blogging, social media

Content + Craft = Art

March 13, 2014 | 13 Comments

This is the second Spring I’ve taught “Writing Life Stories,” which is creative nonfiction for non-majors, college juniors and seniors. As always, this class underscores for me writing’s good news/bad news situation: writing talent is common. Among about 20 students, one is a writing major, and several others are avowed artists—of ceramics, music, theatre—but the largest single cohort this year is nursing students, who are doing impressive work. The most advanced writers, as always, are readers and journal-keepers, or who were in childhood, whether they’ve ever taken a creative writing class or not.

The first night I drew on the chalkboard a huge circle with an arrow from it to an equation: C + C = A. The circle is the vast self (which to me includes the collective unconscious of our species, though I don’t go into all that). The first C is in a rectangle and represents what the self is given to work with, which is content—the self’s encounter with the world. Both the circle and the first C are black-box mysteries, as far as teaching is concerned.

The second C is craft, and the line that flows onward from it goes to A: art.

“Craft is what releases art,” I told the kids that first night. “And art announces itself in form.”

While talent is common, the higher levels of craft are not, so craft is our appropriate focus. If I’m wrong, at least I’m clear. And let’s face it, clarity is rare in this world too. Looking back, I’ve made mistakes in teaching—just as I’ve lamented some of my shoot-from-the-hip posts here—but an instructor’s passion counts for a lot, as in blogging, even if he later views his ideas as half-baked or his execution as inept.

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New reading, writing tools

November 14, 2013 | 24 Comments

On Friday, November 1, I get up and open my computer. Sure to Google’s months of warnings, iGoogle is gone. I’m flying blind.

For years, dozens of RSS feeds filled my iGoogle page—it’s the way I kept up with blogs and got news feeds. In an instant I could scan headlines, note a blogger’s new post, feel connected with the hive. Google wants its iGoogle fans to use another of its services. There’s no way.

For starters, I’m miffed. iGoogle was so perfect a reader and home page for me. Not that I ever paid for it, so how much can I fairly protest? And yet, by the end, I would have paid. (For the record.) But paying for what I’d grown to love wasn’t an option—you live by the Internet’s freebies and you die by them.

There’s all kinds of new readers. Most make the same mistake, emphasizing graphics. The beauty of iGoogle was its clarity and simplicity. Supposedly you can make Netvibes or Feedly or whatever look like iGoogle. But I fail.

Instead, I select igHome, which most resembles iGoogle. Superficially. Since it’s kind of clunky and uncool, however—like its very name—I feel even more Internet inept. And certain I’ve made a mistake. Surely igHome is doomed.

Trying to adjust to my new window on the web, it feels like my glasses prescription is from a decade ago. Everything’s a bit out of focus and less graspable. But such a problem everyone should have in this world! Complaining about igHome makes me feel worse about myself than does having picked it.

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Choosing love, as person & writer

October 22, 2013 | 7 Comments

In my recent review of Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World I noted how author Shirley Hershey Showalter wrote interestingly about her happy childhood for a wide audience, though she grew up in the specific, narrow, and intertwined agrarian and religious world of Mennonite rural Pennsylvania in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Her parents’ firstborn, she was heir not only to their accomplishments but also to their unrealized ambitions. Obviously a smart, positive, and attractive child, she also had her own gifts and desires to express. The result, set against the backdrop of the changes sweeping America and her church, provides more than enough tension for a good story.

Showalter explains in a short video about the book:

“The book’s title—Blush—refers to my discomfort in that place between the church and the world. It also means that I tried so hard to be sophisticated. It took me a long time to discover that God made me a feisty, curious, plain Mennonite farm girl for a reason. When I am vulnerable and wholehearted, I am much more aware of God and my community can come in and support me, even in times of conflict and pain and doubt.”

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Learning the blogging genre

July 17, 2013 | 14 Comments

At a writing conference recently, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in years, the author of many books. I was surprised at lunch when he began to lecture everyone at our table about the wrongness of the Iraq war. Talk about preaching to the choir—there probably wasn’t one soul at the confab who thought the war had been justified or who wasn’t sickened, at some level, by its tragic waste of blood and treasure.

I realized that my friend’s gauche presumption, inadvertently condescending whatever your view of the war, was inseparable from him as a writer. I saw that he’s an autodidact, which means a self-taught person. Someone who lectures himself about the truth he has come to. Which pretty much defines writers, however many teachers have helped them along the way. They’re seekers. But there’s in this autodidact condition an even darker root, didactic, which describes someone who lectures others.

In other words, I saw my own tendencies writ large. A strategy of much nonfiction writing, it seems to me, involves taking the curse off didacticism by witnessing about what’s true for you in the form of story. What I’ve just tried to do by telling a little story about my friend instead of saying didactically, Don’t lecture others.

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My blog turns 5, gets makeover

July 12, 2013 | 15 Comments

As my blog enters its sixth year—July 17th is its anniversary—regular readers will notice a new look. I’ve left my WordPress host and am on my own, self hosted, as they say. Feels kind of scary. My motive is flexibility in page layout because my book, Shepherd: A Memoir, will be published on May 1, 2014. Hosting one’s own blog and author site isn’t necessary, but experts advise it because it gives a margin of control. You do give up some great hosted connectivity in the blogging world, and possibly some nifty services. I’ll see.

Having decided on a makeover I sought a freelance designer. There are website design companies that specialize in author websites, of course, but some of their sites looked too slick to me. And I wanted a one-on-one relationship with an individual. Plus—and this was the deal-breaker for me—the companies I looked at really want to host their clients’ sites. I understand their desire and its benefits, but I’ve been steering this little ship for five years and want to continue to guide it. No middlemen. For one thing, I feared it would be harder to move my site if I wanted to. For better or worse, this is mine.

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John McPhee on writer’s block

April 28, 2013 | 24 Comments

McPhee explains loving revision, I rename this blog Draft No. 4. If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer. —John McPhee Thursday night, I told my wife about my notion …

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Spiritual affinities: Tolle, Rilke, Woolf

April 5, 2013 | 5 Comments

Spiritual Affinities. I’m pleased to have a guest post today at Daisy Hickman’s Sunny Room Studio on the spiritual insights and strength I’ve drawn from a number of thinkers, especially Eckhart Tolle, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Virginia Woolf. They’ve given me “fragments to shore against my ruins,” as T.S. Eliot put it in his poem “The Waste Land.”

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