All posts by Kaila Herin

Currently Reading: 642 Things to Write About, by the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto

642Sometimes I get a bit stumped in my writing.  This  book was gifted to me and I imagine came originally from the Urban Outfitters establishment on Grand River Avenue.  The telltale fabric shopping bag screaming URBAN OUTFITTERS was a bit of a giveaway, but a thoughtful gift it was nonetheless.

I have mixed feelings about the content of the book. The layout has me giving a thumbs down. Each page has only one to four prompts on it. Some are followed by lines, some blank spaces, some in quadrants, and some a whole page. Personally, I would prefer a list. That way the book could be smaller and easier to carry around for those times I’m writer’s blocked and away from home. As it is, the book is a bit large and since I’m usually planning on writing more than three sentences, the space that is given for writing is hardly adequate anyway. I just leave it on the bookshelf, look to it for inspiration, and do my writing elsewhere.

21324_zoom2Ignoring the layout, however, and the awkward writing spaces, the prompts offered are just right. Some of the prompts are very specific and give you a bit of a plot to run with.  Other prompts give a short phrase like “the things she kept hidden.” I like these ones best because they’re vague, brief, and just give you a hint of an idea to get the writing going.

If you need something to get you started with your next creative writing project, I’d recommend this or another writing prompt book if you can find one. It’s a great place to start. And, if you’re looking for a challenge, try combining two, three, four prompts together and seeing what you can come up with!

Currently Reading: “Pottery Barn Catalogue Descriptions Written by an Aspiring Crime Novelist,” by Kate Hahn

This essay, from McSweeney’s Internet Tendencies, is exactly what the title suggests. Hahn takes pieces of furniture that could be and probably have been found in Pottery Barn catalogues and writes about them as if they were items in a crime novel as well as the catalogue. For example:10

“Our Newport Double Sink Console has turned legs and a white finish reminiscent of a cozy beachside cottage, but tight quarters can ignite tempers. Beside the porcelain sink, M and A’s monogrammed towels lie folded haphazardly, as if tossed down in anger. Clearly, the Carrera marble countertop, imported from Tuscany, was too painful a daily reminder for M of A’s “secret” Italian lover. PB Essential towels in 13 colors, ideal for mopping up crimes of passion, can be stored in the cozy cubby below the cabinets” (Hahn).

While it’s a bit dark, the contrast makes for humorous reading. It also provides great inspiration if you’re looking for a way to get the creative juices flowing! Try taking something “boring” and writing it in a different genre or tone. Write your course syllabi as horror stories. Write your to-do list as a presidential speech. Write your holiday wish list as an advertisement, rap, or screenplay cast list. Have some fun, do the unexpected, and just see what happens. If you like what comes from the exercise, work with it some more and see where it can go. If you don’t, I hope it got the creativity buzzing so you can start your next project with your best foot forward.

Jam of the week: “Royals”, by Mayer Hawthorne

Why a cover of a good, catchy song? Because it’s a good cover of a good, catchy song. There’s much to be said about his oh-so-dreamy voice and the fabulous drum part, but the beauty here is in the new vision of the original song and the unique spin that was put on what could easily have been a straight forward copy. Mayer Hawthorne takes the popular song, “Royals” by Lorde, and turns it into a funky, snazzy jazz tune. While “Royals” is indeed my guilty pleasure and I do love this cover, the point that this here entertaining example is meant to illustrate (that I hope gets stuck in your head all day) is not that this is a great song (though it is).

The point is that sometimes wonderful things come from imitation. Each of English Professor William Penn’s course packs begins with a note on imitation. In this note he says that imitation is “a useful activity that helps students find where stories are, learn how they begin or are structured and told, and discover the truths that all stories come out of other stories and there are no new stories, only interesting ones retold.” At first I was skeptical. Why would copying someone else’s work make me a better writer? They’ve already written that; copying it is just plagiarism, right?  No, because that isn’t what imitation means.

Imitation in writing will “force you to get outside yourself, observe the world and all its myriad details and images and select ones that are appropriate to your story” and let you emulate a writer that you admire. You’re not plagiarizing their work, you’re drawing inspiration from a word, a sentence, a vague idea, or even a tone or style, and you’re letting your work take shape from that. When you’re that inspired, your writing will shine and you’ll have no need for plagiarism. No, you won’t always need or want to imitate things that you read, but it is a great tool for breaking through writer’s block and allowing yourself to figure out your own voice as a writer.

Currently reading “Merce on the Page,” essay by Sarah Stromeyer

This week I’ve been reading essays written in the second person point of view, preparing to attempt to write one of my own. In doing so, I have fallen in love with this particular essay by Sarah Stromeyer from You: An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person.

41RBdlEWGKL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_“Merce on the Page” is a formal-textual tango of language and dance. The text is arranged in columns of different widths and text blocks spaced so they curve across the page. The essay plays with the limits of form in as much as the text moves about the page in nontraditional ways, but also because it plays with smaller formal elements like capitalization, punctuation, and even the space after periods. Stromeyer uses the layout of text on the page as well as the text itself to portray Merce Cunningham in a way that pushes the reader to feel the rhythm and grace of his choreography. Each element that is played with affects the reader’s understanding of the text—not only does the form visually add to the text, but the text is about the form. The second person point of view challenges the reader, telling them what is happening formally and how they are reacting to it as a reader. The text lyrically describes what the form is, what it does, how the reader feels about it and is approaching it (magical second person trick), and gives it the dance context necessary to understand the form. Here’s an example from the essay:

“and you find as you read without capitals, you tend to lean less hard on those first words, put less of your weight on each beginning. which makes you carry more of your weight onto the next word, and the next, and the next thing you know you’ve not plopped yourself down and heaved yourself into a sentence in the usual way, nor come to a crashing halt at the end. no. you have made of each sentence the kind of gesture launched by that lighter, more seamless, beginning. you have ‘held’ your weight even as you let it fly, and this, you will feel in your muscles, is like what a trained body feels when dancing” (Kupperman, Simons, and Chesbro, 173).

Stromeyer’s playful form and lyrical tone work together and ask the reader to feel the similarity between language and dance. They ask the reader to, through reading this essay, connect with Cunningham and feel his passions.

Stromeyer’s essay, in addition to being seamless and gratifying to read, proposes some intriguing things to consider with your own writing. How can you break formal conventions to further your writing’s impact? What power does the second person point of view have? When is writing in the second person point of view helpful?

 

Kupperman, Kim Dana, Heather G. Simons, and James M. Chesbro. You: An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Welcome Table Press, 2013. 173-174. Print.

Currently Reading: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World, by Haruki Murakami

After reading When the Emperor was Divine, my silly self was expecting this book to follow similar literary patterns. At the very least, I was expecting it to be as realistic, as tangible, as the last. Admittedly both assigned for an Asian American literature course, I expected this Japanese novel to touch on the concerns of identity and race in the same way. Then I started reading.

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I immediately forgot all expectations for the book as I laughed my way through several pages of the main character’s ramblings while he was stuck in an elevator. When he finally got out of the elevator (which happens on page six), I realized I was in a noir-esque story, following the hard-boiled “detective” character through what was a not-so-typical workday. Then I got to chapter two. The even-numbered chapters of this book are an entirely different universe. There is a town called The End of the World, a forest filled with unspeakable creatures and unicorns, and a man who goes to the library to read dreams out of unicorn skulls.

Throughout the whole book, the chapters alternate between these two worlds, these two different characters, and their lives and stories. They are both fascinating and engaging, yet have little direct connection to each other—at first. The book is a fantastical, noir-esque trek through human consciousness and the life and mind of a Japanese man with a passion for American frivolities and pop culture icons. I realize that this makes little sense. Reading the book is near about the only way to make sense of it. That being said, it is definitely worth reading.

Currently Reading: When the Emperor was Divine, by Julie Otsuka

book cover for When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka - origami bird Situated in 1942, this short novel pulls the reader into the unfortunate situation of Japanese American internment during the second World War. However, if you’re expecting a run-of-the-mill historical fiction, you’ll be disappointed. Julie Otsuka walks a fine line between the fiction novel and the creative nonfiction gray area of the lyrical essay, pulling you into the turmoil while maintaining factual accuracy and a poetic style. Instead of simply reading about a character’s experiences, you are pulled into the lives of each of the main characters as they pass around the narration, nameless yet identifiable. Yes, that’s right—nameless.

The book concentrates on the experiences of what seems to be one family, though these characters are written entirely without names or identification. In this way, Otsuka makes the reader take a step back—this isn’t only one family, this is the story of many families that were uprooted and torn apart during this period of Japanese American internment and discrimination. While the story is being told emotions are, for the most part, absent. Each character’s narration seems to be somewhat detached from any expected emotional response. This gives the reader the power to infer the emotional state of the characters on their own, identify with them more closely, and draw conclusions about the internalization and repression of the characters as a result of their experiences.

All that technical, literary analysis mumbo jumbo is all well and good and yes, if you’re studying World War II, Japanese American culture, racial discrimination, emotional trauma, or any number of other things, I do recommend that you add this book to your reading list, but in addition to all of that—it is a beautiful and inspiring piece of writing to read. It is poetic and moving and had me hooked from start to finish. If it hadn’t been for class, work, and the desire to get at least a few hours of sleep, I likely would have finished the whole book in one sitting (fortunately, two did the trick).

Reading this book made me consider my own writing: What does anonymity do to the message of a story? What does a fixed, singular narrator bring to a text? How can I use anonymity, identification, and multiple narrators to tell a story? I highly recommend reading this book for the sake of reading a well-written historical novel, but as you read, consider how you can apply some of Julie Otsuka’s artistic choices to your own writing.

Currently Reading: Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson

cover art for Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Peterson - foreground, two young people looking at each other; background, a leafy green tree and blue skyRecently, a friend was telling me about reading Bridge to Terabithia in elementary school. He told me that his class shared a good cry when reading the end and then took a nap to recover. I was impressed that a book assigned to be read in elementary school would provoke such an emotional response (the school that I attended somehow didn’t require a good number those books-that-everyone-should-read, and I find myself occasionally feeling like I’ve missed some bit of crucial education), and I decided that maybe I should read the book to see what I was missing.

I began reading around 11pm, thinking I would read a bit and then go to sleep and pick it up another time. Around midnight I considered sleeping, but the book seemed to be a quick read and following some lively children through their adventures was a pleasant escape from worrying about the bustle of the next day. I continued on. This cycle happened a couple more times—debating sleep, choosing the kids.

At about 2:15am, everything changed. I had told myself that I really needed to sleep and I should put the book down. Then suddenly it wasn’t happy lively childhood adventure anymore. I was compelled to take a break to cry into my heavily shedding cat.

A fresh layer of fur stuck to my tear-soaked face, I picked the book back up, thinking that I would stop when things got back to being happy so that I could sleep on a pleasant note.

Two hours later, I closed the book for good, still bawling.

I can’t say that it wasn’t a good book. It was good. However, all critical review is secondary to the fact that this book had me quite literally sobbing for the better part of two hours. I was home alone, curled up in bed, cat fur on my face, sobbing into a children’s book—the epitome of pathetic. While sometimes when I read books that I feel I should have had to read years ago I feel that yes, my education has benefited from having added that base, this book provided me first and foremost with a good dose of heartbreak—the actual extent of the literary knowledge gained unable to be assessed until fully recovered from the heartbreak.

As of now, days later, I have yet to recover. I think about this book and feel sad. I’m glad I read it and I do recommend it (only if you don’t mind a good cry every now and then). Imaginative and moving, this book literally brought me to tears.