No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft. — H. G. Wells
From one of my all-time favorite writers of nonfiction, here are some excellent tips for all writers:
- “You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages.”
- “Readers are not supposed to notice the structure. It is meant to be about as visible as someone’s bones.”
- “Often, after you have reviewed your notes many times and thought through your material, it is difficult to frame much of a structure until you write a lead. You wade around in your notes, getting nowhere. You don’t see a pattern. You don’t know what to do. So stop everything. Stop looking at the notes. Hunt through your mind for a good beginning. Then write it. Write a lead.”
- “The lead – like the title – should be a flashlight that shines down into the story. A lead is a promise. It promises that the piece of writing is going to be like this.”
- “I always know where I intend to end before I have much begun to write.”
- “Editors are counselors and can do a good deal more for writers in the first-draft stage than at the end of the publishing process.”
- “If I am in someone’s presence and attempting to conduct an interview, I am wishing I were with Kafka on the ceiling. I’d much rather watch people do what they do than talk to them across a desk.”
- “Display your notebook as if it were a fishing license.”
- “Writing is selection. When you are making notes you are forever selecting. I left out more than I put down.”
- “I have never published anything on a science that has not been vetted by the scientists involved.”
- “Writing has to be fun at least once in a pale blue moon.”
- “If you look for allusions and images that have some durability, your choices will stabilize your piece of writing.”
- “In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day — yes, while you sleep — but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists.”
- “With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of — at least ninety-nine to one.”
- “If something interests you, it goes in — if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got.”
- “Forget market research. Never market-research your writing.”
- “I scoop up, say, ten times as much stuff as I’ll ultimately use.”
- “Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.”
I’m going to recommend his latest book, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, before I’ve even read it!
You place the heel of my hand
against your brow
so that my fingers spread out
over the curve of your head
settling down into your hair.
I laugh. Why are you doing that,
I ask. To hold the top down,
you answer. It feels good
To hold your head like this –
large and round like a melon,
you say, solid and field warm.
I want to be your head
under my hand, feeling held,
contained, all there. I am
both me, holding, and you, held –
all one, all the same.
Our bodies shift in the dark
and my hand slips away.
You put it back. We cannot
have enough of this oneness –
and, feeling it, we do not sleep.
“For the Homeric Greeks, kleos, fame, was made of song. Vibrations in air contained the measure and memory of a person’s life.
“To listen was therefore to learn what endures.
“I turned my ear to trees, seeking ecological kleos. I found no heroes, no individuals around whom history pivots. Instead, living memories of trees, manifest in their songs, tell of life’s community, a net of relations. We humans belong within this conversation, as blood kin and incarnate members. To listen is therefore to hear our voices and those of our family.
“To listen is therefore to touch a stethoscope to the skin of a landscape, to hear what stirs below.
“We’re all — trees, humans, insects, birds, bacteria — pluralities. Life is embodied network. These living networks are not places of omnibenevolent Oneness. Instead, they are where ecological and evolutionary tensions between cooperation and conflict are negotiated and resolved. These struggles often result not in the evolution of stronger, more disconnected selves but in the dissolution of the self into relationship.
“Because life is network, there is no “nature” or “environment,” separate and apart from humans. We are part of the community of life, composed of relationships with “others,” so the human/nature duality that lives near the heart of many philosophies is, from a biological perspective, illusory. We are not, in the words of the folk hymn, wayfaring strangers traveling through this world. Nor are we the estranged creatures of Wordsworth’s lyrical ballads, fallen out of Nature into a “stagnant pool” of artifice where we misshape “the beauteous forms of things.” Our bodies and minds, our “Science and Art,” are as natural and wild as they ever were.
“We cannot step outside life’s songs. This music made us; it is our nature.
“Our ethic must therefore be one of belonging, an imperative made all the more urgent by the many ways that human actions are fraying, rewiring, and severing biological networks worldwide. To listen to trees, nature’s great connectors, is therefore to learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance, and beauty.” – The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, David George Haskell
It’s rare to run into a writer and coach living just down the road who gets excited about my travel memoir, Letters from the Pacific. (I mean, we’re in remote Costa Rica here!) Happily, Amy Brooks was delighted to interview me for her podcast , Voice Pen Purpose online, instead of at her kitchen table (she has three lively boys). Thus, it is easily available to the anyone in the world who cares to listen, without distractions. Which I invite you to do. It’s a fun interview. Enjoy!
Excerpted from Journey to the Joie de Vivre.
A journey without suspense would be boring. Here in Panama the suspense is when my ship comes in (ha!) and when she departs, both of which facts are still unknown. All I know now, having talked to the Port Agent this afternoon, is that the Matisse arrives sometime tomorrow night and departs in the wee hours of the following morning. At the Manzanillo International Terminal, it only takes 8 to 12 hours to unload and load 2500 containers. Having been through this before, I have learned to be patient. And even though checkout time is 1:00 PM, I’m sure the hotel will have no difficulty charging me for an additional night, no matter what time I leave. This little suspense is completely expected. (Memories of sitting uncomfortably surrounded by my luggage in the Washington Hotel lobby for three hours waiting for the time allotted to take me to the port. The charm of the old Washington disappeared completely when I learned in Tahiti – too late for me to do anything about it – that they had charged an additional night anyway.)
The unexpected suspense this time is due to my leaving behind all my cash and jewelry in the almost invisible safe in the dark closet of my hotel room in San José, Costa Rica. As soon as I opened the closet here in Panama and saw the open security box – much more accessible here than there – I thought, “Oh my God, my stupidity has reached alarming new heights.” Fortunately, I was able to call the hotel in San José and finally, after several hours of calls back and forth with a very kind guy named Daniel, it turns out he can send the money by Western Union and that the jewelry will be sent by DHL or FedEx before I depart.
This is one more cost, along with my emergency dental work and the new watch that I had to buy at the airport to replace the one I lost, that has unexpectedly reduced my travel fund. I am realizing that the unexpected is more compelling when you’re over 65. That’s the lesson for today.
It is worth recording the heroic efforts on the part of Daniel Cubero of the Hampton Inn in San José to return my things to me. First, on company time, he deposited my US$400 with Western Union, which was when he discovered that they would not accept euros (I had stocked myself with those too). So this morning, on his own time, he went to the Central Bank and changed the euros into US dollars and returned to Western Union, where he made a second deposit, then called to tell me that that I could now retrieve them both in a Western Union office that he discovered very close to my hotel here in Panama. In addition, he had Federal Express pick up my jewelry this morning at seven o’clock, and urged them to make a priority delivery, since I am uncertain about my departure time, and he informed me that they will be delivering my things between three and five this afternoon. This is all from one country to another, and jaw-droppingly amazing, and I asked him what would be the cost of the Federal Express shipment, expecting to have to pay a great deal for it. He said, “No, no, no, it’s on the hotel.”
Several times I have expressed to him my groveling gratitude at everything he has been doing for me, and he has said “No, no, you are family. I have put myself in your shoes. I understand your position, and we always want to do absolutely everything we can to help.” I think this is not just Hampton Inn training on the part of Daniel. I think it is also the fact that he’s Costa Rican and a gentleman, and Costa Rican gentlemen treat older women with great kindness, understanding and affection.
The hotel in Panama had sent a taxi across the country to the airport to pick me up. He wasn’t there, as the attendant wheeled me out of Customs, but a quick cell phone call straightened things out. I had said, “But I can take any old cab,” and the attendant said, “Not here, you don’t.” Just then Alexander strode up, apologizing for his lateness. He was a dark lanky, man with a frizz of graying hair and the deadest eyes I had ever seen. I’m accustomed to the openness of Costa Ricans – they meet your gaze, they say hello to strangers on the street – so to meet those dead eyes was like a punch in the stomach. He was polite, certainly, helping me into the back seat of his taxi, but I sat there puzzling over what was so clearly distrust on his part, and the possible reasons for it.
It’s also the custom in Costa Rica to talk to taxi drivers – every encounter is an opportunity to relate to another human being – so I leaned forward and started to ask Alexander questions. He was from Colón, so I was able to ask him if conditions there had improved since my last stay there. This was all it took to get him going, and we passed the hour’s drive very pleasantly. When we got to the hotel, his eyes were still remote, but not as dead as they had been.
Over the next 30 hours or so, I needed a taxi twice to take me to Western Union and back (the first time I had lacked a comprobante number), and I always asked for Alexander, telling him about the fix I’d gotten myself into and listening to details about his family as we dragged our way through the insufferable traffic. And I asked for him again when it was time to take me to the port. His eyes had warmed up by then, and as he left me and my suitcase at the port gate, we shook hands. As it happened, the hotel didn’t charge me the extra day, and I wondered if Alexander had been chatting with the people at the desk about my difficulties so much that they had taken pity on me.
But, ah Panama! First impressions survive – the overwhelming humidity, oppressive clouds bearing down overhead, construction everywhere, a pristine concrete highway slicing through what was once some of the most forbidding jungle in the world, decaying tile in the bathroom, maddeningly slow service, creeping traffic and always, always the question of when I am going to leave.
©2016, Sandra Shaw Homer
As published in the fall issue of the online literary journal, Sky Island Journal
Someone Else’s Poem
by Sandra Shaw Homer
You are proud
to show me your poem
about a feather-touch
some long ago,
and I am pleased to see
it speaks to me
and what is here.
Some other one
inspired your art,
but I know
the feelings are for me
now. (Who was she?
A solitary feather
on a page.)
Perhaps you are ashamed
and wish the poem
had been for me.
A gift of you,
something more of you
to know, touch, smell,
hear, kiss, taste, see.
had I been she
I would not have flown,
I would certainly have known
to stay, and now –
I would be more than
just a poem.
By Amy R Brookson, October 10, 2017
I was stuck in my house during a recent hurricane and the only truly transportive distraction I indulged in was Homer’s “Letters from the Pacific.” I read by candlelight (no power) and forgot about the pounding rain and angry winds outside my hillside home. Her imagery is crisp and clear. The details both poetic and informative. I’m now fascinated by the idea of international travel via cargo ship. When can I go, too? This is an easy book to recommend; to either those interested in an exterior or interior exploration. Keep exploring, Shaw, and then tell us all about it!
I was beginning to feel I would never get control of the Spanish subjunctive. It is an evil thing, ubiquitous and complex; not even one Costa Rican friend I knew used it consistently, which added to my confusion. I decided I needed to visit my old Spanish teacher Enrique in Barranquilla, Colombia, so I wrote and asked if I could come for a week of intensive work. He was delighted and offered me his guest room and bath, classes every morning and a few excursions in the afternoons.
Barranquilla was home for a time to Gabriel García Márquez , so I felt I would be treading on hallowed ground. In fact, Enrique took me to an architectural wonder of a municipal museum with an exhibit of García memorabilia. In awe, I touched the battered leather suitcase he had used when he was an itinerant bookseller, receiving rum as payment more often than not. His typewriter was there, along with poster-sized photos of other great authors he had known, and there was a multi-media show featuring well-known quotations from his books. One evening, after several obligatory visits with Enrique’s family, we went to La Cueva, the former hangout of “Gabo” and other writers, journalists and artists. There was a life-sized cardboard cutout of him standing at the entrance to the dining room, and the coasters on the bar sported lively Gabo aphorisms. Enrique snapped my picture standing next to Gabo’s ghost.
But what entranced me more than anything was Enrique’s sending me, in advance of my visit, three short stories to “contrast and compare” on the theme of love, one of which was Gabo’s Nos vemos en agosto, an unpublished story transcribed from a live reading the author had given years ago in Madrid. Gabo had intended it as part of a longer work, which he never lived to finish, and so crudely typed transcriptions circulated among the literati, until finally the Spanish magazine La Vanguardia published it at the time of Gabo’s death.
I loved this story. The minute details all led inexorably to a wildly ambiguous ending that Enrique and I puzzled over for days, without ever coming to a conclusion. I read it again and again, always finding something new – always with just a touch of the magical – and I was dying to try my hand at a good literary translation. I wrote La Vanguardia to ask how they had gotten permission to publish it post-mortem and to point me in the same direction so I could request permission to publish a translation.
It isn’t difficult to fall in love with a writer as funny and precise about the human condition and incisive in his descriptions as García Márquez. And his story Nos vemos en agosto both captivated and challenged me. There were several ways one could translate the title, for example. We meet in August? We’ll meet in August? I’ll see you in August? We’ll see each other in August? Same Time Next Year? Does it suggest a future meeting? Or simply an event in the near past? Or something that happens every year? If only the author were alive to enlighten me! This is one person I would love to sit down with and converse at length about his work.
I’m afraid this story took up more of my class-time than the subjunctive, which I had been avid to conquer. Enrique had given me lessons and homework, and I studiously spent my afternoons going over the exercises, but Nos vemos en agosto simply wiped the subjunctive out of my head. (There is nothing subjunctive about the title . . . or is there?). The subjunctive is all about things that haven’t happened. “If I were only capable of understanding it,” is a good example in English. Could the story be a fantasy? The protagonist was certainly preparing herself for one. And could the lover have been a ghost (with his Musketeer mustache and white linen suit, smelling faintly of lavender water)? Ah, Gabo, I stood next to you, I drank at your bar, ate at one of your tables, read your story over and over, and still I don’t know!
© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2017
I wish I could express in poetry what William Butler Yeats did so perfectly in “The Second Coming.” But even though I don’t consider myself in any way a poet, sometimes poetry is the only way I can deal with what life hands me. I think of the Yeats poem especially these days, and the recent presidential election affected me particularly, as I have been struggling with the dilemma of whether to return to the States or not.
You can find my poem, “Post November, 2016” in the online journal, “I Am Not A Silent Poet”: https://iamnotasilentpoet.wordpress.com/2017/09/21/post-november-2016-by-sandra-shaw-homer/