Tuesday, October 25, 2016


post by Lynn

Waaay up in Antarctica, where winds can gust up to 100 mph, Emperor penguins have a unique way of staying warm: they huddle.

Hundreds of those guys and gals in their snazzy tuxedos get together in order to survive the 60-degrees-below-(Farenheit) temps. Deep in the huddle, the temperature can get up to a balmy 70 degrees F.

But here’s the great thing, in my opinion: the warm spot in the center is equally shared. 

Every penguin gets a turn in the middle, and each one spends time at the frosty perimeter. There’s no hierarchy, researchers say--no deal where an Alpha penguin sits cozy while his minion penguins freeze their tails off at the edge.

I’ve recently had the unique-to-me experience of being stopped cold in my writing tracks. Unable to write anything.  It happens, I know, or at least I’ve been told. But it’s never happened to me in such a complete way. 

And the heartwarming thing is that my writing buddies, family and friends have made like penguins—they have huddled around me and pushed me to the middle and shielded me from the cold. 

Soon, I’m sure, I’ll warm up enough to move outward and offer the toasty spot to one of them. I’ll take my turn and face the wind.

But for now, I’ll just soak up the heat and be grateful—so grateful—that I have all these warm bodies around me. 

I can only hope that you have a huddle too. Because the wind is going to blow, whether we want it to or not. On occasion the writing will freeze up. 

Thank you, all my penguin people, for being in my huddle. Couldn’t make it without you.

And for some comic relief (who couldn’t use THAT these days?) check out this video in which Benedict Cumberbatch is called to correct his odd pronunciation of the word “penguin.” (Move ahead to 3:28 for the bit about penguins.) 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Writing Prompt: Random Maps

by Susan

I like something both physical and random in writing prompts. This one has a little of both.

In the West, place is itself a character: one that appears to suffer from bipolar disorder, weather-wise. But anywhere you set your story, a good sense of place informs both characters and plot and allows the reader to immerse themselves in the story.

 In Writing Fiction Step by Step, Josip Novakovich (gesundheit) writes:

"No setting is to be underestimated ... What may seem to be a boring town, once you begin to analyze its history, its people and its stories, may become an amazing place."

So let's go on a blind date with a place and see what happens, shall we?

Maps place prompt

Start with a stack of road maps from different states. Everyone picks one randomly. Switch out if you get a place familiar to you. Open the maps and quickly pick a place. Go by instinct, not by reason. Don't think about it too much.

Now that you have your place, here are some options. Write about a character or from the perspective of a character:
  • Who lives there, loves it and can't imagine living anywhere else.
  • Who lives there, hates it, and can't imagine why they stay.
  • Whose car broke down there.
  • Who always dreamed of living there and finally moved there.
  • Who grew up there and is coming back to visit friends or family after a long time away.
  • Who is seeing this place for the first time.
Use the map for clues -- how big is it? What places is it near? Often, road maps given out for free will have more information -- are there any festivals listed for that place? Is there a population given?  Now fill in the blanks. What is Main Street like? The neighborhoods? What kind of industry (or lack of) is dominant.

Give it about 15-20 minutes on this one and see what happens!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016


Post by Lynn

A fat, black fly, slowed by cool weather, bangs against the window pane in my writing room. He can see where he wants to go—to the still-green grass outside—but he can’t reach it the way he thinks he ought to be able to reach it. He’s centimeters away from freedom, but he can’t get there.

I can relate.

In my writing, I often see the story, just right there, through the mist of my imagination. And yet I bang against the words on the page, hit delete, bang again and again.

In order to break through to the lushness I envision, I’m finding out I have to redirect. Unlike the unfortunate fly, I can do that. I can make choices, experiment and not just bang away until I die. Phew! 

My favorite tool in this case is to turn another direction and let time pass.

I step away from that particular piece of writing and redirect my energy to something that proves to be more permeable in the moment.

I leave my computer and write by hand, something that research has shown causes you to access different parts of your brain.

If I can’t dredge up enough dialogue to flesh out the scene I’m working on, I pivot and go where the energy is flowing—maybe to a lyric essay, because the Muse has been handing me some imagery in my sleep.

Or sometimes I have to keep studying, reading, responding to writing prompts until my abilities move up to the level of the story and I learn the exact thing I need in order to write the next words.

My redirection is rewarded when the window to the world I was banging away at opens just enough to let me slip through.

“Go with the flow” sounds New Agey, and some would say I’m stalling, but it’s my creative process and I’m sticking to it. I end up less frustrated and more productive in the long run.

What about your writing process? Do you redirect, go straight for it, or something else?

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Avoiding "Writing by Committee"

by Susan

One of my favorite stories from my old set of The Junior Classics was an Aesop's fable of the man and his son taking a donkey to market.

First, they walk alongside the animal, only to be berated by a passerby for not riding. The son gets on the donkey, only to hear a complaint about lazy, disrespectful youth. They switch, until someone remarks how cruel the father is to his son. They both mount the donkey and are lambasted for overworking the poor beast. In frustration, they fell a tree, cut a pole, tie the donkey's legs to it and carry the trussed animal with the pole over their shoulders. As they are crossing a bridge, the donkey kicks one leg loose making the son drop his end of the pole. In the struggle, the donkey falls off the bridge and drowns.

The moral: Please all and you will please none.

Photo courtesy of Aaron Brown on Flickr, made
available under an Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 license
One of the pitfalls of writing critique groups is "writing by committee." A member, eager to do everything "right," eager to please, seems compelled to make every single change recommended by others. They try to please everyone. In the process, they lose their distinct voice and the story loses vibrancy.

Lord Save me from Critique Groups is Duffy Brown's take on it over on Patricia Stoltey's old blog. She believes critiques do nothing but tear down a story, resulting in prose by committee. She prefers brainstorming -- mapping out the basics and asking your compatriots to think of ideas to fill in how the story could go. With a steady supply of cookies, of course.

It's an interesting concept, and I'm glad it works for her, but I can't say the idea appeals to me. The brainstorming she suggests sounds more like story by committee to me than a good critique does. I don't want my writing group to suggest story ideas; I want them to help me fix what could be done better. I need them to point out the things I do not see because I'm too invested in the writing.

I think of critiques as a way to "pull the weeds" and let my story bloom. Maybe, though, I've been in better critique groups. The best ones I've been in have operated on one simple principle:

 Your fellow writers are merely readers.

They are not editors. They are not instructors. They are readers. You will not please every reader. Their suggestions are not commands. They might have more technical knowledge on how things might be improved than the average reader, but they are still readers. They may offer a way to fix it that you hadn't considered. But it is still the writer's job to evaluate when to accept or reject a suggestion. No matter how forcefully the point might be argued, they are STILL only suggestions. The writer owns the story.

As readers, they may catch things that seemed clear to you, but did not come through in the actual words you put on the page. My general rule of thumb is to seriously consider revising if several find a spot that makes them say, "Huh?"

I often came back from critique sessions with a pile of great notes and ideas. My next step is to sift through and evaluate what fits and what does not. I am inspired, not torn down. My group has helped me clear the clutter and let my voice, not theirs, come through more clearly. I am grateful for it.

So which do you like better -- brainstorms or critiques? Please leave your thoughts in the comments!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016


post by Lynn

I confess. I eavesdrop – anywhere and everywhere.

I will catch a voice, a murmur, any sign that an exchange is taking place. I tune in. Then I skulk away and write it all down in a small notebook.

Here’s a sampling of the results:

At a cafĂ© in Denver –

“I had a cousin who shot himself in the head just minutes before he was going to sign the papers to make him a partner in his father’s business. What does that tell you?” 

At the airport –

“My grandma never got a social security check. She never earned a salary. When she was old, her only money came from two houses she rented out. Can’t tell you how many times some scumbag stiffed her on the rent and left a house trashed. And that being her only income.” 

On a bench –

“My hearing aid doesn’t work worth a damn. You can say it twice if you want, don’t make a difference.” 

Next booth over at the diner –

“Yep, come sheep shearing time, he asked me, ‘You want my best crew, or the one that speaks English?’ Course I told him I wanted his best crew and by God, those Mexicans work hard for the money, ya gotta give ‘em that.” 

In line at the post office –

“How’s your boy doin’, Jim?” followed by “Still in the marines, for now… not checkin’ them doors in Fallujah anymore though, thank God.” 

Shameless, aren’t I?

 I suggest you try out my guilty habit, if you haven’t already. Writers can learn by listening in.

I mean, how do people really talk to each other? What about the silences, the non-answers? Do they answer every question? Do they interrupt, leave sentences half-finished?

All that and more.

Eavesdropping helps you develop an ear for dialogue, and writing it down gives you practice in putting the sounds onto the page as truthfully as possible.

And stories? Try and tell me there are no stories in the snippets of conversation I’ve shared with you.

So go ahead, listen in.

Just let me know if you’re in the booth next to mine, okay?

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


‘Cause if you cannot make yourself a good noise 
tell me what you're doing here? 
 - John Gorka 

Lynn here:

Chris Ellsworth, in his many-chaptered blog/story Slash/20, introduced me to a new term: sacking out.

It’s an old timer’s term for desensitizing a horse, a way to get him so he doesn't spook so easily at strange things.

First you tie the horse to a stout post and then you wave a feed sack at him until he quits spooking at it.

Since I pretty much equate everything to writing, I asked myself, “How do I sack myself out as a writer?”

One way, I realized, is to participate in open mics. By sharing a short piece of writing out loud in front of an audience, I desensitize myself so I don't spook at the sound of my own words.

Then I wondered what other writers have to say on the subject, so I asked a few. Their contributions are below.

Chime in, if you are so inclined, in the comments section and share your thoughts on Open Mics.

See you at the next open mic reading 

By Michael Shay 

Some beginning writers would rather get a root canal than read their work in public. They may lack confidence in their work or may just be “mic” shy. I’ve seen many newbies sign up for readings, specifically those held each June at the Wyoming Writers, Inc., conference. “I’ve never read in public before,” newcomers may say, knees quaking, fear dripping from their eyes. Still, they get up and read their own work, defying shyness for the first time. Their voices may quaver. They may mumble their words or speak too fast. But at the end of five minutes, they can resume their seats, confident that they will never again be a rookie at an open mic reading.

It’s an appreciative crowd. They have been to the microphone and survived. We’ve heard from published writers with numerous books. We’ve heard from unpublished teen writers. We’ve heard from Wyoming Poets Laureate such as Rose Hill, Echo Klaproth and Pat Frolander. We’ve heard from me, the guy who often serves as emcee. At long last, I now am a public speaker.

That wasn’t always so.

I was 39 before I dared read in front of an audience. I was in graduate school, studying creative writing. Reading your work aloud was part of the program. My first efforts were not recorded for posterity. I mumbled my work into a microphone and quickly sat. Later, I upped the volume but read so fast that only New Yorkers could have understood.

“Slow down and enunciate,” my profs told me.

I did. I watched experienced writers, especially poets. Words are so crucial to poets. I remember watching Chicago’s Gwendolyn Brooks read her famous poem, “We Real Cool:

We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk Late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Die soon. 

Brooks pronounced each syllable and moved deliberately from one word to the next. It’s a short poem, only 24 words. But she took her time, emphasized the punctuation with short pauses. Those final three words hit me like a punch to the gut.

The idea is the same for prose writers. Take your time, and don’t worry about finishing the story or chapter. Pronounce the words. Vary your cadence. Pause when needed. It’s OK to stop for a couple of beats if the audience laughs. When actor Gene Wilder died recently, tributes talked about his ability to use pauses to milk audience laughs. Words are important but silence can be your friend.

Open Mic Can Inspire Students

By Cindy Jackelen 

As a teacher, I continually strive to inspire students to write for authentic purposes. Imagine, if as adults, all of our writing was done for teachers who gave us feedback with a red pen with a grade at the top of the paper. Not a very inspiring thought, is it? However, teachers are charged with teaching students to write narratives, arguments and informational text so they are prepared for college and careers. But adult writers know writing does not always fit those neat categories outlined in Wyoming State Standards. Creative teachers find ways to inspire our youth to write creatively in many ways and develop their voices as writers.

Open Mic gives students a genuine audience to have their voices heard, regardless of the genre being written.  In primary school, many teachers provide an “author’s chair” for students to share their writing. This early version of open mic builds a classroom community of writers who attentively listen and celebrate the piece with the author.

In upper grades, teachers use Open Mic in a variety of ways to encourage students to write beyond the classroom. I’ve hosted lunchtime poetry club open mics, during which students share deeply personal struggles through poetry. A community of writers allows them to test their emerging voices in a safe setting.

In high school, many teachers collaborate with public libraries or local coffee shops to host poetry slams, a competition using elimination rounds for the reading or performance of poetry. Next year’s National Poetry Slam competition (http://poetryslam.com/) will be held in Denver, CO August 7-12, 2017. This is a great opportunity for Wyoming students and teachers.

One of my fondest recollections as a teacher is students staying after school to orally rehearse their writing for a coffee house open mic night. Proud parents and other audience members were genuinely delighted to hear the voices of emerging student writers.

Head Held High

By Darrah Perez 

Head held high, I look out into my new audience, I always get nervous in front of a new crowd. My voice a little shaky, but knowing it must be heard, slowly reciting every word.

Every time, I see the words open mic--my heart flutters, knowing an opportune door has just opened to share with an audience; my voice, my message, my world.

Being afraid, and to have fear is normal in the life of a writer. Success can be a scary thing, but, it shouldn't be. The ripples and tides that get us to sit on top of the world to peer down upon the dream: the dream of being who we really are; we are meant to be writers and poets and artists.

So you see, to take advantage of every opportunity, to perform in every open mic, and to share the message within our hearts, is indeed, exactly what we are meant to do. Open mics are considered, "blessings in disguise."

Acting Out at Open Mic Sessions

By Abbie Taylor

I was born in New York City to want-to-be actors who realized the importance of having a day job in order to support a child. That didn’t stop them from acting, though. We moved from New York to Colorado to Arizona and finally to Wyoming, and in just about every town, my parents became involved in local community theater.

As a child, fascinated, I watched my parents rehearse. Alone in my room, I acted out my own scenes. In Tucson when I was eight, I got my first role, a small one, in the local theater guild’s production of Lysistrata by Aristophanes. Despite my limited vision, I was able to acquire minor roles in high school and college plays. I was also active in the speech team where I performed interpretations of drama and poetry for competitions and won a few awards.

Therefore, when I attended my first Wyoming Writers conference over ten years ago, I was not daunted by the prospect of two open mic sessions. I wouldn’t win any awards for my performance, but it would be a great way to share my work.

The first night, I read an essay about how I thought my parents’ fights were plays they were rehearsing. After the first few paragraphs, the audience’s laughter nearly knocked me flat on my back. I’d spent months polishing the piece and reading it for practice and forgotten how funny it was. I managed to get through the rest of my performance and keep a straight face, and many people afterward told me how much they enjoyed it.

Since then, I’ve usually been one of the first to sign up for open mic sessions at workshops and other events. Because I love to sing and have been told I’m good at that, I enjoy sharing poems I’ve written that incorporate song lyrics and sing the lyrics, as I read the poems. You can hear an example at https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/15213189/when%20star.mp3.mp3 . This past summer, fellow writer Christine Valentine and I brought down the house in Riverton during this years’ Wyoming Writers conference with our rendition of Christine’s poem, “Driven Insane by Mitzi Gaynor,” which uses lyrics from South Pacific and Brigadoon. Christine has written another poem she thinks we can do together so maybe by next summer if not sooner…

Instead of being on a stage under bright lights strutting someone else’s stuff, I’m in front of a lectern in a meeting room, sharing my own work, promoting my books. My latest, a memoir, My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds, is now available from Createspace, Amazon, and Smashwords. To learn more and order from these sources, go to http://www.abbiejohnsontaylor.com/memoir.htm.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Making Words Speak in a Different Language

Susan chimes in: Ever wonder what goes into translating a work of writing  from one language to another? When we looked at the Sept. 22-23 Casper College  and ARTCORE Literary Conference offerings, we saw that Julia Whyde, an instructor at the college, is doing a session on that very topic. In another session, she'll share the Chinese “mountains and rivers” poetic tradition. Julia was kind enough to guest post for us to share some of the issues she faces in translation.

by Julia Whyde

Julia Whyde
Umberto Eco, the great semiotician, translator, medievalist, and writer who recently passed away, insisted that translating should introduce readers to multiple possible “worlds” (See his Experiences in Translation for more information). With Eco’s ideal in mind, literary translation, for me, is a process that begins by getting myself (language habits and assumptions, my cultural associations) out of the way long enough to enter into the original text. I have yet to become completely proficient at this kind of simultaneous immersion and “letting go,” but translation for me begins in vulnerability – entering into an uncomfortable space where the “I” with its world view is held in abeyance long enough to encounter another world.

I am not a cipher or medium, however. At some point, I have to pull myself back into my language, and the associations and interpretations of the world inherent in language, and think about what will work for an English language reader (which, of course, is not a pure descriptor; there are many versions of “English language reader” and these also require their own levels of translation!).

Prioritizing is important here: I try to think about which aspects of the text I want to bring to life. When I translate by myself, I usually work purely in academic writing, which is easier, I think, since I can read closely, provide definitions, and then write on for pages at a time – discussing nuances, ambiguities and complications to an audience already familiar with theory or the original text. This type of translation rarely works well outside of academic writing. When translating for a more general audience, I work first with the authors or experts in the language and culture (usually native speakers). I spend much of my time listening, allowing the native speakers to do the translation heavy lifting work and provide information on language, cultural, and historical cues. This includes the jokes, puns, and intentional ambiguities that often differentiate literature from technical writing.

When I work on a team, I often ask to what extent the native speaker/writer wants the text to remain “distant:” maintaining names, measurements, et al. in the original language and using footnotes to explain names, events, or unique structural elements. The alternative is to make the text as close to the “target language” as possible. Such a process attempts, to varying degrees, to find names, cultural allusions, or jokes in the target language’s cultural and language-background that would, hopefully, evoke the same reader reaction as the original in the original language. This collaborative process takes longer, but I generally feel as though the translations are more fluid and engaging as literature.

Ultimately, however, I am always aware of the “translator/traitor” (traduttore, traditore) conflict; I have to choose those elements that I feel might most evoke the original to a reading audience, and this often comes at the cost of other aspects in the text.


Julia Whyde grew up in Wyoming. She holds a BA in Spanish from the College of St. Catherine  and an MA in Comparative Literature from Indiana University, Bloomington. She is currently ABD (all but dissertation) in Comparative Literature and, when not teaching at Casper College, parenting, and enjoying Wyoming's great public lands, spends time revising her PhD dissertation. See her at the Casper College and ARTCORE Literary Conference Sept. 22-23.