Saturday, February 28, 2009
There are many very important aspects of the craft of writing and there are many important writers that talk about those aspects. They wax poetically about "voice" and "narrative" and "story arcs" and many, many other important things. And this is good - because all those things are important.
But you know, I haven't seen a certain aspect brought up at all. And it is a topic that in my personal and oh, so humble opinion think is one of the importantest.
The importance of being geeky.
I have a looooong history of embracing my inner geek. I would bore my friends at recess going on and on about my rock collection, attempting to identify the little bits in the gravel at the playgound. "Look!" I'd cry, triumphant. "I found an igneous one!"
My well-deserved reputation as a bookworm only fueled the fires of my geekiness. "So you see," I'd say, sealing my fate as the one never invited to a sleepover party again, "an object at rest tends to stay at rest and an object in motion tends to stay in motion with the same speed and in the same direction ...
Blank faces turn my way.
Clueless that I was the only one at the private party in my head, I'd persevere. "...unless that body is acted upon by an unbalanced force." Oh, well. I didn't want to go to their stupid sleepovers anyway.
Those childhood years can be a delightful cocktail of misery and humiliation for anyone - but for me, they also opened up a whole new world - one that I never knew existed.
Godzilla movies. Son of Godzilla, Godzilla's Revenge, Godzilla Raids Again and that's not all. You also have your versus Godzilla movies. Mothra vs. Godzilla, King Kong vs. Godzilla - wait! There's more! Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. How cool is that?
Now, if I had been a geek before I found these movies, then after I'd spent countless Saturday afternoons growing pudgier and paler by the week as I stared at the flickering black & white screen, I then was transported to someplace new. It may not have been a higher plane of existence, but it certainly was a higher plane of geekiness. And since I had no brothers and all my friends were girls who were not interested in monster movies in the slightest, that uber-geek plane was a lonely place indeed.
I eventually moved on to Renaissance recorder music, anything that had to do with horses, especially prehistoric horses, and come to think about it, I had a pinecone collection for a while too. And weirdly none of my interests helped me win friends and influence people. Sorry Dale Carnegie.
But I don't regret a minute of any of the time I've spent indulging my geek-pursuit-of-the-day. Those minutes, hours, weeks and months were training. I didn't know it then, but I was training to be a writer. I let myself be curious. I followed that curiousity until some other shiny thing captured my attention, and I filled my head chock full of random facts, figures and ideas -most of them tres geeky. Now I get to cash in on that private party in my head and write that motherlode down for other geeks.
And I know those fellow geeks are out there. Just last Saturday I was teaching a writing class to a bunch of 6-8 year olds. "Today, we're going to talk about something super-cool!" Their eyes grow wide in anticipation. They lean forward in their plastic chairs. "We're going to talk about punctuation!" I say as I pump my fist in the air. It's silent for a second and then they all break out in applause. "Yay!" the kids shreik.
My own mini-me geeks.
I wanted to weep with joy.
Posted by Nancy Coffelt at 12:15 PM
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
We moved a couple of years ago. Yeah, I know, people move all the time so why am I even bothering to mention it? Well, the last time I'd moved was 18 years before that. Yep, I'd lived in the same house for almost two decades. And what's more, it was a house that boasted storage space -
and plenty of it.
Cue horror movie music now.
And since we were moving to a new place with roughly about half the square footage, a lot of that stored stuff had to go. Believe me. It really had to go. There's nothing quite like the feeling of wading through a swamp of the collected bits of most of your adult life. Look! There's my tax records from 13 years ago. Look! there's the ripped badminton net! OMG! That's where I stashed my shoulder pads and Flashdance leg-warmers!
Probably another good spot for the horror music, don'tcha think?
Sad to say, most of the stuff meant something to me at one time and I was confronted at the opening of every cardboard box with my sketchy decision making history. Why did I think picking up that aqua bowling ball at the church sale was a good idea? When did I ever think those jeans made my rear end look like anything other than the backside of a rhinoceros? And how did I end up with a carton of photos of people I don't even know?
I created three piles - one pile to go straight to the dumpster, another for Goodwill, and the third for a garage sale, because those leg warmers are vintage, baby. But wait, there's a fourth pile. There wasn't supposed to be a fourth pile. Everything must go, right?
Nope. I did find some things that I should keep. Some of them worth a bit of money - some of them only valuable in the most sentimental kind of ways. But I kept them. And where are they now? Why in cardboard boxes in the smaller storage space of the new house, of course.
Now, I've taken a really long time to get to my point here and I meant to. I'm revising a novel and in a way it's exactly like facing down a basement full of stored possessions. And so I use any excuse to take a break from it. The good news is that I have my own version of the fourth pile and I do get to keep some things in my first draft. The bad news? The other three quarters of it.
Finding long passages in my story where I'm telling and not showing? There's your aqua bowling ball right there. Unnecessary characters? They're getting chucked just like those anonymous photos. And my too clever by half over-written favorite lines? Out they go. Hmmm... once upon a time I thought they were a good idea.
But then again, I also used to wear shoulder pads and legwarmers. And if this isn't the perfect place for horror music -
then no place is.
Posted by Nancy Coffelt at 8:59 AM
Saturday, February 21, 2009
Sometimes it's easier to draw what I'm thinking than putting that thought into words. The title of this piece is "Not So Black and White". It has always cracked me up when people have described my work as "happy". Sure, I admit it does have a jaunty air about it but in reality even some of my most whimsical pieces have their own level of darkness lurking just below the surface.
Take this piece for example. I had been going round and round with someone about what they thought was the right thing to do as far as the situation they'd found themselves in. "I just wish it was black and white!" they'd cried in frustration. But it rarely ever is in life. And I'm not sure your writing should be either.
It's the shades of gray that give tone and depth, light and shadow to a piece of writing. Yes, there are times I want to be slammed on the head by a passage. But slammed on the head over and over? Not so much. The same goes for where it's nothing but a white sea of vanilla for pages. Not as painful as getting slammed on the head, but isn't boring its own kind of painful?
I'm neck deep in revising my latest novel. And I've found some black there and waaaaaaay too much white. So now my job is to add those areas of gray where they're needed - and they really are desperately needed. While I'm at it, orange or green might not be so bad either. Or chartreuse, or teal, or maybe - dare I try....
Posted by Nancy Coffelt at 9:02 AM
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
After the longest, snowiest winter I can remember it's finally decided to be spring in Portland. But am I enjoying it? No. I'm under the weather. Just what is that supposed to mean anyway?
If I were truly under the gorgeous blue sky day outside my window I'd be sipping mai-tais in a hammock snapping my fingers at the cute waiter guy to come over and tell me again that I don't look fat in my swim suit.
It pays to be a good tipper.
Instead, I'm hunched like a queasy vulture at my computer, listening to the happy songs of the birds outside and the unhappy thunks as they fly into my windows. Under the weather - bah, I hate that saying. And it's not just that particular saying that irks me. There's plenty more. Take this one: A Piece of Cake. It's supposed to mean a task that can be accomplished very easily. Why? Who decided that? To me, a piece of cake is something that should be eaten immediately. Case closed.
Or this saying: All Bark And No Bite. Some Einstein chose this to mean forever more that this is when someone is threatening and/or aggressive but not willing to engage in a fight. Really? Even when someone was stealing their piece of cake? I'm skeptical. I think a more accurate version of this should read: All Bark and No Bite Until You Turn Your Back or Go to Sleep and Then You'll Truly Be Very, Very Sorry.
Here's one I've always wondered about: An Arm And A Leg. I know it means that something's extremely expensive. But I think that having it mean something you don't want to find on a walk in the woods to be WAY closer to the truth. And Having an Axe to Grind? It should refer directly back to An Arm and a Leg. I mean - it only makes sense and I'm all about that.
These sort of idioms, and that's what they are folks, need to be reined in. Come hell or high water, they need to be stopped. We all need to just cut to the chase - leave out all the unnecessary details and just get to the point.
Because being Between A Rock And A Hard Place doesn't mean stuck between two very bad options.
It just means you fell down again.
Posted by Nancy Coffelt at 4:23 PM
Sunday, February 15, 2009
I've been thinking about traveling. No, not actually considering venturing far from my troll hole. I like sleeping in my own bed - and planes? Well, let's just say that the feeling of having good old dirt or asphalt actually touch the soles of my shoes is much better than having 36,000 feet of clear blue scary lurking beneath me. I always pity the poor people that have to sit next to me on a flight. I simply ooze terror. Just give me a gin and tonic to clutch in my clawed hands like a wet, cold, beverage-shaped teddy bear and I'll go to my happy place (on the ground) and pretend to be fine.
Instead, I've been thinking about everyday journeys. They begin even before we leave the house. The news on the radio. Your morning internet perusal. A telephone call - wanted or not. Any and all of these have transported you from the here, from the now you were just in to whisk you to another place. Most of the everyday journeys you take through your day are ordinary, they're familiar. Work, the post office, the grocery store, the vet's office. And that familiarity can be a comfort because it's a known, no need to think about it. But that comfort can also be the exact thing that's robbing you of the wonder of your everyday journeys.
Take a look around you at the faces of your fellow travelers. How many do you see that seem flat, dulled or distracted? How many of them seem to just be going through the motions, not noticing the particular leg of the journey they're on. How many times has that person been you?
When was the last time you took the trouble to actually pay attention to all that's around you? I'm not talking about noticing a red light in traffic or noticing you are all out of clean socks which is always a big, fat drag. I'm talking about really noticing - really paying attention to the way the sunlight hits the side of a building. Really listening to the roar of traffic and the sound of its own whipped up breeze. Really seeing the smile of another fellow traveler who's decided to pay attention at that exact same time too. The unfortunately normal propensity to forget noticing robs us of these experiences. And it is just these experiences that transform the potential banality of our everyday journeys into something that may just be - perhaps - profound.
Artists and writers have always relied on the power of noticing. Masterpieces and Great American Novels have risen from these creatives' chronicling of their experiences. But the good news is that we don't have to be a Michelangelo or a Dickens to make our own everyday journeys mean something. We possess the power to create as well. Our creations may not hang on museum walls or rest in a library, they don't have to. Our creations are vivid memories - memories of sun, wind, tears,
Check it out.
Posted by Nancy Coffelt at 11:33 AM
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
I just got back from an out of town school visit and I learned a number of things. First, my husband's truck does NOT like snow OR ice - probably wouldn't do well in a Jell-o spill either now that I think of it. Second, giant rocks can come hurtling down from hillsides without warning, playing cosmic bowling where you're one of the pins. But on this trip the rocks bowled a big fat gutterball. Ha! In your face, rocks!
I learned that there is now one Great Dane puppy in the world named after yours truly. World, meet Lola Snowflake Coffelt.
I also rediscovered the joys of a hotel room all to myself, fuzzy bathrobes that I didn't have to launder and gracious hosts that treated me like royalty. And when I told them that they had treated me like royalty, looked at me funny and said, "Well, you are."
Well, sure. I'll concede that I'm the princess of perfectly fried chicken. I totally rule when it comes to Scrabble. I am most definitely a legend in my own mind when it comes to tennis. But royalty? Real royalty? Me?
However, last night at the school family event I think that I may just have been convinced about the whole royalty thing.
I am now the official queen of drawing evil flying wiener dogs.
Part of my family night presentations consists of me drawing each kid there an animal of their choice. I get the usual requests for kittens, monkeys, unicorns and dragons. But this night was different. I was surrounded by kids, rethinking my strategy of sitting on the floor. Visions of a block of cheddar being overrun by teeming mice raced through my head. I took a breath. Children in these numbers cease to be a number at all. Instead, they become a thing - a clot of children, a sea of children, an airless blanket of children with no awareness of, I don't know - personal space.
The first request was a surprise. "I want a wiener dog," the boy asked.
"Great," I answered as I began to draw.
His hand shot out and covered mine. "No," he insisted. "It has to be an evil wiener dog."
"Gotcha." I drew a wiener dog glaring malevolently and handed it over. He handed it back.
"It has to fly."
After that, it was all evil flying wiener dogs all the time. The kids were happy and I had gained a new title. Now, no matter what life throws at me these days I know who I truly am.
I am a queen- Queen of the Evil Flying Wiener Dogs.
Posted by Nancy Coffelt at 12:22 PM
Tuesday, February 03, 2009
A couple of years ago I was driving home from teaching at a school in a small rural district and when I finally made it to the main highway I found myself stopped a light opposite a graveled vacant lot. The first thing I noticed was the old pickup parked there and then the old man in the folding chair sitting beside it. And then I saw the animals - deer, bear, cougars, rabbits and coyotes all carved out of wood and arranged neatly across the barren lot.
Carvings - 10$ a hand-lettered sign read.
I watched as the cars and trucks roared by the man and his art. All those people were in their own steel encased worlds, listening to the radio, talking on their cell phones, thinking about grocery lists or soccer practice - thinking about anything but the time the old man put into those carvings and the fact he was attempting to communicate his art to the world. And when my light turned green, I drove past too.
As artists and writers we're in the same boat as that man and his carvings. We're just trying to communicate. But most of the time - we fail. I went home that day and did the drawing at the top of this post. The coyote was inspired by the old man's carvings. The rest is the void - the space between people and objects and intents and desires. On rare occasions we do bridge those gaps. I'll get a nice email from someone who enjoys my art or found something meaningful to them in one of my books. That's when this whole art/writing craziness makes some sense.
But most of the time I'm that old man sitting on my folding chair in that vacant lot, watching the world go by - wishing someone would stop.
Posted by Nancy Coffelt at 5:52 PM