Uh one, and a two, and a…

Summer Twilight.  Photo Credit: Catherine Keefe

When I sit on my back porch late on a summer night and listen to mothers call in their children, I remember when I was a kid.  My mom’s voice from the screen door never penetrated the more engaging shouts of, “not it!” or “olly olly outs in free!” My sisters and I stayed out, playing Hide and Seek or Freeze Tag, scratching at mosquito bites on our arms, until Dad finally boomed, “Girls! Come in now!”

It occurs to me that this summer ritual, repeating year after year with interchangeable characters, is a lot like writing advice.  Sometimes we need to hear something more than once for it to register or for its meaning to sink in.  Sometimes, even when we are repeatedly told, information remains meaningless unless we actually need to use it.

Just in case you’re ready to bang around again on the old keyboard a bit, I offer three tidbits of advice to guide your writing practice.  These nuggets crossed my computer screen within the past 24 hours, and you know how I believe when the universe tells you something three times it’s wise to pay attention. Individually, these bits are all sound, but a delightful serendipity occurs when read together as I detect a common thread of guidance woven within them all.

Sure, I’ve told you all these things before. But maybe you were like me on summer nights as a kid and you missed the voice calling from the dark.

Exhibit A:
You can see some great word nerd humor on the Brevity blog. “Famously loquacious Fidel Castro discovers brevity.”

Now while the Brevity editors usurped that headline for laughs, and used a reader’s knowledge of the fine points of capitalization to get the joke, there’s good writing advice here beyond a nudge to pay attention to grammar rules. Reporter Paul Haven, who wrote the story with that fabulous headline, points out that Castro has a new method of communication. “His normally loquacious opinion pieces in the local press lately almost have been short enough to tweet, and sometimes as vague and mysterious as a fortune cookie.” The gist of the news is that Castro who was once known for rambling at length has, in the past week become unexpectedly and cryptically pithy.  If you want the complete story, link here.

Writer’s Takeaway:  That which is unclear equals confusion for your reader and brevity doesn’t always equal clarity.

Exhibit B:
Work-in-Progress is my daily morning read as it always offers a bit of stellar writing insight by Leslie Pietrzyk. The June 25 post is dedicated to the idea that writers these days seem preoccupied with presenting “big ideas” rather than illuminating the small ordinary characters and lives that make up the real world.  Leslie excerpts an interview with novelist Joshua Henkin who believes this tendency comes from writers’ insecurity. “They’re insufficiently confident that the story they’re telling is worth telling, and so they dress it up with a lot of grandiosity and big ideas; they deck it out in pyrotechnics…”  This quote comes from a fiction writer, but the idea absolutely applies to nonfiction as well. You can check out the fabulous Work-in-Progress here, or the complete interview with Joshua Henkin here.

Writer’s Takeaway:  Have confidence in your craft and just tell a damn good story.

Exhibit C:
“And” is a conjunction meaning “together with.”  In other words to employ the Writer’s Takeaway from Exhibit B, you have to practice your craft to develop rightfully earned confidence. By now you’ve realized there are no AYSO “Everyone’s a Winner For Trying” medals awarded to writers just for effort.  So, how will you seriously hone your craft?  You’re still reading this blog. Good.  Very good. That’s such a great start I’ll give you an official CK “You’re a Winner For Still Reading This Blog” medal.  But what else do you read?  How about paying attention to Draft a New York Times series about the art and craft of writing? Check it out here. In the most recent installment “The Voice of the Storyteller,”  author Constance Hale points out that, “By using some subtle devices, a narrator can reach out to the reader and say, ‘We’re in this together.'”  She defines voice as, “Reflecting a combination of diction, sentence patterns and tone…the quality that helps a writer connect with a reader, and it turns the writer into a narrator.”  And then Constance concludes with this thread, this brilliant golden strand of wisdom that seems to be popping up everywhere I look today. “Writing style begins with clarity. Find the right words and decide what to leave out.”

Writer’s Takeaway: Intentional composition and editing = clarity and a really cool voice.  And all that = a damn good story.

Of course I could have summed all this up with my mantra.  Read. Write. Edit. Repeat.  But sometimes it’s nice to say something in a new way.

Here’s to staying out in the dark as late as you wish, but remember when you finally do come home, write well about what happened.

Sit a while

Close your eyes.

Breathe deeply.

Feel the air moving in and out of your lungs.  Feel the surface you sit upon. Feel the air around you.

Listen.  Hear rhythms: the rise and fall of waves, of voices, of car engines, or footsteps, or a soccer ball bumping back and forth between bare feet.

Write the rhythms, the syncopated beat of the world surrounding you.

Date your literary sound clip and save it. Mark your calendar for six months from now.  Reread.

Can you still feel the beat?

Read and repeat. Read and repeat. Read and repeat.

What do you see?

Summer is a good time to take it slow and observe closely.

Do you notice something in the fence shadows above?  Yes, a bird family. Nine baby quail with their mom and dad.  That vignette was this week’s hiking treat for me.

This week’s writing treat for you is the beginning of the promised more or less weekly posting of writing advice and suggested prompts.  Today’s bit comes by way of Poets & Writers feature, “The Time is Now.”

The Polaroid
posted 5.31.12

In Bird by Bird (Pantheon, 1994), Anne Lamott’s classic instructional treatise on writing and life, the author says: “Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t—and, in fact, you’re not supposed to—know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.” Keeping this in mind, write the beginnings of an essay whose direction and ending you don’t yet know. Start small, focusing closely on a single place, person, or incident, without thinking ahead. Then keep going: Allow the writing to tell the story, and see what develops.
If you’re in any way pleased with your practice, go ahead and post it here as a comment, or put it up on your own blog if you’re still maintaining it.
See?  How beautiful the world.