50th Post, 200 Follows, Award, and More on Writing

I awoke today to over 200 subscribers on my Stats report. Still doing Cyberland on foot without the airlift of tweets or Facebook (somebody, get me a GPS for FB).

I thank my faithful readers for entering the story. Sharing the journey has been more enriching than I knew to expect as a new kid (or Mom) on the block. I’ve interfaced with lives on the common ground of writing, faith, motherhood, hardship. I feel honored for the follow of writers and the feedback they have been interested to hear from me on their work. People have engaged me in their worldview, have allowed me to offer another perspective. I came close to dropping the Holistic Journey in the early days to conserve time and energy for the other blog I was eager to build – only to write helplessly on. Not familiar with the world of blogging, I had no inkling I would meet such talented, creative, open-hearted people as I have. And no idea I’d end up wishing for the pleasure of talking further in person with some.

My purpose here crystallized with time. The reason I wasn’t choosing to focus on the homeschool activities was A Holistic Journey is a writer’s blog. Of course all bloggers write something, and I’m only the millionth to recheck her work before clicking publish. But every post is more than just that to me. Not because I’m taking myself so seriously (which I learn to do less well every year) but because each post is a patchwork of the hands that run over and over the words in love.

I’m not very forgiving of sloppy writing. If you give me your time, I should give you even more of mine to make it worth your while.  I’ve asked the best of myself in every offering of thought. Not only for my readers, but for the delight and reward of conceiving something that breathes.

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A fellow bookaholic I follow nominated me just now for the Shine On Award.  I accept with appreciation.

http://jaydeashe.wordpress.com/

The Writing Process, Part 3: To Be or Not To Be

I’m not asking Hamlet’s existential question. To be or not to be? To live or kill myself? It’s literal grammar.

To eat –> She eats.
To dance –> She dances.
To be –> She be.  She is.

The verb TO BE conjugates, or breaks down, into the form is when referring to a singular third party he, she, or it. She be sweet. She is sweet. TO BE morphs into are in the plural. They be sweet. They are sweet. 

In all its conjugations, the verb TO BE serves as a referential foundation in the English language. TO BE enables us to assign description and value to people, things, ideas.

The trees are lovely in the wind.
Trees = Lovely
TO BE would be impossible not to use in speech and writing.

But artful writing shouldn’t depend on this verb. You want to minimize its appearance. As a verbal equal sign, TO BE makes assertions that fall flat. Good writing carries momentum. Because verbs are action words, they propel the message and description forward.

Rather than take up a whole sentence just to say the trees are lovely (apart from poetic circumstances that ask for this declaration), you could say

The lovely trees sway and bow in the wind.

Now the verbs sway and bow paint a picture the are doesn’t.

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Here’s a clip from the post The Invisible Woman:

So-nyo, an elderly mother of four grown children, vanishes in the Seoul subways.

I could have written
So-nyo is an elderly mother of four grown children who vanishes in the Seoul subways.

The line I settled on runs on only one verb vanishes. I didn’t want to waste time and words stating what So-nyo is when I could show it while saying something more interesting or informative. My point is that she disappeared, not that she was an elderly mom of four.

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I dug up two written samples from my high school days just now. *Wrinkle nose*

The mathematical straight line whose end arrows stretch on to eternity is the prime example.  The line will always be at least a billionth of a millimeter off…

Twenty-five years later, I would say
The…line…serves as the prime example. It will remain at least….

Serves, stands, remains, runs are picturesque alternatives to is.

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James’ simple act of giving milk for the sick children is profound and laudable in its contrast to the headmaster’s pretentious and futile plans for the village.

Revise!

James’ simple, profound act of providing milk for the sick stands in glaring contrast to the….

The whole first sentence rests on the verb is. If you blip it, you are forced to retrieve a more interesting verb which in turn carries the writing forward rather than keep it static.

Circling back to our starting question, then:
when writing, it is better not to be.

Sight

libbey-stemless-wine-glass

May my eyes, Lord, Never
stay set on what surrounds
but solely, wholly, Ever
on Thee be fixed and bound

Lest they stray the Giver –
in times my cup be sweet –
to the gift that Never
can be as sweet as Thee

Or in self-pity settle –
when my cup be bitter –
on my heart, there struggle
to dethrone its Ruler.

Touch my eyes, Lord, and lift
them daily Heavenward,
their sight also a gift
to see Thee more and more.

Lift them off the pages
of my earthly life
should I lose sight of Jesus
Who my hid story writes.

The poem was published in a University of Pennsylvania literary arts magazine while I was a student. Sight and Blue Champagne could not be more dissimilar in meter and form. Champagne is fluid.  This one is highly structured and draws in on itself.

The Writing Process, Part 2: Save Spit

P1040057I’ve taught writing in both public schools and private settings. Years after their last lesson with me, I asked two very bright sisters (with diametric learning styles) what they remembered from their long season with me. Both answered, “Save spit.” Turned out, the pithy injunction had velcroed itself on their brain and conducted the papers they went on to write in college and high school.

Save spit is one of my top writing protocols. I shave as many words as I can and go back and cut some more.  Brevity isn’t so much my goal as conciseness. You’re allowed to spin 2000 words on a subject when it begs amplification or because you need to reach every milepost of reasoning for a crisp presentation. Smooshing those thoughts into 1000 cloudy words is not what I mean. What I do mean is simply word economy in as much as it is possible.

My private students hated being made to trim the verbiage. My private students hated trimming the verbiage.  “The teacher wants 500 words in this essay.  How’m I gonna reach that?!”  Of course it was the clear thesis, rich elaboration, cogent arguments that would satisfy the length requirement. And when you’re not writing to satisfy a quota is when you’re really writing, isn’t it?

It is not only hard but pretty impossible, actually, to isolate a writing principle. Like anything that breathes, the writing process is an organic movement much like a dance – of the technical and the artistic. So there are plenty of moments when you’ll favor one guiding principle over another.  Paint a picture, for instance, is another mantra I write by.  Sometimes I choose an extra few words to this end.

I started writing again.   vs.

I blew the dust off the pen in my head and picked up my beloved writing again.

Both work. The first sentence not only boasts efficiency but encourages curiosity for what is to come. The second, while blatantly injuring my sacrosanct dictum of word economy, paints a picture and evokes a feeling entirely absent in the other sentence. So writing principles are not commandments. Saving words does not mean being dry. You want flowers, meaning beauty, in your writing – without being flowery.

There was a part in the first installment of my 20 Things I Consider Sacred series I wasn’t crazy about. A reference to marriage:

Boundaries meld to your oneness, while husband and wife remain distinct. It is a mystery.

Ewwwhh!  *Finger in throat* Augh!  God bless the gracious readers who put up the like on that one.  Each time I look back, the more vigorously I shudder at the melding.

It is now:

Boundaries in oneness, a mystery.

I return to old posts with a fresh eye and a pair of shears, and clip what I possibly can. I don’t want clutter in the path of my readers. I try to keep it tight, so that the words hug the intended meaning.

Stephen King in “On Writing” shares a rewrite formula he learned from an editor which transformed his writing: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. “Before the Formula, if I produced a story that was four thousand words or so in first draft, it was apt to be five thousand in second…After the Formula, that changed. Even today I will aim for a second-draft length of thirty-six hundred words if the first draft of a story ran four thousand…If you can’t get out ten percent of it while retaining the basic story and flavor, you’re not trying very hard. The effect of judicious cutting is immediate and often amazing.”

Blue Champagne

zenna-blue-blood-champagne

out of the blue
these giggles! tickle their way up about to —

across the kitchen table
we dip into the other’s stuff of life.
it is such a phenomenon.
the giggles want to celebrate
this phenomenon — pOP the cork!
effervescence rush up and lose
the tear i just
swallowed.

i give you to drink,
let me give you to drink, love boldly,
pour me out here –
are you under the influence?
drink generously, my friend, before we
evaporate.

will you forget?
will you forget?
will…you remember?

it’s okay,
as you ride
as you fight
the onward run of life, you will not
drown.
God promised.

and i am blue
champagne.

~ to every one of you whom
I will be leaving, someday.

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This is one of the last poems I’ve written, almost 20 years ago at University of Pennsylvania. My farewell to friends on the cusp of graduation. Blue Champagne was published in a campus literary arts magazine. I wanted to give you a glimpse of the writings from my 20s that I talked about in The Writing Process: Color, Part 1.  Only just now did I realize the poem is a literal sample of what colored my art back then.

The Writing Process, Part 1: Color

mosaicI noticed something recently about the colors of the words that have streamed from my head these few months. The versicolor spectrum has many lighter, brighter hues than my writing has seen over the years. The lacuna of the last ten years where I was entirely occupied in the life of a wife and mother helped highlight the change in the timbre of my voice. Looking back at the single young woman from this side of time, I am a little startled at the levity in the beloved writing that I have picked up again. Because for much of my life, I wrote from a very dark place.

There is a creative force to the darkness, hence the archetypal artist who seeks to express the drama of his despair. In high school when my writing was a way of repainting and processing grief and anger, I was drawn to poets and writers like Sylvia Plath who spoke out of emptiness and flat despair. As my faith and hope in God grew into my 20s, I recognized a troubling truth. While my work was reflecting more light, an enduring spirit of despondency continued to inspire my artistry in both poetry and song composition.

And I didn’t mind.

I was tasting the addictiveness of writing under darker influences. The dynamic is fascinating to me. But it is remarkable that after a decade of sporadic writing that has gathered dust, I rise to see the sun on my words. I don’t think the difference is so simply a reflection of my faith, which was in many ways stronger in my younger days. And deep faith does not leave one immune from crippling self-talk or depression, as many spiritual giants in Christian history have shown. Nor could it be a straight matter of the joy I have experienced with my family through my 30s because I have had more than my share of unwelcome challenges in that chapter. It is more the rawness, the edginess the Great Potter has sanded and sculpted of my spirit. The awareness of self and others, that is, the keen knowledge of my own weaknesses and knowledge that everyone is a work in progress so I can relax and forgive and enjoy my life more is the posture of the soul that has written this blog. I now feel like it was a copout to depend on the spirit of encumberance to fuel my creativity. Certainly life is a mosaic of the great occasions of change, surprise, happiness, and pain and it is the helpless business of the artist to paint these colors in his chosen medium. But I no longer gravitate to the dark hues in my storytelling – because I don’t have to. I find myself enjoying the beauty, redemption, transformation of my art as I explore these very elements in the poetry of life.

The Profile of a Successful Blogger [The Art of Writing]

P1030793There’s the uber exemplar. The blog pinwheels through cyberspace on steroid speed. If online success bore a currency, these bloggers would be the Donald Trumps on the virtual mountaintop. And there are those whose site (or gravatar) is attractive, who’re good at stroking egos or who trumpet outrageous claims. By common definition they’re popular. Do these guys leave the rest of us out in the cold? It can’t mean our blogs are not worth something. Every blog is unique in its DNA, takes its own road and speed. Every child develops at his own pace. Is comparison among bloggers really possible on the long spectrum of content and purpose? A photographer’s gallery has a look and mission far different from my site, though mine also is a gallery – of words. Given that we’re all out to communicate, can we measure the success of a blog?

I started writing midway into February, but it’s been less than two months since I set up camp on WordPress. I backdated my earlier posts. This morning I found on my Stats report 100 wonderful subscribers and 2,120 aggregate hits. I’m not active on other social networks (yes, I took the slow lane). Thank you for the support! I put on hold another labor of love, my original blog, to journal the personal journey. Head bowed, at the restaurant. See the menu photo? On the elliptical. At three in the morning. I did not know what a post could look like and didn’t know how to tag. I wrote blindly. Up until a month ago, I didn’t have time to look at what other bloggers were doing. There came a tipping point where I discovered a community of readers coming back and pulling up a chair to stay. I haven’t made my way back to my other blog, enjoying the Conversation as I have. I am grateful for the welcome of seasoned bloggers pulling me up on higher ground, the deeply heartwarming comments and encouragement to keep up my work. A good many readers with a worldview diametrically different from mine who subscribed to bending an ear to my perspective. Even a mother who shared that she’s rethinking some decisions after reading my thoughts on motherhood.

I’ve seen a number of people pose the question why we blog. Some bloggers seek to share knowledge and enlighten. Their work offers a personal value of usefulness. Others want to make money, a legitimate wish. Many of us want to tell our story. I inform, perhaps even educate, on my food blog My Holistic Table. Its informational value is substantial. On A Holistic Journey, I express. Question. Sing. So how do you appraise the success of a blog? If you or your site is good-looking, if you’re hummingbird-chatty, good at stroking egos, or trumpet outrageous claims (because we all know notoriety begets celebrities, especially in America), by common definition you’re popular. But I would measure blog performance by art and impact. As much as I can, I want to leave my readers with something they can walk away with for their own journey, on or off their blog. My hope is not only to relay the narrative, as a nine-year-old can about his zoo trip, but also to open up dimensions of living that readers otherwise might miss in a way they can experience. Life expressed in all its colors. I can boast the most beautiful blog with appealing titles – in vain, if no one felt his visit was worth the time. To hear my work bears impact is so very fulfilling. On this note, I’d like to segue into a series on the writing process.

Feedback and support like yours take blogging to its potential. Lone ranging bloggers don’t make it far. It’s a communal enterprise. I could have kept the thoughts on my 30s in my private journal. But here we are at the coffee house. I think this gathering is what makes the stories live. I’ve seen blogs that boast stats more impressive than mine. But you know what? I feel successful.