Something in the air as I walk across campus. It strikes with subtle but unmistakable force. It makes me stop, sniff.
It isn’t Chick-Fil-A or the lunch aroma from the college dining commons.
In fact, I can’t pinpoint or describe the smell; it is simply in the air. Closing my eyes, the smell has transported me. I am at Houghton College, walking the sidewalk that encompassed the quad, a new freshman, terrified, lonely, missing my family, worried about being a failure, that I can’t cut this whole college thing.
Now, as I stand on the sidewalk surrounded by the buildings of Taylor University where I teach, I am not here — I am traveling in time. I am not a publishing professional and faculty member. I am an eighteen year old with no fashion sense and big glasses and low self-esteem. A girl who doesn’t know what she wants to major in or why she’s at college or who will be her new friends or if she’ll have friends at all.
Standing here in these passing moments, I open my eyes and see a a lone student slouching toward me, eyes downcast, heavy backpack, sad face. My heart goes out to him. I know, in that moment exactly how the young man is feeling. Exactly. I am right there with him. Overwhelmed with distress from four decades ago.
I want to grab him, to hug him, to tell him it’s all going to be okay. He’ll figure it out as each day goes by. Tell him that God will be faithful. Tell him to just take it a day at a time, a step at a time.
But of course, I don’t. I can’t. The young man walks by. I sniff again and return to the present. But I vow that any moment I can, I will tell these dear students with their wide eyes and their fears and worries that it will indeed be okay.
I can testify to it.
It is just a smell. But how powerful the memories it evokes. It gives me a mission, for it reminds me that four decades ago I, too, was slouching along a sidewalk, overwhelmed, deeply distressed, trying to figure out life. God walked with me each step of the way.
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.
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.
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:
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?
“I found another fake swear word. Add it to the list.”
“Wait, how did they get to the woods?”
“I’m gonna go ahead and remove this whole paragraph.”
“Can your face curl in anger?” (question asked of class) “How about contort?” (someone says) “Yes! That’s it.”
“I don’t know what’s going on here.”
“Wait . . . .!”
“This sounds like a Tim Burton movie.”
“I like that!”
“Wow. Good description.”
These are just a few statements I’m overhearing as I listen to my student editors work on the copyediting part of this project. (You can read about the content editing part here.)
For this part, we revised the groups into three groups of four to focus on the three fiction manuscripts. The authors did what they could over the past month and sent us their full revised manuscripts. Now the new groups are diving into the copyediting phase. The manuscripts were moved onto Google docs where the groups can read together and comment along the way.
“This takes so long!”
They’re getting a real understanding of what’s involved at the copyediting level. It does take time to really consider every sentence, every word, every bit of punctuation. To make sure the facts are lining up, to make sure the reader won’t be confused, to make sure that the author is saying what s/he really means to say. (If my editors are confused, future readers will be confused. Now is the time to fix any concerns.)
There’s new appreciation brewing for how hard editors work and why they work so hard.
We’re at it again. Last year, I taught a class in our Professional Writing program that exposed our students to the entire publishing process, “from manuscript to book.” We read and edited real manuscripts written by real people; the students took them through the content editing phase, the copyediting phase, and the typesetting and proofreading phase. We also worked with the layout and design class, which created cover designs for us.
This semester, we again have five manuscripts and four authors.
You can read about the actual process on last year’s manuscripts through the hyperlinks above. This time around, we have three fantasy manuscripts and two nonfiction.
I want to tell you about this experience from the viewpoint of an author. One group of this class gamely took on my MFA thesis and my new editing book for Bold Vision Books, titled Word by Word, coming out this summer.
I had this group work on both of my manuscripts because the word count added up to roughly the same as the manuscripts in the other groups (about 100K), spreading the work evenly.
Here’s what happened from my perspective as an author. I had sent in the first draft of my thesis for review in my program. My MFA mentor wrote back with some excellent advice and good questions. One thing had to do with the entire premise. My thesis is about my life as an editor — it is more memoir-ish with research and other nonfiction elements. At first, I had the title “Superhero Editor.” My mentor challenged that, sensing that the metaphor didn’t really work. The editor doesn’t swoop in and “save the day”; no, it’s much more collaborative and intimate than that. He challenged me to try another metaphor.
I thought and thought and thought, coming up dry. Then, when I decided to give the project to my students, I offered them the challenge. And they came through.
They thought that the friendship angle would work better. They gave me the title “Friends with Words.” Then I realized that for the last month I’ve been playing on my phone every night with my mom — the Scrabble game “Words with Friends” (and, by the way, she usually smokes me!). We moved their words around, and I titled the thesis “Words with Friends” and went back and recast the entire thing to reflect the new tone of that kind of relationship between editors and authors.
I couldn’t have done it without my student editors!
After they finished my thesis, they gamely moved on to my contracted book, which is more of a textbook style (a book I will use in my editing classes moving forward). The full manuscript for this was due to the publisher on March 1, so I asked what I needed to do to improve this first draft.
I told them to put me through my paces and do what I’ve trained them to do . . . and they did. They pointed out my overuse of the word “So.” (When I checked it, Microsoft Word said, “There are too many instances to check. You use this word a lot!” Yikes!) They mentioned that I needed to watch for passive voice. They told me when I got long-winded (read: “boring”) and need to cut or revise some lengthy sections.
AND, they let me know what they liked, what was engaging, and what was helpful.
All the editing groups put together their editorial letters with suggestions and advice to their authors, who will do what they can with their manuscripts by our March 28 due date.
I’m so excited to share some of the work my students have been doing so far this semester.
I teach a class called “Building Your Author Platform.” The focus is to help our Professional Writing students who want to write books or in some way work with books build that platform so needed in the publishing world. I designed the class a few years ago after I studied under Professor Cathy Day at Ball State University in a class that focused on literary citizenship.
Much of the writing world is online—and as my students become a professional writers and/or prepare to be professionals in the publishing world, they need to be in that online community. In my class, I try to help them understand what it means to join the writing world “out there” and professionalize themselves in their writing careers.
I teach them about becoming good literary citizens and being ready to enter the literary world upon graduation. They learn how to use social media strategically to build networks with the people they need to know, to add to the conversations going on in their field of interest or writing genre, and to understand what to say and the best avenues to say it.
They spend the first part of the semester figuring out who they are and what they’re passionate about. They build a personal website centered around that passion. They look for other websites and blogs by people they admire–other writers or publishing professionals. They join Twitter or learn to use Twitter more strategically by building their tribe. They write “charming notes” (explained further here).
They each reported on different social media platforms and how they might use them to expand their tribes (Facebook pages, Reddit, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, Goodreads), and we talked about where each of them might best need to “hang out” depending on where their tribe members are. We played with newsletter programs and created sample newsletters.
And every year I learn something new from them. This time around, since I do have a book coming out next summer, I realized that I need to do some polishing up of my social media presence. I learned from a student about Goodreads author pages–so I went in and built one. I’m also working on creating a newsletter. (Stay tuned!)
Here’s what my students have been up to:
(1) My student Jessie is a constant learner–someone who might suddenly have a question and can spend several hours researching and learning about something new. She decided to call her website Pioneer Curiosity, and there you will enjoy following along with her to learn about the next new thing.
(2) Taylor wants to be an editor (be still my heart), so she has created a website dedicated to the things she’s learning, the magic of words and great books, and the work she is ready to do for you! Check out Taylor Editing for her writing about this love of words–as well as her pricing for freelance work!
(3) Laura can write just about anything, but she loves writing about local people and things that get her out talking to someone interesting or visiting something amazing. Local is anywhere that you are, so she writes about Exploring Local and finding the fascinating things in your own backyard!
(4) Ari’s special interests include world-building and languages. She’s a fantasy and science fiction writer, a world-builder, and a conlanger (a person who constructs original languages). So over at The World-Maker’s House, she’s talking about those worlds that live in the minds of writers, worlds they’re trying to get on the page for their readers.
(5) Becca is graduating soon (as in a few weeks), and she has discovered a passion for helping young women with the pesky details of “adulting.” Tackling issues like budgeting money or polishing a resume or handling stress, her Extraordinary Young Women site will be helpful for any extraordinary young woman about to embark on the adult world.
(6) Chrysa has already been around the block a few times–she came into class with an active blog and strong social media presence (oh yeah, and a couple of completed book manuscripts that she has pitched at writer’s conferences). Her delightful blog, Chrysa’s Corner, includes book reviews and advice on munchies to eat when reading and details of her journey as she tries to get her books published.
(7) Alycia also came into the class with a blog already up and running. Over at Just Be Lovely, Alycia talks about the things that happen in her world and offers to bring you along on her journey. You’ll find thoughtful, heart-breaking, and delightful posts on many different topics.
(8) Marshall, our one lone male in the class, is a gamer and a writer of speculative fiction with a “slight lean toward the darker things” as it says on his Twitter profile. This is a totally foreign world to me, but Marshall has given me new appreciation for the story aspect of gaming. Find out more at Stories from Dice.
I’m always amazed at how creative my students are. This talented group of men and women will soon be unleashed upon the world.
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I don’t know how you novel writers do it. First, I am always astounded by fiction writers–people who can weave a tale, build a plot and sustain it, create believable and likable characters, keep the suspense going, and then end with a conclusion that satisfies.
Seriously. I admire you more than you know.
So as the month of November approaches, and with it NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I can hear weeping and gnashing of teeth from my Professional Writing students who are trying to decide if they can take on the beast that is NaNoWriMo.
If you don’t know, NaNoWriMo is when novel writers everywhere commit to writing 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. To translate, there are about 250 words on a standard double-spaced typed page. So 50K words = 200 pages, divided by 30 days = roughly 6 or 7 pages a day. That’s a day. Anyone who is a writer will tell you how difficult it is to sustain that kind of momentum for very long. Not impossible, but tough. Especially when you have, you know, like, a life. Like classes to take and homework to do and food to eat and sleep to enjoy.
My student Chrysa discusses her past experience with NaNo in her blog post this week. And Jessie is trying to decide if the commitment is worth it:
If nothing else, the commitment of NaNo helps writers see what is possible. Whether they get to that magic 50K number or not, they have discovered that setting a goal and working steadily toward it have their own rewards. Basically you just do it and see if, well, if you can do it. There are no prizes, no awards dinners. Doing the task is reward unto itself.
Only writers understand that.
Which brings me to EdBoWriMo.
I don’t write novels. Never have. Never will. I am content to be astounded by my fellow writers who do. However, as I shared last week, I’m under contract to write a book about editing. So I decided to join my novel writing friends in making a commitment to myself to make this “Editing Book Writing Month.”
And since I know my abilities, I’m not shooting for 50K words; instead, I think I’m going for a more modest 22,500 words, which works out to 750 words (or about three pages) per day.
So what about you, my fellow writers? Do you have something you need to work on, but NaNoWriMo doesn’t quite fit? Then create your own! Let’s join with our fellow novel-writing friends and commit ourselves to a certain number of words per day (or per week if that’s better). Create your own acronym. Create your calendar.
And on November 1, let’s commit to seeing how far we can finally get on that project.
So tell me, what could you work on this November? What languishing project could you breathe new life into? What project could benefit from your sustained attention during the month of November? Tell me about it in the comments below.