Monthly Archives: April 2013

A to Z: Zymotechnics

The final week, the final day of the A to Z Blog Challenge: Zymotechnics, the art (or application of the principles) of fermentation. Yes, of course, applied to writing.

Try not to think brew pub with laptop here. I love a good pint (think dark and a little bitter here) but I’m more inclined to read while supping my beer than to attempt to write. Still, I think the process connects. Fermentation is, after all, a conversion process. (Turning carbohydrates into alcohol or acid.) I do realize that fermentation is used for far more than the creation of beer, but since I’ve started with it, I’m going to stick with it. (Better not to mix, lest someone get a headache.)

Good beer and good writing require excellent starter ingredients — good grain, yeast and water for the beer; good attention to the world around you, within you and within others as well. Gather the raw ingredients together — this means being  fully present as you move through your days. Mix — get the rough draft down. Mash — allow things to take shape. Make sure you give them enough time to rest and do their own thing within the tanks for the beer, and within your head and heart and gut for your writing. You choose when and how much to filter (revise, edit) for the precise kind of beer you want. Try to skimp on any of this or rush the chemical reaction and you’ll waste to lot of it. (And, in the case of the beer, it will literally stink!) This is an art, in either case. One that, with the right attention to detail and patience, can bring out the fullest flavor. It’s definitely one I want to practice more, especially in the coming month as I recover from this month’s A to Z Blog Challenge.

A to Z: Yoga

The final week of the A to Z Blog Challenge: Yoga, and how it connects with writing for me.

In Vedic Sanskrit, the word Yoga means to add, join or unite. This is what writing and reading are about for me. As a writer, I am trying to unite challenging and disparate ideas, to make them cohesive and engaging. And so I am also trying to unite my work with readers and to connect through the page, even though I may never meet or hear from them. I like to read works that deeply engage with the natural world and that look at difficult, deeply felt occurrences. I work to do the same in my own writing. I hope that these practice, of reading and writing, will deepen my own connection to the world and the people in it. So, another layer of joining.

In yoga practice, I physically embody the ability to be still and to relax in difficult places, in asanas (poses) that don’t feel natural at first and that rub up against the edge of where I think I can go. The longer I practice, the more I am able to pay attention to subtle cues and to notice the big difference tiny adjustments make. Sometimes these adjustments aren’t visible outside my body, but they help me deepen my practice. The connection to writing is the capacity for sitting with difficult subject matter and letting it come fully forward, knowing that it won’t break me to feel deeply (and if I feel it truly is too much, I can do the equivalent of dropping into child’s pose and returning to the work the next day to try again). There’s the capacity for noticing increasing layers not only in myself and my writing but in the world around me. And, of course, the building of the ability to see the ways in which everything is connected.

Some of the great writers, Hemingway, for instance, turned to alcohol to help them drop into the harsh places. I’m certainly not averse to a drink (or two) but I think yoga allows me a deeper and more sustainable practice.

A to Z: eXpatriate

Week four, day six of the A to Z Blog Challenge: eXpatriate. (So I’m pushing it ever-so-slightly with the X. I hope you’ll indulge me.) An expat is someone who is temporarily or permanently living somewhere other than his or her country or culture of origin. I’d like to add, in my case, living in a family other than the family of origin – that is to say, being adopted.  This post, then, is about navigating the separation of time and space between my country and family of origin, where I am now, and finding myself in between. I originally drafted this in 2009, but I still feel it. The original title was Keeping Time.

On BA 2227, I find myself once again flying between continents, between time zones, between lives. My mother lived all those years five hours ahead of me. Still, it took me 37 years to catch her up. Today, I head back from a visit for Nana’s funeral. Nana, who welcomed me like no other; Nana, who offered to keep me all those decades ago; Nana, who told my mother she wanted me found before she died; Nana, who has now passed into some time zone for which none of us has a watch.
My children and grandchildren wait for me to travel back to them; to retrace myself; to live five hours behind with them. They have lived in one family, on one continent, in one time zone all their lives, with everything marching at an even pace, as though their clockwinder is somehow more consistent than mine.
In midair, in the between time, I find the space to let my sense of self unwind and then rewind, realizing that each time I make this journey across continents and time and families, I am somehow growing my own sense of time and rhythm, becoming my own pendulum. I don’t have the steady beat of the grandfather clock that looms at the end of the hall. Within me, the pendulum is syncopation– off-beat but nonetheless keeping time.

A to Z: Vulnerability

Week four, day four of the A to Z Blog Challenge: Vulnerability.

In her book, Daring Greatly – How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, Brene Brown says, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.” So does writing, for me anyway, when I’m mining as deeply as I can to bring the best forward in a story or essay.

One of the instructors in the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte strikes right to the heart of this in one of his classes. Pinckney Benedict waited until we were all seated, instructed us to take out a sheet of paper (yes, it had to be done with paper and pen) and write a letter, using the correct form, telling someone something we’d wanted them to know but hadn’t said because it would alter one or both or our lives dramatically. Most of us didn’t have to think too long before we started scribbling away. It made me nervous to write the letter in a room full of people. Would he ask us to read? When we’d finished, he asked us to sign with our full names. Then he handed out envelopes. We addressed them. Put the letters inside. Sealed them. Perhaps you can imagine the increasing anxiety in the room. He asked us to hand them in. A few people held back at this point. (I suspect a few people held back in one way or another at each step of the way.) I handed mine in, feeling at this point as though I might be sick. I breathed. Sat back, let go. What would be would be. I’d written a truth that deserved to be told, even though it would change relationships. As Pinckney held our envelopes, he told us that what we were feeling right at that moment, if we hadn’t held anything back during the exercise, is what we should be feeling when we are at the heart of our writing. When we are in that place, we know we’ve made ourselves vulnerable, struck at a truth, looked it dead in the eye and decided to give it life and share it, even though (or perhaps because) it will alter lives. That’s definitely worth coming to the page for day after day.

 

A to Z: What(‘s in a Name?)

Week four, day five of the A to Z Blog Challenge: What’s in a Name?

If you’re Flannery O’Connor, there’s often a fair bit in a name, and A Good Man is Hard to Find, is no exception.  Originally published in the anthology, Modern Writing in 1953, A Good Man reveals with name – there’s June Star, the sassy, shallow daughter in the story, and her brother John Wesley, perhaps named in reference to the Anglican cleric and Christian theologian, for instance. Even minor characters are named, and soon after we meet them – Red Sam at the restaurant, Hiram and Bobby Lee who are accomplices. More interesting to me, though, is O’Connor’s choice to withhold names. She does this for the three adult females – the grandmother, the mother, Red Sam’s wife – as well as for the baby.

O’Connor is in good company in choosing to leave characters nameless. Daniel Defoe did it in Roxana, Margaret Atwood in Surfacing, Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man. There are plenty more. The reasons are as varied as the authors and the works.  It’s one of the more nuanced choices available to writers – whether to name, what name to give, and when to reveal it.

So, in A Good Man, the women are named according to their primary role. They don’t need the adornment of proper names like June Star. Like her dead-on, entirely unsentimental descriptions in this story, O’Connor lets the women stand as they are, bare of name, exposed from start to finish. Red Sam’s wife is wife or woman. She’s in the story only briefly, and follows Red Sam’s instructions, being told to serve the family rather than chatting. The baby is the baby throughout – not fully formed, handed off between mother and grandmother, and, in the end, asleep before death. The mother is mother and woman. When O’Connor needs a bit extra to get to the core, she adds to her direct description with simile, another favorite element of this story:

“…the children’s mother, a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green headkerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit’s ears.”

The mother is passive, deferring to the grandmother. She’s limp and submissive from her rabbit-like state at the start to the point of being led into the woods to be shot.

The grandmother is just that – the elder, the matriarch, the keen observer who doesn’t know when to keep her observations to herself, the manipulator. (She’s also a lady.) In the end, though, when she touches The Misfit, he recoils, “as if a snake had bitten him.” He shoots the grandmother three times, leaving her, “in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child’s.”

It’s worth noting, I think, that The Misfit straddles the ground between name and not. Although he gets enough name to warrant capitalization, it’s hardly a given – or what in some places is still called a Christian – name. Like the women, he is named by his role. He’s partly covered by the proper noun, but still exposed in ways that the named characters in the story are not.

In this way, O’Connor goes a step further than most in A Good Man is Hard to Find, exploring the range of naming options, from fully named to nicknamed to nameless.

A to Z: Under (its Kilt)

Week four, day three of the A to Z blog challenge: Under (its Kilt). When I was a wee girl, growing up in Kilmarnock, my Mum warned me, when approaching something new or trying to decide on a course of action, to always look under its kilt. She meant to be sure I knew what I was getting into — looking for what might be hidden.

I’ve carried the lesson into writing, not as a warning, but as an inspiration to lift up the covering of a story and see what might be hiding underneath. Specifically, once I have the bones of a story down, I start looking for connections in the natural world, lifting one thing after another until a connection is revealed. In my story, Substrata, forthcoming in New Writing Scotland 2013, I began with a story of a woman returning home to rescue an agoraphobic friend from her childhood. When they were younger, they had roamed the countryside, on foot and on bicycles. Any number of plants or animals or landscapes could have been a linking point for the story. I landed on puffins, which live on both continents on which the story is set, and which had some interesting connecting points for the relationship. I think these sorts of connections deepen stories. They make them more interesting for me to write, and, I hope, more interesting to read.

So, thanks, Mum, for inspiring me to fearlessly lift the kilt and see what’s under there.

A to Z: Twists

Week four, day two of the A to Z blog challenge: Twists. This writing lesson, taken from from yoga practice, is based on twists.

Think of the words spread on the page being like your legs, lying long out in front of you. Specifically, think about having a 75-word sentence lying on the page out in front of you relaxed and ready. From this asana, you can get to all manner of twists. One of my favorites is to cross one leg over the other at the knee. In writing I’d think of this as splitting the sentence into two, as close to equally as you can get. Then, you’re going to take one of your hands and pull the knee closest to your chest even closer and take your other hand behind you to help your upper body twist. In writing, this is where you can give all manner of variations. Start, maybe by insisting that the whole thing be divided into 5-word sentences. Breathe here. Inhale. Exhale. Feel your body. Hear the new formation of the words. Notice the impact of the changes you’ve made. Now, with each breath, go deeper. Add stipulations about varying sentence length. Instruct students (or yourself) to get in a colon somewhere, a dependent clause — whatever they’re struggling with in grammar, get them to embed in one of the modifications. Always stop after each new addition. Inhale, exhale, and, just the way, in yoga, you pay attention to your whole body, pay attention to what happens in the writing. Just the way that you breathe into the tight parts of your body, work the parts of the writing that are the hardest or that you or your students resist most.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Bend your language further.