Oh, just accept it. It’s that time again!
I come from a family of teachers. As a kid, I had these two elderly aunts who had taught generations of people in their town. I spent a lot of time with them, and they had tons of cool old books, which I dug through eagerly. One of these books was called Along Story Trails, and I think it was a “reader” for a classroom. It had a wide variety of stuff in it – folktales, poetry, short stories, and abridged versions or excerpts from longer pieces, to name a few. It was where I first encountered Beowulf (an adaptation), Rikki Tikki Tavi (sparking a lifelong love of the mongoose), and this poem by William Carlos Williams, often referred to as “As the cat,” given that’s the first line.
What I love about this is the illustration (a cat, years before the internet!), and how it helps a young reader visualize the action in the poem, and how the words reflect the movement of the cat. This remains my favorite Williams poem. Note the “plum” jar, likely referring to another famous Williams poem.
Sadly, I lost my original copy of this book years ago, but was able to find another. I use it in school visits a lot to show how I came to be such a voracious reader. (I then show the comic books I read as a kid to point out that I didn’t just read fancy poetry, I read EVERYTHING.)
Happy Poetry Month! And don’t forget I’ll be on Boston Public Radio on WGBH radio for the MBTA Poetry News Quiz this Friday around 1:30. I’ll be facing off against Liam Day, who has written a book of poems about MBTA buses. Tune in!
I’m working on a story now that I have burned to the ground at least 4 times and started over again. Sometimes you have to cut out things you like in order to make the story work, and sometimes you have to cut out EVERYTHING. It’s not fun going back to square one, but the hope is that it pays off eventually. I came across this post about Where The Wild Things Are earlier in the week, and it was nice to see that Maurice Sendak not only had to do the same thing, but that he obviously nailed it after ditching most of his earlier attempt. Sometimes you get it close to right the first time, sometimes you don’t, and not even being Maurice Sendak can save you from this. Thinking you’re going to get a Where The Wild Things Are out of the process each time is probably a stretch, but sometimes the best thing for a story is to ditch what you have, and start over.
(I was going to apologize to anyone who saw me post this on Facebook earlier, but you know what? I’M NOT SORRY.)
Come on down to Mill No.5, 250 Jackson Street, Lowell MA and buy some stuff! This is an amazing space, and I’m super impressed with all the stuff people have for sale here.
I like to tell my students that the more you critique other people’s stories, the better you’ll get at seeing areas of improvement in your own writing. I am a good example of this. Since I started teaching, I have picked up on things I see a lot of my students do, and then in turn I realized that these are often things I do myself. One thing I see a lot of is stories that start with a lot of description and telling you who the characters are and what they’re like. I understand the urge to do this. Starting a story is hard, so why not just get out who we’re dealing with here? I think that works when you’re writing an early draft. I say get as much out of your head as you can at once, so if you need to do a data dump as the opening, go for it. But when it’s time to revise, I think I can make a good argument to not open your story this way.
Let’s take a look at the opening of Charlotte’s Web, which many people (myself included) consider to be one of the great openings in literature.
“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”
“I don’t see why he needs an axe,” continued Fern, who was only eight.
“Well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is a runt. It’s very small and weak, and will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.”
Look at how much information we get from this. We know Fern lives on a farm, (and not only that, a farm which has pigs), she is eight, her last name is Arable, and as we’ll see in a paragraph or two, she is very determined when she puts her mind to something. Now look at how a first draft of this might sound.
Fern Arable was an eight year old girl with a mind of her own. She enjoyed living on the farm with her parents where they raised pigs, sheep, and geese. She didn’t like it when animals were killed, especially for what she considered to be unjust reasons. One day as she and her mother were setting the table for breakfast, Fern looked out the window and saw her father walking across the yard with an axe.
“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” Fern said to her mother.
Which one grabs your attention more? The one that puts you right into the action, right? Keep this in mind when revising. You only have so much time to grab a reader’s attention.
However, don’t worry about this when you’re writing. The problem I have run into with my well-developed critiquing muscles is that I recognize when I’m doing stuff I don’t want to be doing as I am doing it. Don’t get caught up in the urge to edit as you write. The ideas want out, let them get out. No one needs to see the early drafts. Then, when you go to revise, be like Papa with the axe, and do away with the words that get in the way.
Back in 2011, I wrote a haiku every day and put them on my Tumblr. I have been meaning to collect these and publish them for a while, but things got busy. I had been meaning to get this out during April, since that’s poetry month, but I got sick and ran into technical difficulties. But none of that matters, because here we are.
You can buy it here.
I recently got an email from a student who needed to know 16 facts about me for a school project. He said the facts could be anything, so here is what I gave him, in case you find yourself faced with a similar project.
Erik P. Kraft . . .
1. Has 6 pet chickens (named Boss Chicken, Suzy Creamcheese, Henny Penny, and The Mandrell Sisters)
2. Has eaten a whole pie on his own on more than one occasion
3. Has been writing ever since he could hold a pencil
4. Is vegetarian
5. Has a son who thinks he is a weirdo (but who thinks being a weirdo is funny)
6. Once had gigantic Elvis sideburns
7. Often performs comedy (or what he thinks is comedy)
8. Can drive a stick shift
9. Went to UMass Amherst
10. Started writing children’s books after taking a class taught by Jack Gantos
11. Started illustrating his stories after having Chris Raschka as an advisor in grad school, who suggested he do it
12. Once convinced a friend in school that Impressionist art was when you carve pictures into potatoes and stamp them in ink
13. Is not superstitious about the number 13
14. Had a picture of Mr. Rogers in his high school locker
15. Was not himself called Miracle Wimp in school (they went more for the cheese names rather than mayonnaise) but knew someone who was.
16. Is colorblind and his outfits reflect his.
My friend Nicolle and I are working on a graphic novel/webcomic type thing. We have finally decided on how the characters should look. So, presenting Tabs and Dizzy.
We’re not quite there yet, but when we are, the comics will be posted at The Cats In The Alley Tumblr.
When I was in grad school, people were very big into Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. So much so, that it made a little resistant to it. I am of the belief that the more people gush about something, the less likely I am to enjoy it (mainly because nothing, however good, lives up to the gushing, but I am not a gusher). I liked a lot of the people who were recommending it, so I gave it a shot. As I had been warned, it was a little touchy-feely, but nothing that I couldn’t handle. There were a lot of useful exercises, but the one that has stayed with me to the day is the concept of “Morning Pages.” In essence, first thing in the morning you write 3 pages of anything that pops into your head.
Even if you only write about how annoyed you are at the train, or how many bills you have (not that I know anything about this subject matter) the point is to get the little irritating ideas out of your head, so that the good, important things can start to come out. I’ve been doing it daily for well over 10 years now, and I find it very helpful. Often I will worry on the page about where an project is going, and suddenly I have given my self a solution, just by getting it out.
Meanwhile, a whole Artist’s Way empire has risen. There are seminars, special notebooks you can buy for morning pages (I use composition notebooks, because they are super cheap) and all manner of ways to get your money. You can get the book out of the library and use the back side of printouts you don’t need anymore, and it works just as well.
I’m not 100% sure what this page is all about (though Google Translate is fun as found poetry, if nothing else), but the pictures in the books they feature are beautiful.
Here’s a post over on Brain Pickings about my favorite kid’s book of all time, Ounce Dice Trice. I absolutely love everything about this book. It’s essentially nothing but word play inside with illustrations by Ben Shahn. If you just like the sounds of certain words, or thinking about silly names for things, this is your book. I have often wondered if this would get published today, since marketing something like this would pose a problem for many publishers. There’s nothing else like this, as far as I know. If there is, I want to see it!