Friday, March 27, 2009

The Personal Essay Online

Over the last several years the Internet's influence on pop culture has increased exponentially. It has changed the way we shop, the way we communicate and has introduced new types of recreation. The internet has also started to affect the way we read, and this transformation has in turn opened the door to changes in the way we write and circulate our writing. Perhaps more than any other tool of change, blogging has impacted the writer.
Blogging has become a readily accessible and often free platform for writers to self publish. Gone are the traditional gatekeepers and many of the filters between writer and reader. Within minutes of completion, an article, short story or poem can be published and in front of thousands. Distribution is not only much faster now than ever before imagined, but reaches further than ever possible; anywhere people can access the internet, there is access to a writer's work.
Traditional publishing's diminishing power as a gatekeeper to the world of readers has given an audience to a flood of new writing, some good and some great, and some which is neither. Just as the professional writer has gained a new audience, so has the hack. As a result, systems have developed to help readers screen the onslaught of new writing on the web.
Social networking has played a large role in the new screening processes. Providing social proof through things brief as a thumbs-up to extensive as a full-blown review, social networking gives readers control over which authors and what work can now rise to the top.
Several of the writing formats previously published through traditional methods have successfully transitioned online. Some formats which previously had a fairly limited audience because of printing and distribution costs have benefited from the proliferation of online platforms. Among these formats are poetry, short fiction and short nonfiction.
The personal essay has not only benefited by less expensive distribution, but because its form and function are uniquely suited to online publication, it has flourished.
Many blogs and personal websites share their owners' musings about life and activities, so the marriage between blogging and the personal essay seems beneficial for both sides. I encourage you to read each of these seven examples of the personal essay, and see for yourself.


On Jim Murdoch's blog he describes himself this way:
"I am a 49-year-old writer. I began late in life but have made steady, if somewhat erratic, progress. I am currently struggling with my fifth novel."
Like many bloggers, Murdoch self publishes on the web and in print. There's Something We Need to Talk About shows one of the ways bloggers utilize the personal essay format to make their blogging both personal and relevant.


Ken Armstrong's describes himself:
"45 Years Old. Loves to write. Has had plays produced for radio and theatre, some short stories published (and broadcast) and a laundry list which was highly commended by 'Whiter than White' in Castle Street."
Armstrong's personal essay, Holy Thursday - 33 Years Ago is likely a more conscious effort at utilizing the traditional literary format, but since it has been posted on a blog it could automatically be seen as less than traditional. Despite the format, this piece echoes the typical blogger's desire for self expression and revelation.
[By the way, I had pulled Ken's essay for inclusion before he started advertising here. So don't get any ideas!]


Brian Doyle's A note on Public Literature provides an example of how traditional print media, in this case a newspaper article, can find it's way online and thereby increase its scope and audience. What may once have found a limited regional audience through publication in a newspaper called "Oregon Live" is now not only available to reader in Oregon, but Ohio and Okinawa as well.


With the rising costs of printing and distribution, several websites have been developed which imitate the traditional literary journal. Included are How I Jeopardized My Sanity by Rosemary Mild, and A live cat is better than a dead lion* by Mary Patrice Erdmans both from the online literary journal "Slow Trains," which publishes fiction, essays, and poetry on a quarterly basis. The Facts as They Are by Samantha Bell was published on "Prick of the Spindle," another online literary journal. While both of these journals are published exclusively online, some of their counterparts publish both online and printed versions.
The backgrounds of these writers are as various as their contributions within this anthology. Samantha Bell is a Ph.D. candidate in creative writing who has been published in several journals. Rosemary Mild coauthors a mystery series with her husband and has essays published in Chicken Soup for the Coffee Lover's Soul and the Maryland Writers' Association's first anthology. Mary Patrice Erdmans is a Professor of Sociology at Central Connecticut State University and has had work published in the North American Review as well as several others, and was awarded the Oscar Halecki Prize.


The essay, How Funk Music Changed My Life by Luke Buckham comes from a sort of hybrid website which serves not only as an online literary journal, but a type of blog as well.
As blogging, social media and other types of personal websites continue to move toward the forefront of society, it seems likely the ways these sites can be used by writers will not only grow, but gain acceptance and exposure as well. This provides a true win-win situation for writers and their potential audiences, since the needs of both can be so easily served.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Creativity, El Kabong and Unexpected Snow

A friend mentioned in an email this morning that the roses she planted last night in the rain are now under three inches of snow. I hadn't looked outside yet when I read that this morning; the blinds were still closed (which shows you how really dedicated I am to my email behavior patterns!).
I blinked a few times reading it. She doesn't live that far away. Did she really say "snow"? I looked through the blinds, then lo and behold.
Snow on the morning of March 15th isn't something we expect here in the temperate Puget Sound, but it's something we're growing to comprehend. I've lost track of how many snow days we've had this year, probably more than the last several years combined.
Stay tuned. I found a creative writing lesson in this unexpected snowfall.
My parents have lived in the same house 45 years and I'm a fifth-generation resident of the area. The family on my father's side settled the Seabeck-Holly area and we had a regional celebrity sea Captain in our tree. My mother's side is descended from Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame, I'm a great-great-grandson of Lewis' sister Sarah, or something like that.
The point is, I've lived here all my life.
When I was a kid we had more snow here. I remember playing in it several times each year, and there are photos to corroborate my story. But the last thirty years or so it has been a less-frequent affair.
The weathermen tell us the lack of snow has had something to do with El Nino, or El Nina, but it might as well be because of El Kabong for all I know. The tree huggers of course tell us our weather behavior patterns have to do with global warming and we're all going to hell in a hand basket.
But I heard some weatherman say this year is a "neutral weather pattern" and there is no El Nino, or El Nina, and I don't think El Kabong is playing on the cartoon network, but I'm not sure (can anybody verify that?).
I haven't heard anyone mention global warming even once this year. Delightful! The nay sayers have moved on to the global economy, of course.
So of course I was thinking about how this relates to creativity.
When we're functioning as we were created to function, with our creativity intact and without being bombarded by nay sayers within or without, it's as if our lives are functioning in neutral weather patterns.
There are no tropical currents making it too warm, and no other currents making it too whatever it is they make it. We are just who we are, operating as we should operate.
What are the El Ninos, or El Ninas, or even the El Kabongs stopping us from living in our neutral weather patterns right now?
Of course we can't change the weather (although the tree huggers might beg to differ). But we can take steps to remove the behavior patterns that bring negativity into our lives and stop us from functioning at our full creative potential.
Say no to El Nino! Let it snow.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Trigger, Peek-a-Boo Sound Bites, and Thanks Havi

Rumor has it Earnest Hemingway rewrote the ending to "A Farewell to Arms" 39 times because he wanted to get the words right.
If you've noticed the little slogan under my name in the header of this particular creative writing blog lately, you might have thought I had it on some sort of rotation script displaying random slogans on each visit.
Well, you'd have the random part right at least. I've been changing slogans with the weather (and the weather has been crazy around here the last few days). Somewhere I got it in my head that little slogan should totally define me, my blog, my reason for existing and my place in the universe.
Am I saying I have worried about getting it right? Let's just say I can relate to Mr. Hemingway.
I've shared before about my "rampant creativity and capitalistic tinkering" patterns, how they're actually fear based and all that yada-yada. You'd think sharing about your problems in a public place (I'm talking about this blog) would mean I had a total handle on them and they could just go away, right?
Yeah, not really.
Of course I didn't see what was happening at first. I was just in that old familiar territory, one step away from scrapping everything and starting a blog about internet marketing or some crap like that. Okay, so I guess I was closer than one step away from it.
My posts here on this blog have still been somewhat creative, but couldn't you just feel the stick being slipped back up the ol' ass? That's one of my other patterns too.
I'm not saying it's not okay to want to make money from this blogging thing. That in and of itself is fine and dandy. But for me, thinking that way is the thing that gets me all rampantly creative and capitalistically tinkery.
You see, I know so much stuff about how to supposedly make money online. I know about finding the keywords you want to target in the search engines then plastering the hell out of your blog with those keywords (without looking like you're plastering anything) so people think you're an expert in that topic and come buy your stuff.
I know. I get that.
And that might be fine and dandy for most people. But for me, that sets me down a road leading nowhere. Well, I do get somewhere but it's not the somewhere where I want to get.
At least Earnest Hemingway got that novel finished. He didn't abandon it and write a best-seller about Investing in Small Yarn Retailers or something.
While thinking about how to make money in itself is a totally natural and okay thing, for me it's something I'll call a trigger behavior (someone might already be calling it that, I don't know, but I came up with it myself, I swear).
Now I'm not at all talking about Trigger the Horse, who evidently made a lot of money himself. I'm talking about a trigger that shoots me off into a destructive pattern, the rampant-creativity-capitalistic-tinkering pattern where I spend my days reinventing the wheel. Not only that, but the same wheel, over and over and over again.
Something interesting about Trigger (not the behavior, the horse). According to Wikipedia, Trigger was originally named Golden Cloud (probably because he was a palomino and not a Tennessee Walking Horse like lots of people evidently think). Supposedly Roy Rogers renamed him for his quickness, both of mind and of body. So Roy Rogers was a little like Hemingway too; he wanted to get the words right.
Evidently the new personal branding (with no branding irons involved) worked out okay for Trigger. As Golden Cloud he led a fairly incognito life as the mount of Maid Marian, played by Olivia de Havilland in The Adventures of Robin Hood. But as Trigger, well he became so famous that when he died his hide was stretched over a plaster likeness and put in a museum because everybody wanted to see him.
I wonder how many tries it took Roy Rogers to come up with the perfect name.
Now I won't bore you with a recount of all the possible slogans I came up with for this blog (at least not today). I won't tell you how many times I changed the title tag (the little thing at the top of your screen right now that the search engines read first off and use to index each of your blog's pages), or how many times I wrote and rewrote my meta description, meta tags, and the little link I put in the footer of my blog to increase the number of links I have for that particular link text. I won't bore you with all that.
Oh no, not I.
I couldn't anyway, because I lost count.
I would like to say recognizing the pattern was all it took, and once that was done all I had to do was look it in the face and tell it to go away. But that's not how it happens, of course. So I went to seek the wisdom of one of my favorite pattern-busters, Havi Brooks.
I had read her post "Avoidance! Oh, and getting out of it" before, but it hadn't really sunk in. She mentioned a really insightful post by Emma at Post-Apocalyptic Publishing and how it typifies
"the patterns of struggle, pain and resistance that so often accompany - or even define - our relationship with the creative process."

Okay, that got my attention.
Let me get this straight. I'm avoiding the very thing I think I want the most in my life right now . . . validation as a creative person and success as a writer?
Yep. Sounds about right.
In Emma's post she has finished a draft of her novel, but comes up with excuses why she can't let anyone take a look at it and offer feedback.
"Today I realised that I was so afraid of feeling that [rejection] again that I stopped doing everything I could to be published. I withdrew. I didn't touch the book for weeks, I stopped even thinking about it. I got ill, I got distracted, then it came back to me, this drive to be published got stronger than the fear again. But instead of sending it out, I started to look at self-publishing."

So I recognized the trigger behavior, how I would start worrying about making money. Okay, got that. But what I hadn't recognized was what set the trigger in the first place.
Fear. Fear. Fear.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt got it right:
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Here Is Where It All Comes Together

You see, the blog slogan thing represents something much larger. It is a filter.
It is the filter I am putting out there to tell everyone in a nutshell, "This is me. I am encapsulated in this tiny sound bite."
"Hello, my name is Terry Heath and I approve of this message."

I'm really not afraid of being over-simplified. I'm not afraid a slogan will be too limiting. I already know I'm more complicated than that, so slogans don't bother me; in this day and age they are the way we think.
The problem isn't a fear I won't find the right words. I can find the right words, I'm actually pretty good at that.
But the problem is, can I say them?
Writing a slogan for my blog, putting keywords in my title tags, even committing to topics for my blog, says, "Hello. This is me. This is what I like, what I love, what I want to be."
So I put it out there, then I sit back and wonder, "Is it okay if I want to be that?"
And the thing is people might respond with a resounding, "No."
So I put something else out. And something else. And another thing. Then I wait to see which one everybody thinks is okay so I can say, "Yes that one is me, the one you approved. I was just kidding about all the other ones. Or I was confused, or you were confused; but those other versions of me are not really me. I'm the one you liked."

Monday, March 2, 2009

Geoffrey Chaucer: Dr. Seuss and Looney Tunes in the 14th Century

I'm posting this to honor the birthday of Theodor Geisel today. Otherwise, the world may never have considered Geoffrey Chaucer and Dr. Seuss in the same thought. But, oh!

Reading Chaucer for the first time could be compared to reading Dr. Suess; everything rhymes and many of the words sound made up. At first hearing, the sing-song iambic lines race by like Sam-I-Am’s famous green-egg treatise. But soon we find ourselves pondering the literary merits of farting and adultery, and we begin to wonder if Horton has heard a Who of another kind. Perhaps Chaucer’s ancient characters are as true to life as any modern creation, and perhaps there is some reason we find them interesting to study.
But is it only literary scholars and English majors who find parallels between the farting scene in Chaucer’s The Millers Tale and the comedy of Eddie Murphy or Jim Carey? Does everyone else view Chaucer as some old fart (forgive the wordplay) trying to sound “hip” by throwing in a few weak attempts at humor?
For some, the prologue to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales might bring back memories of the opening scene to any episode of the 70’s iconic The Love Boat, where each episode’s conflicts-of-the-week are introduced on their way to some-exotic-love-port before the first commercial break. But while an entire generation of baby boomers might face such a prologue with nostalgia and expectation, is it a universal appeal? Can Chaucer’s opening create anticipation in anyone unfamiliar with the faces of society in Medieval England?
The Canterbury Tales are no cruise to a South Seas rendezvous, nor are they a search for some Dr. Seussian Christmas secret. The Canterbury Tales involves a company of pilgrims on their way from Southwark (no, not South Park) to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, a popular travel destination of the time. But where The Love Boat drew caricatures of the 1970’s elite, The Canterbury Tales paints portraits of 14th Century common English life.
Chaucer is thought to have borrowed from The Decameron, a series of allegorical tales by Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio well known for their bawdiness. Chaucer's tales are connected by the literary device of a boxed or framed narrative. Like The Book of One Thousand and One Nights or Ovid’s Metamorphosis, a framing story serves as a convenient device to gather several otherwise unrelated tales into one volume. In Chaucer’s hands, the individual tales are usually boxed again within their own individual prologues. It’s the same handy device used by Looney Tunes to paste a bunch of existing cartoons into a full length movie, but has other benefits such as procatalepsis, the chance for characters within the story to comment on and react toward each others' tales.
However, the familiarity of the literary device or the use of bawdy humor does not detract from the value of The Canterbury Tales as a work of fiction. Chaucer may claim to be only a pilgrim himself, and therefore merely reporting what he has seen and heard, but Chaucer-the-pilgrim should not overshadow Chaucer-the-author. If they had been the true compilation of tales told by various travelers, The Canterbury Tales would have given interesting insight to the era; but since they are from the mind of one man, we might be able to assume there is some deeper, hidden commentary on his fellow man.
This talent for both storytelling and human insight is part of what removes Chaucer from merely the author of a group of funny old stories and has caused him to be called the father of English poetry. Theodor Geisel, as well as the rest of us, owe Mr. Chaucer a great debt.

Emapathy=Maturity in Zindel's "The Pigman"

In The Pigman , author Paul Zindel follows many expected tropes in young adult literature: coming of age, wild exploration, passion, etc. Ho...