Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Woman Writer: Pat Carr's Rule #1

Women writers, are you serious about publishing? The Summer Writers Conference of the International Women's Writing Guild is a nourishing scene for women writers and a place where many of us have developed publishable work. I'm grateful to Hannalore Hahn and her daughter Elizabeth Julia Stouman and the Guild's Conference crew for providing a safe place where magic happens routinely.

This year I attended Pat Carr’s class. I usually do. I like the way she guides writers and listens to their work. Pat will say, “Ah! Yes!” And she will pause to allow time for the images and dialogue, created by one precious student, to hang in the magical air.

If you know Pat, you know her Rule #1, as we fondly refer to it:

Do not write from inside the mind
of someone you have
not been!

I’m writing a novel with a twelve year old boy as a main character. As soon as I wrote this line, I thought of Pat’s rule:

Gideon watched his mother’s tongue and teeth, thinking of bees,
of the buzzing of bees, as her tongue flicked words through her teeth.

I came to Pat’s class because I wanted to ferret out these slips into a boy’s mind. To be honest, I don’t know what boys think or how boys think.

Students argue with Pat. We are used to reading great writers who write, with seeming success, from inside the minds of persons they have not been. Check out Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits and The Infinite Plan. Or Amy Tan. Be puzzled, as most of Pat’s students are at first. Is there anything wrong in these books? They held me enthralled.

When students ask why not write from inside the mind of someone you have not been, Pat tells them “Because it’s immoral.”

I don’t want men to write as if they know what a woman thinks. I get indignant. It’s like when a person of privilege says they know what poverty must be like. Oh, yeah?

Pat’s Rule #1 forces me to study closely the observable details, in memory or in creative imagination. This discipline makes my work stronger.

I rewrote the short passage from Gideon’s River as follows:

Gideon’s eyes narrowed and his head moved forward a notch toward his mother.

“Stop talking!” he yelled. “There’s spit on you tongue. Your teeth are crooked. You sound like bees buzzing.”

Now when I read books by authors who get inside the minds of characters they have not been, I see this as the breech of ethics it is. I agree with Pat.

At the conference I also took a class in how to use simple photography to enhance your writing. The pictures on this page were taken on campus at Skidmore. (I’ll let you know when my full essay about Pat Carr’s Rule #1 comes out in an e-zine.)

If you are serious about publishing, check out Jim Edwards' How to Write and Publish an E-Book in 7 days or less.

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And if you're using photography to enhance your writing, here's Tony Pages Photo Toolbox Of Creative Tools And Techniques:

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Sunday, July 20, 2008


One of my grandsons is rapidly growing from toddler to little boy with all the interests of a boy. He has a small plastic turtle which he cherishes. And picture books including turtles. Turtle was one of his first words.

Recently he touched a real tortoise. This land relative of turtles was munching grass on a neighbor's lawn when my grandson and his mother, together with friends, discovered him. (See the little guy in the blue hat.) The lady who keeps the tortoise as a pet came outside to talk.

"He's only eighteen years old. They grow a lot bigger," she said. "He lives on grass so I let him out to munch on my lawn. Tortoises don't drink water. They get enough water from the grass."

My grandson was finding out how his shell felt.

Nicole McKensie has written an e-book about raising children. Her title MOM HAS TO HAVE FUN seems fullfilled in this picture where my daughter-in-law in enjoying the tortoise as much as the kids--or perhaps enjoying the kids' response to the tortoise. For a variety of ideas on how to help children, click here:

McKensie feels that daily life with the questions children can raise, the conflicts they can get into, and the efforts they make to grow themselves up, should be fun for the parents. My sons and their wives enjoy children. They don't need much guidance yet, but if they did, I would recommend McKensie. In her video presentation, she smiles a lot. She has fun not only raising six children but writing and presenting this book.

I worked as nanny to a one-year-old. There was a Walgreens Store going up two blocks away. We went daily to see how the building was progressing and how the parking lot was being prepared. Backhoes, cement trucks, men shoveling cement and men leveling cement. He would watch by the hour.

When my children were in grade school they had a rare opportunity to watch a backhoe at work. In fact, they had a grandstand seat from our porch, from which they could see the city sewer line put in. Piles of dirt everywhere. Men shouting. The teeth of the big yellow backhoe's shovel biting into our lawn. It was too good to miss. I excused them from school that day. They learned more at home!

But you don't have to wait for adventures to come into your yard--or for a tortoise to walk across your neighbor's lawn. Children want to know what goes on in the area where they live. And here's where I write more from regret than from what I actually did. If I had their childhood to live again I would make appointments with an official at the fire station and give the kids a tour. I would take them to places where people work in ways that they could see and appreciate. When we went out for pizza, I would strike up a conversation with the man behind the counter rotating the circle of dough, let him talk about how he learned to do that! I would take them to visit with the mayor. Help them talk with a lifeguard at the beach about her job.

Probably I was too busy, too tired from working one full time job out of the house and another at home! Still. On those occasions when we went camping in the Catskills or spent a summer evening watching a minor league baseball game at Damaske Field--where we ate tofu pups we brought and ice cream treats we bought, saw the Franklin Mountain rise in the south and the sun set in the west--they went to bed spent and satisfied.

Till the next post. Swamp Walking Woman

Thursday, July 3, 2008



My grandson, who is a year and a half old, likes to say uh-oh when something falls or when a toy doesn’t work. In fact, he enjoys saying uh-oh when nothing much is wrong or for reasons we don’t follow. Like anyone, he wants to comment on the happenings around him—with what words he knows. He is on the front end of an explosion in vocabulary. It is fascinating to watch him work at this important developmental task, one that each of us accomplished so early that we hardly recall a time when we could not talk.

With speech comes responsibility. When he fusses to get picked up, his father reminds him to say up. He does. He also says up when he wants to get down—though he says sit down when he sits to get his shoes on. He says thank you very sweetly when he presents his sippy cup for a juice refill, sure his grandmother will help him. When I open the refrigerator door, he comments, get juice.

Before he learned to talk, his mother showed him how to signal his wants. For example, when he is all done with a meal, he waves his arms sideways from the center in a gesture familiar to most of us, one that means no, enough, all done! Although he can now say all done he still uses this signal, especially when the message is urgent. Along with the signals, she talked to him a lot before he could talk, giving him her voice to study.

This week he speaks about 30 words and several phrases: all gone, balloon, ball, bubbles, up, mama, dada, bread, juice, shoes, mo-mo (more), done, baby, night-night, bye-bye, thank you, car, truck, no, uh-oh, see, hello, garbage, cup, cracker, off, nose, down. Balloon is pronounced with a lyrical rise on the second syllable. Much of his speech is almost sung. The purity of a child’s voice at this stage is holy—like the truth of his facial expressions. One morning he put several small items into an empty gallon container. Having forgotten to turn the container over and dump the pieces out, he tried to push his hand into the opening. Looking at me with grave concern, he said, stuck! Lucky I had my camera ready.

Probably he is saying more than we hear—he’s working on how to say it as well as what to say. Some of his vowels and consonants are not yet set as the English sounds they will become. Stuck and truck and clock are pronounced the same, beginning with a sound between g and k—much like the way a Spanish e is neither a short nor a long English e. The mouth is capable of making a much greater variety of sounds than those used in any one language. Each child must somehow get her mouth to form the sounds needed to pronounce the words of her caretakers. She slowly narrows the fluidity with which she begins, leaving out the many possible nuances not used in the language she must master. She begins early by cooing a range of vowels and, then, more and more the vowels she hears. Linguists can tell the difference between, for instance, the coos of a Japanese baby and those of a German infant. Realizing how early children begin practicing to talk makes me respectful of infant babble.

We veteran talkers don’t think about how we place our tongues or how much throat to put into a word, nor, for that matter, how much force is needed to execute each sound. Like many children, my grandson started saying ba for ball. His father demonstrated how to make the end of the word. He now says balla, over-pronouncing the l sound. Our English l at the end of a word like ball is pronounced so gently that a child can miss it at first and then have trouble getting just the right amount of force into it.

A person with a limited vocabulary must make every word count. Cracker also means cheerios. All gone applies equally to a tray from which he has eaten all the cheerios and to an empty clothes hamper. And bye-bye is uttered when one of his parents goes as far as the kitchen. For one of my children, broken was such a word. A torn blanket was broken. A ripped paper was broken. One morning when he was sick he said, I broken, Mommy.

The limits of vocabulary would frustrate you and me now, but we know we each tolerated not being able to talk, or not being able to express all that we wished. My grandson is rather placid, I think, considering the many things he says that we don’t yet get. For example, he speaks several phrases. The ones we have picked up on include where’d it go?, what’s this?, what’s that?, like that!, they’re there, get juice, sit down, and put it down. He sometimes utters a series of syllables we don’t catch. He’ll keep trying. It is this spirit of persistence that I admire. Toddlers have small bodies, certainly, but their courage and intentions are big as life. And who are toddlers but every one of us? Each of us made this journey. Judging by my grandson, our attitudes were awesome.