Sunday, February 24, 2013

Writing is Glorious

Saturday night I saw Glorious! a hilarious play by Peter Quilter at the O'Connell & Company theater. Based on a true story, Glorious! is the life of Florence Foster Jenkins the worst singer in the world (check her out on Youtube). Florence, born in 1868, was the tone deaf daughter of a wealthy banker who forbade her from taking music lessons. She so loved opera that she eloped just to get away from her domineering father. Many years later she inherited her parents fortune and began a singing career. Still tone deaf and rhythmically challenged Florence performed her first recital at the age of 44.

Of course the play features her most bizarre quirks like she interviewed anyone who wanted to purchase a ticket, and created her own costumes favoring wings, tinsel and tiaras. After a taxi crash Florence discovered that she could hit higher notes, and sent the cab driver a box of Cuban cigars to thank him for increasing her range.

Although ridiculed with bad reviews and called 'First Lady of the Sliding Scale,' she had a cult following that included Cole Porter, Talula Bankhead, and Enrico Caruso.

Her peak came in 1944, when at age 76, the Diva of Din played Carnegie Hall - to a standing room only crowd.  Some in the audience jeered, some laughed, but most admired her remarkable zest for life, her courage, and her singular passion for music.

At one point in the play, Florence, played by actress Mary Kate O'Connell (who portrayed Florence's joy and jarring arias brilliantly) said,  "People may say I can't sing. But no one can ever say I didn't sing."

And that line, which might have been her mantra, reminded me how important it is to be unwavering in the pursuit of one's passions. As a writer you are constantly getting knocked down with written rejections -- and if you're like me, you actually keep them so they continue to taunt you every time you open up a file drawer!  It is easy for your passion to waver each time you're faced with the choice to sleep in or get up and write (will anyone care?), or when you start a new story (is it worth the effort?), read aloud in a critique group (will they like it?), type up a cover letter (it is right?), stuff a manuscript in an envelop or attach it to an email (is it ready?).

Be courageous and take a cue from Florence. Be selective of your audience. Don't send a manuscript to just any editor. Check out their blogs and interviews online, read the books they've published. Find out what they like, what they want, so you'll have fewer boos and more bravos.

Dress up your prose -- not with tinsel and tiaras, but with the best writing you can create-- vigorous verbs, dynamic details, and kick ass characters.

And when someone helps you raise your game with a bit of advice, a research lead, or a personal editorial note, show your appreciation. Build your fan base. Start now to fill Carnegie Hall.

Despite all the obstacles that stand in your way (most of which are in your head), make sure that when the literary-equivalent-of-the-fat-lady sings, no one can say you didn't write.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Farmer George in the Classroom

I may be behind the times, but I have added lesson ideas for Farmer George Plants a Nation to my website just in time for President's Day.

I am not a teacher, so I'm not fluent in lesson-plan-ease, but I do love to think up ways to use Farmer George as a jumping off point for teaching about seeds and soil, or discussing how agriculture was such an important element in creating a free nation. In this confusing time of Common Core and changing standards I hope it helps to have an author's perspective on where the information came from, how they write, and how their work fits into the larger picture.  I think Farmer George can be used in social studies or science class, and I'm hoping that any teacher who uses Farmer George will let me know what they did and how it went.

Please add your voice to the discussion of how nonfiction books can be used in the classroom.

I'll be adding lesson plans for For The Birds next.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Hooray For Clichés!

Not too long ago I was sitting in the audience listening to a distinguished writer talk about her craft when she segued into “What Not to Do!”  Then I saw her pick up one of my books.

My mind filled with a numbing buzz like anesthesia for surgery where your soul will be yanked out through your left eyeball. I can’t remember what don’t’s she referred to, but all the while she held my book. Then she opened it and said, “Unless you do it this way.” Ah, a reprieve. Or a backhanded compliment?  I still couldn’t focus. The horror of being so close to the Don’t list left my brain limp.

You have to know the rules, before you can break them. That’s what writers say. And maybe I fall into that category, or at least cling to the outside rim, because I’ve noticed that I’ve done it again.  Another common piece of advice is to avoid clichés.  And yet, one of the literary devices that I employed in For the Birds: the life of Roger Tory Peterson, included several clichés –
            He had eagle eyes.
            Like an owl he worked at night …
           He rose with the Robins
           It was time to make a nest of his own
           Determined as a woodpecker after a bug

I did add a few of my own:  
           He looked as thin and gawky as a fledgling egret
           As focused as a heron after a fish, he perched on the edge of his seat.

But I had a reason. I wanted to create the image of Roger as a Bird, so the reader understood how strongly Roger loved and responded to them. Using phrases like, “he roosted with …” and  “he migrated…” helped to reinforce this.

The use of common phrases and images can serve a purpose if you use them consciously and don’t overdo it.  Seven comparisons sprinkled throughout a 48 page book with 3,000 words seemed to do the trick. 

Will I break more rules in the future?  I’m sure someone will point it out to me.