Are Writing Contests Valuable?

blueribbonLast Sunday, I attended the awards ceremony for Vermont’s Scholastic Art & Writing Contest at the Brattleboro Art and Museum Center.

The art and writing on display was fantastic; no wonder The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards are considered “the most prestigious recognition program for creative teens in grades 7 – 12.” These kids have talent!

The museum was buzzing with teenage energy as kids and their parents from all over the state saw their work hanging on the museum walls or read award-winning writing published in binders for all to read.

At noon, the crowd sat for the ceremony, which included exhortations from both Danny Lichtenfeld, the museum director, and from Roberto Lugo, a potter, social activist, spoken word poet and educator. Each in his own way, they told the kids to keep breaking the rules and fixing social and global problems they’re inheriting from us.

Vermont Scholastic Awards

Roberto Lugo

Lugo’s remarks were, well, remarkable: In a combination of rap, poetry and prose, he conveyed the story of his trajectory from urban poverty to academic and artistic achievement in language bordering on song – and received a standing ovation. Truly inspirational.

Then came the awards. Those earning Honorable mention were asked to stand; then the Silver Key winners; finally, the Gold Key winners came forward for a group photo.

This is where the event went sour for me. I wished all three groups had a photo op.

I attended the awards ceremony because this was the second year I’ve been a writing judge. Even though judges are given guidelines, which are very helpful, the process is still, ultimately, subjective. But more than that, I wanted the Honorable Mentions and Silver Keys to stand in front of the audience and have their photos taken in acknowledgement of their efforts. I didn’t want the awards to be quite so stratifying.

This has brought the entire enterprise of contests for artistic creation to a head for me. Even though my first novel won a prestigious award, I’m suspect of contests turning literature and visual arts into a kind of artistic World Series.

Scholastic Awards

Artistic expression is not a horserace; it’s neither limited nor competitive.

Artistic expression is not a horserace; it’s neither limited nor competitive. And while the Scholastic Awards are meant to acknowledge excellence and encourage youthful talent, I fear that the way in which we do so will backfire, on both the developing artists and writers and on the very essence of artistic expression, which creates its own rules, shows us a new way of seeing, and tells its own story.

Is making art its own reward? What do you think about writing contests and awards?

Deborah headshotDeborah Lee Luskin posts an essay every Wednesday at www.deborahleeluskin.com

Punctuation Changes Meaning

Punctuation Changes Meaning.

Without punctuation, words strung together lack meaning.

dear john i want a man who knows what love is all about you are generous kind thoughtful people who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior you have ruined me for other men i yearn for you i have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart i can be forever happy will you let me be yours jane

Punctuation turns this string of words into a love-letter.

Dear John,
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy–will you let me be yours?
Jane

With different punctuation, this string of words becomes a Dear John letter.

Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior! You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn! For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be happy. Will you let me be?

Yours,

Jane

Here’s another string of words without punctuation. See if you can add punctuation so it makes sense.

that that is is that that is not is not that that is is not that that is not.

Deborah headshotDeborah Lee Luskin loves a well-punctuated sentence; she’s especially fond of the semi-colon, both when it’s used between independent clauses, and when it separates items in a series.

Coordination and Subordination

Coordination and Subordination

In graduate school, I had a professor who said, “The hardest word in the English language to use properly is the conjunction ‘and’,” and “The key to success is subordination.”

Coordination

I just used the coordinating conjunction ‘and’ in the sentence above to join the two quotations, which are independent clauses.

coordination

Balanced scales illustrate the concept of coordination in grammar.

A good way to think about coordination is to visualize a scale in balance, or kids balancing on a see-saw.

There are seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, yet, for, or, nor, so. Used properly, they join equal parts: two or more words, phrases, clauses or sentences of equal rank. Each of the seven coordinating conjunctions has a different meaning.

  1. And: in addition, also, moreover, besides

2&3. But or yet: nevertheless, however, still

4. For: because, seeing that, since

5. Or: as an alternative, otherwise

6. Nor: and not, or not, not either [nor is used after a negative]

7. So: therefore, as a result

Using the accurate conjunction betters a writer’s chance of being correctly understood.

Subordination

Since ideas are neither all equal nor merit equal emphasis, it’s important to subordinate the lesser elements to make the primary idea paramount. This is called subordination.

subordination

Subordination allows for emphasis of the main point – the subject’s face.

A good way to visualize subordination is to think of a painting where the compositional elements are toned down in order to bring attention to the focal point, as in Rembrant’s self- portrait. Everything in this painting is secondary to the artist’s face.

Things that are subordinate are secondary; they have lower rank than the main idea, and their placement in a sentence, paragraph or essay should reflect that.

Subordination allows a writer to emphasize the main idea, to combine lesser ideas in the service of the main idea, and to combine supporting evidence with clarity and elegance.

You can read more about subordination here.

Deborah headshotDeborah Lee Luskin is an author, speaker and educator who loves winter.

 

 

Axes to Grind

Axes to grind

Two axes to grind

I have two axes to grind: a two-and-a-quarter-pound Boy’s Ax, and a Fiskars 28” Splitting Ax.

Tim gave me the Boy’s Ax for Christmas in 1984, my first winter in Vermont. I was living in a poorly insulated cabin smaller than my Manhattan apartment. I heated the cabin with a small, wood stove. The ax came in handy.

Last year, the ax flew off the handle. This had happened before. As previously, we bought a replacement haft of hickory. But it was also time for a new, heavier, axe, because for the past six years I’ve been splitting wood to heat my writing studio. The building is only a hundred square feet, and the wood stove is tiny; it takes six-inch pieces of wood. So Tim bought me the Fiskars 28, a highly engineered Finnish beauty that cuts wood the way a hot knife cuts butter.

Axes to Grind

A load of logs; my studio in the background.

He should know. Every year, he saws a load of logs to stove length, then splits it all with one of his ever-growing collection of axes and mauls.

AN AX, A PEN, A COMPUTER

A good ax makes a big difference, and not just in cutting firewood. My two axes are as critical to my writing as either a pen or my laptop. Splitting wood, building a fire, stoking the stove, and listening to the chuckle of the fire — these are all part of my writing ritual, and appropriately so. Humans have been using axes since the Stone Age; they predate writing, as does storytelling.

I like to think that after those early ax wielders chopped down trees and split logs and built fires, their clans gathered around that source of light and heat, and told stories. I need both the ax and the pen to follow in this long and distinctly human tradition.

Axes to grind

The tiny wood stove that heats my studio.

Deborah Lee Luskin is an author, speaker and educator dedicated to advancing issues through narrative and telling stories to create change. She blogs at www.deborahleeluskin.com, where this essay was originally posted.

Practicing Personal Cyber Security

Deborah Lee Luskin

Practicing personal cyber security is better than having your data kidnapped or stolen.

If the US elections can be hacked, so can your data. Are you protected?

I took my concerns and my computer to Steve West at Fearless Computing to see what I could do to keep my data safe.

MAC v. PC

“You’re already using a Mac,” Steve said, “which puts you way ahead of the curve.” This makes me feel a little better about spending significantly more for a MacBookPro than a run-on-the-mill PC. But truth be told, my first computer was a Mac. I bought it in 1984, before the internet was a way of life.

Well that’s changed, and so have the cyber threats that come along with connectivity.

RANSOMWARE

According to Steve, ransomware is probably a bigger threat than malware. Ransomware is malicious software that blocks access to computer data until a sum of money (usually in untraceable bitcoin) is paid. But if you’ve backed up your computer securely, what the kidnappers took is worthless, because you still have your data in another location.

Even back in the days of floppy discs I was meticulous about backing up my data. I kept three discs and backed up to a different one each day, so I always had the last three versions of my work. With Time Machine, I just have an external hard drive, which Steve says is not enough. He recommends I also back up remotely, to the cloud, and that’s on my “to do” list for this week.

back up, back up, back up!

Since I have more data than most freeware will cover, I’m going to spend $5/month on Carbonite, which buys me a year’s unlimited storage for one computer. I was initially skeptical of cloud storage, but Steve convinced me that since security is what Carbonite sells, they have a vested interested in protecting my data and their reputation.

firewalls & vaccines

I also spend $30/year on NetBarrier and VirusBarrier by Intego. There’s freeware you can download to keep a firewall between you and cyber infections, but you have to remember to run it. Mine is on all the time my computer is on, and am I ever glad it is. I’m currently judging a statewide writing contest, and one of the submissions launched malware when I opened it up. VirusBarrier blocked it. Whew!

Protecting financial data

Of course, it’s not just my work on my computer anymore; it’s also my business and my household accounts. In this modern age, I do most of my banking and bill-paying on-line, and a certain amount of shopping, as well. Without getting too fancy, there are a few safeguards that help protect your financials.

  1. First, use a password protected wireless area network. Better yet, connect via Ethernet.
  2. Next, when signing in to a financial institution or shopping site, look for the “s” in “https,” which stands for “secure.”
  3. Finally, use strong passwords that include upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols. Don’t use the same password, and change them from time to time. And really: don’t stick passwords to your computer with post-it notes!
passwords

To limit the number of passwords I have, I make on-line purchases without logging in or creating an account. When that’s not an option, I use 1Password. This is yet another security program; this one’s designed to keep track of my passwords – and it does. All I have to remember is the password that unlocks it; the program does the rest. I chose 1Password on my brother’s recommendation and after a thirty-day free trial. It costs about $36/year.

disclaimer

There are other programs out there, including free ones. These recommendations are what I use. I don’t work for any of these companies, and I have nothing to gain if you use their products. So ask around. Do some research. Find the security programs that work for your budget and your needs. And then stay safe: practice good cyber security.

What do you do to protect your data?

One of the most life-affirming things I've done in 2016 is hike Vermont's 272-mile Long Trail.

At the Canadian border on 9/8/16 after hiking Vermont’s 272-mile Long Trail from Massachusetts to Canada.

Deborah Lee Luskin posts an essay every Wednesday at www.deborahleeluskin.com

Make Affirmations Rather than Resolutions!

confetti-1112949_640

Affirmations rather than Resolutions!

This is the time of year I advocate for affirmations rather than resolutions.

I used to celebrate New Year’s Eve in the accepted and conventional manner. I’d stay up till midnight, fortify my resolve with champagne, and vow to live cleaner, work harder, and sustain a calm, orderly, life.

clock-334117_640I’d make these resolutions at midnight, and in the morning – just hours into the new year – I ‘d break them. Then I’d think I was a failure, and that the year was off to a bad start and could only get worse so really, why bother?

It didn’t matter if it was a modest resolution I’d failed to keep, like putting the clean laundry away, or a grandiose one, like writing a novel by the end of the week, or a perennial one, like losing a few pounds, or a hopeful one, like being kinder and more generous.

All resolutions did was set me up for failure.

I’m done with that!

Now I make lists of affirmations, including all the milestones and transitions celebrated and/or mourned, depending.

I write everything down: the visits, the adventures, the conversations and connections, the surprises, and the words.

If you’re a writer, it’s important to keep track of the words.

I write down all my publications and broadcasts for the year, including where and when they were published.

This isn’t just a measurable reality-check, it’s also good record keeping, which is part of the job.

Writers need to keep track of their work for several reasons:

  • So you can send a clip along with a query.
  • In order to keep track of your income; the tax man cometh in April.
  • To correlate your paying markets with your readership. What’s your payer to reader mix?
  • For a sense of accomplishment: Look how much you wrote!

This time of year I also try to update the list of the books I’ve read and movies I’ve watched during the year. I’m middle aged, and this is a helpful memory aid.

And I list all that I’m grateful for, which is especially helpful in these uncertain times.

Making resolutions is like “shoulding” all over yourself; listing affirmations leads to kindness and self-care.

I no longer make resolutions. I write affirmations, try to stay present, single task, and live one moment at a time.

Blessings to you. I’ll see you in the New Year.

One of the most life-affirming things I've done in 2016 is hike Vermont's 272-mile Long Trail.

One of the most life-affirming things I did in 2016 is hike The Long Trail, Vermont’s 272-mile “footpath in the wilderness.”

Deborah Lee Luskin blogs weekly about Living in Place, The Middle Ages (in humans, not history), Vermonters By Choice, and most recently: Lessons from the Long Trail, about her 272-mile end-to-end thru-hike of Vermont’s Long Trail.

“Only One Thing To Do” – Guest Post by novelist Donna D. Vitucci

Only One Thing To Do

Donna D. Vitucci, a widely published short story writer whose first novel, At Bobby Trivette's Grave was published in June.

Donna D. Vitucci, author.

Hemingway wrote to Fitzgerald, his friend and competitor: “You just have to go on when it is worst and most helpless—there is only one thing to do with a novel and that is to go straight on through to the end of the damned thing.”

The size and breadth of a book overwhelms me –the writing of it. Writing the novel’s like taking medicine, in doses. I think of each chapter as a short story or a scene: one dose, just manage one swallow. Complete this, make this one piece entire and the best it can be and don’t fret over, don’t even think about what comes after. Self-trickery is the way I keep ahead of self-doubt. I certainly do not know the ending, and most times not even the why of the story. I look at the world, note circumstance and instances, I attribute reason where none exists.

Vitucci finds inspiration in the "the damp knuckled heart of all families" and childhood.

Vitucci finds inspiration in the “the damp knuckled heart of all families” and childhood.

I am disturbed by girls taken—Elizabeth Smart and others like her, here in my community a girl named Paige Johnson, who has never been found. The plaguing questions: why why, where are they, who would take them? I walk backwards to the trouble. It doesn’t need to be true, it’s not detective work, it’s less discovery and more burrowing into motive. I can’t see where I’m headed, till I arrive. Who could do such a thing, and how did they feel? Troubled, undoubtedly, and that trouble emerges via voice, voice of a character, a character in a situation, the more desperate and thornier the better.

Once I wrote a story called The Underneath. Touchpoint for the setting, the scene, the tension, the horror was the cellar of my childhood. Stuff under and behind, buried, covered up, secrets– the damp knuckled heart of all families. I regularly dig up my basement, excavate my childhood, assign motives to adults from my youth for the inexplicable things they did. I look and I can’t not see story.

Mommy sewed our baby doll pajamas, our school picture day outfits, our Easter dresses. She snapped thread with her teeth. She wielded pinking shears. Pinking shears. Does anyone else even know what they are?

This is the insular world of a character, a young girl, stewed in her family broth. She walked around with Catholicism for spine instead of backbone, with litanies of saints and church Latin as right and left hands. I thought everyone was Catholic. At school, at Brownies, on our street, the kids I played with and their families, we all attended Mass at the same church. What? You don’t know Mass, or Jesus Christ Our Savior? Can it be that others also don’t know the gut-trench of Lenten sacrifice or special intention Thursdays, or the Infant of Prague’s varied coat colors and the guilt-blessing of being chosen to change the clothes on that Jesus-boy-doll?

How to populate the world of the novel? Build from the inside out, from imagination and experience, history and supposing, initiating in that voice of that character, that one child, that one stolen girl. Hemingway called it the great “what if.” Follow the undoing, find that dropped spool, the bobbin losing its thread. There you have it. Story could, literally, be under your feet.

I loved the language of this heartbreaker, and how it is so rooted in place.

I loved the language of this heartbreaker, and how it is so rooted in place. – DLL

 

Donna Vitucci is Development Director of Covington Ladies Home, the only free-standing personal care home exclusively for older adult women in Northern Kentucky. She is a life-long writer, and was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize in 2010. Her stories have appeared in dozens of print and online journals, including Kentucky Review, Gargoyle, Hinchas de Poesia, Forge Literary Journal, Prick of the Spindle, Southern Women’s Review, The Butter, and Change Seven. Her novel, AT BOBBY TRIVETTE’S GRAVE , a coming of age story set in Kentucky, was released in June 2016 by Rebel ePublishers.

Donna’s second novel, SALT OF PATRIOTS, will be published in 2017.

At the US-Canadian border on Day 25.

Deb’s still smiling after hiking 275 miles in 25 days from Massachusetts to Canada on Vermont’s Long Trail.

Currently, Deborah Lee Luskin posts Lessons From the Long Trail about her thru-hike from Massachusetts to Canada over the spine of the Green Mountains. Twenty-five days living outdoors, overcoming obstacles (aka mountains, rocks, mud, streams and sore feet), has changed her outlook on life and helped clarify her goals, most of which have to do with advancing issues through narrative; telling stories to create change.