How Herons and Frogs Bring Zing to Your Writing

Pajaro Heron

 Careful—this lawn jockey can bite

Last week a cousin of the fellow above flew into my neighbor’s field. It’s not that unusual to see herons in the general neighborhood—after all, I took the photo of this sharp-beaked beauty just a few miles from my house. But he was near a watercourse, where there are all kinds of wiggly things for him to eat. My neighbor’s field is weedy, scraggly land where no fish worth its saltwater would venture. So, seeing the heron fly onto the property and strike one of those heraldic heron poses was noteworthy.

Any excuse to abandon my work, I scuttled over to the window nearest the bird in my old Airstream office to watch him work. If you’ve ever watched herons at play in the fields of creation, they’re often pretty deliberate about their doings. They might neck-jut a few feet or so into some shallow water, and then fix that acute-angle head for minutes at a time, undoubtedly trying to come up with some heron haiku. This featherhead did his kind proud by freezing in place.

But then he chicken-footed forward toward our wire fence and started doing a fascinating bob and weave, his long neck shimmying from side to side, cobra-style, while he simultaneously ducked up and down. I thought for a moment that he was sick, and was about to collapse in the field. Not quite. On one of his swinging swayings, he shot that head forward to the base of the fence and came up with a big lizard in his beak. I didn’t have time to even gasp before he flipped his head a bit and swallowed him whole.

Galvanizing Readers with Electric Characters

That moment was shocking and unexpected—I was agog. The bird sauntered out of sight of the Airstream—probably to see if there were any armadillos around to play poker with—and when I came out a few minutes later to check on him, he had vamoosed.

Now, you’re going to think that I’m bending a stiff bird to make a point, but honestly, after my head had returned to my body after watching that lizard slurping, I immediately thought that the bird’s behavior was a good illustration of an approach to working with characters in stories. You can give your reader a good clap on their forehead by making a character do something astonishing once in a while.

You have to be careful here: I’m not talking about having a character spontaneously speak Swahili when they were raised in Brooklyn. I’m referring to having a character do something that’s possible (and that indeed might be integral to that character’s nature), but that’s not probable, that breaks boundaries. Something that expands the character’s potential or place in the reader’s imagination. That kind of developmental concussion can push a story, or shape it in new ways.

The Frogs Are Not What They Seem

The second nature lesson—and one that again relates to writing—is something I’d learned earlier, but was reminded of again because it’s the beginning of croaking season. By that I mean that this time of year, the frogs that do their philosophizing near our water garden start to do it more boisterously. And they are loud.

When I first heard this resonant chorus years ago, my city-boy background prompted me to think it was the loud-mouthing of some large toads, maybe even bullfrogs. I’d look all over the place for the source of the croak-storm, but I could never see the buggers. It took me many searches to finally spot one. No wonder: Pacific tree frogs, the wide-mouthed worthies that comprise this orchestra, are only a few centimeters long. But when they are soliloquizing about their romantic talents to any lady frogs in the vicinity, they give it their all. They are Danny DeVito with an aggressive hangover.

As with the heron, the frogs nudged me in a writerly direction as well: work with characters that aren’t quite what they seem. You might have a scrawny, wiry guy who turns out to have extraordinary strength, or a reserved little sister who later turns out to wail skronking bebop sax in a secret band. Stick some herons and some tree frogs in your writing—it will give it a stronger pulse. And this isn’t just for fiction: God knows that business writing could use an phrase that’s on fire or a trapdoor opening and swallowing up the beautiful bride. Wake the audience up.

Oh, you probably should stick a swallowed lizard in there every once in a while too; some characters turn out to be the eaten, not the eaters.

Any animals making mischief in your writer’s mind?

PS Psst! If you’re looking to compel your customers, I write blog posts for businesses as well.

How Writers (and Cicadas) Work

I’ve been rereading Annie Dillard’s fine Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for the third or fourth time. It’s a marvelous work, almost like drinking in the molten stuff of imagination itself, for the language of the book is a series of fireworks, pinwheels of whirling thought, cascades of explosive insight, and then soft candles of introspection.

Dillard gets her nose right into nature, flopping face down on the ground and opening her eyes wide, and—with her alchemy of observation forged into words—tells us what she sees and how to see it, in a way that makes pages breathe. Among the many things that struck me in this reading was a passage about how cicadas go about their business:

“In the South, the periodical cicada has a breeding cycle of thirteen years, instead of seventeen years in the North. That a live creature spends thirteen consecutive years scrabbling around in the root systems of trees in the dark and damp – thirteen years! – is amply boggling for me. Four more years – or four less – wouldn’t alter the picture a jot. In the dark of an April night the nymphs emerge, all at once, as many as eighty-four of them digging into the air from every square foot of ground. They inch up trees and bushes, shed their skin, and begin that hollow, shrill grind that lasts all summer.”

Now, that passage is much less poetic than countless others in the book, but the thought of those burly insects biding their time, working the years, establishing and refining all things cicada threw me into considering how long as writers we might be buried, mere potential, waiting for wings to harden. It’s always amusing when there’s a new writing sensation, some breakout author who’s touted as the newly crowned best and brightest, and you learn that they also have three other novels that never made a stir, and four that they abandoned or are still gestating. Loud (and potentially annoying) as those cicadas might be, they earned their shrill grind. The long seasons of work are often invisible to outside eyes, buried to all except the worker.

Words Have Sound, as Well as Shape and Sense

Sometimes writing work is a shrill grind. Yesterday I started reading my newly completed novel aloud, in order to hear the rhythm of the words, to see if the sentences made music. I’d already edited it on screen, but putting voice to the page let me hear the places where the saxophone squawked rather than soared. In the space of twenty-five pages, I made at least seventy-five corrections, sometimes just transposing two words, sometimes shifting a phrase from sentence middle to end. It reminded me of when I’ve been given something to edit by a writer who thinks it’s near done, and I return it to them dripping the blood of the red pen—the horror!

So, more than 200 more pages to go—a bit tedious, but it’s cicada work: something buried will burst forth. I’ll be happy if the damn thing crawls, much less takes wing. Let’s end this with another passage from Dillard’s work, this time from another book I highly recommend, The Writing Life:

“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. …Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Open your safes, writers. Whether you let the silver lie thirteen years or seventeen, you must let it go. Otherwise, it will tarnish. (Besides, you might be able to make the latest sale on quill pens at Walmart.)

The Mother of All Storytelling (Well, Mine, at Least)

Thinking about my writing influences, I make a beeline for Mark Twain—why not set your standards high? But then I mosey about some, bumping into Kurt Vonnegut, who seemed to pick flowers from the same field as Mr. Clemens. But whether a writer’s echo can be heard in your work isn’t necessarily a mark of their sway over you. There are people whose writing I fiercely admire, like Marilynne Robinson or Cormac McCarthy or Annie Dillard, and the DNA of their superb stylings can’t be traced to my pratfalls on the page. (For that matter, I may have been influenced as much by Dr. Seuss, or maybe Steve Martin.)

But the original influence? That’s easy. That’s the woman up above, who is cracking up the nearby priest with some tale. That woman has been telling stories for a lot longer than me, and with more accomplishment. That woman is my mother. Before Sarge Bentley got his hands on her, she was Eileen O’Brien, and though Iowa cornfields were the setting for her growing up, I’m sure the storytellers of the Old Sod made their ancestral mark on her. And she on me.

From my earliest memories, I saw her absorbed in reading. Hey, books! They must be good. I want to do that too. She never pushed reading on me, but the obvious pleasure it afforded her was generously transferred to me. And because she could shape a story, could find the odd and often humorous angle on some episode of human folly, I was drawn to storytelling too.

Stories: 100% Nutritive, Taste Great Too
The absorbing thing is, my mom’s stories, like her life, have never been pocked with pettiness, or buzzing with the trivial, or interested in shoving someone aside so she could shine. As a writer, I tire myself with my own jealousies over other writers’ successes, with my own trivialities and peeves. My mother has never swum in that shallow end of the pool—she laughs at the human comedy, but there’s never been spite in her smiles.

So here’s to my mom, my biggest writing influence. The photo is from her 90th birthday party a couple of weeks ago, where she was surrounded by friends, young and old, who uniformly wished her well. She’s wearing those test-pilot’s welding glasses because she can barely see a damn thing anymore and light bothers her, but she still reads wielding a fat magnifier. Words—can’t get away from them. By her side is a priest from my old parish being entertained by her point of view (though the margarita he’s drinking may have helped).

Thanks Mom.

Bonus Prizes!
A couple of good things just happened to me between my sojourns from the Airstream office to my house. MediaBistro and GalleyCat have been hosting an online literary festival with live webinars sporting the likes of Susan Orlean, Rebecca Skloot and Elissa Schappell talking about aspects of writing. A pal told me that you could win free admission to the occasion by tweeting what you considered to be the best sentence you’ve ever written. Well, I thought “I will not take them soft or scrambled, despite an argument well-rambled” was pretty good, so I—no, I actually tweeted one of mine, and I won. The festival has been fantastic.

I also entered a contest to win a year’s admission and a bunch of other goodies in the Freelance Writer’s Den, just by writing a blog post. So I did, and was chosen as one of the co-winners. Lots of good writerly stuff there that I’m just digging into. I entered both of these on a whim, and whimsically enough, won. That does tell you to enter contests if you think you’ve got a shot—who knows what might happen?

Thanks again, Mom.

The Year of Magical Writing

Writers’ funks are funny: sometimes it’s a single botched sentence that can send them into a tizzy. Or maybe reading about the success of something like 50 Shades of Grey turns them 50 Shades of Green. My own writer’s funk is restlessness. I do OK as a freelancer, both in writing for businesses and getting my stuff into magazines and other publications. I’m a long ways from writing for content mills or leaving a bleeding kidney on the doorstep of an editor that ignored my query. I’m two-thirds of the way through a second novel, and I know I won’t abandon it to die hungry in a cave.

But my attentions are scattered, and my discipline needs disciplining. I’ve been in the muse stew lately, paddling about the chunks of “why spend time writing that?” and “aren’t you just repeating yourself?” and “yeah, but you have to make a living, right?” A lot of the stewing has to do with thinking I’ve been writing at the same level for a while. I’ve become a bit too comfortable with both my professional and my personal writing—though god knows they’re still six stars short of stellar.

You see, I fear I’m the proprietor of Ye Olde Writer’s Junque Shoppe, where you can find a case-study plate with a little bit of food still stuck on it, another coffee-stained press release, a short story wearing worn shorts. I’m hungry for a challenge to my complacency.

Get Your Red-Hot Writing Wisdom (And There Might Be Cookies Too)
That’s why I’d be thrilled to win a free year of Carol Tice’s Freelance Writer’s Den. Carol is the den mother (along with the formidable Linda Formichelli), and the big brains behind the Make a Living Writing blog, which I’ve read for a long while. The level of practical writing (and writing-career) advice on the blog is consistently high—imagine what it might be in the close confines of the Den, where there are in-depth discussions on the nuts and bolts of writing for a living, and writing as an art. And besides the year in the Den, there are more perks galore to the winning writer.

The Den gives you access to webinars with guests like Peter Bowerman, Sean Platt and Chris Brogan. You learn juicy stuff like how to negotiate with clients, setting rates, knowing your audience, dealing with billing, and scads more. At least I hear you learn all those things, because I’m on the outside, looking in. But I know a big part of being a Den member is the electric exchange of ideas with fellow writers, who understand the struggles of freelancing. And who would likely prod someone suffering from Midlife Writer’s Crisis with a swift and deserved keyboard kick. Or an electronic hanky, if need be.

So, admission to the Den wouldn’t be a retreat, but an expedition to new writing territories, a Lewis and Clark unfolding of a new writing map.

Besides, I suspect there are chocolate chip cookies there too, and I’m hungry.

You Meet the Nicest Immortal Writing Gods in the Strangest Places

Margaret Atwood talking about Fanado on YouTube

Because I don’t waste enough time already searching for videos of cats quoting Milton on YouTube, I decided to mess around a bit more with Twitter the past couple of weeks. Under the rationalized pretext that it might open up some more channels for my copywriting business (and because I thought someone might tweet about a cat riding a unicycle on YouTube), I started tweeting more than the thin, desultory wing-flappings I’d shot out over the past year. You know, about important stuff, like the fact that you can now get an espresso machine in your car.

I also started following more people, other than the ones named things like IPostCatsTypingOnYouTube. I guess I don’t get out much, but it surprised me that there are prominent writers on Twitter, and some of them tweet their fool writerly heads off. Somewhere in the ether, I saw a tweet from Margaret Atwood, so I started following her (@margaretatwood). I knew that Margaret Atwood was hip to tech because I’d read about her LongPen work years ago. But I was amazed to see how much she tweets, and how casual and fun she can be in her stream.

I am talking about Margaret Atwood, author of Oryx and Crake, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Robber Bride, Cat’s Eye—all works that I marveled at for the sureness and scope of the writing, the power of the imagination, the glint of the language. I think Atwood is one of the best fiction writers alive, a giant in the field, and to see her merrily tweeting—she sent many funny tweets from the recent Comic-Con—boggled my mind. I suppose I think the literary mandarins are levitating on silk pillows in a Patagonian opium den, not furiously pounding their iPhones. Who knew?

Seth, Let’s Do Lunch
I did have some inkling, when I emailed Seth Godin a while back, and he quickly replied, that many of the titans are actual human beings. I am a member of Seth’s Triiibes network, and indeed I had a Triiibes-related question, but that a guy like Seth, who undoubtedly gets emails by the bushels, takes the time to answer some nebbish’s question struck me. I’ve emailed other cybersphere celebrities, like Chris Brogan, and received back cordial replies as well. Atwood even retweeted a tweet of mine expressing interest in her Fanado project that interactively links artists, creators and fans. You might kick a buck in to that Indiegogo project of hers if you dig what she’s putting out there.

So, this obviously isn’t an invitation to go badger your writing idols on Twitter or by email. It’s more of a reminder that we live in interesting times. I’m going to check and see if Mark Twain has a Twitter account so I can get some cigar recommendations.

Margaret, Seth, know of any good cat videos?

Peeling Mark Twain’s Onion: You’ll Never Truly Get Under His Skin

Mr. Twain Sucking the Life Out of a Defenseless Stogie

Mr. Twain Sucking the Life Out of a Defenseless Stogie

One of the intrigues about being an enthusiast about a subject or person is that once you start poking about, there seems to be a bottomless rabbit hole of information. And that hole can be well off the main road of what’s normally shared among the broad population. Now I’m not talking about true obsession, where perhaps you know more about the Morpho butterfly than its mother did, where you skip lunch then dinner sitting on the floor of a bookstore a continent away from your home because you’d heard they had a dusty tome by the premiere 18-century entomologist who also skipped most meals in favor of studying the Morphos. Not that kind of obsession, my pretties.

No, I’m referring to something more than the mere fan, but less than the stalker. As an aside, there are the rare polyglots who are able to tiptoe close to obsession’s stage while still staying out of its brightest footlights, and yet own another stage all their own. For example, going back to our fluttery friends, when Vladimir Nabokov wasn’t writing one of his remarkably layered, seriocomic novels, he spent serious time researching butterflies, publishing many monographs that professional lepidopterists recognized as authoritative. He once commented, “The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new organ under the microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran or Peru. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all.”

Looking at Layers Leads to More Layers
This is a hide-and-seek way of getting to my main topic: how people and things are multilayered, and once you start pulling at the onionskin of a topic or character, there’s always another skin underneath. Case in point: one of the books I’m reading is titled, Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens. Now, were this work “… in the footsteps of Mamie Eisenhower,” I probably—and no insult to Mamie—would have picked it up with mild amusement and then let it flit from memory forever.

But because it’s Mark Twain, and I am more than a simple fan (though not obsessed, no, that’s not the beating of my hideous heart!), I’m reading it with great pleasure, for the author Andrew Beahrs combines his careful and light-hearted research into Twain’s writings on American food with Bearhs’ travels around the country trying to locate and eat that very food, which in the case of the prairie hens of Illinois proves ecologically difficult, and that of stomaching the ideal stewed raccoon a mite unpalatable.

From the Grubby to the Gracious
But it’s the flavor of Twain’s voice that comes through with spice, particularly when he lavishes angel-winged admiration on an American dish and contemptuous skewering on an insipid counterpart found elsewhere. His hilarious railings against spineless European coffee and expoundings on the glories of a stout cup of good American coffee do make one wonder what happened between Twain’s time and our parent’s days with the Folgers. Twain was uniquely suited to comment on the breadth of American food, for he palavered with the powerful in the boardrooms of the Eastern Seaboard, grubbed among the grubs in the grubbiest makeshift mining towns in dead-dry Nevada, and of course moved through the shoals and the high waters of foodstuffs up and down the mighty Mississippi, both in his boyhood and as a steamboat pilot.

I want to return to my original spiraling rabbit hole, for it’s in the reading of the table tastes of a famous person that you consider how layered a life is, how layered all our lives are. Twain could be, in turn, a kitten-loving sentimentalist, a flinger of flaming arrows against the establishment, a provocateur who spoke truth to power, and yet one who cultivated the company of barons of industry. A man of spectacular fame, yet of multiple spectacular failures and deeply public sorrows. His onion had many skins, and reading this off-center book tells me there are skins I’ll never know, on him and so many other subjects.

Yeah, Well, I Invented the Crossbow
Today I heard my girlfriend Alice tell one of my old friends on the phone that she had spent time a long while back to learn how to play the harmonica. Really! Who knew? Good instruction that, a reminder that thinking we know all that a person is about is a kind of blindness, because there are always layers unseen.

One thing though: Twain sang the praises of the 19-century oysters and mussels of the San Francisco Bay. That’s going much too far: I vigorously object. Oysters and mussels, gut-tugging expressions of some bronchial character, a kind of simpering slime. Though on the subject of maple syrup, I share his every sentiment.

Support for WriteGirl – A Good Thang

I got a lot of writing encouragement when I was young. Being given a lovely little cloisonné pin that said “Best Writer” in my Catholic grammar school at age 12 might have been my writing Olympus. [Note: never let nuns pin anything on you.] Without encouragement, a writing seed might never sprout, and perhaps an Alice Munro would have become an accountant instead.

So, with trumpeting fanfare (turn up your speakers), I encourage you to contribute to the 50-for-50 program! Here’s what it’s about: WriteGirl is an organization “for high school girls centered on the craft of creative writing and empowerment through self-expression. Through one-on-one mentoring and monthly workshops, girls are given techniques, insights and hot tips for great writing in all genres from professional women writers.”

That’s a very good thing. Even better is that Colleen Wainwright, who is spearheading (ouch) the 50-for-50 fundraising, has promised to shave her happy head should the fundraising reach its $50,000 goal, which will happen on her 50th birthday. Go to the 50-for-50 site to see her hilarious video on the subject.

If you contribute, you can receive lovely gifts too—I got a download of TextExpander, which is a nifty piece of Mac software. So lay out a little dough for a great cause, and push Colleen a little closer to air-conditioning her head. There is less than two weeks left!