Today my fingerprints were documented at the courthouse. (So much for all those nefarious crimes I was going to commit.) It was a step to continue volunteering down at the local juvenile detention center, where I’m been working with an organization called The Beat Within to practice creative writing with the students.

We teach a mini lesson, then give out prompts. The kids can write on the prompts or write whatever they want, and they don’t even have to turn it in to us if they don’t want to. They just need to take some time to express their thoughts on paper. They’re artists once we can convince them to press that pencil to the paper, so far creating nonfiction, essays, fiction, poetry, and raps. Some are all for it, others take a bit of coaxing. Jolly Ranchers are a great reward. If they do give it to us, we type it up and give some feedback, we communicate with them on a personal level, tell them what we enjoyed in their writing, and give some technical advice.

We also submit, when they’d like us to, their work to The Beat Within magazine, which we will then print out for them. So far, we don’t have enough money to print many copies out, but we’ll work on that. This magazine is a chance to prove to the students that they’ve been heard. Someone does listen to what you say. You matter.

I’ve been nervous. I have a lot to learn about teaching, but each week I get a little bit of feedback on how to improve. I have excellent role models to look up to and I’m working to get a feel for how to communicate with the kids. They see through bullshit. You can’t go in there and fake it for an hour. This is refreshing because I fake it a lot.

There are unique challenges for all of us in the room. We can bond together because of these challenges and make something out of it. I’m lucky. This program reminds me how fortunate I am. I think that’s something we all need to keep in mind.

All the Leaves Are Falling

My yard is a disaster it’s still too wet outside to rake. We have the only tree in the neighborhood whose leaves had turned brown and are now falling. In fact, our particular type of tree has these poisonous spiky green walnut things that crash everywhere and sound like someone is knocking on the door or pounding on my car.

It’s also my last week of summer and since I still don’t have a job I’m spending my days on dishes and Sims and writing when I finally get into the mood to do it. I don’t know how it is for everyone else, but for me it’s easier to write when I’m crazy busy and can avoid doing my actual required work by writing instead. Yet when I have nothing to do I have no interest and must fight myself in order to be productive. But maybe that’s because I sit around in my pajamas.

Although I am about to start some creative volunteer work that I’ll talk about when I get further into it.

I am working on a few short stories, which feels good. They actually have ending and I can work on editing them every day. What I do is usually read through them once and edit as I go, and then I start over again from the beginning and go sentence by sentence, word by word. Since I usually use Microsoft Office I put on track changes so that I must force myself to review every change that I’ve made and can actually see my process through colors and underlines and strikethroughs. I’m a visual learner. I will then look at the story as these paragraph blocks that I have to rearrange like a child, when they must fit the right ones through the right shaped holes.

I got more serious about meticulous editing through an essay about line editing where they discussed ZZ Packer’s story “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.” It showed the changes she made from a draft and it made so much sense and it was nice to see an author’s process, not just the final result. Humanizing.

I’m thinking I may actually post some of my writing on here when I get the confidence to do it, we’ll see. But for now, all the leaves are falling and that’s okay because it’s reminder that they’ll come back fresh and green in spring.


Create Your Space

Within two days of having my old laptop return back from the grave, my productivity has skyrocketed. Well, my ability to actually finish some creative work I started about six months ago. This is grand, because for the past two weeks I’ve been anywhere but my own head: exterior house painting, babysitting, applying for jobs, a visit from my mother, avoiding myself by cleaning hour after hour.

So it’s good to return home, and it’s funny how the right feel of keyboard strokes against my fingertips has brought me back even though I’m sitting at the exact same desk. So now I’m thinking about the importance of our stuff.

My partner has recently bought himself a new desktop, which I was convinced at first was an expensive League of Legends machine. But sometimes we feel most ourselves when we can invest in a project, like the creation of our own computer. That machine is a part of him, an extension of himself, something he’s hand crafted. And I’ll admit, his games look friggin’ awesome.

He’s lucky that he can afford to have it; we’re truly fortunate to live in the society we do. Hell I can watch movies whenever I want, how ridiculous is that? It’s always important to appreciate what we have that others don’t and that we have the option to have stuff, stuff that sets us apart from other people. I can hide army men all over the house.  I can keep collections of poetry, graphic novels, and books of quotes in the bathroom.

I was having a conversation related to this idea when my mother was visiting. I told her that I have to do a lot by myself, that I don’t have a lot of the same interests as the people around me. I mean, who’s going to watch mindfuck movie after mindfuck movie with me while I comment on every shot? She’s the same way. I won’t self-classify myself as an oddball but I will say that’s it’s nice to express my quirks through what’s around me, plastic robots, Galileo thermometers, prairie dog prayer flags. It encourages a productive environment.

If you can, find your comfortable place, surround yourself with the stuff that makes you feel like you belong in your own skin, whether it’s that special coffee cup, or your favorite shirt, maybe it’s that poster that nobody thinks is awesome but you. Create your space.

And since I mentioned quotes, here’s one from the Irish edition of Quotable Wisdom,

 “Literature always anticipates life. It does not copy it, but molds it to its purpose.” –Oscar Wilde

Boss Fights

In games, there always seems to be that battle. It’s the one that catches you off guard, the one in which you have to spend hours leveling up or figuring out the right method of attack. Maybe it’s that level you have do over and over again until you get it right.

The nice thing about video games is that once you beat the boss, it doesn’t come back. Well, unless it does, and it’s even harder the second time. But the game always ends… unless it’s one of those games that doesn’t.

So maybe my example here is a little rough, but the point is that we tend to fight our emotions like they’re boss fights. One of my battles is with anger.

I’ve thrown a few phones, been a cabinet slammer, a mess. I try but I don’t always express it healthily, so I always wonder, how the hell do I beat it? There’s supposed to be a top to the hill, you get over it, and you roll back down. There’s always that voice that says, “can’t you just snap out of it?” which then results in an amplification of the rage.

Unfortunately, it’s not something you beat. It’s something you manage, same with all your other feelings. It’s a response. But, crazy enough, we’re allowed to feel. It’s alright to be angry. It’s what you do about that emotion that matters. It’s not fair to others to let it out on others; that’s something my partner told me when I was snapping at him once, and he was right.

So what do I do with it? Managing is much easier in theory. And I struggle with it, alongside plenty of other issues. Everyone carries their boss fights on their back. One thing I do when I’m frustrated is write about angry people, the curmudgeons. It allows me to step out of my own head and think about my emotions from a different perspective. Everything you feel is a tool to help you learn. By teaching my characters a lesson about themselves, a little epiphany moment, I learn a little bit too. Our stories give back to us.


Body Language

I’m sitting here eating ham out of its packaging and thinking about the film I watched the other night. Mt. Hood was out the window, glowing red in dusk, and with my partner’s grandmother I watched Buster Keaton’s 1926 The General.
I have a soft spot for silent film that started with a course German expressionist cinema. I think I was one of a few people in the class who watched Metropolis on the edge of their seat.
Anyway, The General was a hoot, to use one of my favorite colloquialism. Most impressive was perhaps a scene in which a locomotive crashed on a burning bridge and fell into a river. There were no tricks, it was a real train that collapsed on a real bridge, filmed in 1926. They had one take.

As it says underneath the video and on a few other sights, it was one of the most expensive stunts of its time. Wow.
Anyway, I always pay more attention to silent films, and maybe because I need to. Maybe it’s because I can’t skim by on the dialogue and the narrative cueing. So much is told through body language and I think I forgot that sometimes in writing that those physical actions can say a lot. They can enrich the text. They can complicate characters, who may say one thing and then do the other.

There are many ways to enrich the experience of a story. And how lucky we are to have all these angles to tell it from, how every voice is different, and how our slant perspectives build worlds.

Learn Everything

Some of the best fiction writing advice I’ve ever received? Take a poetry course. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky said, “A sentence is like a tune. A memorable sentence gives its emotion a melodic shape. You want to hear it again, say it—in a way, to hum it to yourself. You desire, if only in the sound studio of your imagination, to repeat the physical experience of that sentence. That craving, emotional and intellectual but beginning in the body with a certain gesture of sound, is near the heart of poetry.”

Poetry can transform your prose. In fact, any subject of study can better your writing. Find inspiration in economics, in physics, in psychology, in other languages. I never wanted to pick a major, but I had to, (and my university doesn’t have a creative writing major), so I got into film.

Why? Filmmaking techniques are powerful. they change your perspective on media. I watch films differently, thinking about cuts, and framing, and mise-en-scene and in doing so I study culture. It also has beautiful parallels to writing.

Consider the Kuleshov Effect. An audience was first shown a shot of a bowl of soup. Then a shot of a man’s face. Then a girl in a coffin. His face. A woman on a divan. His face. The audience thought that the man’s expression was different between each shot, but they were actually shown the same image of the man each time.

The audience perceived emotion based off the connections between two visuals. The way we put images on top of each other matters. It’s the basis of Soviet montage theory; meaaning exists between images, in the collision, within editing cuts. It’s easy to think about in poetry. “A continual click of a pen. / The spring in a leg. /The gnaw. The rubbing rows of teeth.” We get the sense of neurosis through the specific images.

When we say something like, “The couple walked by. I crossed my arms.”

We get the meaning in the white space between the sentences. We’ve learned about the narrator through two images put together. How amazing is it that the spaces between our sentences can help us tell our stories? There’s merit to learning how other media function. So no doubt there’s value in learning alternative writing formats. If you write poetry, research some fiction techniques. Fiction writers, practice poetics. Take technical writing. Learn color theory, learn ray tracing, learn price discrimination, learn reality television. Learn everything.

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I’ll Take My Stake Rare, Please

Give me five seconds to sell you. Take this hook and jam it in your mouth, let me reel you out of the water and cook you; let me do it in one sentence because this first sentence is critical to your story’s success. In Clark Blaise’s “How Stories Mean” he says, “More decisions are made on the basis of the first few sentences of a story than on any other part . . . the story seeks its beginning, the story many times is its beginning, amplified.”

My creative writing teacher put it this way, “What’s at stake?” Our first sentence shows us the risk. It reveals what John Barth called the “unstable homeostatic system.” In his essay “Incremental Perturbation: How to Know whether You’ve Got a Plot or Not” he describes this term as a “ground situation: an overtly or latently voltaged state of affairs preexisting the story’s present time . . . [it] is essentially less than stable.” Basically, it’s the trouble. Events before the story takes place which drive the plot, whatever is boiling in the background that will be complicated throughout the story.

So that first sentence expresses the friction, what could be gained, what could be lost. What a load of pressure. Crafting this sentence takes the right combination of spices and marinades, and how long you leave it on the grill (depending on your style and tone.)

Here are a few of my favorite first lines, and little bit on how they look when cut open.

Aimee Bender, “The Rememberer”
“My lover is experiencing reverse evolution.”

This instantly puts us in a type of magical reality, in which the events aren’t allegorical but physically happening. We know the narrator and the subject of the story, and that it’s going to go from big elements to small (reverse evolution.)

Stuart Dybek “Paper Lantern.”
“We were working late on the time machine in the little makeshift lab upstairs.”

The time-machine isn’t quite as literal as reverse evolution in “The Rememberer,” but it sets up a tone of going back into time through memory in the rest of the story. This also an example of a great hook in general.

Raymond Carver “They’re Not Your Husband.”
“Earl Ober was between jobs as a salesman but Doreen, his wife, had gone to work nights as a waitress at a twenty-four hour coffee shop at the edge of town.”

We know the main character’s personality instantly. He’s between jobs so he is out of work, but his attitude and his outlook on the world is like a salesman. “Edge of town” suggests isolation, and likely a shabbier area. Setting indicates situation.

David Quammen “Walking Out.”
“As the train rocked dead at Livingston he saw the man, in a worn khaki shirt with button flaps buttoned, arms crossed. The boy’s hand sprang up by reflex, and his face broke into a smile.”

This is quite possibility my favorite story. It describes the man (the boy’s father) through his clothes and how the flaps of his shirt are actually folded as if they usually aren’t, and his arms crossed suggests fear of socialization. And boy’s reactions “by reflex” and “broke” show how word choice shows his emotional relationship to his father.

Think of how you’re going to cook your first sentence. Consider what’s it’s going to look like when you cut it open to see if it’s done to your liking.

What are some of your favorite first sentences, written by others or ones you’ve written yourself?