What’s in a Poem?

“Poems are not made out of ideas. They’re made out of words.”

Magnetic poetry
Image taken from user zaraki.kenpachi on Flickr Creative Commons.

You’ll have to forgive me, because I am a bit uncertain about the original source of this quote. Originally I had thought it was C.S. Lewis, but upon further research I think that either 1) I was misremembering, or 2) I may have read it in a Lewis work some time ago, but even Lewis was quoting someone else and not attributing the quote to himself. (I want to say it was in An Experiment in Criticism, but I couldn’t find it after briefly re-skimming the chapter on Poetry; I’d have to read more thoroughly to do so). In any case, upon a quick internet search this morning, I’ve found a few different sources attributing this quote not to Lewis at all, but to French poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé.

According to a literary magazine entitled The Paris Review: “Paul Valéry tells the story: The painter Edgar Degas was backhanded-bragging to his friend Stéphane Mallarmé about the poems that he, Degas, had been trying to write. He knew they weren’t great, he said, ‘But I’ve got lots of ideas—too many ideas.’ ‘But my dear Degas,’ the poet replied, ‘poems are not made out of ideas. They’re made of words.'”

Now, after opening with an inspirational-sounding quote, I may surprise you. Because I’m actually not going to take the side of that quote. In the above exchange, I’d put myself in the shoes of Degas, knowing that my poems aren’t always the best or deepest ones in the world, but saying (despite the rebukes of the more deep, artistic poets), “Sure I can write poems. I’ve got a lot of great ideas. That’s what it takes to write a poem, right?”

Yes, obviously, poems contain words, and they shouldn’t be just any words haphazardly thrown together, but words arranged in a specific way based on sound, structure, etc. And I realize that. But for me, a poem still starts with an idea. Every writer is different, of course, and there’s no one correct way to do everything, but for me a poem starts with an idea, a feeling, etc.–and it’s not until later that I can translate that idea into the words which make up a poem.

When I posted one of my poems earlier in the week, I mentioned that some people are talented enough that they can write a beautiful and poignant poem about almost anything–something in nature, a tiny episode out of their day, something they see just walking down the street, etc. Personally, I am not one of those people. In order to make a halfway decent poem (at least, one that I think is halfway decent), in order to really be inspired and care about what I’m writing, I need to base it on something important to me–a feeling, a life experience, something I’ve been going through or thinking about already, etc. It starts with an idea, a strong and powerful and weighty idea that is close to my heart, and I translate it into words later as I go along (sometimes over the course of two or three or more revisions).

I vaguely remember one poem I wrote in a creative writing class in college. It was about nature–something about winter, and the snow melting as spring begins to come along. I may have called it “Waning Winter Wonderland” or something alliterative like that. But I didn’t write it because I was passionate about it and I really felt a deep sense of inspiration to write about the snow; I only wrote it in response to an assignment or writing prompt for class. My professor (who I’m quite certain is a better and more experienced poet than I) seemed to like it, and wrote in a comment that I should “please keep working on this one!” But I don’t think I did. I’m not sure if I even still have the poem anymore or could find it again at this point. While it may have been wise for me to at least take my professor’s advice and continue honing my craft, the poem wasn’t one of my favorite ones, because it wasn’t one that was important to me at the time. It wasn’t born of personal inspiration. It wasn’t about something I was passionate about, and it didn’t really come from my heart.

For me, poems that I write have a very close and personal inspiration. I think that’s why I’ve been told–and I agree with this–that my poems are often like stories. They’re about things that happen or things that people deal with rather than just about things that one might see in nature, for example. Each one contains a story, or at least is born of a story in my mind. When presenting them or reading them aloud to an audience, I may often say something like, “So I wrote this poem at a time when [X] was going on, and that was kind of what made me want to write about it…”

In fact, I do believe that prose and stories are my forte more than poetry is, which is part of why I don’t write poems super often. And when I do, my poems are born of personal experience and personal inspiration. I don’t just sit down and write a poem arbitrarily (unless a college class requires it). I write one every so often when I have a feeling or idea or inspiration that means a lot to me and that I think would be worthy of a poem. Admittedly, it may not seem like the most literary or artistic approach compared to Mallarmé’s lofty philosophy. But it’s what works for me, and as I said, I don’t think there’s any one right formula that works for all authors all the time.

So which way works best for you? If you’ve ever written a poem, do you make them out of words? Or out of ideas? Or out of stories?

Poetry
Image taken from user Signore Aceto on Flickr Creative Commons.

Drawing inspiration from video games (Part 1)

Hello, internet!

Cards on the table: I completely forgot that this week was my week here on The Art of Writing. As such, I’ve prepared absolutely no material for you, and I’m going to be making it up pretty much as I go along. I feel a little like Gromit, the anthropomorphic dog in the treasured British clay-animation film Wallace & Gromit in the Wrong Trousers, speeding along on an electric train and laying track hurriedly in front of me as I go, as illustrated in this helpful gif.

giphy

Hopefully it will be a fun experiment for both of us.

One thing I have been doing a lot of in the last week is playing video games, so let’s riff off that to start with, and talk about how video games can inspire really good writing.

Before I delve into what I’ve been playing, and how it’s been influencing my writing, I want to quickly discard any stigma surrounding video games. Some people might scoff at the suggestion that writers of literature have anything to learn from the story-telling, worldbuilding, or characterisation of interactive entertainment like video games, but I couldn’t disagree more. I think there’s a general scepticism towards video games among the same demographic who are sceptical of genre literature (the industry term, sometimes used unkindly, for sci-fi, and fantasy, and anything which isn’t ‘serious’ literature).  I know I’m in friendly territory here, among my fellow nerds. None of you are likely to think less of any piece of media just because it contains dragons and challenges your imagination by taking place in a fantasy world. But some people baulk at video games just the same way they baulk at Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings, and that saddens me a little. Art doesn’t implicitly lose value because it relies on fantastical tropes instead of the tropes and hallmarks of ‘mainstream’ literary fiction. Stories aren’t inherently less complex or robust because they’re being told through the medium of an interactive video game. Writing doesn’t inherently lose value if it draws inspiration from video games or shares a lot of stylistic elements. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but there are some people who still don’t see video games as a valid medium for artful storytelling. And I am sad for them, because they’re missing out. Not just on some great art, but on some lush material which can be mined for inspiration.

Writers can choose how much they want their gaming life to influence their writing, and whether they want to disguise their influences or make them explicitly obvious. If you love a video game world enough to want to write stories within that universe, there’s nothing stopping you, and your stories don’t lose any value just because they’re set in a pre-existing universe. A close friend of mine has been writing some excellent fiction set in the Mass Effect universe and posting it online for fans of the series to enjoy, and I’ve been reading it with relish, even though I wasn’t a fan of Mass Effect when I started. (Although, binge-gamer than I am, I have since played through the first two games of the series and enjoyed them both tremendously).

Nathaniel is unlikely to make any money from this particular story, but that’s not why he’s writing it. Not all art is intended for publication, and once again, it doesn’t necessarily lose any value as a story just because it’s available freely on the internet. But if you’re planning to publish your writing and adapt your gaming experiences into your own fantasy world, then it’s probably a good idea to distance yourself from your influences: lest ye fall foul of the thin line between emulation and plagiarism.

That becomes a lot easier when you’re drawing inspiration from an open-world game. Recently, I’ve been playing my favourite video game, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It’s now five years old, so I’m not going to bother with a belated review. Suffice to say I adore playing it, which I’ve been doing sporadically since 2013, but I have yet to complete it, so packed is it with excellent content. My fondness for Skyrim is perhaps best illustrated by measuring the slightly destructive influence that it has had on my life: it became my favourite form of procrastination during my third year of university, and was instrumental in the deterioration of at least one romantic relationship. I regret neither of these things. I spent my evenings reading books of magical lore in my study at the College of Winterhold when I should have been reading about seventeenth-century economics for an upcoming exam. By night, I crawled through ancient catacombs in the darkest bowels of Nirn, destroying undead wights and uholy Draugr with the righteous purity of cleansing fire. As the sun rose outside, I fought with fearsome Dragon Priests on storm-wrought mountaintops, because their aspect seemed less daunting than the hardships of writing my dissertation. When I play Skyrim, I have private little adventures, and then I’m often inspired to write about them.

If I adapted my adventures into prose word-for-word, using the same name for every character and location, depicting events in the very same order, then I would be committing plagarism. But that’s never what I’m inspired to do. The important thing with roleplaying games is that you can take away the role-playing element and leave the game itself behind. Role-playing games are designed to provide you with a bare skeleton that serves as a scaffold for your adventures: they give you the building blocks of a story, and you can assemble them however you want. As I’m playing through the story that the developers have created,  I’m imagining the thoughts and feelings of my character and the other characters that they encounter. I’m wondering what might be different if the events were happening outside the confines of a pre-programmed environment. Sometimes, even with a vast open-world game like Skyrim, I’m raging at the limited choices that the game allows. I’m thinking “if I had control of this story, my character wouldn’t be picking any of these options” – and at that point, my interpretation of the player character has become something separate from the game itself. It’s become something that I can extract from the game and insert into my own writing.

I’m sure that many gamers do the same thing when they’re playing a role-playing game, especially if they also happen to be writers. I can guarantee that your experience as a player – your interpretation of the game’s events – will vary dramatically from the experiences and interpretations of any other player. Your character’s progress through the game world, the story that you decided to create in the sandbox that the game provided, is unique, and it belongs to you. And that’s where you stop plagiarising and start creating your own content. You’re drawing your inspiration out of your gaming experiences like a sword being drawn out of a forge, which you can then temper over time, refolding and reheating until it’s become something that’s entirely yours.

I’m running out of room here, and I still haven’t got to my point – so I think I’m going to elaborate on this over the course of the week, and put it into action for you to watch. Come back on Thursday to see how I go about adapting my in-game experiences into prose. Then on Sunday I’ll actually post a short story that I’ve adapted from in-game events.

In the meantime, I suppose I’d better log into Steam and gather some more in-game experiences that I can adapt. Purely for research purposes, you understand…

 

A New Novel, and that one big break we’ve all been waiting for

If you’re passionate about writing fiction and you’ve been writing for any amount of time, then maybe you’ve dreamed of getting a novel published, or becoming a bestselling author someday. I know I have, and it’s something I still aspire to (you know, in all of that free time I have in between teaching and figuring out adulthood). While I have self-published and gotten gradual bits of publicity here and there, I’m still a long way from “that one big break” that many of us hope for.

Nonetheless, I’m here today to offer hope to all of you aspiring writers, and to tell you that actual, legitimate publication is a completely achievable goal. And what’s more, I can tell you from personal experience of a longtime aspiring writer who has recently achieved that goal–or at least begun to. No, it’s not me. It’s my dad.

Brace yourself. NaNoWriMo is coming.
Brace yourself. NaNoWriMo is coming.

In addition to typical Dad activities like telling lame jokes and offering wise insights, my dad, Mark R. Harris, has been an English professor for years and has been a writer on the side. He’s published the occasional poem and has worked on other projects now and again too. I think, after so much time spent reading and teaching great American novels, he’s always kind of wanted to write one himself. And now he has. After I got him involved in National Novel Writing Month a few years ago (hey, I’ll take a little bit of credit where I can), he completed and has been revising a manuscript, and now has a book deal with an actual publisher. His original novel, entitled Fire in the Bones, is now officially in the process of being published.

So what does this mean for you? I’ll tell you, but first I’m going to give a bit of a plug for my dad. After all, as an aspiring writer, you want to stay on top of what other up-and-coming writers are doing, and get tips and ideas from them, right? Dad is in the process of trying to build an audience before the book comes out, and it would be great to have you on board. He has a Facebook page entitled Mark R. Harris and a blog called Inkglish. My dad has been a major source of a lot of good things in my life, including my interests in literature, Christianity, superheroes, and bad puns. If you’ve enjoyed any of my writings on this blog, or are willing to give an up-and-coming author a chance, I’d ask you to go and give Dad’s pages a like and follow. You’re not committing to buying the book, but you’d get updates about when it’s coming out, and maybe pick up a few other cool things along the way.

What else does this mean for you? It means that you are interesting enough to write a novel. Yes, you, in your ordinary, average, and yet beautifully complex life. I haven’t read Dad’s full manuscript yet, but my understanding is that it’s semi-autobiographical, about a guy growing up around the ’70s and searching for some meaningful fulfillment in life. And if an ordinary guy like my dad can turn a series of life episodes into a novel good enough for publication, then I’m betting that you’ve got a story or two somewhere inside you too. Keep searching and writing, and it’ll find its way out sooner or later.

Lastly, this means that there’s hope. If you’ve been trying to get into the writing world for a while without results, don’t give up. Sometimes it takes years of trial and error, or a lot of small steps leading up to big ones, or maybe just the right amount of perseverance and motivation, to make a dream into a reality. Sometimes you may not taste the fruits of your labor for years–but hey, better late than never, right? Don’t get discouraged just because you don’t see immediate results. Keep working and keep doing your best. I can’t promise that every one of you will become big-name bestselling authors–heck, I can’t even promise that for myself. But it will definitely never happen if you don’t keep trying.

Actual picture of my dad, Mark R. Harris, soon-to-be-published author
Actual picture of my dad, Mark R. Harris, soon-to-be-published author

So, in short, keep doing what you’re doing. Keep on writing and looking for opportunities, because you never know what might come up. And also, please go like my dad’s page. I’ll leave you with a published poem of his, hoping that you’ll like what you see:

Morning, Sickling

by Mark R. Harris

A black dawn this morning,
but feeling pastoral,
I ventured out
in spite.

The air was gone,
at first–
then became solid,
creeping beads across
my tight forehead.

I tried an apostrophe:
“O wind, rend the heat–“
that didn’t work.

The lifeless air
matched my thoughts,
forging on like a lost soldier.

I flailed,
wielding the sickle blindly,
trying to lay the sharp
bitter grass low.

Thick roots seemed to ooze,
bent, buckled
before my masterful strokes.

But I heaved and sighed,
sweat flowing freely,
coating my hands, neck,
hardening ribs,

and the strokes came slower,
stiffer,
duller…stopped, I cleared my vision
with a swipe of shaking forearm.

No light yet.

O wind, get over here already.

Overdue!

I moved into my new flat this past weekend, Sunday was taken up with watching the new episode of Doctor Who, and Monday necessitated a great deal of unpacking in addition to job prep for my last day of teacher training (for today), so when I suddenly realized at about 1930 on Monday night that I had to write a post, I was somewhat flummoxed. I had no ideas whatsoever for a topic, and I was contemplating the writer’s version of ritual seppuku (making and sharpening your own quill pen before disemboweling yourself with it as you chant the names of all your literary ancestors in hopes that they will forgive you), when Tom stepped in with an alternative.

humperdinck
But not like this.

“Write a short story!” he said, as I sharpened my quill, only half-paying attention. “About a time traveler,” he added, knowing exactly what would pique my interest. A few more interesting details were added to the prompt, and I arose, dramatically tossing my quill to the side, salvation in sight. “I will take it! I will take the Ring to Mordor!” I declared, apparently unaware of the irrelevance of the reference, and began to write. For your enjoyment today, I present “Overdue!” a short story by yours truly.

****************

You’d think that being a time traveller would mean never having to deal with library fines. It’s a completely logical thought to have, what with the ability to jump around the time stream and all, but it’s also completely wrong. Studies have actually proven that owners of time machines are more than twelve times more likely to be chronically late about returning their books. The entire Warsaw library system is funded completely by fines from sheepish chrononauts who thought they were popping in right at closing on the due date to return their copies of Welles’s novels and other historical fiction, only to discover they were showing up at noon two years, six months, and four days later. “Sounds like the voice of experience,” you might say, and you’re quite right, kids. My name is Morstan, Elliott Morstan, and I’m a time traveller. And as of three days ago by linear time, I’m also a library criminal.

Until recently, I’d always been conscientious about taking care of my library books. They keep telling you the rules: never leave your library book in your time machine, don’t check out books from libraries in more than one time period at the same time, and above all, don’t ever try to return your book while using your machine. We all know libraries are bound by linear time in order to contain all the strange time irregularities that happen within, and strange things sometimes happen if you mess around with that. We’ve all heard about what happened when someone broke the rules in Alexandria.

Oops.

But even though we know these stories, something deep down inside still whispers “but it could never happen to me. I’m so much more careful; I’d never cross my own time stream while returning a book” and so on and so forth. That’s what I thought, too, when I took my library copy of the best-selling theoretical manual Wibbley-Wobbley, Timey-Wimey, and Other Stuff for the Discerning Time Traveler by R.T. Davies, along to occupy me during the boring bits of the Battle of Hastings. This in and of itself isn’t a problem…but I became so engrossed in the battle that I left the book inside my machine. All on its own. With all of that peculiar book magic that wreaks havoc on the temporal mechanics of any time engine if left unsupervised.

Ugh. Keep in mind, this was a genuine moment of forgetfulness. Not a good thing to do, but not criminal.

So when I made the return journey home, I planned to arrive just 5 minutes after I left, which would give me two hours to finish my book before returning it. I opened the door, stepped out, yawned, and then my jaw dropped as I stared ahead, terrified. Where the library had once stood instead loomed a giant Starbucks. The 50-mile high green and white logo leered at me as it proudly pronounced in glowing neon letters, “Meeting your linear caffeine needs since 2367.”

The library was closed.

My book was at least 50 years overdue.

When the library branch police caught up with me, and we all know they always will find you if your book is overdue, the fines would be horrendous. I’d never be able to pay them off. And I’d never be able to live with the shame of having my name on the list of those “Banned for Reckless Endangerment of a Book,” the terrible fate of those who eat tomato sauce near a book or return it more than 5 years overdue. I had to go back. Surely just going back along my own time stream to the library just long enough to drop my book in the slot wouldn’t hurt anyone… Fortified by resolve and blinding fear, I jumped back into my ship and headed back for the original due date.

Upon landing (in the correct date this time), I opened the door and cautiously peered out. The fabric of reality seemed to be holding together pretty well thus far. Emboldened, I grabbed the book and stepped out, prepared to make a dash for the return slot just a few feet away. But the moment both feet touched the ground, I realized I’d made a huge mistake. Time seemed to constrict and expand all at the same time. Something started screaming in a high-pitched tone that threatened to shred my eardrums. The whole world began to shake and I felt as though I was about to turn inside out and explode. Terrified, I dropped to the ground, curled up in a ball, and began pleading with the universe to calm down.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I sobbed. “Just please stop. It was stupid of me. Don’t unravel all of space and time. I’ll never do it again, I promise.”

“We know you won’t,” a cool voice said from behind me. I sat up, my eyes blurry, to find myself surrounded by severe-looking people in dark red uniforms.

Damn…not the library police! Dear god, please no.

The speaker, a stern woman in a peaked cap glared down at me over the bridge of her spectacles. “You are lucky we were on hand to stabilize the fabric of reality before your reckless actions could cause any real damage to the universe,” she said, nostrils flaring. I shivered. “We cannot allow such actions to pass with just a warning. Your machine will be confiscated and you are hereby restricted to the index room for twenty years, with no chance of parole.” I stared at her in horror. The index room…where I would only ever be able to see the bibliographical information for books but never see the books themselves.

“Mercy,” I pleaded, kneeling as the tears streamed from my eyes. “Anything but the index room!”

It was clear that to her, the matter was now over. “Confiscate her library card and give her an index room pass,” she declared to the uniformed officers as she swept past me.

“Yes, Madame Librarian.”

I have been restricted to the index room for three days now, and I already feel my soul dying. Follow the rules, kids, no matter what time you’re in. Don’t be like me. Don’t be…a library criminal.

This segment of the Library Criminals PSA cycle is brought to you by Librarians Against Time-Space Book Negligence. Don’t read and time travel.

“She’s My What?!”: Discovering Character Relationships

Yeah, you know where this is going.
Yeah, you know where this is going.

Character dynamics are a tricky business. I was working on my novel earlier, and I had two characters, who hadn’t previously interacted, about to meet. As I wrote the lead-in, there was something…off about the character whose point of view I was writing from. I couldn’t quite figure out what it was, but beneath his annoyed scowl and general irreverent attitude towards the situation he was currently in, something strange was going on. Rather than try to figure it out, I decided to keep writing and just see what happened. The scene progressed, the door opened, the two characters came face-to-face, and my narrator took in his first impressions of her, and then I suddenly tuned back in at the moment he was thinking “…because she’s my sister.”

Wait, what?

Nothing has ever stopped me dead in my tracks during a writing spree as much as that little revelation did. Were it not for the fact that I never wrote any sexual tension into their relationship, I am certain that my stupefaction would have rivaled that of George Lucas when he suddenly realized 3/4 of the way through filming The Empire Strikes Back that the male and female leads were siblings.

“Really, guys?” I grumbled in an attractively sulky manner while still maintaining an air of authoritative pique. “You couldn’t have told me this earlier?”

Both of them shrugged, smirked, and told me it was on a need-to-know basis and I didn’t need to know until they officially met on the page. Brats.

Stop smirking, guys.
Stop smirking, guys.

Anyways, the point is that not knowing every detail of your characters’ relationships with each other isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When I visualized both of these characters, they had a strictly businesslike interaction based on their duties and social interactions within their caste. The moment they met on paper, though, the relationship changed and there’s now some really interesting tension that adds depth to both of them…and, as I realized while I was working on the next chapter, not only fixes a plot problem I’d been worrying over, but also, through their interactions, revealed a great deal more about the social hierarchies and history of the society than even I was aware of, and I’d been working on world-building for months at that point. As weird or annoying as it may be when you randomly discover such important information as family or relationship connections that far into writing (I’d hit just over 10,000 words at that point), and even if it turns some of your plot ideas upside down (which it did for me), letting some of your character relationships develop naturally and reveal themselves to you on their own can be both fun and beneficial for your story. Since this incident, I’ve had one more surprise familial connection jump up out of nowhere between to highly unlikely characters, but again, it’s solved more problems than it’s caused, and it’s been quite an adventure  figuring out all the political, social, and interpersonal ramifications of this new relationship. If you have any stories of similar discoveries, I’d love to hear about them! In the meantime, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go figure out how my main characters are going to react to this latest tabloidesque revelation.

“Make ‘Em Laugh!”: Basic Tips for Funny Creative Nonfiction

For my past couple of posts, I talked a little bit about creative nonfiction. I gave a brief example and then tried to give a working definition and explain how creative nonfiction relates to writing fiction. My basic definition of the genre is this: stories that are true (more or less) but which, just like fictional stories, are told with creativity, with artistic style and authorial voice and good narrative techniques.

Today I’d like to talk about one of my favorite kinds of creative nonfiction: the funny kind. Because who doesn’t like to laugh at a good, funny story? If you have any interest at all in writing humorous stories—short fiction, satire, stage or screen plays, or even a comic relief character within a more serious plot—then it may help you to get some good practice by looking into funny creative nonfiction. And even though we don’t always use the exact term “creative nonfiction,” I think this genre has already pervaded our culture more than we realize. Allow me to explain.

Some of us already watch funny creative non-fiction without even knowing it. What’s one type of entertainment that revolves

Chris Hardwick performing stand-up comedy
Celebrity Chris Hardwick performing stand-up comedy

entirely around people telling funny stories in creative ways? Stand-up comedy, of course. Depending on the particular comedian and their typical subject matter, stand-up comedy is little more than telling true stories or talking about real topics, but with a certain method of delivery and timing that will make people laugh. Recently, I’ve been doing some freelance writing for a little extra cash, and several of the jobs I’ve taken have been descriptions of various stand-up comedians based on their clips on Vimeo. I have to find different wordings to describe what they’re doing, and I’ve noticed that a lot of times I just say that the comedian “tells the story of” something or “describes his experiences with” a particular event . They’re basically just telling true life stories in funny ways. That’s all it is.

If you need some funny inspiration from stand-up comedy, then there are probably a lot of names I could recommend, and you may very well have a few favorites of your own too. But, based on some of the jobs I’ve taken recently, I’d suggest you look up some of the following: Daren Streblow, David Dean, Jeff Allen, Bob Stromberg, and Taylor Mason.

Also, in my last post, I mentioned David Sedaris as one of the big names in contemporary creative non-fiction. If you get a chance, you should look up a video of him reading some of his works to an audience, because his essays are (often) funny, and so reading them live becomes a lot like a stand-up comedy routine. When I took my class on creative non-fiction, our professor showed us a clip of Sedaris reciting one called “Six to Eight Black Men.” My prof also remarked on how great it is that someone in the field of creative writing can gain fame and a living just by reading his works to an audience. You should check it out.

Do you know where else a lot of us read and do funny creative nonfiction? Social media. Think about it. Let’s say you had aSocial Media Explained funny or awkward moment in your day and you want to share it with your friends. But, instead of just reporting what happened verbatim, you decide to give it a little sarcastic or witty twist. That counts as creative nonfiction, even if it’s just a few sentences for a quick status update . You’re telling a story, or a snippet of your life, in a creative and funny way.

I’ll give you a few examples of my own from my recent Facebook usage:

  • “Last night I had a dream that I still had papers to grade. This whole Master’s degree thing is gonna take a little while to recover from.”
  • “Don’t you hate it when your alarm goes off in the morning and you just know you forgot to do something really important? For example, my alarm just went off this morning, and I realized that I forgot to go to sleep last night.”
  • “Friends, I need some professional advice. If I responded to an online pet-sitting ad, and the owner described her house as a bachelorette pad with lots of books and sci-fi stuff, then at what point is it acceptable to ask her to marry me?”

Of course, the sort of creative non-fiction that’s done on social media also translates easily into blog-writing, which I touched on in my last post. A lot of bloggers (myself included) like to try to spin unique, awkward life situations into funny,  relatable written stories. The main difference is that, if I just have one quick moment to share, then it usually turns into a Facebook status, but if I have a fuller story then I can make it into a blog post.

However, this sort of writing can still present a problem. As the writing professor I used to work for has sometimes said, “You’re not always as funny as you think you are.” For example, I’ve written blog posts about bad things happening to me, or disappointments in the area of romance, and I’ve thought to myself, “This is funny, because I’m looking back on it and laughing now.” As they say, tragedy plus time equals comedy. But I’ve had some readers interpret those posts as still being sad, serious, or sympathetic rather than funny. In order to be funny, I need to not just describe events objectively as they happened, but make sure I emphasize the sarcastic/facetious tone, focus on portraying myself as a comical character, etc. It may take practice, but it can be done, especially with helpful inspiration from some of the other funny sources I’ve listed above.

If you’re interested in writing funny, lighthearted, or tongue-in-cheek fiction of any sort, then try out some funny creative non-fiction first. Chances are, if you have a Facebook or Twitter, that you’ve already done some without realizing it. But find some funny, awkward, or noteworthy moments in your life, and figure out how to tell those stories in the best and funniest way you can.

Autumnal Inspiration

leavesFall is my second-favorite season, just behind winter. It inspires my creativity in ways summer and spring can never manage. However, for most of us, especially those in education, fall is also the busiest time of the year, with classes, midterms, work, grading, and so on. As a result, it can be hard to find time to write. I personally haven’t done any creative writing in over three weeks, which is downright depressing. I think it’s time to change that. So today, I want to leave you with a challenge: find an hour, or even thirty minutes in one day this week, and let yourself be inspired by autumn and everything about it. I don’t mean go sit in Starbucks and bury your face in a Pumpkin Spice Latte (although one of those beverages can be involved if you so desire). Instead, go outside. Take a walk in the woods. Sit on your front porch and watch a rainstorm. Relax under a tree and just look at the multi-colored leaves. Get out and enjoy the beautiful weather. Take a notebook with you, and after a few minutes of relaxation and inspiration, just start writing. It doesn’t matter what you write or how good it is. Just write until you feel the need to stop or until you run out of time. Give yourself the time to write and enjoy the Fall 🙂 I know I will. Feel free to share with us whatever ideas Autumn brings your way!

Scene Challenge of the Week

This is the book I'd use. Love this book.
This is the book I’d use. Love this book.

So, I have to admit that I’m really enjoying being in school again. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty sure I failed my first paper (think I said that already), I’m overworked, have no money, and I just spent all day reading philosophy books, but… I just spent all day reading philosophy books. Seriously, exhausting but so much fun! Right now I’m working on Bryan Van Norden’s Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy, Robert Niebuhr’s The Responsible Self, and C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man (I’m hoping to have the last two finished by Friday). It’s fascinating reading, though the first is definitely my favorite of this set. Anyway, you’re here for a writing exercise, and today’s exercise is a scene challenge. If you can’t remember the rules, I’ll provide them: I provide you with specific rules for how to write a particular scene.  Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction.  If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit.  If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.

Your Challenge: amazingly enough I want you to write a scene about absolute submission. This is going to be a variation of the movie/book scene challenges we’ve done in the past. Choose one of your favorite scenes from a good book or movie about struggle and find a moment of absolute submission in the middle of it. However, instead of simply rewriting the scene, I want you to write a version of what happens that is entirely your own. Your own voice, your own characters, your own setting. Everything should be your own. This isn’t a simple rewrite for practice. I want you to write a scene that reflects the same mood, evokes the same emotions, and handles plot in the same way, but that is still completely your own work.

Defeating Writer’s Block 3: Do Not Edit

I’m on this topic as I face a writer’s temptation, and to succumb to these snares sends one to the purgatory of a special kind of writer’s block. I write at a speed of approximately one chapter a night. Sometimes it’s more, often it’s less, but at a point I run into a wall and can’t move forward. At this point I take pleasure in the finer things in life, since I’ve already cleaned the house as an excuse not to write.

When I get closer to finishing, I do not appreciate this open space. I want to write all the time, dedicating every waking minute not at work to my literary pursuits, so there is now the temptation to edit. I want to print it out and start editing and fixing plot holes once I hit that wall of productive writing.

Often times, people don’t get this far without editing. I had someone tell me you’re to write three chapters, then go back and edit them. Write another two chapters and edit all five. This is going to be great in making sure everything is put together in a solid manner. It will also take you a decade to finish a book.

For those who like going back and editing what is there, some of you are very capable. I have a friend who goes back and rereads what she wrote the other day (a very good practice), and does minor grammar fixes and that’s it. She has amazing willpower. Here is my problem, and the problem with many others who go back and edit. You see all of the errors, the clunky dialogue, the plot hole you dug, and you freeze. Your eyes go wide, you start to freak out, and you go into perfectionist mode.

Editing (and eating) is a dangerous game, Mr. Archer.
Editing (and eating) is a dangerous game, Mr. Archer. And is that a bottle of wine?! I don’t remember it, I swear, but it does help with the self doubt of editing. Not the grammar, though.

Instead of writing that day, you go back and completely edit everything done. You edit it again and again, pull out your hair, and when baldness has nearly taken root, you throw out the manuscript and swear never to write again. While returning to the beginning once finished will still surely put you in a funk, the book is finished. It just needs refining. Better to finish and refine, than to refine as if to finish.

While this advice may not work for all of you, I am betting the vast majority has hit this block. I will roll the dice that several have reached a point where they thought it would be fun to edit, only to enter a Twilight Zone which disbanded any courage to finish the story. If you have found you are one of those people, heed these warnings. While I highly suggest reading a few paragraphs from the previous writing session, do not sit down with the intent to edit until the final words are kindly placed upon the document. That negative inner editor will hate you, but that part of you who always wanted to finish a novel will hug you until you feel smothered.

Happy writing!

Poetry: The Castle Crumbles

fantasy castle in cloudsI’m really busy with my thesis work this week, so I thought I would share some more of my poetry with you. I wrote this particular poem after a really bad breakup. It was inspired by a quote from Henry David Thoreau: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” Enjoy 🙂

The Castle Crumbles

We built a castle in the air—

and as Thoreau or maybe Emerson advise,

we tried to put a foundation under it—

and it was all I could have wished.

Though I’ve never been much for dreams,

I liked this one, perhaps or certainly because

it seemed real. We watched the thunderstorms

and listened to the rain crash around us,

beauty so great we thought we’d never want to leave.

I couldn’t see the ground beneath us anymore,

but I said it was ok because our castle was still anchored.

A good castle is mostly flights of fantasy, with just a dash

of intruding reality to keep you sane.

But one day without warning,

the storms cleared and I found reality far away.

Most fantasies crack before they collapse,

but our castle crumbled at a touch of the sun.

We built too high and forgot our roots

and all I could do was watch as things fell apart.

Now, from earth, I see only broken remnants.

I’ll leave the castles in the air to the dreamers,

and content myself with the storms below.