An Exercise in Description

A couple of months ago (November, to be precise) I was invited to teach a mini-writing workshop for several middle school classes in one of the school districts near my home. I accepted readily; it offered a new challenge; I would gain local exposure (assuming that kids talked to their parents and teachers to each other); and perhaps most important, it would give me the chance to encourage and maybe inspire the next generation of writing talent.

I firmly believe that all children are, by nature, artists. They love to draw, paint, sing, and compose stories and poems. Sometime around the onset of puberty, this love of artistic expression goes away, whether because of time limits, distractions, or because they are told they are no good and even if they are, there is no way to make a living with their art. In short, they’re wasting they’re time.

I disagree. Obviously, I don’t think artistic pursuits are wastes of time.

So I devised my workshop to be encouraging what they are currently doing and, perhaps, give the students a hint at how to develop their craft.

The subject was writing description, because that is usually what the neophyte writer first attempts and so often gets wrong. I used the device of the senses as a way of crafting vibrant descriptions. All humans experience their universe through the various senses, so it can be a readily available common language.

In preparation, I made three lists of senses: the primary physical senses, secondary physical senses, and what I call the social senses.

For the first exercises, I gave the students the list of five physical senses:






Among most humans, sight is the strongest sense and that is usually reflected in description. Asked to describe a room, most people will describe what they see. That can seem cardboard and contrived. Which leads to exercise 1.

Exercise 1

Write a short paragraph—three or four sentences—describing a room, using at least three of the five primary senses.

Exercise 2

Write another short paragraph describing a room, but this time don’t use the sense of sight. How would a blind person experience the room?

After discussing the results of the first two exercises, I then introduced (by having them think of them) the secondary senses:



Where your body is (hands, feet, nose, etc.)









The students seemed to enjoy coming up with the list of senses as much as they did the writing. Next comes exercise 3.

Exercise 3

Write another short paragraph, but this time, use only one from the primary physical senses and two from the list of secondary senses.

Finally I introduced the list of what I call social senses:





Being watched

Déjà vu






Exercise 4

Write another short paragraph describing a place or situation, but use a sense from all three categories to describe it.

The whole point of these exercises was to get the students to think outside the zones they were used to thinking in. From their reactions and the paragraphs they wrote, it seemed to work. They were suddenly thinking in ways they hadn’t tried before.

And to all those who tell us that young people today are not interested in learning, or working to improve their skills, I can tell you every student wrote in my workshops and most shared their efforts with the rest of the class. I was impressed and pleased.

Whether I encouraged any of them to continue writing is a different story, one whose ending has not yet been determined.

writing, Writing advice

Writing Tips From Umberto Ecco

Last month we lost yet another accomplished writer in Italian Umberto Ecco, most well-known for the medieval mystery, The Name of the Rose. In 1977, Mr. Ecco released a writing manual, designed primarily to help his University students write academic essays, but with a section devoted to advice on the process of writing itself.

I thought them interesting so decided to share them.

You are not Marcel Proust. Do not write long sentences. If they come into your head, write them, but then break them down. Do not be afraid to repeat the subject twice, and stay away from too many pronouns and subordinate clauses.”

You are not e.e.cummings…he used commas and periods with great thriftiness, he broke his lines into small pieces, and in short he did all the things that an avant-garde poet can and should do. You are not an avant-garde poet.”

You are not J.D. Salinger. “Do not play the solitary genius.”

As the above three quotes point out, there is a difference between admiring and even borrowing techniques from an author one admires, and trying to “become” them. For one thing, no one is ever going to write like Proust as well as Proust does. No one can write poems the way e.e. cummings did as well as he. The object is to be the best writers/poets WE can be.

Are you a poet? Then do not pursue a university degree.”

I have seen this position from many accomplished authors, including William Styron, John Gardner, and, to an extent, Stephen King. As one writer explained it to me, the writing programs in most universities are born out of the Literature Departments. In other words, they are much more geared toward analyzing what had already been done, then explaining how to create something new. As Hemingway put it, if you want to be a writer, “go somewhere and write.”

We either use rhetorical figures effectively, or we do not use them at all. If we use them it is because we presume our reader is capable of catching them, and because we believe that we will appear more incisive and convincing. In this case, we should not be ashamed of them, and we should not explain them. If we think that our reader is an idiot, we should not use rhetorical figures, but if we use them and feel the need to explain them, we are essentially calling the reader and idiot. In turn, he will take revenge by calling the author an idiot.”

In his characteristic brusqueness, he tells us to have faith in ourselves and our readers. Don’t second guess. Make your statement; make it as clear as you can, then trust it to do the work.

Just some thoughts.

Until next time.

Poetry, writing

Writing By Feel

At our writing critique group the other day an interesting question came up. It was voiced by a relatively new, relatively inexperienced member. He is new to the experience of seriously writing. Thus he is looking at the subject with new eyes. It’s refreshing.

Anyway, he was completely baffled by poetry. He did not “get” it and therefore did not feel competent to critique it.

Of the four or five serious members of the group, two work on poetry consistently. Though the rest (myself included) only write poetry occasionally, but do understand it well enough to critique.

So we were suddenly placed in the position of trying to explain what poetry is and how it works to someone with absolutely zero concept.

It was a challenge.

Some very, very gifted and intelligent people have spent their entire lives studying and trying to perfect the form. We did our best in the fifteen minutes available, though I don’t know how much good we did.

The problem is that you can talk rhyme schemes and meter all you want, but that is window-dressing. The same is true of connotation, allusion, metaphor and simile. They are integral tools in the poet’s toolbox, but they are just devices that help her reach her goal. They do not explain what the goal is.

The goal is to create a “good” poem. A piece of poetic art.

And thus, the circle of reasoning is complete is because now we have to try and define what a “good” poem is.

We couldn’t do it. I don’t think you can do it. You can’t define art. Like obscenity, you just know it when you see it. It’s instinct, visceral. It’s art.

So much of what the poet (or novelist, or whatever) does can’t be explained by rules or guidelines. It is art and art is something that can’t be taught in the same way that mathematics or science is taught. You can’t tell someone to do A, then B and then you will have a good poem.

Ask a poet why she put a certain phrase in her poem and odds are she will answer that “it felt right.” It’s instinctive. It’s the same when I create a particular plot twist or character foible in my writing. Why did I do that? Because it felt right. Instinct tells us to do it. Then it works, or it doesn’t.

So perhaps the question the neophyte poet or writer should be asking is how do they develop that instinct?

There is only one way I know to do that and that is to study the subject. Read as much as you can get your hands on: good stuff, mediocre stuff, classic, modern, and experimental. Read it; memorize it. Figure out what you like and what you don’t, then try to understand why that it. Write your own work in imitation of your favorite pros. See what works.

The key is that as you do this, as you study the form, you begin to internalize the rules, guidelines, and successful examples of the art. Then, as you work on creating your own examples of the art, this internalized information will bubble up out of your subconscious. Often without your conscious mind being aware of it.

Then later, when asked why you chose to use that particular word or device at that particular place, all you’ll be able to answer (unless you choose to make up some literary-sounding gobbledygook) is that it just felt right.

So what about our new member who wants to understand poetry better? We point him in the right direction. It’s up to him to do the work. It’s up to him to groom that feeling.

Poetry, writing

A Question of Our Time

I am (almost exactly) halfway through the process of going over the initial proofs of my new novel. If you haven’t done this before, it is a very tedious, time-consuming process. Therefore, this week’s post will be somewhat abbreviated.

Last Saturday, I was privileged to participate in the 9th Annual Port Orford Poet’s Roundup, a day-long series of readings by poets and writers from Oregon’s south coast. It was very good. Each author/poet was given about ten minutes to read and many were very good. I took the opportunity to read a passage from the forthcoming novel.

The day was fun and impressive and the event unofficially marks the beginning of my personal book promotion season. There is only one problem.

No one attended.

Well, not exactly no one, the poets and authors were there, of course. But almost no one who wasn’t scheduled to read from their work attended. As far as the general public was concerned, it never happened. There was zero interest.

I’ve seen this phenomenon before. As an organizer of the South Coast Writers Conference, we have had a great deal of trouble getting more than perfunctory support from the local community. And the local bookstore has given up hosting book signings because, despite numerous posters, notices, and advertising in the local paper, no one ever showed up for them. It wasn’t worth their time or expense.

There seems to be zero local interest in any literary event anyone wants to hold. What I don’t understand is why.

Granted, these days most people aren’t readers, especially of poetry. But some are. It’s a minority, but a sizable minority. Why aren’t they interested in coming to listen to the local authors? Aren’t they a little curious what the writers are working on? Don’t they want to show some support to all the poets’ hard work?

The apparent answer is no. I still haven’t figured out why.

Maybe it has to do with the area I inhabit. It is quite honestly, a scarcely populated rural area. There is an arts community, but the artists are vastly outnumbered by folks fascinated by monster trucks. However, that cannot be the entire explanation, because even the minority interested in the arts don’t come out to these events.

Another possible explanation is that people don’t consider the written word as appropriate performance art. This is possible, though that implies people are disregarding a long, rich history of poets and writers delivering their work verbally, in readings.

Maybe it is a symptom of our modern age and mentality, our need for action and immediate gratification. Maybe the modern person, even the modern reader, does not feel attracted to the thought of sitting for even ten minutes, just listening to someone.

My brother suggested pairing the readings with something more likely to draw the public, like wine tastings. It’s not a bad suggestion, but kind of avoids the underlying question.

Maybe it’s always been this way. I don’t know.

Again, I don’t know. What I do know is how nice it would be if people would celebrate someone publishing their poem like they do scoring a touchdown.

writing, Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Registration Now Open For the South Coast Writers Conference

One of the many hats I am prone to wear (other than writer of fiction and blogger) is that of a member of the organizing committee of the South Coast Writers Conference, an annual event we hold in my hometown of Gold Beach, Oregon on the Presidents’ Day holiday weekend. It is in that role that I am pleased to announce the lineup for the 2015 Conference, February 13-14, 2015.

The Presenters are:

Kim Griswell (keynote):
Developmental editor of children’s books for Portable Press and former coordinating editor at Highlights for Children.


Hey, Kid! Have I got a Story for You!— the craft of narrative nonfiction.
It’s All About Character—characterization

Stevan Allred:
Author of A Simplified Map of the World.


Exploring Point of View—Friday intensive workshop
Dixon Ticonderoga—pencils as inspiration
Creating Convincing Characters Across Gender—characterization of those not like us.

Mark Bennion:
Teaches at Brigham Young University-Idaho. Author of two poetry collections: Psalm and Selah, and Forsythia.


Close Observation and Resonant Sources (twice)

Dan Berne:
Author of The Gods of Second Chances, his debut novel.


Market Trends You Need to know About
Build Your Marketing Plan

Mark Graham:
Musician who has performed at The Newport Folk Festival and The Prairie Home Companion.


Art of Satiric and Comic Song

Nina Kiriki Hoffman:
Stoker and Nebula Award winning author of fiction.


Find Magic in Your Own Backyard
Setting is Character is Setting

Elena Passarello:
Her debut collection Let Me Clear My Throat won the Independent Publishers Association Gold Medal for non-fiction and was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. She teaches at Oregon State University.


Research in Literary Prose
The Ol’ Collage Try
—collage story telling

Liz Prato:
The author of Baby’s On Fire: Stories.


Perfect Your First Two Pages—Friday intensive workshop
Master Your Point of View
The Ins and Outs of Publishing in Lit Journals

Jeffrey Schultz:
The author of the National Poetry Series Selection: What Ridiculous Things We Could Ask of Each Other. He is the Interim Director of the Creative Writing Program at Pepperdine University.


Voice, Personality, and Perspective
Metonymy and Experience
—alternate literary devices

Tess Thompson:
Bestselling author of romantic suspense.


Conquering Dialogue—Friday intensive workshop
Dialogue for Page-turning Fiction–(condensed version of the Friday workshop)

Once again, we have invited some of the best writers of the Pacific Northwest to guide you in an exploration and celebration of the many facets of writing. Participation in workshops is limited to 25 students for each of the three, intensive, Friday workshops and to 30 for the Saturday workshops. Participants are urged to register early to secure a seat in the workshops they want.

The South Coast Writers Conference. Gold Beach, Oregon, United States. Friday February 13, Saturday February 14, 2015.

For more information on the conference, contact the Gold Beach Center of Southwestern Oregon Community College at 541-247-2741 or visit the conference website at http://www.socc.edu/scwriters.

Writing advice

Prose Need Help? Try Poetry.

A friend, who happens to be an excellent writer and editor, has a rule I would like to share with everyone because I think it is very good. Her rule is to read some poetry before you sit down to do any editing or re-writing. My only change would be to simplify it. I think it should read: read some poetry. Period.

But…but…I can hear the objections already…I don’t write poetry. I don’t even write fiction. Why should I spend my precious time reading poetry?

Another quiet voice says what many are also thinking: I don’t even get poetry.

I know, I know. I understand. I’m nowhere near a great poet myself and I haven’t made poetry (particularly modern poetry) a central part of my studies. However, I do read poetry I like and I will tell you why, then you can decide whether you should too.

Years ago, when I was in college and trying to get my feet wet in this writing gig, my roommate suggested I take a poetry writing class. The reason? My writing, though adequate for the beginner I was, lacked magic, lacked the music and beauty of language. He thought a term or two spent studying and writing poetry would help improve my prose.

He was right. (He was a very intelligent man. I was intelligent enough to see that and take his advice). After studying and writing poetry for a while, I began to write prose that was more poetic, with more of the beauty in language. Better.

Cool. But you still don’t write poetry, you say, or fiction. You still don’t see how reading or writing poetry can help you.

Consider this, whether you’re writing a humorous blog about the perils of family life, or a four-volume annotated history of The War of The Roses, you write description. You write scenes containing action. You may even write scenes containing dialogue. Wouldn’t these scenes be improved if they were more poetic?

The study of poetry (even if “study” just means reading a couple of your favorite poems to open your writing session each day) can help your writing in three important ways:

It teaches you to think and write in metaphor and simile.

If you don’t know what metaphors and similes are, I suggest you look up the definitions. Even in the driest of academic papers, the use of metaphor and simile can imbue (I always wanted to use that word) your work with deeper shades of meaning. It can also save time and space. “Walking through Bagdad on an August afternoon was like walking through an oven on broil.” gives the reader a richer mental picture than a hundred descriptive words about temperature and dust.

It teaches you to harness the native power of the rhythm inherent in language.

There is a rhythm to every language. The rhythm differs depending on what the language is trying to do. A speech to a political rally is going to have a different rhythm than a description of a peaceful mountain meadow, which is going to be different than an argument between spouses. Since the poetic form is usually short and consciously uses rhythm and meter, it is easier to see how the poet uses it to reinforce the message of the words she’s using.

It teaches you to write concisely, making every word count.

Poetry, by definition, is the use of supercharged language to evoke an emotion or idea. Thus, more than most other forms of literature, the poet searches intensely for the perfect word for what she wants to say. It not only has to have the right definition, but must have the perfect connotation and associations, the perfect allusions, and (see above) the proper rhythm. Reading good poetry gets your mind in the habit of writing with the fewest, most powerful words.

So, let’s say I’ve convinced you to try reading a little poetry as part of your writing habit. Now you ask me, what poetry should I read? There are thousands of poets. Shelves full of poetry books. Which ones should I read?

Well, read the ones you like. Don’t torture yourself. It will do you no good if you dread picking up the book every day. (Actually, if you don’t like it, you probably won’t pick it up much at all). So, go down to your local bookstore and find a collection. There are hundreds of them too, with titles like “A Treasury of Poems,” or “Best-loved Poems.” Something like that. Read a poem a day and mark the ones you like.

Personally, I like the English Romantics: Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Byron, with a little Tennyson thrown in for kicks. I also like e.e. cummings, Sylvia Plath, and Emily Dickenson. All have much to teach us. That’s why they are considered “Great” poets.

And then there is Shakespeare. Many of his plays, particularly the dramas, are written in verse.

Most of all, find some poetry you like and read a little—say one poem—every day as you sit down to work on your writing and see what effect it has on your work. I’m willing to bet it will be better.


Something Different: Poetry

I have never felt much confidence in my poetry, but some things need to be written as poems so I write them. Below is a random sample of my efforts.

The Passing
for Mark

Go now.
Fly away from us little bird
Time now to move on.
Thank you for sharing
Your lopsided grin,
And fierce warm hugs.
Thanks for the droopy-drawer mornings
On the front sidewalk with your big wheel.
Thanks for the sharing.
Go now.
Fly away.
Find another place
Where Mom has her chocolate chip cookies
And they’re always upside down.

Morning Song

In the morning
Before the dawn has come
The early birds cheer
Their hero’s safe return
And throw confetti at the sun.

Love Like a Sapling Grows

Love like a sapling grows
But it must be tended well.
A planted seed will never flower
If not well-watered;
Will fail to fruit
If not fed in fertile soil.
Yet, some times,
Like many growing things,
Love, even watered well and fed,
Withers and dies
For no reason we can ever know.
So we plant another seed
And try again.


Now it’s been said,
That angry word.
Both of us wish we hadn’t said it,
But both of us know the other heard it.

Now, we fall apart,
A shattered glass,
Fifteen years of a life together,
Years of a love to last forever.

Now, you lock the door.
I’ll turn in my keys,
And be the one who doesn’t love you.
You can be the one who doesn’t love me