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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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Note from author: This post is republished from last December 7, 2016, another reminder of what freedom costs and how words well written can change the world.

I’m all about self-editing. I’m all about encouraging writers to write that first draft, get down everything they want to say, then go back and massage the words. It’s at that point that you determine if you’re saying what you really want to say. It’s at that point that you can search to replace a blah word with the perfect word, play with some alliteration, try an unexpected metaphor or simile.

I teach a Public Speaking class this semester, and I encourage my students to play with words as they write their speeches. I also require them to watch and study several great speeches.

I mean, what if Martin Luther King, Jr. had said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by what they look like but by who they are.”

Instead, look at this brilliant alliteration: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Now that’s a memorable line!

Speaking of memorable lines, we have a great example of President Franklin Roosevelt self-editing a speech that made it one of the greatest speeches of all time. This year, December 7 will be the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The surprise military strike by Japan on the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, resulted in the loss of 2,403 American lives; the sinking of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers; and the destruction of 188 aircraft.

pearl-harbor

USS Arizona Memorial, built over the sunken ship and the graves of 1,102 sailors and Marines killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The next day, December 8, 1941, President Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress. The first draft of his speech began this way (italics mine):

Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in world history, the United States of America was simultaneously and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

Instead, by editing just two words in this first line, FDR gave us these stirring words (again with my italics):

Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

You can see a copy of the typed speech with FDR’s handwritten edits here at the National Archives website. On the three pages, you’ll see several places where he crossed out typed words, wrote in new ones, wrote in new words, and crossed those out.

In the end, on that day of great shock and fear, the president offered strong words of resolve that united a nation.

So there you have it. Now watch the actual speech. And remember those who died 75 years ago on December 7 and those who subsequently died fighting for freedom on both sides of the globe–in Europe and in the Pacific.

And remember the power of words.

Whatever you write, take the time to edit. Go back and look at every word, making sure it is the right word, the best word, the perfect word.

It will make all the difference.

 

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This past weekend (August 4-5, 2017), we held the second annual Taylor University’s Professional Writing Conference at Taylor University.

Last year, 2016, we did our first conference. We started with zero dollars and hoped that we’d break even or perhaps have a little extra to have seed money to hold a second conference. We didn’t know if we’d make it or not … until about two weeks prior to the conference when a flurry of activity brought us above our minimum (100 attendees) and encouraged us that we were meeting a need and should hold another conference.

Which we just did.

And this time? We got to 120  … 130 … 140 registrants, plus 20 faculty and staff, and suddenly my behind-the-scenes self was worrying about having large enough rooms for breakout sessions. So I closed the conference registrations (and still let through about 10 more people who begged) and held my breath that we’d have enough space.

THEN, our main session room was determined to not be ready, so we scrambled for another room and another breakout room. Thanks to staff at Taylor U, we moved to another room (holds 190, so we were tight but had close fellowship), and located another large-enough breakout room.

Then our folks arrived. Sessions began, keynoters encouraged, faculty taught, one-on-one meetings went on in the Campus Center, books were bought, snacks were consumed, staff people ran around, and while I used the passive voice here nothing was passive at all. It was proactive, energized, encouraging, and … from my perspective … so much fun!

It’s always terrific to get to communicate and rub shoulders with authors and agents and acquisitions editors and editors in the industry — some I’ve known for years, some I’ve known of, and some I’m getting to meet for the first time. They prepare talks and handouts, they sit on panels, they talk individually to conferees in one-on-one appointments, they stay overnight in college dorm rooms — simply because they love writers. All of them are amazing professionals with a heart for helping and encouraging.

And conferees? We couldn’t do a conference without those amazing people who set aside the time and money to come to a two-day conference. These folks were appreciative, which makes it all worthwhile!

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In addition, I had wonderful staff (former Professional Writing students) who spent two days running (which, as writers know, is not part of our general activity). They helped me put together conference packets, they ran to the store to purchase 160-people-worth of snack items, they checked on technology in the breakout rooms prior to each session, they got water for speakers, they ran extra copies of handouts, they carried boxes … they basically did whatever I asked them to.

And they made me laugh.

I couldn’t have run this conference without them.

Thanks guys.

If you’ve never attended a writers conference, get thee to one! They’re a great place to be with like-minded folks, discuss the craft, be encouraged, and fill your tank for a few more months of lonely writing. Conferences happen all over the country (and world) at all times of the year. Look here and here and here for some listings of conferences.

And, of course, you can always consider the 2018 Taylor University Professional Writing Conference. We’ll be here!

 

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Back two summers ago (and Facebook reminded me with a photo I took of the dorm room I was staying in two years ago), I wrote a blog post where I discussed just getting started with this program here at Ashland University in Ohio. I talked then about how difficult it was to get started, to figure out what to write about, to discover my voice.

Well, it’s been two years and lots of writing. I ended up doing what I mentioned in my blog two years ago: “I’m experimenting right now with a series of essays talking about the whole process (and brilliance) of editing when it’s done well. I am thinking about tying in my research into the great editors (some of which I’ve begun doing on this blog) and extracting lessons from them.”

Indeed, that’s what I did. The final title of my thesis is Words with Friends: The Intimate Relationship Between Authors and Their Editors.

The struggles I faced in writing in the creative nonfiction genre were how to get a memoir out of my life as an editor and how to make that job an interesting read. As part of our study, we have to read similar books to help us understand the ways other writers approached what we are trying to do.

MFA-2

Without Bonnie Rough, I might still be wallowing in despair. She helped to create a coherency and shape that made the writing process that much smoother.

From my own reading, I learned that editors, as well as folks in other seemingly mundane jobs, could write memoirs. Reading the memoirs of book editors such as Diana Athill and Robert Gottlieb, of a copy editor at The New Yorker named Mary Norris, and even a house painter helped me to understand that the power of such a memoir lay in the presentation of needed information (with a balance, not too much) and the ever-present interesting anecdote.

Even so, as I wrote I kept wondering, Is this boring? How can I possibly keep my reader fascinated enough to keep turning pages? Is the tone right? Have I found my voice? I didn’t have famous names to drop or fame in my own right or the cachet of working for a publication such as The New Yorker, as did many of the editor memoir writers I read. What I did have, however, was knowledge and longevity in my field (editing and publishing), a passion for words, and an understanding and respect for the power of words. What I needed to do was share that knowledge (just enough, not too much) along with anecdotal stories to illustrate and entertain.

MFA

Joe Mackall, Tom Larson, and Steve Harvey honed the manuscript with me, asked the tough questions, and made me a better writer.

My theme is “the power of words.” Because words are so powerful, personal, and intimate, when we put our words into the world, we share a piece of ourselves. The special joy of being an editor is helping to shape words, sentences, paragraphs, and manuscripts by entering into that intimate space between the author and the work to help the author say what he or she really means to say. This requires a kind of familiarity and friendship with the words and the author.

I wanted to help my readers understand that if and when they enter the publishing world, the editors are generally there to be their best readers, their greatest encouragers, and their most strategic critics. The purpose is to help the writing be the best it can be—to help writers dig deeper, choose words carefully, and say what they really mean to say.

It’s all about the words.

Those powerful words.

 

 

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The manuscript for Word by Word is nearing completion . . . but it hasn’t been easy sailing.

That first draft looked perfect! I felt an overabundance of self-confidence as I emailed those 49,000 hard-won words to the publisher.

And waited.

After several weeks, I received a loooooooooong email with the editor’s comments — some positive, some negative, lots of suggestions. I cried a bit and fell into a funk for about five days. Then I thought about how I would want my author to react if I, as editor, had sent such a letter (and I have sent a few in my day). Finally, when I got into the right frame of mind, I printed off the editor’s letter and dove in. Among other things, she wrote:

There are a number of issues in this manuscript that need focus and clarity. As I read your table of contents, my first thought was that you had nailed the content that needs to be in the project. But then I discovered that the actual content doesn’t quite deliver in some cases.

I had my work cut out for me. The biggest issue my editor pointed out was that my audience wasn’t clear. As I reread the manuscript, I discovered that she was right. Sometimes I was writing the book as a textbook for my students; sometimes I was writing to the person who already has a manuscript at a publishing house and is working with an editor; sometimes I was writing to people who are critiquing others’ manuscripts; sometimes I was writing to people who want to become editors. Only sometimes was I writing to the true audience of this book. I realized I had done more of an information dump about everything I know than staying true to my audience.

Other issues included some random items that made me think, I know better! Why didn’t I see that?

But then this:

Thank you for your hard work on this project. You are obviously knowledgeable and have a broad background of experience to enable you to write this book. . . .

I trust you will take the critiques as constructive and that you will be challenged to take it up with renewed enthusiasm. . . . You are a wealth of knowledge, Linda, and your voice is needed in this arena. I really really want this book from you.

Yes, indeed. And I really really want it published! So yes, I can and will do this.

My editor listed a number of fixes.

1)    Identify a clear picture of the audience.

2)    Set definite goals about the type of material you want to write.

3)    Prepare an outline (extensive) of each chapter and what will be covered in that chapter, as well as the primary target audience for that chapter.

4) Rewrite the manuscript using these tools and suggestions.

I pictured my audience and knew what I wanted to write. My target audience is that pajama-clad and coffee-fueled author who has just pressed the key for the period at the end of the stunning final sentence on the first draft of his manuscript. He’s finished! But in the back of his mind he knows he isn’t really finished. He knows that no first draft is perfect; he knows he needs to edit.

But he doesn’t know how to do that or where to begin.

My goal is to help that writer understand both the publishing process and the steps and keys to self-editing.

bookProbably most helpful was my editor’s suggestion to create a revised extensive outline. Internally, I balked a little. Why do I need an outline at this point? But forcing each section of my manuscript to prove why it was there, where it fit best, and how it helped my target audience caused me to be very focused and brutal. Doing the big-picture editing with a revised outline proved invaluable.

I set to work with scissors, tape, and a red pen. Cutting, moving sections, taping pieces together — following my new outline. After a complete restructure on hard copy, I made the necessary changes on the electronic document. I let it sit for about two weeks. Then, I printed it out again. . . .

. . .  and read word by word.

That’s where I am now. Reading and marking with my red pen. Suffice it to say that my manuscript is very red.

It will be better for it.

I am doing what I said everyone should do — in my book. The lesson is, of course, that no matter how much you go over your own manuscript, no matter how many critique readers you have, editors will still make marks and offer suggestions. They come at the manuscript completely objective. While an author sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees, the editor comes in like a surveyor and see the trees and how to create a clearing.

I’m thankful to have been on this side of the desk with an excellent editor who saw exactly what my book needs.

What about you? If you’ve worked with a professional editor, what has been the best advice he or she gave you in feedback on your work?

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