Category Archives: Creativity
I just finished a writing retreat during which I did the exercises in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft: Sailing the Sea of Story. Some of them were hard work and some were really fun – just wordplay. Much to my surprise, I discovered that I, who never write fiction, am capable of whipping some story and dialogue out of thin air. Some bits turned out well and others were garbage, but I learned a lot from the process.
Here are a couple of short narratives I wrote during the retreat that I really like. The first assignment was to write with no punctuation, and the second was to use repetition of a word.
Plain glazed that’s what she always got because there were too many choices but today she would take her sweet time crumpling the $20 bill in her pocket so many combinations chocolate maple strawberry icing and cake or raised and coconut sprinkles and even bacon which sounded weird but she might try it just once she crouched at the case to think but now the heavy man too close behind her sighed and she panicked and took a dozen plain glazed hot and turned to him with lips tight but he wasn’t even looking his kids had their hands all over the case she bit hard into a donut and felt the crisp hot sugar shatter on her tongue so rude so pushy when she wanted to choose her treats she’d make him sorry with one greasy donut smear down his windshield with his fat kids and skinny wife who stunk of cigarettes and didn’t eat a donut at their table just frowned and tapped her foot until well Christ she marched to the doorway dug through her purse and lit up a Virginia Slims you could see her relax as the smoke curled out of her mouth the boys were still in with their dad getting sprinkles everywhere and slopping milk so maybe he was already sorry and she’d just keep her donuts for herself and Pop who shouldn’t eat all that sugar but fuck it we’re all gonna die of something might as well be donuts
Marcus was a troublemaker, Shasta said, and everybody knew it. Nothing but trouble would come from that boy, and wherever he set his feet, disaster would follow. If he was cursed, he decided, he and Davy might as well make the most of it. “Trouble’s my middle name,” he informed Louise behind the counter at the gas station shop. She looked skeptical but kept a sharp eye on him as he browsed the candy aisle then moved on to look at the snacks. As he pulled out a package of chips, the whole shelf fell and an avalanche of chip bags dumped around his feet. While Louise dashed over, cursing under her breath, Davy pocketed a handful of candy bars and shot Marcus a look. Later, munching the chocolate together in the dark, Davy’s praise for his smooth work warm in his ears, Marcus felt satisfied with his cursed future and considered what he and his trouble might get up to next.
North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is not a destination for upscale vacations. You enter the cheap “Going out (for) business!” beach stores through the mouth of a giant shark to buy flimsy chairs, painted shells, and non-sea-worthy swimsuits. The fried seafood buffets and ice cream shops attract long lines of people hungry after a day in the sun. Mini-golf courses compete for attention – see the volcano belching smoke! Watch the animatronic pirates battle! There’s not a bookstore in sight.
During our annual week in Myrtle, I especially enjoy walking the section of beach in front of the nearby high-rise hotel. The sand there is paved with chairs, blankets, coolers, umbrellas, and bodies of every shade and shape. Plump moms in swim dresses chase toddlers while skinny teen boys hop on skim boards. Elderly locals sit and smoke, displaying their signature deep and wrinkly tans. It’s a busy place of earthly delights – hot sun, salty waves, cold drinks, flesh on parade – not a place that seems inclined toward intellectual pursuits. Yet everywhere you look, people sit and read.
For me, this silences those constant rumbles about the death of reading. You can’t fling a plastic shovel in Myrtle Beach without getting sand in somebody’s pages. And I mean their pages, not the crevices of their Kindle, because almost no one on the beach is staring at their phone or e-reader. Thick paperbacks rustle in the breeze while the tide approaches and recedes. The beach always makes me think about the inexorable changes of time, so it feels a fitting setting to consider how humanity has been reading, in some form or another, for 5000 years.
We read constantly, most of us, without any thought or effort. Yesterday was typical: I received 87 emails and read some of every single one, even if it was just the subject line or the name of the sender. One of my Facebook groups has nearly 10,000 members, editors all around the world, who post a lot, asking questions and sharing concerns. I read these posts and many of the replies. I read texts I receive. I read news articles in print and online. I read almost all day long, and then in the evening to relax, I read.
And it’s not just avid readers like me who are always reading. All those annoying people on their phones while walking, dining out, and especially driving – they’re reading. All those people with laptops in coffee shops – they’re reading away, and even if they’re writing, they’re reading. We as a society are constant readers. Road signs, nutrition information, Tweets, fast-food menu boards, fantasy football stats, TV news crawls, Reddit threads, bumper stickers. And books – fiction and non, highbrow and low. From Fifty Shades of Grey to Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, in print or as ebooks, we’re reading.
Reading started in another hot and sandy region: ancient Mesopotamia, where the very first reading involved accounting and records of temple assets. When a man by the Tigris river 5000 years ago could look at the markings on a clay tablet and know the number of sheep to expect in a payment, reading – for the first time – gave power.
I only wanted to find out when we started reading – we humans, we non-royals, we non-clerics, we women. But as I pursued this information across 5000 years of Western history, I reached a conclusion much more compelling than just the when and the whom: Reading makes people powerful and dangerous – to institutions and to ourselves. And it always has.
The world’s very first readers (and writers) were the scribes of ancient Babylon, who recorded and read the data, news, and information that kings and administrators needed to make their civilizations grow and thrive. While these abilities made scribes powerful, they also made the scribes a potential threat to those in charge.
This dynamic continues today.
I don’t feel like a dangerous force when I’m enjoying a novel or bantering with other editors on Facebook. But the power that I, an ordinary person, can gain from reading becomes clear when I freely read whatever I choose from across the political spectrum. I can easily acquire information about joining with others to support change – potentially threatening the status quo. I also see that my reading could conceivably present a danger to me, if my government began to use data to constrain the reading of its citizens.
The power and the danger of reading are alive and well.
In the coming weeks, I will share a series of posts from my process of uncovering this idea.
A rustic mountain cabin or lonely seaside cottage might fit the fantasy of a writing retreat. But if the cost or personal overhead of running away to write is too high – and you hate the thought of working without your usual monitor setup – a home office retreat can be a great option. I just finished a two-week, at-home writing retreat. When all was said and done, I accomplished my goal of writing 500 non-awful words each day. And that was while fighting an intestinal thing the first week and a bad (but fast) cold the second week.
Here’s how I approached the retreat.
I chose the retreat dates around my clients’ schedules and notified clients (and friends) several weeks in advance that I would be unavailable and would only check email occasionally. I unsubscribed from as much junk email as possible to keep the inbox cleaner. I also made a comprehensive dinner plan and did a thorough grocery shop so I wouldn’t have to make many meal decisions or extra trips to the store.
I established daily and overall objectives for the two weeks and set a daily schedule. All of these went up in plain sight over my desk. Each day on a small whiteboard, I listed the day number, some motivational words to myself, and the day’s tasks.
Take the Time
Two weeks worked out to be an ideal amount of time. By Friday of the first week, I was really glad that I still had another week to pursue my work. By the end of the second week, I was really ready to be done, take a break from my topic, and get back to my regular routine.
My daily schedule was, as always, constrained by my dogs’ walks, but that meant I took scheduled breaks and got outside. I also made a point of eating regular meals and snacks to help my concentration.
Making the deliberate decision to take a retreat put me in a new mindset. I posted a sign-off on Facebook and took the extreme step of uninstalling it from my phone for the duration of the retreat. Losing that tyranny of notifications was a surprisingly wonderful feeling. I don’t use Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat, but I would have taken similar steps with those. I also postponed meetings and other events during the week and avoided running errands that would break up my days.
Every morning I typed up goals and thoughts for the day, and every afternoon when I was finished, I wrote an assessment of the day. At the halfway point in the retreat, I read through my notes, looked at what I had accomplished, and identified what I still wanted to get done. Then I noted what on that list was realistic. At the end, I had quite a few unfinished goals, but this whole process was an experiment for me and I felt that what I did accomplish was satisfactory. Getting a fresh take halfway through was helpful and encouraging.
- World Cup Soccer! I accidentally scheduled my retreat during the qualifying matches, which were the perfect entertainment during lunch or snack breaks.
- Giving up Facebook. Not having the blinking blue light and little F on my phone was liberating. I had other sources of news, and not being in the thick of responses to the day-to-day was such a break. I had to think hard about whether I wanted to reengage.
- Fun tools. I did my morning goals typing on my manual typewriter and my afternoon summary using the Querkywriter typewriter-style keyboard for my tablet – it was fun to use these tools and get more comfortable with both of them.
- I worked hard to make sure I would be able to keep my focus but found that I got a bit lonely, in part because my husband had several evening rehearsals. One article about planning a group writing retreat recommended having participants gather and read some of their work out loud every evening. I think building in some professional camaraderie would have been helpful, so in the future I might partner with other writers and meet a few times for non-critical reading sessions.
- Getting started with writing the first day was hard. It took some time to get into the writing mode, but having two weeks helped me not stress about some unproductive time.
- My writing topic was way too broad and my research was inadequate, even though I had done a lot in advance. My goal was to write a long essay that I could publish as blog posts, but I’m wrestling with how best to handle references and sources in that. And I didn’t have time for the research and writing for several points I wanted to make. My second goal was to consider doing a book proposal on the topic, and I’m undecided as to where I stand on that.
To keep some writing momentum going, I’m planning to schedule two designated writing days every month for a few months and see how that works out. I’m considering another retreat for this time next year, so if you’re interested in joining me, get in touch!
I’ve been reading a lot about reading lately.
Reading is something I take completely for granted. To be able to function – to understand road signs, prices at the store, medication labels, the crawl on TV news – not to mention texts and social media – we have to be able to read. Here in the U.S., we automatically teach of our children to read. We worry about how soon they start reading, fuss over whether they’re reading enough, and compare standardized reading scores in our schools and across the world.
But when did everybody start reading all the time? A thousand years ago, reading in Western culture was pretty much limited to priests and monks. When did it stop being a privilege and begin to be a necessity?
And how has technology across the centuries transformed how much we read, what we read, and how we read it? Gutenberg’s moveable type led to an explosion of reading, and today’s devices are also making an impact on what, when, and how we read. I’ve laughed at postings of an 1800s screed about the dangers of women reading novels and neglecting their families, but how does that differ from today’s social media addiction?
Another compelling strand in this knot is the notion that having books around is beneficial, even if you know you can never read them all – maybe especially then. They are aspirational on the one hand, and on the other, they remind you that you can’t know it all, and therefore keep you humble.
My reading about reading has made me want to read much more about reading. And then do some writing. I’ve planned a writing retreat for next month to work on this, so stay tuned!
It’s a tough choice: which cookie to eat?
Really, it shouldn’t be so difficult. I can just grab any of the batch of homemade cookies and take a bite. They’re not getting any fresher.
Yet still I hesitate. At Christmas, when I’ve baked decorated gingerbread or sugar cookies that I might share with friends, maybe it makes a little bit of sense to eat the uglier cookies first. Sure, take that tree that’s slightly dark and crisp on the edge. Eat that mitten where the icing ran off and the sprinkles didn’t stick very well. But that trumpet with the silver dragees? That sparkling snowflake? I almost can’t bear to see them go.
This kind of indecision does not make sense when I’m facing a batch of peanut butter-chocolate chip cookies. And yet my hand hovers over the tin. My brain whispers, “No, that one’s too perfect. Take that smaller, more misshapen cookie with not as many chips.”
Why am I saving the beautiful cookie? Sure, my husband or son would enjoy it, but not more than its less-perfect sibling.
Is it pride? Do I try to save my pretty cookies so I can show off my (not very amazing) food styling skills?
Or is it part of Giving Mom syndrome? When I was a kid, my mom always took the broken piece of pie, the slice of cake without the rose, the less attractive potatoes, and she always served herself last. During an angry teenager phase, I thought this reflected her submission to my father. But as a parent myself and a cook who loves to sit down with my husband at the end of the day to enjoy a meal I’ve prepared, I have a different perspective. Cooking is a gift to those you love, including yourself. We feed because we care and want our loved ones to be happy. We take the ugly slice of quiche because we want them to enjoy the beautiful one and we know the appearance doesn’t affect the taste. (And, if I’m being honest, we want to forestall any whining about the food by picky children.)
Maybe I just want more time with the beautiful fruits of my labors. In that case, maybe I should switch to a craft that produces something lasting. Ah, but then I wouldn’t have cookies, and that was the whole point of the exercise.
I especially enjoyed the research for this feature on youth apprenticeship programs in the U.S., including an interview with the Swiss ambassador, Martin Dahinden. The article was published in ASCA School Counselor‘s November/December 2016 issue.
Download the complete article
For the last thousand years, many young people seeking professional skills became apprentices. But if that word still evokes a plumbers’ union or a medieval guild hall, it’s time for a fresh look. Youth apprenticeship is an educational approach that is thriving in Europe and on the rise in the United States. To find the skilled workers they need, companies of all types are offering opportunities for high school students to learn in-demand skills while earning their diplomas. Participating in youth apprenticeship can help students clarify their objectives, burnish their college applications and gain an edge in the job market.
Wisconsin Snapshot: Co-op Program in Sheboygan
When the school counselors at Sheboygan South High School evaluated their national clearinghouse data, they learned that many of their graduates were not going on to college but were staying in the community. From local labor statistics, the school counseling department identified four primary employment sectors and laid the groundwork to build four pathways in the school’s curriculum. The new pathways would address a need in the community. “We can then, as a school, say with confidence to our community, ‘We’re helping to answer this labor issue,’” Schneider said. From this initiative, the new manufacturing co-op program was born. “Once we aligned our philosophies of our building with the community needs, then all we had to do was say to the community ‘We want to help you; let’s start talking,’” he said.
In June 2016, I had the privilege of working with John A. Booth and Sarah Schwind of METAVERO as they were preparing their booth and materials for the Kscope Conference. METAVERO provides Oracle implementation and support services. John is the company’s founder and managing director (he wrote a chapter of “Developing Essbase Applications: Hybrid Techniques and Practices,” which I edited) and Sarah is their operations director.
For METAVERO’s presence at Kscope, we developed a tri-fold brochure, banners for their exhibit booth and client event, website content, a PowerPoint template, and two informational postcards focusing on key components of their business. I edited or wrote text for these pieces, but the bulk of the credit goes to the outstanding artists who created the visuals: web designer Ella Hutchings and print designer Stewart Moon. It’s rare these days that I get to work on a project with so much visual emphasis—this was great fun. (Shown above are Larry Geraghty, John, and Sarah in the METAVERO booth; shown below is the horizontal booth banner.)
Cards: METAVERO Process and Fishing for Solutions
Review of “The Elements of Eloquence”
Sure, you know what a rhetorical question is and perhaps using alliteration is a particular personal preference. But did you know those are two of the figures of rhetoric? I didn’t, and I certainly never learned the names and definitions of the other 37 figures. I even attended Catholic high school (supposedly known for old-school methods, rote memorization, and emphasis on English) but neither Sister Mary Donald nor Sister Marie Immaculata ever brought up rhetoric. Until I read “The Elements of Eloquence” by Mark Forsyth, rhetoric was Greek to me. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist. The figures of rhetoric have delicious Greek names, many of which are essentially unpronounceable to your average American. Epizeuxis or aposiopesis, anyone?)
I won’t spoil your enjoyment of reading Forsyth’s delightful and funny examples to illustrate each of the figures—he draws on classical and modern literature, the Bible, recent movies, and lyrics from pop songs. But here are a couple of my favorites to whet your appetite.
An old friend used to say that when you want to make something sound important, you should say it twice. Say it twice. Various forms of repetition loom large in “Eloquence.”
We encounter anadiplosis, well illustrated by Yoda: “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hatred, hatred leads to suffering.” In this figure, you begin each phrase with the last word of the previous phrase. “There’s simply a satisfaction, half logical and half beautiful, in seeing the same word ending one phrase and coming back to life at the start of the next,” Forsyth says. St. Paul did it, Jesse Jackson did it, and Shakespeare did it.
And like my repeated use of “did it” just now, which brings up our next figure, epistrophe, Forsyth cleverly ends each chapter with an example that links to the next figure. Another player on Team Repetition, epistrophe happens when you end each of several sentences, clauses, or paragraphs with the same word.
When you begin and end with the same word, that’s epanalepsis. John Lennon used this in his song that starts “Yesterday…” and then ends, “…yesterday.” Forsyth says this figure’s act of taking us back to where we began “gives the impression of going nowhere, and it gives the impression of time moving inexorably on.” For circularity and continuation, use epanalepsis.
Forsyth works his way through all 39 figures of rhetoric, with a brief nod to scholars who dispute precisely how each figure is defined. “Eloquence” is not a textbook and won’t leave you with ready-to-use figures to whip out at your keyboard. The jacket promises to reveal stylistic secrets and show you how to write like Shakespeare or deliver the perfect one-liner. I wouldn’t go that far. Rather, this book is a linguistic dessert, an exploration of these ancient techniques that can enhance modern writing. We use many of these without realizing it—at least, when we’re writing well—and it’s fun to spot them in your own work.
For me, a special side bonus was the source of this book. That my not-quite-21-year-old son thought to pick out an entertaining language book for his editor mom warms my heart. The fact that he found the book amusing himself gives me hope for future generations of language lovers.