What I Didn’t Know About Paragraphs

Guest blogpost from Jennifer Rupp (who writes as Jennifer Trethewey, author of the Highlanders of Balforss Series)

I took the Fred Shafer 4-part series on Paragraphs (of all things) presented by the Off Campus Writers’ Workshop. If I can take away 1 or 2 new and significant concepts from a writing workshop, I consider it time well spent. Fred imparted a host of new ways of writing and, even more importantly, editing. Needless to say, I was impressed. I can’t possibly pass on all twelve hours of his wisdom, but I can share a few things that truly resonated with me.

First and foremost, Shafer said that too often writers bail from a paragraph before they have discovered everything. I do that. I’ll lay down some internal thought but never poke it and prod it enough to find the best and juiciest bits. I just go on to the next thing, eager to keep the pace, to keep the story rolling. But I think this lack of exploration is why many editors say my writing isn’t deeply emotional enough for them. I’ve gone back to the beginning of my first draft and started looking at each paragraph, searching for what is missing, for what I left in my head instead of on the page. I need to learn to recognize when I’m stopping too soon.

In terms of length, variety was something Shafer stressed and not for variety’s sake but for the sake of impact, pace, depth, and process. Each writer will have their own default length. Mine seems to be 5 lines. Any more than that and I start to worry that I need more white space on the page. Ridiculous. Where did I get that idea?

Think of a paragraph as a container, or a limited space to work on the shapes and rhythms of your sentences. Shafer likes using the word shape rather than construction because it’s more about molding, shaping. How you mold your paragraphs will impact the voice of your narrative/characters. Vary the length of your paragraphs as you would your sentences. Fragments are great, use them with purpose to emphasize or slow things down (I always thought short sentences implied action or urgency—not always so).

This blew me away: Shafer said the rhythms of sentences and paragraphs may be the chief reason why manuscripts are accepted. Rhythm is important because it suggests movement and movement is change, change of events, thoughts, emotions. Paragraphs can be used to build outcomes but they won’t be successful unless you have pleasing and effective movement between sentences using variations of lengths, shapes, and rhythms. Shafer quoted Gertrude Stein: Sentences don’t contain emotion, paragraphs do. Now, why didn’t I think of that? It’s not the one sentence that will grab a reader by the heart, it’s the chain of sentences that build to that one sentence.

Shafer teaches through example using excerpts from all genres written by well-known authors as well as his unpublished students. If I were asked to critique these samples without knowing who’d written them, I’d be crossing out filter words and adverbs, suggesting stronger verbs, hinting at combining sentences or breaking up sentences and all that kind of standard critique stuff. In doing so, however, I would have thrown off the rhythms, ruined the well-crafted cadence, and stepped on the delicate voice of the piece that made it a joy to read. Yeah, a novel full of filters words and adverbs would be a drag, but if you are using words with purpose, if you are shaping the sentences and finding the rhythms, then trust the music inside you. You know what the rhythms should be.

Eavesdropping on the Writers’ Check-in

 

One of the benefits of being a Red Oak Penmonkey Member is our weekly online check-in–a chance to share victories and challenges, get advice, and laugh with others at different places on their writing paths. Here’s what grabbed me last week:

On taking creative risks in our writing… in a conversation about the stories of Haruki Murakami in Men Without Women: “Murakami was out on a limb and was sawing the branch but he didn’t fall. I want to write like that!”

Considering the first draft…”Even Michaelangelo roughed up (out?) David before he started smoothing and polishing the sharp edges.”

Quoting Fred Shafer in his class on the paragraph…”Writers bail from their paragraphs before they fully explore everything there is to discover within.”

The general conversation that sprang from that…The “big questions” we ask of our own existence might well be asked of our paragraphs or drafts:
Where did I (it) come from?
Why am I (is it) here?
Where am I (is it) going?

What a gift to fall into conversations about writing with such insightful, generous artists. We’d love to have you join us! Learn more about the benefits of Red Oak Membership.

 

Craft Book Discussion: Writing Memoir

For our most recent craft book discussion, we had a fantastic conversation about the ins-outs-ups-downs and sideways of writing memoir. Here are some of the things we shared…

Memoirs That Have Stayed With Us (in no particular order)

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood (Alexandra Fuller)
Night (Elie Wiesel)
A Drinking Life (Peter Hamill)
Liar’s Club (Mary Karr)
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou)
Wild (Cheryl Strayed)
Fatelessness (Imre Kertesz)
Limbo: A Memoir (A. Manette Ansay)
Hell and Other Destinations (Madeline Albright)
The Last Lecture (Randy Pausch)
This Is Not the Story You Think It Is…: A Season of Unlikely Happiness (Laura Munson)
Duke of Deception (Geoffrey Wolff)
My Losing Season (Pat Conroy)
My Father’s Keep (Ed Abell)
The Land Remembers (Ben Logan)
Maid (Stephanie Land)
Ma’s Dictionary: Straddling the Social Class Divide (Milan Kovacovic)
Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life (Amy Krause Rosenthal)
We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter (Rachael Hanel)
When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Kalanithi)
Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates)
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Ocean Vuong)

 

Memoir Writing by Our Participants

Blogs

Victoria Lynn Smith: Writing Near the Lake

Jan Wilberg: Red’s Wrap

 

Books

Nancy Bauer-King: Madness to Ministry: A Woman’s Journey from Psych Unit to Pulpit; Little Feet Be Careful

Ed Abell: My Father’s Keep: A Journey of Forgiveness through the Himalaya

Myles Hopper: My Father’s Shadow

Kim Suhr: Maybe I’ll Learn: Snapshots of a Novice MomRamon: An Immigrant’s Journey (Ramon Aguirre as told to Kim Suhr)

 

Resources for Writing Creative Nonfiction & Memoir

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–From Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between (Lee Gutkind)

Brevity article: “Write About Your Loss”

Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir (Beth Kephart)

Courage & Persistence

black and red typewriter
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Wisdom for Emerging Writers

One of the sweet benefits of being a Red Oak Penmonkey is our Monday morning Writers’ Check-in, an opportunity to connect with other writers for camaraderie and inspiration. Last week, we started with the ice-breaker, “What wisdom would you like to share with emerging writers?” Below are the responses, passed along with permission from the ‘monkeys. Write on…

~When you show up at the page, the words will follow.

~Don’t listen to people who say they write 8 hrs or 5,000 words a day. They’re (probably) lying. Just work the way it works best for YOU.

~If you think you want to write but don’t know where to start, check out Red Oak.

~If you’re stuck, get away for awhile—either physically or to other creative projects.

~Read. Read. Read: craft books and models of the type of work you aspire to write.

~Don’t quit your day job.

~Post-its and index cards can be your friend—physically manipulating your ideas can spark new ones and give you clarity.

~Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and learn from them.

~Show your work to other people; have the courage to expose yourself.

~Touch your writing in some way every day.

~Join a writing group as soon as you can, and, if it’s not right for you, find another one.

~Keep drafts to see your own progress. Something in an early draft may prove to be useful.

~Back up your writing!!! (Back it up somewhere else in addition to your computer.)

~Start with a small idea. We don’t know what something is “about” until we start to write it.

~Follow the advice of The Artist’s Way, and freewrite 3 pages every morning. You just might “find” something in there.

~There are lots of affordable or even free opportunities for writers. Become a student of writing.

~“The mind must paint before the brush.” See the world through your writer’s eyes.

~Get your butt in that chair, whether you feel like it or not.

Become a Member of “Red Oak Folk”

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Photo by Kindel Media on Pexels.com

When you join the “Red Oak Folk,” you become a member of a unique community: rich with people who know the challenge of the blank page and the victory of the well-chosen word. You show the world (and yourself) that you “own” your call to write. You’re ready to make your writing dreams come true—and have some fun along the way.

We recognize that the definition of writing “success” is different for each writer who comes through our door. From the aspiring novelist who wants to see their name on the cover of a book to the poet who wants to be published in a literary journal to the grandparent who wants to create a memoir for future generations, we take our writers where they are and give them the tools they need to take their writing to the next step and beyond.

Visit our Member Portal and learn about all you can gain from becoming a member.

Featured Author: Kim Suhr

On Sunday, October 29th the Broadway Theatre Center’s lobby will be filled with published Wisconsin authors before, during, and after performances of Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of SEX WITH STRANGERS. The authors appearing from 1:00pm to 5:00pm on Sunday are: Cari Taylor-Carson, Christi Craig, Kathy Lanzarotti, Mel Miskimen, Pam Parker, Lisa Rivero, and Kim Suhr. They represent memoir, non-fiction, humor, and short stories.

As an advance introduction to the authors, Renaissance (RTW) asked them questions related to their writing and some of the conflicts presented in the play SEX WITH STRANGERS by Laura Eason.

Kim Suhr

RTW: Can you describe your current book? What genre is it? What do you like about that genre? And what other kinds of writing do you do?

KIM: Maybe I’ll Learn is a collection of sometimes poignant, sometimes funny pieces about the early days of parenting. It’s always fun learn which of the essays resonated with individual readers. They share their own stories with me, and soon we don’t feel quite so alone (or incompetent!). I currently write fiction, and I’m searching for a publishing home for my short story collection, Nothing to Lose & Other Stories.

 

RTW: How important is it to you that your friends, your partner, your family members read and like your writing?

KIM: I’d like to say not important at all, but those people have fantastic taste, so the corollary if they don’t like it…well, enough said.

 

RTW: Are you traditionally published or self-published? What do you think are the pros and cons of self-publishing?

KIM: Maybe I’ll Learn is self-published, though I have other individual stories that were published through the traditional submission-editorial process. I love the control that self-publishing gives writers. We get last say on the cover, the edits, the price. Everything. The flipside of this control, however, is the responsibility that goes with it–specifically marketing-wise. Most writers I know aren’t particularly keen on singing their own praises, and I’m no different (as evidenced by that last statement).

KIM SUHR is the author of Maybe I’ll Learn: Snapshots of a Novice Mom and Director of Red Oak Writing, which supports writers through workshops, critique groups and author readings. Kim’s work has appeared most recently in Literally StoriesThe Other Stories PodcastFamily Stories from the Attic (Hidden Timber Books, 2017) and other publications. She holds an MFA in fiction. (kimsuhr.com)

 

Follow these links to learn more about: Renaissance Theaterworks, SEX WITH STRANGERS, & Wisconsin Romance Writers.

 

 

Featured Author/Editor: Christi Craig

On Sunday, October 29th the Broadway Theatre Center’s lobby will be filled with published Wisconsin authors before, during, and after performances of Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of SEX WITH STRANGERS. The authors appearing from 1:00pm to 5:00pm on Sunday are: Cari Taylor-Carson, Christi Craig, Kathy Lanzarotti, Mel Miskimen, Pam Parker, Lisa Rivero, and Kim Suhr. They represent memoir, non-fiction, humor, and short stories.

As an advance introduction to the authors, Renaissance (RTW) asked them questions related to their writing and some of the conflicts presented in the play SEX WITH STRANGERS by Laura Eason.

Christi Craig

RTW: What inspired you to write? 

CHRISTI: I admit, jealousy inspired me in the beginning. Upset that a friend of mine had the money, the time, and a nanny to quit work for a year and pursue her writing, I complained to another friend, over and over, about the unfairness of it all. Finally, that friend sighed and said, “Why don’t you just start writing.”

Oh. Okay. Sometimes starting is the hardest part.

Now, I’m inspired by people, places, and things. By my grandmother, who raised nine children on a Depression budget in a small Texas town. By old empty buildings and cemeteries. By lines of poetry, like this from Patrick Phillips’ “Elegy for a Broken Machine:”

even the silence, / if you listened, / meant something.

In one of my favorite books, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert says:

[C]reativity is the hallmark of our species. We have the sense for it; we have the curiosity for it…we have the language and the excitement and the innate connection to the divinity for it. If you’re alive, you’re a creative person.

We are creatures who seek out story, because we are creatures built on story; they settle in and around us all the time. If you’re paying attention, inspiration is everywhere.

 

RTW: How important is it to you that your friends, your partner, your family members read and like your writing?

CHRISTI: Majorly! Except…. While I want my friends, my sisters, my husband to read and love my work, looking for affirmation of this kind from those in my immediate circles can be dangerous. So often, we want people closest to us to be our biggest fans. And they are in many ways. But when we hand them our work to read, the response we get isn’t usually the response we want.

People who know me personally, or intimately, have certain expectations based on the “me” they see every day (not the characters in my fiction). A friend at work once told me that I have a great sense of humor. Then, she read a short story of mine about a young woman who dressed bodies in a funeral home. She laughed, a bit nervous, and said she liked it. But we don’t talk much about my writing anymore. My husband knows my tendency to be a worse-case-scenario kind of person. I don’t think he expects me to hand him anything light-hearted. But when I asked him to read a collection of pieces about characters looking for redemption, for solace, for relief, he gave them back and said, “Some of them don’t seem finished. Some of them are weird.” I have yet to ask my sisters what they really think.

So that question—how important is it that they love our writing?—might need a quick edit: how important is it that they love us as a writer?

That’s easy: very important. My husband and I don’t like the same movies. Why would we enjoy reading the same stories? Even so, he applauds my successes, encourages my attempts, reminds me on the bad days that pursuing my passion is a good thing. And that Is priceless.

 

Christi Craig works as a sign language interpreter by day and moonlights as a writer, teacher, and editor. She was part of the novel acquisitions team during the 2016 submissions call for Forest Avenue Press and served as an Assistant Editor at Compose Literary Journal, as well as an Associate Editor for Noble / Gas Quarterly. Her own stories and essays have appeared online and in print, and she received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters Competition, 2010. Visit her website at christicraig.com.

 

Follow these links to learn more about: Renaissance Theaterworks, SEX WITH STRANGERS, Wisconsin Romance Writers.

 

Featured Author/Editor: Kathy Lanzarotti

On Sunday, October 29th the Broadway Theatre Center’s lobby will be filled with published Wisconsin authors before, during, and after performances of Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of SEX WITH STRANGERS. The authors appearing from 1:00pm to 5:00pm on Sunday are: Cari Taylor-Carson, Christi Craig, Kathy Lanzarotti, Mel Miskimen, Pam Parker, Lisa Rivero, and Kim Suhr. They represent memoir, non-fiction, humor, and short stories.

 

As an advance introduction to the authors, Renaissance (RTW) asked them questions related to their writing and some of the conflicts presented in the play SEX WITH STRANGERS by Laura Eason.

Kathy Lanzarotti

Done Darkness: A collection of stories, poetry, and essays about life beyond sadness is an anthology about the triumph of hope over hopelessness for those with depression or other mental illness. These narratives, from multiple award-winning authors, reflect the daily battle with various forms of depression: clinical, postpartum, and reactive, just to name a few. Real life plays out on the pages, depicting empty nests, grief, missing children, contemplating suicide, postpartum anxiety and more. Readers will connect, think, laugh, and maybe shed a sympathetic tear while gaining a better understanding of their own experiences or perhaps of a loved one.

RTW: What inspired you to write? What kinds of fiction genres do you like reading?

Kathy: I was a quiet kid which meant I spent a lot of time observing and I noticed all of these little dramas unfolding around me and they got more interesting as I got older. These little everyday stories are the stuff of literary fiction which is my preference, although I also love horror and spy novels.

RTW: What would it mean to you to see your book for sale in an airport terminal shop?

Kathy: I think that seeing my book out in the wild would mean that it was an official book, one worthy of reaching the masses. But, as authors, we do what we can. I must confess that I have on more than one occasion slid a copy of Done Darkness into a hotel bookshelf, and there is a copy currently floating around France on a river boat.

Kathy Lanzarotti is the co-editor of the anthology Done Darkness. Her work has appeared in Creative Wisconsin and (b)OINK zine. She is a WRWA Jade Ring Award winner for short fiction.

Follow these links to learn more about: Renaissance Theaterworks, SEX WITH STRANGERS, Wisconsin Romance Writers.

 

 

Featured Author/Editor: Lisa Rivero

On Sunday, October 29th the Broadway Theatre Center’s lobby will be filled with published Wisconsin authors before, during, and after performances of Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of SEX WITH STRANGERS. The authors appearing from 1:00pm to 5:00pm on Sunday are: Cari Taylor-Carson, Christi Craig, Kathy Lanzarotti, Mel Miskimen, Pam Parker, Lisa Rivero, and Kim Suhr. They represent memoir, non-fiction, humor, and short stories.

As an advance introduction to the authors, Renaissance (RTW) asked them questions related to their writing and some of the conflicts presented in the play SEX WITH STRANGERSZ by Laura Eason.

Lisa Rivero

RTW: Can you describe your current book? What genre is it? What do you like about that genre? And what other kinds of writing do you do?

LISA: Recently I co-edited (with Christi Craig) and published an anthology of creative nonfiction, essays, and found poetry titled Family Stories from the Attic. Collaborating with Christi, who did the bulk of the editing, was a dream, and we both were fortunate to work with twenty-two generous, talented authors from around the United States and New Zealand. The book’s concept was to showcase writing as a way to understand more fully our personal and collective pasts, by writing about objects such as diaries, letters, photographs, notebooks—even a set of family silver. Given the diversity of approaches and backgrounds of the submissions we accepted, we were delightfully surprised at how well the collection held together as a whole.

In addition to publishing, I have written non-fiction books, essays, articles, and fiction, and I’m currently doing a kind of (later than) mid-life pivot to focus on writing speculative fiction and poetry.

 

RTW: What inspired you to write? What kinds of fiction genres do you like reading?

LISA: For as long as I can remember, I knew I would be a writer, even when I was making my own childhood poetry chapbooks on construction paper, tied together with yarn. Over the years, that persistent beacon has taken several forms, from being a journalism and then English major, to technical writing, teaching composition to budding engineers, writing a food and wellness column, and writing about psychological topics. I love to read almost anything (including old-fashioned hard cover encyclopedias), but really enjoy quirky authors, such as George Saunders, Flannery O’Connor, and Haruki Murakami, as well as science fiction, fantasy, poetry, and all stories and novels that offer a glimpse into parts of the universe—real or imagined—that I previously did not know.

 

RTW: Have you ever been tempted to use initials to disguise your gender as a writer?

LISA: As I’m making the transition to trying my hand at more speculative fiction, I’ve thought about using initials or a gender-neutral pseudonym, as that’s a genre does seem to experience some gender-bias, and also to make a more defined transition from one aspect of my writing career to another. Right now, however, I’m leaning towards using my real name, whether from laziness or principle.

Lisa Rivero is the co-editor (with Christi Craig) and publisher of Family Stories from the Attic (Hidden Timber Books), an anthology of essays, creative nonfiction, and poetry inspired by family letters, objects, and archives. Lisa has written professionally for over two decades and taught college writing and creative thinking courses at the Milwaukee School of Engineering for many years. The author of four non-fiction books, a middle-grade historical novel, and several articles and essays, she is currently focusing on writing poetry and speculative fiction.

Featured Author: Pam Parker

On Sunday, October 29th the Broadway Theatre Center’s lobby will be filled with published Wisconsin authors before, during, and after performances of Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of SEX WITH STRANGERS. The authors appearing from 1:00pm to 5:00pm on Sunday are: Cari Taylor-Carson, Christi Craig, Kathy Lanzarotti, Mel Miskimen, Pam Parker, Lisa Rivero, and Kim Suhr. They represent memoir, non-fiction, humor, and short stories.

 

As an advance introduction to the authors, Renaissance (RTW) asked them questions related to their writing and some of the conflicts presented in the play SEX WITH STRANGERS by Laura Eason.

Pam Parker

RTW: Can you describe your current book? What genre is it? What do you like about that genre? And what other kinds of writing do you do?

PAM: The book, DONE DARKNESS, is an anthology, a collection of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. I like anthologies for the variety of the writing, but understand it’s not a high-sales genre. Within the anthology, my piece is an essay, which I also performed as an audio essay on Lake Effect on Milwaukee Public Radio, WUWM. In addition to essays and creative nonfiction, I have also published short fiction, including excerpts from my novel, which is not yet published.

 

RTW: What inspired you to write? What kinds of fiction genres do you like reading?

PAM: I’ve written, and read, for most of my life. My first diary, when I was nine years old, was a small one with a lock and psychedelic flowers in pinks and yellows on the cover (very 1969). Throughout my school years, I enjoyed writing for myself and for school. My teachers often read my essays and stories aloud to my classes. I was shy then and while this embarrassed me, it also helped me gain some confidence about my writing. So, though I write often, I didn’t think of myself as a writer until my early forties when I left teaching due to illness.

My favorite fiction genre to read in is literary fiction. I adore the slower pace and character-driven stories of Marilynne Robinson, Elizabeth Strout and Kent Haruf.

 

RTW: How heavily does “New York Times Best Seller” weigh in an author’s favor? Will that sell books? Make your book legitimate? Make you a legitimate author?

PAM: Being on the NYT Best Seller list of course weighs in an author’s favor as that placement does affect many readers’ choices and some book clubs. Obviously, it helps sell books. I don’t consult the NYT list as I’m more interested in word-of-mouth and Goodreads reviews for determining what I will read. I don’t think landing on the prized list bears any weight on a book or an author’s legitimacy. An author is a creator, an artist, and awards, prizes or lists can enhance an author’s reputation, but legitimacy? I don’t think so. If an author has had a publication, which was vetted, meaning chosen and selected from among other submissions by a reputable publisher, then said author is legitimate in my opinion.

 

Pam Parker is a New England native who calls suburban Milwaukee, WI home. Her work has appeared in numerous print and online publications and has been featured on WUWM, a Wisconsin Public Radio Affiliate. She co-edited the anthology, DONE DARKNESS, about surviving depression. She tries to chip away at the stigma of mental illness by being open about her personal struggles. She has received awards from the WI Broadcasting Association, the WI Writers Association and the WI Academy of Arts, Sciences & Letters. Learn more about Pam and her work at pamwrites.net.

Follow these links to learn more about: Renaissance Theaterworks, SEX WITH STRANGERS, Wisconsin Romance Writers.