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Oh No! Fixing Errors From “Between Worlds 1: The Move”

Lori Wolf-Heffner with an "oh oh" look on her face

Reviewing Between Worlds 1: The Move after it had been released was exhilarating and depressing. Not only had I finally published my first novel, but I also found a few errors. In addition, several kind souls pointed out some inaccuracies to me, and I also learned a few new details as I researched Between Worlds 2: The Distance. I won’t be able to go back to each novel and fix mistakes after the fact, but improving the very first book in the series made sense, especially because I was switching distributors, anyway. Curious to know what was changed? Well, then read on!

World View

One of the hardest things about recreating Semlak as accurately as I can is the simple fact that this agrarian village has not left much written material about it. So, for example, I don’t really know the general world view of the Germans in this village. After an online acquaintance read the first edition, he wondered if Semlakers would have indeed known who Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany was. Therefore, I removed this part from chapter 2:

“If Kaiser Wilhelm hadn’t attacked France, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“He got greedy and wanted more.”

Elisabeth frowned. From what her father had told her, war could rarely be blamed on just one side. That was why so many dignitaries were spending so much time on the other side of Europe, in Paris, sorting out the mess the war had made.

Between Worlds 1: The Move, 1st edition

The villagers of Semlak would have been aware of their own political leader, King Ferdinand I for this series, but likely not of leaders of other countries or empire. And if they did know, there’s a good chance they may not have cared. I’m still trying to deduce just how much reading material was actually consumed by these people, but so far as I know, they got their news via the mailman, who announced several headlines and perhaps gave a quick summary and/or answered questions from the crowd.

Time-Traveling Characters?

Lori Wolf-Heffner looking worried
Did they notice?

Despite best efforts, Elisabeth suddenly showed up on page 55 in Juliana’s timeline. I’ve made a few changes to my editing process now to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Sorry about that!

Historical Accuracy

I knew indoor plumbing didn’t exist at that time, so I assumed each household had a water pump. It wasn’t until I researched the home space more for Between Worlds 2: The Distance that I discovered the well. When I then returned to old photos I have of the village, I did indeed find one with a well off to the side.

In addition, a character named Adam Pinczes in the first edition has been renamed to Adam Krehling in the second. The various church congregations usually married within their own membership, and Pinczes is one name that is recorded only in the Reformed (Calvinist) church, not the Lutheran church that features in the series.

Medical Accuracy

When I wrote The Move, I knew Sophie would be blind and simply assumed she would have no vision at all. However, the more I read, the more I learned that the blind community faces many challenges, one of which is the assumption that someone can’t be blind if they don’t “look blind.” One blind friend of mine in university had no vision, I believe, and another had some. By the time I sat down to outline The Distance, I had found an appropriate condition for Sophie and realized that I needed to make the few descriptions of her visual impairment more accurate.

It’s in the Numbers

Unlike Canada, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had switched to metric in the previous century. So although these German communities had some of their own measuring units, other units were already in metric. In the first edition, I used imperial.

Or My Head

Lori Wolf-Heffner looking worried, again.
Will my readers forgive me?

I didn’t realize until Between Worlds 2 went to print that I had renamed the dance studio. Of all the things! I had written from memory instead of referring to any notes and didn’t double-check that before sending everything off. So I changed it, too. Advice for those of you want to write as a career: create a style guide for your series!

Elisabeth’s Journey

Another difficult aspect of writing about characters who lived long ago is putting yourself into their context without falling back on stereotypes, especially ones about village life. (There’s actually an entire genre in 19th-century German writing called the dorfgeschichte, which presents village life as idyllic, regardless of whether it actually was. It was inspired by Maltese writer Sir Walter Scott.) So I made some minor changes about Elisabeth’s journey into womanhood.

Do You Need to Buy the New Edition?

No. None of these changes affect the plot in any drastic way, and Between Worlds 2: The Distance was written with these corrections in place. However, if you do have a copy of the first edition, consider keeping it. There are only about 80 or so in existence, and who knows? It might be worth something. (I do have 14 left in stock, so if you’re in Canada, you may be able to order one from me, signed.)

Between Worlds 3 is tentatively scheduled for release at the end of March. To stay up to date on plot developments, get a sneak peek at the new cover design, and get coupons for discounts for in-person purchases, sign up to my email list.

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Time to Focus

You’ll find that one of the hardest things to accept with leading a more creative life is that you will need to focus. Despite what many self-help gurus say, you can’t have it all. (I’m not against self-help gurus, but you do need to read what they say with a grain of salt sometimes.)

I’ve been working my way through David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and it’s given me the full picture of everything I’m trying to accomplish in life. It’s quite daunting, actually. The first exercise he has you do (and I’ve blogged about this before) is to write down absolutely everything that “has your attention.” I like how he uses that phrasing, because it gets you out of the mindset of a formal to-do list and into the mindset of brainstorming all the things you’ve got swimming around in your head.

What this all means for me, then, is that I’m changing the purpose of my blog. I’ll be starting grad studies soon to further my education in German, so the time I spend writing here each week will shift over to preparing for my studies. (If you’re here because you’re looking for a copywriter, I’m still taking on clients.) As such, I’ll use the blog for announcements, book reviews as they come along, and special interviews and important topics, but I’ll no longer be blogging weekly, at least not for now. If there’s one thing that reading David Allen’s book has made clear to me, it’s that I need time to focus.

Enjoy the few days left of summer!

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Vivian Hicks: A 13-Year-Old Who Doesn’t Let Bullying Ruin Her Dreams

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Vivian Hicks at an audition for America’s Got Talent

My first assignment for just dance! magazine this year was to interview a 13-year-old phenom, Vivian Hicks. This young woman has accomplished a lot: Not only is she a Mini-Pop, something I so wanted to be when I was a kid, but she’s modelled, placed extremely well in dance competitions, and is a rising social media star.

However, one aspect of her story particularly grabbed me: her response to online bullying.

A Growing Social Media Star

She’s reached over 1 million followers on musical.ly, has 416,000 on Instagram, and although her YouTube channel has “only” 32,000 subscribers, her video to the song “#DISS,” which she wrote herself, has well over 300,000 views in six months.

It all started when she was three, and her mother, Alley Hicks, began posting videos of Vivian singing. Here’s her rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with her mother coaching in the background. Vivian’s 4 in this one.

Cute, in my books. Alley kept posting, and Vivian kept training: first in Georgetown, and then in Oakville, cities just outside of Toronto, Canada. Vivian trained in singing, dancing, and acting, and her career has just flown.

“But with the followers comes a lot of hate, and jealousy, and crazy people. It truly does. I do tell Vivian, if she gets a message, to not look at it if she doesn’t know who it is,” says Alley.

The Dark Side of Social Media Stardom

IMG_4942
Um, who says she can’t dance?

Here’s just a tiny sample: A short hip-hop video with another dancer has comments like these:

  • “I hate white ppl”
  • “Wtf is she trying to hit the folks?I’m weak bruh”
  • “She’s can’t dance you can check that off your Resume”

If I had seen those words when I was 13, I would have buried my head under my pillow and watched copious episodes of whatever show I was into back then. Of course, social media wasn’t around in my youth, but if I’d read those words anywhere, I would’ve been devastated. The closest I can come to that was when I played the title role in Der Besuch der alten Dame (English adaptation: The Visit) in my mid-20s. It was a university production I had co-produced, co-directed, and starred in. I was playing a woman in her 70s out for revenge on her ex-boyfriend from her youth. She bet that someone in the town would kill him if the price was high enough. (Whether she succeeds depends on which version you see: the Swiss original or the American adaptation.)

I saw one review, and they said I didn’t play “old” well enough.

Well, wasn’t I just embarrassed; I thought my world had gone under, because I wasn’t perfect. (They were right, though.) And here’s Vivian, easily ten years younger than I was at that time, dealing with comments like those further above.

Sadly, though, those weren’t the worst comments she’d ever dealt with.

In our interview for the magazine, Alley told me about a disturbing incident where someone threatened to kill her daughter. Unsure what to do, Vivian showed the message to her mom, of course, and Alley advised her not to respond, because people take photos of those exchanges and then exploit them.

So what’s Vivian supposed to do in the face of all of this? Quick perusals through the comments of many posts show that the overwhelming majority love her. I had even found a few fan pages in my research for the article.

Bullying: Don’t Let It Stop Your Dreams

“There’s better things to worry about than about some person hiding behind their phone and saying mean things to you,” Vivian said to me. She advises kids to not worry about. “And be yourself, because that’s the best you can be, to be honest.”

In the end, if she had shied away from what she loved to do, I suppose you could say the bullies would have won and the light she is clearly shining on her part of the world would’ve been extinguished.

But she doesn’t shy away from it. Instead, she’s just continuing to fly.

Did Kirk Cameron’s parents worry about his growing stardom at such a young age? Jody Foster’s? Emmanuel Lewis’s? Shirley Temple’s? Elijah Wood’s? Keisha Knight Pulliam’s? Probably. What would have happened, though, if they had held their children back because of it?

I just looked at the label on my tea bag: “He who wants a rose must respect the thorn.” It’s apparently a Persian proverb. I guess if any of us are looking for fame, we have to accept that others out there will find their own, mean way of having fun with us.

But Vivian doesn’t just ignore it; she fights it with power. For example, she performs for Bullies Foundation, an American foundation created by some reality TV stars. I don’t follow reality TV myself, so I don’t recognize any of them, but they’re getting the word out there that bullying is not okay. Here’s a short news clip of some stars from Big Brother and Vivian at a rally.

For a young woman seeking stardom, these comments are unfortunately part of the playing field. But to me, it looks like she’s striking every one of them out.

If you’re being bullied:

The RCMP has an excellent site on bullying.

If you’re a child or teen in Canada and need to talk to someone now (or your friend does), then call the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.

If you’re in the US, there’s the Crisis Call Center. You can call (775) 784-8090 or text “ANSWER” to 839863. Or you can call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Whatever’s happening to you, get help.

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Keep Your Online Presence Simple

sarah-dorweiler-127187-reducedThe downside to being creative is that your creativity can show up when it’s perhaps not as beneficial to your day-to-day running. In my case, it happened with my online presence: two websites, a blog, and five domains (those three plus two more). Thankfully, I stopped getting creative at the social media stage: I only have four accounts there, and one I’ve almost laid dormant.

However you spend your creative life, whether it’s for fun or as a career, managing your online presence shouldn’t be time-consuming: After all, you want to spend time on your writing, dancing, music, art, etc., right? If you’re freelancing, you’d rather be earning money than frequently managing your online presence.

I’m now unifying everything into one website, and I’m trying out a new theory.

People Want to Know Me

Two months ago, I wrote about how artist and freelancing websites need to differ: an artist website needs to focus on portfolio and expertise, whereas a freelancing website needs to emphasize the services you offer (and also include your portfolio and expertise).

I still stand by those differences. But over the past six months or so, I’ve been working through some marketing advice from Kristen Lamb, a freelance and indie editor, and a book by Michael Port, a business consultant for service providers (which freelancers are).

Lamb focuses on indie authors. In her blogging workshop (excellent, by the way), she emphasized how important it is to market myself as a person, because people who share my interests are more likely to read my books. If someone is looking for a horror, then a blog about dance, life, and marketing will signal that I’m not that author.

In Book Yourself Solid, Port describes how to make your marketing fit you and how to find customers who jive with you, which is why I love his book. As a service provider, and one who does all the writing herself, I’m not interested in getting millions of hits to my websites, hundreds of calls a week, etc.; there’s only so much in my workload I can handle. Port’s promise is to help me find the right customers for me, and in his opinion, I can help that process along by being me. (I add one caveat, though: Professionalism is still important. Putting up drunken party photos of yourself is not what he means.)

Simplifying My Online Presence

Returning to my new website, that means shining a brighter (but still professional) light on who I am. That doesn’t mean I’m going to have my bio on my homepage: that won’t be effective in my case. But having my homepage reflect who I am will let me unify both sides of my writing.

But what prompted all of this? It wasn’t just the time I was spending on my websites and blog, it was feedback, and likely not the kind of feedback you’d expect for such a change.

My current copywriting website got compliments from several writers I respect, but I received almost no inquiries through it. Those who hung around the website long enough to read up on my pricing also didn’t jump off at pricing; they jumped off elsewhere. So if my website was so good, and pricing wasn’t scaring people off, why wasn’t I getting much business through it?

Design for Your Audience, Not Your Colleagues

That’s when I realized that everyone who had complimented me on my website was a writer. Save for content strategists and some marketing managers, most people looking for my services won’t be writers themselves.

In addition, I had learned through several sources (including Lamb) that Google likes websites that are frequently updated. I update my copywriting/translating website every month or two, my website dedicated to writing about dance every year or two, and yet I update my blog – which does not advertise my services directly – every week.

To add to my troubles, the two main websites overlapped when it came to my expertise in dance. Why on Earth was I maintaining two sites with similar content?

So, I’m returning to a simpler strategy, one that will let me focus more on my writing while hopefully strengthening my presence with Google and allowing me to present a full picture of myself to potential clients and readers.

Have you found ways to save time in your marketing? Share them below.

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Language is More Than IQ Scores and Alzheimer’s Prevention

img_0063One thing I’ve always envied about descendants of pioneer families is that those descendants had easy access to their roots from the past one to three centuries. Naturally, everyone in Canada is or is a descendant of an immigrant (save for the First Nations peoples), but my envy was about knowing how your family lived in ages gone by. Descendants of pioneer families could go to a special room at a local library and research to their heart’s content. Not only that, much of it was in English.

My path to understanding where I came from was harder: the information lay overseas and in German (and Hungarian, Romanian, and even Latin). The outcome: I knew very little.

Changing Borders and Forbidden Education

My sense of the world was also very naive.

So, when I learned that my grandmother had been tutored in secret because new laws prohibited her from going to school, I wondered why anyone would want to go to school if you didn’t have to.

When my great grandfather talked about living in different countries depending on where the borders were, I couldn’t understand how the borders of a country changed and thought that maybe something in his story had gotten lost in translation.

My grandparents tried to share some of these stories with me, but they seemed so surreal that I couldn’t comprehend them.

Why Care About the Past?

And then my grandparents began to die, and with them, their biographies. I only have one grandfather left now, and when he takes me to a corner of the room at a family get-together to tell me something, I listen. But I regret no longer hearing the voices of the other six I knew.

I study my family history for a few reasons. One of them is out of a sense of gratitude: When you think about it, if one person didn’t get into bed at the right time on a given night, I quite possibly might not be here. There’s something bizarrely awe-inspiring about the timing involved: all those people had sex at the perfect time that allowed for my creation generations later.

Less bizarre but just as awesome is being here despite all the infants and children who died. One ancestor had five children and I descend from the single surviving one. Again, one person out of whack and boom! I wouldn’t even have Marty McFly’s chance to go back and reconnect those two.

And the third is to understand the stories that contributed to my own life, to understand what kind of “stock” I come from, as it were. What hardships did my ancestors face? What courageous actions did they take? (Less courageous ones are rarely recorded or passed down.) How did history affect my family?

The Language Connection

By the time I was in university, an opportunity to dance in Germany led me to take a full-year university German language course. I’d tried learning the language in the past, but long story short, I didn’t gain too much at that time. Now, with three classes a week instead of a crash course every Saturday morning, everything began to mesh. By the end of university, I was fluent.

Learning German finally unlocked my family history to me and gave me roots. Although the German I speak is not the one my grandparents spoke, I still feel a connection. In a sense, I feel like I’m reconnecting the Germanness I grew up with back to the Germanness that is contemporary German and Austrian culture (minus all that right-wing shit).

What I couldn’t know then was that I would eventually coordinate an oral history project that included participants from my grandparents’ background. One woman, who was in her 90s, was the first and only voice I’ve heard talk about Yugoslavia’s civil war that took place during WWII. She spoke in German. My grandmother never mentioned it, and after listening to this participant, I can understand why: it was horrific, and my grandmother would have been around 10 or 12 when it happened.

I was 24 when she died after living with cancer for several years. I don’t know if I would have ever understood what she saw, and she may very well have not wanted to share it with me.

Speaking more than one language can open up a lot of doors. There are the usual economic and practical reasons, for example. Some studies show benefits towards fending off Alzheimer’s, others about how bilingual kids tend to perform better on intelligence tests.

But for me, learning another language helped me find out more about who I am, and that in turn finally gave me food for my writing: instead of my writing from my teen years, when I had little sense of who I was, being nothing more than bad copies of pop culture, I finally felt a cornerstone form inside of me, giving me the starting point for my own stories, both real and imagined.

And, to use the language of my youth, that’s pretty cool.

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Comfort Zones: Potential Danger for Artists, Writers, Performers, and Everyone in Between

Comfort zones are those nice, cozy, warm, fuzzy parts in our mind that convince us to stay put. They have a purpose: respite. But like any spa, too much of a good thing can turn into a bad thing (and, frankly, become very expensive).

I recently interviewed a sportscaster for a magazine article, and time and again she emphasized how important it was for her to get out of her comfort zone. She was a trained dancer, but when she got accepted into a well-known musical theatre program in Canada, she spent three years singing in front of others. For her, that was terrifying. But it allowed other opportunities to flow her way.

Hindsight is 20/20, as you know. In my case, my comfort zone in dance became so strong that I even stood in the same spot in the studio as often as possible: the right front corner. I even said I’d have my ashes buried there. The building, though, has since been razed and replaced with a more modern business building. I’ll have somewhere else to inter my ashes.

With writing, it was the same: I wrote about characters I knew, either by attempting a novel for a franchise or copying TV characters from my favourite shows; created plots familiar to me from same sources of inspiration as the characters; and did not expose my heart to my readers, a necessity for creative writing. In my youth, that was a fine path to follow, because I may not have been ready to show my vulnerability back then. This was before social media, of course, but one well-intentioned piece of feedback from a teacher, friend, or parent can hurt you as much as a stranger’s public criticism of your work these days, maybe even more so. I was looking for approval, not feedback, and using my personal creations for that purpose wasn’t the best idea.

Since January 2015, I’ve been working on a novel. It started as a creative challenge to myself: write 10,000 words by December. I hit that goal by mid-February and kept going. (Now, I’m at 92,000.) I’ve submitted the first three chapters to two editors, a friend, and a family member for feedback, and yes, some of the feedback hurt. But age does something to you besides give you wrinkles: it gives you strength and confidence…if you let yourself push past your comfort zone. Their input made me stop writing and go back to character and plot development. I have some major re-working to do, but the piece will hopefully come out stronger in the end. (The feedback is dead on – we’ll see if the writer can make it work.)

Of course, the usual disclaimer: we’re talking about personal goals here, not seeing how long you can wait for a car to approach before you dart across the street without getting hit.

I think it’s wrong to assume that everyone wants to achieve huge monetary success, but I think it’s right to assume that everyone has dreams that will seem big to some and small to others. For some, being able to free their voice and speak up in front of others is a huge dream. For others, it’s normal life. For some, living off $50,000 a year while also saving money is the big goal. For others, that’s reality and they can’t fathom why someone would find that hard to accomplish.

Whatever the goal, it’ll push you. But what I’m finding is that, like my interviewee, you won’t experience the freedom that comes from reaching those goals unless you cross the boundaries of your comfort zone, even just a smidgen. (Just stay out of the path of moving vehicles.)

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And We’re Back!

Well, I’m back. There’s no one else here behind the keyboard except me.

I took a year off to re-evaluate where things are going with my writing. They were going up, but I wasn’t sure what path they were going to take.

Now, I have a much clearer picture of who I am  as a writer. Don’t get me wrong: my journey is far from over. Just like you, I am a product of the stories I’ve created throughout my life and of the stories that thrust themselves on to me.

So, let’s see where this journey takes us, shall we?

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Passion vs. Real Life

Hands of person holding road mapThere’s nothing more enjoyable about writing than finding out something new about yourself as you’re writing. In this case, I’m starting to question the validity behind the “follow your passion” philosophy of life.

I enjoy reading Wayne Dyer, Cheryl Richardson, Jack Canfield, and a host of other inspirational authors. The general message that I hear is that success comes by setting your goals and (in most cases) working hard to achieve them. There’s a good dose of “you can do anything you set your mind to” in there. Throw God (or whatever you believe in) into the mix as your backup, your support, and the being/energy that will help you through, and you’ll be successful.

I do believe there’s truth in that. Human history is full of people who’ve lived by those principles and achieved greatness.

Then there’s Cal Newport, who believes that the passion argument is flawed and even misleading. Newport argues that you should “start by getting good at something valuable; the passion will follow” and that the belief of following your passion “can also be dangerous, leading to anxiety and chronic job hopping.” His most recent book, according to his website, is called “So Good, They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Work You Love.”

I also believe there’s some truth in that. Human history is also full of people who show pride in their everyday work, at least based on my impression of the last two million years. When I speak to some of those people (obviously those alive – I have no special gifts), I hear their pride constantly as they talk about their jobs. My grandmother, for example, used to work in a luxury hotel in Austria in the 50s, and she frequently told me about her skill at egg-boiling: she had to remember how long each guest wanted their eggs boiled, and I don’t believe she had an egg timer. She was truly proud of that fifty years later.

Some in the passion camp argue that I should look to my childhood for what my true passions are, or at least, were. For me, I loved creating: writing, crafting, drawing, and occasional family-only performances were all on the plate. If I had followed my passion 100% as some of these inspirational speakers say I should, I’d be broke. Why? Because back then I believed in only one road to success in the arts: audition->work for cheap/get rejected->repeat. And I sucked at it. A mix of low self-confidence (“I’m not going to make it, so why try?”) and dealing poorly with rejection (“See? They didn’t like me, anyways.”) guaranteed that I got nowhere professionally really quickly. I needed to find something I believed I was good at.

In those days, my mom was a secretary and my dad ran the family business with my grandfather and uncle. At home, mom taught me how to answer the phone with a smile (no matter how stupid you felt), type with ten fingers, and use a word processor, including advanced functions like macros and merges. Around roughly the same time, I worked summers at the family business filing work orders from the service department. I still talk about my filing system from back then.

In my adult life, I kept getting administrative jobs. For a while, I thought this was some kind of woman thing, based on the lack of male administrative assistants. Am I truly reaching my full potential? Do I not have the ovaries to reach higher? (I’d use the usual expression, but the obvious answer would be no.) All it took to answer those questions was a reflection back on my previous jobs. I frequently stepped in to new systems or very inefficient ones. In order to turn them around, though, I had to communicate with my boss and other team members clearly. Sometimes I had to write a proposal, maybe give a small presentation. I learned to focus less on me and more on the customer (crucial in almost any job). I also eventually learned how to write effective copy. Over time, I grew to believe that I’m damn good at those skills (and have the performance evaluations to prove it).

What I could not foresee as a child was how the role of secretary/administrative assistant would grow to encompass a slew of new responsibilities, including copious amounts of writing. The thing about childhood dreams is that you don’t understand the entire scope of adult life. A “writer” to my younger self was Robert Munsch, or Jean Little, or Carolyn Keene (before I knew she didn’t exist), or even Lois Lane (even though I knew she didn’t exist). It didn’t occur to me that writers can write marketing copy, reports, essays, or grants. In addition, the Internet was nowhere to be seen back then. Basically, if I’d “followed my dream,” I may have actually passed up amazing opportunities along the road that brought me to where I am now.

Maybe the best advice, then, is to follow what you love to do, but leave the how open for discussion.

 

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The Difficulties of Writing a Poem

Several months ago, I promised to re-write a poem. I thought it would be easy. I thought it would flow from my pen the way prose can (I often start drafts on paper still). I thought it would fly from my mouth the way an improvised song could in my improv days.

It was not. I got completely stuck.

A weekly newsletter from Canada Arts Connect suggested five books on how to write poetry. I’ll admit, I felt a little childish looking them up. Certainly all artists and creative people continually upgrade their skills, look for inspiration, and basically do what they can to improve their work. But getting a book on writing for beginners…Would a painter by Painting for Dummies or something similar?

But I did it anyways. My local library had a copy of Frances Mayes’ book, The Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems.  I certainly studied poetry in school, and in university I did it in German. (German can sound beautiful!) But something eluded me. Call it my teen attitude, call it my not-yet-fully-developed brain, call it whatever. I never developed a love for the art form and actually came to despise it somewhat. The book arrived at a time when I was finally open again to reading poetry.

Poetry, in a sense, is like joke-telling:

  • sonnets -> stand-up comedy routine
  • haiku -> one-liners
  • ballad -> Weird Al

Poetry has a subtext that varies from poet to poet and of course from poem to poem. Jokes are the same.

Jokes can also be difficult to translate into other languages and cultures. During my years in Germany, I noticed that The Cosby Show seemed to be the only sitcom that I knew of that translated well. As a truly situational comedy focused on family, with familial trials and tribulations that are common to many western families, it wasn’t dependent on one-liners and puns. The Germans I knew, for example, said Seinfeld simply wasn’t funny in German. In English, though, they couldn’t stop laughing.

Reading poetry always felt to me like driving on the wrong side of the road. You know what you’re supposed to do – watch for cars and pedestrians, drive along the lines on the road – but you’re not used to it, because the actions are done differently. I understood the words, but somehow they didn’t make sense.

Mayes refers to her book as a field guide, and indeed, it reads like one. She looks at one aspect of a poem, e.g., words, or images, or the speaker, and explains to the reader how these can be used and why they may be important. She also has exercises at the end of each chapter. These aren’t menial exercises. Nosiree. I’ve been on the first one for almost three weeks: write down your favourite 100 words. This isn’t about writing down the first one hundred words that come to mind. It’s about look for your favourite 100. It took me almost three weeks to get my list together. Here are a few words:

  • inspectigator (there’s a story behind that no-existent word)
  • matrilineal
  • duo-decahedron (also not a real word – I was probably thinking of dodecahedron)
  • flabbergasted
  • spelunker
  • blanket
  • uncivil
  • uncanny
  • marauder
  • marimba
  • ally-oop!

These words made my list not necessarily because I liked what they stood for (I have several familial roles in the list, too), but simply because of how they sounded. Interestingly enough, I found a lot words contained an “r,” possibly because it’s in my name. I’m by no means a supporter of marauders, for example, but it is a cool word, linguistically speaking. And duo-decahedron sounds just awesome, even though it doesn’t exist. I think my mind was trying for rhythm. Dodecahedron doesn’t have the same rhythm as my new lexical invention. In the 30-or-so pages I’ve read of this book, I’ve already started to feel a connection with poetry.

I will re-write that poem for you, but it may not be until my next birthday. In the meantime, I have a lot to relearn.

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Storytelling or Missionizing?

Robertson DaviesI idolized Jean Little in my pre-teens and early teens. Many of her books helped me understand other children. I do believe they made me a nicer person. One novel, Different Dragons, even helped me get over my fear of dogs (though I still greatly dislike them). I wanted to write similar stories, ones that helped others understand their friends, family, and even strangers better. I didn’t want to scare anyone, or hurt anyone, or embarrass anyone. I wanted to help. But I was still too young to look past someone’s physical appearance into their soul, and that showed in my writing.

My problem, according to Robertson Davies, was that I was focusing on the message and not the story. (He didn’t advise me personally – I simply enjoy reading his essays.) Davies felt that too many writers were trying to missionize. I was in that category. “Write about what you know,” they say. While I don’t think that always has to be true, it did apply to my stories at the time. Jean Little wrote in her first autobiography that she began writing to fill a void in fiction. In her younger years, she used to work with children who faced various  challenges. She loved reading to them, but every disabled child in the books she read magically became abled at the end:

I was looking for a book in which the child’s handicap was present only in the background. The kids I taught were no conscious of their disabilities most of the time. They minded when people stared at them, or when their brothers and sisters got bicycles, of course. But usually they were too busy living to brood. Physio and occupational therapy were like arithmetic and reading, an accepted part of their days.

[…]

Why couldn’t there be a happy ending without a miracle cure? Why wasn’t there a story with a child in it who resembled the kids I taught? Somebody should write one, I thought. It did not yet cross my mind that that somebody might be me. [Little, Jean. Little by Little: a Writer’s Education. Markham: Penguin Books. 1987. Excerpt from pages 224-225.]

She currently has over 40 publications to her name, from 1962 to now. She knew how to capture the soul of each child in her work. The books aren’t about “be nice to handicapped kids.” They describe real children’s growing pains, regardless of what daily challenges they face. The child could have cerebral palsy, be afraid of dogs, or live during the Spanish flu epidemic. I stopped reading Little when I was about 13 or so, so I’m no fully familiar with her current works. But as a child on the quieter side of the spectrum, she connected with me.

Fast forward 20 years, when I have my own children. I had started another book with my boys last night: Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Hudson Talbott:

Soonie’s family makes SHOW WAYS – quilts with secret meanings that are maps to freedom. Her family tells stories of bravery that inspire courage. Each generation passes on to the next the belief that there is a road to a better place. [Book summary.]

Beautifully written, it let me read a book to my young boys about American black history over two nights. My youngest is a bit too young – he doesn’t understand that sort of thing yet. But my older son was quite enthralled, despite claiming at the beginning of each night that he didn’t want to read it. The theme described how mothers pass down hope, generation to generation, through quilting. The background was slavery and then the civil rights movement in the US. For older children, they may have recognized some of the photos pulled out of history. For young children, they blended in to the background as my kids listened to my words.

My third example of an excellent children’s writer (because this is a genre prone to missionizing) is Marc Brown and his Arthur series. I get more excited when Arthur comes on in the morning than my kids. And my anticipation increases when I realize it’s an episode I haven’t seen yet. (They’re currently in season 18, so I have lots of episodes to watch out for.) Arthur, Francine, the Brain, George, Muffy, D.W., Binky…all the characters could just as well be my kids’ friends at school. They’ve tackled cancer, Alzheimer’s (with Joan Rivers’ help – awesome episode), bullying, trying to write a story that’s true to you…The last thing I think about is being missionized to. The first thing I see is an excellent story.

I’ve spent a lot of time debating how to tackle topics that are important to me, the kinds that I think people should read about. It’s easy to rant in an op-ed piece for the local paper. Not so easy is writing excellent fiction on a difficult topic that invites the reader in instead of shutting the reader out. You can’t missionize, you have to tell the story.

There is nothing more satisfying than understanding a challenge you’ve carried with you for so long and finally knowing the direction you have to go in to fix it.