Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Finishing School for Creatives Stuck in Limbo

Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can't Seem to Get DoneFinishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can't Seem to Get Done by Cary Tennis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First off the bat, Finishing School is not about etiquette (nor espionage). It is however about learning and unlearning habits. This book reads like a dual memoir.

Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton share in personal essays where they're coming from. Readers find out what it was, that kept otherwise productive writers from finishing (certain) projects, and how they overcame inertia. Along the way they offer a method to follow, and they share how to start a Finishing School of one's own, for two or more.

Cary is a long time devotee and teacher of the Amherst Writers and Artists Workshop. The workshops he leads at his home help writers produce material, as he has himself, following Pat Schneider's Amherst method. A few decades ago, Cary and his friend Alan Kaufman attended meetings of "Artists Recovering through the Twelve Steps (A.R.T.S.) Anonymous". They found buddying up to make sure they would send material out for publication was a great help. In a way Finishing School is a follow up on Cary's experience with ARTS.
"Making your intentions known, committing to them, having an (art) buddy: these were genuinely useful things."

Danelle Morton started as a beat journalist and has co-authored many a book, and written book proposals. Yet when it came down to writing from the heart, writing about what mattered to herself, she felt paralyzed. Learning about Cary's ideas on finishing projects, she embarked on a month-long try-out. In a way the book Finishing School is partially a longitudinal report by journalist Morton. She shares what it's like to succumb to a method when one is stuck with unfinished material, even as a professional.

Readers may relate to either or both authors' situation and point of view.

  • Journaling without a clear aim what all those entries are good for, and even "winning" the yearly NaNoWriMo challenge, can leave one with a pile of material, left to mature on its own in the dark hole called CPU.
  • Working on assignment, writing about others, or with others, with a clear deadline, is a piece of cake compared to finishing without a contract. Judging your own stories as important enough to be published, is another thing all together. 

Finishing School may help you overcome hurdles.

The unusual "." (period) behind "School" and "Done" in the title is a clever choice, suggesting The End. Given words Happy", "Writing" and "Done" may be substituted by anything else that would apply to the readers' endeavors.
Eager to get back to work after a hiatus due to family caregiving responsibilities, I felt inspired by the Finishing School method to get my studio/ writing den back in order.

I received a complementary e-galley as well as a hard copy from the publisher. My comments are an independent and honest review.

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This work by by Judith van Praag is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Survivor - Euphemism

Bare with me, in the following piece, written in 1999 I allowed myself a long warming up (or barfing as Morris Berman taught us in his U.W. non-fiction workshop) to get to the point. And that's the point I want to make here in 2014, how big a struggle it was, has been and still is (more barfing) to come forward with my own stories. In the fifteen years that have passed, I've moved ahead, I've made progress, I've written my stories, but I'm not "out" yet. 
Adonai, Why? - Jaap van Praag 1955

Thanksgiving - 1999 - Euphemism 

Oblivious to the holiday frenzy, even after years of living in the United States, I traveled to New York City and back to Hartford, Connecticut on the day before Thanksgiving. The Amtrak train rolled into Penn Station with only forty minutes delay, leaving me with half an hour to get to my doctor’s office in Chelsea. Plenty of time to pop in at a drugstore to buy a Christmas gift for my father-in-law. 

Gary’s idea was to present his dad with a pair of good sunglasses, but since his mother had set the limit to twenty-five bucks (for us including postage) I offered to use my thrifty sensibility in finding something fun and useful. I left the store with foot care products for the man in the Lazy-Boy. Translate that household name in any other language and the guy in question would think twice before giving his weight to the backrest, lifting his legs off the ground, to take a leave of absence from the world. English, if not every living language is plentiful with euphemisms. Take "Play Footsie", foot powder promising a playful future for smelly feet, a lotion dubbed "Sole Soother", or a scrub that claims to be "Good for the Sole". 

According to the dictionary, a euphemism is a word or phrase that is less expressive or direct but considered less distasteful, less offensive than another. I say I went to see my doctor instead of shrink, or even psychiatrist. 

On my way back to Hartford I tell the man in the seat next to mine, someone I get vaguely acquainted with during the two hour delay of the evening rush, that yes, I went to the city for my work. "I’m a writer and kind of stuck," I explained. Would he have been the wiser if I had told him I’m a writer and I keep on telling other people’s stories while aching to tell my own?

Yesterday I spent hours on a letter of regret for the man who was coaxed into leaving his comfortable job and home in the Pacific Northwest for a job in the Northeast, which turned out not to be what he’d been made to expect. 

I can take on the voice of the oppressed, the sad and sorry; I write inspired speeches for group leaders, caring letters for adult children to their aging parents, texts for birthday cards and slogans for the local day-care center, but when I talk about myself, words leave my lips, go in one ear and come out the other. 

I read fictional and non-fictional accounts of troubled people, crying my eyes red and sore. I relate to the hardships of abused children and mixed-up adults and still I cannot accept my own fate. 

I tell myself I should not read the books that make me cry. I vow I’ll never move again, for each time I move the lack of a support group, friends and familiar neighborhoods makes me turn to the earliest solace I knew, books. 

Back at the library I read. Stories about people, stories that make me cry, stories that make me believe there’s a beginning, a middle and an end to each tale. Stories about heroes and heroines who learn from their mistakes, or not. 

I continue writing for others, their letters, their outlines, analysis of the stories they write and hope to enter in a contest, but my personal writing is stuck. 

I wonder about writing fiction or non-fiction and immediately tell myself I have no imagination, so fiction is out. And I really want to write my own story as non-fiction, but something holds me back. I don’t know whether I’m paralyzed by shame or fear.

My brain runs onto a dead-end track when I think of the plot lines of my life.

The urge to generalize is strong as a runaway locomotive. Overpowering, hard and cold as steel yet hot with the passion of fire that feeds the engine. I’m afraid to get burned, afraid to be run over, afraid to be shred to pieces, afraid to be left by the side of the track, unrecognizable, a Jane Doe, a Holocaust survivor without a tattooed number on my arm. 

Years ago I was qualified (what a term), as a second generation Holocaust VICTIM. That was in the beginning, while I still lived in The Netherlands. In Europe we were called victims. Then the term survivors came across the ocean, from the United States. 

Survivor, a euphemism for one who was not gassed, burned, nullified, but perhaps just left for dead, or  persecuted. The word victim, as those who knew best proclaimed, would further the victimization and therefore members of the surviving generations had to be called survivors.

Once a week I get on the Amtrak train in Hartford, Connecticut for a three hour ride that will take me to New York City where I visit the office of my doctor. I do so because I do not know what is keeping me … From what? 

In order to find out, I have to go back in time. Back to before Jake made me promise I would never forget his story, the story of our family and our people. Back to before I was born. Back to the time when I was a mere thought on my father's mind.

 • 

This work by by Judith van Praag is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Sanity Patrol Critique Partner Insists on Conflict

Yesterday I had a work meeting with my CP (Critique Partner). I came away from our 3-hour session filled with insight on how she perceived what happens in my screenplay, and also a little miffed.

For one, as an American she "reads" stories that take place in my home country in a different way than people who have grown up on the same soil. History connects country folk and creates a natural bond. People close to me lived through one or two World Wars. My peers and I grew up in the aftermath of WWII. If you weren't there, if your folks weren't there, or even if they were, but became Americans, who chose not to share, you won't have the same kind of understanding as my country men and women.

On top of that, apart from non-fiction and philosophical works, and the Bourne Identity etc. series, my CP doesn't care much for the kind of novels I read, or movies I watch, and therefore the kind of writing I do. Not really. Meaning, even if she appreciates my voice, the way I write, and the stories I tell, she prefers to read, write and watch what I consider weird fantasy stuff, whereas I'm into realism.

Notwithstanding our differences in taste, the woman knows how to critique, and to ask questions. This makes me think —I beg your pardon for going off on a tangent— of the time that I worked as an assistant buyer for a small, classy department store in Amsterdam. I learned about craftsmanship, quality of materials and design, and that none of those elements needed to have anything to do with my personal taste. I learned to judge an item for the way it was made, how well the object worked, and not whether I liked to give the thing a place in my home.

My CP saw an extended metaphor in the liquids shared by characters in my screenplay, where I had recognized only the solid food as such. No, this is not a metaphor in itself. So, in a way we agreed. She reinforced what I already knew, but needed to hear from someone else. Nutrition or in other words food, is important in this screenplay, and let's face it, in all of the books I hope to deliver in the near future.

Talking to folks who write —fiction from life— I always stress, "don't get too stuck on how something really happened." So imagine my surprise when my CP shakes her head and says: "Oh, you and your, 'this is how it happened'."

"What? Really? I'm stuck on that?"

And yet I immediately knew she was right on the mark, and that I've been waiting for the sign that I can go beyond the reconstruction of what I've perceived as the truth. My attempt to recreate the lives of people I knew, knew partially, or could not have known, has landed me with a good jumping board. I've got the scenes of the story in place the way I think they occurred, and now it's time to give the folks something to sink their teeth in. The characters that is. Trouble, they've got, but they need to show some serious emotion, they need to express that serious, underlying itch that they want to scratch real bad.

This work by by Judith van Praag is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Taming the Dragon May Provide Solace/ Remedie for Wary Writers Paws After CampNaNoWriMo

This morning I woke up with my hands stiff. Half asleep I noticed how painful it was to make a fist. This is what always seems to happen by the end of a NaNoWriMo run. Camp NaNo Day 28, and I have 5,799 words to go. Minus the 433 I wrote this morning before breakfast.
That pain in my hands is worrisome, and while dozing (off), I started thinking of the Dragon speech recognition program. Years ago, I played with the trial version, and discovered the program had a problem with my accent. However, the Dragon can be tamed, or at least trained to recognize the particularities of my tongue. Still, the learning curve is what I fear, for Dragon as well as myself. I dream on, about dictating interesting parts from my journals, now wouldn't that be convenient?

After my first cup of jasmine green tea, I tried the Dragon App on my iPhone, speaking Dutch. Not bad, although some words went missing, and the App clearly is made for short runs, for more wordy dictation Dragon Dictate for Mac must be the way to go. Then I changed the language back to American English. Surprise, surprise, in the years since my first encounter with the Dragon my pronunciation has become more recognizable.

Dragon's misinterpretation of certain words is understandable and funny. See below. NaNoWriMo becomes nano rhino, and iPhone becomes Twitter. This could be an unexpected and useful extra for  ESL speakers to check on their pronunciation.  That my "dozing" is spelled with an "s" reminds me of the father of a friend up north in the Netherlands who claimed he could hear I was from Amsterdam, because of the way my zees sounded like esses. Which I could not imagine to be true. There was no way on earth my parents would have let me get away with that.
No "We gaan naar Sandvoort aan de See," where it should be "Zandvoort aan de zee" in our home!
This morning I woke up with my hands stiff half-asleep I noticed how painful it was to make a fist this is what always seems to happen by the end of the nano rhino run camps nano date 28 and I have 5799 words to go minus the 433 I wrote this morning before breakfast that pain in my hands is worrisome and while dosing I start thinking off to Dragon speech recognition prep program I play Twitter trial version and discovered the program had a problem with my accent however the Dragon can be changed or at least trained to recognize the particularities of my tongue still the learning curve is what I fear for Dragon as well as myself I dream

Dragon does well by me. Still, I'm not confident enough about my tongue to connect the Dragon App with Facebook and Twitter, imagine the trouble I could get into ...
Meanwhile, the old paws have unfurled, while writing this post, there's hope, with or without Dragon.

This work by by Judith van Praag is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Audio Book Listener Charmed by Elizabeth McGovern's Narration of The Chaperone

The ChaperoneThe Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since I was looking at chauffeur duty for a good month, I thought to do what a librarian told me works for her, listen to an audio book in her car, and read whenever she can. Take it from me, the combination of listening and reading worked like a charm. Twice a day, in the morning on my way back home, and in the evening back to the city, Elizabeth McGovern kept me engaged with her narration of the story of Cora Carlisle, and in between the rides I read.
Was it a coincidence that the main character's name is the same as that of the character our narrator Elizabeth McGovern plays in Downton Abbey? For some reason I kept on thinking, I know that voice, and I started to expect a certain behavior, and in a way Cora Carlisle and Cora Crawley née Levinson do have something in common. The times, the corset, their roles as wives and mothers in society, even if their station in life, their lifestyle and the era is (slightly) different, and one is the wife of a lawyer, the other of a British Lord.
The story of both the chaperone, and that of her charge, silent movie star Louise Brooks as a fifteen-year-old going to N.Y. City to try her luck in the dance world is compelling.
The housewife, the teen and people around them all have secrets that color their own and one another's lives.
While a historical novel, much of the subject material in The Chaperone will resonate with readers of today. Adoption, forbidden love and lust, abuse, fame and glory, Moriarty kept me engaged from the beginning to the end.

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This work by by Judith van Praag is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Young Adult Literature Bridges Generations

If you didn't know about Young Adult novels until now, chances are you're a boomer.
Around age nine I had finished all the books in the children's department of our local library. At the time my parents and I lived in a rural northern province in the Netherlands. Used to reading, or at least looking through my parents' collection, books on history, in particular WWII, Agatha Christie and Pearl Buck novels, I automatically moved on, borrowing books I claimed were for my dad. Claimed, because I was denied access the first time I brought an adult book to the check-out table, and truthfully said I was excited about reading that particular book.

Found out by the librarian at a later time —borrowing books supposedly for my father who was ill, yet reporting on a certain title with the enthusiasm of the reader— I was forced back to the "age appropriate" section of the small library.

Fast forward to 2000 when I became aware of a YA section at the Seattle Public Library, thanks to the display table positioned immediately inside the entrance of the Greenwood branch. The aim of the librarians was to attract teens of course, but I was drawn in as well.

"Is kissing a girl who smokes like licking an ashtray?" was the first YA book I took home with me,
and from there on I kept going back for more. Recognizing yourself in teen lit can help bridge the schism between you and teens in your life. Did you forget how much you relied on the connection with your best friend? Or how lost you felt between being your parents' pet, and turning into a (young) adult? The literature geared toward YA of today can help you recall, and realize, you made it out of those horrid years too. Right? Or perhaps being a teenager wasn't that terrible for you, all the better. At any rate, YA lit can open eyes on both sides, parents and teens, it may be hard to grasp, but you do have something in common.

Many of my writer friends write for the YA market, so while our present
neighborhood library has no table for YA lit near the entrance —their focus groups change from week to week— I'm staying abreast Online of what's out there. YA lit is not a grey area, but colorful and exciting, as you are bound to find out. Explore the list of new an exciting titles on the site of Book-ish, and stock up for summer.

This work by by Judith van Praag is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

On Writing and Sending Out Chapters or Stories

This morning I woke up thinking I've never been good at sending out my writing, unless for pay
Labeled pages with "calls"
Not that I lack knowledge about where to send material. I've been a subscriber to writers' trade magazines since 1989, with exception of the years I lived in Amsterdam, and relied on The American Book Store for my fix on writers' craft publications. As such, a subscriber to Poets & Writers, Writer's Digest and The Writer Magazine, I've spelled out the "wanted" ads in the back, noted deadlines for contests and such. But with the exception of 1989-1990 the year I decided to become a writer for real, sending out poems to literary magazines such as Trivia, I have hardly ever put my creative writing pieces in the mail with the intention to get them published.

What's up with that?

It's not that I haven't been published, I have, by paying publications. Yet, the work created when I'm not working on assignment mostly just remains filed on my computer. Telling, no? Writing for pay, means your work is accepted already. While sending out unrequested material, may mean a possible rejection.

Little Stevie King pinned rejections slips to his wall.

These early morning musings were no doubt influenced by reading "On Writing: a memoir of the craft" by Stephen King last night. His mom really encouraged him to write, not just copy stories he'd read, and paid him a quarter for each of his first four. He started sending out his work when he was a teen, pinning rejection slips on his wall, meanwhile he kept on writing and kept on sending out. The rest is history. 

I wish I was better at sending out work, but the moment I've written something short, I forget about it. Easy, since on my computer, anything out of sight is out of mind, lost in the black hole. The pieces that are part of a book length manuscript thank goodness are tied together by a red line, the plot line if you will. But why wait until the book is finished? Why not send out a chapter that can stand on its own? 

Send out a chapter that can stand on its own. 
For “Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans” ~ John Lennon.

This work by by Judith van Praag is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.