Writing Horoscopes

Freewriting, On Writing

Cancer (June 22 – July 22)
Set aside some time this week to watch people at the park, the café, or the doctor’s office waiting room. Go wherever your current tale is set. Pay attention to the movements, appearances, and conversations that make these people real. “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature,” Cancer Ernest Hemingway reminds us.

Leo (July 23 – August 22)
Leo, your comedic timing will be spot on this week. Make sure that every pun leaving your fingertips is working in service of its larger meaning this week. As lioness Dorothy Parker said, “Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.”

Virgo (August 23 – September 22)
Virgo Roald Dahl once said, “A writer of fiction lives in fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not.” Don’t let that fear stall you this week, Virgo. Instead of opening your Word document and experiencing stage fright, tackle that electric white page like a gardener would as he tilled his spring beds. Seize the opportunity to plant, grow, weed, and nurture your ideas.

Libra (September 23 – October 22)
“I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil,” admitted fellow Libra Truman Capote. He was speaking of revision. Libra, this week the scales have tipped in favor of cutting, adding, and rewording rather than creating new material. Work through your past drafts dramatically on the first pass and judiciously on the second.

Scorpio (October 23 – November 21)
“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant,”
counsels Robert Louis Stevenson. If you haven’t sent out any material in a few months, don’t fret, Scorpio. Sometimes it’s more important to soak up new experiences, sometimes to sow and sometimes to reap. Focus your creative energies now on generating more new material.

Sagittarius (November 22 – December 21)

According to Sagittarian Mark Twain, “The most interesting information comes from children, for they tell all they know and then stop.” My advice to you this week: chat with that twelve year-old down the block. She knows more than you think she does, and won’t hold back. There’s great material in what she has to say, and perhaps you’ll find the answer to your current writing problem.

Capricorn (December 22 – January 19)
This week you will have a knack for picking up on vocal rhythms, dialects, and rural poetics. Take advantage of Mercury in cross-alignment by getting out of your apartment, your neighborhood, your town—step out of the familiar. Follow, pause, and listen, listen, listen. Open yourself to the mystery and let it in. As fellow Capricorn, Edgar Allan Poe said, “I wish I could write as mysterious as a cat.”

Aquarius (January 20 – February 18)
Aquarius, you are about to enter a period of writing that demonstrates a lyrical clarity marked by charm and gracefulness. Run with it. Let every quirk stay, mingle, and merge with your current project. You never know what you’ll keep in the next draft, but you know it’ll come from this one. Aquarian James Joyce one remarked, “I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today. I am today what I established yesterday or some previous day.”

Pisces (February 19 – March 20)
Pisces, your legacy of flexibility is both a blessing and a curse this week. While you may enjoy a self-styled world, you may feel as if you orbit too far outside of the literary mainstream. Piscean Jack Kerouac advises you to “write in recollection and amazement for yourself.” Take his advice to heart and continue to write for yourself before bending your voice for someone else.

Aries (March 21 – April 20)
Revise, revise, revise, Aries. With Mars in retrograde and Mercury cross-aligned, your creative juices are best suited by picking up that red pen. Find the heart of your project, then, as fellow Aries Samuel Beckett says, “To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.” Do not be afraid to try a different form as you revise—ask yourself if your mess will work best as a narrative or a catalogue, and on and on, until you find the best form.

Taurus (April 21 – May 20)
Taurus Vladimir Nabokov once suggested, “A writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.” Don’t lose sight of the forest through the trees while you work with your line level to be exact and detailed. Work with your language while allowing your imagination to break through plots with commonplace emotional truths. Turn your mind toward creating the kind of conflict that will have you leaping out of the bathtub shouting, “Eureka!”

Gemini (May 21 – June 21)
“When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hang on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn, ” Harriet Beecher Stowe reminds her fellow Gemini. This writing fatigue will soon pass and you’ll be losing yourself to the beauty and elegance of your sentences once more.

Great Press for “Recorded Lightning”

On Writing

Issue #58 of Creative Nonfiction is out, and the weather-themed issue features an essay of mine about lightning.

You can read an interview about the piece here. In it, Rachel Ann Brickner and I discuss revision, form versus function, and how place makes us human.

Also, here is a review of the essay at Essay Daily that I would consider framing.

But I would recommend heading over to the website and ordering a copy.

On the Endangered List: Nature Vocabulary

On Writing

A friend just passed me an article about Oxford Dictionary’s decision to replace “nature words” with “technology words” to save space in their Junior Oxford Dictionary. So, if a word-curious adolescent wanted to look what a lark or a lobster was, or to understand the difference between alfalfa, hay, and straw, they could no longer find it in the dictionary. Gone are acorn, buttercup, elm, and magpie. No more ferns or mosses or hamsters and ferrets to build nests out of them. Now there is broadband; blackberry has been replaced with Blackberry.

Margaret Atwood and 27 other writers co-authored a letter to the dictionary, claiming that children should be encouraged to play outdoors because it helps their mental and physical health:

“Compared with a generation ago, when 40% of children regularly played in natural areas, now only 10% do so, while another 40% never play anywhere outdoors. Ever. Obesity, anti-social behaviour, friendlessness and fear are the known consequences. The physical fitness of children is declining by 9% per decade, according to Public Health England. For the first time ever, children’s life expectancy is lower than that of their parents – us.

“This is what the National Trust says in their Natural Childhood campaign: Every child should have the right to connect with nature. To go exploring, sploshing, climbing, and rolling in the outdoors, creating memories that’ll last a lifetime. Their list of 50 things to do before you’re 11 ¾ includes many for which the OJD once had words, but no longer: like playing conkers, picking blackberries, various trees to climb, minnows to catch in a net and so on.

“The RSPB has commissioned a great deal of research on this. Among many findings is the fact that outdoor activity in nature appears to improve symptoms of ADHD in children by 30% compared with urban outdoor activities and 300% compared with the indoor environment.”

A few years ago, when I was living in Spokane, many children were getting Rickets, a bone-formation disease caused by prolonged lack of vitamin D. Usually, your body takes in vitamin D while you are out in the sun—a fair-skinned only needs about a fifteen minutes a day. Even many of the adults I knew were on vitamin D prescriptions to make up for their deficiency.

While I’m usually not sold the idea of the dictionary being used as a prescriptive measure for our culture—telling us what our culture needs to be—rather than a descriptive reference—telling us what words people are using at a certain time—I could be persuaded to believe that a children’s dictionary has a slightly different role in its instruction.

In a recent podcast, Lexicon Valley hosts Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo interviewed the editors at various dictionaries about their “Word of the Year” selections for 2015. Oxford University Press selected the emoji “face with tears of joy,” because they view the Word of the Year selection as an opportunity to focus on language change, here highlighting pictographs as an adjunct to English. Merriam Webster on the other hand, chose “–ism.” The editor at MW, Peter Sokolowski, said that they choose the Word of the Year based by the number of lookups and this year words ending with –ism (socialism, racism, fascism, feminism) had the most lookups.

One of the perennial words with the most searches, though, is “love.”

Sokolowski noted, “This tells us something about why people go to the dictionary. They’re going not just for the lexical piece, for the spelling of the etymology of the word, but the beginning of reflection, for a philosophical conversation.”

Should that kind of (soul-searching) conversation have the opportunity to promote reflection on nature as well?

An article by George Monibot in the Guardian layers another argument on the problem of our disappearing outdoor play and its related vocabulary:

“A new report shows that the UK has lost 20% of its breeding birds since 1966: once common species such as willow tits, lesser spotted woodpeckers and turtle doves have all but collapsed; even house sparrows have fallen by two thirds. Ash dieback is just one of many terrifying plant diseases, mostly spread by trade. They now threaten our oaks, pines and chestnuts.
“So where are the marches, the occupations, the urgent demands for change? While the surveys show that the great majority would like to see the living planet protected, few are prepared to take action. This, I think, reflects a second environmental crisis: the removal of children from the natural world. The young people we might have expected to lead the defence of nature have less and less to do with it. […] The fact that at least half the published articles on ash dieback have been illustrated with photos of beeches, sycamores or oaks seems to me to be highly suggestive.”

It would seem that the countryside, and our ability to fight for it, grows ever distant when its lexicon is replaced with blog, chat room, MP3, and hashtag.

Tomorrow we will awake surrounded by a forgotten place: the outdoors.

Your Guide to Thievery

On Writing
(originally published under “Your Guide to Thievery,” Sept 16, 2011, thebarking.com)
  1. Know what’s played.

No one’s going to break into a house and walk out with a VCR under his arm, a bag of incandescent light bulbs, and a pair of worn Hammer pants. Keep your eye out for catchy trends and be wary of stealing these, because they’ll fade once everyone else catches on and moves onto the next thing. I see this more in titles and sentence-level constructions: what we talk about when we talk about [yawning], x is the new y, or the bromance of tabloid portmanteaux.*

 

  1.  Know your history.

In Kentucky, when someone dies and their house is about to be torn down for an expanded worship center, it’s common practice for people to strip it. Sure, there’s copper wire. But even better—antique brass doorknobs, gingerbread molding, or wild ceramic inlays. You’ve got learn what’s been of value to understand what’s valuable now. Read  Gargantua and Pantagruel, The Canterbury Tales, The Odyssey, etc. You’ll be surprised by their beauty and everything worth stealing in the classics.

Also, look to the public domain—if it’s over 80 years old, it’s fair game. Take an older piece and try rewriting it within your voice and your vision. Musicians do this all the time with folk songs (think: the Grateful Dead or Moby’s Southside). I would love to read your short story based on John Henry, Tom Dooley, or Persephone.

 

  1.  Don’t walk out with too much.

Every good thief should know how much space they have in their backpack. If it doesn’t fit, leave it behind. Make certain to take what’s worthy at the moment, but know how many tricks you can take and pack into in a short story, a poem, or an essay. The same goes for individual tricks. For example, allusions are awesome, and whenever I read one, I feel as though I just found an Easter egg and it’s July. But if you use too many, you’re going to lose your reader. T.S. Eliot wrote in 1920, “bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better…the good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from which it was torn.”

Robert Frost told lecture audiences that Eliot had made “an anthology of the best lines in poetry, strung them together, and copyrighted the result.”

Don’t expect Norton’s to annotate you.

 

  1.  Return to a loaded space.

I once had a persistent thief who broke into my house twice in a two-week period because he’d been pressed for time during the first robbery and didn’t get a thorough look around. Reread works that have a lot you could steal. Steal something different every time you read them.

 

  1.   Steal something you normally wouldn’t want.

We all knew that guy in college who had the stop sign and the police line do not cross tape as decorations in his apartment. You wouldn’t have thought that it would work hanging on the walls like that, but it really brought the room together. If you’re reading along and you see something crafty, but think that you’ll never use it, take it anyway. You never know when you’ll need an orange traffic cone.

 

  1.   Scope out a strange neighborhood.

Some alebrijes are worth more than pearls, but you’d never know it if you didn’t venture out of your comfort zone. The things that they keep in Little Mexico and the country club gated community are totally different and uniquely valuable. Read what you like, but also read and let yourself be influenced by dystopian literature, magical realism, Southern gothic, etc. Look at art, listen to new music, watch movies.

 

  1.   Practice pickpocketing on your friends.

The finer aspects of thievery involve deft maneuvers. Those guys who got your wallet while you waited in line for the Eiffel Tower didn’t learn how to steal in a day. If one of your writing friends does something cool, steal it and make it your own. See if they notice. If they do, you can always say, “Hah, yeah, I got that from your bag” and if they don’t, buy yourself a latte.

 

  1.   Think like a cop.

You never want to hold up a 7-11 when a cop is in there eating donuts. Whenever you’re up to something, cops are everywhere. You’ve got to learn when you’re about to be in trouble and when you might get offered a job by the FBI because you’ve become a master at cracking safes. If you’re stealing and you feel guilty; it’s probably close to plagiarism. Throw it in a drainage grate and find something else to steal. We’re a society of fact-checkers now, and it really isn’t worth it to make a name for yourself as being a copyright infringer.

 

 

*Like any set of guidelines, if something says don’t, you should still give it a try.

 

 

Resolutions to Write By

On Writing

On the brink of the New Year, a friend and I were discussing how to work writing into our resolutions. Each year I make some kind of writing resolution; but I try to stay away from vague resolutions, because I heard sometime ago that most goals fail if they aren’t measurable (eg. “eat a healthier diet,” whatever that means). I also usually end up with a list of forty or so resolutions, though obviously, not all pertain to writing.

Most writers create and maintain a schedule, and while it’s something they resolved to do, they probably didn’t make a New Year’s resolution out of it:
Hemingway wrote from first light to noon. Toni Morrison resolved to rise and shine at 4 am to write until getting her children ready for school. But there are many others who write in bursts (Jack Kerouac) or refuse to leave a story while on a roll, typing late into the night (George Orwell).

I find it easier to measure page counts or word counts—such as write 500 words in the morning, but I know for some people that gets tricky. Must the words be new? Does revision count toward your 500 words? Can I write 250 one day and 750 another? Before you know it, you are legislating your writing.

I like a deadline, a goal, tally marks. Scratching an item off of a list makes it real. So, typically my writing resolution follows this formula: add x pages to current manuscript, write two essays, one story, x poems, x posts for Bark, x letters, etc. Read x number of books in addition to the ones I’m teaching. This resolution is concrete and measurable, unlike, say, “write more” or “publish more.”

My friend formed her resolution by writing a routine act, but not in the scheduled way of Morrison or Hemingway. Every day she has to write, read, exercise, or stretch. There is a nice sense of flexibility to this resolution. It likewise builds routine, but doesn’t quantify it, doesn’t have any expectations from the acts. There is no “run a marathon” at the end of exercise and stretching, no “chapbook due” after twelve months of writing and reading.

I think there might be another way to create a writing resolution, but I am struggling with how one might measure it: “Care less about what other people think.”
One might be able to quantify it by counting rejections (though one would hope the two don’t go hand-in-hand)? By taking bigger risks in her writing? Or, perhaps, by promising that this year, she will write with all the abandon and confidence of a nineteen-year-old?