Sunday, October 25, 2009

Is It Art Yet?

By Ginny Padgett

Recently I saw a docu-drama based on the life of Georgia O’Keefe. Her Svengali cum husband, Alfred Stieglitz, delivered a line that stopped the action for me, complete with bells and red flags. He said, “It’s not art until someone rich pays a lot of money for it.” Of course this line was said tongue in cheek, but it started me thinking.

My thoughts went to writing and publishing. Is the same true with the literary arts? I was still mulling over this question when a week or so later at our workshop there was a discussion about this very subject.

The conversation went like this. Some modern writers have become millionaires from their book sales, but some of these books are like potato chips…not good for you but you can’t put them down. On the other hand Mayo mentioned he was reading Lolita. Although he found the subject matter distasteful, he relished the beauty of the written word and envied Nabokov’s mastery.

Of course, art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. But after giving this is-it-art question some thought and listening to others, here’s where I stand.

I believe art happens when one has an idea that is meaningful to him and strives to convey the impact of that thought or feeling through his chosen medium. I also believe that when one creates art, our collective consciousness is enhanced, elevated, edified. Furthermore, when one practices his art in community with others, like we do at workshop, I believe we inspire each other, and our experience is greater than the sum of our parts. Because of this experience, we don’t need a multi-million dollar contract or even to be published in a small literary magazine to consider what we do as art.

I think this a high calling to which we have responded. We ply our art without an eye to a generous benefactor. We write because we love it; we have a point to make; we have something we want to get off our chests. For whatever reason, we use words as painters use colors on canvases. Perhaps there is no better art than the pursuit of it. So write on, comrades in ink. Let’s make some art!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Things I Learned at Pitch Practice

By Bonnie Stanard

Earlier this month six of us from Columbia II got together to critique our submissions to agents and/or publishers. Though we considered query letters and synopses, we spent more time on pitches. In advance, we decided to limit each pitch to ten minutes and to give scores of one to five to every presentation, five being the best score. In evaluating the pitches of others, we put away our writing sympathies and tried to listen as an agent would.

First of all, I found out that awarding a numerical score doesn’t work well for me. I didn’t remember the many implications attached to a single number. Did a “5” mean I’d publish the work without editing? Did a “1” mean I wouldn’t entertain a revision of the work? In the end, a number doesn’t say much and in my case, even less.

I arrived with notes and had a good idea what I was going to say, but no amount of writing is on par with looking into expectant and judgmental faces. Bottom line: open your mouth and entertain or die.

I discovered in the process of pitching my manuscript that, though I considered it completed, it wasn’t (how many more times am I going to find this out?). Since our practice session I have cut three more chapters.

PITCH SUGGESTIONS In listening to other pitches and comments about my own, I’ve arrived at advice for myself that I’ll share with you.

1) Provide basic information up front, including the genre. Suzanne began her pitch by describing the characters and plot. Maybe that would have been okay if she had been describing a main-stream adult book, but it was a children’s book. I was in a fog until she gave us that piece of information.

2) Stick to an arc in describing the plot. Try to get across the hook, development, and resolution of the single most important plot. I enjoyed describing details of my story that I thought were important, but my critics gave this as a reason for lowering my score.

3) Don’t shotgun the story with numerous names of characters and/or places. At the same time, give characters names that clearly indicate the gender. For instance, is “Ryan” a male or female? And if there’s romance with “Chase” is it heterosexual or homosexual?

By the way, it was a thrill to pretend to be a publisher and pass judgment on the work of others. However, it was also sobering. This is about money, not art. It wouldn’t surprise me if agents ask themselves one question as they listen to us, “Will this book make money?” ” I’m wondering if my pitch will have more success if I somehow connect art with sales.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Creating the Lyric Essay

By Lisa Lopez Snyder

I recently discovered the lyric essay, which, as The Seneca Review defined it in 1997, is a “sub-genre that straddles the essay and the lyric poem.” The lyric essay, according to The Review, takes “an allegiance to facts” and merges it with poetic metaphor to describe an object, person or moment that is quotidian. For example, you might focus on a particular type of flower, a piece of animal bone in the desert, or like writer Joni Tevis does in the example below, a fossil.

With lyric essay, you’re essentially thinking and writing by association—as with poetry—and observing a symbolic act or observation, or a moment of epiphany. Outside of that it doesn’t conform to any standards, which, in my opinion, makes it very liberating.

As a writer who focuses on mostly fiction and thinks in terms of conflict and story arc, I have to admit, the lyric essay initially left me feeling a little like I was walking down a flight of stairs without rails. Unsteady, I was wondering, “Where am I going with this?” “Is this right?”

But after giving this form a try and studying some of the writers best known for this genre, I’ve come to enjoy putting motifs, images and metaphors together in a way that signifies a larger image rather than organizing words or images that “spell it out.”

Okay, so here are some examples, a couple of my favorite excerpts. Now, keep in mind, I don’t think these excerpts do lyric essay full justice, for, at least in my opinion, this type of prose is sometimes best appreciated when read in full—and out loud or in a whisper:

A fern’s dark print on shale. Ribbed clamshells pressed into a cliff of pale limestone. The compliant trilobite in all its variations, every bump and ridge preserved these two hundred million years, yet still capable of revelation, like a pair of sneakers hanging from the power line, pedaling the silent air.

-- “Fossil,” from The Wet Collection, Joni Tevis

Dark. Dark, but alive. Energized, expectant. Turbo-charged darkness. When does the first note of precolor appear?…Flemish grays and now, almost, a blue, where two fat stars hang in the east—companions at the slow birth of day, midwives—I should know their names.

-- “July 9, 5 a.m.,” from Seven Notebooks, Campbell McGrath

Give it a try sometime, then check out Brevity ( and The Collagist (, which both accept this intriguing form of prose.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Writing Stories That Fly, Part II

By Celinda Barefield

Now you have a book on how to write. The question becomes, how do I apply it to my writing? This can be seen as a downer for most writers. If it wasn’t hard enough getting just the right book to fix your problem, now you have to actually read it and apply the written word to your work. This might seem a Herculean task, but with these three steps it is accomplishable.

1. Read the book. Yes, I know we like to focus on writing, but sometimes it can be helpful to take a break and read something by someone else, especially if it will ultimately improve what we are working on. I know, it sounds crazy, but it is possible other people can help us.

2. Highlight the parts that catch your interest. Maybe they relate to a problem area, or maybe they were just funny. It could be an exercise, a quick quote, or even a smart how- to tip. The point is that you looked for help and are enthusiastic about writing again.

3. Apply your newfound knowledge. That’s it. The big secret of writing. If you take the time to use what you learn, your writing will get better.

Now, go out and conquer!