Please Stop With the Dew and the Tulips

Image Credit: Wikicommons

Image Credit: Wikicommons

If I have to read about dew on tulips one more time, I’m gonna die.

Spring is a rough time. For all the colors, sunshine, and sexed-up emotions there’s also allergies, adjustment, and tropical cyclones. Even sexed-up emotions can be a downer if you’ve got different priorities, to speak nothing of those among us who are in that strictly anti-Vitamin D, anti-UV business. (I’m not, but I respect you)

However, more than allergies, more than cyclones, more than sunburns and cancer from space, the biggest problem I have with Spring is the way people choose to describe it. So much of what I’ve read borders on Looney Tunes-esque parody that I wonder if those chosen phrases, the mist and the daffodils and the buzzing bees and the rainbows coming in through the window are just copy/paste shorthands from a book nobody’s ever read, that takes less effort to put on a page than a noir detective does to quietly dismiss a woman’s personality. I wonder if some group of us have convinced themselves that things like this are necessary fixtures rather than potholes, something so apart from a compelling visual setting that it skips straight into anesthesia.

Equally tiring is the opposing view. The one that, despite the implicit positivity of the season, casts a glum and dismissive look at its contents. When the sunshine and tulips isn’t enough, when the rainbow and the children outside are missing the point, and we’re all ignorant for thinking goodness is rewarded and seasons are anything but cosmic drift.

One thing I learned early on in writing, but not quite early enough, was that people are looking for the story they haven’t heard, the voice that hasn’t spoken. It’s one of the most salient points I’ve ever seen about the work, one that still resonates every time I sit down at my desk to create just about anything. When it comes to spring, ask yourself:

Am I creating something brand new, weaving place and time together to really make the point of this story stick, or am I just badly quoting A Winter’s Tale again?

Or, the alternative:

Am I writing something unique and worthwhile about decaying flowers and forests or exorcising demons I have from watching Bambi too early?

Both are entirely plausible.

A season or a setting can feel entirely inconsequential, but I find that this is very rarely actually the case. Time and place are so wrapped up in story that to ignore it save for a few tacit details is to err. What it comes down to is constructing a truth that matters. You might have heard this in a writing class before this but it bears repeating: Every detail has a point, every setting breathes. Spring, for example, breathes wistful breaths.

Less heard is the follow-up: A detail is only as important as it is singular, each setting only as it is felt. There are times when I remember being so struck by a work’s environmental honesty that it alone held my attention. A Serious Man, the Coen film, did this with summer. It didn’t need heatwaves, or sweat beads wiped with a neat handkerchief, all it needed was a guy standing on his front lawn, watering his grass, squinting slightly. The characters lived it, and they did in such a way that you’re convinced it’s imagery deeply emblazoned in the creator’s minds.

So go out there and find someplace expressive. It won’t necessarily be obvious. Listen to conversations and have some yourself, occupy spaces felt deepest past the equinox, listen to the weirdest songbird in town, live the Spring that’s worth living and come back to me.

And say nothing of tulips.

By: Thomas Radke

Rewards of Empathy and New Perspectives

Image Credit: Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 4.0

Image Credit: Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 4.0

Perspectives are diverse and how any given person observes the world is unique and beautiful. Poetry speaks in images, theories, joy, pain, and has the ability to change views, alter beliefs, and present common threads through artistic uses of language. When we dance down enjambments and hang from impactful line breaks, we are knowingly or unknowingly engaging in a journey that serves as a social ground for souls to mingle. Let us mingle amidst words, rhythm, and images that speak many stories of who we are, but most importantly toward all that we might not see.

How does any form of literature apply to my own life or experiences? Jericho Brown’s book of poems, The New Testament, gave even more weight to this often asked question. Every time I open the cover of a book reading becomes a journey, a there and back again experience that returns me to my world with new ways to see it.  The theological explorations, allusions and themes brought forth from the Bible weave an amazing tapestry of suffering, tragedy, commonplace misperceptions, and rebirth into new understandings and ideas. We had the pleasure of having Jericho Brown visit Pacific University.

My poetry class shared good conversation and delicious sushi with Mr. Brown. His playful manner and wild laugh welcomed us all to engage with him in jokes and lively banter. Jericho Brown spent time in our classroom as well, a more serious setting where we discussed his poems, how he interacts with his own students, and his admiration of Langston Hughes and the influence Hughes has had on him and his love of poetry.

Jericho Brown had a wonderful sense of humor, but I could see his seriousness as a writer, poet, and professor; his presence and energy at the podium during his reading captivated those in attendance.  His passion for poetry and words that he gained through his time as a youth in church and library helped me see why theology and poetry should be explored in the way he examined it. I feel it was all about perspectives and new thought, as the doctrine of Science of Mind Church in which he attends might seem to encourage through the studies of life, nature, and tenants of thought in a spiritual universe. The church has connections to the essays and ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a great detail in adding the unique perspectives in The New Testament to my own.

Poetry is powerful; words hold meaning that can destroy or create, cut or heal, and show us how to see through different eyes. Empathy is one such reward that is bestowed upon its readers. Life is full of battles, and living scars us inside and out.  Those who share those scars and growing pains make living a richer experience.  Jericho Brown’s collection of poems shares many scars of racial intolerance, adversity, poverty, identity, and society. The sharing of the scars and blessings that shape a life or identity is one of the many things that make poetry one of the best ways of showing and sharing what it is to live and experience.

The voices of the speakers in Brown’s poems do not speak in hatred or animosity; the voices speak in sadness, frustration and anger. “The Interrogation,” a poem within the collection speaks through gritted teeth toward hope for change that exists within the words that speak toward truths of intolerance and fear projected by a mislead society. The poem, “Colosseum,” has images of struggle, pain, and scars outside and inside. The gladiators being fed to the lions or fighting for their lives had every day to fear; they also and every day to embrace while dealing through the pains and suffering of adversity. Brown’s words allude to life being a colosseum where all the battles are fought or lost throughout every day of living. Life is fleeting and sometimes ends all too soon, but the scars pile on while the living gets done. Poetry is the gift that is born out of how society and the world at large affect us.

The matter of society, class, race, and sexual orientation come together through many of the poems found within The New Testament. While I could not plug my own life into all the experiences in these poems, there are some that translated through empathy. One of the important rewards of reading is empathy and understanding beyond our own limited perspectives, and the poems from this collection gifted new sight beyond my own little rat race. The poetry from Jericho Brown is deep and meaningful and there is much understanding to be gained through his writing.

Jericho Brown’s website: http://www.jerichobrown.com

By: Steven Childress

Learning to Relish Research with Kim van Alkemade

kimvanalkemade

As writers, we sometimes get caught up in the idea that we are only being productive if we are, well, writing. But there are large parts of the creative process that are just as important as putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) that should also be given their due. Last September, I was fortunate enough to attend a craft talk by author Kim van Alkemade, who published her debut historical fiction novel, Orphan #8, in August of 2015. On the docket for discussion: the ins and outs of researching.

First of all, van Alkemade stressed that research is not a tedious, dimly-lit backroom affair. It is a vibrant, engaging process meant to enliven your creative energies—not squash them. So to be a successful researcher, the first things you need to get rid of are any preconceived ideas or traumatic memories from those high school history projects that had you banging your head against a wall. Try looking at research as idea generation, a way to spark new ideas that would otherwise never have crossed your mind..

Once you’ve exorcised the ghosts of past research experiences, van Alkemade stresses that research must be fluid. You may go in looking for one thing, and come out with something completely different. Rather than brushing new ideas off as rabbit trails, she encourages writers to at least jot these digressions down for later. If you’re looking up the fauna of a particular region for one story, and end up at a website about the aesthetics of lamps that sparks another idea, embrace it! Keep track of your wanderings because you never know when something will be useful down the line. Tying into this fluidity of research, she also recommends something a bit counterintuitive: taking bad notes.

Van Alkemade’s example of bad note-taking working in favor of the creative process was drawn from her own work. In fact, she discovered the idea for her book, Orphan #8, completely by accident while researching the orphanage where her grandfather and great uncle grew up. She had gone in with the aim of writing a nonfiction piece about her family history, but her research led her elsewhere. While sifting through the expenditure records she came across an entry about wigs ordered for Jewish orphans who were involved in medical experiments. She jotted down the information—in poor handwriting—and moved on, thinking nothing of it at the time. When she rediscovered her note, enough of the details had faded that she only vaguely recollected the names of the people involved, but the makings of a story formed in her head. Instead of renewing her research about these specific people, though, she wrote while inspiration struck, allowing herself to create around the facts she recalled and filling in gaps with her imagination.

After getting a solid start on a piece, van Alkemade also encourages writers to overcome their fear of archives. Formal research institutions, museums, libraries, and historical societies can all be helpful, depending on your work’s specific focus. She also recommends other techniques, including reading psychology, philosophy or medical books from the period you are writing about and looking at pictures from that time (if you’re tackling something historical). If you have a specific location in mind for a piece, visit it to soak in details that are only available through direct contact. Although formal research institutions and archives are certainly an invaluable resource, they should not be the only things that spring to mind. Research can be, well, just about anything, so don’t discount modern tools like the internet. A trip through videos on YouTube can be just as helpful as a jaunt through a library—if you go in with a goal.

Van Alkemade’s next step in researching is vital: stopping. Van Alkemade admits that when research becomes engaging and dynamic, it can also become addictive or distracting, standing in the way of your writing instead of augmenting it. Rather than getting bogged down in the exact details of her main character’s factual life while writing Orphan #8, she made up what she couldn’t remember and formed her own unique character. Her main character was born in the US, while the real woman she was based on was born in Austria. Her character went to school in New York, the real woman when to Cornell. Van Alkemade was glad she didn’t remember the specifics. If she had, the book might never have been written, overrun instead by overly-meticulous facts that would have inhibited van Alkemade from running with her own fictional story.

Of course, once she had created a firm understanding of her character and formed the basic plot for her novel, the real research began—this time with a focused time period to examine and reproduce. This is where research should become a bit less fluid. Although marking down random ideas and inspirations you might run across is important during the idea generation phase of writing, it is equally important to stay on task if you are looking for a very particular fact for a story or novel that is already complete and in the accuracy-ensuring phase of production.

Although some of van Alkemade’s tips centered on historical fiction writing in particular, almost all of these lessons extend to other genres as well. I learned that research can take you anywhere. You may begin on a mission to write about your own family, and end up with a novel. The important thing is getting out there and finding information. You never know what random tidbit will inspire you. The material itself will dictate, in many ways, the type of piece you write.

Website: http://kimvanalkemade.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/KimVanAlkemade

Twitter: @KimvanAlkemade

By: Emily Woodoworth