Monthly Archives: August 2009

The Art of the Essay

An essay is a short nonfiction piece told in the first person point of view. It is about the author and the author’s insight, precipitated by a simple thought, event, or experience.

It is about insight.

The purpose of an essay is for the author to coalesce the initiating experience into words on paper, so the reader may learn something about him/herself by reading the essay. In other words, the essay must have its genesis in something fairly normal, but have greater, broader, meaning and value. The essayist must pass that insight, as closely as possible, to the reader.

There are roughly three classifications of essays:

  1. Observational, where the essayist observes something, teases out its meaning and documents the result.
  2. Investigational, where the essayist engages in research to discover one thing and discovers other, more important things in the process.
  3. Opinion, where the essayist believes his/her opinion to be of importance due to specific, unique insights about the topic at hand. (Be careful; an opinion essay without form devolves into a rant.)

Begin with the thesis, a provocative statement that kicks the whole thing off. 

 “When I finally quit playing the piano, the first thing I learned to appreciate was the possibility of my own silence.” —Daisy Eunyoung Rhau

“Fashion nearly wrecked my life.” —Barbara Kingsolver

“The human species, according to the best theory I can form of it, is composed of two distinct races, the men who borrow, and the men who lend.” —Charles Lamb

Then give as much background as is required, and as much information as is needed in order to have the reader follow the progression of thought all the way around to the end, to the insight, which should, in fact, explain the thesis. Be wary of indulging in too much extraneous biographical information. Stick to the topic at hand.

Essays are circular in nature, and the ending should not merely echo the beginning, but should tie in directly. The thesis is the ending. The body of the essay is an explanation of the thesis, and the ending is a restatement of the thesis, expanded with insight.

It is a simple, important form of communication.

As with all things, if you intend to write a good essay, go to the library, pick up a couple of books of essays, and read a dozen.

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Filed under Essays, Writing

What if We All Got Along?

I’m serious.

What if we were nice to each other? What if we put cynicism and snideness aside and saw beauty and possibility in everything?

What if we all treated each other as we wanted to be treated? What if we loved our neighbors and acted toward them with affection and understanding? What if we respected the earth and contributed to it? What if we paused to consider the consequences of our actions as they will affect everything years into the future?

What if we acted as if we had the spirit of God within our hearts? What if we listened daily for the still small voice and took its counsel? What if we behaved as if we were continually in the presence of myriad loving celestial beings, here for the express purpose of helping us navigate the hazardous waters of our confusing mortal lives?  

What if we aspired to promoting the values of Truth, Beauty and Goodness? What if we saw Truth as Love, Beauty as Mercy, and Goodness as Ministry? What if we made those acts of Love, Mercy, and Ministry, the cornerstones of our lives?

We could, you know. Each one of us could act as if all those things were possible.

Each one of us could be the one who decides first that we are all going to get along.

Will you?

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Filed under Beauty, Goodness, Possibilities, Social Consciousness, Spirituality, Truth

Two Keys to My Kingdom

Many years ago I read an essay that said, “If you have more than two keys on your key ring, your life is too complicated.” At the time, my key ring was so heavy I was afraid it was going to damage the ignition of my car.

Today, for the first time ever: Two keys. One for the house and one for the car. 

And I have to say, my life is a lot less complicated.

I’ve had keys to storage lockers (the last one surrendered this afternoon), to my mother’s home, to post office boxes, to other peoples’ houses, to other vehicles, on and on and on.  Lots to keep track of. Lots of responsibility. None of it necessary. The only other key I employ on a regular basis is for my bicycle lock, but I keep that in my bicycle ditty bag. It doesn’t count because it’s not on my key ring.

Another indication of a life too complex is the amount of mail that arrives on a daily basis. There was a time when it took me an hour a day to process the mail. If I left town for a ten-day writing conference or retreat, I had ten hours worth of mail waiting for me when I got back.

Made me want to not come back.

Today’s mail brought one bill and an advertising flyer.

A life simplified.  Nobody owns me any more.

And because I don’t have all that flurry of questionably meaningful activity and responsibility, I have the time to concentrate on the important things. Study. Family. Leisure!

How many keys on your keyring? What would you have to give up in order to get down to two?

It’s a worthy goal.

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Filed under goals, Joy, peace, Possibilities, Stress, Symbols, time

Science Fiction Story Weekend

I’ll be teaching Science Fiction Story Weekend at the Oregon Coast on October 23-25 this year.

A maximum of thirteen of us will gather at the mysterious Siltcoos Station for a weekend of speculation and writing of outlandish, otherworldly stories. We’ll engage in world-building and species-building exercises and then write a complete short story in twenty-four hours. Tuition includes instruction in the short story form, particularly science fiction, lodging and simple pot luck meals.

This workshop will be based on the format of the amazingly-popular Ghost Story Weekend that I hold every spring. We eat well, we write like fiends and we always make sure there’s time for long walks down the train tracks or country lanes, and for laughing together as only writers can. Siltcoos at Sunset

This is a Lane Community College class, offered fall term, and will only appear in the Florence campus catalog. Registration opens September 4. Section  CRN 23262 includes lodging ($117) and Section CRN 23262 assumes you’ll sleep somewhere else (a shame, really) for $73. To register, click here

Please join us.  You might be surprised with what you write.

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Filed under Fun, Ghost Story Weekend, Learning, Short Stories, Writing

The Best Zucchini Bread

I’m a gardener, so I grow zucchini. Lots of it.  More than we can eat, and I have lots of zucchini recipes, but I’ve never found the consummate zucchini bread recipe until now. This one is good. This one may be the best ever. I may stop searching.

It comes from Rockford, Illinois, and is the generously-shared, blue-ribbon-winning recipe of Britt-Marie Knoblock.

To be fair, I did not include the pecans, and I used olive oil instead of canola or other vegetable oil. The rest is as written.

Zucchini bread

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons orange juice
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
4 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups zucchini, shredded
1 cup chopped pecans

Directions: In a bowl, combine the orange juice, oil, applesauce, eggs and vanilla. In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, cinnamon, powder, salt and soda. Mix well.

Add the orange juice mixture; stir until just combined. Fold in the zucchini and pecans. Pour the batter into two 8-inch by 4-inch by 2-inch loaf pans coated with nonstick cooking spray.

Bake at 350 degrees for 60-65 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes, then remove from pans to wire racks to cool.

Enjoy the zucchini season!

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Filed under Gardening, Summer

A Simple Approach to Plot

Fiction is about character growth that comes as a result of people in trouble. When the trouble is resolved, when the character has learned something about himself, or changed something about himself, the story is over.

Writing fiction is a balancing act of character and plot.  Too much character can corrupt the pace of the story; too much plot, and the reader loses anyone to care about. 

Remember this: the reader must have a rooting interest in the central character (the protagonist).  We must care about this person, even if it’s to dislike or despise him.  Without an emotional connection between the reader and the protagonist there is no story.

Whether you’re plotting a short story or a novel, both need all the requisite elements of fiction: a protagonist, an antagonist, and a major point of conflict. The bigger, more complex the conflict, the stronger the characters. Your story is only as strong as your antagonist. 

Your protagonist is always a reluctant hero. He is flawed, which is to say he is human. He is dragged out of his comfortable world into uncertainty. He changes internally because he is forced to look at his flaws as a result of the conflict presented by the antagonist. This conflict is the stimulation to his character growth. There should be internal conflict and external conflict in every scene.

Fiction is comprised of three acts: Act One: the Setup, Act Two: the Complication, and Act Three: the Resolution.

Act One shows the protagonist before the trouble starts, in his comfortable world, but with myriad problems. Act One ends when the protagonist is so tired of avoiding the impending problem that he believes it is easier to fix the problem than to continue to avoid it. This is when he embarks upon his Quest. By the end of Act One, all the major players have been introduced, as well as the major point of conflict.

Act One places the conflict into the world of the protagonist.  It is here the reader sees the impossibility of the situation, how high a mountain must be climbed.  As we meet the players he is to interact with, we make judgments about these people—are they useful to the protagonist, or do they add to his many conflicts?  The central conflict materializes before us (and the protagonist) and may increase in complexity because of who the protagonist is, and the people around him, and what’s being asked of him. Act One is the building block upon which this story is going to stand.  It’s the first date.  You want to get it right.

Act Two complicates every tiny point of conflict introduced in Act One. At the end of Act Two, the protagonist and reader alike are certain he will never be able to fix the problem. At the end is the Darkest Moment.

In Act Two think: development.  This is where the conflict lives and breathes, and by doing so, takes air out of the room the protagonist desperately needs.  This is where we, the reader, learn more about the individual relationships with the characters introduced in Act One.  These complicate matters for the protagonist, but aren’t necessarily bad.  A love may deepen.  A personal history may be revealed.

The Darkest Moment is where all the strings become so entangled we fear they are knotted beyond repair.  How can the protagonist possibly get past this emotional or physical obstacle, this impediment?  The protagonist is crushed.  We are desperate to find a solution, only to realize one doesn’t exist.  Houdini is in the chains and under water, and the key he is supposed to have hidden down his throat has been swallowed.

Immediately after the Darkest Moment, the character has an epiphany, an inspiration, or draws upon something he remembers or has experienced in his past.  A Discovery. This kicks off Act Three, when the conflicts begin to resolve.  The resolution of these secondary conflicts is critical here, to make way for the operatic aria—the Climax.  This needs to fly solo.  In the climax, he deals, once and for all, with the central external conflict, and he takes a good look at his internal flaws. This is when he either succumbs to his failings or overcomes them. The reader is cheering for him to overcome his flaws, but characters do whatever they do. The point is that he must look at himself and be changed by what he sees.  This will allow him to resolve the conflict (or not).

In the final analysis, readers will remember what happens to the protagonist internally, which is ultimately more important than what happens to the external conflict.  The Discovery has led to resolution of the Conflict, has led to wisdom.  Flawed wisdom, perhaps, but a wisdom we can understand makes sense as a logical outcome of the quest.

A story can be told from any point of view, can include any number of characters, can span any length of time, can host a number of subplots. Stick to one good guy, one bad guy, and one main point of conflict. Give your characters passion, memorable names, quirks, angers, frustrations and depth. Include lots of sensory imagery, so the reader can be in the scene with the character, and reveal your character’s nature through the use of facial expressions and gestures. Differentiate the characters from each other, and from you. Give them a serious problem, throw them off the deep end, and watch them work their way out of it, given whom they are and what they do.

Strongly suggested reading: The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

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Filed under Personalities, relationships, Short Stories, Writing