Thursday, December 11, 2008

Home is Where the Heart is

I can't believe how hard I have worked for my Shakespeare class and I still don't have the A. The prof is demanding professional level critical essays about the Great Chain of Being and the roles of women in human society. Yes, he allows us to rewrite as much as we want to raise our grades. And he takes days to read our e-mail papers. I submitted the final revision of the last paper on Tuesday. Today is Thursday. He hasn't responded, I don't know my final grade and all grades have to be in by tomorrow, I believe. I guess I'm not going to worry about it. Or the $3,500 scholarship from the Ohio Board of Regents for graduating seniors with a 3.7 or higher GPA, to be applied to grad school.

For a while now I've been saying to my advisor, "Am I smart enough for this?" She's been saying, "Yes, you are." Then I realized my error. "I am smart enough, but am I knowledgeable enough?" THAT after all is why I went back to get my degree. I have been meeting and exceeding requirements for my classes. I've been learning A LOT. But have I learned enough? My instrauctors raise the bar for me so I have to work harder. Ohio, and counties like ours, Columbiana, having the lowest education rates in the state, is working to raise the numbers of college-educated citizens. When our students graduate from college, they don't come back here to live. If they graduate here, they move away to greener pastures. So, I know that completing my education is important to my region. My instructors know I'm going to, in all probability, stay right here. It's where my children and grandchildren live. And it's where my fictional characters live and dream and work. This is home. Home is where the heart is, and writers write what they know, what is in their heart.

My sense of community has been with me for a very long time. I've dropped out of sight public-wise because of my heavy school load and responsibilities as regards my family. But my goals remain steadfast. My stories, fiction though they be, reflect my community, and hopefully, will draw tourists to our county, and perhaps draw new business interests here, given that the region has been working on improving infrastructure for a while now.

OK. I should stop editorializing here. This is a novel-writing blog.

I said to my Shakespeare professor, "I am a creative writer, a writer of fiction. My goal is NOT to write critical essays." In essence his response was, "That's why you're having a little trouble with critical essay writing. They are different beasts." These aren't his exact words, but my interpretation.

I grumbled to my advisor, who also is my instructor in yet another literature class. I'd been beating up on myself pretty badly because of the word "incohesive" that the other prof attached to my writing. ME??? INCOHESIVE??? My advisor advised me not to let the critical writing affect my creative writing because I am an excellent creative writer. Well, that made all the difference to me. So, if I end up with a lower grade than I expect, well, I've learned a lot that mmakes me a better thinker, more critically-minded in interpreting what I observe and put down in words, and can only mean the quality of my fiction is better.

When you hear someone say, "Writers read a lot," they aren't 'just' reading the genre they want to write. They read Shakespeare who is a master at presenting the human condition and creating 'catharsis' for his audience. Compare Romeo and Juliet to West Side Story, and if I remember right, Hamlet to As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. The complete works of Shakespeare weighs about forty pounds. (Well, it seems like it.) But there is a wealth of knowledge and seeds for more stories from creative minds. Shakespeare's ideas came from his observations of his world and his society. My ideas come from my world, my society. Ah, the other thing is the importance of placing the story in a different time period to keep you out of trouble. Will did that because his patrons included the British monarchs Elizabeth I and James VI, whom he did not want to offend. Didn't Elizabeth remark that she was Richard II? Haven't critics suggested that Perdita from The Winter's Tale bears a strong resemblance to the young Elizabeth whom her father, Henry VIII, bastardized when he accused her mother, Anne Boleyn, of adultery and had her beheaded?

The only Shakespeare I ever read was Julius Caesar when I was a freshman in high school. But with this introduction to his works, I will study his work, read and reread his plays and think about the human condition from a modern perspective. I will read non-fiction as well as fiction, the genres I want to write and other genres, too. And I will not allow critical essay writing to influence my creative writing, for the creative writing is where my heart is. Home.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Shakespeare a feminist?

It seemed like the professor was saying that William Shakespeare didn't like women. He supported that idea with things like, Shakespeare left to his wife only one thing--the second best bed. Everything else he left to one of their daughters and her husband. And he wasn't kind to the women in his plays. But perhaps that's not exactly so. Look at the times in which he lived, the ways that women were treated: They could be educated at home but they couldn't go to school or university. They could work as domestics, but they couldn't be in the professions. They could be artists or writers as long as their work was within women-appropriate subjects like religion. (I guess artists and writers were not considered honorable professions. That's not really a new concept to me.) Perhaps he was protecting his wife from the "Man the Hunters" who would be looking at the wealth rather than the woman and gain control of the Shakespeare fortune. And if he really didn't like women when he was young in his career, his perspectives must have changed as he aged because eventually he "infused women with life," another English professor told me. (I wish I could claim ownership of that because I like it very much..."infused women with life.") He wrote them strong, wise.

When our class viewed the movie Hamlet with Kiera Knightly (sorry, the spelling looks wrong) playing the role of Ophelia, I felt so sorry for the pitiful young woman. But by the time I finished my 10-page essay yesterday I came to write, "Hamlet's Ophelia is the dutiful daughter. There is no mention of her mother. She was raised by her father and brother who told her when to do what. She obeyed, as she was supposed to do in proper society. But both parent and sibling undermined any of her attempts at decision-making, self-determination...Ophelia manages to defy them, for in death she has gained her autonomy, her agency to speak, 'No, I am not a piece of property. I am a human being, an individual in my own right'...There's nothing anyone can do about the choices she finally makes. Ophelia appears weak, but..." it appears she was strong enough to break the bonds of patriarchy, bringing me to remember what so many African-American slaves said, "Better dead than in bondage."

I should explain "Man the Hunter." There is an essay at which discusses "Meat's Patriarchy." Essentially, "meat" is a metaphor. "Meat" is social currency. "Meat" is used to represent anything of value that someone wants to control for their own benefits, that which gives them power, Read it. It is interesting reading. Then read some of Shakespeare's work. I recommend King Lear, Hamlet and The Winter's Tale. Pay particular attention to the "daughter" and "niece" archetypes. Ah, the daughter archetype appears to be Ophelia, the Mouse Trap, who is dutiful and does what she is told because her brother and father know what is better for her than she does. Given opportunity, she will attract the attention of a wealthy man which will provide political advantage for the males in her family. The niece archetype decides for herself what she will do and be. That would be, in my opinion, Perdita in The Winter's Tale. She is a princess, unbeknownst to her. She believes she is the daughter of a poor shepherd. With no wealth to attract a man she is not a Mouse Trap. She can make her own decisions because there is little impact on anyone else. The prince who has fallen in love with her knows he cannot tell his father of her because he will find her unacceptable because she is daughter of a poor shepherd.

OK. As you are reading the plays, take some notes. Jot down concepts that you want to learn more about...patriarchy, empowerment, archetypes, mythology, classical Greco-Roman writers like Aristotle and Sophocles, Machiavellianism. Don't look "just" at Machiavelli. Look for his binary opposite. (Come on, I can't give you ALL of the answers, now can I? Hehehe.) Look at the Elizabethan and Jacobean reigns. Then think about your stories, your current work in progress.

Studying Shakespeare has been one of the biggest challenges of my return to college. I've worked hard to understand and give some semblance of having some intelligence throughout the study, and I've learned how to read Shakespeare. I'm not so afraid of him now. :)

(c) 2008 Cathy L.T. Brownfield

Whew! That's some kind of way to start a Sunday!

Saturday, November 22, 2008


Yes, it's freezing here in NE Ohio today, but the sun is shining. And there isn't a lot of snow on the ground. Other places aren't so fortunate, and I'm glad we live just a tad below the snowbelt. :)

There's a different kind of freezing I want to talk about for a few minutes. What do you do when you freeze up and aren't sure where to go with your novel? I signed on for the NaNoWriMo, but I'm way behind. However, I learned a couple of nights ago that I can write 2,000 words in 42 minutes. And I still think I can reach 50K by Nov. 30 if I write something every day. I'm writing, but not every day...or maybe I am because I carry a notebook with me everywhere I go, even if I have to find a smaller one to tuck into my handbag. (I tend to carry larger handbags.) What else have I been doing?

I once took a large piece of posterboard and outlined a novel on it. I showed it to my writing buddy, Maureen, who looked it over politely then said, "Very nice. Now. Put it away and just write a good story." Um...I had spent a lot of time on that posterboard. Shouldn't she have been impressed? So, OK. I brought it home, lost it, and began to write. And I felt like I needed to go back to school to learn about novel writing because I felt SO lost! And I went back to school.

Why is it that, in some classes, I don't get the drift until we're half way through a semester? And now I'm wishing that I could do the Shakespeare class over again? For me, at the beginning, I was so overwhelmed by Shakespeare. It seemed like there was so much in his plays that I had to absorb. What was I supposed to be looking for? Absorbing? Ignoring? How could I work this study into do-able parts? (Something I learned a few years ago was when I break down a massive project into do-able parts I am more likely to complete things because I'm NOT overwhelmed.)

Ask and you shall receive.

First, there are terms we need to understand. These are some of the things we need to look for when we read a play by William Shakespeare:

* Peripetia--change of fortune, reversal of circumstances.
* Anagnorisis--critical moment of discovery.
* Hamartia--tragic flaw.
* Hubris--pride/arrogance that brings downfall.
* Deus ex machina--a contrived device to stall action; the gods intercede in human conditions.

I was so stressed out trying to figure out this class that I couldn't remember those definitions to save my soul! That's how I knew I was so stressed out. I began a mantra: Calm. I will be calm. I will do what I can do and not stress over it. I will be calm. I can do this. I needed more tools for my Shakespeare toolbox. I went to the Internet. I thought I had written down the URL, but I can't find it, unfortunately, because I'd really like to give credit to the educational resource. It's out there somewhere.

Draw a diagram, a triangle without the line from point A to point E. Label A Act I and E, Act V. Half way up the left side of the pyramid label a dot Act II and on the opposite side of the pyramid label a dot Act IV. At the pinnacle labe a dot Act III. To take the labeling a little bit further, Act I is the introduction of characters and initial conflice, Act II is rising action, Act III is climax, Act IV is falling action and Act 5 is resolution, or denouement.

Voila. You've just had your introduction to the five-act play.

Now, when I pick up any book to read, whether for my studies or for leisure reading, I begin to look for the same qualities I find in Shakespeare's works. What is the tragic flaw of the characters, particularly the villain? How do the philosophies of Niccolo Machiavelli and Sir Thomas More come through the piece? What is it that makes a literary work long-lived? Are the characters "larger than life" or are they "full of life"?

Here I will mention Gloria Naylor's novels, Linden Hills and Mama Day. What is it about her characters that cuase us to fall in love with the characters and their stories? What is it about her work that makes us forget about issues of "color"? Because Naylor is a woman of color, but her stories talk to me, remind me of my ancestors, as Toni Morrison urges us to understand in her essay "Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation." We are rooted in our ancestors and we should remember that to give meaning to our writing.

I must also mention the stories of Denise Giardina who writes of families in Appalachia who have been coalmining families for generations, as much enslaved by company stores and housing as slaves on the plantations and farther back in history the serfs of medieval feudalism who were owned by the land and never allowed to leave the land, with no conception of "Who am I?" ever entering their minds until the Industrial Revolution that brought along with it capitalism and the Renaissance thinking that gave them the courage to finally question and rebel against the aristocracy. In effect, good fiction is about the human condition and how we relate/can relate to the words that speak of what we all have in common: human condition.

Now, how does a writer know what to leave in, what to take out, and how to embellish a story to make it publishable? In other words, how do you "just write a good story?"

Monday, October 27, 2008


"When the poet Jean Toomer walked through the South in the early twenties, he discovered a curious thing: black women whose spirituality was so intense, so deep, so unconscious, that they were themselves unaware of the richness they held. They stumbled blindly through their lives: creatures so abused and mutilated in body, so dimmed and confused by pain, that they considered themselves unworthy even of hope. In the selfless abstractions their bodies became to the men who used them, they became more than 'sexual objects,' more even than mere women: they became "Saints." Instead of being perceived as whole persons, their bodies became shrines: what was thought to be their minds became temples suitable for worship. These crazy Saints stared out at the world, wildly, like lunatics--or quietly, like suicides; and the 'God' that was in their gaze was as mute as a great stone." ~ Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother's Gardens

Why have I started this entry with this particular quote? I am a white woman. And when I say, "But I know of this because I've been there, done that," I am told that a white woman cannot understand the plight of the black woman. I am told that no matter what I have experienced in my lifetime, it is nowhere near what women of color have experienced. If this is so, then why do these words of Alice Walker hold such meaning for me? Enough meaning to affect the story I am writing?

There is this competitive thing among all human creatures. Everyone wants to be top dog. But there are only so many top dog slots. And I recall a thing or two that my mother used to say when I was a kid. "The one who talks the loudest gets the furthest." Who said, "Walk softly and carry a big stick"? "There's always someone else worse off than you, if you think about it long enough." Who said, "You think too much"? "(S)He who laughs last laughs longest and loudest." Who said, "It ain't over til the fat lady sings"?

Disability. If you have a disability and inform the university of it, they will see that you get what you need to have equal opportunity to the same education as everyone else. But, who wants to broadcast their disabilities? If you can't hear, mostly it must be because you're getting old(er). If you're older everyone looks at you and smiles as if to say, "It's admirable that, at your age, you are going to school. But, what are you going to do with it?" "I don't mean to say you're old, but..." If you are too small, too overweight, too anything, you are bullied by other people who are more perfect...well, closer to the ideal human being. If you are over age 37 you can't get a job with the U.S. government because you are "too old." If you are a threat to someone, you are blackballed. If your skin isn't the right color...if you are female...if you are impoverished...

The women in my family who preceded me were deeply spiritual, relying heavily on their faith to endure the hardships that came to them. My great-grandmother spoke about her mother who had "married beneath her station," so her father disowned her. And didn't I read just a few days ago that English aristocrats who didn't want someone to be in their vicinity would pay passage for the offender(s) to the U.S. Louisa and her husband, John, within a month of their marriage, found themselves on the ship, The Atlantic, in New York harbor. They came into the U.S. through Castle Garden, NY, which predates Ellis Island. They made their way to Pittsburgh, Pa. where he secured a job as a bookkeeper. Three years later Louisa was so homesick they packed up their two daughters and their belongings and returned to England. But something unpleasant happened, and the couple, another three years later, returned to Pittsburgh. Great-grandmother said her mama died of a broken heart, even if the death certificate says "enteritis."

When their father was struck by a train and killed in 1891, the children were taken in by various families. Great-grandmother was the second eldest. She was smart and did well in school. So well that the family who took her in were intimidated enough to stop her going to school. She worked cleaning house and working in the fields until she married. Her husband, at least in their older years, was an alcoholic from whom she was rescued by her daughter and son-in-law, my grandparents. My grandfather died at age 48 in 1945. My step-grandfather battered my grandmother. My mother married my father. There were issues--marital and health--between and for each of them. There have been issues--marital, financial--for DH and me. And these things have affected our children, as well.

Everyone lives during hardship at some time in their lives. I'm not sure sidestepping hardship is a good thing because it's the hardships that you endure, from which you rise from the ashes like the phoenix, and come out stronger, wiser and a better person. At least, that's what I have found. Everyone has at least one bully in their lifetimes. Well, that's what I have found in my experiences. Please understand, I am not making a blanket statement, a one-size-fits-all statement that applies to every situation. I can speak only from where I am.

Nobody has burned a cross in my front yard ever. But how many times did I walk around the bend in the road from school and find four or five bullies pinning my little brother to the ground and beating his head against the macadam street? And when I started high school, that jock from the in-crowd...if he saw me 50 times a day went out of his way to humiliate me in front of everyone in the hall--and the hall always seemed to be packed--50 times a day. And I found myself taking alternative routes so he wouldn't see me and start running me down. And the teachers didn't stop that bullying. How many times did someone at church remark that my family "wasn't regular" because we weren't at church every time the doors opened and piety means being at church every time those doors open. Oh. That would be machiavellian thought because Machiavelli wrote that nobody knows who we are on the inside. We are known by how we are on the outside. Which conflicts with something else my mother said, "Don't judge a book by its cover."

I am not saying that women of color haven't been treated horribly. I'm saying that because I'm white does not mean I don't understand hurt, discrimination and cruelty. And I guess my writing is going to reflect that.

William Shakespeare, like all writers, wrote about what he knew. We can't help but do that. It's how we manipulate our experiences to a style that doesn't tattle on the people in our lives, but does have appeal to the masses because they can relate to those things writers write about. So it is little wonder why fledgling writers wet behind the ears are advised, "Write what you know."

Now, get busy. Write what YOU know. Somewhere. In a notebook, journal or diary. In a blog. In a piece of fiction that you will submit. Write what you know.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Eight weeks and counting

Has anyone visited my blog? I can't blame them if they are not. When was my last entry? It isn't really AD/HD, though it may appear that I can't stay focused on one thing long enough to finish the tasks. It's something called "Overload." And I have no one to blame but myself. School. Family. Home. Parents. Children. Grandchildren. Job. Studying. Writing.

What are my priorities, you ask? I just listed them, though not by order of importance. Actually, that order can change at the drop of a hat! Or at the changes in the household, as when all the children are independent most of the time but still manage to have needs at vital moments in the rest of the Big Picture.

But this is a writing blog. So, OK. Let me write a bit about what I'm trying to accomplish and why. First, I am publicist for a counseling agency, and have been for nearly nine years. Can it really be over nine years since I left the newspaper??? At the very least, I have a weekly article to write. I also am an English major trying to wrap up my senior year and graduate by May. That means an African-American literature class and an upper level Shakespeare class and five hours a week of novel addition to the Spanish class. Seems like there should be plenty of time for writing that novel, doesn't it?

Well, then, why am I procrastinating? Because I feel overwhelmed by the amount of work the prof expects for the Shakespeare class. Someone NOT taking the class looked at the essay writing assignment and said, "This sounds like a thesis!" Well, that's what I thought, but who am I? So, I will use four of Shakespeare's plays to discuss "power," Machiavellianism and the kings about whom Shakespeare wrote. I did pull out something called "History's Timeline" and I got a book entitled "Origins of English History." The paper will get done...and studying for the quiz we will take Thursday night...over, I am not sure what.

Then there's the African-American lit class. I had not thought about there being such a genre until last semester's U.S. Literature, 1865-1945 class. Langston Hughes wrote about lynching. This was a man who lived in my lifetime, and lynching was still happening in 1974--the year my first child was born! In the late 20th century!!! How could this possibly be in the modern world? But just today I saw a book online about slavery today and what we can do to stop it. Exploitation of people in foreign countries or exploitation of Americans? Because aren't we being, at the very least, discriminated against in the employment market? And someone made a very good point last night: In World War II the factories were turned into plants to manufacture war needs. But there are no factories here to do this now. Where is our war manufacturing work at? Some foreign country that works for pennies against our dollars? Is our own government for the people by the people shipping that work overseas because it's cheaper there? What are we supposed to do? What are we supposed to live on? Or is this a way to get Americans to take low-paying jobs...Maybe I give the government leadership too much credit for manipulation.

Goodness! Sounds like a rebel has taken over my laptop. In light of everything that is happening around the world, I am concerned for the wellbeing of my world, my community, my family. And I keep telling myself that the sun will still rise again tomorrow as it has done for eons. Life will still keep keeping on, even if the economy is belly-up and, well, let's face it. In my world recession is spelled D-E-P-R-E-S-S-I-O-N. Let's fess up to it instead of building a house of cards. The first step is admitting the problem. It gets easier with each step after that, right?

OK. Let me walk away from that. African-American Literature has a way of making a body sit up and take notice. It forces everyone, regardless of color or any other difference, to stop and look at their own belief systems, their own values systems. I can say to myself, "Self, you know it doesn't matter what color a person's skin is. You know Mama would still beat on you if you were disrespectful to anyone of any color." I can say to myself, "Color doesn't define intelligence." But in all honesty, I can remember a time when Affirmative Action came along. Equal Opportunity Employment. And I thought then, what if that meant my husband--who might be more qualified for the job--wouldn't get it because there were obligations to hire minorities who might or might not be qualified. But the feds insisted they had to be hired anyway. They deserve the jobs, but my family has the same right. If it IS a right.

OK. I'm slipping away from my focus again, it appears. Except that writers write about the things they observe in their lifetime. Shakespeare did that. He didn't care whether he was accurate about history or not, said our prof. He wrote about the issues in his lifetime, but he put those stories into times long past. Shakespeare wrote during the reigns of Elizabeth I of England and her successor, James I of England (James VI of Scotland). And Elizabeth was qoted as saying that she was Richard III. Or was it II?

So I have this novel to write over this semester and next. And I'm lost. I am completely lost! How could I have let go the thread of the novel I was so sure I knew I was going to write? Is it because it is not my passion? When I said, "I liked So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba. It spoke to me and I will write MY story in a similar manner," what was I thinking? Why did I feel that way? Who were the characters that came to mind?

Should I be honest at this point? I am not writing true to the characters. I'm trying to force it to be what is "right" and "acceptable." But the characters want their story told the way it is.

I remember a long-ago friend. When we first met I thought she was obnoxious and loud. In fact, I was kind to her but I didn't really want to have a friendship with her. But I got to know her and found her to be a compassionate, considerate human being, a wonderful sense of humor. I enjoyed the hours we spent together talking, laughing. She and her son were at our house frequently.

But then some truths came to light. And THAT is the story that begs to be told. But how will people interpret it? Will it be acceptable? How can I MAKE it acceptable? Or CAN I? The story has to be written as it is, as the characters dictate because it is THEIR story, THEIR lives, not mine.

Does this make sense to anyone but me?

Saturday, August 30, 2008


I think I'm going to like the Shakespeare class. It's practically a study of my family roots: Britain, Ireland, Wales and Germany. OK. Heinz 57. But the point is, the history of England has everything to do with Shakespeare's writings and where my family roots are, what made my ancestors become what they became, do what they did.

I apologize. That has nothing much to do with me writing a novel, does it? Well, OK. I went to the first class session. The class meets once a week for 2-1/2 hours. We watched a video about Henry VIII and the Tudors. We went online and looked up a few terms: deus ex machina, peripetia, anagnorisis and hamartia. Hm. Interesting terms. I won't give them away. My mom had a saying, "When you have to do it yourself you remember it longer." So, go look up the terms and come back.

THEN, we looked up Aristotle's The Poetics. The three unities of tragedy, according to Aristotle, teacher of Alexander the Great, were 1.) action: no digression; no subplot; one unified action; 2.) time: 24-hour period; 3.) place: one location. OK. We got that. "Shakespeare broke all the rules," Dr. Erritouni advised us.

He asked us if we'd read any Shakespeare. Well, I am an English major and I hated to admit that I haven't read much of Shakespeare. In high school we studied Julius Caesar. About 15 years ago I watched the production of The Taming of the Shrew at Kent State Salem and reviewed it. That's about it. Though, it's not that I never tried.

In about sixth grade the Weekly Reader (children's newspaper from my era) featured a story about Macbeth. I went directly to the library, do not pass go, do not collect $200, just directly to the library! And I asked Ginny where to find it. "You are too young to read Macbeth." "But my dad said it's OK for me to read it." "Sorry," Ginny said, "but no. You are too young and we can't lend it to you." So I moved on to other things. And Shakespeare wasn't one of them.

So, then, on Friday night, I broke out my Complete Works of William Shakespeare and began to read Richard III. And I actually understood what I was reading. And I actually could envision the scene taking place, the emotions. And I was amazed!

The study of Shakespeare involves study of the history of the times, so I don't know the point of the reading just yet. But you can follow my lead and come Friday--if I'm really motivated, Thursday night--I will share what I learn.

Writing involves reading, studying, learning things we never were aware of before. And taking what we've learned and putting it into practice in our writing. For instance, in the African-American Literature class we are reading The Souls of Black Folk at this time. It was written by W.E.B. Du Bois. Is it just me or could the things I've read so far have been said by women--white, of color, or any other variety of women? Could the same things be said for what is happening to the Middle Class today? Can understanding these things make my skills stronger as I write my thesis: a novel?

Thursday, August 28, 2008


I am writing a novel. Everyone has their own process of information gathering and plotting, I guess. I e-mailed my project director, "I'm losing my focus. I'm afraid I can't write this story." She wrote back, "Just get down the first draft. The fun will start when you begin to revise. It'll be OK." It's very nice to have someone to nudge me: Just get down the first draft...It'll be OK."

So I am writing the first draft. Initially I determined that my novel would be about 90 pages, as was Mariama Ba's So Long a Letter. Now I think it will be longer. And I'm trying to get down a first draft although I know that some, perhaps much, of what I am writing will be edited out...chopped from the final draft. I am pulling from my memories. If you read my blog yesterday, you know I watched that Toni Morrison interview about Beloved and noted all of those writing from what I remember.

I read a lot. Writers are supposed to read a lot. And I observe a lot. Writers are supposed to observe a lot. I think I make people uncomfortable when they realize I am observing them. Maybe they think I'm rude, or something far worse. None of us REALLY knows our neighbors well, do we? But I'm using the bits and pieces I find in readings and observations, to weave the tapestry of my tale. And it is fun, as well as hard work. And if THIS part is fun, I can hardly wait to finish the first draft so I can get to the even more fun part of revision.

I make it sound like I haven't done that part before. Maybe it's something a writer thinks about every time (s)he begins writing a new story.

Have I given enough of a peek into what I'm doing to help other writers on their journey? Morrison said to give a little and let the reader bring her/his own emotions with them. Maybe I've said enough for today. It's time for me to get back to,, writing.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

On Writing: Toni Morrison

A lot of students expect to show up for class on the first day of each new college class, collect their syllabi and cut out early. That didn't happen in ANY of my classes on Monday. Modeling Algebra...full class time and a headache. Intermediate Spanish...full class time and the surprise that I remembered so much after four months away from it. African-American Literature...Dr. Swartz loves teaching too much to let us go much before the end of class time.

We took care of the formalities and got right into the topic with a dated video featuring an interview with author and educator Toni Morrison. She discussed her novel Beloved, how she got the ideas for it, how she wrote it. And just as I do in a lecture, my hand was busy scribbling notes to myself:

narrow and deep
a little, not a lot
oral history
characters as large as life
culture, where is it?
history, where is it?
slavery: a product sold
musical, written simply
reader invited in with their own emotions
rich, effective
leave space
quilt language so the fire can be seen
write the way one remembers
resurgence of spirit
what is really infinite
intimacy between us and our ancestors
always accessible presence
exorcism: things must be made, fixed, memorialized, released, thought, felt

Those all are Morrison's words and thoughts about writing. I took them, put them down on paper so I can go back, again and again, to test my own writing against them. And I will carry around Beloved until I get it read. And in this class we will be reading another of her books, The Bluest Eye. Just as I latched on to Doris Lessing's work when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in February 2008. Morrison is college educated. Lessing never attended college in her life. Both are writers of high esteem. Both share their knowledge of the skills of writing. Could I find better mentors anywhere?

So this is what "they" meant when they said I should study the works of authors I enjoy reading and learn from them.

(c) 2008 Cathy Brownfield

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Writers are...

This week I’ve been giving thought to Chapter One of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I started out doing the morning pages each day, complete with blurts and affirmations. I’ve gotten way behind on my other writing because I’ve spent so much time with those writings. One person said he didn’t need to waste time on writing prompts, which I don’t regard these writings as writing prompts. But I do have other things to do. Like writing. My blog. My short stories. My novels. And I do need to take time to read. Good/great authors don’t just write. They also read. Everything they can get their hands on, just as Irene McKinney, West Virginia’s Poet Laureate said. And Stephen King has said repeatedly that he carries a book with him everywhere he goes. He doesn’t worry about offending people socially since a writer lives a mostly solitary life anyway.

OK. So some people don’t like Stephen King and think he writes too long. I guess everyone isn’t challenged by long books, thick books. I always have been. I can devour short books in no time when I don’t have anything else to do. Which brings me to another comment I have heard, but I can’t remember who said it. “Every writer needs a housewife.” Who has time for scrubbing woodwork and walls, scouring sinks, tubs and toilets, mopping floors and such when there is so much writing to be done?!

On the other hand, at this stage of my game I’m thinking, “What is REALLY important in life?” I mean, we are born, we live and we die. When we are born, we are so busy learning how to become independent. It generally takes us about 18 years or so. I think I was pretty independent by the time I was 12. We learn what our elders consider “important.” Then we may spend 25 years trying to live by those things only to discover, as Snow Patrol sings, “forget what we’re told, before we get too old.” Life is just what we make it. What WE decide is important, what matters.

I get in trouble occasionally because at church the evangelist tries so hard to force us into obedience. I am unwilling to blindly follow what any human being tells me. Firstly, my mother taught my siblings and me that we are to do our own thinking, make our own decisions. We are to be responsible and dependable. Honorable and true. And I can’t help believing that God expects us to question anything that could lead to our downfall. My interpretation: Don’t blindly follow anyone. Look at Jonestown. Waco. And any other cults where people just blindly accepted what they were told and did what they were told…like feeding poison-laced grape Kool-Aid to their children and dying en masse. Those people didn’t test the humans who were leading them. I am unwilling to do succumb to something like that. And I guess that makes me a rebel. Fine. I am a rebel. And a woman of faith. That is good enough for me.

What does any of this have to do with writing? Writers are readers. Writers are philosophers. Writers are thinkers. Writers are observers. And writers write what they think. There can be some risk involved with that.

Welcome to my world.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Writing prompt?

The discussion at my writing list about the book The Artist's Way took an unexpected turn. Aaron said he read the book a while ago, but didn't need to waste time with writing prompts. As I read his post I began to analyze the purpose of The Artist's Way. Is it really about writing prompts? And, it wasn't long ago that I said I didn't have time I wanted to waste blogging when I could be doing real writing.

So, OK. My take on Chapter One of The Artist's Way. I don't think of it as writing prompts. I'm not "practice" writing. I'm not "warm-up" writing. When I'm writing my morning pages and blurts 'n affirmations, I am getting my issues for the day out of the way. I'm thinking on paper and getting my mind ready to work...clearing out my mind so I'm ready to be productive.

Writing prompts are different. You are given an idea to write about and you write what you think of in regard to the prompt

Now, the last thing I need is writing prompts. I have a gazillion ideas to write about. My biggest problem is time--or lack of it--to write all of those stories! So, what am I getting out of this?

1. Clear away distracting thoughts that slow me down.

2. Eliminating negative self-talk that says I can't do this writing thing successfully, mostly from things DH has said like I'll never make anything as a writer. And what I say to myself, "I've never been good enough, what makes me think I'm worth anything now?"

3. To get writing out of the way that I have to do so I can get to the other things that I want to work on. The more I do, the better I feel because I'm producing more!

Can writing prompts do all of that? I am thinking, "No." I've used writing prompts. When they are finished, they are finished. Meaningless. They do not inspire me to write more. My inspiration comes from positive thinking. But it's only been a couple of days since I started working with this course. Let me see what it's like in a month or 12 weeks.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Writing and The Artist's Way

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron was mentioned at one of my writing lists on Sunday. Ah! I own that one. I just saw it…right…there!

Early last spring—or it may have been mid-winter—someone told my daughter Lilo about it. Thinking it might be a good read for both of us, I bought it. But both of us were busy with school so neither of us had gotten around to it yet. Why didn’t someone mention it three months ago? It’s a 12-week course! I started it this week and classes at Kent State resume on Monday. I am registered for 18 credit hours! Shakespeare, African-American Literature, Intermediate Spanish I, Modeling Algebra and five hours on my senior project/honors thesis (writing a novel in my final two semesters in undergrad studies. What’s one more “class” of independent study?)

Cameron advises that this concept is not just for artists. It’s for writers, lawyers, doctors, anyone else who feels stifled, held back from achieving in the areas of their artistic abilities. But here’s something she said that hit me where I live:

“Intended fiction writers often go into newspapering or advertising.” (27)

Mea culpa. I was mother to two young daughters and spent much of some nice weather sitting outside with pen and notebook scribbling a bodice burner the likes of Rosemary Rogers’ style. It was REALLY moving along. The kids were content playing outside in the sand and riding bikes and playing house, and I was content playing with words. I should not have been surprised that I could write that story. I was born to write fiction!

I shouldn’t have been surprised when the economy crashed and I had to go to work. Actually, I wasn’t surprised. I still remember the day I thought, “Things will never be the same again.” It was about 1980. So, I knew instinctively what was coming. So, I went to college but was forced to drop out before I finished. I ended up working in the newspaper business. And one day as I was laying out newspaper pages at my editor’s work station, I thought, “I am 46 years old. I can’t continue to do this. I have to make a choice: work for newspapers until I retire or write my fiction. I can’t do both.”

I couldn’t bear to give up my fiction writing. My husband couldn’t bear to give up my paycheck. I quit my job. Missed newspaper work. Started my own newspaper—which required more hours than before. And so, I suspended pressing of my paper, not because it failed. It didn’t. People loved it! But I couldn’t work 60-plus hours a week when I had children to raise and they figured majorly into why I had quit my job.

So, though this seems a tangent, actually it is not. I have started writing my “morning pages,” sorting through thoughts and feelings and concerns from all of the years I have been breathing. I have my first day’s “blurts” and “affirmations” completed. I allow myself to write because that was part of my plan when I quit my job, whether my husband can grasp the concept or not. And writing was a part of God’s plan for me or He would never have given me the talents I possess.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Destressing so I can write

Getting started writing something isn’t usually a problem for me. Is my stress because I have to write a novel and I’m terrified I won’t be able to do it? What am I doing?

I have my handy dandy notebook with separate tabs for different purposes:

Work calendar to record daily progress: total word count, total pages.

Possible titles for the finished work that may occur to me as I’m writing.

Chronology: list of chapters and main idea for each.

Characters and Events: list of names and things I don’t want to forget and may make reference to at another place in the book.

Theme, Situation: To help me and progression to remain focused.

Plotting: what is going to happen from beginning, through the middle and to the end of the story.

Characters: Notes about the characters to which I can refer as I’m writing so I don’t waste time going back to look up the details I need.

Outline: a flexible plan for what I want to do so I can stay on track, brainstorm more conflict/tension that builds character strengths and a better organized story.

References: what I’ve found in my research and where I found it.

First draft: I print out daily what I have written. There are things I know I will cut out, but at least I will have a beginning point from which to build.

At the very front of my notebook is the genealogy of the characters I will be writing about. Between all of these things I have gained some insight into what I want to do, where I expect to go with my story. I have broken the novel down into parts because maybe the key, at this point in the game, is the breaking down into doable parts that I will join together through the revision process.

So, the writing block with which I started today has given way to production.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Conflict in writing

“Read with a tension-sensitive eye,” writes Donald Maass in his book, Writing the Breakout Novel. You will find the words and explanation in the accompanying workbook by the same title. Maass says you can’t have too much tension, a.k.a. conflict.

Romance author Shirley Jump advises her online writing group when things get slow, throw another elephant into the room. She refers to conflict.

Think about what captures you when you read. Can you see the tension in the scenes? Detect it in the dialogue? Is it the specific words the author uses? Does the writer say it or show it? How? How tightly woven are the threads of the tapestry to make a neat, orderly story that carries the reader along for the adventure?

Think about a tense moment in your life. Can you put it into words? Do the words you use describe the conflict (i.e. tension) you felt? No? Rewrite it. Let yourself experience the moment. Immerse yourself in the situation. Put yourself smack dab in the middle of the scene. What do you feel? Do you sense danger in the air or something else? What about the body language of the characters? The scents in the air? The environment/surroundings? The emotions? The passions within each character?

At the moment I am struggling with my characters because too much autobiographical stuff is getting into the story. I have created plenty of tension, but do I know my characters as well as I need to know them to write this story? Is it their story or is it my story?

Writers have shared that there is a certain amount of autobiography in everything we write. I will say that means that writers have to write about what they know, so a certain amount of our lives will be in each of our works because we are writing what we know. So, it’s back to the drawing board—er, excuse me, the pen and paper—and to work.

Friday, August 15, 2008

What's in a good novel?

My writing friend, Maureen, looked at the chart I had made. I'd spent a lot of time creating a tree and time line to record my characters, their story lines and their connections to one another. I did it because I was so terrified that I wouldn't remember all the details that I had to weave together to a finished tapestry when I concluded the writing of the novel.

"That's very nice," Maureen said. "Now put it away and just write a good story."

Well. Um. That was quite an anti-climax, and she must have realized that she'd burst my momentary creative bubble. On arriving at home, she had posted an email to me to encourage me to just write a good story.

Last year a writing friend from Texas, Bo Drury, took a challenge at one of our writing lists, Jay's Writer's World. She wrote the first draft of a novel, 50,000 words, during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November 2007. In March she asked if there was anyone willing to read the novel and critique it. I was buried up to my eyeballs in classes at Kent State University but I said, "If you don't mind that I can't get to it until the semester is over, send it on to me. I'll read it."

She sent it to me. I started to read and edit immediately, but I didn't get very far. It wasn't because the story wasn't good. It was because of the demands on me. Now, with the new semester only about 10 days away, I sat down yesterday to finish it.

"Was this the first draft of your novel, Bo?" I asked.

"Yes," she answered.

I love the novel and who can help but love the main characters, Harry and Doris. I won't go into the story because it's a work in progress, and it does need more work, but Bo Drury has a writing voice that I am so impressed with. If she can write this well in a rough first draft, I can hardly wait to see what it's like when she finishes her revisions! And I've encouraged her to do so. What a read! Her descriptions take you right to the place. Her characters are believeable and this reader really cares about them and what happens.

At the same time I've been reading Bo's WIP (work in progress) I've been reading something I got in my gift bag at the Malice Domestic conference that was held in Alexandria, Va., at the end of April, Chili con Corpses by J.B. Stanley. Have you read it? Do you like Mexican cuisine? Do you like an entertaining read? A good story? Stanley has managed to do what Maureen advised me, "Just write a good story."

Chili con Corpses takes place in an Appalachian town in Virginia. (I didn't know Ohio and Virginia both claim the cardinal as their state birds.) The Supper Club, aka The Flab Five, is on duty to solve the mystery of the dead twin. All the while there are romantic moments as well. Librarian James Henry, a divorced man, doesn't see his relationship with Lucy going anywhere. But there's someone else who is interested if he can ever get over Lucy, who happens to be preparing to test for becoming a sheriff's deputy.

James lives with his widowed father. Don't think that men can't play matchmaker. Arriving on the scene is local chef instructor Milla who impacts not just their culinary skills, but becomes involved in their lives, as well.

But who would want to kill a beautiful, young woman with a successful veterinary career? And why? The Flab Five leave no stone unturned in finding the truth. Sgt. McClellan wants everyone from the murder scene to be brought together in one place to figure out exactly what happened to Parker Willis.

If you can feel good after reading a murder mystery, this is one you can enjoy. Stanley even includes some Mexican recipes throughout the novel. So, do I put this book on my bookshelf or do I put it with my cookbooks?

(c) 2008 Cathy Brownfield

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Outlining develops novel idea

Outlining is recommended for a successful "big novel." (Albert Zuckerman, Writing the Block Buster Novel.) Outlining helps to organize the story so you can make it the very best it can be. It appears to me that a good outline makes the writing part SO much easier!

My DH has a tendency to say, "Writing is easy for you." To which I usually answer, "Yes, the writing is easy. The hard part is molding it into something an editor will want to buy." I'm thinking the outlining can make that hard part easier because:

1. I can develop characterization. Zuckerman writes that you can't just know your characters. You have to LOVE them. You have to know them through and through, their backhistory, their inner thoughts, why they do what they do, what can be expected of them, how they can surprise everyone. You need to know your characters thoroughly.

2. I can develop the plot and know where the story line is going. This allows me to write with the greatest freedom so I can fully develop the scenes I am writing and bring out the best and worst of my characters. I can see how that would create more tension in the story line and draw the reader more into the action of the plot.

3. I can tell a better, stronger story when I have a map to go by. That says it all. I want a strong story with strong characters. Even if it is far-fetched, I want it to be believable if not realistic. And I want my readers to think, "I have to watch for her next book." With a plan on the table in front of me, I can delve deeper into the interiors of my characters and write them stronger, better, more intensely.

I reread the chapter about the outline process last night. Today I will be rewriting my outline. My novel is about three women, three generations in a family whose lives are woven together into a tapestry. Not an unusual situation for a novel. But I can see from the first outline and from rereading Zuckerman's comments that I need more conflict. I need to clarify the principal characters and their conflicts. And I need to tie them together with more detail. I need to let my imagination run free as I brainstorm concepts for scenes that will let me do what Maureen advised long ago, "Just write a good story."

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Onward and Upward

Writer friend Jay Hudson sent a book to me: Writing the Block Buster Novel by Albert Zuckerman, forward by Ken Follett (c)1994; published by Writer's Digest Books. He told me, "It's yours. Mark it up however much you want to." And I am!

When my advisor at school told me to make a list of reading resources I will be using for my senior thesis project I listed this book on Jay's recommendation. And now I've read most of it and I'm working by its recommendations. Zuckerman writes, "...there are authors who commence a novel without first working up an outline. Outlines, they say, cramp their creativity, inhibit their characters from roaming free and becoming interesting, and take the joy out of writing because this planning process denies them the possibility of making wonderful discoveries that come to them." And this spoke volumes to me.

Do you know how many novels I've started to write without an outline? An outline seemed to be an impossible accomplishment. But I have written to various points in each novel and came to the conclusion that I couldn't complete it because I had no idea where I was going with it. Whatever seeds I had started with, I lost sight of them. So this outline thing, I think there's something to it! And I am pleased about that because for my senior thesis I will be writing a novel!

Zuckerman uses Follett's novel, The Man From St. Petersburgh, as example of what he's talking about. Follett wrote NINE outlines before he began writing the story. Four of them are in this book. And while it seems to be a laborious process of reading, when I told myself, "Self, you want to write 'big novels' so just sit yourself down and read this because you need to know," I read it, and it wasn't nearly the mountain I had made it to be. I just read it straight through. And when I finished, I wrote the first draft of my outline, easily comparing it to Follett's first (and inadequate) outline. So, now I'm reading it again, and preparing to start working on the second draft of my outline because I want this to be everything it has the potential to be.

How many drafts of the outline will I do? However many it takes to plot out the story I want to tell. I will define the "high stakes" that a "big novel" needs to have. My main character(s) will be larger-than-life. I will have "a strong dramatic question," a "high concept," and "intense emotional involvement between several POV characters." Already this outline thing has narrowed down the plot to three short sentences that summarize the strong situation in this story.

Have you written your outline yet? Or maybe you just want to get your hands on a copy of Zuckerman's book to read, study, and learn some things that can help you.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

New Beginnings-2008

It's a new year. I started off in fine style. I got the flu shot in October. I shudder to think how ill I would have been yesterday if I hadn't had the flu shot. And I wonder how long it will take to cough up all of that yucky gunk from my lungs. Gross. Sorry.

I have SO many things to do, from cleaning and scrubbing down the house from top to bottom to all of the reading and writing I will be doing when classes resume Jan. 14 at Kent State University. I got my grades for fall semester. I was pleased. My advisor said the fall semester was the most difficult. But spring semester will find me taking 18 hours of classes which includes Writing Portfolio and an honors independent study class that will include all of my work for Family Recovery Center from Jan. 14 through May 4, three short stories taken from my novel (senior thesis), my poetry, articles for Bella Online's Senior Living site, and anything else that I have written during my return to college. Dr. Swartz wants the portfolio to be more on the creative writing side. So, that's what I will be doing.

My novel. I was going to do one of my romance novels. But I've since decided the one I want to finish for my senior thesis is Remembrance. This story is about three generations of women in a family. Nothing new about that slant, you say? Well, it's being written from my perspective and that gives it a different edge. The good thing about this is that I have someone to whom I have to be accountable as I work my way through the planning, plotting, writing and editing process. I'm trying to get a jump start over the winter break, but there are other items on my agenda, like spending time with the people I love and care about. I guess that means being better organized. I wonder, am I too flexible?

Novel or bust...I choose novel. And this time, I think I'm gonna make it.