Caution: If you want to be a writer, don’t major in English Literature. Avoid the classics at all costs!
About now, you’re scrutinizing the byline of this piece and emitting a Scooby –Doo “HUH?”
Before you dismiss me as a curmudgeon, an ignoramus, a fool, or a kook, let me do some Lucy Ricardo “splaining.” After I’d feasted on the literary victuals of Willy Shakespeare, Tommy Hardy, and even Peggy Mitchell, I realized the only meal of “belles lettres” I could prepare would be the equivalent of a grilled cheese sandwich to their Chateaubriand and foie gras. Why bother?
As a young co-ed, I learned the life trajectories of my literary heroes. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Sylvia Plath led dysfunctional and doomed personal lives. Although Flannery O’Connor wrote Southern Gothic bordering on the grotesque while leading a moral life, it was hardly a normal life a college girl would choose. She was an ill spinster whose main idea of pleasure was tending noisy peafowl in Milledgeville, Georgia! Yet, her ascetic existence appears idyllic compared to the debauchery and despondency of many literary luminaries. Passing the years like Emily Dickinson was not my dream, either.
Although a bibliophile, I wanted a harmonious lifestyle with some verve. That quest hammered a nail in my idle daydream to become a literary blue nose, a salon-frequenting scribbler of tales. Of course, the likelihood I’d ever be fastidious enough to pen an oeuvre of any merit also dimmed my writing aspirations.
Therefore, I wed; I reproduced four times; I taught school. To fill the creative niche, I joined a garden club. To connect with other women, I played bridge. To give back to society, I volunteered as a Girl Scout Leader, a PTA President, a helper with VA Hospital Bingo, etc.
Despite my added-on responsibilities and avocations, I hadn’t scratched the itch! Then, my dad reached that age of dependence. For him--84. Because of open heart surgery, loss of memory, and an inability to continue to live as a solitary widower, he moved in with my husband and me. I became a 24/7 caregiver. With my new confinement came an awakening: I was mortal. My days too are finite! I played all the roles I wanted to: I raised my kids; I’d built my Marx-a-Mansion Dream House; I’d travelled to a couple of continents. And like every other human, I’d had a life full of joys and tribulations. Luckily I’d emerged largely unscathed and still functional.
Now, I decided, was the time to write about this life of mine and maybe write about a few made-up lives too! I started attending workshops, conferences, and readings. I subscribed to writers’ magazines, joined writers’ associations, and devoured books on the subject. I put pen to paper and allowed myself the freedom to scribble, unabashed, whatever junk sprang from my head and materialized onto the page.
Sometimes, I’d find myself in the midst of “auteurs” who’d poured out their hearts and caught on paper their beautiful ruminations about horrible abuses they’ve sustained. They recorded touching reminiscences of traumatic, scarred childhoods. I, with pen posed, was dumbfounded as to what to write since my pangs seemed superficial and my longings shallow compared to other workshop attendees. Yet, I stuck ballpoint pen to legal pad and let it rip!
Now, I char hotdogs on my wordsmithing grill while other cordon bleu types stir layered potpourris of zesty ingredients that imbibing folks reflect on and savor and praise for years to come. Me, I figure a good wiener doused with ketchup and mustard hits the spot. It satisfies for the moment. I create simple fare. It may be plain, but as long as it’s palatable and satisfies some hunger, I feel I’m a bona fide chef. I write as I cook.
I’ve scratched my itch! I enjoy my type of writing: the personal essay and the occasional lark of a mystery. If my soufflé flops, it doesn’t matter. I tried. I’ve thrown caution to the wind! Finally!
It’s never too late to strike a match. Light the fire!
It seems to me some rookie writers don't understand that writing begins and ends with the EN words. ENgage, ENtertain, ENthrall. Writing without employing the EN words is simply a waste of paper and ink.
Oh, I can see you roll your eyes. You who believe your gift, your vision, your talent, your voice supersedes any requirement to actually engage your audience on even terms. After all, you are the maestro, they are merely the . . . folk. You provide the tune, and they dance accordingly.
Uh-uh. You're not even close.
A writer who does not endeavor to engage his or her audience is just an ego-addled blow-hard. A writer who fails to engage his or her audience . . . has no audience. I will not equivocate. Engage your readers, writers, or lose them. It's that simple. And non-negotiable.
A writer who writes at me pisses me off. No two ways about it. This is a writer who wants to shove something down my throat. He doesn't care about me, he just expects me to take his side because he wills me to. Well, not so fast, brother.
I will not be swayed under duress. I will not be bullied, nor snowplowed. If you want to talk to me, engage me in conversation, engage me with ideas, engage me with controversy, I'm your man. But you will not run me over with rhetoric. I will not be buffaloed.
Why enrage, when you can engage? After all, I might have something to add to your argument.
Now, let's talk about ENtertainment. Why do so many budding writers consider entertainment a dirty word? I'm guessing it's some lofty artistic ideal. Art is too serious to be merely entertaining. Horse hockey! Ever hear of a guy named Shakespeare? An entertainer if there ever was one. Still, the art geeks drool at the mention of his name. And what about Dickens? He wrote for the masses at a penny a word. And Twain, the raggedy-assed minstrel of the pen. And Steinbeck, the every-man's author.
Yet some of you take yourselves soooo seriously your pens get lockjaw. Ease up, won't you? Let some light in. Your readers don't need to be punished for your imagined sins. If you are a real writer, you are an entertainer, not a juror. Get over yourself, already. You're no better than the rest of us. Get used to it.
This is the tough one. This one requires real talent. Let's say you've ENgaged your reader. Let's say you've ENtertained your reader. Now, can you ENthrall your reader? You know what I mean by enthrall, right? I'm talking about the book you can't put down. I'm talking about the story that made you late for work. I'm talking about the tale that grabbed you by the throat and would not let go. Enthrall ain't easy.
Honestly, I can't help you with ENthrall. But if you ENgage. If you can ENtertain, you're well on your way.
I don't deny that writing is an art. But you're kidding yourself if you don't acknowledge that writing is show business first. Start with the EN words. They make sENse.
There was this turkey-plucker, see, and he was unhappy. Why? Because of mechanization. Time was you could earn a decent living as a turkey-plucker. It was a highly-regarded craft in the poultry industry, but then they developed turkey-plucking assembly lines (or dis-assembly lines, as the turkey pluckers called them). They were mechanical marvels, all that anodized steel shining brightly in the morning sunlight filtering through the factory windows. But there was no more need for a turkey-plucker like Sal Garzarelli, and he was out on the street.
No, that’s not it. There was this turkey-plucker, see, and he was unhappy. Why? Because the market for turkey feathers went south like swallows for the winter. It was all that political correctness. One of the best markets for turkey feathers was for those ceremonial head-dresses kids would wear when they played Cowboys and Indians. Who plays Cowboys and Indians anymore? No one. Kids nowadays learn about our 500 years of genocidal thuggery against the Indians – excuse me, Native Americans. And who wants to play Cowboys and Native Americans? Again, no one. So the market dried up and Sal Garzarelli was out on the street.
No, that’s not it. There was this turkey plucker, see. But he was happy. He got along with his boss and things were going well. But on a vacation to Russia, his boss was riding the Trans-Siberian Express when it was struck by a meteor the size of a city block. The train was vaporized. Sal tried to imagine his boss’s last minute on earth: was he struck mute with awe as he saw the celestial harbinger of his doom bearing down upon him, no place to run, no place to hide? Or was he playing Angry Birds on his smart phone and all he knew was that the next minute he didn’t exist anymore? The meteor left a crater which will be quite a tourist attraction as soon as the scientists finish looking at it. But that won’t help Sal’s boss and the 175 other people who are now part of the Siberian landscape.
The guy they hired to replace Sal’s boss had it in for him from Day One. Said he didn’t like Sal’s plucking technique: too spasmodic and jerky. “You gotta be smooth, Sal,” he said. “You’re a turkey-plucker, not a butcher! Leave the butchering to the butchers!” Sal told him he was the fastest turkey-plucker in the plant. The new guy just said “Maybe you are, but your turkeys look like they went 15 rounds with Sugar Ray Leonard.”
It was back and forth like that for weeks until Sal was called on the carpet and told he was being let go. Sal went straight to Bill Stefanowski, whose family had owned the plant for generations and who knew Sal’s work as well as anyone. But he told Sal that it’s hard to recruit turkey-plucking supervisors these days, so there was nothing he could do and Sal was out on the street.
When I taught English as a Second Language in adult school in South Central Los Angeles years ago, I worked with a guy named Sal. Sal wanted to be a writer.
“Tell me a story,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. “There’s this turkey-plucker, and he’s unhappy.”
I didn’t know if turkey-plucking was an actual job, but we were going to have a story about a turkey-plucker.
“What happens to the turkey-plucker?” I asked.
“Yes,” I said. “What happens to the turkey-plucker?”
“Nothing happens,” he said. “He’s a turkey-plucker, see, and he’s unhappy.”
“Sal,” I said, trying to conceal my exasperation because the two of us were car-pooling and I wanted to maintain a good esprit de corps in the car pool. “Something has to happen. You don’t have a story. You just have a premise.”
My advice went where most advice goes, and the saga of the turkey-plucker got no further off the ground than your average turkey. A few years later, I heard Sal had gotten pancreatic cancer and died. He never wrote the saga of the turkey-plucker. So I wrote this for him.
It began on a hike in the woods with my father.
"What are those bees doing to the flowers, Dad?"
"They're gathering pollen to make honey, Son."
He didn't explain their symbiotic relationship, but my curiosity led me to a library where I discovered it wasn't a one-way affair: flowers do things to bees too. Watching bees buzzing from flower to flower had not given me an understanding of their relationship. I needed words to transform observations into meaning. My love of words was born in those woods, but grew up in libraries where language became a door to learning.
Words did things to me, and that made me love them. My boyish enthusiasm for words became a creative, make-believe world where I bought them ice cream and arranged family reunions with their prefixes and suffixes.
When I came of age, the need to keep a roof over my head and beans on the table became a career in teaching people how to repair electronic equipment. When I retired, I reveled in the freedom of not having to write for anyone but myself. Participles and prepositions became words to dangle and end a sentence with. Prose and poetry became places to dump my middle-aged craziness.
That changed at a plein-air workshop where I discovered the serious side of my love for words and my enthusiasm for life. The leaders introduced themselves and a park ranger standing nearby who would take us for a short walk on a nature trail. The ranger waved hello, then asked us to follow her.
A woman near me shrugged a non-verbal "Huh?"
"Yeah," I whispered, "I'm not here to study the flora and fauna of the desert."
The ranger stopped at a Yucca, described its life cycle and pointed to its cream-colored flowers. "How does this relate to the workshop?" asked a man behind me. "I'm not interested in writing about plants and animals."
The ranger smiled. "What color comes to mind when I say fire truck?"
We replied with a unanimous "Red."
She continued with "Grass?" and we all said "Green."
Then she held up a card with the word RED on it, and asked what color we saw.
I heard myself and others say "Red" but a woman behind me said "Blue."
The woman I'd whispered to earlier said, "Wow! I didn't see that coming."
"Yeah," I replied, "the word is red but the color is blue."
The ranger had made her point. The natural world doesn't speak the language of words. It speaks the language of color, sound, smell, taste and touch. We were in our semantic heads, not in our sensory bodies. Our writing would remain in a sensory desert until we turned off our interpreting minds to see and hear and feel things as they really were. She continued to lead us out of in-the-head thinking and into in-the-body awareness. We followed her from one natural object to another, focusing on sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.
When we returned to the outdoor pavilion, I was ready to craft a poem overflowing with imagery. The woman who had said, "Blue." sat down next to me.
"That opened my eyes--literally and figuratively." I said, turning toward her. "Poetry should convey images, not ideas."
"Poems with only imagery," she countered, "however vivid and beautiful, can be boring and pointless unless--"
"Good morning." announced Bob, one of the workshop leaders. "In-the-body awareness is only the beginning of your journey outside the boxes you've built around your writing. Words aimed at the body can also be a box."
He nodded to Nancy, the other leader. "How many of you have experienced writers block?" she asked.
Everyone raised their hands.
"It's another box, isn't it? One that keeps you from writing anything."
"I cured my writers block with plagiarism." said a man to my right.
We all laughed, of course, then Nancy said, "We'd do almost anything to escape our blocks, wouldn't we? But there are better ways than plagiarism. One is to think of your writing as a fountain attached to a well. When nothing is coming out of your fountain, give yourself time to refill your well."
"I block myself," said Bob, "trying to compose and edit at the same time. That stops the creative flow. As you work on your poems today, let your imagination run free of censure and judgment. Give yourselves over to the words flowing from your i-Pads so completely that the space between your minds and your writing disappears. Play first, then work."
He turned to Nancy, who said, "Playing is writing without rules, and working is writing with rules. Which rule do we hear most often?"
A man across the table said, "Show, don't tell."
"Yes, and it's a good rule, isn't it?"
I nodded agreement and most of the other poets did too. The woman sitting next to me just smiled.
"Then it might surprise you," said Nancy, "to hear that poetry can breathe with showing and telling, images and ideas, facts and feelings. Showing and telling are not opposite, mutually exclusive kinds of writing. Each has an important role to play in a skillfully crafted poem."
As the workshop continued, the leaders encouraged us to see that we can block our best writing by following rules too absolutely. And they used showing and telling as a primary example.
"You want your readers to respond to your sensory facts with their subjective feelings." said Bob. "So engage their senses with words aimed at their bodies."
Nancy continued Bob's train of thought. "But you don't want them to see nothing but concrete imagery. So engage their understanding with words aimed at their brains so they have a subtle but accessible bridge between your word pictures and their feelings--a semantic context for participating with their intellect and their imagination."
They gave us a few more tips on how to merge what a poem means with how it means by showing and telling. Then they paired us up to craft our poems. My feedback partner was the woman who had sat down beside me when we had returned to the pavilion.
Despite the leader's play-then-work tips, I struggled to find a bridge from my notes to a poem. Worse, I had no idea what I wanted a poem to do.
"I feel blocked. They told us we were wells and fountains, but didn't explain how stuff in our wells, the notes we took on that tour, become poems in our fountains."
"Word play is how your transform that stuff in your well to thoughts and feelings for your fountain. Stop thinking and start typing. Play with every thing in your well, then we can work with one thing at a time."
The leaders had given me the same advice, but the way she said it knocked me off my block. My notes became a reservoir of free-writing associations that merged showing and telling. Facts became feelings. Words for my body became words for my head, and then words from my heart.
I drove out here from the city
to get back to nature and write poetry.
Our guide led us through the desert,
reducing its wonder to words.
That first stanza surprised me. I loved words, yet somehow knew they were only handles to carry the idea of something from one person to another--not the thing itself. My what-if wondering became the next stanza:
I would see that puzzled look
on the faces of those lichen-carpeted stones
towering over me.
And her semantic cages for rats who hop like kangaroos
wouldn't hide the suffering that made those boulders
shoulder their way to the surface and into the sky
Thinking about how my perceptions would change without our guide's bugs-and-bushes approach to nature resulted in the next stanza:
this old juniper would tell me why she stands alone
with only her needles to face a hot sun,
an empty sky, a cold, dry wind.
Those pinion pines would sing
with the bright blue voice of the jay.
And Autumn would reveal how she hides her gold
in Summer green.
And that was the key that unlocked the rest of my poem. Someone had left me standing alone in a cold, empty world. I continued playing with my notes, transforming them into a conversation with her. The final stanzas brought clarity to me and closure for my poem:
I drove out here to get back to nature and write poetry--
To meet the yucca and its moth.
To shake hands with the cactus who jumps.
To hear with my eyes and see a sound.
To taste a touch and feel a scent.
To cross over and find you
out here in the world again,
You loved words and the world,
but could not stay,
and mine won't keep you.
My poem won't win a Pulitzer Prize nor make me the Poet Laureate of even a small village. But it went a long way toward maturing my love of words and what I could do with them, for myself and those who read them.
That workshop still drives my attitude toward words and how I use them. Writing inside a box of rules and conventional thinking isn't necessarily wrong. Some rivers are made more beautiful and exciting by the canyons through which they run. But my best writing frequently results by writing outside those boxes.
Adjectives, for example. We're told to avoid them. But adjectives can keep us from being too specific or too general. Being too specific is putting readers on a short leash--not free enough to bring our words to life with our own imagination. Being too general is putting readers on a long leash--free to entertain too many associations and drift away from our poetic purposes or story-telling intentions. A boy riding his sister's bicycle to school--the one with a pink seat and tassels on its handlebars--makes it unlikely readers would envision every bicycle they've ridden.
And ambiguity. We're told to make it rich by putting words together in ways that go deep, not shallow. Shallow writing is typically maudlin and inauthentic because there's too much telling: "I'm so sad I could just die." Deep writing is typically profound and evocative because there's showing and telling: "She stood at the edge of the cliff, weeping, watching the waves crash on the jagged rocks below." Going too deep, however, can leave readers standing outside your writing saying "Huh?" because its significance for them is enigmatically inaccessible.
I love words, so I can't conclude without mentioning darlings--we're told to kill them. You know the feeling. You invest days shaping the semantic flow and sensory beauty of a sentence, a paragraph, a line or a stanza. And then you hear that silent, satisfying Snap! as your words fall into place. But alas, your efforts to put the finishing touches on your masterpiece brings you to the sad conclusion that those darlings don't belong in that collection of words.
Don't kill them! Pretend they are your children leaving home to begin life somewhere else. Or put them in a My Darlings folder where you can retrieve them to breathe life into another symphony of semantic meaning and sensory beauty.
My love of words, and the writing that springs from them, is a mirror that reflects my love of life. For without words, trying to shape and fathom the depths of life would be like struggling to solve a crossword puzzle without the clues. With them, life becomes more meaningful and less capricious. Words--we love them, don't we?
Erika Hoffman's humorous, non-fiction stories often appear in magazines like Sasee of Myrtle Beach or in nationally known anthologies like Chicken Soup for the Soul and Not Your Mother’s Book, but what she enjoys penning are mysteries; some have been published in Deadly Ink Anthologies, 2009 and 2010 and in Tough Lit Mag (II, IV, V).