Popular Posts

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Aesthetic Virtues of an Old-fashioned Sit-Down Meeting

When I had a chance to sit down with my first book editor in New York, it was an era-turning moment. We actually met at her home in Rye, New York, a big rambling Victorian on a hill overlooking the Hudson River.  By email I already understood her edits, but in person I would quickly understand more.

Her aesthetics.

Not so much through her margin comments, but through her house—the style of art on her walls, her furniture, the landscaping. Before the visit was over, I felt my book was now in two hands, hers and mine, and in many ways I now knew the nuances of language she liked because I knew her on another level.

I had a similar experience last week here at UCF. I sat down with my thesis director and, again, although I quickly understood her margin comments, there was a greater understanding awaiting me. I got a chance to see her office as if for the time—the high shelves jammed with books, her various writing projects stacked here and there. I also got a chance to chat informally with her—we shared a laugh over the laughably small computers being made today.

Then we got to work.

“Avoid the minutia of perceiving,” one of her margin comments read. “Give me the concrete details.”

She didn’t need to explain. Or did she?

“I already know it’s you,” she said. “It’s first person. Just”—she churned her hands in the air—“just give it to me without stage directions.”

I sat nodding, thinking.

For the longest time, I likened first person to having a big TV camera mounted on my shoulder, continually telling the reader, in some clever way, “Now I'm looking here, now I’m looking there.” Never did I stop and think—hey, they already know.

I left my thesis director’s office feeling a great burden off my shoulder—that heavy camera I had hoisted up all these years.  I was also happy to know her a little better.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Poetry and Prose

Don’t think for a second that poetry and prose are different animals. The first is a Russian Blue, the second an orange tabby. One likes Fancy Feast, the other Purina. One steps cleanly out the litter box, the other kicks her way out. Both, though, purr.

The best prose has poetic darlings in it, like phrases that repeat, that echo, that lead us forward like bread crumbs. Then, stop. Outside the window of the halted sentence lies a winterscape of fields snowdrifted so as to look like lemon meringue pie. All the world is silent, except for a tiny cry of wind through a crack in the glass.

The beauty and intensity of writing comes from its magnified, color-dripping images to its feelings that escape the page like a genie. In these moments, the beautiful, the imaginative, the elevated—all descend from the sky on white wings of thought to land on the solid roofline we call the paragraph.


Unit of discourse.

Topic sentence, supporting sentences:




active, rhythmic ~ Adidas Bounce Shoes


Daybreak brought an explosion of light and warmth to our eight-window row house apartment in Brooklyn, which Lisa called our "treehouse apartment." The exposed-brick wall in our living room was glowing ember-red; the refinished floor around our bed was shining honey-golden; and the high white ceiling was beaming with church-like radiance. Long gone were the piano keys of brake lights that had played across the ceiling at night, and in their place shone a brilliant lattice of sunlight, around which hung a kooky mobile of intense silhouettes--a triangle with a sawed-off corner, a crescent with a crisp, dark hole shot through it, and a wild-looking parallelogram bursting straight down to the floor in a platinum-white solar flare. One thing was for sure. Demons that had romped in the dark last night would be photosensitive now…

Monday, July 4, 2011

Celebrating Calibri

It happened by accident. My computer threw a highlight over my entire essay and, in a flash, changed the font. I sat staring at the new typeface, bleak, no nonsense—looked like what a cowboy would hunt and peck with. The letters are sticklike, smoothly rounded, no serifs, nothing fancy, just desolate and hammered-down simple.

The Calibri font, pictured above.

For years I had been using Times Roman. It was and still is, I think, the preferred font. I wrote and published close to a hundred stories using it. I toiled through my first novel with it, too. Add to that attempts at other novels and ten thousand emails—all Times Roman. So when my computer sneezed, I was ready for a change, a change that complemented another one in me.

For years my writing had also been thinning out, becoming sparer and sparer. The high grass of jabbered-out phrases was now all but a barren dirt earth of truth. The farm on my emotional real estate is, I like to imagine, Lovesome Dove herself. Today I sit in stick furniture, feeling austere, Calibri now at my fingertips, like my hound dog on my dry, dusty, unpainted porch.

Termed a “Humanist” typeface and also called “Venetian,” Calibri is from a family of fonts from the 15th century, regarded as the unpretentious typeface of Italian humanist writers like Guillaume Budé, to name one. This is all interesting, but I’ll take just the word “humanist” to heart as I write my way forward.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Exploring Therapy in Writing

“What do you write?” That’s the automatic first question I get asked.

“How my childhood should have been.” That’s the automatic answer I wish I could give, instead of the safe, literal one—stories, novels.

My, um, counselor is intrigued and, I suspect, pleased by my first-choice answer. You see, by profession, I’m also doing his thinking homework for me.

“Righting past wrongs?” he asks.

When I give a nod, I get a battery of Freudian-based questions:

• How does writing about my past help me understand the
   unconditional love I missed?

• How does it help me see that as a child I blamed himself for
   my parents' unhappiness?

• Does the hero of my stories always reach a rainbow end,
   happy, strong, and complete inside?

My answers are mixed and difficult to decipher. Results are questionable.

So why don’t I just leave my past alone? Why risk dwelling there in the construction of sentences and paragraphs that bring to life another version of it? What matters is the here and now. After all, so many of my counterparts have moved on from their pasts years ago, never to give it another thought.

Or have they?

Psychologically speaking, there are, my counselor assures me, innumerable adults who are just wounded children. They recycle through relationship after relationship, suffocating one another in “enmeshed boundaries.” They lean on each other like a crutch, only to hate each other because they can’t use their own two legs.

Becoming aware of the reasons behind our feelings and actions that lead to our weaknesses and ruin is like getting a psychological CAT scan. We discover the maladies in our thinking, and awareness, as they say, is half the battle. We can then make conscious decisions to break unhealthy patterns.

Writing stories that right past wrongs is not the same as reading daily affirmations or filling out mood charts, but it does force us to face our past, examine it, and decide, in the here and now, how to redeem ourselves and our villains.

We write about what we care about, and we care about what hurts us.

Keep writing!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Inspired by Thunder and Torrent

It was a eureka moment this weekend (aren’t those moments the best?) when the hurricane-like storm threw its shoulders against the glass sides of the UCF Wellness Center, sending thunder and torrent down to the ground, and standing there with puny dumbbells in my hands, I thought to myself—“Whoa, if only I could write like that!”

The monstrous black legs of clouds marched into the building of glass, kneeing it over and over, sending the facility into “lockdown.” Huddled in the gym with a hundred other grumbling exercisers, I thought—I could take a lesson from the skies.

The active voice of storms can be inspiring. How many of our sentences read like tranquil blue spheres, not a cloud of tension in them. But how to achieve the flash and sizzle of lightning, the rumble and roar of thunder? Active voice alone is not enough. It’s the choice of words. It’s the feeling behind the writer.

What was this storm feeling? What was it saying to Mother Earth? It sure wasn’t asking for my forgiveness as it pounded its mega-ton boots against the earth, swung its colossal fists against at the windows, hissed and ground out deep, throating-bleed howls, all while chewing at the sky as if to mutilate its own face. It was an awesome hulk of energy.

What a rant against tranquility it wrote.

Monday, June 13, 2011

How Rick Springfield Is Writing My Novel

I missed the 58-year-old pop rocker’s free concert at the Orlando Amway Center yesterday. (My friend and I opted for a picnic in Cranes Roost Park instead.) But for days I had been eagerly awaiting seeing Springfield, even clinging to the expectation, more and more amazed and even amused by my building excitement to see an ’80s pop music singer who, in my hard rock youth, I scoffed at.

Growing up in West Virginia, it was all things Molly Hatchet and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The louder, the meaner, the better.  I'm talking dashboard-banging music like ACDC. Rick Springfield’s stuff was girly, sissy music, like the Bee Gees. He is an ex “General Hospital” pretty boy, for crying out loud!

More than that, Springfield was the unfortunate “spring” in the rising star collision of Rick Springfield and Bruce Springsteen. In the early ’80s, Springsteen, a name people were hearing more and more, rose up beside Springfield on the pop charts, and apparently the public got the two confused. Springfield was known to have publically said, with frustration, “Don’t call me Bruce!” Or “Don’t call me ‘The Boss’!” Springsteen’s trade handle. That, it seemed, did him in. He as much admitted being upstaged by his “spring” rival. Full attention turned to Springsteen who, as we all know, went on to become rock’s global icon.

Meanwhile, my life went on, and I found myself writing. The road to a writer’s voice is a thousand miles long, and I had to walk mine step after step. Book after book was rejected. Solitude withered me away. Little events, like an unexpected chat in the line at the grocery store, became greatly appreciated. Halfway through the second decade of my literary pursuits, the cocky stride of my youth was long gone. I would never bang a dashboard again.

Here in Florida, when my friend called the other day to suggest the Rick Springfield concert, I found my eyes brightening. “Well, okay, if it’s free.” It was another of those unexpected gifts I was grateful for, like the chat in the grocery store line, a reminder of my gratitude for the small things.

My new novel is filled with these Rick Springfield moments. Scenes I think I cannot write, people I think I cannot create, I manage to, and they arrive on the page with purpose and by design. So when I say Rick Springfield is writing my novel, I’m saying that the older I get, the more often irony reaches around my life, taps me on the shoulder, and says, “Surprise!”

On this morning, the huffy kid who used to sneer and grunt Judas Priest lines is instead humming the catchy light lyrics of sweet Rick’s big hit “Jessie’s Girl.” Strangely enough, I am also reminded of a John Wayne western in which one of his saddle companions says, “There's times I’ve drunk water from a muddy hoof print and been glad of it.”

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Finding Adjectives at the Goodwill

As writers, we struggle to keep our scenes excitingly visual. But our mind’s eye runs eventually out of images. Try as we do, we can’t manufacture the vivid details we’d like.

Recently, I’ve discovered a treasure trove of adjective-driven objects to decorate my fictional settings. Heaps of glass, ceramic, and silk finds are available at the Oviedo Goodwill (as well as at other Goodwill locations) to replenish my writing with tactile details. Crowding the aisles are alabaster-white ceramic angels, peacock-colorful silk flowers of all types and sizes, and genuine wood knickknacks of every droll, dandy, and delightful kind. Granted, we’re talking mostly 1950’s Americana leftovers. But in any domestic setting in our narratives, there’s still of touch of the Eisenhower illusion, which can easily be modernized with our imagination—turn a pink polka-dotted white vase fanned out with an assortment of pine-yellow wooden spoons into a fire-engine-red KitchenAid mixer with a stainless steel wire whip.

So, description-weary writers, shop Goodwill. Having trouble with your University colors? Browse and find a Boston University red sweater or a Dartmouth green sailing jacket. I personally found a Cambridge blue food bowl for my astute boy cat.

Or your colors in general? There are earth-yellow dishes and electric-blue plastic glasses, along with robin egg blue watercolor prints and screamin’ green beach shorts.

Let’s not forget textures. Reach out and feel things hairy, soft, rough, gritty, smooth, sandy, course, cottony, hard, and spongy.

Read what I recently conjured up for my novel from a walk-through with a notepad in my beloved Goodwill:

I switched on the lamp. What I first saw, in the whirl of my eyes, told me I had indeed just broken into anyone’s but Steve’s apartment: wine-red sofa, pale-green loveseat, floor lamp with a cobalt-blue glass globe. My eyes ran in every direction, following dots, splashes, and bands of colors to their sources: a miniature white-spotted jade Buddha sitting cross-legged on the glass coffee table, nicely complimenting the tea cans, a Kodachrome-red wax apple beside it, and violet-blue silk flowers bursting from a bleach-white pot, beside which was a silvery, mirror-like gift bag with pink zigzags around the borders. I would have been stilled by the beauty of this apartment if not for the picture frame on the bookcase that, first, caught my eye, then, creased my mind in half in further confusion. The picture was of Tammy.

So, remember, there are heaps and loads and oodles of bits and bobs and loose ends at your neighborhood Goodwill. Think of it as your Hollywood prop shop, and you are Steven Spielberg’s assistant.

Good luck Goodwill hunting!


Monday, May 30, 2011

Excerpt of an interview with French writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio

Hello, everyone--

I thought I'd create a second post this week. (Please see "The Danger of Grammar" for my first post this week.) Below is an irresistible excerpt of an interview with French writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, 2008 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. It speaks to some of the writing issues we are discussing.

Full interview available here: http://joongangdaily.joins.com/article/view.asp?aid=2936883



                                                                                Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio

Q: What do you pursue in your literary works? As you mentioned, literature is written in a native language, meaning it contains a writer’s point of view.

A: Of course, the writer’s own experience will be shown in the works. People might question how the events happening in one country and how one person thinks of that event can become universal.

I think, no matter where it happens and what happens, if the feeling one person has in that country can be felt (by someone) else from a different country, there the feeling itself becomes universal. You don’t need to know well about whom the writer is and what experiences the writer has had personally. Take a look at works by William Shakespeare. Not that many people know when he was alive, or where he lived, but people still read his pieces and sympathize with them. They even create many adaptations to find their own universal value within his literary works.

Q:  At the same time, some writers incorporate local sentiments within their pieces to promote their culture to larger audiences. Other writers incorporate the cultural sentiments they have been living with and are exposed to.

A: Of course, writers would use the places, time period or any background set that suits them in their creative works. And that’s what makes the characteristic of each writer. However, there is no answer to how to make that character. Would a novel heavily based on the local culture always fail to induce sympathy from the global audience? No.

But what if one just tries to include the local cultural element within the novel just because (a previous book set in the same culture) was a hit before? In this case, the chance of failure is much higher, since it is not really what naturally came from the writer. I’ll say that writing genuinely is the answer to this question. There’s no recipe for good writing. You just write from your heart.

Q:  How would you describe yourself as a writer?

A:  I write because I like it. It’s an egocentric pleasure. I like to write because it’s like living (the same life) twice. I like very much to relive what I did in the day again at night as I write it down. The pleasure is essential to me. I also find pleasure in reading. It gives me knowledge and it gives me explanations on who I am. I particularly enjoy reading poetry, because the genre almost has no rules. It’s something like a cloud. If you don’t understand the wording in the poetry sometimes, then you just reflect your experience onto it, and it becomes understandable

Q: So it sounds like you always enjoyed writing.

A: For a long time I thought my life would have been better if I was a mariner. But that’s just imagination because I will always live as a writer. When I was around 15-years-old, writing novels was considered fashionable in my school. I draw cartoons and caricatures and some of the characters were of my teachers. People liked them very much. Then when I was in high school, I thought I had to be more serious, so I wrote poetry.

Thinking that it was a lonely job to write poetry, I wrote (poems) with several different voices and asked fellow students at school to read them together, like an orchestra performance. But the result was poor because it was impossible to understand all these different words at the same time. Then I tired writing detective novels, which were never published, and then I wrote my first novel that was published and I kept going...

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Danger of Grammar

Hello everyone,

I want to share a confessional piece I wrote that fits in nicely with this blog's broadened scope to discuss writing issues.



Silver Balloons

by John Michael Cummings

I remember when I first spoke, my jaws shredding and snapping the wires of my six-year silence. Sounds of speech cracked from my mouth. I spoke, not perfectly, not easily, not always even sensibly: I stammered and giggled to the cabby who, growing more and more concerned as I chatted about my sickness, hurried me to the psychiatric clinic, where he then undercharged me, in sympathy; I rambled confessions to scads of phone counselors without last names; I seemed flighty and manic in support groups for grieving spouses. In my search for employment, I overtalked, confessing to anyone who would listen that for six years I had been silent. I was proud of the length of my suffering.

In Rhode Island, at my sickest, I feared that, if I were to speak in the open, my incompletely terse phrases, my unidiomatic choices of prepositions, and my imperfectly rhythmic syntaxes would rise like silver helium balloons out of my grasp and, being unfit for heaven, would twist and turn in the sky forever as suffering souls.

English, spoken by ordinary people--by an elderly man casting a hello, by a tourist asking a question, by anyone trying to make conversation--seemed to me, at my sickest, a deadly shrapnel of sounds. My then wife threw herself on these grenades by speaking for me. The sky over her, not over me, was filling with balloons of blunders in speech. Better her soul than mine, I thought then.

"That’s freakin’ nuts!" my friend Gary says today.

I like Gary a lot. Every time I look at him, he reminds me of Gary Cooper in a defiant role. He is much taller than I am, and in this additional height of his rises his duty to listen to me.

I had insisted of myself to speak as well as I wrote, and writing, during those years, had been an exact surgery of thoughts: Sentences, spoken as well as written, were the living bodies of ideas, verbs the hearts, nouns the brains, modifiers the bones and skin. A conceit above God, was how one counselor described it. On the lowest level, I was grammar obsessed. (Grammar-obsessed.) In how I talked, I had strived to outdo John Updike, in how he wrote.

Says Gary, "Who in the hell is John Updike?" He really does not know, and that’s the beauty of it.

For me, he was the father of my arrogance. I was 26 when it started, not long out of college but long in the vacuum they call writing. I had had some success, emulating Updike’s short stories. But not enough success. It was never enough.

Worse than being young, I was recently married and earning nothing as a writer and living in a Rhode Island town where that was the same as loafing. I hated my wife’s parents for their working stiff’s mentality. Get a real job, they said. You can’t make no living putting words down on paper.

Then something happened, I got quiet. "Took yourself out of the world in spite?" is how Gary puts it.

"In spite?" I say, playing it back to him. "No, in shame."

Shame. I will not say how bad my childhood was, what it was like growing up a Catholic in isolation in West Virginia, or how difficult it was finding my way out. Nor will I go on and on about my father. That is an overplayed American sob story. What is interesting, in terms of its sheer imbalance, is the fact that I had a big ego but little self-esteem. It was like having one leg shorter than the other and being expected to keep up.

At the newspaper where I worked after college, I wrote to impress, not to inform. It was not what I said, but how I said it. The sky was not blue, but azure. In language, I took on a pretentious crusade that ended up being a plain old complex. (If the writing is the writer, then I had a long way to go.)

It gets far worse, but all I need to say to fill in the blanks is that I lied, lied in marriage, lied in my heart, and beat myself black and azure along the way.

Gary’s story, in essence, is not all that different. He may be from Wisconsin, but Wisconsin might as well be West Virginia, and I might as well be the drunken postal worker he once was. And I might as well have his arrest record, and he might as well have my psychological profile at the Neighborhood Involvement Project. And on and on. Regret is what we have in common.

"But whatever you've done wrong," he often says today, "you shouldn't beat yourself over it before another day even begins."

He is right about that. What matters first is truth to yourself, thinking and acting in a way you approve of.

After two years, I am okay speaking again. I grumble about the lines. I yak on my cell phone. Every day is like every other day. I listen to Gary talk about his AA meetings, and he listens to me talk about my writing. Talk. It is a lovely sound, full of imperfections, beautiful imperfections. Today, there are no silver balloons above me.

"Who in the hell is John Updike?" I say, grinning.