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Last post, I discussed my discovery of ekphrasis and how much I enjoyed using it in my classroom to help the students write the details. The practice helps them to notice and employ those details in whatever they write.

This is my ekphrastic piece about the photo below, a photo of me and my youngest son, taken in the early 1990s.

Sweet Sonme and sean

He snuggles into my lap—my sweet youngest boy, born a mere eighteen months after his brother and thirty months after his sister. His blue shirt and green shorts are most likely hand-me-downs from his siblings. The Velcro shoes revealing that he has not yet learned to work with laces.

Always moving, he is caught for a moment. Perhaps as he ran by me while I sat outside on our deck, I reached out and scooped him onto my lap as my dad snapped this photo. It’s summer, circa 1994, my parents still able and willing to make the eight-hour drive from their Pennsylvania home braving Chicago traffic to visit their 1-2-3 grandkids who had arrived in 1-2-3 fashion and then grew too quickly. These are their only grandkids at this point as my sister—eleven years younger—has only recently married.

Dad captures these moments on slides, his trusty and omnipresent camera yielding trays and trays of slides. He stores them upstairs in their home and, at every family gathering, is happy to haul down the screen and projector asking, “What years shall we revisit tonight?”

For Christmas one year, dad sorted his hundreds of slides representing a half-century, and downloaded them onto his computer. He then created a flash drive for each of his siblings and children with only the slides featuring them, creating a wonderful chronicle of them young, then with young families, then with grandchildren. My flash drive begins with me as a babe in arms, works its way through the hobby-horse days, every birthday and vacation, my awkward cat-eye glasses stage, all the way to me and my kids.

So the reason I have this particular photo is because I’m in it. I see my young mom self—newly out of the haze of caring for three toddlers in diapers and getting no sleep. At this point, finally everyone can pee and poop and sleep on their own.

Yet for me, the photo is all about my little boy. I have my arms around his sturdy body as he curls into me, his hands touching each other, mine cupping his shoulder. He smiles that mischievous smile that for a moment captures the fact that he is here now but mentally on to his next act. The large Band-Aid across his left knee attests to some misadventure.

He and I are close. His giggle could light up a room. He approached life in a lighthearted way, laughing at even those scrapes on the knee (after a few appropriate tears). A hug from mom or dad and he was soon on his way to what life offered next.

He will grow up to see what I don’t see—make films, create art, dive deeply into a realm that is beyond my sensibilities. He and I are able to snuggle this way for many years until slowly I begin to lose him to depression and, one day, an attempted suicide.

But he is back now. Stronger. Growing.

“You saved my life,” he says. “I am still here because of you.”

I wish I could still hold him this tightly. Protect him from the scrapes and sufferings and hurts that life inevitably gives. Let him know that it’s going to be all right.

Yet I do hold him just as tightly.

In my heart.

Every day.

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I didn’t know what the word meant either.

I was first introduced to it in an MFA class with Dr. Root. And the minute we began to read examples and try it for ourselves, I was in love.

Wikipedia defines it this way: “Ekphrasis has been considered generally to be a rhetorical device in which one medium of art tries to relate to another medium by defining and describing its essence and form, and in doing so, relate more directly to the audience, through its illuminative liveliness.”

Basically, for me as a writer, it’s me using my words in as creative a way as possible to describe another form of art, such as a painting or a photograph (although it takes on many other forms).

For example, this painting titled “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” has inspired many pieces of ekphrasis.

In Greek mythology, Icarus was the son of Daedalus who created the labyrinth. Daedalus and Icarus tried to escape Crete with wings made of feathers and wax. Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too high and thus too close to the sun because the wax would melt. Icarus ignored his father, flew too close to the sun, his wax wings melted, and he fell into the sea. His pride destroyed him.

Now look at Brueghel’s painting:

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“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” Pieter Brueghel the Elder, circa 1558 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ekphrastic writing about this painting draws us back to study it more closely, seeing what the writer saw in what the painter presented.

For example, William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) wrote a poem titled the same as the painting: “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” Read it here, and then come back and study the painting. Williams studies what the painter has done, showing us a regular world of common people plowing or sailing while the mythic event unfolded. (See the little legs of Icarus as he splashes into the water on the bottom right of the painting?)

W. H. Auden (1907-1973) also wrote an ekphrastic poem from this painting titled “Musee des Beaux Arts.” Notice Auden’s take on how life goes on even as tragedy unfolds.

One more: Michael Hamburger (1924-2007) wrote a poem “Lines on Brueghel’s ‘Icarus.'” He focuses on those foreground details while Icarus is “left to drown.”

The point for me is the value of noticing, of looking closely, of then writing in such a way as to illuminate the picture or painting, to draw us in and make us look again and see what the writer sees.

I find this exercise helpful because looking at a picture and writing about it seems to turn on the creative spigot and help me dig deep into myself.

I’ve tried the exercise with my Freelancing class, asking them to bring in a photograph (or they can choose a painting or movie poster or something similar) that means something to them. They then are challenged to describe the picture, tell us a story, and draw us in.

To say I was impressed is an understatement. We put the photographs on screen in the classroom and the students read their ekphrastic pieces. From the student who had a photo of her mother’s gravestone, to the family portraits, to the four guys on a road trip, to “us-sies” with family members or significant others, to interesting places they traveled, their writing drew us in, helped us study the details of the photographs, and gave us insight into their lives.

Next post, I’ll share with you my own experiment with ekphrasis.

Have you ever tried this kind of writing? How did it work for you?

 

 

 

Getting It Done

I don’t know where anyone gets the idea that professors have summers off. I mean, I haven’t had to dress up every day, put on makeup, and fix my hair (so there’s that), but every day has been filled with tasks.

This summer brought some changes to my job — some new classes to teach. Some fears and disappointments. Some outright shocking situations.

Then I’ve had freelance work with multiple frustrations and clients missing deadlines (which meant the “hurry” part landed on me).

And I’ve been planning a writers’ conference.

On a few of these hot summer days, it all got to be too much. Moments of feeling completely overwhelmed. I won’t lie. I shed buckets of tears of fear and frustration and anger. And I felt inadequate to the tasks.

My kind husband took me for a few drives and let me cry and spout my fears, while he just listened. Then, in a break in my tirade against the unfair world, he would remind me that I’m capable of handling the new challenges.

I needed to slow down, breathe, and remember who I am.

breath

I think about you all out there, my readers. The ones I don’t know. The ones who are new friends, like Terry, who met me at a conference last week and thanked me for both my book and this site. The old friends. All of you are facing your own challenges every day. I don’t know what might be going on in your life right now, but I want you to know that I’m thinking of you and saying a prayer for you.

We’re all just trying to do this thing called life the best we can. If we’re people of faith (as I am), we know that everything is part of God’s bigger plan. That it all happens for a reason. That it’s all under control.

When I remember that, when I remember that this is all bigger than me, then I can trust that God will give me the strength to do what he’s called me to do. The task is not too big. Not when I remember who I am and whose I am.

My friends, whatever you’re facing today, you will not just survive but thrive.

We can get it done.

Message me on this site or write me at lindataylor5558{at}gmail.com and let me know how I can pray for you.

hands

 

Editing and Life

Last year we bought a house. An old old house. It was built in 1911, so it’s over a century old. We wanted a place where grandkids could come and hang out and build memories. We love this place. It has a great room and a big fireplace, and this past Christmas we were able to have everyone together to celebrate. Fireplace and all. Magical.

Christmas 2017

But you can’t move into a new place without doing some “editing.” Some of it is important due to the needs of the seasons (hello new furnace and new gutters), and some is merely cosmetic.

house-2Then, there’s the man of the house who wants to edit, well, everything. First, the giant tree in the front was taken down — to get it to stop spitting pine tar on our vehicles and dropping pine needles everywhere. Then he spent three weeks prepping that garden area that was filled with river rock into a spot for a perennial garden. He found a layout in a magazine, we purchased all the required plants, and then we worked together to plant them. This “editing” has transformed our curb appeal.

Now, he’s taking off (carefully) the asbestos siding. I wasn’t ready for that edit at all. “It’s fine as is,” I pled. But I should have known he was right. He happily discovered the original house still intact underneath a layer of asbestos and cardboard. We hope we can edit this lady back to her former glory.

 

 

I got to thinking how difficult it is for me to edit my own work. I can do the “have to” things — fix spelling and punctuation, revise a convoluted sentence, and recheck all my tenses (sort of like putting in a new furnace and hanging new gutters). But unlike my husband, I’m not really ready to take what is “okay,” dismantle it, and start over to make it “great.” I’m too happy with good enough, or livable, or fine.

If I just took the time, I could make my writing so much better. I type it and think it’s great. But if I take the time to let it sit a day, a week, I go back and see a plethora of things that need revision and ask, “Why didn’t I see this before?” Well, it needed to rest, and I needed to come back with a fresh set of eyes. Nothing’s ever great on the first pass — nothing. And you could just put up with it. You could leave the asbestos siding and the drippy gutters and the tar-spitting tree.

Or, you could catch a vision for what could be with that piece you’re writing and be willing to take the time to dig and pull nails and scrape and wash and plant because, in the end, it just might have a beauty beyond what you even thought when you started.

And sometimes we make life edits. We change course; we walk through a newly opened door after another one closed right in front of us. Life edits are just as difficult. We could stick with that “good enough” job, or we could take that risk and try something new.

We must edit everything — houses, words, lives — slowly and carefully with wisdom and great care. We will find that beauty if we take the time.

 

The first time I saw the Eiffel Tower, I stopped in my tracks, astounded. It’s so BIG! For some reason, in my mind, it stood much smaller over Paris. But walking toward it, seeing it close up, standing under it and looking up, the thing is massive. Thousands upon thousands of pieces of iron — each had been perfectly cut and angled, then riveted together in a lacy pattern. When it was completed in 1889, it was the tallest man-made structure in the world at the time. At 984 feet, it nearly doubled the up-until-then tallest structure, the 555-foot tall Washington Monument (which opened in 1888).

Paris

That’s me on the left in my awesome wide 1970s pants, my mom, and my little sister in front of the Eiffel Tower circa 1974.

I’m currently reading a book titled Eiffel’s Tower (Jill Jonnes, Penguin, 2009) about the building of the tower, which went up iron piece by iron piece during 1887 through 1889 as the focal point for the Exposition Universelle, the World’s Fair in 1889.

But as it was ascending — the four legs at the base going up separately and slowly uniting at the first platform — Parisians were not too fond of it. They feared that it would draw lightning, change the weather, or fall over (indeed, without the intensive and minute calculations of Gustave Eiffel, it well may have). Many tried to stop it. A letter signed by several important Parisians said this (with a slight insult to America):

For the Eiffel Tower, which even commercial America would not have, is without a doubt the dishonor of Paris. Everyone feels it, everyone says it, everyone is profoundly saddened by it, and we are only a weak echo of public opinion so legitimately alarmed. When foreigners visit our Exposition, they will cry out in astonishment, “Is it this horror that the French have created to give us an idea of their vaunted taste?” . . . And for the next twenty years we will see cast over the entire city, still trembling with the genius of so many centuries, cast like a spot of ink, the odious shadow of the odious column of bolted metal. (27)

Ouch.

It was supposed to be temporary, the tower; then it was given a reprieve to stand for twenty years. And that was in 1889. Clearly, the tower has come to symbolize Paris itself and, if the plethora of Eiffel Towers on everything from lamps to stationery to jewelry is any indication, it has become a well-loved icon. (I have little Eiffel Towers everywhere. Ahem.)

The point is that Gustave Eiffel kept building. He believed in his structure; he saw the beauty when those watching its slow ascent across the Parisian skyline couldn’t see it.

Thinking of nay-sayers, I’m reminded of F. Scott Fitzgerald. When The Great Gatsby hit fitzgeraldthe shelves in April 1925, a review of the book in the St. Louis Dispatch said, “Altogether it seems to us this book is a minor performance. At the moment, its author seems a bit bored and tired and cynical. There is no ebullience here, nor is there any mellowness or profundity. For our part, The Great Gatsby might just as well be called Ten Nights on Long Island” (Reach).

In June of 1925, the author Edith Wharton weighed in, fancying herself a better editor than Maxwell Perkins: “To make Gatsby really Great, you ought to have given us his early career (not from the cradle—but from his visit to the yacht, if not before) instead of a short resume of it. That would have situated him & made his final tragedy a tragedy instead of a fait divers for the morning papers” (Reach).

By the time Fitzgerald died in 1940, he had made a little over thirteen dollars in royalties on the book.

But like the Eiffel Tower, The Great Gatsby has become an icon to later generations.

The point? Don’t give up on what you’re doing — your book, that poem, the painting, whatever creation is before you. Don’t worry about the nay-sayers. If you believe in it, if you’re doing what you perceive is your best work, then just keep on doing it.

You just never know what will happen.

Jonnes, Jill. (2009.) Eiffel’s Tower. New York: Penguin.
Reach, Kirsten. “Ten Nights on Long Island: The Great Gatsby’s Early Reviews,” 9 May 2013, mhpbooks.com/ten-nights-on-long-island-the-great-gatsbys-early-reviews/. Accessed 24 Jan. 2017.

 

 

The students in my Social Media Strategy class are required to create a blog and post on it at least four times during the semester. I’m always amazed at their interests and how they want to present themselves. Last semester, one student began a blog about, of all things, letter writing!

A woman after my own heart.

I have long been a fan of letters — pretty stationery, matching envelopes, a return address, an address, a colorful stamp. In my junior-high days, I even had a kit where I could melt a little bit of wax on the back of the envelope and press it with a brass monogram to create a seal (so very royal of me, I know). Letters were how I stayed in touch, how I let people know I was remembering them. And I wanted to do that. It was important to me.

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Pretty stationery is the best! (Photo by Giulia Bertelli on Unsplash)

As a college student in the 1970s, seeing that diagonal line of a leaning envelope through the window of my college mailbox meant — YAY! — mail! It meant a card from a high school friend, an update from my parents or grandparents or numerous aunts and cousins. Once in a while I received thick updates from my high school friends. They usually wrote on notebook paper, pages and pages (I recall one 17-page tome), front and back, numbered pages, with their familiar handwriting. They were the friends who had scattered to the winds after high school in Bonn, Germany. Some came back to the States, others stayed on in Germany or elsewhere in Europe, or if they were ambassadors’ kids they often went back to their home country for college. We missed one another and were hungry for news. We’d been deep in one another’s lives for years — formative years — and we cared about where life was taking us in our various corners of the world.

Later, after college, by far the BEST mail was another thick envelope, a round-robin letter. Two sets of my college friends started these letters to keep us in touch. Instead of writing separate letters to the other three in a group, we could write one letter, pop it in an envelope, and send it to the next person on the list. Then each person put in a letter.

When the round-robin envelope came back, I sat for an entire evening reading three thick letters overflowing with news from my dearest friends. Then I pulled out my old letter, re-read it, and wrote a new one with news picking up from where the last one left off. I added my new letter to theirs and sent the whole batch on. Sometimes it took a few months for the envelope to arrive back. Sometimes photos were included — an engagement ring, a wedding, a new baby. We hugged one another from afar, again caring about lives who had become so much a part of our own.

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Photo by Álvaro Serrano on Unsplash

Then along came email and Facebook and our letters went out of style. With a click we could upload pictures. We could follow one another’s lives. We could email and copy everyone else and not have to wait for months.

As nice as that is, I miss those thick letters. Probably for the same reason that I love books over e-books, I love letters over e-mail.

But if it means communication, I’m happy for anything.

Yet there IS something about a letter. As it says in this post from The Pen Company, “8 reasons to send snail mail today,” sending a letter shows you care, it’s “on a whole other level.”

I am a sucker for stationery and note cards. I try to send handwritten thank-yous at least. But I’d like to get back to taking the time to connect with the people who matter most to me. The ones who shaped my life in one way or another.

Because a letter shows a whole other level of caring. And that’s what I want to show as well.

What about you? Do you still write letters?

 

When we moved from a city in Chicagoland that boasted a “Top Ten Library,” I somewhat despaired. That was the library where I diligently took my children a couple times a month. We routinely checked out and returned and checked out and returned piles of children’s books. This library did indeed have a stellar selection, the latest technologies, and wonderful ambiance.

We have since lived in two small towns in Indiana, both boasting libraries. I was thrilled to locate the first town’s library. I paid my twenty-dollar fee to be a member, only to look around and find rows and rows of romantic paperbacks. “We take donations,” the elderly volunteer behind the desk informed me.

Obviously.

This was not the “Top Ten” library I had made use of for the last 26 years of my life. This was a little town library with just enough money to keep going. That’s okay, I told myself. There were a few biographies and memoirs here I could read. I checked out Stephen King’s On Writing, returned it on time, went to check out another, and a new elderly volunteer asked me if I still had On Writing at home and would I please return it.

“I did, last week,” I told her. I had dropped it off across the street in the plastic box under the desk by the entrance to the video store—the after-hours drop box. “Look, it’s here, on the shelf.” I didn’t want her to exert herself, so I walked over, pulled the book from the shelf and brought it to her. “See? Returned and back on the shelf.”

“Oh, okay,” she said, as she clicked around with the mouse on the computer and tried to find the screen she needed. I didn’t want to start out my sojourn in this little town as the lady who didn’t return library books!

We’ve since moved to another small town that boasts a library as well. Again, mostly donations, but this one I could join for free — just needed to prove my town address. “Do I need a library card?” I asked naively.

“No, we’ll recognize you.”

swayzee library

Our local library. Courtesy of swayzeepubliclibrary.com

The library is in a repurposed brick two-story building that appears to have once been a church. (The bricked-in arches above what are now square windows give me that impression.) The library has been serving this and the surrounding communities for almost a century.

My grandsons and I recently walked the two blocks from our home to visit on a chilly Saturday afternoon. They enjoyed the large Lego blocks and the plastic car track. I wandered the stacks, excited to find many actual readable books (sorry, paperback romances do not translate into my world as “readable”). There are enough current books, memoirs, and reference books to keep me busy.

“We’re not fully computerized yet, but we’re working on it,” one of the volunteers told me.

The library is a gathering place — offering a knitting and crocheting circle, activities for elementary children, and various and sundry lessons.

On a shelf beside the front door are “free” books. (Isn’t that sort of like offering candy to a baby?) The librarian told me they were mostly duplicates among donations. I found a memoir to add to my reading collection. My grandsons each found a book to take home as well.

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I love this little library. It’s clean and bright, and the folks are friendly. People drop in to make use of the free WiFi, pick up and return videos, send a fax, or read a magazine. While I was readying my grandsons to leave at closing time, the librarian kindly told me to take my time. “Someone just called and needs to use the Internet. I’m waiting for him.”

Yes, I have access to three huge university libraries, and I use them diligently for research and the love of my life: “inter-library loan.” Yes, there are websites that show me the “most beautiful libraries in the world” (swoon!).

But I think when I want to simply wander smaller stacks to find a new book to read, or when I want to repeat my earlier process and now take grandchildren to check out piles of books, we’ll walk the two blocks to our little local library.

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