BLOG POST 13: SHELLEY WONG GUEST-BLOGS FOR NATIONAL POETRY MONTH- “WRITING AROUND COLOR”
Once, I was part of a class where we read “To World War II” by Kenneth Koch. It’s a sprawling ode poem addressed to a historical event. This is one of the cool things about poetry. You can address objects, history, dead people, animals, etc. You can speak to anyone or anything. This poems goes through several leaps, colliding the speaker’s life as a soldier with his life as a poet to talk about war as a person. The end is particularly brutal in its matter-of-fact language: “All you cared about was existing and being won. / You died of a bomb blast in Nagasaki, and there were parades.” As an Asian American, I felt the weight of that last line when I first read it, of the war dying along with thousands of Japanese people. I thought about the Holocaust films, novels, TV documentaries, Schindler’s List, Anne Frank in contrast with the silent, faceless horror of the Japanese people dying. We have many stories about the white victims of World War II, but what of the Japanese people who died because of the first use of a nuclear weapon?
Too often, Asians are voiceless. In the US, we rarely appear in history, media, film, or song. I wanted to write about being Asian American in response to American fear and prejudice (see yellow peril, yellow fever, see whitewashing). As a fourth-generation Chinese American, I always feel the urge to talk about my familial history because there are so few multi-generational Asian Americans who have survived due to anti-immigration legislation in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I wrote a poem to explore my complicated relationship with America through the color yellow, to talk about living and surviving in a society where people like me are often not seen.
Ready to try this yourself?
First, choose a color. Then, make notes about this color:
- Your memories containing this color, your feelings during those moments
- This color appearing in your city, in different seasons
- This color appearing in your childhood
- This color appearing in your dreams
- Dark shades of this color
- Pale shades of this color
- Image of this color darkening
- Image of this color lightening
- Another vivid color that comes to mind (for contrast) as an image
- Weird images or associations this color has that pop up into your mind
- Make two similes using this color (as red as a blaring siren)
- How do you feel about this color? Why? How do you see this color in your future?
- Come up with sensory details around this color (taste, sound, touch, sight, smell)
Use these notes to write a poem of 20 lines or less. Let the color appear at least 5 times, in different forms (eg, green, money, cactus, etc.). Use one sentence of 5 words or less. Use at least 3 senses. Approach the poem as a layered experience rather than a straightforward story.
Shelley Wong is the author of RARE BIRDS, a winner of the 2016 Diode Editions chapbook award. Her poems have appeared in Crazyhorse, Fairy Tale Review, The Volta, Sixth Finch, Southern Humanities Review, Vinyl, and elsewhere.
A Kundiman fellow and a Pushcart Prize recipient, she has received scholarships from Fine Arts Work Center and Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. She holds an MFA from Ohio State University and a BA from UC Berkeley and lives in Oakland, California.
Read more of Shelley Wong’s work on her website:
BLOG POST 12: Conflict development in Rebecca Makkai’s “The November Story”- a fiction craft exercise by Bluffton Writing Major RaeLee Hightower.
For this writing exercise, you’ll be focusing on the development of conflict in a work of new short fiction. Your goals will be to figure out what your character wants, what is stopping them from getting what they want, and how that character reacts to their obstacles, essentially making room for more conflicts to arise.
The November Story, by Rebecca Makkai, is a wonderful example of conflict between characters with opposing goals/values. In this story, the MC seeks satisfaction through her job on a reality TV show, while her significant other wants to settle down and live in the real world. Here’s a link to a full PDF of the story: http://ojs.library.cofc.edu/index.php/crazyhorse/article/view/5397/4887
Even better, you can listen to Rebecca Makkai read “The November Story” on This American Life: http://audio.thisamericanlife.org/widget/widget.min.js
And, even better- you can hear Makkai read the story on “This American Life”:
Here we go!
Imagine your character. What is it they want? If you already have a story in mind, feel free to use these prompt as revision exercises. Examine their goal for the day, the story, their life—it can be something as simple as finding their runaway dog, to seeking revenge on the king who killed their father. Take a minute or two to roll through possible motives you want to give to your character and then settle on a central drive. A character’s motivation is what drives a story forward and gives leave for obstacles to get in the way. Got a motivation in mind? Great, now let’s make it more complicated.
Now give your character a reason why they can’t get what they want. Often this means an actual person stands in their way or opposes your character’s actions or morals. Sometimes there simply exists unfortunate circumstances that complicate the reaching of their goal. Here’s a good example from The November Story that demonstrates direct conflict between the main characters.
“What’s wrong with it if we help two people find love?” … I don’t know what I’m hoping for—a friendly debate, maybe. I hope for us to stay up another two hours, talking and eating on the couch like we used to.
But she just stares at me. “Because you can’t tell people how to feel,” she finally says.
There’s a lot going on in this quick exchange, but the main point here is that each character reflects a different set of values/morals. Differing moral codes is a sure-fire way to spark some nasty conflict between individuals! So take a few minutes and imagine possible ways to stop your character from succeeding. Is there someone who wants to stop them? Are they morally conflicted? Did they fall down the stairs and now can’t go to the prom with the person they have a crush on? The possibilities are endless.
Now that you have your character’s motivation and obstacles, here’s what to do next. Give them some more. Take five minutes to come up with at least six obstacles total that separate your character from what they want and be merciless. Because this is an exercise, feel free to get over-the-top—go big or go home! Conflict is interesting, therefore, the more opportunities for conflict that you can generate, the better off you’ll be. Obviously you don’t need to use each and every conflict you come up with in your final story, but brainstorming things like this are helpful for moving your plot and character development forward.
The final part of this exercise lies in your character. Pick three of your favorite obstacles you’ve just written down, and write the ways in which your character deals with them. How someone goes about solving a problem says a lot about their personality and adds to character development, shaping the essence of the character you’re creating opportunity for some hard decisions they’ll have to make in their personal journey. Take as much time as you need, but remember: just keep writing!
BLOG POST 11: Bluffton University’s student Ben Weaver writes about ” Why?”
When coming up with new fiction work, one of the main questions you should be asking yourself is ‘why?’ Why is my character doing what they’re doing? Why is my character vital to the story? Why is the antagonist against the protagonist? Why do my characters feel the way they do, and behave the way they do? The question should always be why, because that’s exactly what your readers are going to be asking. We can use the short story, as an example of questions asked and answered throughout the story.
A reader’s first questions are ‘what are the variables?’ and ‘what is the conflict?’. In the story written by Holly Goddard Jones, these questions are answered as we read, rather than all at once. Life Expectancy is about a high school girls’ basketball coach, named Theo, who is struggling with a home life that he isn’t satisfied with, and ends up having an affair with one of his players, named Josie. However, the variables of Theo’s predicament are not given right away, they are given throughout the story. The more we read, the more questions are answered. In the beginning of the story, Holly Goddard Jones gives us hints about the relationship between the two characters by showing us the jealous thoughts Theo is having when he sees Josie flirting with another boy. By the end of the beginning page, we know that the two characters are having sex when Josie tells Theo that she’s pregnant. So far, the only variable in the story is the fact that a coach got a student pregnant. By the end of the second page, we learn why this is even worse than it originally seemed since we figure out that Theo has a wife and a terminally sick baby, which is when we learn the true extent of Theo’s conflict in the story.
The readers next question may be ‘why is Theo having an affair with a student?’. Holly Goddard Jones answers this question in the next few pages, when Theo goes home to his wife and child. She doesn’t full-out state that his home life is unsatisfactory to him, but she tells the reader by showing how he sees his surroundings at home, by describing the unpleasantness he feels when he walks through his own door.
A final question the reader would ask is ‘why is Theo having an affair with Josie, out of all the other female players on his team?’. This question is answered toward the middle of the story, when Theo thinks back to the first time he kissed Josie, giving specific details on the circumstances of their first kiss which led to their affair.
These are only a few of the main questions that Holly Goddard Jones brings up in her story, and shows us how she properly answers them while keeping the story flowing.
Using this method of answering “why” questions used in Life Expectancy, look back through one of your fiction stories (short or long), and identify any why questions that your reader may have that you have not yet answered – i.e. Why are my characters’ doing what they’re doing? Why are they important to the story? Why are the events happening in the story?
The questions could be basic, or they could be specific to your story. Every reader has questions, and it is the job of the writer to answer them while keeping the reader interested in the story. Good luck!
Ben Weaver is a twenty-year-old Psychology major/Art minor at Bluffton University. Also from Pandora, Ohio. Ben would consider myself to be a fiction writer and while currently working on a full-length novel which he hopes to get published one day. When Ben isn’t writing, he enjoys reading, particularly the Game of Thrones series. Ben’s goal after graduation is to travel and possibly become a therapist.
BLOG POST 10: Bluffton University’s professor Jeff Gundy writes about “Telling It All (Or at Least Some of It)”
Recently, Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones” has gotten a lot of attention. (You can read it here.) The title image comes from the world of real estate: agents trying to sell a house that has lots of obvious problems will point out the underlying excellence of, say, the floor joists, studs, plumbing, and wiring. Good bones. Sometimes it’s true, but often it means that whoever buys the place will have a lot of sweaty, dirty work to do and a lot of money to spend before it’s fit to live in.
But this metaphor doesn’t come into the poem until the end. “Life is short,” it begins, “though I keep this from my children.” The first three fourths of the poem is not about houses but the world, which Smith describes as “at least half terrible,” and the need to “keep this from my children.” “Good bones” comes up in a kind of nearly desperate, last-gasp effort to convince herself (and us) that this world can still, indeed, be made better: “This place could be beautiful, / right?”
This could all be terribly preachy and predictable—haven’t we all written that poem where we discover that the world is a bad place and ought to be made better, through some murky process that involves, mostly, other people listening to us? But somehow it’s not that poem, mainly because Smith doesn’t just complain, and doesn’t make herself out to be some kind of grand, superior moral figure (another thing most of us have done, yes?).
From the beginning, Smith’s poem lets us in on her own confusions and internal conflicts. Is it right to deceive your children about how much suffering there is in the world? Is it right to conceal from them the “delicious, ill-advised” things you’ve done? How do we deal with all the pain and trouble we know about, within and without ourselves, and not despair?
These are very old questions that have a way of seeming desperately relevant to whatever the current situation may be. But rather than sliding into politics (as I’m entirely willing to do, some days), let’s think about writing poems. Those I like most often recognize, in specific and particular terms, that the world is full of trouble. They also position the poet not as a superior being nor as the helpless victim of all this, but as someone entangled in all of this, not completely innocent or outside the fray, but struggling to figure out, as the movie had it, how to do the right thing.
One more note: Even while she does this, Smith walks the thin line between confession and concealment—she never tells us exactly what those “delicious, ill-advised things” might have been. And isn’t the poem all the more tantalizing for its teasing us, not revealing too much?
So here’s a prompt: write your own poem combining complaint and resistance, confession and hope. Make it sad, bold, angry, despairing, funny—whatever feeling (or, better, combination of feelings) is true to you right now. Try to be personal without spilling all the beans, to reveal and explore your complicated reality without exposing every last secret.
This poem might take any form. But one way to do something like this that I’ve often found challenging and productive is to take another poem (like Smith’s) as a kind of template. To do this, just copy the poem out, add spaces between the lines, then write your own poem in between, with your own subject matter but following its syntax and structure as closely as you can.
Here’s my try at doing this with the first few lines of “Good Bones”:
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Talk is cheap, though I keep this from my friends. Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
Talk is cheap, but I’ve wasted millions
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
on thousands of bitter, salty conversations,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
thousands of savory wasted hours
I’ll keep from my children.
I still can’t bring myself to regret.
Now this is kind of mean, and not entirely true to my own feelings, but not entirely false either. It is how I felt, honestly enough, in the moment of writing . . . if I finished the poem, I might take some of it back, find some image like “good bones” to redeem this grumpiness and gloom . . . but I might not, too. Recklessness may not be advisable on mountainsides, but in writing poems it’s sometimes invaluable.
Your poem, of course, should take its own course. Its tone might be entirely different—funny, frustrated, infuriated . . . Do try to follow some of what Smith does with repetition, ambivalence, and self-disclosure, but if you’re drawn in another direction, don’t be afraid to follow your muse. The goal, always, is to write your poem, the one you need to write and the rest of us need to hear, right now.
BLOG POST 9: Bluffton University’s Cara Echols writes about “Pynchon’s Entropy and Conflicting Science”
Thomas Pynchon’s short story Entropy is rich with conflict in every sense of the word. This confusing, dazzling piece of scientific fiction presents a mastery display of chaos and calamity that all boils down into one thing: conflict. But what is the conflict? Well, one may think of “Entropy” housing a collection of conflicting points brought on by the scientific element known as equilibrium.
The scientific term entropy breaks down to the basic idea that chaos within a system must disperse to create a sense of order (described in the second law of thermodynamics). An unequal balance in a system will eventually equal out and create that state of equilibrium. Pynchon uses this scientific idea of chaos transforming into order to create the conflict within his story.
The story offers the reader the system – an apartment complex – and the unequal states within the system – Meatball Mulligan’s out of control lease-breaking party and Callisto’s symbiotically perfected greenhouse. Each character focuses on lessening the tension within their conflicting situations.
Meatball Mulligan seeks out solace from the chaos of the party guests, “The way he figured, there were only about two ways he could cope: (a) lock himself in the closet and maybe eventually they would all go away, or (b) try to calm everybody down, one by one.” Similarly Callisto tries to dismiss the conflict within, brought on by the baby bird’s death, by having Aubade break the window, inviting a new element of the environment into the controlled greenhouse. “…Before Callisto could speak; [she] tore away the drapes and smashed out the glass with two exquisite hands […], and turned to face the man on the bed and wait with him until the moment of equilibrium was reached….”
In both instances, the characters look to dispel the tension and conflict within their environments to create that state of equilibrium. One character bounces from chaos to order and the other invites chaos in to the order. So, for this writing prompt, I would like to focus on building a sense of conflict within our setting and characters that needs to reach a state of equilibrium. For this prompt, it is not so much about finding that equilibrium but building the conflict up to the point where it drives the characters to action.
Setting: Begin by thinking about your conflict as you set out to do some world building. Consider the area of your conflict and ask yourself how tension will be able to arise in a certain place. Reflect on the environment in which you place your characters and develop how its position and the things within the setting add to the conflict. Is the setting one of order or one of chaos? How will equilibrium need to be achieved?
Characters: Continue to build your setting by thinking about the individuals within your story and how they connect to the conflict. What kind of back and forth dilemma do these characters bring to the table? How might these characters relate or distance themselves from one another and what does that do to your setting? Consider how in “Entropy” Pynchon uses the idea of chaos and order between the two apartment tenants and how they relate to each other and to their separate surroundings.
Conflict: Of course, it is essential to define what your conflict within your characters is. That could be either separately, against one another, or against the setting that you have placed.
Motivation: Next, continue to allow that point of tension to grow within the characters and bring forth their motivation. What drives each of the characters individually and as a whole? How might the tension that you draw from your characters motivate them to action? For instance, Meatball Mulligan desires peace from the lease-breaking party that has gone on for too long and has escalated into mass chaos. He therefore desires to dispel his party guests to find some peace and quiet. On the other end, Callisto drives his motivation from keeping the little bird alive in the greenhouse. Once the bird dies, he finds no need to keep the temperature regulated as it appears useless to his cause.
Cara Echols is a 2nd year student at Bluffton University. The valedictorian of her high school class, Cara continues to excel at Bluffton where she manages social media for Bridge, majors in Art and Writing, and is an intern for the Public Relations Department. Cara can often be seen at campus events, taking photos and notes for the articles she writes. Her creative work includes fine arts, writing fiction and poetry, and graphic design.
BLOG POST 8: Guest Blogger Kelly Grace Thomas’ “Ghazals: Examine Your Magnitudes”
Different forms of poetry are like different cuts of jeans.
Most poems are made from the same material: words. Just like most jeans are made of the same cloth: denim. There are various styles, lengths, and fits depending on the season, brand and location. Jeans come in wide-leg, bootleg, super lowrise, skinny jeans, jeggings, etc. And just like jeans, poems can be cut from the same pattern or wash. We call this: poetic form.
While there are more than fifty poetic forms to date, the majority of contemporary poetry is written in free verse. Free verse is a poetic form that has no consistent pattern, meter or rhyme.
When it comes to form, many poets have a tendency to find their style and stick closely to it. Just like that one pair of jeans that goes with anything, most poets use the form they feel “looks best” on them. For me that was free verse.
As a beginning poet, I hated form. It felt prescribed, claustrophobic. I thought squeezing a poem it into a one-size-fits all anything would rob it of its organic individuality.
But I had heard poets talk about the importance of form, so every now and then I dabbled with pantoums, sonnets, haikus. They all felt like stiff jeans. Then I met a form that was flattering, complex and simple.
Ghazals are one of the fastest ways you can bring a poem, and its language, to a whole new level. They can be used as a revision tool to go deeper or written as a first draft to explore the many different avenues.
Ghazals are a short lyrical poem that have five to fifteen couplets that end with the same word. However each couplet has its own poetic thought, meaning they are “structurally, thematically and emotionally autonomous.”
The poet Agha Shahid Ali introduced Americans to ghazals. He described each ghazal couplet as “a stone from a necklace” which should continue to “shine in that vivid isolation.” Ali’s ghazal “Even the Rain” can be read below.
The rhyme/refrain (or X) of a ghazal is established in the first couplet, at the end of both lines, and then continues to end the second line of each couplet. The closing signature of a ghazal (y) often includes the poet’s name or allusion to it. Confused? The diagram below charts the pattern.
————————– A (x)
————————– B (x)
————————– C (x)
————————– D (x)
————————– E (x)
————————– F (x)
Ghazals highlight the context and complexity of language. They take the same word and look at it through many different lenses. Each time the word is repeated it takes on a new depth, layered with shifting and evolving commentary. In Ali’s “Even the Rain” the rain becomes a personality that changes place, mood and function. The refrain, rain, acts as a character in the poem, a character that calls us back, to think about how it, and us, has changed or grown.
I recently read “Ghazal for Becoming Your Own Country” by Angel Nafis in the Poetry Magazine. I was intrigued by the of amount intricacies Nafis squeezed from one word: bride. I was struck by the way language manipulated and grew to highlight the different worlds, worries and wonders. The word bride became a force that mirrored the speaker’s changing relationship with herself. It acted as an agent challenging and commentating how one can act as bride. The word bride became her past, her place, her self-love. Her poem can be read here.
Ghazals give poets the power to examine their multitudes. Language is a shifting, evolving thing and the repetition in ghazals adds dimensions that might go unexplored.
Use the following prompts to see how writing in ghazals might influence and your work.
Prompt One: Make a list of words that feel evocative, words that summon images or emotions. For example: love, gun, hips, bride, flood. This can be a broad list, or it can be a narrow list of words rooted around a single issue. Next make a list of words that have more than one meaning or interpretation: Light, fall, blue, etc.
Pick one of your words and write a ghazal. Think about how the meaning or interpretation of the repeated word can change over the course of the poem. Each line should act as its own independent line, but also be part of the whole.
Prompt Two. Write a list of 20 words you have heard repeated lately. This could be a word from the news, conversations, or even in a book that you’re reading. Pick one of the words and examine it through the context of our social landscape. What role has it played in history before How is it being echoed now? How is your relationship with the word changing?
Prompt Three: Make a list of words that have been present throughout your life. Perhaps you have always loved the ocean, dancing, sadness, purple, etc. Maybe you too have a relationship with the rain. Pick one of the words on the list and address it in each couplet form a different age or geographic location For example, you might address the ocean from a speaker the age of two, ten, fifty and so on. You might write, “when I lived in Boston I thought…. now in California I think….” How does the relationship change through each couplet? How does the weight of this word shift?
Kelly Grace Thomas is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and 2016 Fellow for the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop. Kelly’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the following journals: Sixth Finch, Muzzle, Rattle, PANK, decomP, Rust + Moth, Crab Creek Review and more. Her poem the “The Politics of Scent” was a named a semifinalist for the Crab Creek Review Poetry Contest. Kelly also works to bring poetry to unserved youth as the Manager of Education and Pedagogy for Get Lit-Words Ignite. She lives Los Angeles and is working her debut novel Only 10,001. For more of her work, visit www.kellygracethomas.com
BLOG POST 7: Guest Blogger Becky Boban, Bluffton University student discusses Brian Doyle’s “No”
This week’s Guest Blogger is Becky Boban, who discusses the Brian Doyle essay “No”- and the way he uses description in a momentum-building relay to engage the reader. If you would like to read “No” before you try this prompt, here’s a link:
Becky is a stellar writer of poetry and fiction, and is one of our student associate editors at Bridge! You can view her video blog here:
If you’re more of a written-word kinda person, here’s the prompt in good old-fashioned text:
Brian Doyle’s Style and Point of View in “No”
No, by Brian Doyle, is a piece that is entertaining to read as well as moving. In which, the speaker depicts different scenarios featured in the life of an editor, and reasons why certain pieces are rejected and accepted. The reader gains an understanding of what it’s like to be both a writer and an editor, but the most fascinating may be the lives of the characters mentioned.
The most lyrical example of this lies in the latter half of the composition, which in mid-stride lists “[y]es to a twenty-year-old woman who wrote a lean perfect piece about her job running the ancient wooden-horse carousel in a shopping mall. Yes to a sixty-year-old woman who wrote the greatest two-line poem I have ever seen to date. … Yes to a twenty-year-old woman who was a waitress in a bar in a rotten part of town and wrote a haunting brief piece about the quiet people who sat at the bar every night when it closed. Yes to a sixty-year-old man who drives a bus and wrote a piece about a six-year-old girl who was so broken and so hilarious and so brave that when I finished reading the essay I put my face in my hands and wept” (Readings for Writers 381). The passage seeks to display a range of different characters and situations and how they still connect and relate back to the narrator, suggesting how certain stories and characters can be intertwined.
For this writing prompt, consider Brian Doyle’s writing style. Specifically, examine how he lists his characters and their lives and interests in other characters around them as writers themselves. What does he include to describe them, to paint a picture of their lives? More importantly, what does he leave out? At what point would too much description weigh the character down? What adjectives does he use to effectively get the point across with minimal explanation? Thinking about this strategy, try to write down your own list of characters and their life situations. Focus on sketching them as clear and specific as you can without using excessive language. This is the first part of the prompt and challenges one you to embrace a different style of language similar to Brian Doyle’s while practicing using words and descriptions economically in your writing. The more accurate the word choice, it may be found the less wordy the writing is, which may prove helpful for a writer under pressure for submitting to magazines with character limitations.
Doyle’s piece not only carries a lyrical style to it, sweeping the reader from one scene and idea to the next, but also raises to mind an important craft element of fiction; point of view. Doyle’s narrator shares with the reader the experience of what it’s like to be an editor, moved by other’s pieces of writing while at the same time forced to reject pieces for various reasons. Doyle reveals the humanity in a figure many may wish to disregard, given the rejection letter they are associated with. In No, the narrator mentions several editors he worked with in the past and what they were like; “[h]e cursed beautifully, in great rushes and torrents, and wrote like a roaring angel” (Readings for Writers 380). Pick one of the characters from the list you wrote up from the first prompt, maybe one whose point of view one would normally not consider or have a certain stereotype for. Bring humanity into the stereotype. Make the character believable, realistic, and complicated. While exploring this new point of view, still keep in mind the style you want for your writing, recalling that one precise word is worth more than a handful off-the mark. Seek these words out.
If you find your character is not intriguing enough to go off on a story with yet, try to draw a connection between them and one of the other characters you listed that may be unexpected, just as Doyle’s narrator was connected indirectly to so many different lives. This should present a situation at hand for your plot and lead you to the beginnings of a story.
Questions for Becky? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org!
BLOG POST 6: Page-A-Day (Or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love Writing Again”)
January 17, 2017
Talent is nothing but a prolonged period of attention and a shortened period of mental assimilation. (Constantin Stanislavski)
So one of the hardest things for me as an emerging writer was – you guessed it- getting started.
I had a notion in my head (a silly notion of the worst kind, that is to say, another author I admired told me this and for some reason I assumed that because I wanted to write, it applied inherently to me) that writers, real writers, worked by some sort of mechanism and alchemy, a specific set of circumstance that included ridiculous things like sitting down and knowing what I was going to write, having a preconceived concept of what I would write about, outlining my novel/poetry collection/series of linked short stories/comic strip about a straight-talking grandma before actually writing any of it.
In my mind, real writers never stared out the window, reheating endless cups of coffee in the microwave, chowing down on homemade nachos and getting unsightly globs of salsa all over their journals/notecards/laptop screens. Real writers had plans, by golly, indeed their brains spilled over with plots and schemes and half-poems– and I was going to be a real writer, so the first thing I needed to get started was an inspiring, clear idea.
This played in nicely with my natural tendency to procrastinate, something that I understand is an epidemic among those of us who call ourselves writers. While I was waiting for my inspiring, clear idea to reveal itself, I was busy: I needed a fresh pot of coffee; I’ll just glance through three articles on Buzzfeed and that’s it, only three; perhaps a walk would help; wait–who tagged me on Instagram?; I’ll just go organize the kicks in my closet by ROYGBIV instead of staring at this blank screen; perhaps I should call my bestie and run this idea by him; this hair- I must run a comb through it!; oh, look at the time- anybody else for some nachos?
As you can imagine, I didn’t get very far.
I also had this idea that my writing set-up had to be perfect: if I was in a coffee shop it must be a quiet one with no darling children to admire or screaming ones to glare at; I could not sit in the library back by the window because it was where the staff congregated to gossip; at home, it was impossible for me to concentrate unless my desk was clear, my email inbox empty, the door shut, the light pleasant, a candle lit and a hot cup of coffee just to the right of the keyboard where I composed… nothing, and the inspiring clear idea of what to write eluded me still.
All I was doing was driving myself and everyone around me half-addled, preoccupying myself with nonsense. I sure wasn’t writing.
It was in the midst of this “how do I do this? How do I get started” histrionic nonsense that I attended a literary panel of editor/writers. One of the questions the moderator asked was about how these superhuman – writers AND editors– balanced the work of life and the life of their work. What advice did they have for young writers?
“Write a page a day,” one guy said. “IT’s really pretty simple, if you think about it. If you do that, in a year you’ll have 365 pages more than you did when you started.”
So I went home that night, and tried it. Just a page. I don’t’ remember what I wrote, or what it was about—but I do remember how I felt. It was fun. It was exciting. I didn’t have to plan anything. Nothing I wrote had to be good, or strong, or funny, or make sense, or stick to any of those droll craft requirements (yeah plot, yeah character, yeah voice, blah blah rhythm, blah blah blah dialogue etcetera bye bye): At last I was free. I could just write.
I got so excited about Page-A-Day that I started a writing group with some friends. We had some ground rules: it was OK to skip one day, but never two in a row, and no more than two days per week. None of us had time to meet in person weekly, but we got together once a month at a restaurant, took a tally of who wrote how much, then chipped in to buy dinner for that month’s Page Champion! (Whoever generated the most new writing). Having a group of people to hold me accountable was a fun challenge, and let’s face it- I’m motivated predominantly by food so the prize for the Page Champion! kept my nose to the grindstone.
I initially planned to stick to my Page-A-Day plan for one year. But from this page-a-day process, two book-length projects emerged. Then, I started working on another short story collection, and I thought- heck, Page-A-Day is working, and I’ll keep at it. A couple years later, the Page-A-Day practice generated the first rough draft of a novel, and – you guessed it- another short story collection. Now, I must confess—during Page-A-Day I also wrote a lot of drivel. There were days I typed one line over and over again or walked away from the desk overwhelmed with frustration. I wrote a bunch of stuff that I threw out and had no use for whatsoever. So it’s not like everything you write during this exercise is going to be print-ready.
But that’s the point in exercise: it primes your body for performance. Builds muscle, strength, endurance, discipline—things all writers can use more of. When I started, I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was heading- – I was just along for the ride. I found that the more I stuck to Page-A-Day, the happier I was with my writing, and what was occasionally a chore at first became something I looked forward to again: writing for the sake of writing, a joyous exercise in creativity that was both inspiring and empowering.
However you want to set this up for yourself- whether it’s a solitary exercise, something you’ll work on with a mentor, or a wager with a group of writing buddies- you have nothing to lose by trying it. After all- in a year you’ll have around 250 pages, and a sense of accomplishment and certainty because you are writing. And real writers write.
Now: go get started.
Create your own method. Don’t depend slavishly on mine. Make up something that will work for you! But keep breaking traditions, I beg you! (Constantin Stanislavski)
Jamie Lyn Smith
Got questions? Contact us at email@example.com
BLOG POST 5: Guest Blogger KATIE DRIGGERS
December 14, 2016
We are super excited to announce that this week’s guest blogger is Bluffton University student Katie Driggers. Her writing exercise focuses on point of view, and uses the story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (Joyce Carole Oates) as a jumping-off point for practicing going deeper into your character’s emotional stance.
Please give “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” a read before trying your hand at this one- the story is a classic, and it’ll help you get started on revising some of your own work!
And here’s Katie!
The story “Where are you going? Where have you been?” written by Joyce Carol Oates has several lines that depict the point of view of Connie, the main character of the story. Connie is a fifteen year old girl, who seems to be a bit naive to the world and inevitably, falls victim to a sexual predator. Arnold meets Connie at a restaurant during their first encounter. Arnold promises to find Connie and make her “his girl.” Arnold Friend is true to his word, and finds Connie as well as where she lives. Friend drives to Connie’s house with another man, Ellie, and shows up right after her parents and sister leave to go to a family barbecue. Connie has decided to stay home due to the bad relationship she appears to have with her family. We are able to see Connie’s perspective when she is standing in her kitchen, while the antagonist, Arnold Friend, corners her via the back porch. Oates describes Connie’s terror:
“She was panting. The kitchen looked like a place she had never seen before, some room she had run inside but that wasn’t good enough, wasn’t going to help her. The kitchen window had never had a curtain, after three years, and there were dishes in the sink for her to do-probably-and if you ran your hand across the table you’d probably find something sticky there,” (Oates 201).
How can you put yourself in a character’s shoes and capture emotion? For this exercise, we will use Oates’ scene with Arnold Friend and Connie as a jumping-off point for our writing prompts examining different points of view.
Prompt one: Retell the event with your own words and what you believe would reflect your actions toward the occurrence. Visualize yourself in Connie’s position. What would be your own point of view? Take into consideration Connie’s age and personality. Try to think about the characterization of Connie, and why this element makes the scene so effective.
Prompt two: Imagine that the point of view in this scene between Arnold Friend and Connie is Ellie, who is sitting in the car during the encounter. What would be different about the scene and how it is perceived? You may even be able to create a personality for Ellie, since the reader is given a very vague description about his character traits. However, remember that Ellie is a comrade of Arnold Friend, and probably wants the situation to turn out in his favor.
Prompt three: Now, tell the occurrence from the perspective of Arnold Friend. What does Connie’s behavior look like? What does Arnold’s behavior look like? Has he done this to other girls? How many? Is Arnold’s experience with Connie similar or different from his past experiences with these other girls? We are given insight into Arnold’s demeanor. Draw off of Oates’ description of Arnold’s actions to build point of view.
Prompt Four: How does the setting play into the point of view of this story? Oates describes Connie’s surroundings (i.e. her kitchen) when Arnold Friend is trying to coerce her into coming out of the house without him going in after her. For example, how does the line “If you ran your hand across the table you’d probably find something sticky there,” (Oates 201) add to Connie’s panic and her moment of sickly realization of what is happening?
Prompt Five: Skip ahead in the story, and assume that Connie has gone with Arnold. What happens when Connie’s family comes home and Connie is nowhere to be found? How does Connie’s mother react? Her father? Her sister? Recall each character’s attitude toward Connie in order to get an idea of what a particular character might say and do. Remember, Connie never tells anyone about her previous experience with Arnold Friend.
Now, try this exercise in one of your own stories, shifting point of view within a scene or section of the story- you might be surprised what you discover about your own characters!
Got questions? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
BLOG POST 4: Dec. 7, 2016
Starting from Art: Painting Your Way to a Story
Focus is essential in our increasingly busy lives and media-crowded minds. Sometimes our brains get short-circuited by too much everything, and when that happens, I quiet the competing attentions of my mind by turning to a painting or a photograph – some kind of visual inspiration, and use it to start a story. What I love about this exercise is that looking at art often prompts me to explore a new story idea I might never have come up with on my own.
So for this week’s exercise, we are going to use a painting as the springboard for starting a new story. I like to start with a painting that has some element of mystery and tension—both great elements for writers—so for today, we’ll use Vincent Van Gogh’s painting Gauguin’s Chair.
First, I’ll tell you a little about the painting- and be forewarned, this is what little I know. Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin started off great friends- they were even roommates, and rented a house that doubled as a studio space in which both painters worked. Like many artists, they had powerful personalities, and strong opinions. Ultimately, they quarreled and Gauguin left the studio in fury, vowing never to speak to Van Gogh again. Van Gogh missed Gauguin, and – perhaps – regretted losing him. AS a way of working through that loneliness, Van Gogh painted Gauguin’s empty chair in an attempt to capture what was lost between them:
Now that you know this anecdote, forget the story.
What I’d like you to do is to reimagine the story of the painting entirely. So we are going to focus on looking, imagining, and do a little bit of writing to see if you can generate a new story by improvising on cues and ideas that you take from the painting.
For this exercise you need:
- The painting, Gauguin’s Chair
- Something to write longhand with- pen, pencil, notebook or journal.
- A timer or stopwatch, unless you wish to take your time.
Allow yourself five minutes for each prompt.
Prompt 1: The best writers look deeply, and look long, and linger on details in stories- much like great painters. In his poem “Let Me Tell You” the poet Miller Williams encourages writers to “notice everything.” Please spend five minutes noticing everything about this painting. You can make a list, you can write sentences, the only rule for the free write is that your pen must keep moving- no stopping. You will get tired and have to look deeper-that’s the point in spending five full minutes. Go!
Prompt 2: We are going to take the list and turn it into a 5-minute free write. For this portion of the exercise, write whatever you wish. Drain your brain of all distractions of daily life. Finish your grocery list if you must, but keep pulling yourself back to look at the painting and move towards starting to tell a story. Give Gauguin’s Chair a persona, give it an antisocial or comic personality if you wish, explain what you like or don’t like about the chair- but keep the pen moving. No stopping.
Prompt 3: Now, let’s begin to inhabit this painting. We have a character- Gauguin- and he has a name. However, you are now free to make your character whomever you wish. Rename him- or her. Be liberal and free and inventive- write a few sentences about this character. Who sits in this chair? Why has the chair been left vacant? This is where you move beyond reporting on what you see and move into an imaginative reading and re-telling of the story of this painting. Who is this character?
Prompt 4: Describe the setting this character inhabits, focusing on sensory details. What is Gauguin’s world? Be inventive. You can set this on another planet, in a dystopian post-apocalyptic seaside town, in the 1930’s, wherever your imagination leads you. Take as many liberties as you wish- you are, after all, the writer. You are now rendering the world of this painting with your words. Let us know what the elements of Gauguin’s world sound, smell, feel, taste, and look like.
Prompt 5: Shift your focus to point of view. There is another character involved in Gauguin’s Chair, after all—the viewer. Point of view is very powerful, and it changes everything. Choose a point of view. Who is watching this chair? What are the viewer’s intentions? Is the viewer the narrator? Is the viewer an omniscient, third-person? Is the viewer a relative, close friend, romantic partner or the family dog? Tell us what motivates that point of view- why is she/he/it watching the chair? What emotions are loaded in that gaze?
Prompt 6: Reveal the conflict between your Gauguin and another character in the story. Explain to your reader why the chair is empty. What has happened? What on earth has gone wrong? Find a hurt, a joy, a disappointment for these two characters you’ve created, and prepare to reveal it through dialogue and scene.
Prompt 7: Spend about five minutes time-traveling so that you can tell us the story of this empty chair. Either flash back- tell us a backstory between the two characters you are working with- or flash forward- and tell us something about the future that these two characters don’t yet know.
Now you’re on your way to writing a story. As always, if you write something terrific, send it to Bridge, and we’ll consider it for our first print issue. If you have any questions, feel free to email me at email@example.com. And as always, if you write something terrific, send it in and we’ll consider it for publication in Bridge: The Bluffton Literary Journal.
BLOG POST 3: Nov. 30, 2016
Finding the Essential Plot in Nonfiction
When I write stories, I think about other stories I’ve admired, the kind of stories that leave me with a feeling of suspension, and admiration. One story in particular that I find myself returning to is Louise Erdrich’s “The Red Convertible.”
The story serves as a chapter of her highly acclaimed novel Love Medicine, a book that I also find myself returning to. If you’ve read the novel, Erdrich casts a virtual spell over her reader by shifting point of view from one character to another. In “The Red Convertible” she masterfully inhibits the voice of Lyman Lamartine.
You’ll have to read “The Red Convertible” to complete this week’s writing prompt, but I promise you- you will not be disappointed, so check it out: http://www.napavalley.edu/people/LYanover/Documents/English%20121/English%20121%20Louise%20Erdrich%20The%20Red%20Convertible.pdf
There are many elements to admire in this story: point of view, pacing, symbolism. Erdrich’s pacing includes flashbacks, and in 12 pages she covers a great deal of ground: starting in 1974, when the story takes place; to 1969 when Lyman and Henry take a road trip across the U.S., through Canada, and Alaska. Erdrich then swiftly moves us through Henry’s induction into the Marines (1970), Henry’s difficulty returning to civilian life (1973) and Lyman’s desperate attempt to save his brother. There is tremendous efficiency to the way she tells the story, and it’s linked through a photo taken of Lyman and Henry, in 1974, the day that Henry commits suicide. This is a story of masterful plotting. Each flashback, each reference to the photograph and the Red Convertible are absolutely necessary, and perfectly Aristotelian in that “…the events [are] so constructed that the displacement or removal of any one of them with disturb and disjoin the work’s wholeness…”
That unity of plot is perfected in Erdrich’s theme- Lyman’s guilt and grief- and the symbolism of both the photograph and the Red Convertible itself. These are incredibly powerful components, and I’d like to see if we can work with some of those ideas in this week’s writing exercise. For the past few weeks, I’ve focused on fiction- so this week, let’s turn our attention to nonfiction, and leverage some of the elements Erdrich works with to construct plot in “The Red Convertible.” After all, the tricky part about writing nonfiction is restraint. It’s easy to overwrite a world that you know well, because it is your world. So we are going to take a walk through some of the fiction craft moves that Erdrich uses in “The Red Convertible” to write a memoir piece and limit ourselves to the essential with an eye towards perfect plotting. Here goes:
1. Guilt: Think of a friend, or relative, someone whose situation you feel guilty about. Write about that- at least a paragraph. Tell us when and why and how you came to feel badly about what happened.
2. Object: Now think of an object that you shared with that person, or an object that reminds you of that person. (I’m going to hold your feet to the fire on this- I want it to be an actual, physical thing. No amorphous stuff like “love” or “family” or “music.”) Now, describe that object as if it is alive.
For example, Lyman describes the car as “… large as life. Really as if it was alive. I thought of the word repose, because the car wasn’t simply stopped, parked or whatever. That car reposed, calm and gleaming, a FOR SALE sign in its window.”
3. Flashback: Reflect backward on what life was like before you had a falling out with the person you feel guilty about. What were those good times like? Remember to put us in scene by giving the reader sensory details- describe not only what you saw, but what you heard, smelled, felt, and tasted.
4. Backfire: Describe how you tried to fix the situation that makes you feel guilty. What overtures did you make? How did they end up backfiring? What were some unintended consequences of your falling out or attempt to patch things up?
For example, Henry confronts Lyman, and lets him know the jig is up. He confronts Lyman, and says “he knew what I’d done with the car. It was obvious that it had been whacked out of shape and not just neglected…. He said he’d fixed it just to give it back and I should take it.”
5. Sound: Describe the last confrontation or meeting that you had with the person you feel guilty about. How did it make you feel? Where were you? What happened? How did each of you react? Remember to put us in scene. You’re going to end this piece of flash-fiction with a sensory detail that leaves the reader breathless. Think of the sounds that you associate with the failure.
For example, Erdrich leaves Lyman standing on the bank of the river where Henry died, having driven the Red Convertible to a watery grave with Henry. There is a heartbreaking deliberateness to Lyman’s description of his last look at the river, when he says “It is all finally dark. And then there is only the water, the sound of it going and running and going and running and running.”
I hope that this gets you started on an essay, memoir, or journalism project that leads to wonderful work and deep writing. If you have any questions, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And as always, if you write something terrific, send it in and we’ll consider it for publication in Bridge: The Bluffton Literary Journal.
Jamie Lyn Smith
BLOG POST 2: Nov. 23, 2016
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
Lee K. Abbott (https://leekabbottwriter.wordpress.com/) one of my favorite writers and teachers of writing– advises his students to start with the trouble. I have Lee’s words taped to the wall of my writing room, because they remind me to get to the point already…an invocation that I definitely must heed in my own work.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I love setting and scene. In fact, there’s a terrific essay by Benjamin Percy (http://benjaminpercy.com/) in The Writer’s Chronicle (https://www.awpwriter.org/magazine_media/writers_chronicle_overview) whose story “Refresh, Refresh” remains one of my all-time favorites for its masterful rendering of place. Still, it’s important to avoid falling into a trap- particularly with prose work- in which writers can bog down action with florid description, lingering on the title of every book on the shelf and detailing the just-so- shade of orange thread fringing an iconic tapestry that hangs on the castle wall. These lovely turns of phrase aren’t worth a tinker’s wink if your reader doesn’t know what is at stake. Starting with the trouble allows writers to heighten suspense, establish stakes, and immediately clarify conflict.
Writers of all genres must start with the trouble so that readers get it: to what end is the protagonists’ affection for her toy poodles? Why does Hester wear that scarlet A on her breast? Why did ee cummings eat the plums in the refrigerator? It’s vital that readers know what matters to characters. This is the stuff of conflict. Conflict keeps readers turning pages. Without conflict our memoirs are lengthier than they are readable, our poems descend into self-indulgent reporting, and our stories stew in their own juices, losing all their flavor.
In my writing classes, I ask students to get to that trouble no later than the bottom of the first page. As writers, we want our readers to feel the same sharp intake of breath that your character feels when just the wrong person walks into the room and takes a seat at the table. Naturally, tables fraught with conflict got me thinking about Thanksgiving. Holiday dinners force our lives into sharp focus. Whether you eat dinner with your friends, nuclear family, romantic partner, or in a nursing home with an aging relative, Thanksgiving is an occasion. Occasions have high stakes: has the food been cooked well, or even properly- Aunt Enid may be circling round the stuffing to make sure your brother’s new wife is seasoning it just the way Aunt Enid knows it ought to be seasoned. Does grandmother always try to slip meat onto the plate of your vegan cousin? Is there- heaven forbid- any discussion of race and politics? Has one of your uncles fortified himself to such an extent that is has lowered his inhibitions and turned him into a bore? Perhaps your family gives you
Thanksgiving is an occasion. Occasions have high stakes: has the food been cooked well, or even properly- Aunt Enid may be circling round the stuffing to make sure your brother’s new wife is seasoning it just the way Aunt Enid knows it ought to be seasoned. Does grandmother always try to slip meat onto the plate of your vegan cousin? Is there- heaven forbid- any discussion of race and politics? Has one of your uncles fortified himself to such an extent that is has lowered his inhibitions and turned him into a bore? Perhaps your Thanksgiving table gives you good reason to exploit the tangled conceits, hidden secrets, unrepentant hypocrisy, maligned goodwill, and shifting alliances of your own family. (Note: you are smart to do so, but must also be wise enough to change names, delicately render composite characters, and make sure your close relatives never, ever read your work.)
Wherever you are and whomever you consider family—turkey and stuffing at grandmother’s, or Red Bull and pizza at the squat in Bushwick with your pierced, tattooed and pangender punk rock friends- holiday dinner is public. Reputations are on the line. Marriages that were tense last year may be entirely strained to pulp now. Perhaps a family member is has boycotted the event. The great thing about a holiday dinner is its combination of high stakes, uncertain terrain, competing agendas, the dance of manners– and the potential for all of it to explode.
For this week’s writing prompt, let’s practice starting with the trouble, and let’s just say the trouble is Thanksgiving Dinner. In two typewritten pages- no more, no less- write a short story, poem, play, or a memoir that puts us in scene and immediately announces tension between two characters. Whatever you write, it must have a beginning, middle, and end. Consider this to be a piece of flashfiction, flashpoetry- whatever you will- but keep it below 1000 words. After all, Shakespeare himself says that “Brevity is the soul of wit.”
If you write something you like, send it to us via email. We’ll post our four favorites on the blog. Happy writing & happy Thanksgiving!
BLOG POST 1: Nov. 15, 2016
I recently attended a literary festival featuring the writer Hilary Mantel. In her keynote speech, she spoke about the writing life – its charms, idiosyncrasies and sometimes, pitfalls. Near the end of her speech, Dame Mantel said something that I will remember forever: “When writing, what is ideal is that you feel your feet slipping from beneath you, a weightlessness- the brink is where you belong.”
The brink is where you belong.
This made my heart sing. The brink is indeed the place for writers: where there is risk, suspension, will-she-fall-or-will-she-fly, the precipice of ecstatic delight that precedes a beautiful true sentence- the breathtaking agony of a character caught between two equally awful choices- that brink is what we must strive for in our poems, stories, and plays.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Mantel’s words this week as I prepared to write this blog post, our very first writing post for this site- the home of our newly established magazine Bridge: The Bluffton Literary Journal. Indeed, with this venture, the brink is very much where we are. The world has a lot of literary journals already, plenty of trees being pounded into mash for printing erasure poems and short experimental plays and lyrical essays and stories that make us feel more alive. That’s a good thing, indeed. But then, what’s the point in this one?
Bridge started with a single, germinal idea that the literary voices of young writers deserve the same gravitas given to more established writers. We decided early on that we would only publish work by writers age 14-24 in Bridge. This age range is indeed a bridge in and of itself- the chasm of creativity, inventiveness, daring, and raucousness that characterize adolescence as a time both distinct and vital. So here we begin, at the brink with a fairly standard four-genre submission plan: fiction & nonfiction prose, short plays for stage and film, and poetry. But we have plans in Fall 2017 to open our pages to artists working in mixed media, such as graphic literature, anime, manga, and poems that incorporate visual studio arts and new media. Our plans for Spring 2018 include embracing emerging literacies through works that incorporate digital narratives. Our vision for Bridge is that we will edge closer to the brink with each issue.
The bring is where we belong.
So starting today- what better time to begin than now, after all?–each week, the community at Bridge will post a creative writing exercise or craft tip that you can use in your own work.
For this week, I’d like you to practice a guided freewrite about a character on the brink. This character may be real, imagined, exist in a current story or the persona of a poem you’ve been turning over and over in your mind but haven’t quite scratched out on paper yet. Now, take that character and push her to the brink. Get him into trouble of his own design. Then – and only then- add more weight, more pressure, more obstacles, more stressors. Let the only decision your character can reasonably make backfire and send waves of obstacles through the rest of the story. When your character is under pressure, lean harder. But get your character – or persona- backed right up to the 20th story window or that cliff above a gaping canyon. Light a match, and throw it into the haystack. Force your character to that brink and to make a decision – to take a risk- to change. Set a clock for fifteen minutes, and turn off all the distractions within your reach.
With that, we invite you to the brink, with us.
Yeah, it’s a little teeter-y and dangerous and frightening- but oh, what a breathtaking view. After all: the brink is where you belong.
Jamie Lyn Smith
Nov. 15, 2016