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I’ve been reading the essays of author Andre Dubus, considered a master of the short form. In his book, Meditations from a Movable Chair (New York: Vintage, 1999), Dubus writes an essay called “First Books” and offers this encouragement to writers:

An older writer knows what a younger one has not yet learned. What is demanding and fulfilling is writing a single word, trying to write le mot juste, as Flaubert said; writing several of them, which become a sentence. When a writer does that, day after day, working alone with little encouragement, often with discouragement flowing in the writer’s blood, and with an occasional rush of excitement that empties oneself, so that the self is for minutes longer in harmony with eternal astonishments and visions of truth, right there on the page on the desk, and when a writer does this work steadily enough to complete a manuscript long enough to be a book, the treasure is on the desk. If the manuscript itself, mailed out to the world, where other truths prevail, is never published, the writer will suffer bitterness, sorrow, anger, and more dangerously despair, convinced that the work is not worthy, so not worth those days at the desk. But the writer who endures and keeps working will finally know that writing the book was something hard and glorious, for at the desk a writer must try to be free of prejudice, meanness of spirit, pettiness, and hatred; strive to be a better human being than the writer normally is, and to do this through concentration on a single word, and then another, and another, and another. This is splendid work, as worthy and demanding as any, and the will and resilience to do it are good for the writer’s soul. If the work is not published, or is published for little money and less public attention, it remains a spiritual, mental, and physical achievement; and if, in public, it is the widow’s mite, it is also, like the widow, more blessed. (162-63)

dubus

Writers, we must endure. We must keep working knowing that the words we write are worth it . . . it being the process, the “splendid” work, the worthy and demanding work.

No one said it would be easy. No one said it would be a sure path to fame and fortune. But as writers, we must be true to ourselves, to our giftedness and our calling. We must reach and try and write and rewrite and reach again because it matters.

If we’re true to our giftedness, then we will continue to write — no matter whether published or not, read or not. It is the “widow’s mite” that we offer up, and we are blessed.

 

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Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.

C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

Finding that perfect word that says the thing I mean, what I really mean, is a struggle for the writer — and I know all writers experience it constantly.

But it’s not just a writing problem; it’s also an editing problem

As an editor, my job (especially at the copyediting phase) is to make a manuscript sing. If I read your story or essay or article or devotional, I’m looking closely at the sentences and the words — and I’m asking if the words I see are the best words. Sometimes something I read makes me stumble. I have to go back and understand the sentence, or visualize the scene, or simply try to comprehend what the author means to say. I stumble because something isn’t working.

And if it isn’t working for me — the editor — then it isn’t going to work for the readers either.

Maybe I need to replace a blah verb with a stronger verb — or better yet, an adverb and verb with a strong verb. “He slowly walked across the street.” Ugh. Adverb. Not helpful. Many strong verbs can picture a slow walker, but the verb needs to be the best verb for the scene. Does he amble? trudge? shuffle? Amble sounds like he’s carefree . . . trudge sounds like he’s sad . . . shuffle sounds like he’s elderly or injured perhaps . . . I have to study the scene and suggest a strong verb, the right strong verb.

Or maybe the descriptor isn’t quite there. A “shiny” item might better be described as shimmering or glittering or glistening or gleaming or glossy (wow, lots of “g” words there).

At times, I look for a word that will add some alliteration — if it works with the tone of the piece.

It takes a writer, a reader, a word lover to be a good copy editor, to massage the message, to tame the tome (see what I did there?).

the best

Some sentences just make me stop in wonder. Some words string together like the notes of a beautiful melody. They take my breath away. (I gave a few examples in this post called “Word Power.”)

It’s hard work, this writing, editing, and trying to say what we want to say or trying to help authors say what they want to say.

But when a sentence sings, when we “say the very thing [we] really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what [we] really mean” as C. S. Lewis writes, it’s all worth it.

We live for those moments.

Ever have one of those times when it all came together?

 

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I’m experimenting with another kind of writing not common to me called flash nonfiction. Flash is typically under 1000 words, and this particular piece is topping out at 250. I like to write about commonplace things, seeking the splendor in the ordinary. This one is called “Hands” and was inspired by some moments with one of my granddaughters.

Hands

“Grandma, what’s wrong with your hands?” My five-year-old granddaughter’s voice betrays concern mixed with a bit of awe.

I look down at the hand in question. My left hand is placed on the “treasure box” (an old jewelry box) that she and I are exploring. We have plopped together on the queen-sized bed and into the soft comforter. The morning sun filters through the lace curtains, bright and harsh on this clear and cool April Saturday and puts the blue veins of my hand into sharp relief, like a topical map of mountains and valleys. I too am a bit stunned at how odd my hand looks.

hand mine

“Those are my veins,” I explain.

Ari splays her little fingers and feels the back of her own hand. “Mine is smooth,” she announces and turns back to the jewelry.

I look at my hand again, moving it back and forth in the sunlight. I haven’t ever noticed these veins so pronounced before. Blue lines, mixed with brown age spots, travel around the back of my hand creating an impressionist pattern of muted colors. I’m in my sixtieth year, a grandmother, hands no longer smooth and strong, clearly betraying the age that I so desperately try to camouflage on every other part of my body from my graying hair to my slowly bulging middle.

These are old hands, these hands with the convex veins.

Nothing wrong with them, dear Ari. Just evidence of a life being lived.

 

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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:

Bruegel,_Pieter_de_Oude_-_De_val_van_icarus_-_hi_res

“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?

 

 

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

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