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‘Nother Goose?  S’mother Goose?  I just cannot decide.

It’s been a rough week on the writing front as our primary school is in final rehearsals for the springtime musical and I’m on board overseeing a crew of fifth and sixth graders running the lights.  I feel lucky to have scrawled out a couple of these ditties in the margins of my script!

Mary, Mary,
Ordinary,
Your garden has gone to seed!
Please, leave me alone!
I’m bringing in stone,
And cacti I don’t have to weed!

.

King Cole Nat
Was a Jazzy young cat,
Yes a Jazzy young cat indeed;

He tickled the Whites,
And he tickled the Blacks,
And he played them well, all agreed!

.

Georgie P says “Keep away!
All the girls have ruined my day!”
When somebody asks him why,
Georgie shows them his black eye!

Oh yeah, it’s Poetry Friday in the Universe again!  Liz is our gracious host this week over at Liz in Ink. Do drop in for a visit.

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When you take on any art form or craft for that matter the act requires a shift in awareness.  In order to draw you must learn how to see with the eyes of an artist.  You don’t simply see line and form but you see what isn’t there, negative space and the story intrinsic to the relationship between objects.  To study film is to learn not only about visual narrative but the craft of editing, lighting and dozens of otherwise invisible elements. There is the surface image everyone sees and then a substrata beneath, the chemistry that causes a sheet of paper to hold a photograph.

Writers must read on two levels, on the story level and the craft level.  Sometimes referred to as reading like a reader and reading like a writer, every writer has their own way of doing this. All creative people do this with their art, and while I am comfortable enough to slip back and forth between multiple layers in movies and fine arts I find I am still required to read everything twice in order to both see and know what is going on.

I could blame my being a slow reader, or that my study of writing came later than the other arts, but this weekend I sort of had a delayed epiphany about my “reading problem” as a writer.

I’ve been doing it wrong.

The oddest thing is that I’ve known, on some level, how to do it “right” for a long time, but I compartmentalized the process in a way that makes no sense.  In fact, it’s almost amusing. It’s almost like a form of enlightenment, an answer that has always been there waiting for me to see it.

Marginalia.  Notes, in the margins. Like I used to do in college.

The problem isn’t that I’ve fooled myself into thinking that I’ve grown beyond the college need to underline, highlight, and scribble notes in the margins.  It’s that, for some reason, a switch in my brain was set to regard fiction as above defacing.  The book, fiction, had become an ideal, a fetish object that existed like a work to be placed on a pedestal.  It’s absurd to even write these words, because as a reviewer of books I have never balked at making notes or of seeing books for what they are and not elevate them unnecessarily based on content.  But somewhere deep down, lurking at a level that probably goes all the way back to when I was first becoming a reader, there is a voice:

Never write in your books!

The realization wasn’t as sudden as it seems.  For years I would prowl used book stores and reject books that had notes written into them. My reason was simple: I didn’t want someone else’s ideas preventing me from seeing the work myself.  Ah, yes, but why had it never occurred to me to mark my own copies? And even recently I saw the marked up pages of books owned by David Foster Wallace, notes clearly of someone who was studying the text at multiple passes and gleaning multiple insights. (“Setting is slow — does not set the stage” he says on the inside cover of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree) It looked like nothing less than some of my own marked-up drafts of my own writing, which often were as informational for me as they were instructive for future revisions.

Also, there were the Post-It notes, those little sticky pages of ideas whose edges I would line up under specific words near the page edge of my thinking.  Like some netherworld between highlighting and margin notes, the little multicolor slips (I always hated yellow) poking out in all directions made them impossible to shelve or would fall out and suddenly become impossible to repatriate to their original location.  And it was one of the first flaws I noted in the design of the early e-readers, that you could not keep notes attached to the text.  This has since been changed, especially as e-readers cast their eye toward the college textbook market, but I don’t have any direct experience with it.  Yet.

Keeping notes isn’t the issue, it’s this idea of committing them to the page, and specifically to the page of someone else’s thinking.  Yet even that isn’t really new when I think about the number of manuscripts I’ve annotated in workshops, the number of student papers I’ve marked. I have always participated in this form of communication between the word and my experience of it.

So here goes, one final wall to break between me and my dedication to the craft of writing. I will purchase a box of mechanical pencils and settle in to become a better reader. And if it slows me down even further, so be it.  This might be the final arbiter of which books I keep in my library and which I don’t, something a little less arbitrary in the process than “I guess that was okay.”

At the crux of this bold new era of book marking I can’t help but wonder if books with marginalia will acquire a deeper significance to me as a result of taking full, complete ownership of them. The commitment is strangely daunting.

Now, who will be the first book?

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kidlit book love

It’s St. Valentine’s Day, which means among many other things that it’s the day the Cybils winners are announced.  After a public nominating process and two rounds of judging by bloggers in the kidlitosphere, the 2010 winners have been selected and are officially posted on the Cybils website.

Once again I was a judge, and this year I was back to graphic novels.  I’ll have more to say in about a week about the winners and my choices in the graphic novel category (and perhaps about judging in general), but for the next week or so I’m going to be posting reviews of some of the books considered for this years Cybils over at the review site, the excelsior file.  I’ve decided to hold off on posting about my decisions until after my reviews are up, starting tomorrow since I’ve got a (semi) Valentine’s book reviewed today.

As with most years, they Cybils provides a nice alternative to the other book awards out there.  I don’t know if it’s the nominating process, or the variety of people involved in judging, but there always seems to be a few surprises when it comes to naming winners.  And this year I actually read a number of winners before they were announced! That’s a first.  (I even reviewed the Teen Sci-Fi winner Rot & Ruin for Guys Lit Wire.)

Always full of surprises, the 2010 Cybils: check ’em out.

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Two things popped unto my writerly rear view mirror in the last 24 hours, both of which I found interesting, but neither of which I initially thought merited public comment.  Then, as happens, the two things got together and frolicked a bit and created an odd connection which, after the fact, seemed destined for the obvious file.

The first came from an oblique (to me) tweet about “the rule of twenty.”  That sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.  Sure enough, a Google search brought it up as a term for Bridge, not a game I play but where the reference made sense to me.  Except it didn’t, because the tweet was from a writer friend and it didn’t seem like she’d be talking about card games.

Inquiry led me to a blog post about Bruce Coville’s Rule of Twenty, about how you have to come up with, on average, twenty ideas before you land on the one that is right.  Twenty story ideas before you come up with the one that’s unique, twenty character names before you find the one that fits like a tailored suit, twenty plot twists before you uncover the truly exceptional. Okay, on average, perhaps it does take many trials and errors before landing on the one that “takes.”  It’s not a hard and fast rule but a reminder that settling for the immediate, for the obvious, will yield immediate, obvious results.

A little later comes the question: Where do your (creative) ideas come from? Ugh. This was the essay question I had for a college admission back in 1980. When you’re 18 years old and have spent your formal education learning basic artistic skills and then intuitively applying them, the idea of consciously thinking about where creative ideas come from is a sort of cat turd in the sandbox.  If creative ideas could be reliably summoned, if one could delineate the process for coming up with creative ideas, basically if an idea could be articulated why would it need to be created?  At least this was my teenage objection to the question.  If I had to explain how and why I came up with an idea as hair-brained as putting Beethoven in a modern-day city (an actual short film I made) it sort of lost its charm and humor.  It was fun, it was funny, it had no real plot, why did I need to explain where it came from?  Just watch it and enjoy!

The point of the question — then and now — is not really where, but how.  What do you, does one, do to allow for creative ideas to flourish?

Here these two separate-yet-connected ideas (did you notice the crows, one from a Crowe’s Nest, the other from an Upstart Crow?) meld into semi-articulate the idea of what is involved in what we call “the creative process.”  Both the Rule of Twenty and locus of ideas actually come from a process that people often think of as god-given, as talent, or simply as mystical.  The actual word for the true creative process is called discipline.  All the creative arts can be learned but they require the mind be open to the possibilities.

Creative ideas come from creating ideas, the same way that using muscles creates muscles.  It comes from the simple permission to think and combine thoughts in new and unexpected ways.  We are actually born with this talent, if you will, and have it slowly replaced over time with more rigid thinking.  Be reasonable, be logical, behave, take these subjects in school seriously; we are taught that this is the way to be, to think, that this is the point and purpose of education. We may occasionally be thrown a “what if?” but it usually with a purpose.  Purpose. What we do must have a practical application, practical and accepted.  This is what comes to replace our intuition, our sense of play, our ability to create.

So by the time we make the conscious decision to dedicate ourselves to the creative act we find we have to unlearn much of what we have been taught in order to access those dormant areas of our brain that are naturally creative.  We need to relearn the joy of a line without a purpose, wordplay without rigid logic, story without rules.  We have to discipline ourselves to see beyond the surface and imagine new definitions, we have to develop a mental yoga that builds new flexibility into our thinking. We have to work backward in stripping away what we know and assume, idea after idea, until we find the core of raw, pure, pungent creativity.

Where do ideas come from?  We are born with them.  They are lumps of coal that are hardened into diamonds over time just waiting for us to begin the process of mining them. If you are sturdy and disciplined enough you can find them just twenty layers or so beneath the surface.

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#poetryfriday: in flu

I’m about 99% over the flu now.  I was in denial for a long time about having the flu this season because I really had the full-blown flu back in 2001 and that practically killed me. I had fever and hallucinations for days and i vowed I would never call an illness the flu unless is truly was as brain-boiling as that last time.  This year I apparently caught a strain that didn’t involve fever but left me feeling pretty cruddy at times.

Anyway, I was combing some computer files and I found something I wrote about five years ago with a title I didn’t recognize.  Turns out “What a Mess” is actually a poem I wrote about having the flu!  Clearly it needed some work (and a new title) but it seemed to have found me at the right moment all these years later, and so.

in flu

When your ears fall off in the middle of the night,
And they slip beneath the mattress
Where they’re hidden from your sight,
Can you hear the bedbugs chomping,
Or the dust bunnies clip-clomping?
When your ears fall off in the middle of the night.

When your nose drops off as you’re getting out of bed,
And goes running to the closet
Where it hides behind a sled,
Do you slip upon the trail
That it leaves just like a snail?
When your nose drops off as you’re getting out of bed.

When your tongue rolls out and flops down on the floor,
And it slithers like a python
As it ripples toward the door,
Do you round it up like cattle
In heroic epic battle?
When your tongue rolls out and flops down on the floor.

When your eyes pop out while you’re sitting there in class,
As they skitter off the table
Where they shatter just like glass,
Do you put them back together
With glue made from old shoe leather?
When your eyes pop out while you’re sitting there in class.

As your head caves in sometime shortly after noon,
When your brains ooze out your ear holes
And you catch them with a spoon
And your skull has turned to chowder
And your teeth have ground to powder
As your head deflates like an empty old balloon…

There’s no way you can deny it
So you must admit it’s true
That it’s not some crazy diet
You are dealing with the flu!

Poetry Friday, and all the poems you can eat! (it’s a Bugs Bunny reference, sort of.) Tara at A Teaching Life has the roundup today.  Head on over for more goodness!

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Sausage and Mouse were the best of friends and were inseparable. They were poor but happy and lived together in their tiny little flat.  Once a week they would set up two large vats of hot water by the fire, one to bathe in and one to cook their weekly supply of boiled cabbage.  One week Mouse would bathe and then go to church while Sausage stayed home and boiled the cabbage, the following week Sausage would bathe and go to church while Mouse stayed home and cooked.  It was an unusual arrangement, to be sure, but one born of time and familiarity and mutual adoration.

One week after Mouse had bathed and left for church Sausage accidentally dumped the weekly cabbage in the bath water.  Afraid that too much of the flavor had already transfered from the cabbage to the bath water Sausage decided to leave it there and hoped Mouse wouldn’t notice anything was wrong.  But Mouse did notice.

“This is the most delectable cabbage ever,” Mouse said.

“I accidentally cooked it in your dirty bath water,” Sausage said.

“It was a most fortunate accident!” Mouse said.  “We should repeat this accident every week!”

And so the next week when it was Sausage’s turn to bathe Mouse stood by with the cabbage.  As the surface of the bath water started to show oily pools Sausage decided it was time to get out.

“First let me taste the water to make sure there is enough flavor.”  Mouse tasted the bath water.  “It’s good, but perhaps just a little bit longer.”

So Sausage stayed in the bath water.  As the water continued to warm by the fire Sausage began to sweat and could feel its body tighten beneath the skin.  Mouse tasted the water again.

“Almost,” Mouse said.  “Perhaps if you dunked your head beneath the surface and counted to one hundred that would be enough time.”

“But–”

“Trust me, Sausage, this will be the best tasting cabbage ever.”

And so Sausage went under the surface.  Before Mouse could reach even half way to one hundred Sausage floated to the surface.

“Poor Sausage,”  Mouse said.  “Well, nothing to be done about it now.”

Mouse removed Sausage and laid it out on the cutting board.  Then gently, lovingly, Mouse sliced Sausage into coins and slid them into the bath water with the cabbage.  That night Mouse lit a candle and toasted Sausage’s memory in feast.

“Although you are not alive, dear Sausage, you can at least participate fully in this wonderful meal you helped create.”

Afterward Mouse curled up in the corner next to the fire and slept long and hard. In the morning Mouse felt a little sad to not find Sausage nearby but the feeling didn’t linger.

There were other Sausages in the world to be had.

.

c. 2011 david elzey

.

Another of my weekly exercises in re-imagining and adapting tales collected by the Brothers Grimm.

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I was joking about this sort of with my writing buddy Vivian recently in the context of beefing up our critique group, but you know how brains can be.  Once you think or say something it’s out there, and once it’s out there it starts to take a life of its own.

What I said was “Let’s start a band!”  Because that’s sort of what pulling together a crit group together is like, right? A bunch of people with different backgrounds and approaches to playing their particular writing instruments coming together for a common goal. More or less.  We’re looking for a couple new members to help us rock our manuscripts into the best publishable books.

But metaphors aside, I started thinking about how in history there were these times when people would band together and create something so much larger than the sum of their parts. How do talented people find one another? It can’t simply be a question of right-place-right-time and it can’t only be that talented people will always be drawn to one another. And you can’t just want it, or somehow want it more than anyone else, because how many have tried and failed from trying too hard? Is it fate?

Those who know me, or have at least read the tab explaining the name of this blog, will understand my love of Vonnegut. Though it was not a new idea in this or any culture, his explanation of a karass as a group of people coming together for a common goal best explained this underlying sense I had that there was a band out there for me. I’ve had this sense, this feeling, since the 7th grade and you might have thought that the feeling would have faded in the last 35 years, but no.

Though it’s often expressed in terms of musicians and bands, what I’ve more been drawn to were communities that were a little more theatrical. The Monty Python troupe, the initial creators of The National Lampoon, the Comedia delle Arte. Humor, yes, but it wasn’t the theatrics.  There was some mysterious glue that not only would bring these people together but pushed them toward creating something… not just something that wasn’t there before but something different.

That keeps me up some nights, that different.  Everyone wants to create something different, something unique in their art or craft.  Beyond voice, beyond style, something that people can point to as a clear demarcation between before and after.

But what?

What in the world of storytelling can truly be created that’s both different and yet popular, different and familiar? What new school of style or format?  I can’t help but think that I’m carrying around a piece of something larger. There’s a point where the kid playing bass all by himself in the basement thinks maybe there are some kids in the neighborhood who don’t just want a band but want to change the world, even if they don’t really know that’s what they want or how it’s going to happen.

As much as I want that, the reality is that writing is so far from a band or a company or a troupe. It is a solitary endeavor, where even if you could pull together a band of authors all the real work would be taking place in the head or while staring at a computer screen. I suppose a closer analogy would be an art movement with a bunch of like-minded folks creating with similar influences, or from an organized manifesto…

No, I want a band.  A band of writers.  I want to rock and I want to change the world. I’ve got my instrument and I’m pretty sure its in tune. Who’s in, and where do we practice?

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