Writerly Tips: Finding Creative Inspiration

While still an undergraduate student, I took a class that explored the intricacies of essay-writing. It wasn’t, and was indeed much different, than the GEW courses many first-year students take to help them build a strong foundation for crafting essays throughout their college careers. And in fact, I had transferred over to a four-year university after completing my general education requirements elsewhere.

I benefited a great deal from taking an essay course, as a student and as a writer. But strangely enough, what continues to make me think from it, even years later, was a single moment. It was when my Literature & Writing Studies professor for the class confessed to sometimes going out of her way to have an adventure, as a means to stock up on creative material The odder or wilder the experience, she stressed, the more possibilities got generated for various types of works (from short stories to whole novels).

Of course, right afterwards my professor asked everyone to write a mock essay within the next 1o minutes. I cannot remember what the essay was about. Its topic has gotten lost in the stream of the countless written assignments.

But my professor’s words regarding her means of looking for creative material stuck with me. I’ve reflected on them over the past few years, almost as if they were fragile seashells or baby birds. As things of beauty with some inherent truth for me to grasp. At the bare minimum, they are solid advice for any writer—because first-hand experience often makes for the most realistic writing, particularly for writers who are just starting out in the field.

Yet one thing did bother me. It could easily get misinterpreted that a writer must venture to somewhere far away, to somewhere exotic or unusual perhaps, to find creative material. That wasn’t want my professor had meant, I know, and so I want to elaborate on it a bit here.

I believe writers must be inherently curious. We have a whole world around us, and in our heads, which we want to understand or reveal from fresh angles for readers. Those fresh angles are possible in even the most ordinary-seeming places that can easily get taken for granted. We need curiosity mixed with thoughtful observation.

For example, while attending Palomar College back in 2007, I took to wandering around campus between classes. Back then the campus was much smaller (condensed might be the better term). But it still made for good exercise, and I soon discovered that any number of events or festivities took place there on any given day. Many of these activities were things it would have been easy to miss if someone always stuck to the library, the student union, or one of the other buildings (even though things did happen in each one of those places as well).

One such event was the Concert Hour offered on Thursday afternoons, something I found out about when I happened to walk past a sign advertising for it amid Palomar’s maze of buildings. The first show I got to see featured songs from China, complete with past music students dressed in the traditional attire and playing the appropriate instruments. It was beautiful, and I wound up coming back many times afterwards.

Another place I would frequent was the arboretum. Some students, it surprised me to hear, didn’t even realize that place existed right there behind the library. They might pass the forested area each day while walking to campus, yet they missed its vine-covered archway. However, the arboretum was, and only continues to be, a wonder to walk around and behold. It has yellow-bamboo, numerous types of palm trees, and a perfect vantage point from which to gaze out across the campus and all of San Marcos. Ah, I can remember sitting up at the first top, having my bagged lunch, and imagining what San Marcos must have looked like without all the roads and buildings. It was peaceful up there. I even got to volunteer for the arboretum for a while (an experience I would recommend for anyone).

One other place desires mentioning, however. At one point the observatory—which now currently stands beside the library—had more of a central location on campus. Just by chance, one day I was wandering around campus when I happened to see the observatory doors open. A sign posted nearby was advertising for a Halloween-themed show, the very last before the observatory closed down at that location for good. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity to go. Instead of stars, the picture stretched across the dome ceiling was that of a sketched haunted house, and the few of us who knew to come got to enjoy both a haunted house and graveyard walkthrough. The whole event became a special memory.

All of the above experiences took place within easy reach of me at the time. I didn’t have to go far, and indeed I couldn’t go too far due to mobility issues (no car and tight finances). However, they each offered wonderful adventures, and as evidenced in this posting, they provided memories to share with readers. The saying is true that stories can come from anywhere. They can come from a quiet moments spent with family members reflected upon later by a writer, or by the writer’s personal experience in fulfilling a sense of curiosity.

Writing is a mindful craft. It helps to make anyone who takes up the pen seriously to pay more attention to the wonders of the world, and I’ve learned that sometimes what is nearest and easiest to reach can off the most abundant and heartfelt material for creative writing. It’s something to think about, certainly.

 

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Writerly Tips: Using an Implied Narrative

Several weeks ago, I got introduced to a series on Youtube focused around decorative statues. The mainstay for the reviewer in question—whose name I will not mention in case of copyright issues—was to purchase and critique statues in the shapes of characters from various video and board games. He would examine the craftsmanship of the statue, the paint job, its durability, and so on.

Among the most important points the reviewer would make involved the implied narrative of the piece. In other words, he would point out what the body language and overall design for the statute suggested about the modeled character, or perhaps even the world of the character.

Interested in the reviewer’s approach, I did a quick Google search—conducted afterwards—and found that implied narrative was a term often associated with critiquing visual art. It made sense and was appropriate for decorative statutes. In fact, by viewing them through the lens of the implied narrative, I have consequentially come to appreciate statues of all kinds in a whole new way, as more than simple art pieces that might look great on display somewhere.

But implied narratives are a powerful lesson for creative writers to learn as well. They are a basic strategy to keep in mind, alongside the rule of “show, don’t tell.”

Consider the classic story of Cinderella, and more specifically a description of Cinderella scrubbing the floor beside a burnt out hearth fire. The details in a scene, the actions a character performs, and their dialogue should come together into a united picture, much like visual art but on paper. If Cinderella is dirty with soot stains all over her clothing, and then her stepsisters prance past in new dresses, the difference between them implies their different lifestyles. And if one of those stepsisters kicks over Cinderella’s bucket of water across the floor, it reveals them as wicked.

In other words, the elements of a scene and character—the texture, appearance, and actions taken there—can make all the difference.

Simply incredible.

 

What are your thoughts on implied narrative? Is implied narrative a technique that you, dear visitor, believe should get special focus in a creative writing classroom? Feel free to comment!

Short Book Review: Myths and Legends retold by Anthony Horowitz

Myths and legends, in many ways, are reflections on past cultures presented as fiction. They offer valuable insights into the communities that first spun them—including their beliefs, moral values, and even geography. For instance, Grecian tales abound in gods said to live atop Mount Olympus and support the belief the people in Greece had in physical gods watching them from afar, and who often visited distinct areas in the known world.

With the above said, Myths and Legends (a self-proclaimed “legendary collection from around the world”) bears the proud yet heavy burden of introducing older tales to a new generation of readers. Anthony Horowitz must certainly have felt that pressure in selecting the 35 tales for his anthology, and he does have an impressive range of choices, from better known stories such as “Narcissus (Greek)” to lesser-found inclusions like “Death and the Boy (West African).”

More impressive still is the clear, painstaking care Horowitz put into his retellings of each story. His prose flows along smoothly, and it is easy to follow at all times. Many of the tales are also relatively short and appropriate for children, which makes Myths and Legends a fine myth collection for families to read together.

Other selections from Myths and Legends include:

  • “The Spinning Contest” (Greek)-The story of the young woman who challenges Athena to a weaving contest.
  • “The Wishes of Savitri” (Indian)-A woman stalks Death after her husband passes away, asking for wishes as recompense for her lost (with a surprise twist).
  • “The Stolen Hammer of Thor” (Norse)-Thor and Loki come up with an unconventional plan to retrieve Thor’s hammer from giants.
  • “Given to the Sun” (Inca)-A young boy learns why the Inca people worship the sun.
  • “The First Eclipse” (Japanese)-Includes the Japanese creation myth and gives an explanation as to the first solar eclipse.

Other information:

Publisher—Kingfisher

Copyright—1994

Illustrated by—Francis Mosley

Collections of Stories

I enjoy browsing archives of stories, and thankfully they are in abundant supply on the internet (although nothing beats a visit to a nice physical library). However, below are a few fun and notable places to find a good read:

Folktales and Fairytales:

Horror Stories:

Fantasy and Science Fiction:

General Fiction and Non-Fiction:

 

Want to add to the list above? Please make a comment below!

 

A Call for Submissions to Literary Serenity: The Grad Edition

Hello, CSUSM students and faculty!

Literary Serenity: The Grad Edition welcomes submissions from any writers or artists who would like to share their work. Here is your chance to showcase pieces online for potential employers to see, build your working portfolio and/or resume, and get encouragement or advice from peers. While this site has only been recently launched and is a non-paying publication, you can get free publicity and share your ideas.

Submissions from CSUSM grad students and faculty members in the Literature & Writing Studies department are especially welcome!

General Guidelines:

-Please keep in mind that visitors to this site might range widely in their ages and backgrounds. So please be sensitive with what you choose to submit. For instance, try to avoid explicit graphic material and pieces with a great deal of swearing. Hate speech against any groups or people is strictly prohibited!

-Send all text-based submissions as a single Microsoft Word document (with each piece on a new page).

-Include titles, or working titles, as doing so will make highlighting your work easier.

– Provide a short biography attached as a separate Microsoft Word (either .doc or .docx) file with your submissions to LiterarySerenity@gmail.com. Place “Submission to The Literary Serenity Blog” in the subject line.

Content Formatting:

-Up to 2,000 words for fiction and nonfiction pieces (excerpts and multiple submissions accepted).

-Up to three poems at a time (must be less than 3,000 words in total).

-Photographs and artwork (please send as .png and .jpg files).

[Note]: If you have creative pieces that fall outside of the above parameters, please feel free to ask by commenting below or sending an email to LiterarySerenity@gmail.com.

 

Since this blog is just getting started, there is much room for growth and the shaping of a unique identity. So you if you have suggestions for helpful articles, links, etc. The Literary Serenity Blog might provide, feel free to comment.

In addition, here is a question for possible consideration: How would visitors to this site feel about me setting up an informal, online creative writing workshop on this blog? In other words, writers might submit pieces for the purpose of getting constructive feedback from other people.

Happy writing!

Undertale as Digital Literature: Initial Thoughts

Yesterday I finished a run-through of the Steam platform game Undertale, created by Toby Fox. Of course, even before then I’d heard of and fallen in love with the characters and story—thanks to friends, and then numerous fan animations/comics online. Going into my full experience thus far with Undertale would take a great deal of explanation and digress from the topic hinted at in the title for this piece. For truly, what struck me the most while playing Undertale was that it had all the features of digital literature.

I got introduced to the emerging area of digital literature during a creative writing workshop in graduate school. Our professor there strove to help us understand recent developments in literary studies, on top of the usual feedback and group discussions on our creative pieces as writers. For one of our sessions, he gave us links to the “Electronic Literature Collection,” hosted by the Electronic Literature Organization (http://collection.eliterature.org/), and told us to have fun reading through the texts provided in those archives. In other words, our professor asked us to get a taste of what digital literature included, in its various shapes and forms.

Digital Literature, I found, meant more than placing written narratives online. They were works born from our digital era, which often combined video clips, photographs, music, or other media to tell a coherent narrative. In the “Electronic Literature Collection,” I came across examples of digital literature sweet and simple as Robert Kendall’s Faith—a poem that got revealed bit by bit as you kept clicking the screen—to very complex adventurous narratives like Kate Pullinger’s Inanimate Alice (which deserves its own blog post sometime in the near future). All these texts counted as digital literature, working to tell narratives in unique ways and placing their readers in more of an active role within narrative.

Undertale provides a narrative experience that has all the appearance of a conventional game, at least on the surface. The player (or reader) controls a child character who falls into an underground realm of monsters—sealed behind a barrier there after a war with humans—and must then journey to the monster king’s castle to find a way out. Along the way, the child character encounters various monsters, and must choose how to handle them. But the player gets encouragement almost right away (by a motherly goat monster) to Act or communicate with each monster, rather than Fight them. Choosing to Act often involves reading the dialogue of the monsters in the encounter, learning their motivations (reading comprehension), and choosing appropriate actions to take in order to appease or befriend them. And when the monsters no longer consider the child a threat, they allow the player to Spare them (which is different than simply running away or fleeing from the confrontation; you even still get money from it). By befriending each monster in such a fashion, known as the “Pacifist Run,” the narrative plays out very much like a fairytale.

Treating Undertale like a convention RPG game, however, where the player fights monsters to earn experience points and levels, provokes a “Genocide Run” and a much different narrative. Characters who would have been your best friends in the Pacifist Run turn into often unwilling enemies. Meanwhile, your own child character gradually transforms into a serial killer figure. Rather than simply tell a different narrative about the child triumphing over scary monsters if you choose to fight them, the narrative stresses the player as a destructive force in the underground. An awful creature that the main monster characters (in either run) must defend against. Thus the narrative for player who completes a full Genocide Run quickly spirals into a tragedy.

The focus on narrative that Undertale takes, in the semblance of a conventional RPG game, only scratches the surface of its many layers as a text. But it is one of many features that marks Undertale out as an example of digital literature.

 

What does everyone think? Do you agree with me?

Please feel free to comment below!

Writer’s Journal: 16 July 2017

Happy Sunday, everyone! I must admit, Sundays are among my favorite days in the week. They lay like bookmarks between the initial excitement of Saturday, and the busy week right around the corner. In other words, they can act like cool-down periods or transitions from one chapter in life to the next. For some reason, out in the countryside, it seems even quieter than usual as well. It’s as if even the natural world slows down or takes life just a bit easier than at any other time.

But Sundays are also fine takes for tidying up around the home, I’ve also found. For instance, today I wound up rearranging all the books on the shelves throughout my bedroom. I’m sure many people can relate to having rooms where they have books at least somewhere on every wall, almost like a nest of texts. And while re-organizing, I kept coming across books I had completely forgotten about, and kept pausing to read at least a chapter or two from each one.

Richard Adam’s Watership Down, Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather, and Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story—they were among the various titles that I rediscovered again. Isn’t it wonderful how certain books can keep astonishing us, or fill us with such delight when we come across them again after many months or even years?

Do you understand what I mean? What do you think?

Feel free to share your thoughts below!

Thanks, and hope everyone is doing well. ;3

Book Review: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Certain books have a way of finding the people who need the messages they contain at just the right moment. I found Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist on the shelves of a Salvation Army, an edition with an interview from the author at the back, a little after entering an undergraduate program in Literature & Writing Studies a few years back. It was a time that stirred as much excitement as trepidation. For while I loved the idea of studying literature and creative writing, since they filled me with endless delight, I was also quite conscious of the newspaper articles that told of students who wound up in minimum-wage jobs after college.

In such a rough economy, could I follow my passions and still have a bright future?

Coelho’s The Alchemist is a fairytale all about the many challenges and rewards of pursuing personal dreams or goals. The narrative follows an Andalusian boy named Santiago who, in the midst to tending to his flock of sheep, begins to have a recurrent dream of visiting the pyramids in Egypt. After his interactions with a fortune-teller, who tells him the dream reveals a treasure he must find at the pyramids, and a mysterious self-proclaimed king, who stresses everyone must follow their own destinies, Santiago embarks on a quest to seek out his treasure.

The above really sets up the entire narrative for The Alchemist, and as Santiago progresses on his journey, the morals and messages Coelho wants to convey come across with graceful ease. Most of them have to deal with pursuing aspirations that, to the individuals feel right, and adhere to what Coelho’s king character terms, “The Heart of the World.”

For instance, at one point Santiago meets a glass merchant who longed to make a religious pilgrimage. But due to financial circumstances, he opened up a shop and—in many ways—wound up stuck there because it seemed easier to do than fulfilling his dream. There is an extra thoughtful layer to his own hesitancy, which is interesting but I won’t reveal here, just because I do not want to spoil the subtle twist at this particular moment in the narrative. Needless to say, however, the glass merchant’s situation is one of the many variations of how people deal with the pursuit of their dreams.

Yet the strongest message of all—and one Santiago uncovers bit by bit—is if people pursue dreams or passions that fill them with joy, and they continue to do so even when challenges arise, they will eventually reach their goals. This uplifting message is one of my favorite aspects of The Alchemist, and among the reasons I return to read Coelho’s story again and again. The prose is gentle and easy to read (with additional thanks to the translator Alan R. Clarke), and the characters are both memorable and sympathetic.

The Alchemist is also a relatively quick read, being just a little over 150 pages (depending on the edition). During my first session with it, I was able to sit down and read through the entire narrative in a few hours. And I’m glad to report that afterwards I felt invigorated and encouraged in the pursuit of my own dreams.

Thank you, Coelho!

Have any of you had uplifting or interesting experiences with Coelho’s The Alchemist? Please feel free to share your experiences by commenting below. ^_^