The Little Shoe

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It might seem trite to say that every item has a story, but surely, some items have better stories to tell than others – and for a writer, this is a magnetic pull that wants to be drawn out.

So it is with a little shoe I found at an antique shop in Prescott, Arizona. Truth is, this isn’t a shoe but a wooden shoe mold, style 600, size 6 ½ E – most likely intended for toddler feet.

In that Prescott was a lively ranching and gambling town at the turn of the century, I sensed that this mold shaped shoes for the children of local farmers and homesteaders, shop keepers and adventurers– children who no doubt grew up being part of the nation’s historic fabric.

Prescott is home to “Whiskey Row,” the 100 Block of Montezuma Street that at one time, as I recall, boasted 18 saloons… establishments with names like the Bird Cage, Hooligan’s and Jersey Lilly. This shoe mold may not have been crafted there but perhaps transported from Lynn, MA, where the shoe industry began.

That’s another piece of history lost to most of us: Jan Matzeliger, born in Dutch Guiana (Suriname), invented the shoe-lasting machine which could produce 150 to 700 pair in a day. This innovation forever changed the industry and turned Lynn into the “shoe capital of the world.”

But I digress…

Regardless of origin, this little shoe carries mystery with it, and for writers, mystery means intrigue, and intrigue means good reading.

I’m currently using “concealment shoes” in a book I’ve been writing for the past 12 years. This is the kind of manuscript that’s complete in my head but requires a vacation by a lake or solid block of time to be typed out.

In this context, old shoes were sometimes entombed in Colonial homes to ward off evil spirits. Perhaps it was thought that they contained the essence of the people who wore them – a human quality that would surely scare away ectoplasmic intruders.

The point here is that we writers should be aware of our surroundings and nurture the ability to look at everyday things with a sense of curiosity.

An old door key is one item that stands out. Ditto for a letter from a soldier. A seashell can conjure up images of pirates landing on a beach; grandmother’s sewing kit brimming with jet buttons and souvenir needle cases from a World’s Fair certainly tells of another time; that gnarled piece of roadside metal might well have fallen from a space ship or a car wreck that changed someone’s life.

Imagination is the lifeblood of writers, and just as a ‘medium’ is said to be a conduit to ‘the other side,’ intriguing objects can be a path to a plotline.

My little shoe makes me think of a small grave on a grassy hillside where the Great Plains spread out to accommodate Conestoga wagons.  I see a tow-haired boy in patched overalls; I feel the dust in his throat and behind his neck. But I also hear the squeals of a little girl in gingham as she scampers after her siblings, unaware of a danger about to befall.

This little shoe suggests hearth and home; a hard life, simple joys… but perhaps it is just the beginning of a bigger story that tells of celebrity or crime. Perhaps it is literally “a first step.”  Who wore this shoe – and what ever happened to the other one?

Text Stop — The Need to Write

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I’m not sure why this sign struck me as funny other than that it elevated texting to a basic need. Communication of course is essential to our well-being, but is not usually regarded with the same urgency as “rest stop.”

In thinking about this, though, maybe writing and communication are more necessary to human survival than might appear.

For people who write, words dance in our heads. Sometimes “they need to get out” – they need to be captured by pen or keystroke lest they vanish, lest we forget.

Once as a student, I woke from a compelling dream, and keeping pen and pad on my nightstand, forced myself to jot down notes before falling back to sleep. In the morning, I looked at my scribbles and saw they were gibberish. So much for the perfect plot line.

The need to write can be healthy in that it drives us to organize our thoughts, energizes us when we’re tired, pushes us to perfection, motivating us to add one more letter, one more line, paragraph, page — until it “feels right.”

Do you remember the movie Quills?  It was fairly disturbing, taking place in an insane asylum that housed the Marquis de Sade. While most of us associate him with other unsavory acts, this film focused on his obsession with writing as a protest against censorship and was a conveyance of mental imbalance. For him, writing was a compulsion, a therapy, a release. While I don’t recall too many details, I do remember leaving with the sense that writing was in fact, his “life blood.”

Sometimes the persona of “writer” makes us cranky as we watch others empowered with social media tools. OK, some are glib, informative and thought-provoking, but others are just plain self-serving, illiterate and nasty. To this end, we need to continually distinguish ourselves in skill, accuracy, and originality.

The ability to write serves different purposes. Sometimes we write because it’s necessary (“Jimmy, please write a thank you note to Grandma.”); sometimes we write to avoid face-to-face confrontation (“Susie, I’m sorry I stood you up the other night.”); writing gives us a voice (“Dear Sirs: The car you sold me is a lemon.”); writing conveys leadership. (“As my research findings show…”)

But what if writing is simply indulgent? I say, go for it! Sit on a bench in a meadow and pretend you’re in a Victorian Garden or on the high seas or in outer space. Writing helps us travel, imagine, age with wisdom or return to youth.

Yet writing isn’t all about emotion. This word-business can be lucrative, too. Sometimes aspiring writers forget that not everyone is an editor, English teacher, columnist or novelist. There are copywriters, speech writers, web writers, direct response writers, grant writers, medical writers, and technical writers to name a few. For any industry or profession, you will surely find writers who specialize in those topics and are gifted at generating vast volumes of content in a world that is hungry for it.

What about ghost writing? Could you do it? Not sure I could. I think I’d want to take credit for my work. (because — despite the gratification– it is work, especially when someone else is depending on it)

Sometimes the challenge of writing short is just as difficult as writing long. The 140 characters of a Tweet aren’t always enough to express a full thought, but then again, drafting a 400 page manuscript is not something most of us have time to do… so maybe how we write is a  matter of convenience, something we shape and format for the occasion.

I remember climbing into the cliff dwellings of Bandalier, an ancient Native American site in New Mexico, thinking that this need to write is wired into the human psyche.  There on the cave walls, ceilings, and rock sides are petroglyphs that tell the stories of long ago. There are tales of travel, symbols of strength, and a suggestion of seasons. Thanks to pictorial writing, history is alive here.  It envelops us, transports us, helps us understand– or in more modern terms, “it engages us.”  How ironic.  We act as if story telling were new.

Stringing the Line

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I’m not sure when I began using a clothesline – could have been in a moment of nostalgia or environmental concern – more likely motivated by not wanting to spend money on electricity or having brand new jeans shrink 3 sizes. I don’t use it for everything, but it’s great for shirts and pants that benefit from brisk breezes and sunlight.

This year, my line was frazzled. For some reason, the cotton fiber disintegrated around the core. When used, it would disperse a cloud of dust that made me cough. With fall upon us, I decided this was a good time to string up a new line, and so doing, I realized it was a lot like writing.

First, I unraveled the twine, careful to keep it taut and anchored at both ends. Then I tied it and wound it multiple times around each hook. I punctuated it with  new clothespins, interspersed with the old, testing it out later in the day to make sure it held strong. I now step back and admire it, suspended bright and clean among the trees. The purpose remains somewhere between functional and aesthetic.

You may not want a clothesline in the front yard, but there’s something rural … homey… down to earth about it.  A lot like employing a style of writing that is gritty and unpretentious.

Clotheslines reveal a changing color palette:  blues, grays, browns, and burgundy in the cooler seasons; pink, aqua, celadon, salmon and white in summer. The line reflects the setting.

Occasionally the line supports memories –  a wizard’s hat and cape from a long-ago Halloween,  beach towels and handmade coverlets, an all-black array of tee shirts emblazoned with the names and images of rock bands.

A sturdy clothesline bridges time. Remember the teachings of the clothesline when writing:

1. Replace worn cliches with something crisp.
2. Anchor solidly in the context of the story or message.
3. Space word choice so you don’t repeat too often.
4. Punctuate as needed.
5. Mix daring information with comfortable reference.
6. Don’t weigh it down with verbosity.
7. Change up the palette – make it colorful at times.
8. Step back, review, and don’t be afraid to cut it.
9. Reposition phrasing for balance, continuity.
10. Take elements apart and reconfigure until they look right.
11. Don’t let anyone tell you how to string your line, but observe how others do it. (OK, maybe a good editor)
12. Use your line to let characters air out emotions and anger.
13. Admire your line but remember it may not last forever.
14. Invite someone to try it and see how it works.
15. Don’t shoo away birds that sit on your line; they will add interest.
16. Make sure your line will weather all seasons.
17. If your line gets tangled, unwind it and make it linear again.
18. When your line sways in the wind, enjoy it as open to interpretation.
19. Consider a second line for support.
20. And don’t forget your by-line.

How to Set the Stage

story-intro-graphic-sm-c-2013-wordsontheflySometimes the story begins by itself:  a tidal wave, an explosion, a scream. Other times, it isn’t as easy. Likewise for copywriting. Sometimes there’s a strong premise: XYZ company is pleased to announce a new product. ABC company moves.

As writers, it’s our job to set the stage in a way that draws the reader in. It’s easy when the task is centered around something that is first, free, or new. But what if you’re struggling for that hook, that lead?

Here are a few tips when traditional approaches don’t work:

(1) Invite the reader to imagine… Imagine a world without traffic lights… imagine a child who can’t speak… imagine what the next ten years will bring in your industry of choice

(2) Use a person to set the stage. What better example than “Call me Ishmael” (Moby Dick)  Try your own scenario: “When I was a small child, we had no e-mail. No faxes. No smart phones. But we did something extraordinary – we talked. “ (And now you can transition to talk about anything.) Another variation: “My name is Mary, and I am one of 42 people who sleep at the local shelter … that is, when there’s a bed available.” (Great way to begin a fundraising pitch)

(3) Make a false statement, then refute it, or offer up a disruptive fact: “On December 21st the world will end” … then start the first paragraph with “…or so some believe.” Try another approach: “Never before have more disagreeable people agreed on anything.” Continue with the unexpected: “ We gathered up the most demanding, cantankerous, curmudgeonly consumers we could find, and invited them to test the Fritzelstick. Unlike past popsicle experiences, the Fritzelstick brought tears of joy to their eyes. Some remembered ice cream trucks rolling into their neighborhood. Others recalled county fairs.” You get the drift… use something unlikely, then flip it to make a case.

(4) Observe what is around you and use it as a launch pad. The phrase running over the photo illustration in this post is based on a true experience, yet the experience wasn’t nearly as ominous as the text implies. In fact, it was New Year’s Day in Oranjestad, Aruba…  a time when people line the streets to see fireworks. The air gets smoky in a loud, wonderful way, and the crowds move in unison to usher out the old year and welcome the new. Because this city is in development, streets a few rows back are under construction, and yes, appear very sparse compared to the colorful main drag. In circumventing the crowds, we took a back street to our destination, noticing just two men on a stoop and no one else: no cars, no birds, no dogs – the entire scene made eerie by the smoke drifting overhead. The stores were closed; buildings were deserted. There wasn’t even a note of music which usually punctuated the air.

Finally, the silence was broken by an elderly man using canes with hand-holds to propel his braced legs along the sidewalk. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Slow and painful. The sound seemed to echo in the stillness. I fully expected Tom Cruise (War of the Worlds) or Will Smith (Independence Day) to appear, to fight off aliens. As it turns out, the elderly man went one way, and we, another… but that image left an indelible mark in my brain. Surely there was a story waiting to be written. It was the perfect setting.

(5)  Step out of your comfort zone — your age, your time, your environment. Look at a map. Stare at an old photo. Observe the starry sky. Transport yourself to another dimension, and make it anything you want.  The nice thing about writing is that it provides the ultimate freedom, able to remove physical boundaries and take you places. Once you do that, you can bring your readers along for the ride.

When “When” is Enough

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Several weeks ago I had an opportunity to hear Newsweek/Daily Beast Editor-in-Chief  Tina Brown speak about changes in content delivery, shortly before  announcing their plans to discontinue print publication of their well known news weekly.

I had already grabbed a copy of the magazine and tossed it into my tote, which for me, was like catching up with an old friend. I’m one of those people who received a student-rate subscription in high school and continued subscribing well beyond college graduation. In more recent years, I’ve been a casual reader.

In flipping through my issue later that night (September 24, 2012), I fell into my usual bad habit of thumbing through the magazine back to front to see if anything caught my eye, before settling down to “read it right.”

I must have noticed Damon Linker’s article on page 53 first which started “When Tori Amos set out to commemorate the 20th anniversary of her seminal debut album…” because I soon came upon the top left page of an article about hospitals (page 46, by Marty Makary) which started “When I was a medical student.”

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, until I flipped back to page 42, to find part of an article about the television program ‘Homeland.” It started “When Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa set out in early 2010…” (this section was part of a larger article about Secret Weapons by Eli Lake) and on page 41, it contained a paragraph that began, “When asked why more women make it as targeters than men, Graham said…”

I don’t think the similarity in sentence structure hit me until I backed up to page 34 and saw an interview by Leslie H. Gelb with economist Paul Volcker that stated, “When Paul Volcker speaks, Republicans and Democrats, Labor and Business, listen.”

All of a sudden, I realized it was “when this, when that.” That’s a lot of “whens!” Merriam Webster says that this adverb derives from Middle or Old English, or perhaps Old High German, citing “hwanne” and “hwenne” as the origin. “When” denotes a period of time broadly or specifically.

I was quite young when I learned that Americans say “When” to indicate when to stop filling a glass.  That always seemed silly and somewhat random, until I realized it was variation of “Say Goodnight, Gracie” followed by “Goodnight Gracie.” (Credit that to George Burns and Gracie Allen.)

“When,” if used with beverage pouring, is really just a sassy response to, “Tell me when to stop pouring.”

As a writer, “when” offers an easy way to set the stage. “When Mrs. Springer was a young girl, her family used kerosene lamps.” But could we say it another way? “Even as she started to lose touch with the present, Mrs. Springer could still hear the crank of the old kerosene pump that fueled the lamps in her childhood home. She remembered painstakingly bringing her mother a can of the precious liquid each afternoon before the sun set, alternating between relishing the smell and being repulsed by it.”

“When” comes in handy when writing historical accounts or conveying parallel timelines. “When the czar’s foot soldiers stormed the village, Hannah was already gone.” Try it a different way. “By time the Cossacks arrived at the village, Hannah was clamoring up the hill, clinging to a bundle of food and clothes, perceptible as no more than a speck on the horizon.”

Don’t get me wrong. “When” is a perfectly adequate word, but it risks being overused. One exception:  The Beatle’s “Rain” . “When the sun shines, they slip into the shade… when it rains… when it rains and shines.” Can’t quite get enough “when” there.