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BACCA Writers

Innovation Inside the Lines

A minor confession: I love form. I thought I’d only write free verse. I thought I’d be one of the bull-in-a-china-shop rule breakers of fiction. I thought I’d start each project with a slate clear of the traditions that came before. But the more I read and the more I write, the more I know that form is beautiful and useful – and it’s my secret tool for innovation.

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For a long time, literary forms and their limitations were an imposition. I rebelled against rhyme. I shirked the sonnet, vilified the villanelle. I objected to outlines, too. (Who cares if they made life easier? They reminded me of schedules and routines – those despised limiters of my childhood, interrupting the long, open days of summer.) If I followed the rules, if I used traditional form, I was sure I’d be stuck, locked in some stuffy, dust-bunnied room, with outdated decor. I wanted to be a writer, unrestricted, unbound. Free to go anywhere, like the wind.

After more study and practice, I developed a grudging respect for the forms I’d mocked. I recognized that good forms have a purpose, and a tendency. The sonnet, music box-like with its rhythms and revelations, conjures an intimate experience. The villanelle lulls; lines repeat, pull, seduce. After all, even the wind wants something to blow against: leaves, channels of rock, cattails, and blades of grass. How else can it sing?

Form elevates, too, inviting precision and tautness. When making poems or stories, using form can be like stretching words to fit a frame, pulling ideas across lines until they are strong and resonant, like the skin on a drum. Form pushed my writing further. The unnecessary fell away. Muscly words that did twice and three times the work emerged. Eventually, I found my way to more subtle, yielding forms – syllabics underpinning a line of poetry, a fragment of myth whispering up from the molten core of story – hidden, intricate architectures that could help hold the work up, not hold it back.

Forms restrict, but they also invite us to play. The astonishing gift of form is surprise, our unexpected rise to the occasion as we work within the confines imposed. Inside the lines, we improvise and innovate, fiddling until something fresh arrives. Form, then, becomes a doorway to the new. A welcome paradox.

wildgrid. In the last few months, most of us have traded one set of limitations for another. Under stay at home orders, the days, stripped of appointments and engagements, yawned open, while the scenery stayed the same. We’ve seen (or experienced) suffering and loss, but something beautiful has happened, too. Unforgettable demonstrations of creativity have emerged from the limitations – all the sweet, wacky, clever ways that people have dreamed up to stay connected, to encourage and check on each other from a distance. Invented games. Birthday parades. Unexpected reunions. Teleconferencing-propelled collaborations, between unlikely collaborators, that resulted in brilliant performances and artistry. Stripped of airbrushing, pomp and circumstance, many of these productions have looked a little less shiny than we’re used to, but a little more comfortingly real. Maybe it reminds me of childhood: the silly, wild games, the true play of abandon and recombination built from the tools and materials at hand.

As quarantine restrictions lift, routines of normal life will return, but I hope the spirit of innovation and improvisation will persist. When the power goes out, we remember how much we love candlelit dinners, storytelling, and card games. It’s too easy to forget these simple pleasures when the lights come back on.

Here’s a favorite example of quarantine creativity: The Roots, with Jimmy Fallon and Brendon Urie, performing Queen’s Under Pressure (featuring David Bowie). It’s a great cover of a great song and a bafflingly good use of the video conferencing platform. Note, particularly, the genius use of “found-at-home” instruments by The Roots: a reminder that if we want to make music, we will find a way. Most of all, I love the joyfulness of their performance. Here’s proof that in times of stress, we still want to create things together, to delight and encourage one another. It gives me hope.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photos by the author.

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BACCA Writers

Finding the Elusive: Inspiration

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Inspiration and a Gift  – Full Moon at Bent Creek by visual artist, Stanley B Watkins

Many of us are in new territory—a time of exile has begun. Swimming in the uncertain and strange, we wait and worry and wonder and shop. It’s even hard to know exactly what we need right now and how much. Perhaps, like me, you didn’t find what you were really looking for in the grocery store. No one shelved serenity in between the bags of coffee and tea, or comfort in the paper goods aisle. No guarantees that life will return to normal were stocked on the empty shelves where they used to keep bread. We may have to create what we really need right now—we may need to find serenity, comfort ourselves and each other, and stir up some hope.

In that spirit, a week ago I reached out to a handful of my creative, artist-friends with five questions—a survey of sorts about sources of inspiration and creative process. Individuals, participating in a wide variety of creative genres and ranging from 20-something to 80-something, responded with exquisite bits of wisdom and inspiration—more of it than I can share in one post, so stay tuned!

This feels like a good time to implement the “dessert first” strategy, so I’ll share some of the most hopeful parts now—answers to the questions below. I hope that you will find these thoughts as encouraging as I have during this chaotic, strange, and lonely time.

#1 Has anything inspired you lately?

# 2 If you could give the world a present…?

Joy, whose creative fields include music, design, and art, finds inspiration looking at houses—“I immediately start moving walls in my mind and imagining the full potential of the space”—and listening to music and sounds around her—“The hum of the vacuum cleaner once turned into a song.” 

Her gift:

 I would love to give the world the gift of safety and security, real and perceived.

Gareth Phillips (a.k.a. January Zero), a singer/songwriter, recording artist, and poet, shared this slow-motion video of a Chinese spouting bowl being played—“I like most about this video that, well beyond its eye-candy value, it reveals the relationship between sound/vibratory waves and visual patterns.” 

His gift:

I would like to give everyone an hour of perceiving the world from a completely different viewpoint. I’m not thinking of the perspective of a different subculture or religion or ethnicity or gender, although those would work well too. I’m actually imagining if everyone could see the world through the eyes of a bird or butterfly, which can see color in the ultraviolet spectrum, or from the angle of an animal (or person) who uses echolocation, like bats and dolphins. If we could smell fear or happiness, for example, as bees and dogs are said to be able to do, how might our experience of aggression and kindness shift?

JW Kennedy, who creates cartoons and music, shared this inspiration: “Red Letter Media does a YouTube series called “Best of the Worst” where they watch really bad movies and critique (but also enjoy) them”…reminding him that “a lot of earnest joy can result when someone has the nerve to put their creative project out there, even if it technically “isn’t any good.” It’s a great inspiration to GO FOR IT and be less critical of my own work.” 

His gift:

I’d love to make a video game based on ideas I’ve had for more than a decade .. and let everybody play it for free.

A music teacher wrote that she was inspired “when a student plays something really well and I see their little smile to themselves that they got it. That inspires me. C played a whole song by ear on mandolin by himself and looked up at me and smiled.” 

Her gift:

I would give the whole world a northern lights display or shut off cell service for 24 hours so people will look around.

Anne, a writer, musician, photographer, coach, and editor, lately has been reading numerous mystery novels—“the comparisons and contrasts are super inspiring.” She has also gotten “intuitive hits for details of a writing project I’m finishing, and I’m so grateful.” 

Her gift:

 I’d organize young girls to learn to write about what’s on their minds. If they learn to trust their own thoughts and ideas before they hit puberty, I feel there is hope for them to become independent women who make up their own minds.

A painter, teacher, musician recently watched the end of the movie Lucas, she saidIf this doesn’t move you, you need malox: The locusts won’t be coming back for 17 years, I wonder where we’ll be then.” 

Her gift:

 If I could give the world a present today, it would be a work of art on the magnitude of Norman Rockwell…..when you look at it, it will inspire peace within.

Gene Beverly, a writer, woodworker, and general creative, was inspired by this quote from Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island:No matter how ruined man and his world may seem to be, and no matter how terrible man’s despair may become, as long as he continues to be a man his very humanity continues to tell him that life has a meaning.”

His gift:

Tolerance and love. I believe we are all connected with one another and whatever we do or say will in some way affect the rest of creation, be it ever so small.

Carolyn O’Neal, a fiction/nonfiction writer and beekeeper, was inspired by Elizabeth Warren at the debates—Brilliant, caring, and articulate, she captured everything I want to follow in a leader. Plus she loves dogs.” 

Her gift:

 I’d like to restore the oceans to their pre-industrial age health. Before whaling, before drilling, before plastics. I wouldn’t want to turn back the clock on anything else. Not on food or transportation or plumbing, and certainly not on health care. Just save the oceans.

Jeannie Beverly, whose creative fields include painting, photography, calligraphy, and writing, was inspired by the most recent film version of Little Women—“seeing the movie made me realize I have always identified with “Jo,” who is the writer. For the first time, I think that has always made me think I might write.” 

Her gift:

The will and the dedication to save our planet. A greater consciousness of the beauty and variety around us all the time and how terrible it is to destroy it.

Writer, Darrell Laurant, is inspired by the organization “Better Angels” that teaches people “to listen to and communicate with others with whom they disagree. This change in attitude is badly needed, and the existence of a group like this inspired me.” 

His gift:

The ability to see every other person on the planet as an individual, and communicate with him/her on that level without pre-conceptions or stereotypes.

David, a mixed media artist, writer, and idea generator, has been inspired by the return of the sun after rain, a recent excursion to natural settings on the outskirts of VCU in Richmond, and reading Howl’s Moving Castle“I recommend it for those looking to return to what it felt like having childlike fantasies.”

His gift:

Does it have to physical? If so, I’d say food. A different meal for each persons needs. I believe food is a powerful tool for just about every need. If I can get a bit more magical… I’d like to send out an aura of calm energy and let the whole world just breathe and be ok together for a little while.

Bonnie, whose creative genres include gardening, landscaping, music, and conversation, was inspired by a Kombucha workshop. She found it “fascinating and yucky at the same time! Who would’ve thought that this would’ve been a delicious drink?” 

Her gift:

 Unplug, go outside, enjoy the day and each other.

Steve, a brilliant, subtle thinker, who “composes (prose) for an audience of one,” has been intrigued by the activity of squirrels and crows he has observed on his bike commute to work—“All the squirrels look alike to me, but I don’t understand their furtive movements, I don’t know what they do when it snows, I don’t know where they live since I see so few nests in the trees. I don’t even remember what their nests are called.

And crows are more interesting than that. 

His gift:

Poverty relief is always a reasonable answer. Otherwise, an antidote.

If you’d like to participate, share your answers in the comments below.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group.

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Guest Post

BACCA Guest Blog: Like Salami and Peanut Butter: Don’t mix AI and Editing by author Jeanne Grunert

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Photo by Douglas Bagg on Unsplash

 

When I was in first grade, I concocted a salami and peanut butter sandwich. My mother, frustrated by my uneaten bologna and cheese sandwiches and other brown bag lunchtime staples, flung a challenge at me.

Why don’t you come up with a sandwich you’ll eat?”

Now, to a first grader, that’s a big challenge indeed.

I asked my older sister, “How do you come up with a new idea for a sandwich?”

She loved making sandwiches. She thought to add onion salt to a turkey with mayo and lettuce on white bread, for example, and it was sublime.

Okay, so maybe she wasn’t the first person to come up with that combination. It was still delicious.

She shrugged. “I take my favorite things and combine them.”

So I did. I took peanut butter, a perennial favorite, and slapped it on white bread. Then I took slices of hard salami and layered it on top.

It was as disgusting as it sounds and I went hungry that day at school.

Why am I telling you this story? Because to me, combining AI with proofreading creative writing is like my childhood experiment with peanut butter and salami. It’s two good things — artificial intelligence and creative writing — and combining them into an unpalatable mess.

I experimented with combining the proofreading of my novel with an AI program and made the biggest mistake of my creative writing career.

Seriously Screwing Up My Novel Release — and a Lesson Learned

This year, I released my second novel, I See You. It takes me about three years and at least three drafts to get a novel shaped to the point where I feel it’s ready to debut, and I See You was no exception.

In years past, I hired an editor to proofread my novels and novellas. A few mistakes ended up in the final drafts; I’ve found it’s inevitable when asking someone to proofread almost 400 pages of text.

This year, however, I was strapped for cash. My biggest client had gone out of business leaving five-figures of unpaid invoices on my business’ books. A magazine client also went belly-up leaving a smaller, but no less important, unpaid bill. I’ve had clients go out of business with unpaid receivables before but never two in one year.

I had no money to pay a proofreader. I scrambled for a solution and came up with the obvious. I had a paid subscription to an AI-driven proofreading software that served me in good stead when I worked on blog posts and short articles. Why not use it for my novel?

I dutifully broke the novel up into 3,000 word chunks and fed it into the churning maw of the AI-powered site, trusting it to do its good work as it had done for my articles. I saw typos captured, grammar mistakes highlighted. I clicked “okay” and thought, Well, this is fine! I just saved money on a proofreader!

I scheduled my novel’s release to great fanfare on social media. My loyal fans queued up to purchase advance copies. They had waited three years to learn what happened to the Majek family; many had grown close to the main characters. They couldn’t wait for the novel to hit Amazon’s virtual shelves, and I couldn’t wait, either.

Until the day my friend Barb, a loyal reader and fan of my work and the editor of a national magazine, dropped me an email bombshell.

I think Amazon published a previous draft,” Barb wrote in a confidential text message. “I’ve just read the first chapter and found three typos in the first six pages alone. I can’t go on. When you correct the errors, let me know.”

What? How could three mistakes in the first six pages have escaped the magic AI machine’s all-knowing grammar and spelling check?

I pulled out my Kindle and scrolled through the manuscript. The mistakes leaped from the page. Broken sentences. Character names misspelled. Horrible comma usage.

What happened?

How did the AI-driven program, which was highly accurate with my blog posts about software and digital marketing, screw up my novel so badly?

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Photo by  Andras Vas on Unsplash

Creative Writing Defies Many Writing Conventions Upon Which AI Is Based

Good writing tends to be beyond the skills of predictive technology. Creative writing pushes the boundaries of acceptable grammatical conventions, often breaking rules in dialogue and descriptions.

I used the phrase “gunmetal sky” in my novel. The AI program flagged it as incorrect; it was certainly correct, as I meant to liken the color of the stormy sky to the color of a gun barrel, an ominous sign. To the AI program, ‘gunmetal’ doesn’t belong with the sky. The program wasn’t smart enough to figure out the phrase and it didn’t understand why it was there in the first place. The nuances of poetical description to set the mood and tone of a scene were beyond its capabilities.

I cleaned up my mess, had a friend who had worked with me as a proofreader in a past gig at a publishing house proof the novel, and re-released it. It’s getting great reviews, but I seriously screwed up my launch by releasing a subpar product. My hard work, three years of late nights and aching typing fingers, and the book pulled from the shelves for revision.

Lesson learned.

I could blame the AI program. I had tried to force it to work with text it wasn’t meant to work with in the first place. The company producing the AI program actually warns against using it for creative writing projects, suggesting instead that writers hire a human editor through their handy freelancer program.

It was my fault entirely that I’d tried to trust a job meant for a creative person to artificial intelligence. Peanut butter and salami. Two good things poorly paired leading to a stomach ache.

Nothing matches a skilled editor for catching mistakes and improving my writing. I started working with a new copy editor at a marketing agency gig this month and she’s not only caught my mistakes but her edits have improved my writing, making it stronger and teaching me in the process how to be a better writer.

That’s the best gift a skilled human editor brings to a project: they make a writer’s work better. No AI program has ever taught me to choose strong verbs or avoid unnecessary dialogue tags; my human editors, Donna, Marge, and Eleanor, have. The ensuing discussions about why I chose to write as I did and how it impacted them as readers also added nuances to my understanding that no artificial intelligence can match.

One day, AI programs may equal the abilities of seasoned editors. But today, I’ll trust Marge’s decades of newspaper reporting and editing, Donna’s novel writing skills, and Eleanor’s sharp-eyed proofreading when it comes to my novels. Gunmetal skies and sapphire eyes, dialogue written in English and American Sign Language, and other aspects of my novel flummoxed the AI checkers but excited and engaged the human editors.

And that’s how it should be.

Jeanne Grunert is an award-winning fiction writer and a freelance content marketing writer. She is the author of several paranormal mystery novels set on Long Island, New York’s famed Gold Coast area. When she’s not writing, you can find Jeanne hiking, gardening, or spending time with her German shepherd dog and many cats. Learn more about her fiction at jeannegrunert.com

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BACCA Writers Events

The Release of High Tide

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It’s here, now—the novel our friend worked on throughout her adult life. High Tide, by Andrea Fisher Rowland, is complete and beautiful. With her gone, High Tide is what we have left to hold in our hands—a little world of ideas, a collection of words born from her preoccupations and worries and loves and time. While she raised a son and taught school and graded papers and built a life, Andrea also wrote a novel and poetry around the edges of her life. In her last years, even in her last hours, she returned to these writings with hope.

Any writer knows that these are the moments to fantasize about: feeling the weight of your book in your hand, flipping through pages bound together in their final order, running a hand over a smooth, beautiful cover. From that first, hopeful, audacious moment that we set a pen to page, we dream of seeing copies of our book on a shelf in a real bookstore. Through the careful, devoted efforts and expertise of Dorene Fisher and Anne M Carley, Andrea’s dream of having High Tide published has been realized.

Members of BACCA and other writers that Andrea knew gave this novel their time too. Sharing work for critique a little at a time over months or years is an exercise in patience and mind-stretching understanding—for the writer and the reader. Scrutinizing parts of a larger work so closely, while trying to hold the whole of it in our minds over time is slippery business. I read High Tide both ways—piece by piece over months and months and all at once in a few days. After revisiting it, I found that as familiar as it felt, I had hardly known the novel at all. It was like trying to recognize something at a distance that I’d only been viewing under a magnifying glass. Before, I’d missed some of the novel’s dreamy energy, its pull, its soft momentum.

Experiencing it in its entirety, some of us have realized that High Tide isn’t so easy to categorize. Not just a drama or a thriller or a mystery, it borrows elements from these genres, while pressing questions about human impact on the natural world and the repercussions of our fraught relationship with the environment.

High Tide might be best described using words we know from other forms: art, music, and poetry. I think of a tapestry as I follow dynamics between characters, or sort out the interplay between the personal and universal. The voicing is fugal—as the point of view of one character rises and falls, the perspective of another character takes a turn, first doubling and amplifying themes, then diverting focus and introducing new ideas and emotions. In tone, the novel is often elegiac, as characters face moments of growth, love (in all forms), and death or loss. Whatever we name it, however we describe this book, it is best to be experienced—the fulfillment of Andrea’s dream and part of her legacy, a gift from her to us.

andrea (2)While it’s dangerous and lazy to assume that any poem or work of fiction is autobiographical, I can’t deny that writers leave a part of themselves in their work. Without assuming too much, we can still expect to meet Andrea here as we read, to find a trace of her wandering in these pages. For those of us who miss her, this is a comforting thought.

On Saturday, December 7th, we will celebrate the release of High Tide and the life of Andrea Fisher Rowland at Baine’s Books & Coffee, in Scottsville. Friends of Andrea, if you’d like to hold High Tide in your hands and meet the forces that made the publication of this novel possible (Dorene Fisher and Anne M Carley), join us in Scottsville between 10:00 am and noon.

(Baine’s Books & Coffee, 485 Valley St, Scottsville, VA 24590)

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photos by the author.

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BACCA Writers

Required Reading, Part One

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I’ve started a list of books that I consider “required reading”—not books that were forced on me, or titles that I would force on anyone else, but books that made me, the stories out of which I seem to be built.

Like most human beings, I resist when I’m told to read something and I don’t linger long in the company of those who enjoy shaming others for what they haven’t read yet. Anyone who really loves reading knows that there are too many wonderful books to read in one lifetime—you have to choose. So, while I don’t like bossy imperatives, or veiled humiliation techniques, I do love to see lists of things that have inspired others. I’ve started my own list with one of the first books that really mattered to me: The Once and Future King, by T. H. White.

I’ve heard that if you want a clue for what to do with your life, a vocation to pursue, you should look back at the things you loved to do as a kid. Buried in the play of childhood you’ll find the rewarding work of adulthood. When I was young, I became fascinated with King Arthur, and I began reading versions of the Arthurian legends and comparing them—letting the versions sink into me, letting the differences and irreducible truths permeate. I took that story in from every angle—devoted myself to it.

I could have started with Tennyson or Malory, but I began with T. H. White. The Once and Future King became the standard bearer for me and one of the building blocks of my understanding, one of the contributing factors of my emotional range. For years, if asked, I called it my favorite book. After I had studied literature for awhile, I decided that I should read it again, to see if it still had something to give, somewhere else to take me. I found that it had weathered very well.

Beyond the legend, beyond the story itself, which manages to hold up under all this re-visitation, here are just a few reasons why I love this book:

The Once and Future King starts with a children’s book. The Sword in the Stone (Book I) is a lovely book about humility, deep friendship, loyalty, forgiveness, and learning to see the world from the perspectives of others. It introduces us to Arthur before he’s a king, when he is just “the Wart.” Growing up with the protagonist, as Harry Potter fans can attest, is a powerful way to get to know a character. For the curious, there are versions of The Sword in the Stone, too—subtle variations between the stand-alone title marketed separately for kids, and the one included in the complete novel, which some critics say is darker, influenced by the horrors of World War II.

Also, one of the characters moves backwards through time, growing younger while others age. This formal choice is how White gets away with his use of anachronisms, and the 20th century social and political commentary sprinkled throughout the book. Another tiny, perfect reward that this device offers is a moment that I didn’t catch my first time through. Near the beginning, two of the characters meet—for one character, it is an introduction, the origin of what will be an important relationship, for the other (who experiences time backwards), that meeting is the very last time he will lay eyes on a beloved friend. This little heartbreak, nestled into the opening pages, disappeared the first time I read it. I could only fully feel it—as devastating as a tragic ending—after I knew what the characters would mean to each other, on my second read through.

oafk2And, I have White to thank for manticore, bodkin, escutcheon, greaves, angelica, featherfew, varvels, jesses, guidons, vergescu, fewmets, menee, hurdy-gurdy, foin, gelid, limner, ricks, rusks, purlieus, slee, souterrain, and widgeon. This is just a sampling of the rich vocabulary from The Once and Future King, a brief catalog of terms you might learn from various categories, including falconry, jousting, armory, architecture, hunting, heraldry, and archery.

Finally, The Once and Future King is full of flawed characters and human truths. I consider it a brief, effective course in empathy. The pretty people in the story aren’t always good, and the “good” aren’t always very likable. Most Lancelots you will encounter are handsome, dashing, irresistible. White’s Lancelot, however, is homely, isolated, uncomfortably religious, and he feels bad about himself most of the time. The book also gives us despicable characters who get redeemed, and decent, well-meaning characters who land in terrible positions, often of their own making—sometimes through big, glaring mistakes, sometimes through a series of little, shuffling missteps that eventually lead nowhere good. Finding themselves in tragedy, or violence, or grief, they have to choose a best way forward, an honorable way to keep going and make things better.

Do you have a core of required texts? A list of books or stories or poems, without which you’d be someone else? Please share titles from your list in the comment section below.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photos by the author.

 

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BACCA Writers

Creative Stalking

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It has taken months and pages and ink and hope, but I think I’m closing in on the story that will be my second novel.

Elizabeth Gilbert reported that Tom Waits, in an interview for GQ, said every song has a distinct way of entering into the world: “He said there are songs that you have to sneak up on like you’re hunting for a rare bird, and there are songs that come fully intact like a dream taken through a straw.” I think stories are the same. We can’t expect them all to arrive in the same way, with the same grace and ease. We can’t expect the story or the muse to do all the work.

I’d love to think I’m sneaking up on this new story, stealthy in a stylish trench coat, but I think I’m looking more like a clumsy stalker at this point. It started about a year ago. I’d been playing with a thread, batting it around, seeing where it might lead. But unlike the idea for my first novel, ROOK, this thread was quite thin. I had a character and a setting. No plot. Not yet. So, I gave myself the task of getting to know that character. I did this by writing one page (600 words) every day for a month. By the end of January, I had a lovely stack of paper. I also knew more about my protagonist and secondary characters, as well as some juicy details about setting, and a few plot lines and themes. Not a bad start.

Then I put it away. For months. When November, 2018 approached, I decided I’d try my own, unofficial novel writing month. One page a day had been easy to achieve. But the goal for NoNoWriMo (Noelle’s Novel Writing Month) would be 50,000 words. If I hand-wrote three of those unlined pages, front and back, every day, at 600 words per sheet, I’d have 1800 words, which after 30 days, would get me to 54,000—well over my goal.

Regarding my choice to hand-write and type later, I figured it would give me freedom. I wouldn’t be constantly checking my word count, interrupting the flow of writing. Besides, certain ideas never bloom for me without the time that writing by hand affords. (Although some ideas, I’m sure, which could have been captured in a typing context, might slip the slow net of writing by hand.) I also decided that I would not look back and revise, or try to keep up with typing pages. I would just focus on the writing, which meant I had a big job ahead of me after November.

I’d read advice from NaNoWriMo veterans, who suggested completing an outline first—brilliant guidance for writers who start with plot. That was not my situation, but I still needed a map of some kind, even if it didn’t take me on a straight line. So, I compiled a list. Instead of plot points, I made a list of possible scenes, situations, questions, happenings, and images that could lead me into new territory. I came up with 80 of these and they sustained me for the entire month. One of the hardest things about writing 1800 words a day is—obviously—time. I didn’t suspend my life during the month of November, so I had no time to waste. It was incredibly valuable to have an evocative list to lean on—80 ways back in to the story.

How did it all turn out? Well. There were moments of enchantment, disenchantment, and uncertainty. Since I’d done no re-reading or revision, I really didn’t know if the whole business had been a bust or a coup. I still don’t.shards

I achieved some clarity along the way, though, and learned some good lessons:

  • November is a crazy time to try to write 50,000 words. Thanksgiving. Cooking. Cleaning. Planning. Family time. Travel time. Mind-fuzzing pie. After an extremely faithful start, I let a whole week of writing slide in the middle of the month. (Thanksgiving came early last year, if you remember.) I didn’t even try to write again until the pecan pie was gone.
  • It’s true what they say: nature abhors a vacuum. For fourteen days or so, I had fiercely protected my writing time, but once my vigilance slackened, so many obligations and pressures crept in, eroding the time, luring me away.
  • Resources are important. I’d planned ahead on the paper I needed, but by day 12, I’d run out of ink in all of my good pens. I fell back on borrowed/purloined BICs, which I also demolished. After the luxury of my Navigator G7 Gel Pen Deluxe, this little downgrade made the process much less enjoyable. In Harry Potter speak, it’s like going back to the Cleansweep after you’ve busted up your Firebolt. At least I had something to put on my Christmas wish list: ink refills.
  • Finally, November taught me just exactly how little time I had been carving out in my life for an actual writing process. Nothing feels as good as writing every day. Even after I got exhausted with the project, the daily writing practice felt essential and necessary. Why is it so hard to make space for this?

I’m revisiting those pages now, hoping to find a shape to this thing, to discover the edges and center. After all the distractions, I managed a strong finish, but while I had intended to write 90 pages, I ended up with 52. Ouch. I guess it’s not all about the word count. On the other side of NoNoWriMo, I have a few things to celebrate. I have material to work with. I haven’t lost my will to write.  And, after typing a few of those November pages, I realized that on those crazy, unlined sheets of paper, I was averaging significantly more than 600 words per page…

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photos by the author.

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BACCA Writers

A Mind of One’s Own

The act of writing, getting words down, can feel like a fragile feat of magic—a meticulous balance of time, space, and solitude, and those even more unpredictable ingredients that comprise inspiration. If it sounds convoluted, sometimes it feels that way too.

A lot of writers form a ritual for this: a schedule, a place, and a set of tools or totems—some magic words—all of which, together, unlock the doors to their work. In contrast, there are the brilliant and prolific that purportedly produce with ease, like William Carlos Williams, who changed the landscape of modern American poetry while tending a thriving medical practice—whipping out poems on his typewriter between patients. Maybe there’s a middle way, something reasonable, something modest, perhaps along the lines of Virginia Woolf’s criteria for a good writing practice: a little money and a room of one’s own.

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The question of territory is critical—for the women writing in Woolf’s day and now. Carving out and claiming a space for thinking, for writing, for painting, can be a radical act, an audacious move, a declaration of independence. I find that it’s not just a question of taking ownership of rooms, but of guarding boundaries around selfhood too—body and mind.

More and more, the mind space is assaulted. Constantly steered by outside forces, shuffled into ever narrowing corridors of thought, directed to look this way or that, to feel this or that, I find it’s getting harder to know what really needs my attention, where my focus might truly do some good and where it merely feeds the frenzy.

If I want to write something of my own, I have to defend myself against the words that come in waves, entreating me to spend, own, or act; to hate, or to hate the other haters; to speak up, or to shut up; to get out there, or to get out of the way; to prepare for weather that is or isn’t coming; to declare my allegiance to the superficial; and to bow to the pretty packaging masking a destructive hidden agenda.

It helps to have a physical room of one’s own, but if I really want a safe space, I’ll need locks that work against these messages, as well as traps for ads, sound-proofing to keep out political rants and propaganda, and firewalls and Faraday cages to guard against texts, tweets, barbed comments, and non-news. I might as well build a moat.

Even if I could silence everything coming at me, what about the echoes in my own mind? If I retreat to my retreat, but carry all that noise with me, have I really gone anywhere? If I took someone else’s train of thought into my creative space, I’ve been for a ride, but have I traveled at all? Sometimes a room of one’s own isn’t enough. To find what’s real again, I might need to find a space beyond language, to visit what’s bigger than words, so that I can hear my own mind.

As someone who loves words and studies them, I could wonder why it feels essential to put them down, but sometimes we need a break from what we love. We need to be in the presence of beauty or wonder or power that can’t be shaped or limited by our methods of framing, our attempts to summarize and control. We seek out the ocean at times like this to let the roaring take over, we go to the mountains, the sanctuary, or we try to find a safe, warm spot to witness a storm.

In the presence of what’s bigger than our words, an energetic exchange happens, a settling of questions and of self-contrived debts. Finally, the gnawing stops, the faint pain of background angst that never crescendos enough to be dealt with by the conscious mind somehow gets resolved, handled completely by the beauty and by the wordlessness.

What am I preparing myself for in these moments? I want to be wiped clean, but for what? The ability to discern rightly again and become attuned, more sensitive still? From a stunned state, answers come—the truth about our most guarded wants and needs, about the unfit compromises we’ve made. Solutions to life problems and story problems rise up too—as if they were waiting for uncontested ground on which to emerge.

Maybe I want to hear the quietest sound more clearly. The other gift from this kind of time is the all-too-brief ability to interpret upon re-entry, to hear the clamor that one has acclimated to and to understand it for exactly what it is: noise. Maybe that noise has served as a distraction, diverting us away from what we might do, substituting its messages for ours. But maybe that noise has also done violence, shaping the world for us into its sharpest, most damaging version. If I want to recognize the difference, I need to recover the weight and value of words, to become a better instrument for measuring them. So that I can start again.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photo by the author.

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BACCA Writers

Finding yourself in new country

 

egg and book

It’s time to get serious about writing a second novel. Well past time.

I have been warned by other writers, and now I know it’s true: just because you’ve written one novel doesn’t mean the next one will be easy to write. Starting over is hard, especially at first. It’s much more comfortable to just keep tinkering—to keep honing and shaping that first world you have created.

It makes sense to finish before you start something new, but polishing for years, that’s a different story… a cautionary tale, in fact. In college, I remember hearing of a professor, who, after a brilliant start, frittered years of his career away rewriting that first book over and over, never declaring it finished. I can’t let this happen. I don’t want to wake up ten years from now and find I’ve written nothing new. Fortunately, a deadline looms. (I’ve learned to love deadlines in that way you love a person who tells you the truth, no matter how hard). In a few months time, the writers of BACCA will have finished reading what I’ve written. Soon, I’ll need to deliver something new.

I’ve known some artists and musicians that somehow always seem to have seven pots simmering on a four-burner stove, but that’s not me. I can only pour my full creative energies into one concoction at a time. I’m learning that both creative methods have merit and both have challenges. While idea wranglers never have to ask “what’s next?,” they might struggle with focus, follow through, and knowing where to begin. They might also have trouble ever finishing any one thing. Idea monogamists, on the other hand, might toil happily on and on, right up until they start to see that quiet dark at the end of the work, looming like the vast unknown of space. Then, watch us as we cling, lingering over what’s left to do.

Some compare the creative process to giving birth, but for me it’s more like allowing myself to be born into something new, reincarnating, or dropping myself into unknown territory. Leaving the comforts and familiar details of my first novel to explore something foreign feels a little like leaving a city I’ve loved and moving into a place that hasn’t made space for me yet.

I’ve packed up and moved over a dozen times: across towns, across states and across the short side of the country more than once. Allowing one’s self to be a stranger in a strange land is difficult medicine, a conditioning of a certain kind. My great-grandmother used to say—three moves equal a [house] fire, and I’ve puzzled over this bit of wisdom. I assume she was calculating losses: items broken, misplaced, or left behind. Before bubble wrap and packing tape, the potential for breakage during a move must have been great, and the consequences severe. Before moving vans, whatever possessions didn’t fit in the truck probably had to be given away. Perhaps it felt better to some people to just stay put.

After changing my scenery so many times, I’ve learned to pack well—things rarely break, and if I give stuff away, or leave it behind, I’m usually glad. Still, there are losses, intangible ones, that somehow always get left out of the equation: familiarity, job connections, roots, the ease of well-known routes and roads, and those casual, comfortable acquaintance-ships that make life feel just a little warmer and more welcoming. When determining what I’m leaving behind, I always forget to factor in the barista, who starts making my drink before I order, the neighbor across the street who always waves, or the cheese monger that I worked with once, who’s going to lead me straight to the wedge of triple-creme brie, which has just been freshly cut, but not a second before it had ripened. And none of this begins to cover the long-distance tax placed on real friendships, which inevitably erodes all but the strongest of connections. On the other side of a move, these losses don’t seem so intangible after all. Knowing and being known, being remembered—these are powerful elixirs that bolster hope, purpose, and connection.

 

Gifts come, too, from learning how to move: resilience, humility (being the new girl over and over is tough), map-reading skills, perspective, and, very often, some good stories.

After so many transitions, I should be an expert by now, and I do have some of it down: packing and lifting, finding a great space, and setting it up quickly. Learning how to feel at home, though, and knowing how to let go of what I’ve had to leave behind without a long mourning period—these challenges are sticky every time.

It shouldn’t surprise me, then, that instead of mapping out the unknown territory of a new novel, I’ve been hanging out in the first one—revisiting all my favorite spots one more time. I’m already nostalgic, even though I know that every book is a world that can be returned to over and over again.

For the second novel, I’m searching for an un-erodable center around which the rest can accumulate, manifest—a character, a plot, an image—that will not wear out. Something essential will come, something elemental from which I can forge more. While keeping an ear open for the call of the muse, I also find it helps to hang out often by the sacred pools where they congregate, so I’m writing every day. That way, wherever I wander, I’m never a stranger to the page.

It’s time, now. It’s time to get brave, to find myself in a new country, to learn the unfamiliar faces, and to memorize the names.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a new member of the BACCA Literary group. Photo by the author.

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BACCA Writers

Origin Stories and Anniversaries

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Photos courtesy of Gareth Phillips

 

The idea for my novel, Rook, was born out of a dream. I’m just grateful it arrived on my day off.

The dream came while I was living in the apartment my husband and I first shared after we got married, a place, I’m certain, which contained magical properties. Stretching over 1500+ square feet on the basement level of a Depression-era mansion, this space featured terracotta tiled floors, a three-season porch, steam heat, a room-sized butler’s pantry, a staircase to nowhere, one bathroom (covered in mismatched tiles—crazy-quilt style), as well as six separate exits to other parts of the house, including the boiler room. There was a forbidden fireplace and two non-functioning dumbwaiters. One of these became our liquor cabinet. A room-sized vault, with two sets of metal doors and a dial lock, served as our guest room. The previous tenant, a friend, had disabled the locking mechanism so that…well, you know. No one ever suffocated or got locked in while visiting us, but this apartment was so labyrinthine that guests often got lost trying to get back to the bathroom or kitchen.

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Living room and vault

 

Our bedroom opened onto the porch through french doors with beveled glass panes, and we slept under floor-to-ceiling, built-in wooden shelves filled with books. The books and the strange arrangement of space, I’m sure, helped usher in that Rook-dream of thieves, houses, and ghosts one late September morning.

Along with a thick, strange mood and a few images (which survived), I woke from the dream with a few words: stealing from the houses of the recently dead. I scribbled them into the notebook that I kept by my bed. The words bloomed into something more. I remember thinking: this is a good idea for a story, and an hour later, this is a good idea for a book. At some point, I switched to the computer, which I usually reserved for editing, because my hand just couldn’t keep up. Occasionally, I paused, thinking I had captured it all, and tried to do something else, but more ideas came. Eventually, my husband got curious. He’s a writer too, so when I said “I’m writing something, maybe a book,” he just smiled and left me alone.

By the end of that day, I knew my characters by name. I had mapped out a plot, written a beginning, and an ending. I knew the title and its significance. I had churned out six, single-spaced pages of text. (A big deal for a poet—I hadn’t seen that many of my own words together in one piece since my last research paper.) By the end of that week, the page count climbed to twenty. The rest of the novel, naturally, took much longer to develop. Still, the process elated me. It felt like watching something strange and intricate rise up out of deep water—the architecture of it incomprehensible, even chaotic at first, then unbelievably connected and orderly. Writing it was a pleasure and a gift.

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Bedroom and books

 

For a long time, I polished up this novel in solitude. With much anxiety, I finally let my husband read it. I researched the next steps—synopses, query letters, literary agents—and plodded on through the process. At this point, I’ve obliged several requests for my full manuscript and collected a significant pile of rejections. (My favorite is the elusive, non-response rejection—it’s made of pure silence!)

This process neither pleases nor elates.

Last October, I met with several members of BACCA and accepted an invitation to join their group. Since then, I have read their stories, and they have read mine. Slowly, chapter by chapter, story by story, we give each other our attention and time and consideration. After years of silence and solitude, walking through the rooms of Rook by myself (for the most part), I’ve finally allowed company in. Like the initial dream, this experience is another gift—one that I hadn’t known to ask for before.

While I continue seeking agent representation, our meetings seem even more necessary. Not only are these authors wise about all stages of the process, they are fierce and understanding—a rich paradoxical mix that creatives need to thrive and survive. Some say that one must grow a thick skin for this business. That might be easier. We need to be sound enough to weather the rejection that comes, but it’s through a thin skin that I see and feel. Without this sensitivity, what of worth will I have to write down?

During the brutal querying time, having a few careful readers, who know how to put books together, who care to look at the details—to sort out what’s working and what needs work—well, it means everything. Anniversaries are good moments to pause and say thank you. So, to the demigods of deadlines and leisure time, to the sender of provocative dreams, to the architects of the magic mansion, to my first reader and best champion, and to the thoughtful members of BACCA: most grateful thanks.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local authors in the surrounding community, and is new member of the BACCA Literary group.

 

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BACCA Writers

Resist, persist, and “make good art:” or, why I still need to forgive Rainer Maria Rilke

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The world is rich with encouraging words for writers. Some of my favorite right now come from Neil Gaiman, who in a commencement speech said: “Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.” I’m pretty sure I can make some glorious mistakes.

The ether is also lousy with bad advice. Too often, this is what sticks. Once, just after college, I met a lauded children’s book author, who had been invited to speak to a group of smart, creative kids about his writing process. Afterwards, I confessed my own ambitions, and he said “you have to be experienced to be a writer; you have to really live in the world before you can do anything important.” Discouraging words. Presumptuous. Ironic. Moronic. Don’t even dare to make, create, do, or try until you’re older? I wanted to cover the ears of all children within a twenty mile radius. I wanted to cover my own ears too.

Even my most beloved poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, let me down a little when, in offering advice to a young poet, famously insisted that one ask the question “must I write?” And, if the answer is less than a resounding “yes,” he lamented that “to feel that one could live without writing is enough indication that, in fact, one should not.” I tested myself during a long hiatus from writing adventures while I recovered from graduate school. Nope—I did not have to write; I proved it by not writing. Or did I?

The page stayed blank, but my creative energy spewed over everything else. Intricately constructed cheese boards emerged. Surreal mantle displays surfaced, along with invented games, and shrines devoted to all variations of the color green. My living space transformed into a museum of I’m-not-writing art installations. Creativity is a natural state, it seems. Our imaginations may have been squelched by those who meant well, or didn’t, but we all have a spark of something.

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pepper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, why are folks so eager to set up boundaries around the imagination? Why do we let them? The mantras of the gatekeepers have always been with us. You are an artist only if…you’re too young, you’re too old…you aren’t wise, smart, damaged, poor, rich, connected enough to make it as a writer, why even try? For those of us who consider artistic endeavor an important act of resistance in dark times, it’s even more necessary to ignore these and to persist right now. While bullies with power choose to destroy, others must dare to create. Young, old, solvent, broke, connected, friendless, all. The world can afford nothing less.

Here are some moves that help me press on. Find others who are also engaged in their own creative work. (Hello, BACCA. Thanks for having me.) Write nearly every day and lose yourself in it. Be brave enough to jump down the rabbit hole. I’m never sorry when I do. Discover beauty everywhere—spring is a great time for this. It’s hard to imagine a more audacious rebel than spring.

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And…listen to the encouraging words. A few more from Neil Gaiman: “Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do. Make good art.”

 

 

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local authors in the surrounding community, and is new member of the BACCA Literary group. Photos by the author.