Tag Archives: Published

Wednesday’s Word: On Vacation and Thinking of Cake.

Every Wednesday, on Writing Under Pressure, you’ll find a post based on Today’s Word (from Wordsmith.org). You can find past essays, poems, or flash fiction pieces under the Wednesday’s Word category on the sidebar to the right.

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This week, I’m out of town and mostly unplugged, so I’m taking a break from the usual Word of the Day challenge. But, I’m not ignoring my commitment to post a flash piece.

I dove head first into writing when I signed up for Ariel Gore’s online class over a year and a half ago. During her course, we began each week with a quick write assignment. We were given a prompt – a phrase, a photo, or just one word – and given a limit of seven minutes to free write.

Many of these quick writes, from myself as well as from other writers in class, ended up in an Anthology that we put together and published in July 2009: On the Fly: Stories in Eight Minutes of Less. It’s a great little book that illustrates the kind of powerful writing that can result from letting your mind go and your words fall onto paper.

Below is one of my pieces published in that anthology, one based on the word I pulled out from a word bag: cake. Enjoy, and at the end of this post, check out the links to other sites with word prompts or writing prompts.

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Cake. My Nemesis.

2003: Find out that my son has an egg allergy. Remember that chemistry was never my best subject, but realize the importance of eggs when it comes to making a birthday cake. Wonder how egg substitutes will work. Hold head high and promise to be the best mom ever and make the best birthday cakes of all time.

2004: First attempt at an egg-free birthday cake. Things fall apart. No worries – next year will be better.

2005: The dinosaur cake. Recipe calls for no eggs – perfect. Cake stands eight inches high. Okay, plenty of eats for everyone. Decorations, which play well with the overall monstrosity of cakeness, include small, plastic dinosaurs and palm trees. Dinosaurs are a big hit, but the cake is dry. Cut myself a huge piece and pretend it’s the best ever (then slam 8 ounces of water nonstop, to wash it down).

2006: Block out all memory of cake, too painful to report.

2007: The Transformer cake. Recipe from a box, which calls for three eggs. Proceed with caution. Find a bubbling concoction of baking powder, vinegar, and milk to substitute. Looks good out of the oven, crumbles during icing. Decorations include small Decepticon figure climbing up the corner of the cake that fell apart. No one seems to notice. Disaster averted, this year.

2008: Wave the white flag cake. Recipe from a box, three eggs. Whatever. Find a pre-made substitute that looks like a fine white powder and smells funny, but works better than bubbling concoction from past years. Decide to bake and keep cake in metal 9×13 pan (to make sure the sides hold together). Decorations include a variety of sugary goodness: icing, sprinkles, more icing, and interesting candles. Tape wrapping paper around the outside of the pan in hopes no one will think I’m lazy.

2009: Hear a remake of that old song, Someone left the cake out in the rain. Empathize with woman in song who can’t bear to do it again. Wonder why cake is such a big deal anyway.

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If you love writing prompts, here are a few sites to inspire your best ten minutes of writing:

Wordnik.com: This site offers a “word of the day” and a “random word” option. With “random word,” you can gamble for your word of choice: if you don’t like the first word, click “random” again. And, again. And, then twenty more times (I did when I tried it). But, eventually you’ll have to stop clicking and start writing.

Wordsmith.org: My usual favorite. There’s always a weekly theme and never a dull moment in word choice. Plus, there’s no “random” option. As my son says – in a mocking way at dinner sometimes – “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.”

A recent post from Lisa Rivero, where she lists a host of links to writing prompts and writing exercises.

Take a peek at those sites and punch out your own flash fiction or quick write. Happy Writing!



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If I Get Lost, the Story Falls Flat

There’s been a lot of talk online* recently about craft and voice and when to know if your work is publishable or best kept in a drawer.

Linda Cassidy Lewis posted about the fact that everyone can write a story, but a writer hopes to craft one.

Jennifer Stanley and Donald Maass posted separately on voice. If you stay true to your voice, the work, according to Maass, will read “authentic and passionate.” The story, Stanley believes, will “outshine” all the others.

Rachelle Gardner said that rejection after rejection may imply a writer needs more than just good grammar skills. That writer should sign up for a class on the craft of writing with a good teacher who isn’t afraid to say, “This doesn’t work. At all.”

I wrote a story a while back that was a good story. I remember sitting in a diner watching a scene unfold across the restaurant in a way that I thought, “somebody should write about that. That’s crazy!” So I did. I made up a story that paralleled the scene I witnessed, but I didn’t tell the story well. I wrote it with a particular literary magazine in mind. And, I wrote it in a way I imagined a particular famous author would write it. My voice was lost, along with the passion. The story read flat, no matter how hard I infused it with vivid details or realistic dialogue.

I know better now, but I still have much to learn. I do recognize when a story is becoming my own – when it’s a story that I enjoy reading myself. That sounds narcissistic, but when I read my own story and think, well, I might pick it up, but I hope they will pick it up, then I need to go back, rework it, and find the place where I got lost.

There’s still no guarantee my well-crafted story will get published. But, I can lean on the belief that if it’s authentic to me, it will at least stand out next to another writer’s tale.

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* If you’re on Twitter, consider following Debbie Ridpath Ohi @inkyelbows. She rolls out tweet after tweet of great links, resources, and retweets.

Ode to the Patient Writer

The level of my patience sometimes follows the phases of the moon. I wax and wane between “my time will come” to “what if I miss it?”

A recent post of mine led to a nice discussion and mention of Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. And, in picking up her book today (during a quiet half hour), I read two quotes from the first chapter that struck a chord with me. Annie Dillard’s words reminded me that a writer must not only be patient with the work, but also indifferent to it.

On the subject of time:

“I takes years to write a book – between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant.”

“Out of a human population on earth of four and a half billion, perhaps twenty people can write a book in a year. Some people lift cars, too. Some people enter week-long sled-dog races, go over Niagara Falls in barrels, fly planes through the Arc de Triomphe. Some people feel no pain in childbirth. Some people eat cars. There is no call to take human extremes as norms” (p. 13-14).

On the writer’s feeling about his or her work:

“There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged” (p. 15).

I struggle with both the panic that a story not published soon will be a story out of date and the anxiety of whether or not what I write is good — or, good enough. I love reading the thoughts of other writers who have gone before me, and finding truth and insight in their words, especially as I enter into a new year with new writing aspirations.

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Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1989), p. 13-15.

Back Online and Dreaming

I’ve had little time to write lately, and that disconnect is beginning to wear on me.

Today, I stared at a blank screen.
The blink
Of the cursor,
A taunt.

“Write something. Anything.” I told myself.

I searched through my files for an old writing prompt to stir me into new material, and I found this one from an online course I took with Ariel Gore:

Allow a beautiful vision of your life to come to mind.

As cliché as it sounds, this is a great time of year for me to reflect on the past and envision the future — especially when I sit in front of a screen and wonder, what do I, little writer that I am, have to offer?

Reflecting on the past year, I see that I passed more benchmarks in writing this year than in the past:

  • I saw my work in print on the pages of a few different publications.
  • I “met” several writers online who offer encouragement, support, and excellent feedback on my work.
  • I wrote almost every single day, in the form of a post or a rewrite or morning pages.
  • I signed on to Twitter and found an even greater pool of resources and authors online.

Small successes, I tell myself, are as important as signing with an agent for a three book deal (though maybe not quite as exciting).

This year, I dream:

  • I find time to write every day — not just minutes pieced together here and there but good, solid, time.
  • I see myself opening my email to a message from a literary magazine, saying “yes.”
  • I watch my hand reach into an envelope and pull out a check for a story published.
  • I envision holding a finished manuscript, passed through the virtual hands of beta readers, reworked, and queried.

Then, I imagine I put down my manuscript and turn away. Let the story go, I tell myself, and let it land where it may.

I step outside into the brisk air of early summer. The wind raises goosebumps on my arms, but the sun warms my back. With bare hands and a spade, I dig in the ground for a while. I turn the soil. I wake the earthworms. I plan a plot of fresh herbs, tomatoes, maybe some wildflowers.

What do you envision this year?

Fiction vs. Memoir

On Salon.com, Laura Miller wrote “A new book says: Fiction is dead, long live the age of autobiography,” in which she reviews Ben Yagoda’s book Memoir: A History. Laura Miller quotes Ben Yagoda when he claims fiction has become “like painting in the age of photography — a novelty item.”

He isn’t the first to say that nonfiction, including memoir, sells better than fiction. Nathan Bransford, in his recent article in the Huffington post, said “for many years adult nonfiction was the bread and butter workhorse of the industry.”  It isn’t that fiction is better than non, or vice versa, it just seems to be a fact that we are drawn to the stories of real people more often than the tales of our made-up friends.

It’s easy to slide on over to the nonfiction section in the bookstore and get caught up in the lives of real people suffering, and surviving. Reality TV plays a big part in our attraction to the memoir, as does our need to know that someone out in the real world might be worse off than we are. I think Laura Miller would agree, since she says “the characters and events in memoirs are often, like real people and events, the subjects of energetic controversy….”  Even when we know the ending of the story, we still ravage ourselves with the details.

So, Laura Miller’s article got me thinking. I like memoir, but I also like good fiction. I walked into the bookstore today with my daughter determined to leave with a new novel. While she twirled and tumbled in the middle of the store, I scanned the Indie Bound bookshelves.

I’m terrible at making decisions under pressure, so I let her pick out a book. She finally sat down on a couch, and I turned and found a bookcase of all the Best American anthologies. When I saw Alice Sebold edited the The 2009 Best American Short Stories, I stopped looking.

Alice Sebold’s introduction also acknowledges recent trends in the publishing industry. She says “highlighting good fiction is more important now than it ever has been.” I agree. She could have been talking about memoir or fiction when she writes “a story about grief can comfort; a story about arrogance can shock and yet confirm; a story populated largely by landscape, whether lush or industrial, can expand the realm that we as individuals inhabit.” But, she insists that great fiction narrative is just as critical to the publishing industry as great memoir.

If nonfiction is the mainstay that pushes the publishing industry through a recession, then taking risks and publishing fiction becomes even more critical.

“Stories provide an endless access into another world, brought forth by an infinite number of gifted minds,” Alice Sebold writes. Great fiction, like memoir, must find readers. And, it can’t find an audience if it’s never published.

I can’t wait to dive into the stories Alice Sebold deems Best of the best.

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Sebold, Alice, ed. The Best American Short Stories. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. Print.

Great books, and authors, may be headed your way.

The Wisconsin Book Festival 2009 began yesterday in Madison, WI. This annual festival began in 2002 and now draws about 15,000 people – all in the name of books and writing and the love of reading.

56209_WBF09_Print_Guide-1

Wow, what a line-up. A whole slew of amazing authors are being hosted, heard, and admired as you read this. Download the Program Schedule, a work of art in itself.

But, beware, when they say “it’s a large PDF file, it might take a while to download,” they mean business. Still, I waited. I flipped through it. My eyes teared up. I thought of packing my bags and camping out in Madison for the next several days.

But, if you’re like me (have a job, raise young kids, don’t bother checking your wallet because all that’s in there is a library card and crumpled receipts marking the obvious…you’re broke), leaving town is not an option.

A peek at the program is still in order, though. Even if you’re hundreds of miles away from Wisconsin, it’s an experience to read through the list of authors. I’m awed by the amount of awards and fellowships represented. And, I’m reminded about the number of books I want to list my GoodReads page as “to-read.”

If you’re lucky enough to live in one of the other statewide areas offering their own piece of the festival pie, you might still get a chance to see great authors in action. I’m checking the schedule, and I’m running through my list of babysitters (hoping for one free of charge). With a quarter tank of gas, I can make it to at least one of those events!

What are you hiding under your pillow this week?

This week (September 26th-Oct 3rd) marks  the 28th annual celebration of Banned Books Week.

bannedbooks_readout.lg_horizInterested in knowing what books have been challenged this year? Check out Robert P. Doyle’s Books Challenged & Banned in 2008-2009: Speak Read Know. Doyle compiled the list based on reports from the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, and you might be surprised at what some parents and schools are willing to consider unfit for adolescent eyes.

Among the list are classics, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird. Other titles are new to me, but surprising just the same. Take Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, a book about a young boy who leaves his Indian reservation to attend an all-white school. A host of awards supports the book as credible and critical for young adults (2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and the National Parenting Publication Gold Winner 2007 to name just two), but the book was challenged because it mentions masturbation.

Okay, fine. But I’m curious if those same parents who challenged many of the award winning books on Doyle’s list are the same parents who dropped their 12 or 13 year old off at the cinema to watch Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (PG-13 for sexual material) or rented Step Up 2 for their 14 year old’s slumber party (PG-13 for “suggestive material” and really skimpy outfits)?

Then, there are the books I wish I’d read when I was young, like Esther Drill’s Deal With It!: A Whole New Approach
to Your Body, Brain, and Life as a gURL
.
This book reveals everything every girl wants to know, and needs to know, about her body’s evolution into womanhood. At sixteen years old, my high school friend innocently misinformed me (and embarrassed me) about the natural workings of my own body. She had no idea what she was talking about. I doubted her information, but I felt too ashamed to ask anyone else, until I was well into my thirties.  Esther Drill’s book was challenged at a Community Library close to my home. The book was thought to be “worse than an R-rated movie,” as if educating young girls about their own biology is obscene.

I don’t want my daughter to grow up in the dark.

Read the list. Find out what books have been challenged in your area, and why. If the library won’t let you borrow it, then buy it. The book they ban is most likely the best book on the shelf.