A short, but excellent, poetry lesson

Jeffrey S. Hillard, writer, poet, editor of RED!webzine and professor at the College of Mount St. Joseph
Jeffrey S. Hillard

I’ve mentioned Jeffrey S. Hillard here before. He was one of my professors when I returned to college at Mount St. Joseph University for an English degree in the early 2000s. I took two creative writing classes from him: Short story, and Poetry.

Jeff is a gifted poet. I think you’ll agree when you read it. It is accessible, and it sings. This year he received the honor of being named the Cincinnati Public Library Foundation’s Writer in Residence. You can read all about it here.

He is also an inspiring teacher.

This week Jeff published a blog post on the library site entitled, Anatomy of a Poem (1). If you have any interest in reading good poetry, understanding poetry, or writing poetry, this is a must-read. This is where Jeff really shines.

 

 

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My mother believed

My mother always believed in me.

The past few days I have been on a cabin-fever mission to clean out files. I have a lot of files. Today, contained in a file I labeled “bits and pieces” which I recall creating to store future writing ideas, I found a manila envelope with “Christine Writings” written on it in my mother’s handwriting.

I wasn’t surprised. I knew my mother, who rarely saved anything sentimental, had saved some of the things I wrote when I was younger. There is a three-page handwritten essay on “Childcare and Babysitting.” I was probably in junior high.

“When a girl gets to a certain age she needs more money of her own and needs more responsibility. Babysitting gives you both. It also gives you in a roundabout way lessons for homemaking and childcare. Although you have to know some basics and important facts before you start, each time in some way, a new experience occurs.

The age that I find easiest to handle is around seven to ten . . .”

In it, I spelled “allowed” as “aloud.”

There is a sheet torn from a school newsletter we put together in 8th grade. The type is a script and is purple. Remember the smell of mimeograph copies and how they were a little damp at first? I wrote a poem about the snowflakes.

“. . .They drift on sometimes furiously, sometimes serenely, but always beautifully, ever journeying on to the end where they finally rest on even the smallest twig. And the twig is proud.”

I remember sitting in science class beside the window, watching the snow fall and composing this poem in my head. I did a lot of day-dreaming in grade school. I probably should have been paying attention.

My mom kept an essay I wrote in freshman English class, period 6 entitled “My Favorite Place” about the beach. My teacher wrote on the top, in red pencil, “Check some spots for awkward structure. Watch modifiers.” But he gave me a 4.5 out of 5.0 anyway. I got a 5.0 on “The Typical Mixed-Up Teenage Girl.”

“Carefree is her name and rule to live by; or often she wishes it were so. Actually insouciance (insouciance? Where did I come up with that word?) is one virtue she lacks. It would be so easy for my friend if she didn’t take things to heart so hard.”

I have a feeling I was writing about myself here.

Then there is the short story, “The Power of Giving” that I wrote in December of 1971. I think I might have been a better fiction writer then than I am now. I knew how to write a hook in the first sentence.

“The memory of it all is still as fresh in my mind as it was the first few days after the accident, and probably always will be.”

It’s a sentimental story, written in first person (I guess I liked first person even back then). A young girl gets in a car wreck right before Christmas and ends up in the hospital. She’s self-centered, and feels sorry for herself that she won’t be home for Christmas and throws a tantrum of major proportions. Later a little old lady named Auntie May visits her.  They strike up a friendship and spend a lot of time talking. The girl knits Auntie May a scarf for Christmas. Auntie May has no home to go to and is headed to a nursing home. The narrator gives her the gift she made. “That was the first real Christmas I ever had,” the narrator says, “For that was the year I discovered the power of giving.” The teacher liked it. He asked me to read it out loud to the class and I couldn’t get through it without crying. That’s still true of some of my writing.

My mom kept a poem I wrote in 1975 about our neighbor who was from Germany. I illustrated it with a drawing I made of the little old man with his cane, walking down a sidewalk under a big branching tree with bare limbs. Convincing me yet again, lest there be any doubt, to stick to writing and not drawing.

“. . .
Wonder if
While walking down the street
He yearns to be
Where he is not
Out of place;
Lonely for his home,
A place to understand,
That understands
Him.”

His name was Mr. Gronauer and he did not speak English well. My dad used to go over and visit him from time to time to talk about Germany. One day my two sisters and I went over, maybe to give him and his wife Christmas cookies or something. They used to give us those gigantic Hershey’s chocolate bars. I’m not sure Hershey’s makes them anymore. On this particular occasion, they invited us in to have a seat on the sofa and they poured each of us a little glass, maybe about a shot, of liqueur. It might have been brandy. I took one sip and wondered how I was ever going to be able to drink it all. My oldest sister didn’t seem to be having any difficulty with it. I think Carol and I surreptitiously pawned ours off on her. I might still be sitting there today otherwise.

Yes. My mom believed in me. When I’m doubting myself and wondering what to do next, my mom’s belief, in the form of a manila envelope, calls me forward, still.

 

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Bailing on the blog-a-day

Two weeks ago I took up the challenge to post a blog every day. I’ve lasted exactly two weeks. But I’ve learned a few things:

  1. I still enjoy blogging. I had forgotten.
  2. I really enjoy the online community of bloggers who read and comment on each other’s posts. This group, however, can quickly grow and get out of hand. At which point it becomes either a time-consuming burden, or a guilt-ridden neglect.
  3. Having a goal in mind, to post every day for example, does motivate me to think more, write more, shoot more photos, and enriches my life.
  4. On the other hand, posting every day causes me to write more drivel and less meaningful posts which is counter to my life’s beliefs and goals. See yesterday’s post.
  5. I had hoped that the pressure of writing something everyday might lead me to a theme that I could center on instead of the randomness I continue to pursue.
  6. I need to spend more time on my longer term goals (next book for example) and less on coming up with something, anything, to fill this page.

I could probably come up with a few more points, but won’t burden you with them.

So, my post-a-day challenge has come to an end. I’m going back to my willy-nilly, post on a whim approach. Best of wishes to the other women who continue to blog on and in particular to Joss Burnell, who sent out the challenge that I temporarily accepted. She wrote a thought-provoking and inspiring post today that is well worth the read: The Third Third.

As for my blogging future, I hope to settle into some kind of regularity that you and I can count on. Time will tell if I succeed.

Now, I have an interview to transcribe and notes to organize for my birth-mother project. More on this as it progresses.

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Steinbeck’s To a God Unknown

Reading Steinbeck makes me yearn to write excellent fiction, and at the same time despair of ever doing so.

To a God Unknown is one of Steinbeck’s earliest novels. I don’t pretend to fully grasp all that the author intended to convey. But it did provide me with a lot of food for thought, primarily regarding mysticism; humanity’s desire to worship or commune with something larger than the here and now; and the struggle between changing worldviews, in this case between “pagan” ritual and Christianity. Always fascinating to think about.

We don’t write the way we used to, or at least the authors of the books I’m reading don’t. Maybe I’m not reading the right books. Steinbeck’s story is loaded with content, and concepts. Let’s face it, it’s not a fast car chase along Highway 1, a natural disaster, or a gripping tale of betrayal with guns blazing. A modern reader might think To a God Unknown is, frankly, slow.

We can’t read a novel by John Steinbeck with the same mindset as we read Dan Brown. Steinbeck writes, “Her crying was as satisfying and as luxurious as a morning’s yawn,” (37). Chew on that for a moment. The author achieves a lot of description and understanding with this simple 12-word sentence. There is nothing earth-shattering here, but there is a very clear portrayal or understanding of not only how it feels to unburden one’s heart with tears, but also to yawn—satisfying and luxurious.

Former school teacher, young wife and new mother, Elizabeth says to her husband, the protagonist Joseph Wayne, “I  used to think in terms of things I had read. I never do now. I don’t think at all. I just do things that occur to me,” (114). And when Joseph’s brother tells him, “You love the earth too much. You give no thought to the hereafter.” (117) These statements convey something rather profound about differences in the ways we live.

After Joseph’s wife tragically dies, he returns to his house:

“The clock wound by Elizabeth still ticked, storing in its spring the pressure of her hand, and the wool socks she had hung to dry over the stove screen were still damp. These were vital parts of Elizabeth that were not dead yet. Joseph pondered slowly over it—Life cannot be cut off quickly. One cannot be dead until the things he changed are dead. His effect is the only evidence of his life. While there remains even a plaintive memory, a person cannot be cut off, dead. And he thought, ‘It’s a long slow process for a human to die. We kill a cow, and it is dead as soon as the meat is eaten, but a man’s life dies as a commotion in a still pool dies, in little waves, spreading and growing towards stillness.'”(136)

To be a great writer requires more than a talent with words; it requires a great depth of thought.

Our attention-spans have grown shorter in the fast-paced computer age we live in. We don’t read the way we used to. We shouldn’t write the way we used to. But we should be pushing the boundaries of thought  forward. Taking time to observe. Contemplation. We can’t write and complete a John Steinbeck novel, a great novel, in the month of November.

Work cited:
Steinbeck, John. To a God Unknown. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

 

 

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Inspiration

Often I use my writing to inspire my photography. I’ll have a topic I want to write about and I’ll go find a picture. My editing post is a good example. I knew what I wanted to write about and I went in search of a photo. Granted, the clock photo is a bit of a stretch.

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Sometimes I use my photography to inspire my writing. And as I’m participating in the 365 Project where you take a photo everyday, I should be able to generate a lot of inspiration. Yesterday’s brilliant puzzling post is a good example. As is today’s post.

Now, you might expect I’m going to write about home and hearth, warmth, passion, or any other number of things a burning flame brings to mind, but no.

The fire inspired me to write about that illusive quality we call inspiration. Writing from my photographs can be just one more tool in my limited toolbox.

How do you find inspiration? Care to share your secrets?

 

Editing – a life lesson

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We writers know how important editing is. Readers do too. No one wants to slug through lines, paragraphs, then pages of drivel to get to the point. We don’t have the time.

Editing has always been important to photographers, even back in the darkroom days. With the invention of digital cameras it is imperative. You can snap hundreds of photos in a matter of minutes now. But no one wants to scroll through hundreds of photos. We don’t have the time.

I don’t always think of it in these terms, but I edit the activities I fill my life with. We all do—some of us more consciously than others. Like a good editor, are we making the best choices with the use of our time? What to add? What to cut? Where to dwell a little longer, perhaps repeat for emphasis?

The last time I took on the post-a-day challenge, I was interested in establishing a discipline to write every day. It worked for a while.  I created lots of words on the screen, much it drivel. I filled pages with photos readers had to scroll through.

This time, I’m practicing editing. Good for my writing. Good for my photography. And good for my life.

 

 

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A freebie for your bookshelf

storys triumphSome free advice is worth taking.

A good friend, teacher and mentor of mine who I’ve mentioned before, Jeffrey S. Hillard, has just published the e-book Story’s Triumph: Mining your creative writing for its deepest riches. I know many of you are writers as well as readers and bloggers.

Get this book.

Beginning tomorrow for two or three days, it will be free from Amazon on Kindle. It’s a short little book on writing that contains several gold nuggets of ideas to spark your creativity, and exercises to prompt you to practice. I read it in less than an hour, but intend to go back to it and use the exercises over and over again. I know Jeff personally. I know how talented he is. If you read this book, you will see for yourself how intuitive, insightful, and supportive he is.

Here is the review I just left on Amazon.com:

Finally—poet, author, and educator Jeffrey Hillard puts his experience, skill, and enthusiasm for writing down on paper for our benefit. In Story’s Triumph, the first in a planned Write-Up series, Hillard encourages us to take our writing, and creativity, to the next step. By sharing a few simple concepts like the use of details and recycling our mistakes, Hillard explores and explains techniques some of our most favored and successful writers have employed to bring the word on the page to life.

This short and entertaining book contains unique and fun exercises after each topic to encourage writers to stretch the boundaries of our imaginations and sharpen the impact of our writing.

One of my favorite lines from the book is “Your imagination can work wonders with things that you can’t yet fully envision.”

Hillard “gets it.” He understands the written word, the writing process, and the writer. His book is informative, encouraging, and will make you see your writing and its possibilities in a new light. His enthusiasm is contagious.

Story’s Triumph is a book to read slowly, practice with, and then keep close-by to re-read again and again.

I’m looking forward to the next book in Hillard’s Write-Up series.

I had to pay a lot of money to tap into Jeff’s writing experience and wisdom through college-level courses I took from him at the College of Mount St. Joseph. I bet you will find at least one idea in Story’s Triumph that will not only cause you to see your work-in-progress in a new light, but that will help you to improve it.

And hey. It’s free.