Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Making Time for Things That Matter

by Susan

Life ganged up on me this year. I've just come off a 6-month experiment in total lack of self-care: eating poorly, not exercising, sleep all catawampus. 

I highly recommend NOT trying this at home.

It was not just a question of not enough hours in the day; it was a question of not having enough energy in the hours. I have a tendency to overdo it. I want to accomplish everything and become frustrated with myself for my own weakness. I'd much rather not have to need sleep and real food so much.

But it's not weakness to need rest and downtime and play. Basic human maintenance matters, and it takes time. I might have "KEEP CALM, EAT A @$%$ CARROT AND WRITE ON," on my wall, but at some point I'm going to have to take five minutes to peel said carrot.

I once had someone tell me that I was like a pitcher. I could only pour water out for so long before I needed refilling. Life is returning to normalcy, and I'm finally refilling. I'd encourage all of you to keep an eye on your own water level.

With that, I'm signing off with a few things to watch and read on the subject:

TED Talks
I have little patience with videos online, but I'll watch a good TED Talk. They're usually informative and entertaining.

Writing and Wellness
Then there's the Writing and Wellness blog, where you can hear from actual writers on how they practice self-care. Way too much yoga suggested for me (I hate yoga), but many valuable insights.

Butt in chair time should not hurt. Take that from someone who's experienced more than her share of neck and back pain from poorly adjusted chairs and desks. Invest in a setup that doesn't make you hurt. Take the time to adjust everything properly. Try these resources for the how-to:

Take care of yourselves. The world needs your stories. Your stories need you.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


post by Lynn

It must have been a cozy winter underground, because this spring our small acreage east of Cheyenne has been abuzz with rodent activity. Every time I step outside, scurrying bodies crisscross the grass and disappear into the nearest hole.

It’s been a point of discussion between my husband and me as to what these creatures are.

Some are tawny and round. Others are leaner with mottled stripes.

“Ground squirrels,” Mike said. “And gophers.”

“But which is which?” I asked. “And what about the round ones with stripes?”

Mike just shrugged.

So I have dubbed them all “squophers” and moved on.

Squopher is a combination of “squirrel” and “gopher” and besides allowing me to avoid conducting research to answer my rodent-identity question (lazy, I know), the coining of the term puts me in the ranks of those who mesh parts of two words to make a third one.

The third word is known as a “blended” word, or portmanteau, (from the French, bien sûr).

Some people are opposed to these newly-coined words, calling them “frankenwords.” I cry foul because I don’t think it’s fair to use a portmanteau to vilify a portmanteau! Do you?

At any rate, people have been mashing words together for a long time, whenever the two words are cumbersome, or don’t quite work in tandem. 

Some examples:

smog                  smoke + fog

brunch               breakfast + lunch

motorcade         motor + cavalcade

The arrival of the internet (itself a portmanteau of "international" + "network") has filled our vocabularies with blended words like blog (web + log), shareware (share + software) and pixel (picture + element).

NOTE: Don’t confuse portmanteau with compound words.

“Starfish” is a compound word, putting “star” and “fish” together, while “motel” is a portmanteau of “motor” and “hotel.”


Just ask Lewis Carroll, whose poem Jabberwocky is chock full of them. In fact, “chortle” (snort and chuckle) is a portmanteau from this poem that has entered our vocabulary and dictionaries.

I think it’s fun to try to figure out which two words Mr. Carroll combined on some of his portmanteau.
One, two! One, two! And through and through
      The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
      He went galumphing back.
-          Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll
Do you think “galumphing” is a joining of “galloping” and “harrumphing”? That’s my best guess.

Every day someone is portmanteau-ing and the English language is all the richer for it, in my opinion.

The Urban Dictionary has lots of blended words that have not yet entered traditional dictionaries, such as:

Cellfish (n): an individual who continues talking on their cell phone so as to be rude or inconsiderate of other people

Chairdrobe (n): piling clothes on a chair in place of a closet or dresser; see also floordrobe.

What fun!


So, I guess what I’m offering this fine June day is this morsel of advice: be playful with language.

Words, after all, are the clay we use to create our art. We should use them wisely, judiciously and seriously (and with a lot less adverbial excess than that!), to be sure.

But once in a while we should simply muck around with words.

Listen to Carl Jung, if you don't believe me, who said, “The creative mind plays with the object it loves.”

How about...

  • Having a character in your story use a portmanteau to describe her conflicted feelings about a lover?
  • Writing an op-ed piece that extols or deprecates the use of portmanteau?
  • Stealing a portmanteau from Jabberwocky to use in your writing just for the fun of seeing if anyone gets the allusion?
  • Penning a poem that makes liberal use of portmanteau derived from the combination of natural elements?

And when you're done with all that, maybe you could come over and do something about all these squophers in my yard. Please?


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Sex, Plots, Poetry and Belly Flops

Otherwise known as post-conference thoughts

by Susan

Another Wyoming Writers conference down, and Lynn and I thought we'd share some of the things we'd learned from the sessions. I'll let Lynn get to the poetry later. For now, let's get between the sheets.

Writing sex scenes
Laura Pritchett reminded us that to ignore sex in our writing is to ignore a common and significant human experience. While it shouldn't be included just for the sake of sex, it should be there when needed to illustrate what is going on between characters. Sex scenes, like every scene in a story, should push characters farther along, connect to their larger concerns and involve their needs and histories. Let sex be complicated. There's usually more than one emotion going on.

That said, there are a lot of ways to write sex scenes badly. Laura took us on a delightful... er... romp through the pitfalls of writing sex scenes with Steve Almond's 12-step program. Among the things to beware: step-by-step how-tos, clinical terms for genitals, euphemisms and (oh, dear) food analogies. Nipples look like nipples, folks, not anything else.

Laura's exercises asked us to push our boundaries. One was to try writing a scene where one person is hired for the sex or some other situation out of our normal experience. One started, "I have never told anyone ___________." Another was to write the same sex scene first discreetly, then explicitly.

Writing book-length fiction
These were the things Laura said she'd wished she knew about writing a novel before she wrote her first one. There is a structure to writing a book-length work. The character should be at the point of no return at the end of Act I, and a decision needs to be made there. In Act II, the character has to face the implications of the decision made at the end of Act I. Keep it complicated! At this point, the reader is ahead of the character. In Act III, order is restored. 

Each scene = a unit of drama. When looking at scenes, ask:
  • Character - do we learn something new?
  • Dialogue - does it serve a purpose?
  • Narrative description - are all senses present?
  • Voice - consistent?
  • Intention - does the scene move the plot forward?
  • Theme - does the scene advance or illuminate the theme?
I came away with some great ideas for my embryonic novel and added two titles to my to-read list: The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker and Aristotle's Poetics.

Finally: a belly flop
You knew I'd get to it eventually, right? After a day of encouraging writers to be brave and put their story openings in for the paddle panel, I listened to mine read. Not one editor on the panel would have kept reading. The editors were kind and fair, and I would not argue with a single point they made, but my dang ego wanted the world to hang on every word of my prose. I have work to do. Like a belly flop, it stung a little bit but at least it got me in the water. Can't learn to swim unless I do.

More questions than answers

Lynn chimes in...

After the Wyoming Writers, Inc. conference my husband and I packed up and headed to Vedauwoo campground for a few days. I wandered through aspen groves and hopped from one lichen-painted boulder to another while I processed everything I had heard at the conference.

It’s funny how certain things just seep in and take hold. Of the hundreds of bits of information I received during the conference, this is what really sunk in for me:

The Three Layers 

I attended Aaron Abeyta’s workshop, The Outer, the Inner and the True Poem.

Aaron said that he was really talking about all writing, not just poetry. He drew a rainbow-looking diagram for us on the rickety whiteboard.  The top arc, he said, represented the outer story—basically the topic you want to write about.

The middle arc is the inner story, or the revelation of the muse. It is found by asking, “Where’s this poem coming from?” or “Who is the mother/father of this poem?” The muse of most poems/stories, Aaron said, is love, fear, sadness, joy, anger or something along those lines.

The inner arc is the revelation of the self. This is where the author of the story exposes something of his own self, his human experience.

Aaron said that his early poetry left out the inner arc, and focused on the other two. It was too risky to go down to that inner arc, he said. It required too much exposure. But he learned, finally, that his poetry would be complete only if he allowed himself to be vulnerable.

Ted Kooser’s poem Mother provided an example:
The outer arc, or topic, was Kooser’s own mother;
The middle arc or muse was love tinged with sadness;
The inner arc or revelation of the self was Kooser’s recognition that his ability to be a poet stems from his mother because she taught him how to observe. He is revealing a bit of himself by sharing this understanding, and because we are human we absorb that understanding too.

 … I thank you for that.
Were it not for the way you taught me to look
at the world, to see life at play in everything,
I would have to be lonely forever.

 -- From Mother by Ted Kooser

In my own mind the arc morphed into an egg: the shell, the egg white and the yolk. (my mind does weird things like that.)

An egg, or a story, is not complete without all three parts. Without the yolk, the fledgling will not form and grow and fly.

So now I am more mindful of asking:

“Who is the mother or father of this story? Which muse is at play here?”
“What am I revealing of myself? Or am I hiding?”

I think this concept will have me pondering for a long time.

 The Three Elements 

Yeah, the number 3 seems to be coming up a lot.

During the paddle panel (an event where anonymous story openings were read aloud and then critiqued by the author & editor panel) I heard something that velcroed to my brain.

Patrick Thomas of Milkweed Editions mentioned something that he tells his interns as they weed through the piles of submissions that arrive at their office every day. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something like this:
I tell them to look for three things: 
1) Elegance of writing; 
2) Elegance of thought; 
3) A voice that hasn’t been heard from often. 
It was number 2 that stayed with me, and rattled around in my head for a few days.

I could have guessed numbers 1 and 3, but “elegance of thought”? That intrigued me!

What I recognize is that you can have elegant writing and a fresh voice, but you still have to have a lot to say: a topic, a point of view, a belief, a story. It seems obvious, but I’ve found myself mulling this over.

It pushes me to ask myself if I am showing “elegance of thought” in my writing. Or am I fluffing the words to look pretty without really coming out and saying something substantial? Have I thought (and written) enough on the topic to even know what I think? And am I standing by my thoughts, beliefs, point of view or am I mumbling, hedging, and watering down my words?

All good questions.

As you can see, I have come away from the 2015 Wyoming Writers, Inc. conference with more questions than answers. In my mind, that’s a sign that I really learned something.

Thanks to the Wyoming Writers, Inc. board, volunteers, presenters, Susan Mark (the Wearer of All Hats conference coordinator) and everyone involved in the conference for making it happen.

If you didn’t make it to the conference this year, plan to attend next year—in Riverton.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Seasons of Words (or Words By The Season)

Guest post by Joannah Merriman 

Does this title strike a chord or create an image for any of you?

A commitment to writing runs through my bloodstream, encircling my heart, racing to my brain, and settling in all over my body. But as much as I hate to admit it, my actual writing time and dedication does swing with the seasons.

For nearly thirty years, I’ve been teaching reflective writing workshops, a course based on Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, and various classes to help students write “Memory Scraps,” a form near and dear to my heart.

My writing encouragement to my students is always that it doesn’t matter how busy we are, we can manage ten minutes of writing, even if it is “just” a journal scribble from a prompt like “What’s going on?”

Though autumn is my favorite season, there is something about the approaching summer months that excites my writing mind. After the frantic busyness of winter semester, the approach of June paints images of warm solitude and deepened writing opportunities.

My long-time partner, Neil, born and raised on the Western Slope, has a rustic cabin near Ouray, nestled in the San Juan Mountains, called the Switzerland of the Rockies. Just thinking about the cabin allows me to breathe in a recognizably special peace and quiet before I even begin to pack up my belongings for our ritual visit in June.

I look forward to spending most of a month at the cabin, and before other travels took me away from Colorado in August and September, Neil and I tried to squeeze in one more week here in the early autumn, but not lately.

For seventeen years, we had the sweet companionship of one, then two, then four Golden Retrievers, who joyously romped down the path to the back ditch and steep hillsides, fetched sticks in Lake Lenore, and lounged on the porch, drying out after their wet adventures.

photo by Joannah Merriman
But one by one, they, like many Goldens, died of cancer. Barrett in 2007, Chaucer in 2008, Luna in 2012, and finally Marley, surviving them all and avoiding cancer completely, succumbed to old age in October 2014.

So our packing task is lessened this year, we have the entire back seat for our various junk, including laptop and printer, rather than for doggies, and we only have to make pit stops for our own bladders (the dogs had much more stamina in that arena) and the gas fill-ups.

But there is a huge hole where those furry bodies used to be, in the car, at the cabin and in my heart. This year I half-hear a panting Golden behind me, and when we arrived two nights ago, I found a packet of rawhide doggie chews in the cupboard, and a stand of dog dishes in the corner near the window. We packed Marley’s ashes, some of them at least, so we can hike up to the old mine bunkhouse, now collapsed, and sprinkle ashes around one of the dogs’ favorite hiking places.

Perhaps I can write doggie stories while I’m here this year, in tribute.

By the time you all read this, we will be settled in at the cabin for the rest of the month. I will sleep deeply, inhaling the scent of the pine trees that surround our little haven. I will settle in to the ritual I have created over the past quarter century.

In the morning, after I get coffee or tea or ice water, I take my journal or laptop and claim squatters’ rights on the split rail log porch, with a clear view of the San Juans. The hummingbirds dive and swoop, fighting over every drop of sweet water housed in the feeders hanging above the deck rail. Who could imagine how aggressive these little beauties are? On occasion, they come within a few inches of my eyes, but expertly bank away from me, veering back to a more desirable target, while all manner of winged creatures fly in the air space between the high trees and the mountains beyond our valley.

On my sling chair, I write. And write. And take a reading break, a hiking break, bring snacks out to our tiny plastic deck tables, and then write again. No land lines, no wifi, no cable TV to interrupt the quiet I long for throughout the winter.

Yes, I cheat with my iPhone for some e-mails, but it is not a very efficient way to do business. Even sending this to you requires that I drive down to the actual town of Ouray, have breakfast or coffee at a cowboy restaurant and use their free wifi.

That’s fine with me. The weather this week is strange and cold and wet, as it has been in many places across the country. More snow coats the tops of Whitehouse Peak and Mount Hayden than I’ve ever before seen in June. Not dirty old snow. Fresh, pristine white, like mountain snowcones. So I build a fire in the old fireplace, watch the San Juans from the picture window nearly the size of the south cabin wall. Wrap myself in another sweater, hoping for blue skies soon.

Writing is writing, no matter where I am, though the porch is best for my June words. But “the sun will come out tomorrow” according to the weather app on my iPhone. And surely it will be sunny sometime during the next four weeks here.

photo by Joannah Merriman
In the meantime, I will begin a writing challenge by Abigail Thomas (Thinking About Memoir, Three Dog Life, Snapshots, Two Pages and others):

Write about the events of any ten-year period in your life. Use only three-word sentences. 

 "Arriving at cabin.” 
“Writing in sunshine” 
“Need fire warmth” 
“No more dogs”

This is hard. I find myself wishing for a teeny bit longer parameter. Perhaps five words. But three-word sentences will come.

In July, I will point my car east, loaded in similar fashion, headed for a New England retreat, another solitary space with acreage, gentler mountain views, and an antique stone home I’ve owned for nearly 30 years in Vermont.

And for the autumn? Well, for the second time I will travel to Spain, carrying my backpack and a MacAir, on the Camino de Santiago.

In 2013, I wrote my way across the Camino Frances path to Santiago de Compostela. This year I am moving north, to walk the Camino del Norte . . . same destination, but along the northern coast of Spain.

Perhaps as winter approaches, I can refrain from getting bogged down in whatever it is that makes the writing sporadic, makes me rather undedicated to my passion. We’ll see.

In the meantime, I’ll try to live Ram Dass’ words . . .

Be. Here. Now. 
And mine . . . Write. Write. Write.

Joannah L. Merriman, M.A., is a writer, psychotherapist, and community educator. She also takes women to Italy and to France. She lives in Fort Collins with her partner Neil Petrie, two cats and sadly, no dogs for now.

You can follow her Camino journey on www.woodswomanwalking.com and see some of her past travel writing at www.woodswomanabroad.com.

Lynn chimes in...

About nine years ago I finally decided to create the space in my life to pursue creative writing. I wandered the internet in search of writing inspiration and stumbled onto one of Joannah's classes.

The "Journal to the Self" class pressed me through the portals of creative writing and to this day I write "Morning Pages" first thing after waking (Joannah shared Julia Cameron's kind of journal-writing with us) and do "topic du jour"--another technique courtesy of Ms. Merriman. 

Thanks, Joannah, for showing me how to start each day of my writing life: pen on paper, heart in hand. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Art Elser on Poetic Forms: Haiku, Haibun, Tanka

Art Elser lives and writes in Colorado. On his blog, Art's Meanderings, he recently explored the poetic forms of haiku, haibun and tanka. He has graciously agreed to let us pull excerpts from his posts to share with Writing Wyoming readers. Since these are only excerpts, we encourage you to click through to read the full posts. They're well worth it. You may also want to see the chapbook ordering information at the end of this post for more of his work.

Writing Haiku

Haiku is an old poetic form that developed in Japan from both Japanese and Chinese poetic traditions. It is popular perhaps because it is short and most people feel they can write a three-line seventeen-syllable poem. Here's one I wrote a few years ago about the funeral of a classmate and friend.

taps from a bugle
tears in the eyes of family
crow flaps slowly past

Seventeen syllables for the haiku came into English because the Japanese haiku has seventeen sound units in it. But English syllables and Japanese sound units are nothing alike. In her book Writing and Enjoying Haiku, Jane Reichhold suggests that a closer approximation in English would be around twelve syllables. Another alternative that haiku books often suggest is that we write three lines with the first and third lines shorter and the middle line long.

The haiku traditionally has its basis in the observation and reporting of something from nature, although even that requirement relaxes in modern haiku. Haiku are usually written about some small moment, often called a haiku moment, when something seen or heard or sensed triggers a strong emotion like joy or love or fear or sadness or even a memory that evokes strong emotion. The poet captures that image in the haiku.

Extending the Haiku into Haibun

Although a haiku is often about what we call a "haiku moment," one of those moments of joy when one sees something of beauty, a sudden sunrise or sunset caught at the kitchen window, the first crocus seen on a morning walk, the song of a finch high in a tree, the haiku often seems to need some explaining. As Desi used to say to Lucy, "You got some splainin' to do."

Haiku poets have often found a haiku doesn't stand alone very well without some prose suggesting its context. Here's a haibun I wrote one afternoon this winter by something I saw as I sat looking out the window into my back yard. I thought that the haiku alone was ok, but felt some explanation for the reader might be helpful. Usually the prose that precedes a haiku is more poetic than normal narrative prose.

A Winter Haibun

I sit in the fading, late afternoon light coming through the family room windows, looking out at a winter-blue sky. The sun has moved beyond trees to the south to reflect off snow, bathing the back yard in brilliance. Light and warmth will fade quickly, though, as the sun settles behind the Front Range and night creeps in from the east.

            three shadows race
            up and over the brick wall
            roosting crows

So! What's a Tanka?

We've discussed the haiku, then the haibun—haiku with prose added to set the stage or context—so now let's look at the tanka. If we use the 5-7-5 haiku as a starting point, think of the tanka's structure as 5-7-5-7-7, a haiku with two added long lines. If you are using the short line, long line, short line technique for your haiku, just add two lines about as long as the long line of the haiku.

There is often a switch in tone or subject in the final two lines of the tanka. Often the middle line of the tanka can be read as the first line of a stand alone poem consisting of the last line of the haiku plus the two longer added lines. Sort of an oddly shaped haiku. When I write a tanka, I often see if I can read a tanka and see two haiku in it. You can read just the haiku and feel complete, and you can read just the middle line of the tanka as the first line of another haiku that uses the final three lines. Those feel best to me.

Toward the end of her life, my mother seem to waste away in a nursing home. It pained me to visit her because she often called me by one of my cousin's names and had lost touch with the past. One question she often asked during the last five years of her life was, "Where's your father? I haven't seen him in years." I'd carefully explain, as my did sister, that he'd died a dozen years before. Other times she'd say, "I want to die so I can be with your father."

Thinking back on those days, several years after her death, I remembered the fear on her face as she tried to remember. She was in her 90s then. She died at 95, finally to be at peace. Here's a tanka I wrote about that.

she lies in the dark
alone in the old age home
mind filling with fear
she knows her husband is dead
but cannot remember it

So, if you write a haiku and find that all you want to say won't fit in those three lines, see if you can add two more long lines and write a tanka instead. It's a fun exercise when the haiku seems to be not quite enough.

The Healing Journey - morning haiku to repair hearts
Art and Chris Valentine have co-written a haiku chapbook, The Healing Journey - morning haiku to repair hearts. When Chris's husband died in 2010, Art supported her with kind words and regular emails. She began writing a haiku each day, sometimes about her grief, but often of the landscape. When Art had a massive heart attack in 2011, to help him recover, Chris invited him to join her in writing a haiku every day and exchanging them by email. This chapbook grew out of that time. To order, send $10 (includes postage) to either Art Elser, 1730 Locust St., Denver CO 80220 or Chris Valentine, PO Box 547, Birney MT 59012.

Art Elser has been published in Owen Wister Review, High Plains Register, Emerging Voices, Science Poetry, The Avocet, and Open Window Review. His chapbook, We Leave the Safety of the Sea, received the Colorado Authors' League Poetry award for 2014.