Say A Lot While Saying Very Little: The Poet’s Impossible Task

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It is the task of any writer to tell a story. Themes and symbolism are used to elaborate on that story, to expound on it, to complete it. But where a novelist has chapters, volumes, and endless pages with which to tell that story, the poet has only a few words to get a point across.

Therein lies the challenge of every poet: you must say a lot while saying very little. Indeed, brevity is the soul of wit.

Poetry, as a form of literature, uses the rhythmic, symbolic qualities of language to evoke meaning. A poem, then, is a literary work in metrical form. It is a story boiled down to the barest of necessities. Where a novel is a fully-fleshed out being with skin, organs, eyes, ears, and a mouth, a poem is the skeleton, and the skeleton alone. It is the solid rock upon which all other literary forms can stand.

The task of the poet is to purposefully corral life’s most esoteric, complex, and meaningful themes into concise, forthright statements that convey broad imagery in a narrow, deliberate manner. A poem is a battlefield; each and every word, punctuation mark, even the blank spaces must have intention. And that intention must be calculated, prudent, and thoughtful.

As a poet, you have to be merciless with your word choice. You have to be implacable in chasing after your muse, running it down, and then slyly but cautiously coaxing ideas from it. The final draft of your poem should be pure muscle, lean and agile, ready to spring forth.

A poet wastes no time, no effort, no space on their blank page with trifles. The point is the point, and either the reader gets it or they don’t. It is really that simple. But in being so simple, it is actually quite difficult, and almost certainly impossible.

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An Absolute Necessity: “Through The Fire” by Harriet Cammock

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For my October Book of the Month, I selected “Through The Fire” by Harriet Cammock, a memoir about Harriet’s experiences in surviving and overcoming domestic violence. I chose this book because October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and a memoir about one woman’s terrifying ordeal of living with an abusive spouse — with whom she had a small child — is perfectly apropos.

In this novel, Harriet reveals the frightening ordeal of what it was like to live as a victim of her husband, Fritz, who suffered from untreated mental illnesses, which in turn led to his unpredictable, violent outbursts. These outbursts would occur randomly, and, as Harriet recounts, any and everything was likely to trigger his explosive fury. Not even his daughter could stop him — as Harriet narrates, she tells her readers about how Fritz’s violence often occurred with their daughter in full view.

For a lot of readers, the material in this work is triggering, and I suggest you practice some form of self-care after reading each chapter. Harriet’s experiences are harrowing; she intimately describes the kind of abuse Fritz inflicted upon her, and she does not mince words when discussing the physical and mental turmoil she endured for years.

Thankfully, Harriet’s story is not all doom and gloom. Today, Harriet successfully advocates to bring an end to violence against women and children. To that end, she has won awards for her advocacy, spoken at press conferences to bring awareness to violence against women, and even started a non-profit organization that provides shelter to human trafficking victims. Additionally, she is the host of Down To Earth, a daily podcast where she discusses, in frank terms, what it really means to survive abuse as a Black woman in modern America.

Through The Fire uses the power of storytelling to walk the reader through each moment of uncertain abuse. Harriet does not simply tell you what she experienced, she shows you the makeup she used to cover bruises on her arms, and the side-swept bangs she wore to cover open cuts on her face. Through The Fire, then, is not just a re-telling of someone else’s nightmare; it’s a nightmare you, the reader, are experiencing in tandem with the novel’s subjects. If you’ve ever experienced sleep paralysis — and the shockingly helpless immobilization that it comes with — then you’re prepared for the feelings of hopelessness and vulnerability Through The Fire will expose you to. And remember, Harriet’s story is just one of millions; every day, countless people suffer from domestic violence, and because of circumstances beyond their control, they are unable to tell their own stories. Harriet’s work not only makes you feel that powerlessness yourself; Through The Fire provides a much-needed glimpse into a day-in-the-life of an abuse survivor.

Like a good three-course meal, Through The Fire must be digested, slowly. Its conversational tone and straightforward, matter-of-fact presentation of sensitive subject matter belies the terror Harriet and her daughter went through. Nonetheless, Through The Fire is a powerful, impactful, and robust memoir whose intimate tone and anecdotal pacing is without equal. And during a time when the rights, protections, and privileges of underprivileged women and children seem to be assailed by all sides, and during National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Harriet’s story in Through The Fire is especially touching — and absolutely necessary.

 

 

 

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5 Reasons Why You Need to Hire a Content Writer

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If your doorbell breaks, you hire an electrician to fix it. Even though it’s something you can technically repair on your own, chances are your “fix” won’t be nearly as comprehensive as the electrician’s.

Some jobs require a professional.

Content writers are professionals who understand the significance of writing something that fits your specific needs. They appreciate the importance of good research, and have the requisite time management skills to see a project through from start to finish. Hiring a content writer not only saves you time, but expands the reach of your brand.

1. Content writers understand the power of words.

Words are powerful. They create legislation, fictional universes, and stories that transform lives. A content writer takes the time to methodically select words that align with the brand or image your business or endeavor is striving to put forth. Through targeted research of your business and in-depth analysis of market trends, a content writer harnesses the power of words to drive your brand to notoriety — and success.

2. Content writers keep your website fresh.

You most likely have a website for your business already. A content writer keeps your website up-to-date with fresh, consistent content that generates traffic to your site, which, in turn, increases business. A content writer will keep your website from going stale by creating original, targeted material that will steadily boost visits to your site.

3. Content writers manage content calendars effortlessly.

Content writers are accustomed to planning backwards to ensure that they meet deadlines so there is plenty of hype surrounding your product’s launch. Adaptation is the name of the game with content writing and as such, a content writer is used to working independently with little oversight or supervision while completing a project. Once they receive your branding guidelines, buyer personas, tone of voice, etc., a content writer focuses on the content while you can focus on the business.

4. Outsourcing saves you time.

Writing takes time. Good writing takes even longer. A typical business owner is someone who already works at their capacity, every day of the week and weekend. As a result, they don’t have the time to spend hours creating fresh content, whether it be for their site, their social media page, or otherwise. Something that would take a novice four hours can take a content writer as little as 45 minutes. Content writers have a streamlined process for editing and writing error-free, viewer-ready pieces that save you precious time.

5. Content writers see your business with fresh eyes.

A content writer can ask questions you’ve never thought of, while also suggesting ideas you didn’t think were possible. These questions might also be questions your customer base has. It’s beneficial to bring a content writer in as a new set of eyes who can look at your business from every angle — as a customer, as an investor, and as a creator. This multi-faceted approach enriches the value — and the reach — of your brand.

Whether writing for a site or copywriting for a social media page, the writing process can consist of several steps before the writing itself even starts. A content writer appreciates the complexity of creating engaging, fresh, and traffic-boosting content for your business.

If you’re ready to hire a content writer, reach out to Alex today to find out how she can help you meet your goals.

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Erased From History: Zora Neale Hurston’s “Barracoon”

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For my first Book of the Month feature, I chose Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by the ubiquitous Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston. For those who don’t know, Zora was an African-American author, anthropologist, and filmmaker who portrayed racial struggles in the early 20th-century American South. Best known for writing Their Eyes Were Watching God, a 1937 novel that unabashedly explored a Black woman’s sexual awakening in the rural South, Zora’s works primarily concerned the African-American experience and her own struggles as an African-American woman.

Barracoon is a non-fiction work based on Zora’s own interviews with Cudjo Lewis, the last living survivor of the Middle Passage. Lewis, whose African name was Kossola (also spelled as “Kossula”), came to America aboard the last ship that brought slaves across the Atlantic. Although Zora’s interviews with Lewis were conducted in the early 1930s, Barracoon wasn’t published until 2018. Zora tried to get it published back in the 1930s, but the manuscript was rejected in part because it was written in the vernacular that Lewis spoke, and also in part because it described the involvement of other African people in the business of the Atlantic slave trade.

The Barracoon manuscript was available only to scholars for many decades; it remained at the Alain Locke Collection at the Moorland-Springarn Research Center at Howard University for over half a century after Zora’s 1960 death.

I chose Barracoon because Zora’s early 20th-century struggle in getting her work published (Black intellectuals and political leaders frowned on the book laying bare Africans’ involvement in the slave trade, and publishing companies demanded she rewrite the book in “language rather than dialect”) mirrors the classist, racist, and misogynistic struggles that many Black women writers face even today. The content of Lewis’ recollections — from his days as a joyful youth who looked forward to being a soldier with a wife and family, to the day he, at 19, was forced onto the Coltilde ship by an enemy tribe working in league with the White slavers — are priceless as especially vital to American history because, while most slave narratives focused on life in this country — a la Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave — Lewis’ interviews focused on his life before he was stolen and illegally brought to America.

Despite the untold necessity and meaningful representation of Zora’s methodical field work in interviewing Lewis, it took over 85 years for Barracoon to see the light of day. How many writers today — whether they are classically trained cultural anthropologists as Zora was, or whether they exist simply as some kind of “after-thought minority” — encounter this same struggle? In particular, how many women of color writers face the uphill battle of having a transformative story to tell, or of having groundbreaking insight into a a field of life misunderstood by the majority, but instead of being given a platform, their stories are instead left to languish, untold, for decades? How many of these stories have remained in the dark? And how much longer must these stories — and their authors — remain quieted?

Zora Neale Hurston was a trained anthropologist who studied under none other than Franz Boas. She was an educated writer who received her B.A. from Barnard College. She was an author whose works covered a vast spectrum of of African-American experience in the early 20th century: interviews from living former slaves; the sexuality of Black women living in the rural American South; the dysfunction of marriages in multi-generational African-American communities; ethnographical African-American folklore; and even the subversion of highly-regarded Biblical stories in an African-American context.

None of that changed the fact that Zora died penniless and alone in 1960, with some of her most metamorphic literary works remaining unseen by the public eye for decades afterwards.

How many Zoras are amongst us today? How many women of color writers have lived and died — before, during, and after Zora’s time — without us ever having had the pleasure of being taught what they know about the nuances of minority womanhood? How many women of color writers have the voice with which to speak, but are forced into years, decades, and centuries of silence?

How many women writers have been erased from the face of history without us ever having been the wiser?

If you have the pleasure of knowing or being acquainted with a woman writer or a woman of color who is a writer, or if you have the privilege of having access to the Internet, I challenge you to take the time to become familiar with women of color writers. Buy their works. Read their books, their poetry, their anthropological findings. Watch their TEDx talks, their scholarly lectures, their CNN interviews. Even if you don’t understand what they have to say, or appreciate what information their nuanced work brings to the table, give them the same accord, the same attention, the same acknowledgement that White male writers from centuries ago are given. Zora Neale Hurston is one of many, many, many women of color writers who are now experiencing an all-too proper, and far-too-long-in-the-making resurgence of notoriety.

Don’t let her be the last.

 

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Pain, Pen, & Paper: Why Do You Write?

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I posed this question to my Instagram followers (insert shameless plug here: follow me on Insta @AlexTheWordsmith) this past week. The answers ran the gamut from writing to earn income to writing to pass the time. Even though it was a simple question to ask, I, a published, self-proclaimed lover of writing, had a really hard time coming up with my own answer. So why, then, do I write?

As I’ve blogged before, writing is pain and healing all wrapped up in one bundle. It’s painful because writing requires me to exercise my emotions by digging up memories I’d previously sought to bury forever. I justify that with the rationale that if it didn’t make me ache while drafting it, then the writing itself can’t be good. Thus, I conclude, good writing necessitates discomfort on the part of the writer.

On the other hand, though, writing is healing; it allows me to put a face to the name that is my pain, and to bring it down to size by tersely summarizing the totality of its effects in a brief, but poignant and impactful way. This is the primary reason why I elect to use poetry as my medium. Whereas a book writer uses an entire book to investigate a topic, the poet leans towards brevity, with the use of specific words to invoke symbolism, thus provoking strong emotional responses without the use of as many words as required by a novel.

However, these discussions simply explain how I write. They still don’t answer the primal question every writer must face: why do I write?

In my case, it’s simple and it’s complex. Unfortunately, I do not have the gift of artistry, e.g. the ability to sketch, draw, or paint. Although I consider myself an amateur photographer, my passion for that isn’t strong enough to motivate me to purchase expensive photographer’s equipment. And as much as I could argue otherwise, I definitely can’t sing or dance to save my life (that definitely doesn’t stop me from enjoying a good night of karaoke, but that is besides the point).

I can, however, pick up pen and paper, which thankfully, are not impossibly expensive devices. I can express myself by drafting commanding, symbolic poetry that contains a voice is so distinct, so energetic, so very alive that in reading it, you’d think you’re having a conversation with the writer. In other words, while I cannot do much else, I can write.

This, perhaps, is exactly why I write. What else is there to do when all other forms of communication fail me? How do I answer the call of the voice inside me that begs me to put my abstract feelings into concrete words? I do that by writing, plain (pain?) and simple.

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Ten Possible Reasons Why Your Scene Feels Flat

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A good scene is one that makes your reader feel a range of emotions, and relates to the overall story. Articulating the purpose of a scene early in your story editing is important because doing so tests if the scene is in line with your story’s purpose. If you find your scene falling flat, here are ten possible reasons why that may be the case:

1. Excessive focus on one character.

2. Lacking in descriptions or pointers about the setting and time.

3. Too much dialogue.

4. Too much exposition.

5. Poor word choice.

6. Lacking atmosphere.

7. Lacking motivation/goals.

8. Lacking tension (this is a big one).

9. Unusually slow pacing (the scene feels as though it has no point and has no end).

10. Too many passive characters/not enough active characters.

Use this list to breathe life into the scene you’re drafting so that your scene — and your story — pops that much more.

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Hey.

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Hey. There is no rush. There is no finish line, no need to feel as though you’re in a mad race. There is no “winning” or “losing,” and there is definitely no need to compare yourself to your peers because this is not a zero-sum competition.

You’re doing just fine. You are right where you’re supposed to be. You haven’t “fallen behind” and you’re not “left behind” while others around you seem to be speeding towards what you define as success. You’re not stuck. It sucks right now, and it’s painful, and it’s uncomfortable, and it’s entirely unfair.

But it’s not forever. It won’t always be this way. This too shall pass, even if it takes a little while. Stop telling yourself mean things, stop calling yourself those horrible names, stop pigeon-holing yourself into some imaginary deadline for the course of your life.

You’re doing fine. You’re doing amazing. You’re doing great. What you’re facing is tough, and you’re brave for handling it with the graciousness, patience, and steady hand that you’ve been handling it with. No, you’re not perfect, but given your circumstances neither I nor any decent, reasonable person would expect you to be. I’m proud of you, and I want you to keep pressing. I want you to keep moving. I want you to keep fighting forward.

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Five Questions to Ask When Developing Your Main Character

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No matter what, the main character is most likely the character whose actions — or motivations — drive the plot of your story. Thus, ensuring that they are well-developed is the cornerstone of any literary work. Keep these five questions in mind while drafting the backstory to your main character.

1. What is their family life like?

Whether they have a good, close relationship — or a distant, damaged relationship — with their parents, siblings, grandparents, etc., can impact their personality, how they act around others, and how they make decisions. Are their parents still alive? Do they keep in touch with their siblings? Did they know their grandparents? The answers to these questions, and even the subsequent questions they raise all inform the personal life of the main character.

2. Have they ever lost a family member?

Even if your main character didn’t have a great relationship with their family, i.e. being the victim of abuse at a parent’s hand, or falling out of touch with a sibling, losing a family member will still affect how they relate to platonic (and romantic) partners, how they mature as an adult, and how they make choices.

3. What is their opinion of themselves?

Most, if not all, of your character’s personality traits or habits will be based on their relationship with themselves. Another way to frame this question is: when your main character looks in the mirror, who (or what) do they see looking back at them? The answer shouldn’t be static, as that would make your character flat. Rather, the answer should be dynamic, in that it, and your character, change with the story.

4. What does your character want to change?

Although this is a more general question, the answer can be made specific by figuring out what the character wants to change, first within themselves (are they a cynic hoping to become an optimist?), then within their immediate surroundings (are they overly ambitious and looking to prioritize work-life balance?), and then, if possible, within their world (do they dream of escaping the confines of their small town for big city life? do they aspire to run for office one day?). These answers will cultivate the depth of your character’s desires, and will enrich the breadth of their story arc.

5. What is your character’s plan for the future?

Long-term plans or even short-term “to-do” lists largely inform your character’s motivations, and are the driving force behind their actions. Conversely, a character with no future is equally telling, as their very lack of future plans can inform the reader that this character is one without ambition or drive — and is thus likely to make different decisions than a character who has set life goals.

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Setting The Scene

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It goes without saying that scenery is just as important to a story as the story itself. But how does the savvy writer go about setting the scene? How does one properly weave a scene into the story they’re telling? What follows are a few tips on writing the scene, and having it be just as clear to the reader as it is to you, the writer:

1. The readers only see what you tell them.

You might know your scene is in a busy coffee shop, but if there’s no mention of a long line wrapped around the counter, or a pushy patron nudging you to inch forward as you approach the cashier, how will your readers know that the coffee shop is indeed busy? They won’t know unless you clue them in.

2. Once the scene is set, add reminders about where the characters are.

Incorporate subtle reminders to the reader about exactly which scene the characters are in. Using the busy coffee shop example above, describe a character stirring their coffee with indignation, or a character hastily looking for their wallet so they don’t hold up the line.

3. Don’t put your characters in dialog boxes.

It’s tempting to force characters to say something for plot’s sake, but avoid this! Rework the dialogue leading up to it, or have someone else say it! Good dialog is a cleaned-up version of a real conversation. As a writer, your role is to select what is important and then distill it down to its very essence.

4. Don’t drop characters.

It’s easy to forget about side characters, so don’t. Even small actions can make the scene feel more complete. If a side character is in some way related to a character’s goals and conflicts, it’s moving the plot forward.

5. Use more than just visual description and sounds.

Smells, textures, and even tastes can really bring in your audience. Using body language that conveys embarrassment as an example: instead of your character just blushing, write them taking steps backwards, or shifting their weight from side to side, or scratching the back of their head.

6. Write the scene from your own perspective.

If you’re struggling (and don’t kid yourself, you’re a writer so at some point in the drafting process you will struggle), use the classic “put yourself in the scene.” You can even take it a step further and write the scene from your own perspective. This helps you get a good feel for it, and allows you to rewrite the scene more easily.

Remember there is no such thing as the perfect draft, and also remember that you should always write drunk, but edit sober. This can especially be said of setting the scene in which your characters are living out the story you’re writing for them.

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The Best Time to Write

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“If you hear a voice within you say, ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” – Vincent van Gogh

You guys. It’s been a while. I know. Two whole weeks with no writing, creative or otherwise, of any kind. Life hasn’t been so kind to me as of late, and I’ve been preoccupied with making plans for the unexpected turn things have taken. In all honesty, it’s been difficult to focus on writing.

But, as I wrote here, writing is havoc and healing all in one. Even though my life has certainly been havoc-filled, it is writing I must turn to in order to experience healing. And healing is really what this world needs after all. For some, that healing comes through different avenues or from different sources. For me, that healing comes from writing.

The very center of havoc is often where the best writing is born. I’ll let that be a lesson to myself and to all writers: don’t let the storm stop you from doing what you love, or doing what is right, or doing something that brings you peace in a very distressed world.

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