Thursday, February 15, 2018

I Love You

Zestful Blog Post #251

I’ve told you before that I love you. Here and there in this blog, as a little tagline, mostly, I’ve done so. Time to say it again: I love you.

On the first day of class at Ringling College last fall, I told my students I loved them. This was perhaps ill-advised, as I had just sat through hours and hours of lectures and presentations for new faculty on how to behave around students. Things to avoid doing and saying, things that could be taken the wrong way. The experts didn’t specifically forbid telling your students you love them; they probably figured nobody would be that clueless. But I thought, Just be yourself. Might as well start now.
Context, of course, is a thing. The class laughed when I made some wry comment, and I was so happy they got it. “I love you,” I said. “I love you so much.” Startled, they laughed at that, too, which was fine. They understood what I meant. Warm human feeling. When something similar happens when I’m talking to a group at a conference or what have you, I do the same thing. And they get it. Just a little dose of warm human feeling.

It’s not all business. So much, so much is sheltered beneath all of our surfaces.
There it is for today: I love you. You are my friend, and I’m your friend. Let’s never forget that.
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Thursday, February 8, 2018

Wringing Direct Experience

Zestful Blog Post #250

I so much don’t want this to be a brag post. Because I hate reading brag posts, and so do you. I just want to make a point and give some reminder-style advice about getting everything you can from a direct experience.

The other day Marcia and I journeyed from our home on Florida’s Gulf coast to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral to witness a bit of history: the inaugural test flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket, part of Elon Musk’s SpaceX program to improve rocket science and eventually get humans to Mars. Super big rocket, super complicated, with a fun payload of Musk’s Tesla car with a ‘guy’ in a space suit at the wheel. The launch represented a host of firsts, so although it’s a gamble to drive all the way across the state to see a space shot that could get scrubbed at the last minute, we decided to buy tickets and take the risk. (We’d observed a Space Shuttle launch for free from a grassy knoll in Titusville, but this time we wanted—apart from a closer experience—nice washrooms and the opportunity to buy and consume hot loaded nachos.)

And yeah! The launch was fabulous, but I won’t bore you with the blow-by-blow. [Delete: Yeah, first we got gas at that Chevron over by the café, then, you know, the weather was pretty nice, and like the traffic was really heavy the closer we got to the center, you know, and we tried to see the rocket from the causeway but we weren’t sure which thing sticking up in the distance was it, plus there was some haze at that hour of the morning…] Delete delete

So what’s the point of this post?
1)     To be alive to the vastness of experience.
2)     To go after it.
3)     To improve your abilities to extrapolate and synthesize. This is the piece of greatest importance for writers.

To illustrate, no blow-by-blow, but here’s a partial list of my experiences and impressions from launch day:

Cursing endlessly at the drivers who disobeyed the signs and roared ahead of us rule-followers queuing up for miles in the right lane as told. Entertaining Marcia with inventive curses. Hatred surging in my heart for people who cut ahead, but not debilitating hatred.
Is that a great blue heron? Or a crane? You’d think there’d be gators in that big ditch.
Gigantic guy in a gigantic back brace.
Smells of cooking hot dogs. Yeah, nachos. More sunscreen.
Woodstockian sea of people looking in one direction, over the roofline of the IMAX building, knowing it isn’t time yet.
Little girl in astronaut jumpsuit walking through the crowd with head high, hoping to be taken for a real astronaut.
Anxiety. T-minus keeps getting longer.
Murmurs. Shouts. Adrenaline. Tachycardia.
The brightest fire in the world! A rend in the fabric of reality!
Sonic booms, plural!! Sternum vibrations. Dude!
My God. My God. Look at that.
Face wet with tears. Friendship 7. The things imagined, the things made real.
A French fry plopping at my feet from the sky, having presumably been dropped by an overstimulated gull.

The point is, there’s so much waiting for you that you don’t expect. Space shots are extraordinary, and not everybody gets a chance to see one. But lots of other stuff happens that you can get out for and find way more than what’s front and center. City council meetings. Climb that hill, just for kicks. Ballgames. Prune that cherry tree. The movies. The lumpy blanket in the back seat. The sound of the cork popping, the cookie crumbling, the cows coming home. The look on that woman’s face when her boyfriend whispers to her. The guy on the ladder throwing a hammer to the guy on the roof. The grace of the catch! The feel of the breeze: What side of your face feels it? The young student copying the Vermeer in the museum, her easel and paints, tiny green splash on her white sneaker. The fear in that foreman’s voice. Scrape the ice off your windshield. Close your eyes. The dogs say goodnight.

1)     Say yes.
2)     Write bits of it down.
3)     Draw it. Try.
4)     Say yes again.
5)     And again.
6)     Take everything with you as you set to work.

When you practice feeling the whole of an experience, you can better bring detail to what you write, and you can better invent details with which to deepen your writing.

On this rocket day, I made notes in my journal, drew crummy pictures to help myself remember. Pencil shavings in the grass. Took some pictures with my phone camera. But it’s the stuff in graphite on paper that’s gonna endure. That’s the stuff you’re going to want to go back and look at. It’s so simple.

We have so much on our minds. Don’t forget to be here as fully as you can. I’m not saying anything new. But I’m saying it my way, dammit. Writers, feel it all. Say yes to it all. And capture a highlight or two. Or a lowlight. Whatever is distinct. Do it in a word, a line. Don’t stress over it. If it’s not fun, decide that it’s fun.

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Thursday, February 1, 2018

Giving Characters Credit

Zestful Blog Post #249

Our characters can open their own American Express accounts, but they need us to give them the credit they deserve for complexity and incomplete intelligence.

It’s impossible to know everything, so it follows that it’s impossible to acquire and apply all knowledge and all skills in all ways. We agree: There are ravines in everybody’s knowledge and skill set. But it follows that there are also odd peaks. Sometimes those peaks are unexpected. Fictional characters are the same. We learn from life.

I told my Ringling College students the following little story last term and realized I should share it here too. I was walking through a parking lot next to a marina and noticed a couple of guys struggling with a boat on a trailer. Seems they were trying to secure it properly. The guys were the dirt-baggiest, crummiest-looking, gap-toothed pair I’d seen in a while. Ragged clothes, grimy hands, greasy hair, dangling cigarettes. The pickup and trailer were a filthy, rusty mess, and the boat looked like it might have been seaworthy when Admiral Farragut was firing on New Orleans.

Something slipped with a clunk, and one guy said, “Hey! You ass, it goes the other way.”

The other guy said, “Don’t call me an ass.”

The first guy said, “I was speaking metaphorically.”

As God is my witness.

[The steely gaze, the brass buttons… what can you shout but “Farragut!”]
Too many of us, when writing characters and dialogue, oversimplify. A dirtbag kind of guy wouldn’t know the word ‘metaphorical’, let alone use it properly in a sentence, right? Yeah no, wrong. He certainly might. He might not know who Admiral Farragut was; then again he might. He might be able to calculate pinochle scores in his head, but he might waste all his money on lottery tickets. But if he does, he might not be able to bear his kids not having shoes that fit, so he starts dealing a little meth on the side, so they can wear decent sneakers. Who knows? Maybe he’s going to night school for electronics.

By the same token, a character who is smart and accomplished might not be able to chop onions properly. Might borrow money at rates only a fool would agree to. Might get a pilot’s license, then decide to keep going in the fog at low altitude because it’s only a little ways to the airstrip. Might insist on getting a prescription for antibiotics when sick with the flu.

A while back, I encountered disagreement from some writing friends as to whether a six-year-old boy would know and use the word ‘masculine’. There’s no hard rule, because it depends! If he’s heard it at home or somewhere, yeah, he certainly could know and use the word. If not, not.

Grab the freedom to let your characters be as complex and contradictory as the people you meet in life. Therein lies authenticity.

What are your experiences with this subject? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Thursday, January 25, 2018

Talkin Proper

Zestful Blog Post #248

Quickie note on last week’s blog post, “The Jesus Trigger.” Two unsubscribes, which actually creates a nice set of bookends for the subject, given that I discussed both ends of the “I take offense” spectrum: the allergic-to-neutral-or-positive-references-to-Jesus readers and the allergic-to-cursing ones. The post garnered the most comments, I believe, of any of my posts so far. So, yeah. Bein’ real, livin’ on the edge here at Zestful Writing. And to you latest five, yes FIVE new subscribers, welcome to our wonderful corner of the literary galaxy!

Onward. I never cease to be bothered by common misspellings, but I also grieve over common mispronunciations, which are, I realize, occasionally related to misspellings, or perhaps more accurately, misperceptions of a given word. International cuisine offers plentiful opportunities.

For instance, I’ve had waiter after waiter tell me that the tiramisu (so far, so good) is made with “marscapone” cheese. It is not. It is made with mascarpone cheese. Therefore it is not pronounced mar-ska-pone. It is mass-kar-pone.

[You can practically taste all those luscious ingredients, can’t you?
Even the cocoa sprinkled on top. [Sketch by ES]]

I feel better already. Going on:

Haven’t nearly all of us considered ordering a tasty Salade Niçoise when out lunching with friends? Certainly we have. And if you had to pass your language requirement in graduate school and selected French, you know that an E on the end of a word ending in S nearly always calls for that S to be pronounced. Therefore I tell the server, “I’ll have the Salade Nee-swahzz.” I’ve found that unless the waiter is an actual French person, they will repeat my order smugly, “Salade Nee-swah.” No, bitch. It’s Nee-swahzz. I cannot well represent the tiny little miniature [euh] that I sometimes add on the very end, for emphasis, but you can’t go wrong with Nee-swahzz.

Is sherbert for sherbet a dead horse by now? I hope so. Just one R in there. It was Marcia’s aunt Nancy who, when corrected that way, said, tentatively, “Sheebert?” Side note: Sherbet, which contains some milk, is not the same as sorbet, which does not.

We know that someone who runs an eatery is not a restauranteur but a restaurateur, oui? No N in there.

Leaving the food world, as is my prerogative, we—oh! Wait! Yes indeed. It’s not perogative. So, not peh-rog-a-tive. We rightly say pre-rog-a-tive. Or you could go with pruh-rog-a-tive for an extra level of tweediness.

Has this post been succinct or what? Yes, it has been suck-sinkt! It has not been suss-inkt. Never that. The double C is pretty much always pronounced with a K-moving-to-S sound in there. Accent. Eccentric. And yes, even flaccid, ref. Zestful blog post 141, “Defending Precise Language.” Now gimme somma that tiramisu.

Are you troubled by verbal miscues, too? Tell us. To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Jesus Trigger

Zestful Blog Post #247

Indulge me today. Just indulge me.

I’ve brought up the name of various lords (or Lords, if you like) several times in this blog. Whenever I mention Jesus, I always get an unsubscribe notice for exactly one person. Never two, three, more, or zero. It’s funny, it happens whether I take the name of Jesus or God in vain, such as two weeks ago, when I wrote “But do you see how goddamned entertaining and enjoyable it is to read closely?”, or whether I mention Jesus or Christ in any sort of positive or neutral way, in the in the context of one of my metaphysical-type posts. No one seems to object to the mention of Buddha, or any ancient gods/goddesses I’ve mentioned, like Athena. None of the unsubscribers sends me any sort of message of explanation, but they really don’t have to, because the correlation seems so distinct. Sometimes I wonder what they’re thinking when they make the decision.

Like, “Eww, she said something about Jesus! I am so allergic to that Christian thing! Because there are so many hypocritical Christians out there who are actually fascists and everything!! Any reference to the historical Jesus is surely—somehow—an attempt to proselytize, or as a signal that proselytization is about to occur!! Bad blogger! Lemme outta here!”

Or like, “Eww, she cursed!! I am so allergic to cursing! I condemn cursing! This person is ungodly and perhaps even dangerous! I myself am devoted to clean language, and I myself will go to heaven if I keep doing things right!! This blogger and I have nothing in common! Bad blogger! Lemme outta here!”

Seriously, unsubscriber? You’ve been enjoying this blog, yet now you’re tapping ‘unsubscribe’ because—your identity is that tenuous? You have to protect your bubble so reactively that you’re foregoing the whole experience of Zestful Writing? You can’t just shrug off the bits you don’t like? Is there something I’m just not getting?

[Pagan piñata about to be busted during a Catholic festival in Mexico. Yes! Piñatas were used by the Aztecs to celebrate the birthday of Huitzilopochtli. You remember that popular war god, right?! [photo by ES]]

I swear and use vulgar language fairly liberally in real life. (If you’ve ever spent so much as half an hour with me over a cup of coffee or glass of wine, you’re like, yeah, Elizabeth, no shit.) And I put curse words and vulgar talk in the mouths of some of my fictional characters, especially my first-person ones. Why? For one thing, it’s a comfort zone, and bad language can break tension in a scene, or even add humor. And I feel it’s only honest to permit my characters to swear because I swear, and I feel it’s only honest for me to swear occasionally in this blog.

Last week, in the context of reviewing the writing app Floor 23, I wrote out a Catholic children’s prayer that came to mind. You might conclude that I was brought up in a Catholic household, and you would be right. However, my parents, apart from attending church, for years owned and operated taverns in working-class neighborhoods. And we lived in a working-class neighborhood. So guess where I learned the prayers and the curses? Right! You might wonder what I believe or practice now. My current religion, if you could call it that, seems to be a mixture of Buddhism, Christianity, and paganism, sprinkled with some vestigial Catholic devotional practices.

I know writers who swear in real life but who eschew it in their fiction because they don’t want to alienate readers. Heck, I know Jewish writers who say things like, “for Christ’s sake!” but who wouldn’t put those words into the mouths of their characters. I can understand that. I’ve lost readers because of the language I use. Some have scolded me either via email or in an online review (or both—so proud of themselves). And maybe someday I’ll launch a newer, cleaner series where nobody swears, not even the lowlifes. I shudder, but it could be an interesting challenge.

Well, I have no particular conclusion to offer here. It’s just funny how the Christian God/Jesus is such a trigger, on both ends of the offense spectrum. Funny as hell.

What do you think? Did this post make you uncomfortable? If you’re a writer, do you consciously use or avoid bad language? Reasons? I’m interested. To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Thursday, January 11, 2018

Review of Floor 23 Writing App

Zestful Blog Post #246

I got an email the other day from a nice fellow named Patrick Krabeepetcharat inviting me to try an evidently very new writing app called Floor 23. In his words, “Floor 23 is a super minimalist writing app that aims to maximize your creative output. As you type, you only see the last few letters you have written, as the rest floats away, to be edited later.  It's a really fun and addictive writing experience that I really hope you will try for yourself.”

That is the perfect description, I found. This morning I went over to the app and signed in with Google (other options were Facebook and email). I thought for a few minutes of some kind of story, and the words ‘guardian angel’ popped into my mind, and I thought about a lonely angel, so I started there. Within seconds I was underway. It’s incredibly simple to navigate, easy to start, and kind of hypnotic once you get going. I shifted between writing the story itself, random thoughts on the story and elements of it, and the experience of using Floor 23.

I set a goal of 300 words, and had them within about 15 minutes; I regret not having timed myself. I am sure that I wound up writing 667 words in less than half an hour. As you type, a few white letters appear on the black background and swipe away from right to left as fast as you can go. If you pause on one letter, that letter appears alone. If you pause after a space, the screen is blank. The app keeps track of your word count and that’s it. When you’re done, you can hit ‘save to clipboard’ and then paste it into a Word doc or whatever. The font is Helvetica. [edit 1/13/18: It's not Helvetica, it's Geomanist.] As you’ll see if you read through my story start, you can’t backspace over a typo; you’re forced to keep going forward. I found that annoying, but of course that’s the point. Microsoft Word automatic conventions, like auto-indent, auto-capitalize of the word ‘I’, and automatic em dash after two hyphens, do not translate. I found this annoying as well, because I’m so used to those little helps, but I realize that’s the tradeoff for enforced forward motion. Maybe future versions of Floor 23 will allow for such conveniences.

[My Microsoft Surface Pro 4 with the start of a sentence in Floor 23. I often prop the device on a slant board, which brings the screen higher and puts my hands in a fairly, though not totally, neutral position. Yes, that’s a Waffle House coffee mug, is there a problem?]

The app’s main page doesn’t tell any origin story, or why it’s called Floor 23, or who Patrick Krabeepetcharat is. It does tell how much it costs, $3 per month (always genius to create a subscription app), and it offers a free 2-week trial, “no credit card,” which I appreciated. If I’d had to enter my credit card into just to try it free, I wouldn’t have. Now here’s my writing session from an hour ago, exactly as written. After that you’ll find my bottom line on this app.

Ok, the title its Lonely Guardian Angel. I'm a guardian and i'm an angel. Walking the streets with no one to guard. This is weird, but I i get it.Once you relax into it, I think this could work pretty welll. There's no backspacing or anything , but let's see if I can make wawhat used to be known as a carriage return. New paragraph.
New graph. I remember learning the prayer for your guardian angel at my mother's knee. "Angel of God, guardian dear, to whom God's love commits me here, ever this day be at my side, to light, to guard, to rule, and to guide. Amen." That is the prayer I guess little Cahtholic kids learn when they're very young. Do young children still learn that prayer? When you'rel little, you have a guardian angel; when you're big, you can be one. Can you? 
This is how I write generally, mixing random, or related, thoughts in with what ever story I'm trying to tell, or explore, or get at the heart of.Ah, I wonder how long this is taking. Man, not long. I think it's been about 10 minutes, and boy crikey, I got over 200 words. Of course, these words are sessentially trash, but in here , in here somewhere, always lies the beginning, some acorn, some seed. I was going to tell a story, but it looks like I'm exploring a character. A person--guy? Gal?who wants to serve. Not part of the Guardian Angel organization that provides security in some places, some cities--k do they still do that? I've never seen one. In real life, I'd be moving on from this stream of consciouslness about now, so yearh. What I want is to see how dialogue will work here.
"So testit out," said a little voice.
Carriage return. New line, new graph? "OK," says I.
The streets are cold and empty. It dawns o on me that I might need to find somebody to guard. I was on a bus , you know the crosstown 38 once when I thin / thought a dude might ebe a terrorist, and man, did my adrenaline surge. I got ready to defend the people on the bus from this guy, who might have had an explosive vest on. As soon as he stood up to get off--no, he stood up with meaning in his eyes and determination in his manner. I got up too, and moved toward him, cuz I was gonna do the sacfifice hug. But he just turned and got off the bus. I didn't follow him, because who knew if there was some other terrorist on the bus, ready to explode HIS ver vest.When iI know I've made a little typo, whic I Im I'm seeming to do a lot here, because somehow I feel this pressure to type fast. Invisible pressure, yes. But when a typo occurs, when typing normally, I immediately backspace to fix it, almost always. I'm thinking about all the corrections I'll need to do to this piece, or would need to t do to it if I wanted to. I can see how this app could really helop a writer keep the flow going. Whether you're a newbie or an oldbie. $3 a month? getting my abacus out I see that equals $36 per year. Maybe worth it. I do like Dragon Naturally speaking, but you need privacy to write, unless you really don't care about being overheard as you expl expose your odd fits and starts. It certainly would be possible for someone looking over my shoulder to read what's being written, though you'd really have to pay pretty close attention. So I can see this app as a possible alternative, or supplement , to ordinary typing in a Word doc, or talking into Dragon's c microphone.
The End.
For anyone who has ever doubted my bravery, ask this: Who among us would post such a piece of writing for public view?

Enforced forward motion in writing.
Extremely simple and easy to use.
No glitches in copying text to clipboard for pasting into a document.

Con (just one):
Microsoft Word automatic conventions are not supported.
(Note: no backspace function is not a con, it’s a feature.)

Bottom line: Floor 23 is a very cool app that delivers exactly what it promises. If you don’t mind a fairly heavy edit process in exchange for enforced forward motion, this app is for you. If you’re thinking about NaNoWriMo, yeah. I might add that I, personally, would expect my raw output with this app to get better over time, as I feel more comfortable slowing down and typing with more accuracy. I intend to use it more, then decide if I want to subscribe.

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Thursday, January 4, 2018

Close Reading 5

Zestful Blog Post #245

My friend Jay, who is a change ringer, turned me on to Dorothy Sayers’s The Nine Tailors, which features change ringing. (Change ringing is a form of church-bell ringing, where an array of tuned tower bells is rung by a team of pullers, or ringers, in precise mathematical sequences. The effect can be hypnotic and possibly even transcendent, as prolonged, repetitive chanting can be in many religious cultures.)

I’m just getting going on this read, and am ashamed that I haven’t devoured anything by Sayers before now, in spite of recommendations from knowledgeable friends. Almost as soon as I started this one, I knew I had to do a Close Reading on it. I’m only on page 49 out of 397, and I haven’t read any plot summaries, so I’m still a virgin reader to the story. OK, we’re going to discuss one little word in the following excerpt, from page 7:

[excerpt begins]
“My dear sir, pray don’t think twice about it. Not but what I am sure Mrs. Tebbutt here would be delighted to take you in and would make you very comfortable—very comfortable indeed; but her husband is laid up with this dreadful influenza—we are suffering from quite an epidemic of it, I am sorry to say—and I fear it would not be altogether convenient, would it, Mrs. Tebbutt?”
“Well, sir, I don’t know as how we could manage very well, under the circumstances, and the Red Cow has only one room—”
“Oh, no,” said the clergyman, quickly, “not the Red Cow; Mrs. Donnington has visitors already. Indeed, I will take no denial. You must positively come along to the Rectory. We have ample accommodation—too much, indeed, too much. My name, by the way, is Venables—I should have mentioned it earlier. I am, as you will have gathered, rector of the parish.”
[excerpt ends] 

The key word here is ‘quickly’. Did you note that? A tiny granule of the story—but instantly telling. Many readers would skip right over that inconsequential little word, buried as it is among all the verbiage being spewed by the clergyman. Careless philistines, such readers would be, but perceptive ones will pause and think.

Hm, OK. There’s a reason the rector doesn’t want the visitor—as it happens, Sayers’s serial character Lord Peter Wimsey—to go to the Red Cow inn. Further reflection yields the possibility that perhaps the Red Cow is of no significance, but that perhaps the rector wants the stranger to come with him instead of anywhere else. We don’t know which possibility is right, and we don’t know what the reason is, but we know there is one. So we are on a little bit of alert with this rector. We shall watch him, and we shall attempt to discern his motive for keeping the stranger either away from the Red Cow, or with him in his rectory, on this evening.

[I might note that Sayers is as much a stylist as she is a technician. Some gorgeous prose to be enjoyed in this book, besides the more workaday passage we’re discussing here…]

We know that the author might have thrown that little adjective in as a false clue, so we must withhold judging the rector as treacherous right away, and on that basis alone. And it’s also possible that the rector has a secret yet benevolent reason to steer Lord Peter one way or another tonight. We do not wish to be made fools of!

But do you see how goddamned entertaining and enjoyable it is to read closely? We are really matching wits twice over: with the characters, and with the author. Because we wonder what the author’s motive is here: To clarify or obfuscate? To enlighten or temporarily confuse? To reward or to trick? Whatever the case, we know the author is thinking about us as well as her story. And so, engaged, we read on, our intellectual senses whetted, knowing we’re being considered equals.

The takeaway for readers is that attentiveness is always rewarded, when the author is a trusted professional. And for authors—the power of a word! One word, to color a moment, to intrigue the reader, to direct your story, if only a tiny bit! O, let us luxuriate in the gorgeous utility of the English language, even when we are so moved that we must swear!

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