Write Now!

Write Now!

Due to complications of my husband’s broken jaw, I have to Write Now!

This afternoon’s writing time was unexpectedly pushed aside to pick up liquid Ibuprofen, a pill crusher, a WaterPik, and energy drinks for my husband, who’s had his broken jaw wired together this morning and will be on a liquid diet for weeks. I rushed home to cook dinner for friends arriving from Great Britain momentarily, and I haven’t written Tuesday’s post yet.

Write now!

I remember days when writing time would be supplanted by a childcare-giver’s day off, a sick child, a grandmother’s broken ankle, chicken pox, strep throat and a child’s broken ankle. Emergencies happen, yet one can still write in the waiting room, in the car, in the sick room, while the kids are playing dress up or make believe or watching a movie.

Write now!

Write now!

You can write anywhere, write now!

Then there are the planned trips to the shop for car maintenance. I’ve come to love those waiting rooms. With earplugs to drown out the TV, I use the hour to write.

I’m driving on the Interstate, headed to or from a gig at a library and the words for a commentary start bubbling up. I pull over, pick up my pen and notebook.

Write now!

The dishes are piled in the sink, the clean laundry needs to be folded, the trash needs to go out. Take care of the trash. Everything else can wait.

Write now!

I’m told my mother-in-law sold her washer and dryer, subscribed to The New Yorker, and read it in the laundromat every week. Have to do laundry? Write now!

The emails are incoming thick and fast. Turn off email – write now!

If social media is no longer a tool but a distraction, turn off your internet connection – write now!

Whatever you’re doing, write now!

www.deborahleeluskin.comEven though I prefer to write in my studio, life happens. I write here, there, and everywhere, at all hours of the day or night. I always have paper and pen with me. I’m always ready – write now!

 

 

September: The End is Where We Start From

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.   ~T.S. Eliot

The end is where we start from

September’s first task was to clean my desk.

September: Summer ends, and we begin the push to the end of the year. Summer ends and work resumes in earnest.

September: the first thing I did was clean my desk.

The very act of sorting books, papers and projects has helped me choose what to place front and center of my attention and which to shelve for the time being. This simple act has given me focus, structure and deadlines.

September is full of promise and hope. So are a clean desk and the deadline of a year’s end just over the horizon. I’m feeling hopeful and focused to be back at my desk after a summer of grief.

This September: I’m adjusting to the memory of loving parents who are not longer alive. I’m peering through the murky fog of mourning and see hope and promise in the slow death of the garden as it gives up its bounty. I hear the crickets singing summer’s end and know the silence of winter is coming. I welcome the gradually shortening days as the earth tilts away from the extended daylight that makes summer so luxurious. And I welcome the shift that allows me to sit at my desk with focus and energy to blog, to teach, and to advance a novel that’s starting to sing in me.

September is like taking a breath: I inhale cool air of intention and exhale the warm air of summer’s ease.

September is a time to focus and write.

What does September mean to you?

www.deborahleeluskin.comDeborah Lee Luskin lives in southern Vermont and blogs at Living in Place. She is a freelance educator, a radio commentator, and an avid hiker. Learn more at www.deborahleeluskin.com.

 

 

Attention to Details

 

Attention to detail

Attention to detail matters.

“What’s wrong with a drawer full of jar lids?” I asked Roz Chast during the Q & A following her recent author talk before a capacity crowd.

I’d hesitated to ask the question because it was so unlike the questions about process and inspiration readers usually ask authors. But I’d loved her graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? – except for the one frame about the jar lids, which bothered me both personally and professionally.

You can read my personal reasons at Living In Place; the professional reason are about craft, and are what this post is about.

DETAILS

Attention to Detail

Chast’s graphic memoir about caring for her elderly parents.

Chast’s frame about the drawer full of jar lids struck me as off, not just because I have a drawer full of jar lids, but because Chast didn’t give me enough information about what made this bizarre.

All the other frames in the section – photographs rather than drawings – of the “stuff” she was left to clean out of the apartment in which her parents had lived for forty-eight years made sense: the photos show piles of magazines and papers, dozens of handbags and several defunct electric razors. It’s clear that the things we save – sometimes deliberately for reasons of potential usefulness or sentiment and sometimes from sheer neglect – take on a meaning of their own to she who has to sift through it. I know; I’ve just emptied my dad’s desk of pens that had run out of ink.

As a reader, I simply wanted more information about why Chast chose this particular detail, because it wasn’t clear to me the way it was clear why she chose to photograph her mother’s two-dozen nearly indistinguishable old handbags and electric razors that clearly no longer worked. So I asked.

“Rusty jar tops?” she said, her voice rising as she wrinkled her nose in disgust.

I got it.

And I got more.

Chast went on to tell a story about a man who’d saved the screw tops of toothpaste tubes. He’d always planned to use them as lampshades for his granddaughter’s dollhouse.

This is a detail I’ll never forget because Chast did more than simply answer my question: she told me another story. In the process, she illustrated the kind of details that help a reader get what the writer is trying to convey. She amplified the characterization of the narrator of her memoir’s persona with her intonation and nose wrinkle, “They’re rusty!” And she created an idiosyncratic grandfather who saw the potential for miniature lampshades in every toothpaste tube cap.

THE TAKE AWAY

A single vivid detail can make the difference between the mundane and the memorable. If you make your details accurate and vivid, you will help your reader will see objects and attitudes the way you want them to. That’s authority.

www.deborahleeluskin.com

Deborah Lee Luskin

Deborah Lee Luskin blogs weekly at Living in Place.

 

 

How To Write An Obit

How to Write An Obit

My Dad. 7/23/1925 – 7/19/2018

Even if you don’t think of yourself as a writer and never plan to write for publication, chances are you will someday have to write an obituary for someone you’ve loved and lost.

How to Write An Obit

Mom, circa 1940.

I know this, because last week I wrote an obit for my dad. Six years earlier, I wrote one for my mom.

While I included the usual details of where they each were born, what they did for their livings, and where and when they died, their lives were a great deal richer than a collection of biographical facts.

Collect the Facts

Since it’s entirely possibly that you’ll be a blubbery mess when the time comes, you’ll want to collect all the facts about your subject before you start writing. Professional obit writers keep files on famous people for when the time comes. You might want to start a file now on those for whom you expect to write an obituary. You also might want to create a document with such details about yourself and file it along with your Advance Care Plan, your Last Will and Testament, the key to your Safe Deposit Box, and a list of your passwords, to make it easier for your survivors to tie up lose ends.

Consider Your Audience

Next, just as in writing anything else, you must consider your audience. The obit you write for the local paper may emphasize someone’s community service, whereas the one you send to a professional organization’s publication will narrate the arc of the person’s career. Make it easy on yourself: write a master obit with a paragraph for each section. This makes it easy to cut and paste shorter versions to the different places where an obit is likely to appear.

Make it Meaningful

Then consider what made this person’s life worth living. For most of us, our obituary will appear in the local paper one day and line the litter box the next, but readers will always remember a story. Tell stories about this  person’s one wild and precious life.

Links to Worksheets

Here’s a link to three examples, each for the same fictional person. I wrote these examples for a workshop I taught on obituary writing. The first is just the bare minimum: Who died, where, when and how (optional). The second is Standard Vanilla, with the usual details and not a whole lot more. The third gives you more detail and more flavor of the person who didn’t just die, but who lived – and how.

And here’s a link to a worksheet to help you gather the facts you’ll want to have on hand.

Having the Last Word

How do you want to be remembered? Try writing your own obituary – one draft if you died today and another if you live to be one hundred. Then figure out how to make the second one come true.

Blessings to you all, ~Deborah.

Write an Obit

Family Photo, circa 1962

Write an Obit

Family Photo, August 2005

Write An Obit

Family Photo, June 2018

 

 

 

Reposting: B.S. (Be Specific)

No_Bullshit            B.S. is one of the abbreviations I pencil in the margin of prose I’m reviewing –my own or a client’s. It stands for Be Specific, though it evokes a different two-word expletive that means much the same thing.

The best way to be specific is to know what you want to say – and sometimes that takes several meandering drafts. Once you’ve figured out what you want to accomplish in a scene or a post, a chapter, a story or a report, you can guide your reader to understand you clearly with specific language – with words.

Words can be general, like the word food – the fuel that sustains life. A general word fails to give your reader much guidance, leaving her to imagine grapes when you imagined roast beef.

Words that are more specific are limited in scope, like the word snack – which is a small amount of food between meals. This narrows what your reader can imagine, though one reader might think carrot sticks and another chocolate chip cookies with milk.

Words that are concrete are even more specific, and tell your reader exactly what to imagine. Make the snack chips, and you’ve given your reader the kind of narrow direction that allows him to see just what you intended.

Of course, words don’t exist by themselves, and the more specific you can make them all, the clearer your reader will see. Here are two different examples.

George held the bag between his knees, pushing a steady stream of chips in his mouth as he sat in traffic.

            Jeremy set out blue corn chips in a yellow bowl to brighten the November afternoon.

Here are some other examples of general, specific and concrete words:

  • Clothes, business casual, khakis
  • Writing, poetry, sonnet
  • Birds, raptors, eagle

You get the idea.

Adjectives are another opportunity to Be Specific. Here’s an example from My Writing Bible, The Harbrace College Handbook:

  • Bad planks: rotten, warped, scorched, knotty, termite-eaten
  • Bad children: rowdy, rude, ungrateful, selfish, perverse
  • Bad meat: tough, tainted, overcooked, contaminated

Every time we use a general adjective, we miss an opportunity to guide our readers closer to what we mean. English is a rich language, so there’s no excuse for using small when you could say so much more with tiny, microscopic, sub-atomic, undeveloped; or big when you could say plump, hulking, towering, Herculean.

A thesaurus is a dictionary of synonyms, and it’s a good place to find words. I find mine in The Original Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, originally published in 1852 and revised many times since. I love poking around in it, and find it much more complete and satisfying to use than the thesaurus in my word-processor.

It is a writer’s job to direct readers to reimagine for themselves what you mean. Since readers bring their own, varying, experiences and prejudices to your work, you must give specific instructions that narrow how your work can be understood. You must be authoritarian. And one of the best methods is to cut the BS and Be Specific with your words.

While I’m away, I’m rerunning some posts with writing advice worth repeating. This post originally appeared here on December 3, 2013.

When I’m not traveling, I live a rural and rooted life in Vermont, which I chronicle in my weekly blog, Living in Place. Look for replies to your comments in mid-July.

Please visit my website to learn more about my mission: advancing issues through narrative; telling stories to create change. Thanks!

Reposting: A Brief Guide to Narrative Navigation

            In British English, punctuation at the end of a sentence is called a “full stop,” – just like the red, octagonal, road sign at an intersection. Indeed, basic punctuation is a great deal like road signs, instructing the reader when to slow down, yield, and stop. In this way, punctuation is a great tool – a way for a writer to lead her reader through a labyrinth of ideas without either of them getting lost. Here’s an abbreviated driver’s manual summarizing the punctuation/signage that will help you and your readers through a safe narrative journey.

The Comma. This little subscript mark is possibly the second most misused punctuation mark – after the apostrophe. It indicates a brief pause, like the letting up on the accelerator as you approach a cross walk where there might be pedestrians crossing, or a yield sign, indicating an important clause is about to enter the sentence.

The comma is also used before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, and yet) linking two independent clauses – just the way a driver hesitates when crossing a four-way intersection on a country road, where stop signs aren’t posted.

A comma follows an introductory clause or phrase, just as a driver can let up on the accelerator after zooming up the entrance ramp of a limited-access highway and achieving highway speed. And commas set off little elements, like non-restrictive clauses, parenthetical remarks, dates, and the like. These commas help a reader negotiate stop-and-go traffic, and can be as trying as a traffic jam when overused.

Overusing commas is similar to when a driver pumps the gas, creating a staccato motion that causes car-sickness and is not reader-friendly. Similarly, when commas are too infrequently used a reader could become anxious with breathlessness the way a driver who never pauses to read street signs can end up hopelessly lost.

The Semi-colon. If it’s possible to have a favorite punctuation mark, this would be mine. The semi-colon is all about linking equal parts. When a semi-colon joins two independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction, it’s a sign to the reader that the ideas are equal; she must supply the mental connection of ideas just as drivers at a four-way stop sign must agree on an order for taking turns across the intersection. The semi-colon indicates the need for cooperation, and I like that.

The semi-colon is also used to separate coordinate elements that contain commas, like a long, complicated, list of items. This use of semi-colons resembles those giant, overhead, signs on the interstate that separate drivers into different lanes according to their destinations.

The Colon: This mark instructs a reader to pay attention, something important is coming up, just like the orange signs on the highway alerting a driver of upcoming hazards, like construction, a change of pavement or a bump. It says, “Heads up!”

The Period. Full stop. Ignore this mark at your peril! It is the stoplight that must be obeyed at all costs. Without it, intersections of ideas would be chaotic pile-ups. Even a single idea without a period at the end is as dangerous as a road that goes off a cliff. A period provides closure, and every reader wants to be told when to stop.

Learning to stop can be difficult, but with the price of gas going up in direct opposition to readers’ time, it’s a critical skill. So even though there are more signs worth knowing how to use, like the apostrophe, the dash, parentheses, quotation marks, exclamation point, question mark and the interrobang, these marks are beyond the purview of this post.

Happy Motoring!

This piece originally posted August 21, 2012. I’ve scheduled reruns while I’m on summer vacation, and hope this ones reminds everyone to drive safely during the summer holidays. Look for replies to your comments in mid-July.

When I’m not traveling, I live a rooted and rural life in Vermont which I chronicle on my blog, Living in Place.

Please my website to learn more about my mission to tell stories to create change. Thanks for reading!

Reposting: The Singular They

The Elements of StyleLanguage changes with the times, even grammar.

I attended college during the second wave of feminism, when incorporating non-sexist terms into every day usage was an important demonstration of inclusiveness. In addition to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, we consulted Miller and Swift’s The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, and we learned to replace the word man with the word human when we meant all people.

This was the era when the honorific Ms. entered the language. The thinking was that women should be able to be in the world without reference to their marital status. I didn’t see what business my marital status was back then, when I wasn’t married, and I still don’t now that I am. I use the name I was born with, and smoke comes out my ears when people who know better call me by my husband’s last name.

English is quite liberal in accepting neologisms, and new words enter the language all the time: localvore, texting and twerking are three examples. Grammar is harder to change.

Back in 1980, when The Handbook of Non-Sexist Language was first published, Miller and Swift confronted the pronoun problem in English, which offers only gendered singular pronouns: she/her/hers and he/him/his.

Handbook of Nonsexist WritingIn attempts to be inclusive, many writers used the awkward pronoun construction he/her – sometimes shortened to s/he – which is cumbersome, but works. Miller and Swift’s suggestion to use the non-gendered plural they/them/theirs instead of she/he, him/her, hers/his, has gradually been adopted. In both speech and writing, many people combine a singular noun with the plural pronoun, as in Everyone cheered when they saw the balloons.

I confess that the English teacher in me resisted this apparently ungrammatical usage at first. But as a woman who bristles at the male bias in our culture and language, I’m sensitive to inclusion. I’m dismayed when a white, straight, male professional, such as a physician, politician, professor or writer, for example, is referred to by their profession only, but all others are modified according to their otherness, be it gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or something else.

Resistance to change is human, especially when change threatens tradition, be it traditional power structures, religious beliefs, knowledge or accepted standards of behavior. But change still happens, just as knowledge expands.

During the second wave of feminism, we understood gender to be binary, and the feminist impulse was to create equality between men and women. A generation later, our understanding of gender has grown, making the change in pronoun usage even more pressing. With our new understanding of gender fluidity that includes men, women, transgender, transsexual and genderqueer, we need new pronouns in order to be inclusive and fair.

Trans*Ally WorkbookSeveral new pronouns have been introduced to achieve inclusiveness: ne/nir, ze/zir, per/pers are a few examples. You can learn about these and others in Davey Shlasko’s Trans* Ally Workbook: Getting Pronouns Right & What It Teaches Us about Gender. While one or more of the new constructions may eventually take hold, I think the adoption of the singular they is most likely to succeed now. After all, it’s already in use, and as the ancient Roman poet Horace observed millennia ago, Use is the judge, and rule, and law, of speech.

 

I believe that language matters, and have been doing my small part to advance issues through narrative by telling stories to create change. I blog weekly at  Living in Place.

This essay originally posted in May 25, 2015. I’ve scheduled more reruns while I’m on summer vacation. Look for replies to your comments in mid-July.