Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Bird-brained Advice for Writing: Part III - Finding the "Write" Word

            To introduce this post, I’m venturing away from the “bird-brains” for a second and sharing information from another successful writer. In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King says that every writer must equip and carry with him at all times a “toolbox.” In this metaphorical toolbox are the skills he should have on hand in order to approach his craft with confidence. The tool King insists goes on the very top shelf of the toolbox? Vocabulary.
            I know Gooney Bird Greene would concur. From the day she enters Mrs. Pigeon’s second-grade classroom, Gooney Bird’s speech reveals she has a passion for words. And her resourcefulness in acquiring a dictionary for each of her classmates helps her spread that passion. By the time the second graders present their Thanksgiving program, words such as cajole, indefatigable, incognito, admonition, and my personal favorite ennui are as natural to them as gobble, gobble is to a turkey.  
            Although Anne Lamott, doesn’t overtly state it, I infer from a passage in bird by bird ... that she also places a high priority on vocabulary. While creating a scene in a novel, she discovered she didn’t know the name of that little “wire thing” placed over the cork of a champagne bottle. Her quest for the exact word resulted in her calling a winery and conversing with a two-thousand-year-old monk (her description). (And now that you’re burning with curiosity, I’m going to let you smolder. You’ll have to read her book to find out the name. Or call a monk yourself.)
            I’m willing to bet that every person who has ever set pen to paper—with the possible exception of author Charles Portis—has struggled at one time or another to come up with the exact right word. That is why, if you are a writer, vocabulary building should become second nature to you. I’m also willing to bet, however, that it already is. How can you be a writer and not love words?
            Understand I’m not talking pretentious, stilted verbiage here. Everything I’ve read about contemporary writing cautions against using an obscure, polysyllabic word when a familiar, shorter form will work just as well. Why say somnambulating when sleepwalking gets the same point across and doesn’t send your reader scrambling mid-sentence to the dictionary?  Enriched vocabulary is about knowing many words so that you’ll have the precise word at your disposal when you need it. So that once you’ve written trinket twice in the same paragraph, you’ll know that gimcrack can serve as a good alternative. So that if you want a character to sound pompous, you can have him say imbroglio instead of spat. An enriched vocabulary enables us to clearly express sights, feelings, or experiences that otherwise might be indescribable.
            So what is the best way to build vocabulary? In Gooney Bird’s classroom, every time the second-graders hear a new word, they look it up in their dictionaries. Mrs. Pigeon tells them that once they use a word three times, they own it. For the eager second-graders, that method works well. Surprisingly, King instructs us to not make any “conscious effort to improve [our vocabulary].” He says start with the vocabulary you have and then naturally acquire words by reading . My favorite method is to read and “pay attention.” One of the reasons I enjoy my kindle is that  definitions to unfamiliar words are just a screen tap away. Upon finding a word I especially like, I highlight it. That way I can revisit it later and "own" it. When not using my kindle, I have my phone with the dictionary app nearby. Whether you work crossword puzzles, make flashcards, play word games, or simply read, the best way to increase your vocabulary is whatever method works for you.
Choose your favorite tool(s).

           It is difficult to describe the pleasure I derive from vocabulary building. But give me time. I’ll find the right words for it!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Bird-brained Advice for Writing: Part II - Paying Attention

            When my cousin Jerry found out I’d written a book, he said, “I was going write a book one time. But I got to page ten and couldn’t think of anything else to say.”
            I’ve been there. But now I can solve this dilemma in two words: Pay attention.
            Many of my author friends have lamented that they’d rather write a three hundred-page novel than a one-page synopsis. Ditto for me. That’s because without the story’s juicy details, a synopsis can be as dry as the white meat on an overcooked turkey. So where do we get all those wonderful details? By paying attention.
            As far as I’m concerned, one of the perks of being a writer—and you can claim that title regardless of where you are in the journey—is sharpening the skill of observation. Writing increases the ability to look for and recognize the details that make people or events or surroundings unique and interesting. As Anne Lamott puts it in bird by bird..., “If you start to look around, you will start to see.” Maybe you’ll start to see that it’s that slightly crooked front tooth that makes a smile so engaging. Or maybe you'll notice that the nandina bush you'd given up for dead is sprouting a few green leaves at its base. 
            Paying attention isn’t limited to what we see. Quite frequently I catch myself in a restaurant or in a line with my ear slightly leaning toward a nearby conversation. This isn’t eavesdropping. It’s research. Listening closely to conversations, wherever they occur, can alert you to the distinctions of voices, accents, speech patterns, and even mannerisms people use while talking (not to mention some interesting subject matter). Lois Lowry incorporates details such as these so skillfully in her Gooney Bird Greene series that soon the reader knows which character is speaking even before he is identified in the speaker tag. Listening extends beyond conversations. Pay attention to the sounds of nature, of music, of machinery, of windchimes.... Pay attention to the lovely and the harsh, the symphonies as well as the cacophonies.  
            Details can be gleaned from paying attention with all the senses. And they can be gleaned when paying attention when we’re reading. Some folks might consider me a snob for saying this, but I honestly do enjoy some books as much as for the way they’re written as for the plot or theme. I agree that description shouldn’t take a reader out of the story. But when skillfully done, descriptive details can plunge us more deeply into it, even when we pause and re-read a passage because it resonates with us. Of course, I’m not saying copy what another author has written and claim it as your own. But learn her technique. When you’re enjoying a particular line or passage, stop and ask yourself what makes it so enjoyable. What makes it stand out--the writer’s precise word choice, his candor, his ability to mix the ridiculous with the sublime and elicit a laugh?     
            A final, very practical word of advice about paying attention: As soon as you gather a great detail, write it down. I’m currently trying to train myself to carry pen and pad with me at all times because I’ve lost more good material to bad memory than I have to computer failure. Lamott says she never goes anywhere—even to walk her dog—without a pen and an index card. These days, those more technically savvy probably rely on phones or tablets, but I’m not to that point. Whatever works for you, use it. Just remember: Write. It. Down.
            Remember what I said about a line or passage that strongly resonates with us? This one from bird by bird...did it for me: “There is ecstasy in paying attention.” Amen.   

Friday, September 19, 2014

Bird-brained Advice for Writing: Part I - Generating Content

It’s almost spookier than the Hitchcock movie the way birds have lately invaded my writing space. In my last post, I reported on Anne Lamott’s book bird by bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Shortly after purchasing that book, I listened to some audio books from Lois Lowry’s children’s series, Gooney Bird Greene. And it turns out Gooney Bird also has insightful information to offer on the art of storytelling. So like I said. Spooky.
            To be honest, I was less than enthusiastic when my sister Elaine announced we would be listening to the Gooney Bird CDs on a car trip. "I listened to these when we were on a trip with Brianna [her seven-year-old granddaughter and my great niece],” she said. “They’re really funny.”

            Yeah, I thought. Really funny to a seven-year-old. But what could I say? It was her car.

           So, as our journey commenced, I got comfy and—being in the seat behind her—prepared to sleep for the next few hours. But my eyelids had barely begun to droop when Lowry hooked me with her description of the eccentric and precocious Gooney Bird. By the end of the trip, we had to drive a few extra miles so I could find out the identity of the mysterious second-grade room mother. And in between our departure and arrival, Gooney Bird gave excellent tips on storytelling. I was surprised to find that much of Gooney Bird’s advice matched Lamott’s. After all, a wide age gap exists between the target audiences for each of these books. But when I thought about it, the similarities make perfect sense. After all, a good story is a good story, right? So the basic elements should be the same.
            For generating content, both Gooney Bird and Lamott essentially offer the age-old advice to write what you know. This doesn’t mean a writer has to be a technical expert on the subject she writes about. I guess it helps, but in this information age, a lot of technical knowledge is just an internet search away. I think what it does mean, though, is to take your own experiences and use them as a starting place. One of Gooney Bird’s stories explains how she got her name. She goes on to point out that everyone has a name; therefore, everyone has a story. Lamott’s advice is the same, only she drives home the point with a story about an aunt making lemonade. Surprisingly (or not), a subject common to both “bird” books concerns school lunches. Lamott describes how she uses them as an exercise for her writing classes. An entire passage in one of the Gooney Bird books “shows” Gooney Bird’s classmates describing and bartering with their varied and interesting mid-day meals.
            If there is an inkling of writer/storyteller in you (and I believe there is in everyone), the topic of school lunches has to evoke at least one good story. I immediately remembered the time I forgot to bring my lunchbox home from school. My mother was out of brown bags, and the next day I had to suffer the extreme humiliation of toting my lunch to school in a plastic bread bag. And speaking of lunchboxes, what memories do those bring to mind? And bread? Did your mother ever try to disguise the bread heels by spreading the peanut butter and jelly on the crusty sides and pressing them together? Ha! Nice try, Mama.
            By now you get the point. Our own experiences can generate a lot of stories. A seed of truth pokes through our consciousness and with proper cultivating grows into a full-fledged story. In my next installment of Bird-brained Writing Advice, I’ll discuss the proper care and feeding of those seeds.   
            I’m always happy to receive comments of any kind. But this time, I’d especially like to hear any of your own interesting school lunch experiences. I know you had at least one!