Nan Lundeen
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Columns on Writing


Photo by Ron DeKett

Column Index

 walk to meet your creative self 

by Nan Lundeen
 
I am blessed with bluebirds at the track where I walk in the morning. The asphalt path circles a retired football field behind a former high school, and I watch a bluebird fly across the field gone to grass and clover, dipping as if bowing to the day. Another perches on a telephone wire. Some mornings, a wren blasts an aria atop a rusty goalpost; this morning, a bluebird takes the high spot. At the field's edge near a woods, the brown thrasher is often seen pecking for bugs. And robins abound. I am serenaded.
 
Why am I sharing all this with you?
 
Because USA Today carried a story this month titled, "Walking boosts creativity, so think on your feet." Researchers at Stanford University found that walking boosts creative inspiration; one measurement of creativity increased eighty-one percent.
 
Overall, creative output increased an average of sixty percent when walking compared with sitting, Stanford News reported April 24. Walking outside worked best for some types of creativity, but treadmills in a small, boring room worked well, too. Furthermore, researchers found that the creativity boost lasted awhile after participants sat down.
 
The study showed that being pushed outside in a wheelchair didn't improve creativity; researchers didn't study subjects rolling themselves which, they say, may be effective.
 
Here's encouraging news out of that study—creativity improved with as little as ten minutes of walking!
 
A daily walk or other exercise is a vital part of the Moo of Writing process.For me, the track has yielded numerous poems and helps me set my writing intentions for the day.
 
I also walk for the health benefits—my doctor wants me out there 30 minutes, five days a week. Rainy days, I substitute yoga with a video in my living room. In winter, I walk later in the day when it warms up a bit. I'm lucky to be retired from my newspaper career and can walk when I like. Those who labor at a day job have to schedule their walks accordingly. Writers who live with a dog or two are truly lucky, because those brown, pleading eyes will propel you right out the door.
 
Brenda Ueland, whose book, If You Want to Write, has motivated writers for decades and who could inspire a toad to write, walked five miles every day. Her richest ideas appeared toward the end of relaxing walks when she practiced being aware in the present and did not try to think.
 
Ueland even bundled up for walks around Lake Harriet in Minneapolis when the mercury sank to minus eighteen degrees Fahrenheit. Without her walks, she felt like Mrs. Gummidge in David Copperfield, a miserable character who sits inside beside the fire and feels grumpy.
 
Walking is an effective way to tap into creativity. For those who are able, walking outdoors not only helps us feel better, it helps us write better.
 
Happy writing!
 
first published by South Carolina Writers Workshop, The Quill
June 2014
©2014 Nan Lundeen
coming home to yourself
 
by Nan Lundeen
 
Rodin's sculpture, The Poet and the Contemplative Life (1896), captured my attention the moment I saw it last week in a room between two gracefully arched windows at the Dallas Museum of Art. I was in Dallas visiting family, and cousin Karen and I spent a splendid day at the museum. The title called to me as much as the finely sculpted marble which features a poet's pensive head atop a column, gazing down at human and allegorical beings, perhaps representing lives of passion.
 
For me, being a poet means living a contemplative life. That requires solitude—not all the time, but enough, and a common requirement for writers no matter the genre. If you write regularly, you've already pried the time out of your busy life. That's a challenge in itself, and when I achieve time to write a poem, I feel as if I've stolen time. Goodness! There are always so many more pressing things to occupy my life. And then, satisfaction settles in—a moment of pure pleasure that I stole or found or chiseled out the time. Ahhhh.
 
So, once you've captured a bit of time, how do you become the contemplative one? How are you not scattered and torn like a shredded palm leaf clattering in a stiff wind, thoughts whipping about? I have a tool that works for me and which I suggest to participants in my Moo of Writing workshops—I call it a Moo stone. My stone is round, speckled, three inches across, and about one-half inch thick. If you choose to try this practice, search for a stone that appeals to your eye, but most important, find one that feels good in your hand.
 
Here's how it works: Sit comfortably with your feet flat on the floor and your spine straight. Hold your Moo stone in your hands resting in your lap and breathe deeply. Imagine energy flowing down from the stone through your feet deep into Earth. Keep on deep breathing and relaxing until you feel centered.
 
At your center lies your true self. No matter what you write, no matter what your genre, good writing originates there. Writing pundits like to carry on about "finding your voice." Your voice resides at your center. I find a stone comforting and real, but there’s no need to be rigid about how you center yourself. Use whatever works for you.
 
South Carolina fiction writer Josette Davison says, “My centering stone is the sound of the train whistle at night, which takes me immediately back to my childhood bed in a tiny pottery town in Ohio. That was where I first yearned to use words to express my deepest feelings.”
 
After you've been out there in the world mentally and physically, a Moo stone is a handy tool to bring you back home.
 
Happy writing!
 
first published by South Carolina Writers Workshop, The Quill
November 2014
©2014 Nan Lundeen
 
dance a villanelle with me
 
by Nan Lundeen
 
 Mary Oliver's handbook, Rules for the Dance, likens writing metered poetry to dancing. Rhythm is the basis of metrical poetry. You could argue rhythm is the basis of any poetry. Regardless of imagery, alliteration, assonance, figurative language, and other poetic devices, a poem needs to convey a beat, however subtle.
 
Oliver's handbook on metric verse is a grand companion to her book entitled simply, A Poetry Handbook. Even if you are wedded to free verse, which has no prescribed form, her Rules for the Dance gives poets a firm foundation in the craft. The book is superbly clear. It's simply written and not at all simplistic.
 
Taking a good long look at form helped me become more aware of the importance of rhythm in my free verse. My writing mentor, Sylvia Barclay, used to say a writer needs a good ear as much as a musician does.
 
One of the forms that intrigues me is the villanelle. French in origin, it consists of 19 lines arranged in five tercets and ending with a quatrain, a tercet being a verse of three lines and a quatrain having four. It usually appears in iambic pentameter—an iamb being a light stress followed by a heavy one, and the line being five beats long—although that's not a requirement of this demanding form.
 
The villainous villanelle uses only two rhymes with the first and third lines being repeated throughout the poem alternately at the end of the other tercets and with both of them coming around one last time at the end of the final quatrain.
 
The form intensifies the effect.
 
When you Google "villanelle" you'll find examples of the form, one of the most familiar being Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night." The repetition of the titular line plus the line, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light," resounds through the years.
 
In Sylvia Plath's, villanelle, "Mad Girl's Love Song," the repeated lines are "I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead," and "(I think I made you up inside my head)."
 
Although the form is set, some might call it rigid, a skilled poet can tweak it. South Carolina poet Gil Allen in his book of poems, Catma (Measure Press, 2014), plays with the form tongue-in-cheek in his poem, "Ediots." One of his repeating lines remains constant—"Americans don't speak pentameter!" But the poem's opening line, "Too boring. Static. Why not crash the car?" varies just enough as it moves through the poem to surprise the reader.
 
If you like to play with words, how about taking a turn around the dance floor with a villanelle? If the form is already a dance partner of yours, how about an encore?
 
Happy writing!
 
first published by South Carolina Writers Workshop, The Quill
September 2014
©2014 Nan Lundeen
 
 
befriend time
 
by Nan Lundeen
 
For those of us who love the craft and want to devote more of our lives to writing, time can be a bugaboo, but it can also be a friend.
 
I am astounded at how fast our lives move, at the sense that everything is speeding up, everything. I feel as if I'm a daughter of Stuart Little hanging on by my fingertips to our spinning globe as it gathers speed. I suppose that sense is technology-driven in this world of instant communication. I'm lucky that I'm retired now and finally have time for my own writing, yet I must be ever vigilant not to over schedule myself with "writing activities," leaving no time to actually sit down and produce words. So many readings, launch parties, workshops, blogs to read, manuscripts to proof and submit. Nice problems to have.
 
A job and kids to raise trumps all. I clearly remember working as a full-time newspaper reporter in Michigan when my two children were in grade school. Children take priority, and the job included deadlines and lengthy night meetings such as school boards. But there was that book I wanted to write, pages floating here and there in my consciousness, a character pushing her way into my mind as I fell asleep at night.
 
I read an article in a writing magazine, then, about a mom who wrote a novel out of the back of her station wagon (it was pre-SUV days) while she toted a passel of kids to soccer or softball practice or wherever. She succeeded. I hated her.
 
Dads, single parents, a parent with a spouse who travels, a caregiver of a family member—at times, we all have to put our writing on a back burner.
 
What to do?
 
I learned an important lesson back in the day, one which I still struggle to apply, but when I succeed, it's aces!
 
One day, when I whined to a friend about my lack of time to write, he said, "Befriend time."
 
Whoa! Stop the presses! I hearkened back to a decade earlier when Sylvia Barclay, my writing mentor, advised, "Set a goal of how long you will write every day, but be realistic. If you can eke out only ten minutes each day for your writing, do so." Had I taken her advice? No, I spent at least ten minutes every day fueling frustration over my lack of writing time.
 
I think my friend and Sylvia meant make peace with time. Frustration produces no words on paper. Accept limitations. When you make peace with time, you make peace with yourself. Many demands stem from responsibilities that must be fulfilled, but not all do. When you befriend time, you are loving the writer within, because you are saying everybody who needs me is important, and I am important, too. This is my life. These are my words. I choose to give them time to breathe.
 
Happy writing!
 
first published by South Carolina Writers Workshop, The Quill
May 2014
©2014 by Nan Lundeen
 
discarding my haiku dunce cap
 
by Nan Lundeen
 
Writing in The Haiku Handbook, authors William J. Higginson and Penny Harter say that Western writers have fallen into a "simplistic trap" of defining haiku as 17 syllables in three lines of 5-7-5. But Japanese haiku is written in Japanese characters, which do not divide into syllables. The smallest metrical unit in Japanese poetry is onji, a sound symbol which is very short, shorter than the English syllable.
 
I had been taught 5-7-5 and in my writing workshops, was teaching it to others until a friend introduced me to the handbook. The full title is The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Teach, and Appreciate Haiku. The 25th Anniversary Edition is a lovely book with a rendition of the painting, Cherry Blossoms by Morikazu Kumagai, on the jacket cover. It shouldn't surprise that haiku and other forms of Japanese poetry are highly nuanced art forms. The Japanese have been publishing verse since about the eighth century. Bless my friend Maggie for addressing my ignorance!
 
understand haiku
does not take five-seven-five
    discarding dunce cap
 
If you're interested in haiku, I recommend the book. Other forms of Japanese poetry are addressed, as well. I learned much about the sensibility of poetry there, separate from and at the same time intrinsic to the form. I admire the artistic loveliness inherent in expressing the now. And I admire the economy of line.
 
The authors and other translators conclude that 12 syllables best translate 17 onji into English. To write traditional haiku in English, they speak in terms of beats or accented syllables and recommend 7 accented syllables plus unaccented syllables up to a total of about 12. But poets are not locked into the form. They can experiment with "free-form."
 
You can write haiku as two short lines with a third, unrelated line which presents surprise. Avoid similes and metaphors. It's written on the pulse so stick to present tense. Be brief. A title isn't usually used. Traditional haiku include a season word (kigo) and a cutting word (kireji), a word that indicates a pause.
 
The poet acts as a lens, sharing the experience itself. Ambiguity is sometimes built into the language, and the reader is left to interpret for himself.
 
Haiku writers needn't be traditionalists. I think that's the most valuable tidbit I learned from the handbook. Haiku isn't a rigid form. The authors give many wonderful examples. And if you wish to write haiku in 5-7-5 English syllables, go for it!
 
The Haiku Society of America, of which Higginson was a charter member in 1968, formed committees at different times to come up with a definition. Here's one: "A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition."
 
Visit hsa-haiku.org and click on "haiku collections" to read haiku including, winners of the society's contests. No doubt, the best way to learn to write haiku is to read haiku. (I can't remove my dunce cap yet, but it's slipping.) The HSA accepts submissions to its journal, Frogpond.
 
Happy writing!
 
first published by South Carolina Writers Workshop, The Quill
March 2014
©2014 Nan Lundeen
 
hi, new character, who are you?
 
by Nan Lundeen
 
You: "Hi, have time for a cup of coffee?"
 
Him: "Sure."
 
You: "Or do you prefer tea or maybe a brew?"
 
Him: "Don't you know?"
 
You: "Not yet. Let's go somewhere and chat."
 
At this point, you pull out your audio recorder and your writing device and settle in to interview the characters in the piece of fiction or poetry rattling around in your brain.
 
Would you be surprised to discover your new main character hates coffee because he had a dangerous experience with it as a child? What happened? What if character number two in your new novel or short story says she can't drink a brew because she has a debilitating disease? How does that affect her motivation? What if you discover two of your characters hate each other?
 
Your interview would go beyond, what is your favorite color? It would go more toward, what is your greatest fear? You might ask, who is your hero? Or, who is your role model? From whose point of view is your new poem being written? It might be fun to interview that persona, and if it's a nature poem, let the willow or the spring peeper or the wintry clouds speak.
 
And we thought writing was a lonely business.
 
Au contraire. We can sit down with our characters and have a chat. I confess this isn't my idea. I wish it were. No, I read a fiction prompt in Poets & Writers magazine suggesting that we interview our characters to find out who they really are.
 
They'll tell us.
 
For sure, I'd want to ask a main character—are you autobiographical?
 
I'm delighted by this exercise of the imagination. It also may be a cool way to go to sleep at night, not only to interview our own characters, but think what fun we could have chatting with characters from our favorite stories.
 
For Lee Child's Reacher: In a recent novel, you almost considered the white picket fence and home mortgage. Are you lonely living the rootless life Child has carved out for you?
 
For Barbara Kingsolver's Dellarobia in Flight Behavior: Was it something innate that gave you the strength to change your life?
 
For Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum: How can you sustain the suspense of trying to choose between Ranger and Morelli through twenty books?
 
Such forays into a make-believe world may even inspire new writing of our own built on classic characters. Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennet and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes seem adept at reincarnation, for instance.
 
Some characters would require a great deal of courage to meet on your way to dreamland—Hannibal Lecter, for one.
 
The writing prompt suggests that you make a list of ten questions to ask the characters you are developing, then pay attention to their answers, diction, and inflections. I'd pay attention to their mannerisms, too. Mannerisms can be key to sketching out a visible, realistic character for your readers.
 
So, what ten or twenty questions come to mind?
 
Happy writing!
 
first published by South Carolina Writers Workshop, The Quill
February 2014
©2014 Nan Lundeen
 
death by murder
 
by Nan Lundeen
 
When my husband was leaving for work this morning, I wished him well: "May you have no murders."
 
Ron is a newspaper editor and we had just been discussing precision in language. We're a wordsmith family, so such topics are common around our house. He pointed out that "murder" is a legal term whereas "homicide" is more encompassing. If you're writing a legal thriller or a whodunit, that could be an important distinction.
 
The topic led me to a book that holds a place of honor next to Strunk & White on my writing shelf, The Careful Writer by Theodore M. Bernstein.
 
Words are our tools, and the English language carries its imperfections. However, Bernstein says we can "make the best and most precise use of the tools at hand. One way to do that is to let each word express a meaning of its own and not burden it with some additional meaning that is more exactly expressed by another word."
 
On the other hand, we don't want our language to become stilted. Language is a living, breathing creature and as such changes often, hence the need for new dictionaries. New words pop up all the time like weeds in an overgrown garden. Usage that you decried yesterday may already be winging its way to legitimacy on the popular tongue especially in this day of tweets and acronyms like OMG!
 
Usage in my last sentence could be challenged. Back in the day, careful writers would have used "such as" rather than "like." Many still would.
 
I like Bernstein's example of "leave" and "let." He says that "leave alone" exclusively means to cause to be in solitude whereas "let alone" exclusively means to go undisturbed. If we leave it alone, it will be lonely.
 
He reminds us to be precise about our monsters, as well. Frankenstein was the dude who constructed the monster, not the monster itself.
 
For years, "founder" and "flounder" were bugaboos for me. If you founder you're disabled and may eventually sink, but if you flounder, you struggle. If you're a ship carrying too much flounder you could founder.
 
Some grammarians wince when they hear nouns used as verbs, but alas, the language, it's a changin'. We now "friend" each other, "message" each other, and "IM" each other. Common sense is called for. Pretend your book will become a classic. Will readers 50 years from now know those terms and their ilk?
 
Indeed, the goal—and always the bottom line for the careful writer—is clarity.
 
In conclusion, I've stolen a line from my husband (a habit of mine) that he dropped as he was going out the door—"Why use a word that has two meanings when you can use a word that has one meaning?"
 
first published by South Carolina Writers Workshop, The Quill
November 2013
©Nan Lundeen 2013
 
wild roses
 
by Nan Lundeen
 
Inspiration or perspiration? Perfection or wild and free?
 
Thomas Edison's quote that genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration is good news for those of us who slog away day after day hoping to unearth gems of inspiration. I'd venture to guess that 100 percent of poetry and prose writers have been around enough to know that if you want to be a writer you can't wait for lightning to strike. No, you have to sit down and actually write.
 
We also know that once we've ridden the waves of creative juices and produced a manuscript, even more perspiration is required to edit, rewrite, and polish.
 
But how much to edit, rewrite, and polish? When is it done? I've heard writers say that when their books were published, they felt relieved because they could stop rewriting.
 
The other day, my husband I and went to a flower show. There we saw the most perfect white rose in the entire universe! No, really! It was a Mozart symphony all by itself, every petal harmonious with the others.
 
Homogenous perfection, it stood in a glass vase bedecked by a blue ribbon.
 
Later that day as I remembered the perfect white rose, a wild rose memory washed over me—a  childhood memory of pink wild roses tumbling down the shoulders of gravel roads, perfect in their disarray. A few details, a metaphor, and a simile gave me a poem. Then the pruning began. But not a whole lot. As much as the perfect rose stirs my heart, the wild roses stir my soul. I can breathe near them; the perfect rose makes me nearly hold my breath.
 
How much do you strive for perfection as you write? As you edit, rewrite, and polish?
 
At a writing workshop I heard this advice: there's a time to expand your work and a time to tighten. Sort of like a bellows. Can you visualize them—those contraptions with handles that breathe air onto a fire? Sometimes writing may need a breath of air. Even during editing, rewriting, and polishing, it isn't always good to tighten, tighten, tighten. A manuscript might need more elucidation, more flights of fancy.
 
Robert Frost describes beautifully his Far-away Meadow's anticipated return to wildness after it has been mowed for the last time ever in his poem "The Last Mowing." The flowers now can escape mowing and plowing and are given a chance to bloom.
 
What do you prefer—perfection or wild and free? There is a time, I think, to let our words tumble wantonly down the shoulders of roadsides.
 
Happy writing!
 
first published by South Carolina Writers Workshop, The Quill
October  2012
©2012 Nan Lundeen
 
a matter of style
 
by Nan Lundeen
 
Questions pop up every now and then during writing workshops about which style manual to follow, so I queried a few writers and editors and asked what style they follow.
 
At Hub City Press, "We use Chicago for literary books, and something close to AP for nonfiction books," says Betsy Teter, Executive Director at Hub City Writers Project in Spartanburg, South Carolina. "Sometimes the nonfiction books have lots of numbers in them and it's easier to go with AP style on that."
 
Bertice Robinson, a novelist who lives in South Carolina and is a member of a critique group, recently found The Chicago Manual of Style for a bargain price at Barnes & Noble. She decided to invest in one. Her group had been having discussions about the pesky em dash—when to use it and whether or not to put a space before and after it. The manual answered the questions.
 
"I'm a Chicago Manual of Style girl," says Susan M. Boyer, author of Lowcountry Bombshell (Henery Press, 2013) and other novels. "My publisher seems to be on the same page, though I've never specifically asked."
 
"I'm ashamed to say, I don't use a style manual," says Kim Boykin, author of Palmetto Moon (Berkley Books at Penguin, 2014). "My publishers use Chicago. I must be doing something right because my copy editors don't fuss too much."
 
"Chicago," says Heather G. Marshall. "Mostly because it's what I got used to in magazine writing. Chicago for the publisher too." Her novel, The Thorn Tree (MP Publishing, 2014) takes place partly in Scotland and partly in the U.S. Her publisher is located in the U.K. and the U.S. Her editor is American.
 
"We use The Chicago Manual of Style," says M. Scott Douglas, publisher and managing editor of Charlotte, North Carolina-based Main Street Rag Publishing Company.
 
Freelance writer Jenny Munro, who writes articles for Greenville, South Carolina-based Furman University, says, "Furman uses The Chicago Manual of Style. But I still write the way I did with the AP style. It's not that different. However, Furman is creating its own style book so everyone will use the same style when capitalizing names of departments, etc., and when talking about professors with their PhDs."
 
Jenny and I are both retired newspaper reporters. Like Jenny, I became accustomed to the Associated Press style. I try to adhere to Chicago for literary work. I agree it isn't a whole lot different. As Betsy points out, numbers are written differently. I have to remind myself to use commas after every item in a series. AP style in almost all series eliminates the comma that Chicago calls for before the word, "and." So, AP would call for mangoes, tomatoes and red bell peppers while Chicago would insist upon mangoes, tomatoes, and red bell peppers.
 
Happy writing!
 
first published by South Carolina Writers Workshop, The Quill
August 2014
©2014 Nan Lundeen