Saturday, May 16, 2015

Poet Sally Nacker on Inspiration and Healing

Sally Nacker, poet
Sally Nacker is a colleague from the Fairfield University MFA program, and I had the honor of being in workshop with her, with Lary Bloom at the helm (the keynote speaker of the Ridgefield Writers Conference). Whether you’re a poet or a prose writer, you’ll find Sally’s thoughtful insights on the writing journey, including on writing as a way of healing, a reflection of a poet with a sensitive and caring spirit and much to share.

Sally received her MFA in creative writing (poetry) from Fairfield University, and her poetry collection, Vireo (Kelsay Books 2015), has been a finalist, a semifinalist and an honorable mention in three poetry book prize contests. She is a frequent visitor to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst.

AA: What was the inspiration for Vireo?
SN: Poems throughout my collection, Vireo, have been largely inspired by nature. That is the foundation for most of the work. Interwoven throughout my observations of nature are elements of joy, loss, love and grief. The collection also includes poems I composed on paintings to which I have felt drawn. In the end, the death of my mother was my ultimate inspiration.

AA: What primary obstacle did you encounter in completing Vireo, and how did you overcome it?
SN: A huge obstacle occurred when I became aware that I had accidentally described the red-eyed vireo's nesting and feeding habits inaccurately in two major poems. This sudden realization happened a few months after my mother died. I was in my last semester of graduate school, completing my thesis. I felt my collection (thesis) finished and was searching for its title. I began reading Audubon's notes on the red-eyed vireo in detail for ideas and then realized my mistake: In two major poems, I had the red-eyed vireo nesting in a birdhouse and feeding at a feeder. The red-eyed vireo, in fact, builds its cupped hanging nest onto the forks of branches, and eats fruit and insects.

Vireo, by Sally Nacker
Book jacket by Kathleen D. Michaud
I panicked! I emailed my mentor, Suzanne Matson, and my best friend and friend of the work, Leslie Schultz: “What am I going to do?" They were extremely compassionate but didn't really know what I could do. Perhaps, they suggested, I could adjust the poems a little. Out of sheer inspiration, I began writing the title poem, "Vireo." The poem began as a letter to my mother, a reaching out to her to say that the birds we watched together one spring perhaps were not vireos. Then, as I continued to write and rewrite, the poem spoke to me: It doesn't matter that the birds were not vireos, only that my mother and I thought they were, and that we derived such joy together by watching our vireos. I emailed my mentor and said the only title for this collection is Vireo. She replied: "Look no further."

AA: What primary lesson did you learn during this project?
SN: I learned what I had always felt: Art is organic, and within art accidents can be gifts. I could not have come up with the poem "Vireo" without the experience I just talked about. If it had been an idea before I wrote the poem, a manipulation of sorts, the self-discovery would not have taken place, and neither "Vireo," the poem, nor Vireo, the collection, would exist.

AA: Is there anything you'd like to add?
SN: I received my MFA in January 2013. Vireo was accepted for publication in October 2014 and published in February 2015. During the two years between graduating and publishing, Vireo was a finalist, a semifinalist and an honorable mention in three book prize contests. Along the way, I added new poems I had written that deepened the collection, and changed the ordering of the poems. My mother's death sent me into a profound grief that was released the moment I received word of Vireo's acceptance for publication. The book needed to be released in order for me to heal.

Vireo can be purchased on Amazon, at Barrett Bookstore in Darien, CT, and Books on the Common in Ridgefield, CT.

Sally Nacker will be at Poetry by the Sea: A Global Conference in Madison, CT, on Tues., May 26, at 4:30 p.m. Or visit her at Sally Nacker.

Friday, May 1, 2015

2015 Ridgefield Writers Conference Offers New Workshops and Resources

Now in its third year, the Ridgefield Writers Conference will offer new workshops, resources and guidance for writers, starting Friday evening, September 25, and running through Saturday, September 26, at the Ridgefield Library, with keynote speaker Lary Bloom.
Based on the workshop model of the MFA in creative writing, the Ridgefield Writers Conference offers practical instruction in the craft and art of writing, with new workshops and resources, panels on publishing and the writing life, agent queries, readings, and wine and cheese networking receptions with and for attendees and guests. This year’s faculty includes Michael White and Chris Belden for long and short fiction; Sonya Huber and James Chesbro for memoir, nonfiction and creative nonfiction; and Karen Osborn and Adele Annesi for storytelling and cultural narrative.
The keynote speaker for the 2015 conference is author, columnist, teacher and playwright Lary Bloom, author of The Writer Within. Described by Wally Lamb as a writer with “a sharp eye and a warm heart,” Bloom also authored the Connecticut Notebook and co-authored The Test of Our Times. His columns have appeared in Connecticut Magazine the Hartford Courant and The New York Times. Bloom has also taught at Fairfield and Wesleyan universities and Trinity College.
As with last year’s event, the Friday evening readings with Shamus Award-winning author Peter Spiegelman and author Sonya Huber are free and open to the public, including a wine and cheese networking reception hosted by co-sponsor, the Ridgefield Library. Also free and open to the public are the Saturday afternoon readings by attendees and guests, and a wine and cheese networking reception. Book and resource tables and book signings are available throughout the conference.
The Ridgefield Writers Conference runs from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, September 25, and from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, September 26. For registration and full information, visit Ridgefield Writers Conference, contact Adele Annesi or call 203.894.1908.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Remembering Your First Love: The Amateur Writer

When writers fall out of love with the habit of writing, it may be because we've forgotten our first love.

Whether or not a writer is published, or has been published recently, there’s a sense in which all writers should retain an amateur standing. The word amateur can mean anything from one who has a taste for something to a lover of something. It can also mean a dabbler, as opposed to a professional. Regardless of a writer’s status, all writers are, in this sense, continual amateurs, because we’re always learning from other writers and ourselves.

While there are almost as many reasons as there are writers to stop loving the craft and art of writing, one way to squeeze the love out of the relationship is to let it become more about obligation than discovery and joy. We start focusing on what we have to do or should do, and all by deadlines, often self-imposed, that often get pushed further and further into the future the harder we try to meet them.

Regardless why the love has been lost, one way to rekindle it is to take the pressure off. Open a page and write. Even if the process begins largely with lament, at least the words are there. Reawakening the real pleasure of writing often comes afterward, from tinkering with the words and discovering new methods of expression, even in a grousing journal entry well-written.

What’s keeping you from your love of writing?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Writing Well in 2015 - Take a Tip From a Memoirist

One of the best pieces of advice an editor can give a writer is to write; an even better recommendation is to write slowly, consciously, reflectively. That's how memoirists write, and one way fiction writers can bring a deeply reflective quality to their
work is to evaluate every word for precision, context, clarity and revelation. Here are some examples:
Clarity helps both writer and reader
  • Precision: Rather than use common nouns or noun phrases, consider more specific choices. For example, if you're referring to the area just above the upper lip, use dent, divot, groove or philtrum.
  • Context: Even original descriptions can be generic. To avoid this, consider using descriptive words or phrases that suit the context. For instance, if you're writing about a seamstress, choose words and phrases to describe the setting that relate to the art and craft of sewing.
  • Clarity: Sometimes, what's clear to the writer isn't clear to the reader. For example, how a character responds to a life-changing event hinges on who the character really is, and how mature he is at that point in the story. Make sure your character's response to an event is consistent with who he is and who he is becoming.
  • Revelation: Each word choice should reveal something to the reader about the story, plot, characters and setting.
To make the best use of the slow-writing technique, start small, with a sentence or paragraph; then move to a scene or chapter. To check for overwriting, wait a couple of days; then reread the section. You may find some cumbersome language, but you may also find that you're revealing more to yourself and your readers as you write. Generally, it's easier to trim writing than expand it. This is especially true when there's enough substance to trim.

What project are you working on now that could use a bit more precision?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

When Revising Your Prose, Take Time to Tinker

For better prose, take time to tinker
A great way to become a better writer is by revision, and concentrated revision yields faster and more noticeable results.

Taking time to self-consciously tinker with your prose can yield more progress than hours at the keypad because you’re paying attention to the before and after as you write, and learning what works and what doesn’t in real time. More importantly, you’re learning how phrasing works and why, and that yields a repeatable technique, and a repeatable technique will stay in your writing toolkit.

Here’s an example of the tinkering approach:

The highway to the beach was bathed in sunlight, and the temperature in the car was getting hotter and hotter. Jim wiped his forehead and rolled the window partway down. He couldn’t see the shore from here but could feel it.

The road to the shore shimmered in the summer sun, and the temperature in the Kia was rising like a kiln. Jim wiped his forehead with the back of his hand and rolled down the window. He couldn’t see the Sound from this flat strip of asphalt but could feel its pull like an outgoing tide.

To tinker with your prose, select a descriptive paragraph, and revise it slowly, sentence by sentence and word by word. Do the same with a short scene. This technique also helps settle the mind for improved focus.

Got editing questions? Share them via Word for Words. Happy writing!

Monday, August 18, 2014

When Nothing Is Lost, Novel Writing and Henry James

If you’re looking to enhance your storytelling, consider this advice from novel writer and essayist Henry James: Be a writer on whom nothing is lost.

James’s style in Washington Square (1880) reveals characters and story more by telling about them than showing them in scene and dialogue. Yet, the author clearly knows the people, setting and era, and knows how to present them in a way that has broader thematic appeal.

In the craft essay "The Art of Fiction," James advises, "Write from experience, and experience only …” He then adds, "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" However, there are two important caveats: It’s better to write from experience than with it (think fiction versus reportage), and if a writer is to be someone on whom nothing is lost, he or she must have first closely observed the world in order to gain that experience, and must have analyzed with some accuracy the experience gained.

The triad of experience, observation and analysis is similar to Bob Dylan’s description of the creative process as involving observation, imagination and experience. If we merge Dylan’s insights with James’s, we have the following:
  • Mine your past experiences, and look for new encounters.
  • Don’t just see what you’re looking at; observe it.
  • Analyze what you observe, and consider how it applies to the world at large.
  • Write from your experience not with it by letting your imagination create the fiction. Washington Square is based on the true story of a jilted heiress whom James heard about through a friend.
For more on Henry James and his work, visit PBS. Also see Henry James’s "The Art of Fiction" at Washington State University.

What story are you writing that could benefit from the wealth of your experience, observations, analysis and imagination?

Happy writing!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

“Some of the Best Stories Are Yours”

Some of the best stories are yours
A few posts ago, we covered how to mine family history for stories. Using similar techniques, you can mine your life for stories, too.

Reviewing your personal life for story ideas can be an emotional experience, but those very emotions can signal a story worth telling. In considering your options, ask yourself:
  • What aspect of this event in my life would others find most interesting and instructive, and why?
  • What turning point occurred as a result of this that forever changed my life?
  • What pivotal incident led to the event — the one without which the turning point wouldn't have occurred?
  • What was the main outcome?
  • What were the secondary and tertiary outcomes?
  • What were the most important consequences for me and those closest to me?
To fictionalize your story, ask yourself:
  • What if the main person in the story was of a different race, ethnic background and/or gender?
  • What if the turning point occurred at an earlier or a later stage of life?
  • What if the pivotal incident occurred in a different setting?
  • What if it was a different incident altogether?
  • What if the event’s main outcome was the opposite or vastly different from what happened?
Taking these considerations into account and changing the story accordingly should alter the plot, characters and ending, maintaining the story’s integrity while taking it into the realm of fiction.

The key to this approach is having an affinity for and/or experience in how you make the changes. For example, if you alter the setting, do you know the new locale? After all, truth is still stranger than fiction.

Tip: To spice up your story, consider this adage from John Updike. There's the story you're afraid to tell others and the story you're afraid to tell yourself. That's the one to write.

What aspect of your story are you afraid to tell?

Happy writing!

Adele Annesi is an award-winning writer, editor and teacher. Her book is Now What? The Creative Writer's Guide to Success After the MFA.

For one of the most instructive workshop-based writers conferences, visit Ridgefield Writers Conference 2014.

For queries, contact Word for Words, or visit Word for Words. For in-depth tips, visit the Online Workshop.