Fightin’ Words

I ran into a friend who is the co-founder and co-publisher of Seven Days, the weekly, independent news most worth reading in these parts. She said she had the worst publishing day in memory. And since it launched in 1995, a lot of water gone by as you might imagine, it seemed quite a claim.

One of her newer staffers posted a blog that was interpreted nearly universally as criticizing fans of the band Phish, the music phenomenon that  started right here in Vermont. Local boys made good, like Ben & Jerry, only these guys are international rock stars.

Phish played a benefit concert in the area to raise funds for post tropical storm Irene relief. Parts of Vermont had been hit hard. Twelve thousand attended at the fairgrounds outside of Burlington and lots of money rolled in.

The blog post suggested that the fans didn’t do enough, that in addition to buying a ticket, they should have put on work gloves and picked up some tools. “Here for Phish? How About you Lend a Phreaking Hand” was the title.

Phish fans were livid. They tore into not just the sentiment, but the writer. They used words like snarky and stupid and suck, and those are just the s’s. They plagued the paper with complaint, in print, online, by phone, and however they could get it across, and when the death threat came, Seven Days called the police.

All’s fine now—the virtue of time passing—and the paper published an apology, as well, but it’s a lesson for writers.

Words have power. And if you call someone out for whatever reason, right or wrong, black or white, up or down, revolt may follow.

All this from the mere act of pen put to paper? From opinion expressed?

Amazing, isn’t it.

But how about you? Have your words ever brought you misery?  Comment here, and tell us how it all came out. Any great recipes for crow appreciated.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: Phish by hlkljgk Heather katsoulis; women by Stellarnostalgia Sia photoshoot; crow by monkeyc.net.

The Writer and the Restless Mind

Which came first: the restless mind or the writing life?

For this writer anyway, it was a mind like a swollen river that cascades with a ceaseless vengeance down a steep and rocky decline.  It refused to settle down and behave already. And it remains ever so.

A romantic looks at this all-powerful surge, the sunlight refracted jewel-like in the spray, and his heart quickens. O the grandeur. An engineer, on the other hand, sees only lost opportunity. Just look at all that power going to waste.

How about you? What do make of this churning brain of yours? What can you do with this near limitless, untapped, and undisciplined foment?

Maybe . . . what would serve you, the writer, best is to play it both ways. Regard the majesty and beauty of it, as would the poet. And then lay a plan and harness it, as would the engineer. Create something beautiful and useful, and you’ve turned chaos into a kind of elegant order.

Do it enough, and who knows, it may just lead to peace of mind.

(Jury’s still out on that one. Any guesses? Anyone? Anyone?)

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: the poet Sir John Suckling by lisby 1; engineers by VaDOT.

The Writer Cries Uncle

Anyone who’s ever come up against Mother Nature knows that she always wins, no exceptions.

My place provides plenty of examples. The poison ivy will always best me, and every spring, I can count on gaping holes in my screen room from fierce winter winds. This spring, I also found the ceiling fan ripped from its perch, the blades sent flying clear through to the garden. And then there are floods, so strong and untamable that four feet of the bank is gone this year and left behind are gnarled masses of exposed roots, rearranged rocks, silt deposits, and driftwood so large and strange the Ark comes to mind . . .

It’s crazy out there where Mother Nature rules. And if I insist on a particular vision of a piece of the property over which she reigns, I will lose.

So, what does this have to do with writing?

A writer would do well to recognize a losing battle, cry uncle, and go with the impossible, instead of against it.

If you can do that, wonders unfold.  Like the unexpected crop that pops up where you didn’t plant it—the tomato plants in the compost pile, licorice in the spearmint. Like the damage to the screen room being just the excuse needed to paint, and the driftwood repurposed into cool furniture, the rocks into an altar, and the mass of twisted root into—well, I’m not sure yet, but the cat is having a good time.

If you go with your writing, no expectations, everything looks different. You can even tackle the difficult stories, the ones that never worked before and yet somehow still seem urgent to you.

Sometimes failure is what we need to usher in the new. Throw up your hands in resignation, and you’ve changed the game. It’s no longer about winners and losers but about the possibilities. This is power in your hot two hands when a minute ago, you were just a loser.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: give up sign by abradyb; frustrated fellow by supersimbo.

How to Break a Scandal

Everyone knows this moment.  Something dishy, something trashy, some god fallen, principles tested, and the street full of speculation.

If you, the writer, find yourself involved in this kind of story, something messy and dangerous, awkward and sad, how will you handle it?

Ask yourself:

Do you need to tell this story? Are you sure? Is there something worth knowing here? Who will benefit?

How much collateral damage are you looking at? Who is hurt? What kind of hurt? Is that fair? How much territory is likely to fall under your mushroom cloud? Can you limit civilian casualties?

Who is ruined? How big is big, this story of yours? And must it be that big?

Recognizing that you possess in this moment the preponderance of power, how will you break the story? What’s your timing? Is a warning appropriate?

As we learned from the IMF scandal, they don’t use “a perp walk” in France—that is, the accused, ushered by his lawyer through a flank of reporters, head bent, just make for the car, his instruction. How loud will you be? Is your publisher, for example, stocking three times the usual volume around town?   Will you tweet without end?

Words are both powerful and limited. As if a club in the fist of a giant, we know the power of them very well, but have you factored in the constraints? Have you considered how—try as you might, good as you are—everything you write is different than you had in mind, a bit adulterated, a bit off? Still want to swing that club?

What is this story to you, anyway?

And if the shoe were on the other foot, would you say the writer did right?

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: shame, female – Royal Constantine; shame, male – Bruckerrlb

Questioning Assumptions

Popular lore holds that cats hate water, but it isn’t necessarily true. I’ve had three, and they have all imbibed from the tap, supervised the bath, and showed up when the garden hose was running. One routinely came home soaked from her forays, whether from roaming wetland, marsh or lakeshore, I’m not sure. She lived on the edge, that one, and she didn’t live long, but her days were surely filled with water.

If life hadn’t delivered up cats in my household, I might never have known that some cats actually enjoy water and find is fascinating in their own fashion. I might have subscribed more or less forever to the popular, but incorrect, view. I might have even repeated it, which seems like littering.

Another person might not care. What harm, after all, in misjudging a cat’s possible nature?

But writers question assumptions, look deeper, even those of us who will, before we are done, distort what we learn into something entirely different. Barely recognizable, it will still ring true.

Some cats love water; that’s a fact. I can use it, distort it, or ignore it, but at least I know what’s accurate, and this affords me, an accidental fact-holder on this matter, but a fact-holder nonetheless, a certain kind of power.

Now, as for the nine lives . . .









. . . the jury’s out.

Photo credit: lead cat – si.smugmug.com; nine cats – Aussie Gold

Mere Beauty

Capture beauty on the page and it will enliven the work.  Engage the readers’ senses with your expressive details, your moods and textures, and you’ve got him where you want him.

But give him too much of a good thing, and he will soon slow his pace and skip down the page in search of action. Make him work to remain interested, and he might even quit, bored or weary.

The problem is that mere beauty—however rich and luscious at the inception—is not enough. And a lot of it only makes the problem worse. Without some edifying or gratifying elements in return for your reader’s consumption of all that glory, descriptive passages only add volume, even bloat. Every passage has to pull its weight and not just sit there and look pretty.

Photo credits: brownie – Ilco, sxc; serving cake – Simeon Eichmann, sxc.

The Art of a Great Line

I emailed a writer friend to congratulate him on the short story he sent along for my read, and he responded with a single line:

In Errachidia on the Western Edge of the Sahara; typing on an Arabic keyboard/ Will call later in the week, back Wed/ Thanks”

Now, that’s the work of a good writer. He sets the scene, gets my imagination going, and makes me want to know more. He doesn’t waste a moment of his reader’s time. Every word counts for something.

Intrigued, I will look up Errachidia in a spare moment, locate it in Morocco, imagine for a second, maybe, that I can hear camel bells. I will also wonder about his use of an Arabic keyboard—he speaks Arabic? But for all this color and mystery, I have received real information—his whereabouts, when he will return, and the news that he will call. To achieve so much in the space of a single line, is the work of someone who knows his craft.

Less is more when it comes to power. Just make your sentences count.

~

Bill Schubart is the author of The Lamoille Stories (White River Books, 2008). Fat People is a new collection of stories. For his commentary and a profile of his varied career in business, the arts and civic policy check out: www.Schubart.com.

Photos used by permission of Bill Schubart.