on Wednesday for these students and anyone else who's interested. It should be fun, I think the 8th graders will make for a great audience.

They also make for a slightly problematic one. Once I committed to be a reader, I tried to think of what I had that would work. I've got two pieces that have been in the Hungry Eye, so that's a starting point. Except, they're both pretty gore-filled. Hrm... I went through a mental list of poems and stories, only to realize that those which came to mind tended to be pretty R rated.

Somehow I've gotten into a pattern of writing dark stories. I didn't mean to, really.

Now, what pieces can I read for 5-10 minutes that don't involve gore or death? I should have something appropriate, right?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Paradox Story

We're in the midst of a search on campus. The English department is looking to fill some faculty positions, one of which is for a Rhetoric/Composition instructor. At the beginning of the candidate visits, I volunteered to help out. Part of my motives are purely selfish - I get to meet and talk with people from around the country who have taught the class I'm teaching now, and I get to add those conversations to my resource bank. So far, I've met two candidates for this position and I've gotten at least one good idea from each of them. On the ride back from the airport today, the second candidate told me a fun story.

She told me about an assignment she gave her Comp. students where she had them research the job fields they were going to college for. Specifically, she had them research the types of writing their indended careers required. It all went swimmingly, until she had a student who was a welder. The student insisted that absolutely no writing was ever required for welding. Then he had one of his welding instructors write a letter to state this point.

I'm entertained.

Lame Poetry and the Zoom-In Theory

Did my Thursday pages today, but was rather dissatisfied with the result. Part of that is circumstantial stuff - I was rushed. I had too much going on today to be able to really sit down and take my time. Part of it was in my approach.

After the Vikings, I've been working mostly on raptor related poetry, drawing on my time as a Raptor Center volunteer. Raptor poetry came easily, it's all about slowing down a moment and painting a picture. I have an easy time of approaching this particular subject that way. Last Saturday I took my fountain pen and a stack of pretty paper to the bar and wrote a pile of stuff while I was there. One after another, bingo-bango.

By today, I hit a point where I felt like I was written out. What else could I say about the birds or the place? I'd covered it all. (Not true, of course, but it felt like it anyway). So, what else? I tried another subject. It was terrible. I kept trying to go at it head on. I should know better, but I couldn't think of how else to go at it. So, I plunged right in and flailed. *Sigh*

Frustrating? You bet.

When I was learning how to ride my bike, my mom taught me that the best way to get from the street to the sidewalk wasn't to go at the curb straight on, but to go at an angle. Then you don't get the big jolt. Same thing with poetry. You don't just say what is, you show it.

My struggle right now is I don't know what I want to show. My best poetry comes from isolating something - a memory, for instance - and breaking it down into little bits. The color of nail polish, the clicking of a hand decked in rings, mascara smudges... Today, though, I just couldn't get from the big picture to the zoom-in.

I just couldn't think of what I wanted to look at that closely.

So, let's get to the question, shall we? (No, that's not the question, you literalist). In this discussion of close looking and poetry, the relevant point is fascination. In order to get to the zoom-in, you've pretty much got to be fascinated by the subject to some degree. Birds of prey fascinate me - no secret there. What fascinates you? Don't get all abstract on me, either. Anything like "the human condition" or "kindness" doesn't count. Give me a tangible, like dental floss or cowboys.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

An Eight Page Paper

Tonight I have my first essay for Scottish Lit. due. The guidelines, among other things, state that it should be about eight pages, but longer is okay.

I remember a time when the idea of writing an eight page paper was a page count that'd put me in a panic. "What can I possibly write about for eight whole pages?!"

These days there's less panic and more, "Okay, it'll take me about this long to read these articles so I can talk about them. About this long to do my Works Cited, and roughly this long to actually write the paper." A little bit of mental math later, and I have pretty good idea of not only how it's possible to write eight pages about anything, but also how long it'll take.

It's funny to think about it. Funnier yet, to think about it in relation to my Comp. 101 class. If I walked in to class tomorrow and announced that they had an eight page paper due next week, I wonder if half the students wouldn't immediately pull out paper bags and start hyperventilating.

How long does it take to write an eight page paper? About a day and a half.

On a related note, I found a nifty book on Scottish folklore in ballads. It's a bit reference heavy, sometimes mentioning half a dozen different ballads in half a page, but there's good stuff in it. Folklore in The English & Scottish Ballads by Lowry Charles Wimberly.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Out of Town Pages?

Last night at the Pirates meeting, D.B. told us all about these programs where, if your application is accepted, you can go hang out at a National Park for free for a week or so just to write. I think it'd be awfully cool.

I've actually been thinking about doing something kinda along these lines (though without the free part) in May. When I went to Estes Park last year, I really liked it. The timing of going in May is great too, thanks to sparce tourists and cottage discounts.

As effective as I've found that getting out of the house for an hour or two to do some writing at the coffee shop is for me, I think that having a whole weekend of the same could be especially productive. Not to mention the walks I can take, the ice cream I can sample, or the cool rock shop that I'd really dig checking out again.

We'll see what happens, May is still a bit of a ways off.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Fridge Story

Once upon a time, it was a slow day at the Raptor Center. I was standing by the fridge in the meat room, looking at two "O" stickers left on the fridge from a time when there were letters on the door indicating... something. It struck me that the "OO" was reminiscent of owl eyeballs, which was especially fitting since, as mentioned, I was at the Raptor Center.

I walked over to the ICU and pulled out a couple of colored Sharpies (usually used for marking birds' feet to keep track of who's who). Thus, the owl doodle on the fridge was born. A few years later, the owl doodle was fading.

On another slow day somebody mentioned this. I headed for the Sharpies, but someone (I think it might've been Peg, or maybe Alex) said, seeing as how we had an assortment of paints left over from various projects, why not refurbish the owl? First step: mixing the paints. A trick, too, as I needed brown and I had to get it out of magenta. Second step: the background. Varnish was involved for the lighter shades of green. As you're imagining, there was a lot of improvisation in this project because I had to make do with what we had.

Third step (a little more involved): We found a slide of a screech owl, pulled the overhead projecter into the meat room, and adjusted things so that the owl was projected on the fridge door. Then I went to work on the owl itself.

And this is how I made my first (and so far, last) fridge mural. Like I said, I can't believe I'd forgotten about it. That fridge is my masterpiece.

This February Thing

I'm diggin' February a lot. Committing to Thursday pages has been a good thing in more ways that one. On one hand, it helps break up my long day off by getting me out of the house and into the public for at least a couple hours. It's good to have that nudge.

On the other hand, it ensures that I'm writing. I used to be really good about writing all the time (thanks High School and boring Gen. Ed. undergrad classes), but anymore I'm out of the habit. My writing schedule has grown to revolve around deadlines: "Group's in two days, I need to write something to submit."

Having the fountain pen is fun. Novelty is always entertaining and using resume paper and a fountain pen makes me feel like a more important writer. My words are special enough for special writing materials. I am just that badass.

The freedom is good too. The mindset change has been helpful. Along with the deadline pattern was the pattern of everything I was writing was winding up with an audience. That makes your mind work differently, knowing that everything you write is going to be read by someone else. That kind of audience awareness isn't a bad thing, but I was due for a break.

It's funny, with all this poetry stuff, I'm reminding myself of memories and things I used to know. For instance, in the course of recycling a binder for my February writings, I came across a picture from a couple years ago.

I couldn't believe it. I had totally forgotten about the fridge.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Theory of Relevance: It's All About Poetry

There's this idea that says when something becomes significant to you, you become more aware of it and therefore notice it everywhere. It's like when I got my car last year and suddenly I was seeing Chevy Cavaliers all around me.

This month, after making the conscious decision to free up my writing, I started writing poetry.

E-mail announcement a couple days ago: it's time for the annual Southern Colorado Women's Poetry Contest, now accepting entries from university students and the community at large.

Shawn stopped by the SCWP office today to pick up some things and we got to talking about her thesis. She's doing a creative one - poetry.

Flyer in the Psych. building: Poetry Slam on campus Wednesday night, open mic.

I can't open my eyes without seeing poetry somewhere. It's got me surrounded! I just may have to check out the Poetry Slam, though. Could be fun... or painful, we'll see.

Like Anne Lamott Says

"Chapter 6 is all typed and tidied and there's no evidence from what you'd read that it was a nightmare to write and that I had no idea what was happening paragraph to paragraph, or felt like I was making it up as I went along (a terrible thing for an author to feel)."

"What?" You say, "Why is the quote from Neil Gaiman if you're talking about Anne Lamott?"

Because I wanted to see if you'd catch it. I'm in that kind of mood today.

No, actually (though the mood thing is accurate) it's because both writers have written about the same thing. When I was deciding on a handout to give my Comp. 101 class today, I briefly considered giving them a chapter from Anne Lamott's book Bird By Bird called "Shitty First Drafts" (i.e. how they're a good thing). In the end, I thought it best to go with another chapter instead, but I did consider it.

This week the class is working up to giving me the final draft of their first formal assignment (due Friday with all the trimmings: brainstorm notes, rough draft, etc.). Today I handed back the copies of their rough drafts which I commented on. I was surprised by the levels of anxiety some students showed about those comments. I had to remind a few that there's a reason they're called rough drafts. There's a reason why revision is important. First you write it, then you fix it, then you make it pretty.

It occurs to me sometimes, largely depending on what I'm writing, that there are times when the messier your rough draft is, the better. If your aim is to make it messy, then when your inner heckler starts speaking up, you can just tell them, "Yeah, I know it's a mess. It's supposed to be. I'm doing this exactly right, so shut up." Liberating. Then your heckler shuts up, your subconscious speaks up, and delightful and unexpected things are more likely to slip in.

Still, I decided on a different reading for my Comp. students. Most of them struggle with the opposite of what a lot of the writers I know struggle with - most of the students I have are struggling with reigning themselves in and focusing on the fact that writing is about communication and that a large amount of freedom in an argumentative essay isn't always a good thing. Thus, the decision on handouts.

Now I seem to have wandered away from my original point (so the heckler informs me). Or, have I? Maybe it's just all very meta, have you thought about that?

In the end, we come back to this idea of the happy medium. Messy is good. Cleaned up and pretty is good too. How to reconcile? Therein lies the beauty of revision.

I'm curious, how "shitty" do your rough drafts tend to be? Do you find you write with different levels of messiness depending on what you're writing? Why? How? How does it all work itself out once you start revising?

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Friday, February 1, 2008

First Peer Review

Today in 101, my students worked on their first peer reviews. Everybody brought copies of the rough draft of their first formal essay. I made goldenrod colored copies of a peer review guide.

Then I explained extra credit to them:
I'm going to take the grades everyone in your group receives on their final draft and average them out. If your group average isn't at a certain minimum, then there is not effect on your grade. If it is above a certain minimum, everybody in your group gets extra points. This is why it behooves you to be a good peer reviewer.

That said, they set to work and for the next forty five minutes the only sounds in the class were paper noises and the occasional student who had a question for me. The best part was, as I walked around and looked over people's shoulders, I saw people writing whole paragraphs of comments on the peer review forms. It was beautiful.

I love collaboration.