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Reading Writing Relationship

Some interesting discussion about “copying” and “emulating” has found its way into these pages.  And important discussion it is.  Finding one’s voice is difficult enough without also finding that you’ve been using someone else’s along the way as well.

When I think back to a time when I knew I’d found my voice, I also think of what made it authentic.  Sure, I was writing about what I knew, but I was also writing from deep inside.  I was eager to tell a tale.  So sure of myself because I believed that what I was saying was important and that anyone who read my writing was certain to agree.

“If you would write well, read good writing.”  William Least Heat Moon made that observation when discussing the relationship between what and who we choose to read and how it impacts our own writing voice.  Copying is one thing, but emulating is quite another.  Like Moon, I believe we unconsciously absorb some of the style, tone and voice of writers we love.  Stands to reason.  If we take time to marvel at a turn of phrase, a well-formed paragraph, a particularly engaging opening line, or that final phrase, hammered into place like fine craftsmanship, why wouldn’t we incorporate something similar.  Not something identical, but something with equal impact.

Musicians work this way.  We all know what happens when musicians and writers plagiarize.  Disaster!  Yet, there is a place for influence; I think it’s inevitable.  That’s why what we choose to read can provide great benefit.  I often try to read something I would never choose myself.  If left alone, I’d find plenty of writers that I like…Steinbeck, Walker, Bellow, Duncan, Krakauer, Morrison,  But I might not find the likes of  Poe Ballantine, Alice Munroe, Ivan Doig, or Carlos Ruiz Zafon. (Zafon’s novel, The Shadow of the Wind, is currently on my nightstand)

So dig in.  Read widely and deeply.  Absorb. Your writing can’t help but flourish.

A Poetry Musical Experience at the Ocean

Saturday 10/2/10 (5-8pm) at Beach Books in Seaside, OR: A poetry and musical experience featuring five local artists. The Portland poets will weave their work into a tapestry with full musical accompaniment.

A. Molotkov is a writer, composer, filmmaker and visual artist.  Although he has been writing fiction and poetry for over 25 years, his more recent involvement with other art forms allows him to approach the creative process from various angles, with individual parts contributing to a greater whole.  Molotkov is the author of several novels, short story and poetry collections and the winner of the 2008 E. M. Koeppel Short Fiction Award for his short story “Round Trip”, which was nominated for a Pushcart.  His fiction and poetry has appeared in or accepted by the Hawaii Pacific Review, Peralta Press, Acquillrelle, Gival Press, Epicenter, Suger Mule and elsewhere.  His debut CD “Can You Stay Forever”, an ambitious project utilizing 15 musicians, has received glowing reviews.   A. Molotkov is quickly becoming known in the Portland poetry community for his exceptional skills at oral presentation.  In February 2010, Molotkov spearheaded a one-hour performance “Love Outlives Us” presented by the Show and Tell Gallery and repeated on KBOO in June.

John Sibley Williams is a poet and book publicist residing in Portland, OR. He has a previous MA in Writing and presently studies Book Publishing at Portland State University, where he serves as Acquisitions Manager of Ooligan Press and publicist for Three Muses Press. His poetry was nominated for the 2009 Pushcart Prize, and his debut chapbook, A Pure River, is forthcoming from The Last Automat Press. Some of his over 100 previous or upcoming publications include: The Evansville Review, Ellipsis, Flint Hills Review, Euphony, Open Letters, Cadillac Cicatrix, Juked, The Journal, Hawaii Review, Cutthroat, The Furnace Review, Red Wheelbarrow, Aries, and River Oak Review.

Before landing in Portland, Carrie-Ann Tkaczyk lived all over. She learned kickboxing in Turkey, faced-off with a rhino in Nepal, discussed the weather with Queen Elizabeth in England, and was chastised by Mother Theresa in India. Portland has been her home for ten years.  For the last four, she has been collaborating with members of The Guttery. Some of her readings have been published by The Peace Corps Digital LibraryThe Oregon Literary Review and Show and Tell Gallery as well as featured on the site Love Outlives Us. She writes novels about what happens when the will of the individual and the collective muscle of a culture clash.  Her latest novel, Only Ghosts, is about the changes to a village in Nepal during the democratic movement of 1990. More at

David Cooke was raised Catholic in Oakland, California, and now lives in Lake Oswego, Oregon.  His debut poem Edges won the Ruth Stone Poetry Prize and was nominated for a 2010 Pushcart Prize. His work appears in Flatmancrooked, Hunger Mountain, A River & Sound Revie,w and in performances at the Blackbird Wine Shop, Show and Tell Gallery, Stonehenge Studio, and KBOO’s Talking Earth.  He is also known as The Lawn Guy throughout Portland and Lake Oswego for his lawn maintenance business.  Much of his current work is included in his forthcoming chapbook, Discretion.

Ragon Linde is a musician specializing in eclectic jazz. He plays the guitar, drums, and bass. Ragon moved to Portland in 2006 from Tulsa, Oklahoma where he lived most of his life. While in Oklahoma, Ragon played in a wide range of musical groups over the last 35 years whose styles included big band, psychedelic jazz, heavy metal, acoustic folk, classical, and western swing. Much of his work has been recorded and his latest album of work titled My Own Private Jihad can be found on his MySpace site,

Get out of the House

A year and a half ago I barely left my house. I shared my time between my work and my art. No one in Portland knew me, and I didn’t know anyone. Laurie, my partner, gets the credit for pushing me out into the world. In September 2008, she stated that my life didn’t have enough context, that there was nothing to discuss. I was offended at first, but after thinking about it, I saw that she was right. I applied with the Guttery and joined Portland’s Poems and Coffee group. Being accepted by the Guttery took over 3 months. By contrast, Poems and Coffee are open to anyone. They are a wonderful free-flowing group for poets and those interested in poetry. This is where I ran into Shawn Austin, a local poet whose work immediately appealed to me. Eventually, Shawn and I decided to form a new group, The Moonlit Poetry Caravan, with a narrower focus and operating by acceptance only, to ensure a responsible participation.

In a matter of three or four months, I had made a dozen new friends, all wonderful writers and thinkers. I couldn’t believe I had been missing this experience for most of my adult years.

In September 2009, Bruce Green, a dear friend and a Guttery member, set up a reading for the Guttery at the Blackbird Wine Shop. I felt that we did a good job, and it was fun to perform in front of an audience, my first experience of that sort since earlier this century in San Francisco.

Now I was hooked! I attended an evening at The Show And Tell Gallery, followed by an open mic session. I enjoyed other poets and read some of my work. Each space has its own vibe. I liked the vibe here at the Three Friends Coffee House. I talked to Melissa Sillitoe, the curator of Show And Tell, about staging our own performance. She kindly gave us the floor on February 8, 2010, allowing us to present our 1-hour fairy tale “Love Outlives Us”.

Since then, I visited and/or read at Tony’s Tavern downtown, Three Friends, Hillsboro’s Last Monday Poetry, If Not For Kidnap in Portland, Stonehenge gallery, Overlook Park annual poetry event, and several other locations. John Sibley Williams, Shawn Austin and I are reading on September 26th at St. Johns Booksellers in Portland, 2pm. A whole team of us are going to perform in Seaside on 10/2, with a three hour marathon music meets literature performance (5-8 pm, Beech Books, Seaside, OR).

Strange how much can change in your life once you step out of the house and into the world. And if literature is not your interest, all of this still applies. It’s more fun sharing with others than being cooped up by oneself. Get out of the house and make connections!

Departure from Controlled Flight

Departure from Controlled Flight

By Cameron M. Smith

My hang-gliding instructor introduced me to the ominous term I’ve drafted for the title of this post; ‘DCF’. Not good. There are many ways to get there; trying too hard, not trying hard enough…equipment failure…Many ways to get to DCF.

I think the same of writing. In fact, considering how much there is to go wrong in writing, it’s a wonder it ever works at all.

Below, some advice for avoiding the DCF equivalent of writing. There is a lot to go wrong. These are some of the lessons I’ve learned in years of writing; I continue to make some, but at least I’m getting better at knowing when I’m doing it.

It can take years to learn these things. I’ve been lucky to have them reinforced, repeatedly, as a member of The Guttery.

Not all of these points apply to all writers, all kinds of writing, or even all stages of a writing career. Every point could be argued, this way and that, in a fun evening at the pub. I have my biases and preferences, and they’re obvious below; you should note that I write, largely, personal nonfiction narrative.

I’m sure all of this has been written before, but I don’t care; writing it out has been useful for me and may be useful to others.

Well; it all goes in the hopper.

* Writing Too Quickly: Deadlines can motivate, but they also lead to compromises. Stay organized with a writing calendar and schedule your work. Truck drivers, the old writers’ saw goes, are not allowed to have ‘Truck Drivers’ Block.’ On the other hand, writing well is not truck driving (however subtle good truck driving might be.) Writing well is like painting or drawing well, it is not easy. A good sentence can represent hours of work. “I sweat over every word,Irwin Shaw said.

* Distraction: You cannot write well without full concentration. When it is time to write, people who wish to have contact with you must imagine that, as as Norman Mailer said, you’ve gone on a voyage to South America. You will not be back for some time, not even a little. Quarterbacks, airline pilots, mountain guides, train drivers, and other professionals do not engage with others while they’re working–they don’t take phone calls or answer the door–and at least some writers (like me) can’t, either. The most common woe I hear expressed by writers is being unable to find the time to write with a clear mind. You have to carve that out. How? Somehow.

* Writing for Money: Writing is a grinding, inefficient way to try to get your hands on money. Well-paying jobs are rare. The Authors’ Guild reports that 95% of American writers do not make their primary income from writing. Writing for money, like writing too quickly, leads to compromises. You’re normally writing for so little that you’re doing it for yourself, and you might as well have the self-respect to do it well. Keep your day job, then compartmentalize your writing time to eliminate all distraction so that you produce good work. Eventually, the money comes in because the work is good. Yes, crummy writing may sell, but is that what you want to do–sell crummy writing?

* Not Doing Your Research: If you want to tell the truth in writing, which you must do even in fiction, you have to know your topic. Even if you don’t directly use a single fact you learn about your topic, one false word or tone and your reader will rightly lose confidence in you. Know the material inside and out; it will come through in the writing–or, at least, ignorance won’t.

* Being Too Close or Too Distant: Writing too close to the reader can come off as ‘cutesy’ or taking liberties. Writing too far off, though, comes across as high-and-mighty. This is extremely delicate ground, though; some readers (like me) prefer some distance between author and reader, others want the author right there. Again, very thin ice, here. As Galadriel said in the The Lord of the Rings: “The quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail.

* Tension: A reader can tell whether or not the author is relaxed. A written work can be tense, but that tension must be manufactured by the author. A genuinely tense author gushes, revealing too much about their own state. Before his writing on East of Eden on March 23, 1951, John Steinbeck–in his daily journal entry to his editor–ranted about the low quality of his pencils; “Points break and all hell breaks loose” he wrote. But by the end of the entry he wrote, “I have lost the sense of rush with which I started this [the day’s work] and that is exactly what I intended to do.

* Looseness: A reader can tell whether or not the author is being loose with their words and therefore their thinking and therefore their attention to the reader. A loose author sounds inebriated, they write for self-indulgence and the reader is an afterthought. Pick material you care about, and focus on saying what you want to say, in your chosen form.

* Trying Not to Offend: Trying to please everyone leads to compromises with words–and you must use exactly the right word, no matter what–and facts, which are so easily blurred to fit your purposes. Naturally, a good author considers the audience, and there are conventions for some kinds of writing, but personal narratives in which everything is peachy-keen and everyone is filled with light come off, rightfully, as sickly-sweet. Honesty will gain the reader’s trust, which is everything. The reader doesn’t have to like you, but they do have to trust you. Above I wrote that writing was not truck driving. Then, to avoid offending any truck-drivers or friends whose relatives may be truck drivers (and so on), I Tried Not To Offend by adding this: “(however subtle good truck driving might be.)” I’ve kept this parenthetical only because it’s such a good illustration of a mistake. One more example; Anthony Bourdain, whom you may not like and who may actually exaggerate on occasion, writes very well and does not try to please everyone; in Kitchen Confidential he wrote, “Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn.” I know at least one vegetarian who has laughed at that. You may not like Bourdain, but at least you know he’s not schmoozing you.

* Not Listening to Advice: While you mustn’t write-to-not-offend, you should listen to good advice from readers. A good writing group can be hard to find–members have to be able to give and take useful critique, which is a skill–but is important. A good writing group can help you, over a few years, to find your voice, and that is done by analyzing your writing time and again. Listen to readers and writers, determine what you’re willing to adjust, and then do it. Don’t forget that you will need some kind of armor. Not everybody has to see it, but you will need it. Be sure, in your writing group, to edit other writers’ work with complete attention; give them reason to be equally exacting about your work.

* Not Being in Love With the Subject: Whether or not passion is overt in the work, you have to be passionate about the subject to write well. Passion ultimately exposes truth, and good writing is about truth. Lack of passion will flavor the writing with weak, noncommittal wording and a depressing mediocrity. Don’t undertake a writing project unless you’re passionate about the material. The most dismal examples of passionless writing I have seen are in travel magazines, where the author is once again reviewing a ‘breathtaking sunrise’ or a ‘charming villa’. These unfortunate writers are exhausted. They are ‘calling in’ a performance and, arguably, wasting their own time and yours.

* Copying: Aspiring writers want to sound ‘just like X’ but everyone can tell if you copy another author; and do you want to be copying, anyway? A good author’s voice is distinctive, it is their own, though it can be well-informed by their attention to other writers. It can take years to work past copying, and even after this time, you must re-read your material to be sure you’re not copying subconsciously. Develop your own voice through years of diligent work and by taking to time to know who you are and what you have to bring to the world of readers.

* Exaggerations: In editing you may see that you’ve written an exaggeration, and that should remind you that you’re using a crutch. Things aren’t compelling enough without a side-show, and that’s a red flag to reconsider the whole work. For the reader, an exaggeration says that the writer might just make up anything…so why keep reading? Don’t exaggerate. Our own lives are more compelling than any movie, but we’re often too bedazzled by movies to remember it. Write about things that don’t need exaggeration. The horror of reality TV is that it is a lie posing as truth; fiction, although it might communicate great truth, at least doesn’t pretend to be truth. Pick a genre.

* Putting Yourself in the Work: Unless you are well-known to the world, nobody cares about your specific experience or troubles. The reader cares about what they can identify with, and that may well be your specific experiences or troubles, but they have to be told that way; the author is a vehicle. A story of hearbreak is excruciating to read unless it communicates some new insight (which the reader can learn from and apply to their own life) or reiterates an old lesson (which the reader can learn from and apply to their own life). A lot of an author’s personal writing should remain in a journal. Well enough for the author to write that, and in writing it understand themselves to improve the writing, but pouring it out for everyone can reveal too much. Ray Bradbury, in an interview in The Paris Review, addresses the issue when talking about his writing in a very general way: “I write metaphors. Every one of my stories is a metaphor you can remember. The great religions are all metaphor. We appreciate things like Daniel and the lion’s den, and the Tower of Babel. People remember these metaphors because they are so vivid you can’t get free of them…” See? Even when Bradbury is talking about himself, he’s not really talking about himself.

Yep, it’s a lot to keep in mind, and these are only things that come to mind right now; emergencies come up, the wrong word can collapse a work in a moment! Alarm!

And if you don’t think a single word can do that, if you don’t feel that strongly about the writing, you’re not going to write well.

When you have cleared your mind to write, and sit down to do it, you may as well be climbing into a cockpit. To me, it’s that important to get it right.

There are many ways to induce Departure from Controlled Flight; avoiding them requires knowing what they are.

How Will I Know?

“How will I know what I think until I see what I write?”

I’ve always loved this quote because it makes the link between writing and thinking rather explicit.  That’s important when working with students or developing writers.  Because we write, we think.  When we don’t write, our thinking suffers.

Writers are different from most people because they take the time to write.  That act of will is a necessity not a luxury.  But just imagine how difficult life must be for someone who continually says, “I don’t know what to write?”  Writing teachers deal with that daily so they learn to view writing as a process.  That process begins with some form of prewriting that stimulates some deeper connection.  It begins with the heart…the pure, authentic self.  For reluctant writers, the process is aided by talk.  I’ve seen young writers go from having nothing to say to joyful focus because of a 10 minute conversation that elicited something buried deep inside.

OK, no more stories about the writing process.  Just one important reminder for those of us who write professionally.  The last step of the process is to put it out there.  You’ve got to put it out there.  That means either publication or reading, or both.  Fortunately, with the technological revolution now underway, it’s not all that difficult to do.  Risky, however, is another matter.  Still, we must not allow ourselves to be held captive by other’s ideas about our writing.  The author still has the authority, I say.  With that in mind, let me paraphrase the wisdom of Woody Guthrie and “tell you something you already know.”  Share your writing with others.  Submit something somewhere.  Enter a competition, sign up for an open mic, take a shot.  The rewards far outweigh doing nothing.  Complete the process.

How do you say goodbye to a long project?

Novelists need a rite of passage for finishing a novel. We need to find some way to ground ourselves and to move on from these projects, which, in my case, took two years. But, how do you let go?

The world of my novel started with one brief impression, and from that impression I built a world. Writing it was like treading water in an open ocean. First, I pulled together strands of seaweed. One by one, I clutched at them, and then while still sputtering to stay above the waves, I wove the seaweed tight into a raft, struggled on board and sailed my raft from one shore to the next.

Now that I’ve reached the shore, I’m not sure how to get off or even if I want to. If I do, will my raft sink, disappear, or dissolve before me? Can I stand to watch it from a distance, to turn my back on it, and start all over again?

It’s been two weeks since I finished my project and I’m just not sure what to do with myself. I have decided that the only way to move on is to say goodbye, firmly, officially, and with intent. I have no idea what this rite of passage will look like, only that it must happen.

Time Based Art Festival in Portland next month

Portland will be ticking with Time Based Art throughout September all over the city. For tickets and information head to the where you can buy individual tickets or a TBA Festival Pass.
The hand-sized full color catalog of events is itself a work of art. Browsing through I’ve found a few must see events.
* Rufus Wainwright at The Schnitzer. A man Elton John called “the greatest songwriter on the planet.”
*Iranian-born visual artist Shirin Neshat’s film “Women Without Men.”
*Any of the TBA On Sight installations, exhibitions, porjections and gatherings at Washington High School.
*One of the nightly performances at a beer garden, food cart, or theater. Viva live performances!
*Publication Studio will be experimenting with the relationship between TBA and book binding.

Check out the catalog for 128 pages of art events.