MFA programs

Strong Verbs and Other Good Words, Part Three: The Word Book

In part one of this series, I talked about strong verbs.  Part two featured a rant essay about the thesaurus.  And now we come to part three, which is about the word book.  It could also be titled, write the word down, stupid.  (For those of you youngsters, or people with short memories, I'm riffing off the slogan that won Bill Clinton the election, way back in the days of yore.  The slogan, "Its the economy, stupid," was posted on election headquarters walls to remind workers what the key issue was.  The more things change, the more they stay the same. Except this time I'm pretty sure that Obama doesn't need reminding.)

Anyway, strong verbs and word books.  Carrie's Graduation and Images of Word Book 041
Carrie's Graduation and Images of Word Book 045

Behold, images of my very own word book:  I know, I know, the photos are not the best, but I am proud of them nonetheless, because I so rarely manage to illustrate posts with photos.  They are clear enough, I hope, for you to get the gist.  My word book is a cute little (5 by 8 ish) purple binder with A to Z tabs and in it I write down, wait for it, words. 

The genesis of my word book stems from my MFA years.  One of my mentors, Melissa Pritchard, gave a lecture in which she talked about a word book that she had begun years ago and now could not live without.  I had a writer's crush on Melissa and vowed to emulate every single thing that she did, ever.  And so I started my own word book, not having the first clue what hers actually contained.  I just liked the idea of having a book full of vital words that I carried with me everywhere.

At first I laboriously wrote new words in my word book, looked up the definition, and then wrote that down, too.  A nice idea, and I do love all the words I've defined in my book.  And even though it is fun to leaf through and admire the words, I find this approach is not terribly useful.  After all, how do I know what word I'm looking for?  I have to confess that this wee problem made me set aside the word book for a few, gasp, years.

But since I've been on my Verb Safari, I am reconfiguring the word book.  Mostly now I'm using it to write down verbs.  Strong verbs, weak verbs, verbs based on nouns, verbs I made up, verbs that don't make any sense.  The best way to find good verbs is to start becoming aware of them.  And once you find them, write them down.  Make your own word book.  Write them on index cards (my new favorite way to keep track of ideas).  Write them on scraps of paper, throw them in a basket, and look over them every once in awhile.  Doesn't matter where you write them, but do it.   And while you're add it write down other words that catch your fancy, also.  You'll find your verb use and your vocabulary improving drastically.

So that's it, my three-part series on verb use.  If you find any good verbs, share them with me, would you?  I'd appreciate it.

When Art Gives Up its Secrets

Yesterday, I wrote about the fabulous workshop that Darnell Arnoult gave for the Loft and talked about how she presented an exercise called "Finding Fiction in a Photo," wherein we looked at pictures (amazingly enough) for a full five minutes and then wrote about them.

I can't express how important this kind of deep connection with an
image or piece of writing can be to your work.  I started my free-lance writing career
writing about art.  Wrote a few facile articles that got published and
then had the great good luck to get assigned to a very hard-ass
editor.  One of the first pieces I wrote for her she rejected, and told
me to go back to the gallery and start over.  She insisted that I go
back to the gallery and look at the paintings until they gave up their
secrets and I knew enough about those secrets to write about them.

(By the way, that assignment resulted in one of my all-time favorite lines I've ever written in an article:  "Watercolors, like earth girls, are easy."  Yes, this was a very long time ago, a couple years ago after the release of the Geena Davis movie, Earth Girls Are Easy.  There are probably some of you reading this who haven't ever heard of it.  Lord, there might be some of you reading this who were not yet born when that movie came out.  But no matter how old you are, you must admit–best line ever.)

so I learned to deconstruct art by looking at it–truly looking at it. 
Anybody who has ever taken art history will be familiar with the
process.  I'd taken a year of art history in college, one of the best
things I ever did, and so once I allowed myself to sink into the
paintings I had to write about, I remembered studying art history
slides and doing the same thing.  And soon I recalled how much I had gleaned from all those late nights of leafing through Jansen's,  History of Art and memorizing the details.  (I still have that book–it is smoke damaged and water stained from having lived through a fire but I couldn't bear to give it up.)

When I began my MFA program,
years later, and needed to learn to deconstruct pieces of writing in
order to write about them these experiences served me well.  My dear
friend Cate McGowan, who had majored in art history, and I agreed that
a firm grounding in the field is actually a very fine training ground
for writing.   One cornerstone of a good MFA program is writing critical essays about literature, the theory being that one of the best ways to learn about writing is to read it, and my art history and writing about art background gave me a way into to do this.  I was accustomed to staring at paintings and sculpture and now I could transfer those skills and stare at literature until it, too, gave up its secrets.

So if you're stuck or blocked, don't overlook the idea of finding a photo or image to write about.  One great source for this is the Google image search.  You can find all kinds of cool photos on that.  Choose one, stare at it until it gives up its secrets (which may be quite awhile) and then start writing about it.

The Filtering Consciousness

I was reminded of the filtering consciousness as I wrote a critique this week.  I owe everything I know about it to my mentor and friend Julie Brickman.  She was the first person to point it out to me in my novel.  Up until then, I'd always felt that something just didn't "sound" quite right in my work.  It was a little off and I could never identify why.  I had good dialogue, understood how to write scenes, knew how to write great descriptions.  But something separated my work from sounding publishable.

In the course of my MFA studies, I had the great good fortune to take part in an experimental novel workshop, the first of its kind.  The standard cornerstone of a brief residency MFA program is the workshop.  10 or so students gather for 2 hours a day to discuss the work of the members of the workshop.  The work is sent in ahead of time, and everyone reads it and critiques it and then discusses it in class.

Since each person only gets one hour of time devoted to their writing, the only thing that you can get critiqued is a short story or essay of 25 pages or less.  You submit a chapter of a novel at your own peril, because it is so difficult to critique it apart from the rest of the piece.  So, if you submit chapter five, someone might say, "I was really curious about Frank's backstory" but you've already written that backstory in chapter three.  Or if you submit chapter one, someone might say, "I think this and this is going to happen" and you are sitting there thinking that the story goes in a completely different direction.

For these reasons, people writing novels have a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to workshopping.  Thus was the novel workshop born.  It quickly became renamed the Novel Goddess Workshop, because, well, the six of us in it were goddesses, that's all there is to it.  The idea was that instead of 10 participants, there would be only 5, and everyone in the workshop had to commit to reading 5 whole novel manuscripts.  It was a pretty labor intensive couple of months, especially since most of us had been madly finishing our novels up until the very last minute.

But to say the workshop was a huge success was to indulge in understatement.  Led by the afore- mentioned Julie Brickman, it was far and away the best workshop I had in my 2 years of studying for my MFA and some of the best critiquing I've had ever.  Not only that, but all of us in the group bonded for life.  We call ourselves the Novel Goddesses and have managed to have one full goddess reunion a couple years ago on Dauphin Island in Alabama.  Several of us met last January at AWP, and that same group will be presenting a panel at next year's AWP conference in Chicago.  Three of the goddesses live on the west coast, and since I come to LA, I get to see Deidre and Julie fairly often.  Linda teaches in my program in Nashville, so I'll get to see her in just a few weeks, and I'll see Katy and Maryann next February in Chicago (and Maryann's book, Base Ten, will just have been published, the same book we critiqued in the workshop).

So all that is a very long digression about how I learned to identify the filtering consciousness.  It was in the Novel Goddess Workshop that Julie pointed it out to me.  The proverbial lightbulb moment ensued.  Oh, that's what makes my work sound clunky and amateurish!

Perhaps you are wondering what this wondrous thing is, and I will tell you.   It is when everything that you write is preceded with I saw or I heard or I smelled.  Or, if writing in third person, she saw, she listened, she smelled.  For instance, you might write something like "She smelled the jasmine abloom all around in a blaze of white and green."  (Do not pay attention to the dreadfulness of the writing, its off the top of my head.)  Once you remove the filtering consciousness it is less laden:  The jasmine bloomed all around her in a blaze of white and green."

Or, "I saw the ragtag army marching toward me, with their hair matted and mouths open with thirst."  How much better it reads when you remove the F.C.:  The ragtag armed marched with their hair matted and mouths open with thirst."

The filtering consciousness puts a screen between you and the reader.  Its one more barricade the reader must negotiate to enter the page with your prose on it.  You want to make it as easy as possible for the reader to do this, by removing as many obstacles as possible.

So if your work somehow just doesn't quite sound right to you, look at your manuscript for the filtering consciousness and if you find it, edit it out.  Your work will be stronger and leaner and read better for it.