Sunday, June 28, 2015

Denissa: She’s Got a Mouth on Her

By Kimberly Johnson

Denissa is a friend of a friend. She has, umm, an unusual vocabulary. While eating from the riblet basket at Applebee’s, fantabolous floated from her sauce-ridden lips. Guess she was really hungry. Suffice it to say, I never heard that word before. Dino-riffic-ness. That one sprang to life after we left the late night viewing of Jurassic World. Needless to say, I didn’t see that word in Webster’s.  Frump-pah-lee. That one tickled the eardrums when she described an off-the-rack haute couture design that Kim Kardashian paraded around in at some event, somewhere in La La Land.  Not quite the word I would have used to describe the outfit. Denissa possesses a loosey-goosey lexicon that gets the point across to her listeners. Isn’t that what words are supposed to do? I found an article by Deborah Grayson Riegel, president of Elevated Training Inc., a communication skills training and coaching company. Riegel showcases the P.R.E.P. method, a way for “plain talkers” and “protracted talkers” to communicate to the rest of the world. I thought it was a reliable template for writers. (It could reduce the drafts and hair-pulling when writing the next American Novel.)
In this four-step process, you get to figure out where you tend to go long, where you fall short, how to organize your ideas, how to make a complete case, and how to keep from getting lost in your thoughts. As long as you remember which letter you’re up to (there are only four), you’ll always know what’s supposed to come next.”P:  Make your point. Make it clear, clean, and concise. It can include a point of view—brief doesn’t have to mean neutral.
R:  Reason. Justify your point. I think one robust reason is excellent, two solid reasons are good, and three are the maximum. After that you start to lose your listener, your ground, and your train of thought.E: Example (or Evidence, or Experience.) Bring it to life, and bring your life to it.P: Point. Restate your point. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Awesome Writers

By Bonnie Stanard

After reading Seize the Day years ago, I could hardly put together a sentence until I got over its effect. Saul Bellow’s novel is so insightful and culturally savvy, its impact on writers is a two-edged sword. Some are inspired to try harder. Others become disheartened and feel like throwing in the towel.

This is about vocabulary and language aptitude as well as the ability to construct meaningful associations from life experiences. Bellow had the ability to observe common phenomena we don’t notice ourselves and, by some stroke of magic, crystallize them into truths.

Ian McEwan is another author I read at the risk of becoming so intimidated my own work seems a waste of energy. At his best, he puts into words concepts that make us see ourselves in a different light. Several novelists come to mind whose talents have, at one time or another, poked holes in my ambition to write—Truman Capote, Annie Proulx, and Zadie Smith.

My failing in this situation is that I lose faith in myself. Faced with awesome novels, I forget that I am writing, not to be perfect, but to grow mentally and to try to understand people and the world we live in. At the same time, getting better at the game is vital to me. I write this knowing that the ambition to “get it right” thwarts what should be an adventure and constrains the exploration.

This category of “awesome writers” that I’ve made up for myself is a lofty cast. There are aspects of writing other than plucking truths out of daily life. Excellence takes a variety of forms. Sometimes it’s a well-written sentence. Or sharp dialogue. A captivating voice. And then there are the different genres that require altogether different expertise. As a professional, I need to recognize and value the quality of diverse skills.  

To a lesser degree and in a different respect, Don DeLillo’s White Noise gave me writer’s block. I feverishly underlined the explosive language of the first fifty pages. After a while, the plot sagged and the book became more about word acrobatics than substance. Likewise with the novel Wicked by Gregory Maguire. As well as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. These writers have a command of idiom and word technique that I can only dream of. On the other hand, in spite of the excellent wordplay I didn’t finish reading any of these books.

It takes courage to believe in ourselves. To take on the competition. Courage to submit our creations to the public. Courage to persevere in the face of rejections. Jessamyn West said it: “Talent is helpful in writing, but guts are absolutely necessary.”

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Achieving Catharsis in Our Stories

By Kasie Whitener
After seeing Avengers: Age of Ultron, my husband and I sat in a restaurant quietly staring into space.

The film emptied us completely of anything we might have had to say.

From the opening scene to the credit roll, Joss Whedon delivers the highest form of art cleverly disguised as a multi-million dollar blockbuster superhero film.

Action scenes? Check.

Compelling characters? Check.

Computer-generated special effects? Check.

Loud. So loud.

Big. So big.


Why is a writer writing about a film on a writers’ blog? Because Age of Ultron reminded me what great art is really about.


Aristotle says catharsis in drama purges us of our own fear and pity. Cathartic art relieves us of what we were burdened by.

One of my favorite novels, Monsters of Templeton, provides catharsis through what David Coe calls the “Aha! Of course!” moment. When we finally learn who the narrator’s birth father is, we realize we knew it all along. When we finally learn the truth behind the mysterious lake monster that preoccupied the town, we realize the metaphor has been teasing us through the entire book
I believe really good storytellers deliver catharsis on accident. They know the character so well, the events unfold so naturally, and the story moves so beautifully that suddenly we feel satisfied and we’re not sure why. It feels like magic. Unintentional enlightenment.

Books that fail to deliver catharsis typically suffer from the stakes being too low. What really happens if this character doesn’t get what she wants?

The question, “What’s at stake?” is how we recognize the character’s commitment to the story. And when a character is totally committed, as in the stakes are as high as they can possibly be, then catharsis is imminent. Either the character will fail in a spectacular way and we’ll feel the pity Aristotle predicts. Or the character will succeed and we’ll rejoice in the triumph. But we don’t get to the edge of our seats unintentionally. A writer brought us there. There is intention in setting the stakes. Catharsis is simply the payoff. For the writer and the reader.

Can we plan such it? We don’t really know how people will connect with or respond to our character’s journey. We don’t know if people will give a fig that the character has achieved his goal.
We must make them care. The character must experience some kind of transformation as a result of the story. The end point for our characters provides the catharsis for our readers.

If we create the circumstances for high stakes and deep personal change, we’re likely to deliver catharsis. The Age of Ultron delivers catharsis because it keeps us looking, learning, and feeling for the full length of the film. It wears us out. Afterwards we are spent.

Good art provides catharsis. All storytellers have an opportunity to take viewers and readers on an emotional journey and leave them stunned into silence at the end.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Latest Addition

Meet a New Columbia II Blogger


Rex Hurst is a writer and a university instructor orginally from Buffalo, NY. After 30 years of attempting to write stories, he feels his talent has finally hit the right pitch to attempt to sell it. He also is trying to discover if one can grow wheat in a pot sitting by the window.

Waiting for Inspiration

By Rex Hurst

I often talk to my students or other aspiring authors about producing material. They ask me what I’m working on and I ask them about their routine; about how they go about the physical act of writing. I am one of those people who thinks best with a pencil, thus I write out everything longhand first. Many people seem to regard this as slowing the process down immensely. I see it as another level in the revision process, one where I take all the undigested bits of ideas and start to put them into a coherent form. A lot just want to dive right in. Nothing wrong with that, each writer has their own way of creating material. As long as you produce, there is no bad way.

That being said there is one phrase that I hear over and over again which almost guarantees failure: “I wait until I’m inspired before I write.” As anyone who has written a novel knows, a person’s enthusiasm tends to wane the more you have to work on a story. It ebbs away bit by bit, until you hit that 10,000 word wall and everything you’ve put together seems terrible. You question every single character, every plot point, every noun and verb, your ability as a writer, your very place in the universe! This is the precise moment when the joy of writing slips away and it becomes work. But that’s a fact you have to deal with if you want to finish a story.

There was a lady I knew who relied entirely on inspiration to spur her into action. She’d come up with an idea, then she’d talk about it, and talk about it, and talk about it some more, then, in a burst of passion, feverishly clack away on the keyboard. Gradually the passion would fade and her typing slowed down, eventually stopping altogether. She’d save it and print a single copy to store away until she gained the inspiration to continue.

I looked at that file once. There must have been at least 50 stories in there, some very promising, none finished. All of that work for nothing, because she didn’t want to put in the effort to stay with a story until its conclusion.

We all get inspired to write. An idea strikes us, bells ring in our heads, and the words flood out. It is an excellent way to begin. But waiting for inspiration to finish a piece is folly. Once the initial excitement is over, writing is work, an honest to God job. Anyone can write when they’re inspired. The professional writes when they aren’t.

So write! No matter what! Set a daily pace for yourself and stick with it. Even when your head is clogged with confusion. Even when the pen is being a beast. Even if every syllable is torture. Write! Write! Write! Force yourself. Because that’s the only way to get the job done.