Month: January 2015

Improving Your Writing

ideaThere are loads of books, blog posts, and web articles about ways to improve your writing. Google just returned 152 million results to the search query “how to improve your writing.” 743,927** of these online articles are listicles:

5 Simple Ways to Improve Your Writing – http://www.forbes.com/sites/dailymuse/2012/05/22/5-simple-ways-to-improve-your-writing/

10 Quick Tips to Improve Your Writing – http://grammar.about.com/od/developingessays/a/quicktips.htm

21 Ways to Improve Your Writing – http://www.writingforward.com/better-writing/improve-your-writing

8 Simple Scientifically Proven Ways to Improve Your Writing – http://www.fastcompany.com/3023616/work-smart/8-simple-scientifically-proven-ways-to-improve-your-writing

15 divine devices to drastically improve your writing – http://simplewriting.org/15-divine-devices-to-drastically-improve-your-writing/

How to Improve Your Writing: 3 Tips (Un-ironically, this is from a site called The Minimalists.) – http://www.theminimalists.com/how-to-improve-writing/

100 Little Ways You Can Dramatically Improve Your Writing (Perhaps these folks should talk to The Minimalists.) – http://www.onlinecolleges.net/100-little-ways-you-can-dramatically-improve-your-writing/

I’ve read my share of these articles and a goodly number of books on writing because I’m always looking for ways to improve. While books on writing are usually interesting because they are long enough to allow the authors’ personalities to shine through, the listicles get old and repetitious.

1. Read, read a lot, read some more.

2. Sit your butt in a chair and write.

3. Cut out adverbs.

4. Kill your darlings.

5.. Blah, blah, blah-di-de-blah.

Writing is a process. If we’re lucky, it’s a lifelong process that will bring us continous joy as we work to improve it. Improvement, however, comes at its own pace for each of us. It might take years for a writer to learn how to read the work of others such that she can transfer lessons to her own work. Another writer will cling desparately to her adverbs. (Natch!) Still others won’t recognize their darlings immediately. (I’m quite fond of the parenthetical aside.)

The advice in listicles won’t stick until a writer is ready. It’s important for writers to examine all resources that come their way, even those not necessarily aimed at writers, for hints on advancing their work.

Recently, I ran into a couple of new resources that contain ideas I plan to adopt in improving my writing.

One of them is the book “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath. (http://heathbrothers.com/books/made-to-stick/) It’s not a book about writing, per se, but about how to get your ideas across. The book explains the most effective methods by using the acronym S-U-C-C-E-S-s. The letters stand for Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories … the final ‘S’ isn’t associated with anything, but ‘success’ looks funny without it. What is writing but a method of getting your ideas across? I’m going to try to work more of these qualities into my writing.

The second resource I intend to use in improving my writing is a Readability Scale. I learned about the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Scale through this article on LinkedIn:(https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-much-does-reading-level-matter-shane-snow?trk=tod-home-art-list-large_0)

The article points out that the most popular authors tend to write the most readable books. This means readable in terms of grade level, as in the lower the grade level, the more readable a piece is. Ernest Hemingway wrote “The Old Man and the Sea” so that a 4th grader could understand it. The majority¬†of the popular authors analyzed within the article wrote at a 9th grade level or lower.

We tend to believe that the more complex a piece of writing is, the better in terms of quality. Writing, however, is about communication. If you’re trying to make a point, why make it difficult to comprehend? As the LinkedIn article says, even readers who understand pieces written at a higher grade level prefer to read at lower grade levels.

I ran some of my writing through an online readability test (http://read-able.com/):

An article I wrote for work about the Little Falls Ravine (http://morrisoncountyhistory.org/?page_id=642) scored at a grade level of 7.9.

Another of my work articles, History Is Boring! scored at 10th grade. (http://morrisoncountyhistory.org/?page_id=1253)

My short story Round and Round It Goes tested at 6th grade on Flesch Kincaid. (https://woowooteacup.wordpress.com/writing/round-and-round-it-goes/)

As Above, Not So Below tested at 6.1. (https://maryewarner.com/portfolio-mewarner/writing-2/as-above-not-so-below/)

This article tests at 6.5. (I could run writing samples through the readability test all darned day.)

How might the readability test translate to reactions from real readers?

When I was attending meetings of a local writers group, I’d bring a piece to read for feedback and be flummoxed by a lack of suggestions for improving the writing. Discussion tended to revolve around the subject matter I had chosen, not the writing. I came to the conclusion that at least my writing wasn’t getting in the way, which is as it should be.

Don’t let your writing get in the way. Work to make reading effortless for your audience. Allow the story to flow.

The common suggestion to read your work aloud and listen for places you stumble is a good one. If you are continually tongue-tied over a phrase or find yourself rewording a paragraph as you read it, that’s an indication that rewriting is necessary.

Go forth, Fellow Writer! Examine the listicles, books, articles, and other tools available for helping you improve your writing. Take the advice you’re ready for and leave the rest. There will always be another writer around to dole out advice when you need it.

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**I made this number up. ūüôā

What to Do with Leftover Yarn

Zigzag crocheted afghan by Mary Warner, 2014.
Zigzag crocheted afghan by Mary Warner, 2014.

It started with an afghan. A zig-zag afghan in four colors of Bernat yarn.

Of course, there was yarn left over.

I could not let it go unused.

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It’s very soft yarn.

In fun colors, especially that vibrant green.

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So, here’s what I did with the leftover vibrant green:

Neck warmer by Mary Warner, 2014.
Knitted neck warmer by Mary Warner, 2014.

But I still had yarn left in blue, gray, and light green.

So, here’s how I used that:

Knitted striped scarf on Sebastian, by Mary Warner, 2015.
Knitted striped scarf on Sebastian, by Mary Warner, 2015.

I knitted a birthday scarf for my son Sebastian. It’s got a vaguely Dr. Who look, although it’s not nearly as long.

Sebastian agrees that the yarn is very soft.

YOCR #3 – The Artist’s Guide

DSC01459aIn continuing my year of creative reading (note the abbreviation in the title), I dipped into Jackie Battenfield’s “The Artist’s Guide.” While I did not read it cover-to-cover, I read several big chunks of it.

This is a fabulous reference book for anyone serious about creating their own arts career. It’s the book I wish I’d had in college in the 1980s. Art majors concentrated on their art during my college days; they did not get any instruction related to the arts as a business. I suspect this was a widespread problem of the time.

Observing my son Ian’s current art instruction, both at the Perpich Center for Arts Education in Golden Valley and at North Dakota State University in Fargo, he was provided with several lessons related to the business of art. At Perpich, he had to write a grant. At NDSU, he had to create his own website. There were other entrepreneurial things he learned as well.

My practical business training came through two avenues. Upon graduating from college, I entered a course that taught people how to start a small business. My hubby and I were in this program together and the result was the neon sign shop we ran for a couple of years.

The other arts business training I received was a series of ten courses called “Work of Art” offered by Springboard for the Arts. I loved this professional development opportunity, which, with additional intensive training, led to my serving as an on-call artist career counselor for a year in my region.

“The Artist’s Guide” reminds me of what I learned in “Work of Art.” I highly recommend the book for artists just starting out in their careers, for those who need to brush up on a few things, and for those who missed these business practicalities altogether. Battenfield provides her advice in an easy manner, with the wisdom of someone who has lived what she is teaching.

 

Creating Is Not About the Fame

thoughtfodderA quick post today, an article I want to share that discusses writing and fame. It’s by Jeff Goins and appears on Medium, one of my favorite sites for long-form essays. It’s called “The Truth About Going Viral” and is about what happened when one of Jeff’s blog posts unexpectedly went viral. Interesting to note that it went viral a year after he wrote it, showing that some half-forgotten (or fully forgotten) post you wrote ages ago can be unearthed and speak to someone at any time.

Jeff’s point, which he makes so well, is that your creative work must sustain you through its own intrinsic value. Outside forces, like fame, aren’t going to cut it in the long run. Please do have a read. It’s not a long article.

Je Suis Charlie

jesuischarlieThe slaying of twelve people, many of them journalists, at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French newspaper in Paris, has come as a psychic sucker punch to me this week. It is hard enough for writers and artists to fight the general negativity of society and their own self doubts in order to find their voices and speak their truths within their work. The threat of violence, let alone actual violence, can be enough to silence those voices for a good long time. I should know, having dealt with a personal threat online a number of years ago over I blog post I wrote. It is horrifying to know that people who make such threats aren’t always just blowing hot air and steam. Sometimes they will carry out their threats and silence a writer or artist for good.

As a writer who has pissed people off with my words, I empathize with the rallying cry, “Je suis Charlie!”

I am also heartened by the outpouring of support from around the world for Charlie Hebdo and the right to the freedom of expression.  May we all have the courage to continue to lift our voices through our creative endeavors.

Christmas, Edited

It took me five minutes to dig this Santa figurine out of storage. One jolly ornament can set the tone for your edited holiday.
It took me five minutes to dig this Santa figurine out of storage. One jolly ornament can set the tone for your edited holiday.

The holiday season has passed. We didn’t decorate one whit and I’m fine with that.

When I was growing up, my mom was BIG on Christmas. We had specific traditions, but I’m not sure if she made them up or they were passed down from her family.

We started in on stringing the popcorn and cranberries around Thanksgiving. For those of you unfamiliar with this tradition, popcorn and cranberries are strung onto white thread using a needle, with lengths of these strings tied together until you get a really long string to wrap around the tree … always a real tree in our house … as decoration. Stabbing hard cranberries with a needle was a pain in the literal sense. The needle often slid off the cranberry and into a finger. While it was easier to poke into the popcorn with a needle, the result was often broken bits of popcorn as it disintegrated from being pierced.

Twenty pieces of popcorn and one cranberry, over and over, until the string was long enough. The string was kept in a paper grocery bag while it was being constructed.

Come Christmas Eve, it was time to decorate the tree, which we selected as a family at a local Christmas tree lot in town. If memory serves, we purchased the tree in the week before Christmas. We always decorated it on Christmas Eve, per Mom’s instructions. There were four of us kids and we had to put ornaments on one-at-a-time in a mysteriously prescribed order. There was the “special” ornament, one that was uber delicate and had been passed down from one of Mom’s relatives (possibly her grandmother), that we all wanted a chance to hang on the tree. Its place of honor was near the top at the front of the tree, out of harm’s way and where we could all see it.

It took forever to decorate the tree, one ornament at a time with four kids bustling about. Dad put on the lights prior to our part in the task. The light strings at that time had large, multi-colored bulbs. None of these newfangled twinkly lights in all one color. In fact, our family Christmas tree was never the color-coordinated affair you often see in local businesses or decorator homes. It contained quite a few handmade ornaments, which sounds all chic, until you realize that most of them were paper and made by us children in elementary school.

Suddenly, I’m recalling paper chains, as well. This was another endless task, like the popcorn and cranberries. We glued strips of colored construction paper together into chains that we hung … hmm … somewhere in the house. I can’t recall the location.

And there were cookies. Mom baked acres and acres of Snickerdoodles and sugar cookies and ginger snaps and probably another couple types of cookies for the Christmas season. We children must have been hopped up on sugar the entire month. It was our job to decorate the sugar cookies, which started out as great fun, what with mixing the frosting, deciding on whether to frost the bell or the Santa or the reindeer, slathering on pink or green or white frosting, and throwing on sprinkles, but after about the tenth cookie, it appeared that the cookies would never end.

Aside from the tree and the paper chains and the cookies, there were other decorations habitually put out for the Christmas season, including stockings and a beautiful Santa figure with a curly white beard that seemed to be made of real hair. Santa was probably between 15 and 18 inches tall. I believe my older brother typically got the honor of setting up this Santa.

When it came to presents, we had a couple of traditions. One was that we were allowed to open one gift on Christmas Eve. (Why do you think decorating the tree felt so darned interminable?) The only gifts that were out on Christmas Eve were the ones from Mom and Dad. The Santa gifts wouldn’t arrive until the next morning. Come Christmas morning, we were up well before our parents, circling around the tree and scoping out the presents, seeing which ones were ours. When Dad and Mom finally joined us in the living room, we would each pick a gift and on their signal, open them.

I’m not gonna lie. That was the most joyous part of the holiday for me. In one photo of me during Christmas Past, I’m in third or fourth grade, wearing a robe and a cap over the curlers in my hair, and next to me is a turquoise and white typewriter. I have no idea what happened to that typewriter, but obviously my folks sensed something about my future interest in writing.

Fast forward to my adulthood, with three children in the house. It was time for my husband Erik and I to create our own Christmas traditions. The popcorn and cranberry strings and paper chains were out, my memories of enduring these tasks making me not want to put my children through them. We did have a Christmas tree pretty much every year while our children were growing up and we made some of the ornaments. Most of the time we skipped making cookies, but there was a stocking for each kid. We typically limited the number of gifts to five per kid, whether from Erik and I or from Santa (when we wanted to give the Jolly Fat Man credit). We kept the tradition of letting the kids open one gift on Christmas Eve and the rest on Christmas Day.

The tradition we most enjoyed, which developed over years, was going to a Christmas tree farm, having a ride on a hay wagon, picking and cutting the tree, and enjoying hot cocoa afterward. We’d decorate the tree as soon as we brought it home. As the kids got older, they would scatter as soon as the tree was up and leave the decorating to me. Um, yeah. Not so much. Now that the kids are adults, Erik and I have¬†given up on the tree. That may be a sacrilege to my mom and other Christmas lovers out there, but for us, the tree and the decorations don’t make the season. Eating fabulous food (not optional), sharing great conversation (also not optional), and a few well-chosen gifts (optional) with family are what the holiday is about.

Which brings me to the reason I wrote this post. I know there are people who feel absolutely frantic between Thanksgiving and New Year’s if they can’t get the holiday cards out, the tree up and decorated, the lights strung, and the cookies baked. It’s as though the holidays (there are a slew¬†of them between Thanksgiving and early January) aren’t the holidays without the trappings.

If you’ve got time to do all the holiday tasks without getting frazzled and revel in the preparations, by all means, go for it. But, if life events prevent you from living up to your holiday expectations or you just don’t feel like dealing with all the seasonal everything, relax and learn to celebrate an edited version of Christmas or Hanukkah or [your holiday here]. Pick one or two simple¬†things to do that put you in the spirit of the season and fully enjoy those. Maybe eschew the tree and put a wreath on the door instead, or get a Charlie Brown Christmas tree with one ornament. Leave the lights off the exterior of the house and put an electric candle in the window. Skip wrapped gifts and just hang stockings containing small gifts. Make one batch of cookies, not ten.

There will always be someone, a store or a neighbor, that goes all out for the holidays. Borrow your holiday cheer from their preparations rather than feeling you must do it all every single year. It’s okay. You have my permission to celebrate Christmas, Edited.

Catching the Big Fish

DSC01387For my year of creative reading, which technically started in December 2014, not today (I’m not that fast a reader), I read David Lynch’s “Catching the Big Fish“. It¬†is by THE David Lynch of Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet fame.¬†It contains mini-essays by Lynch about his experience with transcendental meditation and how he thinks about film making and the creative process.

My surface impression of the book was, “Meh.”¬†Perhaps it would have done more for me if I were familiar with Lynch’s films.

While my initial impression wasn’t that favorable, the book did have me thinking a couple of things. One, what’s the difference between transcendental meditation (TM) and other forms of meditation? A Google search gave me the answer. Other than TM using a mantra to induce relaxation, it also produces different brain activity than mindfulness meditation.

Lynch has practiced TM twice a day for over three decades and swears by it as a source of his creativity. He is so taken with the technique that he has a foundation to help introduce TM to schools.

The second thing that struck me about the book was Lynch’s method of capturing his original creative ideas in movie form. It’s almost as though he sneaks up on them by playing with the various aspects of film making, like the location, sound, or lighting. He can start with very tiny images or thoughts and build an entire movie starting there and sneaking up on the larger story. Here’s what he has to say about ideas:

“It would be great if the entire film came all at once. But it comes, for me, in fragments. That first fragment is like the Rosetta Stone. It’s the piece of the puzzle that indicates the rest. It’s a hopeful puzzle piece.

“In Blue Velvet, it was red lips, green lawns, and the song — Bobby Vinton’s version of “Blue Velvet.” The next thing was an ear lying in a field. And that was it.” (pg. 23)

I’ve never thought of my initial idea for a creative project as a Rosetta Stone, something waiting to be deciphered that contains the whole idea. I figured I had to keep adding to the initial idea with more ideas, rather than attempting to code-break the original by sneaking up on it.

This feels like a big idea that I haven’t quite grasped yet. Perhaps some TM is in order.

It also goes to show that I can’t always trust my initial impression of a book.