Blogishness, military, ptsd, Uncategorized, Writing

Can Stress Make Us More Creative? Writing, Art, And Combat Veterans…

I was recently watching this Ted Talk titled How Frustration Can Make Us More Creativeand the talk is basically about exactly what the title describes: How frustration, those hair-pulling moments, can actually lead us to some of our greatest moments of creativity.

This got me thinking about combat veterans and why I’m seeing so many of them turn to the arts after the war.

Who doesn’t know about Edgar Allan Poe? He is famous around the world for his powerful poems and short stories, but not everyone knows that he was a member of the US Military before he became a great novelist (there’s even a funny story of him showing up naked to formation). Just like him, a lot of veterans are successfully letting go of their dark and traumatic pasts and venturing into self-expression through different art media.

[pullquote]”Sometimes, we need to go through those hurricanes and rainstorms, to see and appreciate the sun.”[/pullquote] The mid-1900s was really a dark period in history as this is when numerous wars took place. Members of the military had to be in the battlefield for many weeks, months, or even years. Aside from having no means of keeping in touch with their families, veterans were exposed to a hostile environments, without any avenue for peace and quiet. This intimidating and disturbing experience took a toll on most of them, even after the war. Unfortunately, a lot of veterans who served during the war(s) were diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, which could result to trauma, apathy, or depression.

Stress is a negative emotion and people have associated it with trauma, apathy, or depression. Because of what happened in the past, people somewhat expect veterans to be demotivated and a lot less outgoing. However, with the right mindset and tons of encouragement from family members, friends, and other concerned citizens, some veterans were able to overcome this stage in their life with the help of arts.

Psychologists have proven the power of visual, written, or performing arts as an effective therapy for people with PTSD. A traumatic experience could overwhelm a person; thus, he may distance himself away from people and completely avoid interaction. People with PTSD are usually scared to vent their feelings and emotions, worrying that any form of reminder of the experience they have been though could be unbearable. With the help of different types of art such as writing, painting, playing instruments, or performing in theaters, veterans now have a channel to let go of their suppressed emotions, fears, anxiety, and loneliness. Any of these mediums give a veteran a sense of entitlement and a spark of positivity, something that they have been deprived of during the war period.

Today, there are many non-profit organizations that serve as avenues for veterans to explore their creative side. These organizations provide support and training for veterans and help them smoothly transition from military to civilian life. They also pay honor and recognition to the invaluable contribution of our veterans with programs and activities that campaign and promote the overall well-being of U.S. veterans and their families.

Groups like Warrior Writers and Words After War encourage veterans to utilize creative writing as a means of communication and self-expression. Other groups such as the United States Veterans’ Artists Alliance (USVAA) and the United States Veterans Art Program (USVAP) offer a holistic approach and a more comprehensive artistic media such as music, theater, photography, and film. Despite the differences in each group’s method or type of approach, their goal and mission is one and the same — to help veterans let go of their traumatic past and realize that there is life after war, and it is beautiful.

I think this is why beauty can come out of some of the ugliest of places. Sometimes, we need to go through those hurricanes and rainstorms, to see and appreciate the sun. There is nothing uglier than war and it’s why so many combat veterans are flocking to the arts. The storms have filled them with creativity inside and they need a release. It’s also why I think so many therapies that help veterans with PTSD include the arts. There’s a certain pent-up-ness that veterans need to get out and if they keep it inside too long, it leads to mental constipation. Art gives them that release from the frustration.

Civilianized: A Young Veteran’s Memoir

In this dark humored War Memoir, Iraq veteran Michael Anthony discusses his return from war and how he defeated his PTSD. Civilianized is a must read for any veteran, or anyone who knows a veteran, who has returned from war and suffered through Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

dark humored military memoir“An intense memoir.” -Kirkus

“I wont soon forget this book.” -Mary Roach

“A must read.” -Colby Buzzell

“[S]mart and mordantly funny.” –Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Anthony delivers a dose of reality that can awaken the mind…” Bookreporter

Order your copy of Civilianized: A Young Veteran’s Memoir .

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Thought for the Day – Mary Louise Roberts (sex & war)

“During their time in France, the GIs bought an extraordinary amount of sex. Prostitution became a widespread phenomenon during the years 1944-45 because sex was the one good not available at the local military store.” – Mary Louise Roberts 

This quote is from Mary Louise Roberts’ book, What Soldier’s Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France. The book is about, well… exactly what you’d expect from the subtitle. It’s about all the sexing that GI’s were doing after liberating France from the Germans. And oh man, was there a LOT of sex!

What I loved about this book is that it takes on an interesting/controversial topic. Many people, who’ve never served their country and/or fought in a war, have a type of mythos surrounding war and the military. As though soldiers stop being people when fighting and merely become “soldiers.” But the truth is that a soldier is still just a person, and guess what, people like sex.

[pullquote]”Comprised of the contact of flesh and the exchange of bodily fluids, the sexual encounter between soldier and prostitute could not have been more intimate. At the same time, however, such intimacy became deeply politicized as it crossed national borders.”[/pullquote]Anyone who’s served in the military, or who enjoys history, knows the stories… it happened in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and even Iraq. I had one friend tell me that “If you’re ever in Baghdad … just go to the drycleaners on base and tell them you lost a red sweater, then a few minutes later they’ll send a girl to your room.”

Now, with me sharing that red-sweater story, and Roberts’ sharing her stories, a lot of people will become upset that these stories, no matter how truthful, shouldn’t be told because of the light in which they present soldiers. That’s a bunch of bullarky. No soldier fights and risks his life just to have history whitewashed. Interesting stories should be told, no matter how they make someone/something look. And a story about the liberation of France, told from the POV of prostitutes, is definitely an interesting story that needs to be told.

Here’s the beginning of Chapter 5: The Silver Foxhole, to give you an idea of what you’re in for:

“The liberation of Paris was a precarious time for prostitutes like Marie-Therese Cointre, who had plied her trade with the Germans. In August 1944, a neighbor invited her to go out to welcome Charles de Gaulle. “If you want to get a punch in the mouth, that’s fine, but I’m not going!” she replied. Cointre knew all too well that the French Resistance of FFI was publicly shaving the heads of women who had slept with Germans during the occupation. In the turbulence of the Liberation, the FFI sometimes failed to make the distinction between a professional prostitute and a French woman guilty of “horizontal collaboration.”

If you’re interested in history, sex, and prostitution, pick up a copy of the book (but be forewarned, the author does a bit of political proselyting–just keep that in mind.)

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Thought For The Day – Friedrich Nietzsche on War

“War and courage have done more great things than charity. Not your sympathy, but your bravery hath hitherto saved the victims.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

This is a controversial Nietzsche quote–one of many–but it’s one that I actually agree with.

Too often a tragedy strikes and people give their “thoughts and prayers,” to the victims, but typically, it ends there. Sure, they’ll tweet and post caring messages on Facebook, but in all honesty, does that do anything? Anything at all for the victims? It’s sad to think about, but most people, in the face of tragedy, actually do nothing. They maybe, at most, donate a few dollars to charity and then go living their lives.

Charity’s then take the money, pay their staff first, host a couple of expensive charity events–remember the sad state of affairs of Wounded Warrior Project (which was once a great organization)–and then after all that, only a little bit of the money donated to charity will actually go to the victims.

In the face of tragedy, it’s the brave and courageous, not the charitable, that make all the difference.

It’s fine to give “thoughts and prayers,” but please be aware that, sometimes, the answer to those prayers is God using the fist of the brave.

When WWII happened, America just didn’t sit by and give our “thoughts and prayers,” we gave the blood of our bravest.

I am not a war-hawk by any means, but when I see the tragedies caused by terrorists at home and abroad, and then I see social media filled with “thoughts and prayers,” but no one taking action, it’s another tragedy.

What are your thoughts? Agree? Disagree?

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4 Friedrich Nietzsche Quotes on War

Here are a few Friedrich Nietzsche quotes on war from his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

“War and courage have done more great things than charity. Not your sympathy, but your bravery hath hitherto saved the victims.”

“If one would have a friend, then must one also be willing to wage war for him: and in order to wage war, one must be capable of being an enemy.”

“That there is struggle and inequality even in beauty, and war for power and supremacy: that doth he here teach us in the plainest parable.”

 “No one ever spake such warlike words: ‘What is good? To be brave is good. It is the good war that halloweth every cause.'”

Keep in mind that much of what Nietzsche spoke of was in reference to internal wars, as much as external ones.

 

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The New Impractical Jokers Card Game – Play at the bar with friends! (Pics included)

impractical jokers card gameThe show Impractical Jokers is one of the funniest things on TV right now. In case you’re not familiar, it’s a reality series where four friends Joseph “Joe” Gatto, James “Murr” Murray, Brian “Q” Quinn and Salvatore “Sal” Vulcano challenge each other to complete ridiculous pranks (which are, of course, filmed by hidden cameras).

It might not sound like much, but it’s a hilarious show. Trust me, try out a few episodes–it’s one of those shows where you need two or three before you get into it (that’s how it was explained to me and I fully agree; when I saw my first episode I was like “Yeah, this is okay,” but by episodes three and four I was hooked!)

Anyway, here’s why I’m writing about the Impractical Jokers today: Whenever I watch the show, part of the fun is imagining myself and my friends in similar situations and pulling similar pranks. This got me thinking, and as I result I invented: The Impractical Jokers Card Game!

Here’s the front of the cards:impractical jokers card game

There are two sets of cards:  Challenge Cards and Punishment Cards (samples below).

How to play: You and a group of friends go to a bar (or some other public venue) and each person draws a challenge card. [The challenge cards are all based on challenges that the Jokers have done on their TV show; I tried to choose simple challenges, that the casual fan would have fun with and be able to accomplish while at a bar with friends. (Also included are Joker VS Joker Challenge Cards and Jokers Wild Cards–where your friends choose your challenge!)]impractical jokers card game joe gattoimpractical jokers card game james murr murrayimpractical jokers card game brian quinn

impractical jokers new card game sal vulcanoAfter each participant either completes or fails their challenge, all losers will then draw a punishment card (other option is that you continue with the challenge cards until there is only one loser).

impractical jokers card game jaden smithThe punishment cards also have a different back than the challenge cards (so they can easily be told apart).

impractical jokers new card game punishment cards

The punishments are nothing like they are on the show. They’re more simple, buy a round of beers or appetizers for your friends, automatic designated driver next time you all go out, give your friends your phone and let them post a Facebook update for you, etc.

Now, here’s the deal. This is a supper fun game, I’ve played it with friends, but I’m not here to sell you the game. What I need though is your help in contacting the Jokers and convincing them to create an official Impractical Jokers Card Game. It’s hard coming up with challenges and punishments and I think we need the Jokers to add their magic touch and create a fun game that all us Impractical Jokers fans can take with us to the bar with friends.

If you want to help, just link the idea/images to the Jokers on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, etc. Maybe it catches on, maybe it doesn’t. Just a fun idea I had and wanted to see if there was any traction.

Thanks guys!

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Publishing A Book With An Indie Publisher Versus A Big Publisher

Open Book Indie Publisher

In a publishing climate where there are two options to publish (self publishing and traditional publishing), not a lot of people think about indie publishers (small presses) to prepare and release their works to the public.

In fact, many authors and publishing professionals actively discourage aspiring authors from signing with indie publishers, due to the fact that many of them think it’s, well, not worth it.

You Could Pick Traditional or Self Publishing, But….

An author with a finished book spends time polishing, re-reading and then polishing it once more before thinking about publishing. At this point, an author might be thinking about giving a traditional publisher a shot. Or they might want to head to Amazon and self publish the book and see what happens. Interestingly enough, both options lack some of the resources that an author would want for their book from the start.

Giving traditional publishing a shot starts with a query letter, which the author has to write and customize for each literary agent they’ll contact. Then they have to send the manuscript, sometimes printed out, to the agents if they request a partial or full manuscript of their book. Sometimes, this doesn’t happen at all—most people experience this step. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll move to the next step, which is getting signed by your agent and moving on to preparing the book for sale—which sometimes involves an extensive rewrite.

When you’re shooting for traditional publishing, keep this in mind: you’re writing a book to sell. It’s very rare for an agent to take on a manuscript that’s not as marketable as what you’d normally see on the bestseller lists.

Self publishing, on the other hand, skips all the aforementioned steps and allows authors to put their book on the market as soon as it’s all ready. Savvier people get works out on the Amazon marketplace in just a day. Self publishing, however, does take a lot of effort. Not only do you have to produce the work, you have to edit as you can, market and make your product look professional. And yes, you can hire other people to do the work, but that takes more money and time.

Going with a small publishing press, however, can change all of that. Indie publishing companies arguably combine some of the best elements of both traditional publishing and self publishing, producing an experience that allows authors to publish without, well, the hassles of publishing.

The Case with Indie Publishing

Small presses, also known as indie publishing companies, typically take on a smaller number of clients – in this case, authors. They’re responsible for handing the publishing of their signed author’s work, in addition to offering them in-house services like editing and marketing. Reputable small publishers don’t ask authors to pay an upfront fee for submissions or any other service they provide—and those that do immediately get called out as a scam service.

Between scams and small scale operations, another reason why some people don’t sign with an indie publishing company is copyright or, rather, the rights to their written works. Nowadays, many career authors are waiting for rights from their small press books to revert back to them, so they can self publish their books. Others outright pull their books from small presses, preferring to self publish in order to maintain control over their works.

The points that we covered are pretty much the main arguments against indie publishing. A lot of what indie publishing accomplishes, according to some, isn’t worth the effort if you’re not going through traditional big publisher. Others also argue that a small press doesn’t give authors the control that self publishing offers.

Publishing with an indie publishing company, however, can provide benefits that traditional and self publishing don’t offer. So, let’s review some of those benefits.

The Benefits of Publishing with a Small Press

So, you’re probably wondering what are the benefits of publishing with an indie press? Let’s not waste any more time:

Small presses don’t require authors to have an agent.

Indie publishing companies notably accept submissions from all eligible authors—as long as your book meets the submission requirements, you can send it in. Of course, you’ll have to wait until the small press opens their submissions for the public.

Some small presses are always open to submissions from unsolicited and agented writers. If your manuscript doesn’t get accepted, you’re likely to get a letter explaining what to do to improve your work before resubmitting again in the future.

Small presses provide editing, marketing and other author services.

Both traditional and self publishing require a significant degree of author intervention—yes, traditional publishing also requires a significant amount of author support nowadays.

If you’re working with a small press, however, you’ll likely not need to do much marketing or even editing, because your publisher will handle that work for you. Indie publishing companies typically employ professionals who handle editing, marketing and other book-related services to ensure that the books that get published each year are up to their established standards.

Small presses allow authors to publish books in a small niche to a wider audience.

Self publishing allows authors to publish books in countless small niches, but there’s a problem. Without marketing, many self published authors are unable to get eyes on their books. Small presses often accept book submissions in smaller niches, which helps put authors’ books in front of the eyes of readers.

Many indie publishing companies specialize in different niches, too. So, if you have a book that fits their niche, you probably should try and see if your submission will get accepted. It’s worth a shot!

Picture: Flickr/Alex Proimos

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Annotative Essay on the book: ‘All Quiet on the Western Front,’ by E.M. Remarque

all quiet on the western front annotative essay

all quiet on the western front book cover

When soldiers are sent to the trenches of war, amongst the necessity for their rifles, daily food rations and combat boots, there is also a necessity for them to have left their loved ones behind. No families are allowed on the front lines, for just as a man would never masturbate in front of his dear mother; neither would he commit an act of war.  Those things which happen during battle are for warriors’ eyes only.  But what E.M. Remarque does in his work of fiction, All Quiet on the Western Front, is to bring war to the eyes of those who have never seen it; and it is through his detailed depiction of the inner landscape of a soldier’s soul, that he gives vision to the families, and creates a truly unique work of literary fiction.

[pullquote]”A good book forces a man to convalesce into himself and write in the margins his deepest thoughts; spurred on by a word or phrase.”[/pullquote]We are carried through the book by E.M. Remarque’s main character, Paul, whose internal thoughts, emotions and musings, teach us more about war than every General and Politician, combined. No television personality or Pulitzer Prize winning journalist could convey what a soldier, who was there, can with a mere look of the eye, or a single spoken sentence, “The war has ruined us for everything.”  It is in this way that the author shows his hand; for within the first ten pages, I knew that the author had to be a combat veteran himself—after a Google search I discovered that I was right.  A reader can always intuitively feel when an author has ‘been there,’ and ‘done that,’ and not merely been to the library and done the appropriate research.  It’s why writers throughout the ages have continued to give the sage advice “stick with what you know.”  Anything else is unacceptable, phony.  And this is where the author’s true talents lay.

As a reader I felt more as though I were reading a man’s private journal than reading a work of fiction, for in the same way that fiction can feel more real than non-fiction, the author found a way to have his story told fully and personally. This is excellently done on E. M. Remarque’s part, because when an author writes a good book, it truly should act as a journal for the author’s character, and become a journal for the reader.  A good book forces a man to convalesce into himself and write in the margins his deepest thoughts; spurred on by a word or phrase.  A typical work of fiction or non-fiction hardly drives a reader to write in the margins, or to stop and pause as he ponders over a thought which has, seemingly, randomly popped into his head.  The author’s greatest achievement isn’t his descriptions of the actual landscape of war, nor his political descriptions and breakdowns of the madness of war, although both are well done, his real style is in his ability to bare a man’s/character’s soul and have the reader feel as though they are reading non-fiction rather than fiction.

“We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation.  It is not against men that we fling our bombs, what do we know of men in this moment when Death is hunting us down—now, for the first time in three days we can see his face, now for the first time in three days we can oppose him; we feel a mad anger.  No longer do we lie helpless, waiting on the scaffold, we can destroy and kill, to save ourselves, to save ourselves and to be revenged.”

It is through detailed musings like this which we learn more about the author, the characters, and the story itself, then we could through the scenery of the trees, scenes of actual battles, or dialogue. As stated before, the author excels in all three aspects, but what truly makes his work unique is the inner, not the outer.  Although, in order for the author to truly make his internal musings as powerful as he does, he sets things up by first building up the scenery of the war, “The wire entanglements are torn to pieces.  Yet they offer some obstacle.  We see the storm-troops coming…” deepens it with the scenes of action, “We make for the rear, pull wire cradles into the trench and leave bombs behind us with the strings pulled…”, and only then does he delve into the inner character workings and musing. “We have become wild beasts.  We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation…”

“E. M. Remarque shows us that what drives his story is the inner parts of a man.”

What is absent from the author’s story is any plot or typical character development. There is no arch.  No one, or nothing, is keeping Paul from his true love or his goal; nor is Paul fighting for any altruistic reason, he neither seems to be fighting against any real enemy or even himself, and he fights for no reason.  Paul is merely a man struggling to exist as a soldier in a war.  The author fills in the blanks and the storyline with, instead of a typical hero/love plot, reflections from a young soldier as he struggles through war and ultimately ends up with nothing and no one.  There is no growth.  No middle.  No climax.  No end.  No conclusion.  But the story misses nothing, and through the author’s technique of internal character exploration, the story is carried on even though we have no definitive storyline to carry us through.  War calls for no further subtext than a soldier trying to stay alive, and keep his sanity.  There is no different war story to be told.  This is what the author gives us.

A book made of such mental vivisection that if it were any more real, readers would have to be treated for PTSD.

“And this I know: all these things that now, while we are still in the war, sink down in us like a stone, after the war shall waken again, and then shall begin the disentanglement of life and death.”

“The days, the weeks, the years out here shall come back again, and our dead comrades shall then stand up again and march with us, our heads shall be clear, we shall have a purpose, and so we shall march, our dead comrades beside us, the years at the front behind us: –against whom, against whom?”

What I’ve learned from this book is that character and internal landscape is king, and combined with good scenery, good action, and good dialogue, a classic can be born. E. M. Remarque shows us that what drives his story is the inner parts of a man, but in order for that to work the scenery must be setup, then the scene itself, and then the inner musings.

For more annotative essays and other book related stuff click here.

Picture: Flickr/ Gwydion M. Williams

Best Of, Blogishness, Blogishness, MFA Notes, Self Improvement / Healthy Living, Self Improvement / Healthy Living, Uncategorized

Creative Writing (Various MFA Notes)

creative writing notesCreative Writing: Combination Notes

In these notes, the final in our series of MFA Notes, I’m going to combine any leftover notes that are too short to require completely new blog posts.

Sections covered:

  • The Sentimental Trap.
  • Subtlety of Transitions.
  • Giving Effective Feedback.
  • Character Arc: 1st POV.
  • Pain for Laughs: Making Characters Comedic and More Complex.

 The Sentimental Trap

Sentimental writing tells us what we already know, while writing that is full of sentiment, surprises, shakes us up, and moves us through originality, complexity, and the renewal of perception. It means to be scared, beyond sweaty palms and a racing heart. To be in love, beyond butterflies in the stomach.

Clichés are superficial – the woman biting her nails = she’s nervous. Biting nails is a cliché for conveying nervousness. Go deeper. Beyond, behind, the nail biting.

“Figure out what you really saw and really felt, not what you’re suppose to see or feel.” – Hemmingway

Be precise and specific. Dig deep and avoid clichés.

Main Point:

Sentimentality = Bad.

Sentiment – Good.

Subtlety of Transitions

You can prepare the reader for transitions.

Take risks as a writer. Sometimes A + B does not equal C.

All punctuation is a type of transition.

There are natural transitions in conversation/dialogue. Use those.

Giving Effective Feedback for Creative Writing

Look at the work through different lenses. Both as a reader and a writer.

Sometimes people aren’t ready for certain feedback. Ask yourself what feedback would benefit someone the most?

Make sure you’re aware if you’re looking at a tenth draft or a first draft. If it’s a first draft you’ll know not to bother with certain punctuation and grammer issues, since those shouldn’t have to be worried about until the final draft (it’s pointless to worry about commas and dangling modifiers when the sentences in which they appear will probably differ from draft to draft). And if it’s a final draft that’s when you’ll know to give it a closer line reading and make sure every comma is in its place.

Detail: Positive construction and negative construction they’re only useful if they’re in detail. Can’t just say “I like this,” “I don’t like that.” Detail helps (make as specific as possible).

Writing Prompt:

“He jumped from a cliff into the ocean. His head cracked wide, his blood swept out with the tide. “Rinse a cut with salt water,” his mother always said. But it was too late he floated dead.”

Detach from outcome. Give all you can and then just let go.

Character Arc – 1st POV

Character arc = Transformation.

What happens to a character vs. what goes on inside them.

Feel the character. Their emotional arc. *There should always be a plot arc, but we also need the emotional arc.*

Push the characters to the brink, where they have no choice left but to change.

The moment of truth. The moment of change. THE PUSH.

Pain for Laughs: Making characters comedic and more complex

Dark comedy – flawed people in pain. For a flawed character, sometimes the more pain, the more the obsession, the funnier it becomes

[For a good example watch the movie Dr. Strangelove.]

Uncomfortable → Tension → Release

What is their ruling obsession? Routine can be an obsession. Obsession can be out of character too.

Dark Comedy: Make sure it’s a combination. Don’t let it get too funny, too light, too goofy, you still want to keep that layer of darkness. Conversely, don’t let it get too dark, you need some comedy to lighten the darkness.

 *These notes were from a combination of student taught classes at Lesley’s MFA program.*

Click here to see more MFA Notes

Recommended book for this section: Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing, by Roger Rosenblatt.

Picture: Flickr/Hannah Conti

 About these MFA Notes: Revising your creative writing

Recently, I graduated from Lesley University with an MFA in creative writing, and I decided that I wanted to share what I learned in a series of blog posts.

I decided to share for two reasons:

1) My notes, although not too detailed, could possibly  help other writers.

2) Rewriting my notes forces me to re-read and re-think everything I learned, so it’s a win-win.

But before we dive in, please keep two things in mind:

1) These notes are neither complete nor perfect. The classes at Lesley were not typical lecture/note classes; the classes were filled with writing and thinking exercises and often this left no time for notes (in a good way). However, even with that, these sparse notes, I do believe, could still offer value.

2) I may, from time to time, include actual writing prompts from the classes, please bare with me, they’re first drafts and were done in the moment.

I hope you enjoy this series of notes and if you have any questions about the notes, Lesley University, or MFA’s, please feel free to contact me.

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Annotative Essay on the book: ‘Cures for Hunger,’ by Deni Bechard

deni bechard cures for hungerLiterary Pacing

deni buchard annotative essay cures for hungerAn Annotative Essay on: Cures for Hunger, by Deni Bechard

Pacing is when athletes spread out their strength and power over a period of time rather than in short bursts; longer distance runners use the technique, as well as swimmers and bicyclists. Pacing helps an athlete save themselves for the entirety of a competition/sport rather than just the beginning or end. Through pacing they’re able to spend hours giving the amorous 110% rather than just minutes or seconds—like in sprinting, etc. (Usain Bolt has no need to pace himself since he’s only running for nine seconds at a time.) But what about writers?  Writers too need to pace themselves when telling a story; and the memoir Cures for Hunger by Deni Y. Bechard is a great example of literary pacing.

“We watch and read because we’re interested in the outcome, and it’s the pacing that keeps us going as we follow along the journey…”

Just as a runner can burst ahead at the beginning of a race, foreshadowing a future win, so too can a writer burst ahead at the beginning of a novel/memoir and foreshadow what’s to come. Bechard started his memoir with a prologue in which we learn that his father has died alone and in a cabin, that his father has had trouble with the law, and that the two were estranged. Then Bechard took a jump backward and began talking about his childhood, and so started the pacing; Bechard started off ahead, letting us know what the outcome was going to be, and then it was time to just sit back and watch the other 26.2 miles of the marathon.

Through the memoir, we are shown a chronological order of events that have taken place in Bechard’s life, and that of his father, Edwin. Bechard doesn’t give us too much at once, just a consistent stride throughout. Foot after foot until the race is over. That’s how it is for running, swimming and bicycling; and that’s how it is for writing, too. A writer needs to set the tone/pace that they’re going to use through their book, essay, and memoir, and it needs to be a pace that they’re comfortable with, that they can maintain, and that will ultimately, in a sense, lead them to victory! This is what interests us as readers and spectators. We become curious whether or not the person who takes the lead is actually going to win: What if an underdog comes from behind? What if the person trips? What if they win in a way that wasn’t expected? What if no one took the lead and we’re only watching to find out who eventually wins? We watch and read because we’re interested in the outcome, and it’s the pacing that keeps us going as we follow along the journey, cheering, hooting, and hollering, crying in victory and defeat, along with the winners and losers, and the characters and narrators.

“When someone’s running a long-distance marathon, the last thing in the world he wants to do is start sprinting right out of the gate at a speed that is unmaintainable.”

Bechard tells the story on his terms, letting us know right from the beginning that he’s going to be taking us through his childhood year by year. When he introduces characters he neither introduces them obtrusively nor too circumspectly. His choice of what/when to describe certain scenery/emotions is dependable in the sense that he gives us the cues so we know what to expect—the way a runner might, for instance, always tilt his head down when running up hill. He never changes his pace and gives us too much or too little at a time, it is the same consistency through the book, little by little we find more and more and step closer and closer to the end. It is a good technique; however, not all authors use this technique. Sometimes for better or worse. Some authors will jump around with their prose. One minute they’re ten years old and then next they’re thirty. One minute we’re introduced to a dozen family members and the next we’re engrossed in ten pages of internal dialogue. In the military this is called 30, 60, 90; it’s an exercise to increase your endurance. It’s where you start walking for thirty seconds, jog for sixty seconds and then sprint for ninety seconds; and then you repeat this again, and again, and again. It’s an exercise, but this, too, can be parlayed into literary terms. Bechard takes on a very clear and steady pace throughout his story. He doesn’t have any huge time jumps—I.E. he doesn’t go from ages thirteen to thirty in a matter of pages—and we are with him every step of the way. Other authors take a more 30, 60, 90 approach, where they will start off slow, work their way up, start sprinting ahead with the story and introduce a handful of new characters, slow down again and focus on just one character or plotline, and then work their way back up. They are simply different techniques that work well in different situations and with different people.

“As a reader, I knew from the strong start, how it was going to end…”

Pacing, though, I believe, is important for any writer, and by discovering this idea of literary-stride, through reading Cures for Hunger, I realized that I needed to look at my own work and see what type of pacing that I was using; or whether I was evening using pacing in the first place? Was I just blindly running down the road taking stops whenever tired, or was I pacing myself with something that’s comfortable, something the reader could follow along with and would be interested in, something I could maintain and enjoy? When someone’s running a long-distance marathon, the last thing in the world he wants to do is start sprinting right out of the gate at a speed that is unmaintainable. He’ll become tired, winded, and unable to complete the race. In writing, one of the worst things a piece can do is start off strong and then let the reader down the more it drags on, getting slower and slower until finally the book is put down, unfinished. But, then again, there is a need to start off strong. Not too many runners, if any, can go from a last place start to a first place win. In writing we need to start off our pieces strong, but not too strong if unable to deliver that intensity throughout. The start needs to set the pace for the rest of the book: how it will be told, what it will be about, and how things will unfold. We need to see strength right from the beginning, but it cannot be overused or unmaintainable.

Now, granted, the literary pacing/athletic pacing analogy might be a little far-stretched but, in a general sense, it works. As I read Cures for Hunger, the strong start of the prologue is what initially hooked my interest. The foreshadowing of things to come interested me in seeing how things were going to unfold and come about. Then, as the story carried on further and he took us through the years, slowly giving us pieces of the puzzle, we learned more and more, until finally the end of the book. As a reader, I knew from the strong start, how it was going to end, but the pacing of the story, and having things unfold, is what kept me interested, even though I already knew the ending. There are different ways of doing this, and I’m tepid in the idea of using it in my own current work, but it was interesting to have in mind while reading Bechard’s work. Without the prologue, I don’t believe I would have been as interested, initially, in the book. If I didn’t know what the story was going to be about, and I just started reading about someone’s childhood, then I wouldn’t have been interested. But the prologue let me know that it wasn’t just a normal childhood I’d be reading about, it was a childhood of abandonment, of adventure, of estrangement, and that ended with the death of Bechard’s father. Prologue foreshadowing is only one technique, and even though I’m not sure whether I’ll be using it on my current work, the idea of it, and of pacing, in general, I will surely keep with me throughout all future work.

For more annotative essays and other book related stuff click here.

Picture: Flickr/Doran

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Notes: Serving the Memory in Memoir

serving the memory in memoir

Serving the Memory

Why do we chose to write memoir instead of fiction?

Fiction: When you think you know it.

Memoir: When you want to figure it out.

Memoir: when did the real story being with me? The incident, the wedge moment, when things came together and began.

Example: If something inspires you to write about your childhood, then write about your childhood, but star with the incident which inspired you to write about your childhood–the incident can tell us and set the tone about why we’re reading about your childhood. (Think of the narrator for the TV show “How I Met Your Mother.”)

Memoir is about roots/routes: where we come from and where we go. This is why we write memoir, to explore. Memoir isn’t just remembering something, it’s also about coming-t0-terms with something.

Readers of memoir are like the audience at a magic show, they’re not merely there for the wonder of it all, they’re also looking for the “holes,” and how it’s done. The audience at the magic show: “Look it’s in his hands.” The audience reading a memoir: “Look, he couldn’t have remembered all that.”

*Credibility* The trust just isn’t the facts, it’s the spirit of the work.

Don’t be afraid of not saying something in dialogue. Sometimes what isn’t said says a lot. Capture the spirit of the conversation more than just the actual verbatim words.

Combining and using description: Michael Ondaataje, Running the Family, he describes his sick aunt and how invalid she is and combines it with the description of the overgrown grass, vine growing up the house, etc. (The house is dying and growing old/over grown, his aunt is dying and her mind is old and withered; but the house and the aunt have their own stories of how they came to be and lived). This is a great way to combine story/memory/and description. If you can’t remember all the details of a sign, then look if you can correlate it to anything else that would fit within the story and yet still carry it forward.

Think of Memoir as Dirt: The loam–soil–from which we come and grow. It can help us grow or smother us. It can lack nutrients or the nutrients can be plentiful. Soils change–drought, fire, etc–sometimes for better or worse.

Opinions must be in memoir writing: Opinions–know why you’re writing. Own your opinions. A memoirist must know if their characters are good or bad, so they must have their opinions.

*These notes were from one of my favorite professor and mentors at Lesley University: Rachel Manley.*

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Recommended book for this section: Running in the Family, by Michael Ondaatje.

Picture: Flickr/Prathima

 

About these MFA Notes: Serving the memory in memoir

Recently, I graduated from Lesley University with an MFA in creative writing, and I decided that I wanted to share what I learned in a series of blog posts.

I decided to share for two reasons:

1) My notes, although not too detailed, could possibly  help other writers.

2) Rewriting my notes forces me to re-read and re-think everything I learned, so it’s a win-win.

But before we dive in, please keep two things in mind:

1) These notes are neither complete nor perfect. The classes at Lesley were not typical lecture/note classes; the classes were filled with writing and thinking exercises and often this left no time for notes (in a good way). However, even with that, these sparse notes, I do believe, could still offer value.

2) I may, from time to time, include actual writing prompts from the classes, please bare with me, they’re first drafts and were done in the moment.

I hope you enjoy this series of notes and if you have any questions about the notes, Lesley University, or MFA’s, please feel free to contact me.