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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Off to See My Women, the Wonderful Women of Group!

Today I'll be welcomed by warm words and hugs.

Image found here
Today I'll see kindred spirits who bend over pages and screens trying to roust spirits--trying to capture words to match the energy in our heads.

Today I'll commiserate about long-term projects--books that won't get written, sermons that get stuck, short stories grown too long, essays that writhe away, and blogs and columns that need focus.

Today I'll hear success stories and failure stories, joy and worry, and of course the disclaimer of, "This is rough, but I'll read it..."

"NO DISCLAIMERS!" we holler back at the offender. We've tried to make the No Disclaimers rule, but someone violates it every time. We accept it cheerfully in ourselves and one another. We all struggle for the confidence to read something raw and unfinished.

This writing group is full of accomplished women who lead in various realms. My writing companions prove to me that those with power can still speak humbly, unofficiously, and thoughtfully. I always walk away startled by the mental prowess, the spiritual strength, and the inner beauty of this gathering.

When we exit, we know the world won't always get what we have to say, but we've found the strength to speak out. As women we are blessed to write in 2012, not 1912 or 1812. Virginia Woolf explained how an imaginary Judith--Shakespeare's sister--had so many obstacles to writing that lacking a group would have been one of the smaller insurmountable barriers.

Today I plan to write the pages that just won't come of a short story, once that's too close to home. I know I can read it aloud and no one will flinch. That's a sacred space we all need for our thoughts to grow.

In this mostly solo writing life, you gotta have a group.

I have another delightful group that meets twice a month with two other regulars besides myself, and we are very page and critique focused. I gain such valuable insight--a concern for character consistency, pacing, and clarity. We share our woes of revision, because this group has some heroic revisers. This group has an energy likewise nurturing, focused, and caring. My companions have patiently sat through different stages of HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT. They made my week when they looked at the second revision for my agent and said, "Now this is really working." I had felt depleted walking into the meeting and left invigorated.

I also really appreciate how this group helps me think deeply about writing fiction. YA and adult literary fiction, contemporary women's fiction, and children's picture books that have changed hands. The principles of craft stay the same, but the needs of different audiences help us think nimbly about what readers want and how we can answer the call of others while staying true to ourselves.

Next week will be a week without either group. But I have a task ahead: I must make more pages before I see Stephanie, Jen, Marcia, Laurie, Katie, Beverly, and Susan again.

Knowing someone's waiting for you will help you make a deadline. Knowing someone cares whether you do it well will help you get it right.

Writing Prompts:
  • Who can you trust to read your writing or listen well? What does the reader do that makes your writing better? What types of comments do you want about your writing? Record a comment that someone's given you that's been incredibly helpful.
  • Write a description of your ideal writing group. It could be one you've attended or one you dream of joining.
  • What role do you play in critiques and writing groups? What types of comments do you often make? How do people respond to them? 
  • When has your writing group irritated you? What can you learn from the critique? What is hard to hear about your writing that may be the lesson you don't want? What might your partners' dislike of the pages tell you about their reading preferences and writing style?
  • Write a scene about a group of writers tearing up a manuscript--joyfully or fearfully, carefully or viciously--and see if you or anyone you know shows up on the page. How can the scene reinvent critique, critique the art of critique, and explore what writers want and need?
  • Write a scene where two of your favorite female authors from different eras get to meet for a critique group. If Jane Austen had a group...If Edith Wharton had a group...If Lorraine Hansberry had a group...

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Look it Up, Madonna; Look it Up

In a recent interview, Madonna told an ABC News reporter that Lady Gaga's song "Born This Way" was "reductive."

"How so?" the reporter asked.

"Look it up," said Madonna, with a superior air.

The reporter and I both did. We had to, as Madonna's response had little to do with the question. The reporter was asking for specifics, not a definition.
Image found here

Something else rang odd and untrue in the comment. I'm a big fan of using words well. It's not because I boast perfect diction or teach English. It's because if you claim to be an authority or an expert, or if you happen to speak condescendingly while refusing to explain yourself, then I want to call you on it.

So, let's define reductive. It means "tending to present a subject or problem in a simplified form, especially one viewed as crude."

Madonna said this in response to the claim of some (who? Fans? Twitter folk? The reporter did not say) that "Born This Way" is Gaga's copy of Madonna's "Express Yourself."

I'm not a lyricist, but having dragged many reluctant 10th graders through poetry analysis, let me give this a shot. If Gaga's work is reductive, then surely we'll see this in the lyrics.

It doesn't matter if you love him or capital H-I-M
Just put your paws up
'Cause you were born this way

Come on girls
Do you believe in love?
'Cause I got something to say about it
And it goes something like this

So Gaga is addressing an audience--an individual who loves man or God, an individual with animal-like qualities (paws), who is born or oriented a particular way.

Meanwhile, Madonna is addressing an audience--girls--who may or may not believe in love--and who ought to listen to Madonna who has something to say on the subject.

I'm not quite following how Gaga's work is "reductive." It appears that both artists have written an anthem.

Last time I checked, anthems were pep talks and chants. Gaga's song rouses the people to be proud of their sexual orientation while Madonna's uplifts women to be self-reliant and self-loving when it comes to men. Neither song is Shakespearean or literary or full of incredible depth; the songs are simple and direct rallying cries. Gaga has more opaque, intriguing lines (references to "subway kid" and religion of the insecure") but overall, she's met the same criteria as Madonna's anthem.

Everyone who feels the spirit has license to pen a few lines like a motivational speaker. How well it comes out depends on the artist's skill. Madonna's critique seems to get at Gaga's skill level. Is "Born This Way" simplifying the problem of being yourself? Does Gaga's commentary on the difficulty of honoring your sexual orientation make it sound all too easy? Does Gaga make coming out of the closet as simple as Madonna does when she offers advice as to how a girl can leave a second-best man: "If the time isn't right then move on"?

Just what is Gaga's work reducing, simplifying, coarsening?

Could you express yourself better, Madonna? For I am confused.

If anything Gaga has songs that do homage to Madonna, and "Express Yourself" isn't the only song honored; I see strains of "Vogue" in this song, too. As a young artist, Gaga probably will do more echoing of others as she continues to develop her own unique voice. That said, many people see her as her own complete person already.

I'll tell you what's reductive: ABC News, CNN, and so many other media outlets that purport to do journalism and instead hand us infotainment. The interview with Madonna was a limp attempt to learn about her directorial debut for a film, W.E., about Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. Instead of learning how Madonna likes directing, what her directorial vision is, or why she's worth 40 million dollars' worth of investment for a new album, we got a fake controversy and Madonna got a chance to act like a condescending, rude poseur.

But what really irritates me is reductive thinking by an artist. Madonna's living by the scarcity model, in her own narcissistic world where there's no room for a young artist to create her own works that echo and parallel past artists. Past is the operative word, one Madonna won't accept. She strives to stay relevant and young forever.

I understand that urge, I really do. I grew up with Madonna, she shaped my musical tastes well into the nineties, and like her, I'm no spring chicken. But I hope I never turn on a fellow artist and declare comparative works as "reductive" that are actually works worth considering. I hope my mind stays open and my spirit, fresh. Welcoming, expansive, and accommodating of all our rights to speak.

We were born to express ourselves. Let's get to it.

Writing Prompts:
  • Were you born to create? How do you know?
  • What art form is your best form of expressing yourself? Why?
  • Has anyone accused your work of being a copy or pale imitation of another artist's? What do you think? Is your work less than good and mere flattery? If not, has anyone recommended that you study a particular artist because you might learn from that form of expression? 
  • Which artists do you try to emulate, and why?
  • What is reductive in the world of art you value? What is its opposite? 
  • Is Gaga's work "reductive" or is it "additive"? Is it mere flattery or is it something more?
  • Is your story, novel, or essay trying to simplify something complex? Is that a good or bad thing?
  • Is there nothing new under the sun? Are all works reiterations and reinventions of others come before?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Thoughts on Seeing Dr. King's Memorial

He was part of a Movement of hundreds of years long, yet we must always build a Monument to one Man. I wonder what Dr. King would have said about that.

He was a writer.

He was not a drum major but a peacemaker, preacher, and pavement pounder. He was an organizer and a thinker and a dreamer.

As he wrote so well: "...let us see that we all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade."

If you don't think this speech is for you, read it and think about your car shopping and your response to advertising. Read it and think about your children. Read it and think about yourself. King's words could have been written on the verge of our recent economic collapse.

I like that in this country, we can edit monuments.

Writing Prompts:

  • What do you believe needs a monument today? What person, movement, place, or thing deserves recognition? Whom or what do you admire most? What will be the inscription?
  • What has too many monuments in our society and needs less attention?
  • Read about the development of the monument--the origins of the idea, the fundraising, the design, the building--and ask yourself what you have learned about monument making in America. You can use sites such as the history as found at the Memorial website and at this Telegraph article. Do more research till you get the full picture, and ask yourself what is "American."
  • Should the Dr. King Memorial be edited? Other monuments have been. How accurate must monuments be? How much are they about ideas rather than facts?
  • Read Dr. King's speech, "The Drum Major Instinct," and write a letter to yourself about where in your life you could be less "all about me."
  • Read the inscription on the monument (as created in 2011) and discuss why its excerpting is inappropriate or appropriate, just or unjust. What difference does the original context make? Should the visual and spatial concerns of the architect and sculptor matter? Should the spirit of the man who spoke the words matter more?
  • Read Dr. King's speech and write a letter to a leader or other public figure who could use a dose of the message. Keep Dr. King in mind as you craft your words and tone. Advise this person who influences so many as to how he or she might be a better role model.