Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Six Prompts to Kick-Start Your Writing

Hey everyone, it's almost time for the A-Z Challenge, which I like to call it the blogging version of an Ironman Triathlon! No, I'm not participating this year (more on that next week), but I thought I should mention it, in case you were thinking of joining. If you are, and haven't yet - don't. I say this not out of dislike of the challenge - it's great - but because that would mean you haven't planned your theme or pre-written any posts, and that would mean you would be royally (excuse the language) screwed.


I'm short on ideas today, so I thought I'd do something we all always need, and provide some gentle kicks in the butt to get us writing. In other words, I've got PROMPTS, y'all.

I've collected a few of my faves for you. Some of them are non-fiction, cuz, y'know, that's what I'm writing these days, but I think they would make really cool fiction prompts, too. I've given the original authors of these prompts credit whenever possible, and I came up one of them myself. If you're looking for more where these came from, definitely click on the links below, as almost all of them lead to longer lists of prompts, and some other great resources.

Ok, so, PROMPTS:

And there you have it. Now - go write!! And if you have a favorite prompt or two, put it in the comments, please!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Lost List: Books We Should Have Read

Every once in a while, I like to veer away from the usual theme of this blog (whatever that is; if you know it, please do tell me) and write a post about reading books.

Those words deserve italics, because I love books. Like many of you, I am a committed and admitted bibliophile. This of course causes many of the problems we all struggle with: overstuffed shelves, precarious stacks of books on the nightstand, 'libraries' so big on e-readers that it would be impossible to read it all in one lifetime, and marital discord ("I don't WANT to throw any of these away! They're my FRIENDS!") But, it also brings great joy, transports us to different lands, and provides fodder for blog posts.

In the past, I've blogged about the books that made me a writer, as well as my favorite childhood books, and I've vaguely promised to blog about Books That Got Me Through Puberty Without Committing Heinous Bodily Harm To Myself or Others, as well as Books That Changed The Way I Write. I will post about those some day, but not today.

Today, I want to post a different sort of list, one that feels appropriate to the discussions about diversity that are (thankfully) all over the place these days: Books I Wish Someone Had Told Me To Read, But No One Ever Did. I have to state first that no one told me to read them mostly because they are by and about marginalized and/or minority populations (at least in the U.S.), but also because I am white and American and grew up in a white and American suburb. I'd be interested to know if people who grew up in the States, but from other backgrounds, did have a more diverse list of Books To Read - but I'd bet, unfortunately, that the answer is no.

Most of these are fairly well-known, critically acclaimed books - although there are a few exceptions - and I know I'm not listing anything shocking or unheard of. There aren't a lot of unknown gems here. But this is my real list, a list of books I loved, that changed me, moved me, widened my world-view - and they are all books I found on my own, only recently.

So without further adieu, here are the Books I Wish Someone Had Told Me To Read, But No One Ever Did:

  • Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie: I know Rushdie is on a lot of people's lists, but he never made it onto any of my assigned or even recommended reading lists until a few years ago. I loved this book. It's vibrant and funny and infuriating, rich with details about the best and worst parts of India's history. It's also a brilliant work of magical realism, which is one of my favorite underwritten genres.
  • What Looks Like Crazy On an Ordinary Day, by Pearl Cleage: I'm embarrassed to admit this, but for the sake of this list, I have to say that this was the first book I'd read by a modern black female author not named Toni Morrison. When I first read it, at least 15 years ago, I fell in love with it for its humor and wisdom and craft, but also because I could so easily relate to it. The book is about the black community in Atlanta and in the MC's small town in Michigan, but it's alive with human fears, failures, and hopes. I loved the main character, and identified with her, and if that's not essential in our world of divisions and misunderstandings, I don't know what is. 
  • In The City of Shy Hunters, by Tom Spanbauer: I'm not going to lie - this is a very strange book. The plot wanders and meanders, and sometimes falls down shifting rabbit holes of drug-induced insanity. The ending is unconventional, to say the least. But, it's also heart-wrenching and hilarious, gritty, real, and sometimes down and frighteningly dirty. It paints a crystal-clear picture of New York City during the AIDS epidemic, and another, equally clear (and devastating) picture of what it was like to grow up gay in 1960s-70s middle America. 
  • Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Ok, I'm cheating, here. No one told me to read this book because it just came out last year, so no one really had a chance to - BUT I loved it so much that I don't care if I'm cheating. It should be required reading on any list of modern American literature. For those who would argue that it's about Nigeria, I would say it's also first and foremost about being an immigrant in America, and there is nothing more American than that. It's also a frank, unflinching look at race and racism in the States. 
  • The House of Spirits, by Isabel Allende: Yes, I love magical realism, if you can't tell. And while everyone told me to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, nobody mentioned I might also want to try Isabel Allende. This is a fantastic, sweeping, epic book, at times ridiculous; at others, hideous; at still others, tender; and also violent, romantic, magical, political, and wonderful. It'll take a while to read, but it's worth every minute. 
  • Orlando, or Mrs. Dalloway, or To The Lighthouse, or The Waves by Virginia Woolf: During my high school and college years, I felt like most teachers and students talked about Virginia Woolf the way that people talk about tax reform: everyone agrees it's important, and no one wants to touch it. So there was a lot of talk about how great Woolf was, and very little in the way of actual reading. These four titles are my favorites of hers, listed here in what I consider their order of readability, from easiest to hardest. They are each brilliant and experimental and wonderful, but The Waves might be the most challenging - and rewarding - book I've ever read.
  • The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, by Louise Erdrich: To be fair and honest, I have to admit two things. First, a teacher did tell me to read Erdrich in college, albeit a different, more well-known book; and second, my aunt recommended this book to me. But then, my aunt is gay and Jewish and not remotely mainstream, so I think this book still deserves to be on this list. Here's the teaser from the Amazon page: "For more than a half century, Father Damien Modeste has served his beloved people, the Ojibwe, on the remote reservation of Little No Horse. Now, nearing the end of his life, Father Damien dreads the discovery of his physical identity, for he is a woman who has lived as a man." 'Nuff said, I think. Oh, and, it's a great book.
What about you? What books would make it on your list? What did I miss - and what should I read?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Visiting Old Friends

I'm not going to write about the weather today. Really, I'm not. Except to mention, just off-hand, briefly, you know, all nonchalant and stuff, that it is currently 50 DEGREES OUTSIDE. What is that sound? That drip drip drip drip drip? Oh right - THE SNOW IS MELTING! THE SNOW IS MELTING!!! HALLELUJAH!!

Ding dong the winter's dead! What's all dead? The winter's dead! Ding dong the wicked winter's dead!

(Man, I must be losing it; that's my second Wizard of Oz reference in the last few weeks.)

In celebration, I shall write about something besides snow. Amazing, I know.

So, during this nasty, insane, ludicrous winter I had a large amount of time to spend holed up in my house, waiting out the storms. Add to that the fact that it was utterly miserable outside for long weeks at a time, and you have a perfect recipe for escapism. Not one to be deterred by cliches, I dove right into an old, beloved fantasy series: Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle. 

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I've read these books before, and adored them, but it's been years since I last picked them up (well, except for The Tombs of Atuan; I read that one on an annual basis.) And this time through, reading them as an adult and not a teenager or college student, one of my favorite things happened: I read the familiar, much-loved stories and characters, and it was an entirely new experience. There was the memory of how I felt reading them years ago, and then there were all of the new, unexpected, and very different feelings reading them again.

I love when this happens. It's the mark of well-written, thoughtful books: the ability to reach different readers on different levels at different times. I'd even venture to say it's one of the things that fantasy does so well, because everything in fantasy is cloaked and wrapped in metaphor. Sometimes, at some points in our lives, we see its disguise, and then at others, we see beneath that costume to its true nature. Metaphor, myth, fantasy; these things are primal; felt but not always understood; they reach down into the dark corners of our minds and touch something there, in the deepest level, our collective unconscious.

I won't give away anything, or spoil anything, but there were things I'd disliked about these books when I was younger, that I found had now become some of my favorite parts - because I understood them so differently. The fourth book, Tehanu, used to be one of my least favorite, and this time, I loved it. I also learned, incidentally, that Le Guin wrote it nearly twenty years after the third book - and you can see that change and growth in every word. Or at least, I could see it now, fifteen years after the first time I read it.

What about you? What books do you return to, and find new meaning in, over and over again?

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Insecure Writers: Feathers

It's the first Wednesday of the month, so it's time for The Insecure Writers! The IWSG is an online group created by Alex J. Cavanaugh for writers. You, too, can join us anytime!

Happy March, everyone! I'm always happy when February finally ends, but this year I'm overjoyed. It's March! It's spring!! Well, almost, anyway!!!

This excitement is in spite of the fact that I've lived in New England for most of my life, and so I know that March is the king of unmet expectations. March comes in with a super cool haircut and a hot leather jacket and a chip the size of Montana on its shoulder. It smirks at us, saying, "Oh, you want spring, huh? How about this blizzard first?" And then it proceeds to dump more winter on us, proving itself to be just another normal, boring month posing as a sexy summer crush.

BUT, I remain hopeful. Even though the past says otherwise; even though it's snowing as I write this. Again. It's March, and spring is coming, dammit.

So, that's my message for IWSG today, folks: be hopeful. Against all the odds, against all of those gloomy statistics about publishing and dark predictions on the death of literature, against all of our own fears about not being good enough, talented enough, savvy enough, driven enough, against writers' block and crippling anxiety and the unbearable weight of expectations; against the mountains of snow and the pinnacles of ice and the grey, heavy skies: hope.

After all, as someone once said, hope is the thing with feathers. Just watch: it'll out-fly us all.