Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Visual Thesaurus

Here's another tool I'm having fun with. The visual thesaurus is a little difficult to describe so you might want to just go check it out yourself. Similar to an on-line dictionary, you type in a word and click "look it up." But unlike a dictionary, the results are schematic, not textual. Instead of giving you a definition or a list of words, it gives you a map of related words which you can explore. Here's the features according to the thinkmap website:

          * Find the right word and explore. The Visual Thesaurus has over 145,000 English words and 115,000 meanings. Search for the word you're looking for and then follow a trail of related concepts.

          * Improve your grasp of the English language. The Visual Thesaurus's intuitive interface helps you find words through their semantic relationship with other words and meanings. This focus results in a more precise understanding of the English language.

          * Hear words pronounced correctly. (Internet connection necessary) The Visual Thesaurus offers a choice between a British and an American English accent.

          * Understand the relationships between English words and meanings. In addition to synonyms, the Visual Thesaurus shows 16 kinds of semantic relationships. You can see that a nose is part of a face, that a horned poppy is a type of flower, and that epinephrine is a type of vasoconstrictor.

          * Expand your search to the Internet. From any word, you can initiate an Internet search for either web pages or images.

          * Check your spelling. The Visual Thesaurus suggests alternatives so you can find the right word even when you're not sure of the spelling.

          * Personalize your experience. The Visual Thesaurus allows you fine control over your settings. You control font size, the types of relationships that are available, content filtering, and more.

          * Filter Content. Both the Desktop and the Online Edition allow you to filter content at four different levels.

You can try it a few times for free. The desktop/CD-Rom version is $39.99. The on-line version is $19.99/year or you can subscribe for $2.95/month. Happy mapping!

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Comfest: A Study in Character Development

Ed and I went people watching last night at Comfest. What a slice of life! Community Festival (aka Comfest) has been livening up Columbus every June for 34 years. In 1972, the first Comfest hosted twenty bands. This year more than 200 bands played on six stages and the Solar Stage was added for spoken word performance. And they all do it for free!

We did our best to avoid a contact high, but were instead overcome by sensory overload. Just how many tie-dyed t-shirts, pierced eyebrows, and bare-breasts can one middle-aged couple take? We heard Rendezvous play some excellent jazz and avoided the temptation of funnel cakes, hemp necklaces, political bumperstickers and beer.

To say that I love Comfest would be a lie. Rather, I love knowing that Comfest exists. I love the fact that right smack dab in the middle of the middle of the USofA a group of folks is still doing their darnedest to keep community spirit alive. Comfest lives by the following Statement of Principles:

We think that people ought to work for the collective good of all people rather than for personal gain. We support cooperation and collective activity rather than competition and individual profit.

The basic necessities of life are a right and not a privilege. People have the collective right to control the conditions of their lives.

People should strive to conduct their lives in harmony with the environment.

We recognize that there are primary attitudes which divide and oppress people. These attitudes are usually shown by prejudice against people on the basis of age, class, ability, income, race, sex, and sexual preference/orientation.

We seek to eliminate these attitudes.

Sure there's lots of pot smoking and beer drinking and carousing, but there's also really good poetry, excellent music, amazing activities for kids and tons of people to watch which brings me to my point (and I do have one!).

I have never heard the words, "Oh. Sorry," more in a shorter span of time than I did last night. A teenager in a "Buck Fush" t-shirt with tatoos up and down his arms and pierced lip, eyebrow, nose and ears accidentally elbowed me in the crowd. Instead of ignoring me, which I expected, he turned to me and said, "Oh. Sorry. You okay?" This type of kindness happened over and over and over again with one "character" after another.

For the most part, people at Comfest are happy and polite. People who look (and sometimes smell) as if they haven't had a bath in a week, people who have obviously had way too much to drink, people who at first glance the general public might write off as the dregs of society are happy and polite to mainstream, boring, middle-aged Ed and I who stand out like nuns in an orgy.

And this is why I go. Not for the bands or the incense and especially not for the beer. I go to be reminded that, despite all appearances, people are generally kind. I go for character development - and here, the character I'm trying to develop is my own!

Now back to work. Where's the bum glue?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Art of Fiction

John Gardner is brilliant. Okay. We knew that. But in re-reading The Art of Fiction, I'm seeing so many things I didn't see before. And, of course, what I'm really seeing are the "rules of writing practice" (ala Natalie Goldberg) through a new lens.

Here's some highlights. At page 9 Gardner writes:

. . . in order to achieve mastery [the student writer] must read widely and deeply and must write not just carefully but continually, thoughtfully assessing and reassessing what he writes, because practice, for the writer as for the concert pianist, is the heart of the matter. Though the literary dabbler may write a fine story now and then, the true writer is one for whom technique has become, as it is for the pianist, second nature.

     Page 26: ". . . vivid detail is the life blood of fiction."

     Page 30: " . . . [f]iction does its work by creating a dream in the reader's mind . . . . [i]f the dream is to be powerful, the dream must probably be vivid and continuous."

     Page 32: "[the writer] encourages the reader to 'dream' the event with enormous clarity by presenting as many concrete details as possible."

     Page 34: "True artists, whatever smiling faces they may show you, are obsessive, driven people."

     Page 35: "Art, at those moments when it feels most like art - when we feel most alive, most alert, most triumphant - is less like a cocktail party than a tank full of sharks. Everything's for keeps, nothing's just for exercise."

     Page 37: Gardner describes the state of mind which can create the dream as, "the mind that has emptied itself of all but the desire to "tell the truth"; that is, to get the feeling down in concrete details."

     Page 42: "Nothing in the world is inherently interesting . . . . [n]othing can be made to be of interest to the reader that was not first of vital concern to the writer. . . . Thus no two writers get aesthetic interest from exactly the same materials."

     Page 44: "The writer must enable us to see and feel vividly what his characters see and feel; that is, enable us to experience as directly and intensely as possible, though vicariously, what his characters experience."

     Page 46: "As in the universe, every atom has an effect, however miniscule, on every other atom, so that to pinch the fabric of Time and Space at any point is to shake the whole length and breadth of it, so in fiction every element has effect on every other."

Reading these passages reminds me how much my meditation practice feeds my writing. Learning to be present in the moment, to observe pure sensory detail, and to see the world through equanimous eyes, helps me write more clearly. I still have a long way to go and lots of craft to learn, but I'm choosing to believe that John Gardner would think I was on the right track.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Emptiness

I have nothing of importance to report this morning.

Last Thursday I mailed 303 pages of a very disorganized draft of the memoir to freelance writer Tania Casselle for her review. Since then, I've been catching up on sleep, email, exercise, paperwork, reading and shopping. It feels like I'm on vacation.

I plan to write on Wednesday. Don't know yet what I'll write about. It doesn't matter. I just have to keep the pen moving so my mind and body don't forget what my heart knows, that I'm a writer.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Preditors and Editors

It's a scary world out there. Terrorists, hurricanes, cyber-thieves, and inflation. And the publishing world is no different! But thanks to the folks at Preditors and Editors, writers can sleep a little better tonight.

Preditors and Editors, hosted both by Anotherrealm and in Virtuo, lists agents, awards, publishers, contests, conventions, editing and copywriting, ghostwriting, software, email, jobs, journalism, magazines, music, organizations, screenwriters, signings, submissions, warnings, and workshops.

By far the most helpful thing about Preditors and Editors are the opinions. If an agent sounds too good to be true, check her out at P&E. If you want to know whether a publisher is legitimate, P&E is the place to go. Here's an example of a listing in the book publisher section:

AmErica House (aka PublishAmerica.com): PublishAmerica, Inc. contract formerly obtained all movie and book rights. Strongly not recommended. "A royalty publisher capable offering publishing contracts to all varieties of authors. Royalties paid, no fees ever charged, no agents required."

Nonfiction submission guidelines are included within the Journalism link. It took awhile to find them. I doubt it's a commentary on the genre, but rather a way to save bandwidth. P&E is much too direct to make a backhanded critique. Their honesty is refreshing.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Seducing the Muse

In her memoir, Seducing the Demon, Erica Jong (Fear of Flying, Any Woman's Blues) writes of the Muse:

She's fickle. She appears and disappears at will. We can't control her. And because we can't control her, we hate her as much as we love her. We try to summon her with sex, with falling in love, with mind-altering drugs. But the fact is, she won't be summoned. She alights when it damn well pleases her. She falls in love with one artist, then deserts him for another. She's a real bitch.
Sound familiar?

My Muse seems to be seduced by structure. The structure of writing practice (keep your hand moving), the structure of location (a coffeehouse or the desk by the window), the structure of quantity (1,000 words a day), the structure of attitude (don't judge), the structure of support (writing friends), and the structure of commitment (don't give up) give Her an opportunity to show Herself.

I never know on a particular day which of these may summon Her, but she seems to be attracted to hard work. Unfortunately, I'm not! Oh well. That's why I've got bum glue.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Out of Ideas?

I've been doing my best to avoid thinking or doing anything not related to the memoir I'm writing, but wacky and wonderful writing tools keep attacking.

This Wednesday when Rob Brezny's Free Will Astrology horoscopes landed in my inbox, it included a link to the Random Shakespeare Insult Generator. My novel simply must include a character who smites his enemies with Bardisms such as, "Thou jarring motley-minded pignut!" "Thou cockered beef-witted measle!" and "Thou unmuzzled dismal-dreaming scut!" Dontcha think?

A fellow lurker on The Ohio State University creative writing listserv turned me on to a new feature on the Wave Books (formerly Verse Press) website. Make your own erasure poem. According to the cite, "Erasure is a process by which you can take any text and from it, create a poem." Make your own at http://erasures.wavepoetry.com/index.php For a fine example, look over Mary Ruefle's newest book A Little White Shadow, which is a collection of poems made from erasing most of a "forgotten" 19th Century text.

And last, but certainly not least, my friend Sammi suggests the idea generator at Seventh Sanctum which includes links to dozens and dozens of idea generators. My personal favorite is the B-Movie Title Generator which proudly gave me Sluts from Neptune. Hmmm. Porn meets Sci Fi? I think not!!!

Monday, June 12, 2006

Pontification

  • Today is the day that the Muses hath made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
  • Wherever two or more of us are gathered in the Muses' names, it shall be a writing group.
  • For the Muses so loved the writers that They sent them purple Pilot Precise Rolling Ball V5 extra fine pens.
  • On the sixth day, the Muses created laptop computers and coffeehouses with WiFi and it was good.
  • Seek ye first likeable characters that do fascinating things and publication will be added unto you.
  • Blessed are those who toil at the page, for they shall be read.
  • Bum Glue the same yesterday, and today, and for ever.
  • For what profit is it to a writer if he gains standing on the best-seller list, and lose contact with the Muses? What will a writer give in exchange for knowing the Muses?
  • As you write on the page, so are you.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Don't Try This at Home

The contents of the magic orange clinique bag came in handy last August at a weekend writing workshop. I'd put what I thought was an empty coffee cup in my backpack intending to throw it away in my room. When I opened my pack, it was soggy. My notebook was covered with coffee and the pages had soaked it up. In an attempt to save my notes, I emptied the magic orange bag and used the contents to prop the pages apart. I salvaged all but the bottom half inch of most of the pages and could recreate my notes from the context.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Pulitzer Prize Finalist Lee Martin

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a discussion between Pulitzer Prize Finalist Lee Martin and book reviewer Kacey Kowars at the Easton Barnes & Noble.  Martin, Director of the Creative Writing Program at The Ohio State University, read the first two chapters of his acclaimed novel, The Bright Forever which is written from the point of view of many different characters.

The first chapter, in it's entirety, reads:

Raymond R.
I'm not saying I didn't do it. I don't know.
The Bright Forever chronicles the disappearance of a young girl in a southwestern Indiana town during one summer in the 1970's and how the event effected the townspeople. At several points in the book, characters address the reader directly and challenge (should I say dare!) the reader to put the book down. At the close of the second chapter (which is just over two pages long) Mr Dees states:

If you want to listen, you'll have to trust me. Or close the book; go back to your lives. I warn you: this is a story as hard to hear as it is for me to tell.
Martin explained his point of view technique, "The characters serve as a kind of Greek Chorus, calling into question the passage of narration that was just read." Wikipedia explains the concept of the Greek Chorus:

The chorus offered background and summary information to help the audience follow the performance, commented on main themes, and showed how an ideal audience might react to the drama as it was presented. They also represent the general populace of any particular story.
Martin's resurrection of this timeless technique shocks the reader into feeling the same confusion and disorientation that the local people of Martin's fictional town experienced during that summer.

Martin also used pop culture references such as the names of songs, movies, cars, and comic strips to evoke the feeling of a rural 1970's summer. Martin explained, "Although I never mentioned the year, I'm thinking of 1972. My idea was to put readers in the era without hitting them over the head with it." But beyond the creation of a sense of place and time, Martin used particular references for a stronger purpose. "The song Candyman, which was very popular that summer says something about the character who is fond of it."

Martin, who grew up in southern Illinois, was asked, "Why southwestern Indiana and not southern Illinois?"

Martin replied, "Ah! That's a savvy question." He explained that he based the novel loosely on a true story. "The attorneys told me I had to change the setting. Some people might not want to read about themselves in this book." At first Martin resisted, but then he decided, "the weather, the landscape, the small towns in southern Indiana were very similar" so he made the change.

When asked if he kept a journal, Martin said:

I have kept a journal at times, but no. I don't journal. I'm much more interested in doing the writing, in capturing the sense memories. When you grow up in a place and have spent that much time there, the details come back easily.

Listen to an interview with Lee Martin and other authors on the Kacey Kowars Show and read an interview with Martin on The Ohio State University homepage.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

No Writing in ICU

Sorry I haven't posted any writing updates in the past few days. I've been busy. My niece, Jamey, went into Children's Hospital Tuesday morning to have surgery on both of her lungs to remove cancerous nodules that had metastisized from bone cancer. At 23, she is the most amazingly brave young woman I know.

Her right leg, which was the initial sight of the cancer, was removed above the knee in November and she's been in the hospital more days than she's been out since her original diagnosis in September.

After yesterday's surgery, she was in a lot of pain, but within 12 hours they had her pain-free. Her Mom, Grandma and I as well as her boyfriend, "Saint" Chad, and his father and stepmother spent the morning in the surgery hospitality room and the afternoon in the ICU waiting room until we could go in two-by-two to rub her fuzz covered head or kiss the small patch of skin on her arm that wasn't wrapped or tubed or too painful to be touched.

Tonight, just 36 hours after her surgery began, the oxygen was gone, the tube to her right lung was gone, she'd been moved from ICU back to her regular floor, and she had already gotten out of bed to sit in a chair for awhile. When I arrived she was back in bed, but sitting up to eat a McDonald's cheeseburger with pickles and fries with ketchup.

I knew she had really made it through when her friends Amanda and Jesus arrived and she turned to her mother and I and said, "It's time for all the grown-ups to go home now." Dutifully, we left.

Check back tomorrow for a new writing post.

p.s. if you're a golfer check out Golfers Against Cancer. It's a golf tournament fund raiser for cancer research on osteosarcoma, the type of bone cancer Jamey has.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Writing Totems

Last week I arrived at the coffeehouse and realized that I'd forgotten my glittery magic orange Clinique bag. The magic orange bag contains pens, pencils, earplugs, scissors, tape, a stapler, a staple remover, tissues, a timer, paperclips, binder clips, erasers, highlighters, a ruler, post-it-notes and lots of other things I sometimes need during a writing spree. I felt as if I'd forgotten my underwear!

I was able to write without the magic orange bag, but having it near me when I write makes me feel more confident. Like a baby with a blanket, I feel better when it's around.

According to Wikipedia:

A totem is any natural or supernatural object, being or animal which has personal symbolic meaning to an individual and to whose phenomena and energy one feels closely associated with during one's life.

With full apologies to all the cultures that use totems in their tribal religions, I was wondering if other writers have totems. Do you have a favorite pen or a special object you like to have nearby while writing? What's your writing totem?

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Darling Must Die

Oh dear. I think today's the day I've been dreading. I must kill one of my pets.

Don't call the ASPCA. I'm talking about a few paragraphs of prose here, a beautiful turn of phrase halfway into the fourth chapter of the memoir I'm writing. I love it so much that it must go, but I haven't been able to bear cutting it.

This is the lithmus test: if in my mind a section is so luscious that it outshines all the rest of the writing on the same page, it might be a darling. Remember your Faulkner, "Kill your darlings."

Remember your Colette:

Sit down, and put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it. - from Casual Chance

Today I will take the bitter pill and unsheath the knife. If you hear a quiet scream coming from Upper Arlington, don't worry. It just means my writing has improved.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Black and White

This morning, I once again walked into Caribou Coffee at the corner of Tremont and Zollinger, the same coffeehouse I write at nearly every day. The manager, Paul, called me by name. Before I had time to place my laptop and my bookbag on my usual table [the same one by the window where I write nearly every day] and walk to the counter, he had my usual drink ready. I'm nothing if not predictable.

My life may not match the wild fantasies you've conjured about the writing life. It may sound boring, but it works. I'm making my life black and white so that my writing can be colorful. I'll take a dull life over dull writing any day.