A Lesson in Futility…

Or – A Writing Exercise to Stretch the Mind and Challenge One’s Vocabulary Language Terminolgy Lexis

Scene:

I’m seated on a black wrought iron chair in my favorite Italian market/café/deli (the only good one in town, really, and as it wins Best Of in the Italian category each year) at a table for two so small there’s barely room for me. It’s cold and stiff and hurts my ass butt behind because of the shape of the iron, with a overall design I can’t begin to describe because I don’t have the requisite architectural training lexis in my repertoire vocabulary range. The waiter places my chicken parmesan lunch plate in front of me as I salivate over the forthcoming feast of fat breaded chicken breasts, pasta with fresh plum tomato sauce, and a rather poor excuse of a salad (iceberg lettuce, a few pale tomatoes, and onion slices slathered in a very too vinegar-y Italian vinaigrette) served so often in Italian restaurants (don’t they know about arugula, spinach, and red leaf lettuce?).

Writing pad is to my right (because I’m right-handed, duh) and it awaits my handwritten commentary (yes, I still know how to right write, because of thanks to all those Catholic grammar school penmanship classes) on the meal before me as an exercise in descriptive writing (just a food lover with a need for a little mental workout). I’ve eaten here before, so I know I’ll get another two meals out of this serving lunch, it’s that big (not bad for $11). It’s crowded (as usual) and I managed to find a small table for two (with barely enough room for me) in the corner by the door (so my writing can be interrupted disrupted by every new customer who walks in for the same reason I’m here – the best meal of the day).

I slice into the done-just-right battered chicken slathered lovingly coated in their famous, daily-made plum tomato marinara sauce and slowly place the steaming chunk in my mouth. I am immediately transported to another time and place: the Northeast (aka home). Nothing better than living in a strange place and discovering a little slice of heaven to make it feel more like home. Chewing is a delight of the senses in layers of flavors: moist and slightly lightly crispy crisp boneless breast meat, sweet plum tomatoes, a little basil, oregano, olive oil, fresh parmesan cheese…they export many of their ingredients directly from Italy. The pasta, spaghetti (always), is al dente, of course, and also married with their famous tomato marinara sauce. I eschew the salad for the first several bites as I’m in some sort of Sicilian or Roman (the family’s actually from Verano, up north) heaven and can’t pull myself away from the chicken or the pasta. Finally, the salad begins to make its way into my mouth and it’s an unsurprising predictable humdrum plate of flavorless lettuce too heavily drizzled with an overly tangy creamy Italian dressing and flavorless bland tomatoes (unlike the ones in the sauce), but the bread crumbs are crunchy and flavored with a nice blend of herbs like rosemary and thyme.

It’s my day off, so I celebrate this lunch with a nice glass of Sangiovese (Tuscan) wine from their lengthy extensive list of wines from Italy (where else?). The spices and berries berry notes warm my mouth and my tummy permeate my palate, infusing the meal with a layer of flavors savory-ness indescribable too wonderful for words. I moan in culinary ecstasy – to myself, of course, as I’m not trying to re-create the famous scene from the movie When Harry Met Sally (and wouldn’t work since I didn’t have a Billy Crystal sidekick joining me for lunch) where Meg Ryan’s character has an “orgasm” over a turkey sandwich. As the famous line goes, I’ll have what she’s having!

So here it is…an exercise in figuring out which words/phrases fit and which don’t. I find as I age I struggle more with this (actually I think it’s because I don’t write as often as I should and my mind is getting soggy), so I need to get off my proverbial ass and write.

Cin Cin! Salute! Chin chin!

Inspiration in the New Year: Simplicity

Now that the holidays are (finally) over, we writers can get back to work (or at least I can, since I seem to have taken too long a holiday from it). As a result of busily working two jobs for the last several months, my writing outside of this blog has all but disappeared and I madly desire to get back on track. My imagination craves an outlet for the myriad scenarios running amok in my mind. But first I need to whittle it all down to a doable list of projects.

That new nutrition book, for example; you know, the one with the first few chapters already completed? Probably going to make its way to the Recycle Bin on my laptop; it was one of the works I referenced in Lay Your Past to Rest. I’ve decided there are already some excellent books out on that very topic, so why try to compete with them? They’re written by successful colleagues with more than twenty-five years of practice under each of their belts (I have less than twelve). What could I possibly say that they haven’t? What would you do?

I’m even re-vamping my workshop. I decided a fresh approach is needed to draw more people in for the all-day class. What’s my inspiration? Boredom, mostly, with the “same-old, same-old”. Time to breathe new life into a stagnant one. Throw out the old, bring in the new, right?

Has your writing become a bit stale as of late? With a whole new year upon us, perhaps it’s time to take a writing inventory to decide what’s still working and what’s not. I like writing nonfiction, but I realized I prefer fiction – more freedom of expression, which to me, is far better (and more fun).

“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.” ~ Confucius

Where to find inspiration for our writing this new year? With a new presidency almost upon us, I feel we will not be lacking for parody material…it’s as if the situation demands it. There’s a lot going on out there in our big world. How can we be heard? How can we stand out? As always, we must create in a way that is best for each of us, not in a way that someone else thinks is right. Which is why I’m cutting back on following various groups on LinkedIn (and other sites) – it’s information overload. In this new year I wish to simplify my life a bit more. Avoiding frivolous junk news will surely increase the amount (and quality) of work I produce, simply because there will be less interference from trivial events that have no bearing on my life.

Perhaps in this new year we writers can decide to live more simply to create more fully. With less interruptions, we can better focus on what’s important: telling our stories.

“Writing is an escape from a world that crowds me. I like being alone in a room. It’s almost a form of meditation- an investigation of my own life. It has nothing to do with – I’ve got to get another play.” ~ Neil Simon

Paint a Picture: Our Words As Our Brushes

As writers, we are artists whose canvass is the mind of the reader; our brushes are the words we use to create the story. Some paint a broad picture while others paint a smaller, more narrow picture. I prefer to read stories with some (but not too much) well-placed descriptives (adjectives and other modifiers), as they lead me through a maze of landscapes, cityscapes, and textures I knew not of, with characters carved as from real life.

Has writing fiction nowadays changed the way we paint our broad brushes? The evolution of language has certainly modified our written expression to a great extent, especially in the last two centuries. What if someone wrote in the frenetic way Van Gogh painted?  What if someone wrote as Pablo Picasso painted during his Cubist period, or his Blue period, or during his early years when his work was more realistic? An interesting thought to ponder, comparing their art to ours.

One shining example of just-the-right-amount of descriptive words (in my opinion, anyway) is the book The Long Knives are Crying, by Joseph Marshall III. As a result of his writing savvy and storytelling prowess, he paints a broad but exceptionally detailed picture of life on the Plains in the late 18th century, during a time of war and strife between Lakota and the U.S. government. Throughout the whole book, I was carried along by his choice of descriptive words. I swear I can find my way across that part of the country based solely on his knack for painting a picture of the landscape down to the tiniest detail:

“High above the frozen river, the Lakota sentry hidden inside a tangle of deadfall gazed intently at the horse and rider below him on a wide plateau. His expression changed little as he noted that the buckskin horse was following the game trail along the north bank of the meandering ribbon of snow-covered ice, moving in a westerly direction.”

The following is a portion of a bad example of descriptive writing I found online; it’s too long and wordy for this blog, so I’ll share only a portion:

“Chocolate. Three different types and three different distinct flavors, each of which  has its own unique benefits. Because, you know, chocolate is sooooo healthy. It has no sugar in it whatsoever, and has tons of vitamins and minerals (she wrote sarcastically) Chocolate may not have health benefits, but its unique and rich flavor has been influencing human actions since the time of the Aztecs,  who used cocoa beans. Historians estimate that chocolate has been consumed for OVER 2000 years!!! That means that chocolate has been around since the fall of the Egyptian empire. When most people think chocolate, they think of a yummy delicious substance that can be eaten, but what about a substance that people can drink? Not hot chocolate, but actual normal chocolate that you can drink?” (source: https://sites.google.com/a/g.coppellisd.com/expository-writing–carrie-erin-katie-aparna-stephanie/descriptive/bad-examples)

I love to learn how to better include descriptive words in my own writing by reading other shining examples. With the explosion of self-publishing sites, many more writers are taking a turn at telling their stories. But are they of good quality? Do they dare to take us for that imaginative ride so many crave from good fiction? I dare say, with the Digital Age upon us, I am concerned that our ability to express ourselves with language will continue to devolve, as our dependence on computers that think for us grows. Bad grammar abounds and I find myself craving the classics, for the likes of Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, and Robert Luis Stevenson. They were writers that painted with their words as beautifully as any Picasso or Van Gogh painting.

 

Is No Pain Really No Gain?

I know artists are supposed to write/paint/create from their pain, but it never works for me. If anything, it makes my writing worse, downright pathetic. What sounds good or interesting or adventurous in my mind when I’m sad, depressed, or stressed never comes out good on paper. Do any of you have this experience or can you work/create from pain? Do you feel that personal pain gives your work a certain je ne sais quoi?

The other morning I daydreamed instead of getting up to start my day at the usual time. I ran a scenario through my mind in relation to both a book I’ve contemplated writing (international suspense) and some life-changing events currently making my life way more challenging than I’d like (or can handle). The dialogue was West Wing-esque, one-liner banter between me and a male protagonist who I turned into not much of a protagonist after all. When I did finally arise, I thought about putting it on paper later in the day (I like to write after dinner, as I am now), because it sounded like it would be a good alternate beginning to the suspense novel.

The words flowed from my fingers. I struggled with a bit of the dialogue, trying to remember exactly how I’d envisioned it earlier, to get the feel of the scene just right. I tried to seamlessly weave it into the suspense book as a prologue to what I’d already written. That didn’t work. So I thought I’d try it out as a separate chapter that would explain my how main character got dragged into the mess happening in the book. That didn’t work either. As I read and re-read the three or so paragraphs, the words seemed lifeless, dull, and inadequate. The main character (a facsimile of me) sounded even worse on paper than what had been in my mind that morning. She was supposed to be someone down on her luck who happens across this man and together they become involved in a tangled web of deceit complete with mobsters, money laundering, extortion, and murder. I thought if I used my personal angst as the main character’s, she would come off as brave and high-spirited, facing danger and uncertainty. Instead, she came off sounding sullen and sarcastic, and completely unlikable. Absolutely paltry. Even I don’t like her and I’m practically her!

 I haven’t deleted it (yet) but I have decided to stick with the original opening. Maybe I can work it in somewhere, maybe not. Maybe I’ll keep it for now, as a reminder of what not to write. Or to not write at all when I’m not in a good place. For me, no pain is definitely gain – it’s when I have the most “juice.” Seems I write best when I’m feeling on top of the world and nothing or no one can bring me down.