Elixir has a Companion

Sometimes being concise, to the point or sparing, achieves more than being long winded or verbose.

Regular readers will remember I enjoy writing and reading short, short fiction, otherwise known as Nano, Micro, Flash or Hint fiction.  I had a modicum of success with this genre last year when one of my stories was longlisted for the joanne burns Award.

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It was published last month in Landmarks and to celebrate I decided to create Elixir’s sister blog, Concise.

THE NEW SITE is tottering about on unsteady feet at the moment but I hope to add more stories in the next few weeks and eventually open it to other writers of short, short fiction. In the meantime, I am shamelessly flogging my new creation to all and sundry in an effort to make it feel welcome. Feel free to visit, read the stories, comment, follow the blog and share the site with your friends.

Thank you,

Janet

Reading: Why I Love to Write, Part 5

I love to write because (not that I need a reason), writing is a good reason to read …

…widely,

… deeply,

… outside my comfort zone,

… alone, on a bus, in a cafe, every day, several times a day, upon waking and before going to bed.

Reading_Library

For me, a world without books is a night sky without stars.

It’s been said before, but a writer who doesn’t read is like a cello player who refuses to practice. There is little point in picking up the bow that is a writer’s instrument, a pen, unless the hand that grips the pen (or plies the keyboard) has a book close by. If you want to write, don’t listen to anyone who tells you to avoid reading books because books will ‘influence you’, or because you may unconsciously ‘copy’ the author’s voice or style. Books, plays and poems are your teachers, even poorly constructed, banal books will teach you something valuable; what not to do. This means you must read critically, mindfully, analytically but also with abandon.

This is the final blog on this topic. A friend told me last night he was pleased I acknowledged the positive side of writing. Our world seems, lately, to strain under the weight of negativity. We know things could be better and many of us seek a path through and around our despondency. May your path be strewn with books, may it be a paper trail at the end of which is a fountain spilling over with your lovingly collected, collated and celebrated words.

Happy Writing

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You are welcome to share: What was your happiest writing experience?

 

 

 

Thinking: Why I love to Write, Part 2

What happens when you put a writer into a fMRI Scanner and map their brain while they write? A team from the Functional Imaging Unit, at the Institute for Diagnostic Radiology and Neuroradiology, and their colleagues from the Institute for Creative Writing and Cultural Journalism, both in Germany, had twenty-eight writers to do just that. (1)  The researchers wanted to know which areas of the brain ‘light up’ during a creative writing session. Each writer brainstormed a story and then wrote ‘a new and creative continuation of a given literary text’,(2). The task is based on a modified version of Linda Flower and John R. Hayes’s model of the process involved in creative writing.

It was found that

 ‘‘brainstorming’’ involves fronto-parieto-temporal brain activity for generating novel and original ideas and composing the concept of the story. The observed premotor activity in ‘‘brainstorming’’ indicates the integrated preparation of the writing process. ‘‘Creative writing’’ combines handwriting processes and cognitive writing processes, which are predominantly associated with episodic memory, semantic integration, and a free associative and spontaneous cognitive text production. (p13)

The researchers also investigated the verbal aspect of ‘‘creative writing’’ and found it involved the left fronto-temporal network.

I’m not a neuroscientist, so the significance of these specific networks is lost on me, and Flower and Hayes’ theory of how writers approach their craft is not the only one. The point is, science confirms what writers have always known: writers are thinkers and writing is thinking on the page. It’s tempting to associate ‘creativity’ with magic, mysticism and even ‘divine inspiration’. It can certainly feel like that when writing goes well. Scientific studies confirm, however, that creative writing is the result of perception, learning, reason, analysis and critical thinking.

As studies of the brain continue, neuroscientists will provide detailed information about how writers write. I hope these studies are combined with investigations into how the brain develops, reacts to and heals post-traumatic stress and other mental health problems. Maybe then we will understand why and how therapeutic writing works. For now, to paraphrase John Lennon, it is enough to know that when writers write their brains ‘shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun’ and that is why I love to write.

 

References

Flower, Linda, and John R. Hayes, ‘A cognitive process theory of writing’ in College composition and communication, 32.4 (1981), pp. 365-387.

Shah, Carolin, et al. ‘Neural correlates of creative writing: an fMRI study’ in Human Brain Mapping, 34.5 (2013), pp. 1088-1101.

Solitude: Why I love to Write, Part 1

I spend too much time complaining about writing instead of sharing its joys. Yes, writing is a gruelling task but because sitting in front of the computer and writing can be rewarding, the next few posts will celebrate writing and focus on its joys and benefits.

Let’s start with solitude. It’s good to spend time alone, to sit at a table, whether in an elegant, light-filled study or the local cafe, and relax, breathe, play with different methods of ordering and recording one’s thoughts and experience the thrill of catching an image, emotion or character. Writing is a way to listen deeply to the self and to the messages life scatters along our path: what to make of that recent dinner party? Why did that person behave so strangely? What were the elderly couple on the bus whispering to each other? Writing is a way to sift through the feelings, images and conversations of each day and share them with the page and maybe a reader or two.

William Wordsworth once wrote:

When from our better selves we have too long
been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
how gracious, how benign, is solitude.

‘The Prelude’, from Book IV “Summer Vacation”

The opportunity to write in solitude (even in a busy cafe) is a double blessing, and one of the many joys of writing.

On Being Concise

new-pic-2Elixir was created from a desire to reflect on therapeutic writing and its benefits. Its reception has been encouraging and I have enjoyed writing the blog and reading your comments.

Elixir helped me test and develop my writing skills, and gave me the confidence to continue.

I believe, however, that it no longer fulfils my needs as a writer.

Perhaps it’s time stop taking medicine and accept the healing has happened?

Elixir has a companion page, ‘Sparks’, containing five short, short stories or, as I like to call them, hint fiction. ‘The Listening Place’ and ‘Neo Natal’ were recently read at the Quart Short Literary Reading Nights, Autumn Shorts 2017. Another of my pieces of flash fiction, ‘Underpass’ has been published in Landmarks. These modest successes reflect my passion for condensed, intense, concentrated stories, a genre that promotes carefully constructed, abbreviated but powerful narrative moments.

Elixir, therefore, will give way to Concise, an occasional magazine of flash fiction, hint fiction and short stories.  I will initially publish my own work, then gradually introduce the work of friends and fellow enthusiasts of the genre. Later this year I will call for written ‘pitches’ of no more than 500 words. Should your pitch be successful I will ask you to send your short story and, if it is suitable, publish it in Concise although I won’t be able to pay writers.

But more of that later; for now, expect to see, in the next week or two, changes to the look and content of this blog. If, because of the change in name, you lose the link, you will find me here: janetgthomas.com

An elixir was thought capable of curing all ills as well as being a mythical substance with the power to create gold from base metals. Concise is not a quest for gold; it is a search for compact, creative, evocative and meaningful short narratives that will challenge, inspire and entertain. Being concise is a potent way to share our precious and provocative moments.

The Chairman

Photo: Caleb George

Everyone hoped he’d make some changes, do the right thing because Jacinta was one of the 30%: tall, attractive, well-educated and highly motivated.

‘Jacinta handled her promotion exceptionally well,’ he said finally.  ‘She did exactly what we asked. Pruned the  inefficient members of her team without too big a stir. Shifted three more staff into different departments and dealt competently with the complaints. The new work practices she introduced are spot on. I thought them unusual at the time but productivity has certainly improved.

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Photo: Jeffrey Betts

I’m going to ask her to run an in-house seminar. Outline her methods, give the department heads an idea of what’s possible. She can help them implement her ideas. Her people skills are excellent. Her entire staff attended her wedding last month, as did I. Great food and an excellent band. Yes, Jacinta Freeman, now Mrs Jacinta Walton, has served this company well.’

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Photo Mary Whitney

The board held its collective breath. ‘So I’m positive Jacinta will understand; it’s Geoff Hardcastle’s turn, despite his recent troubles.  When your wife gives birth to twins, that makes things … difficult. But the twins are, what? A year old now? Mia Hardcastle was at Jacinta’s wedding, she was beaming, coping,  she said, really well.’ He didn’t add that Mia looked great in that low-cut dress now her figure was back, or that she told anyone who’d listen she’s looking forward to returning to work. Made a point of including him in her smile, almost winking at him. Of course, there was that unaccountable little incident when Geoff danced with the new girl from sales, but only a few people saw it. Jacinta whisked Mia off, made sure she had another coffee and extra cake and everything was fine again with no one the wiser. And Geoff? He’s solid, a good man in a scrum.

‘Yes,’ said the Chairman, ‘Geoff is on track again and deserves a break.’ And again he didn’t say what he was thinking, that Jacinta is married, probably a mother herself soon; he saw her cooing over photographs of the twins on Mia’s mobile. ‘I’m giving it to Hardcastle,’ he told the waiting board. ‘Hardcastle’s the man for the job.’

On Momentum, Saying ‘No’ and Self-Belief

In the last three years I have spent November marking final assignments and completing numerous end of semester tasks. This year my November is, or was, free and I am participating in NaNoWriMo.

I have to admit, however, this month long word belch feels a little … is déclassé the word I’m looking for? After all, anyone I  know who has written a novel didn’t write it in a month.  

On the other hand I risk sounding like the kind of snob I occasionally met at Grad school; writers who turned up their noses at the very idea of a write-in with a weird acronym.

Just after deciding to take part in NaNoWriMo 2016 I read SuddenlyJamie’s inspirational blog post and, heartened by her balanced and sensible approach to the November madness, I plunged right in.

How have I gone so far? I’ve written 13,689 words in the last eight days, a little over the recommended daily average for a 50,000 word novel. Apart from taking a break on Sunday, and struggling to regain my momentum on Monday, the experience has been worth it. I admit to having trouble trusting the quality of the words but I understand that’s partly what NaNoWriMo is about; getting the words on the screen or the page and editing later. So far I’ve resisted the voice in my head saying, ‘You need a comma there. Oh, no, you’re not going to let THAT word stay are you? Good heavens, a ten year old could write a better sentence.’

I also wonder if I have the persistence to maintain my current word rate and the self belief necessary to compete the 50,000 word challenge and then craft, edit and polish the entire novel (a total of 75,000 words, once I add the 25,000 I wrote over two years ago). My biggest concern, however, is will I be able to say ‘No,’ to requests on my time?

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Stephanie Krist

The kind of momentum required for something like NaNoWriMo is as much about self belief as time. I may not reach my goal of 50,000 words but that doesn’t mean I will fail. If I stop because I have a ‘my brain feels like wet straw,’ day or because I agree to requests that draw me away from my computer, I will fail; I will no longer be true to the idea of myself as a woman who writes.

I did not decide to participate in NaNoWriMo because I want, on the 30th November, a completed first ‘discovery draft’ of a novel. My participation is an act of faith in myself.

Are you taking part in this year’s NaNoWriMo? How do you gather and maintain the momentum needed to complete your daily word count? How do you maintain self belief?  How will you feel if you don’t meet your goal? (Would you like a writing buddy?)

Photography: Developing your Eye. Day One

Just as I was wondering what to do for my next post I discovered Photography Developing your Eye, had commenced. I’ve been looking forward to doing this WordPress Course because, about three years ago, my son gave me his old camera. Every so often I took it out from its bag, took a few shots and promised myself I’d learn to use it properly. What I thought ‘properly’ meant I’m not sure. Become familiar with the ins and outs of shutter speed? Become conversant with depth of field? Or maybe learn how to frame an image?

My son is a talented photographer, so when he said, after I showed him a few of my photos, ‘you have a good eye, Mum,’ I glowed with pleasure. Despite his encouragement, however, I haven’t given myself the time I need to become comfortable with my camera even though I’d love to create a collection of images and write about them. I promised myself I’d attend a photography class but writing has been the main focus of this year and so any attempts at image making have been delayed.

Maybe Photography Developing your Eye will change that? At least it is a chance to play with words and images and see what comes of it. It’s a good a place as any to start.

Today’s theme  is ‘Home’. We were asked to share what we think of when we think of home and take a photo of it. I grabbed my mobile phone instead of the camera – it’s afternoon here and I don’t have the time to take a photo, load it on to the computer, write a post and then upload it all – so the mobile with suffice for today.

In terms of what I think when I think of home, I immediately headed for the fruit bowl. From the day I moved, as a newly married woman, into my first home I have always had a bowl of fruit on the dining table or sideboard. Visitors need never ask; whatever is in the bowl is there for the taking.

It’s a dull day outside, one of many grey days we’ve experienced this winter.  This large, generous bowl of light leavens the chill, muted day. No matter the season or where I live, my fruit bowl will always say, ‘Welcome, help yourself.’

Gathering at the Well: An Anniversary Post

I posted my first blog twelve months ago today and I’ve been pondering what to write for this occasion.  9QEVP5YHO3I considered describing the steep learning curve I experienced over the last twelve months and the mistakes I have made. I thought I might summarise the year’s posts, explain what I hoped to do and assess whether or not I achieved my goals. I considered celebrating what I see as my ‘coming of age’ (finally) as a writer and sharing what I’ve learned about myself as a result.

None of these ideas appealed.

I’ve decided, therefore, to resort to a tried a true blogging technique: a list. This list is, however, a bit different. I want to express my gratitude for the interest in and support of Elixir. It is my attempt to give back what twelve months of blogging has given me.

  • Thanks WordPress. You’ve been sensational. From creating my first blog, to Discover and BlogU, the support you offer and the hassle free connection with other bloggers has been exceptional. I am deeply grateful for your existence.
  • Thanks to my partner who patiently reads and edits my posts, who shares my enthusiasm and sympathises when the writing doesn’t go well and who has, for the last seven months, been my patron as well as my lover and friend. You are … astonishing.
  • To the friend who inspired the first post, when the blog’s main focus was therapeutic writing. It’s been ten years since your diagnosis and recover, but we missed the celebration this month because I’ve been busy writing. You have nevertheless been much in my thoughts. Thanks for your inspiration, for understanding writing takes up a lot of my time now and for being a steadfast friend. I owe you a champagne.
  • To the woman I met one June day in 1970 who is now a lifelong friend and confidante. On the day I published my first post you wrote, ‘I am so very proud’. Those words meant the world to me. You’re in the US right now, visiting family but I think of you every day and hope I can continue to make you proud.
  • To my many other friends who’ve read my posts, liked the posts via Facebook or commented on the posts in person, thank you. I am privileged to call you my friends. I’ve not seen as many of you in the last few months as I would have liked. I’ve become so focused on my writing since retiring but please know each and every one of you inspire me with your wisdom, intelligence, warmth and generosity. I may emerge from this self-devised writing intensive one day. When I do I hope we can catch up.
  • Special thanks to my first Guest Blogger, Barbara Brown. Thank you for writing something that inspired this and one other post. Not only are you a wonderful writer, your untiring work for refugees is an inspiration. I’m also grateful that you started a Book Club, Barb. Long may it live. cropped-80ryzdj8ue.jpg
  • Thanks to the members of my newly formed and growing-stronger-every-month writing group. We found each other by accident, but what a happy accident. We support and challenge each other and make the long hours at the computer worthwhile. You’re amazing writers; don’t ever stop writing.
  • Thanks also to my longtime Writing Buddy Louise. You’ve stuck with me through my various incarnations as a writer: dilettante; hopeful beginner; student. I love your poetry, admire your wit and am astounded by your wisdom.
  • Thank you from the bottom of my heart to my readers. Who are you guys? I want to invite you around for dinner! I particularly want to thank Calensariel Impromptu Promptings and peculiar ponderings. You have followed me almost from the start and I have learned a lot from reading your blog. I hope that, despite the kilometres of sea and land that separate us, we have become friends not only because we just ‘clicked’ somehow, but because you are a loving, compassionate, curious human being and you make me think. Raili over at Soul Gifts has also been a staunch follower, and … well I have 75 followers and I am rather gobsmacked by you all. Thank you for making it ‘real’ for me, for making me sit down at the computer and for the wisdom I read in your blogs.
  • Finally, thank you to my children. Your mother has always been a mite strange, but you’re accustomed to me now and you seem to cope exceptionally well with having a mother (and mother-in-law) who blogs. I promise I will continue to honour your privacy and share as little of your shenanigans as possible, unless you do something completely weird and then I promise nothing.

As I prepared my first blog post I remember feeling excited and uncertain. I worried that I would become caught up in a passing fad. I’ve since learned that blogging is not only about sharing my thoughts and ideas it’s about engaging with a variety of new and different thoughts and ideas. Blogging connects people.  Credit: Saved from images.search.yahoo.comIt is the equivalent of the village well, a meeting place where we draw sustenance from those also gathered at the well, where we offer succour to others, where we relate and  listen, where we strive to understand our lives and our world. I am honoured to be a part of this community.

What about you? How do you draw on the well that is blogging? What do you give and what have you gained since you started blogging?

On Fulfilling a Challenge

Have you ever set yourself a challenge? Something long-term and personally meaningful, something that, when completed, surprised, delighted and satisfied you?

Back on the 4th July 2015, around the time I decided to retire, I set myself such a challenge. Aaron_BurdenI had another five months of classes to prepare and teach, but I was eager to start my ‘new’ life as a full-time writer. I always found it difficult to maintain a regular writing routine while teaching, so I knew ‘writing ten minutes a day’ wasn’t, at that time, going to work. I had to find something else that would prepare me for the rest of my life.

I decided to immerse myself in one aspect of my art: short stories. I set myself the challenge of reading one short story a day, every day, for twelve months.

Reader, I did it. Ten days ago, on the 4th July 2016, I read Kate Chopin’s ‘Regret’, the 366th (yes, I added an extra) story, thus ending my challenge. I have to say it was the best thing I have ever done. Not only did reading a wide selection of short stories inform my writing, I think it made me a better person.

I tended to stick to stories and collections written by women; it was my challenge and so I could follow my inclinations and biases. I discovered, during the challenge, writers I didn’t know about and rediscovered writers I had enjoyed years ago. In the case of the latter, reading Kerryn Goldsworthy’s wonderful Australian Women’s Stories: An Oxford Anthology K_G_Bookfelt like walking in to a roomful of women, many of who were old friends and many others I wanted to learn more about. Barbara Baynton’s ‘The Chosen Vessel’, from that collection, is an Australian short story classic. I have read it several times and, yes, this is a cliché, but it never fails to move me. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do so straight away.

Another collection I read was Contemporary Canadian Short Stories, edited by Michael Ondaatje. My reaction to this was mixed; I enjoyed most of the stories but was perplexed by the inclusion of several others. I learned, however, a lot about Canada’s history and its people. I have always wanted to visit Canada and this book fed that ambition. I’ve also decided to read a more recent collection of Canadian short stories; if you have a favourite, please let me know.

Another discovery was The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.   Davis_lydiaI’d known about flash fiction before finding this collection but Davis’ book has strengthened my interest in short, short stories. I am astounded by how she says so much in such a small form.

All in all, I read from about 21 collections (many of which I bought, putting, in the process, severe stress on my budget). I only read four of them from cover to cover, preferring to cherry pick from the others and expose myself to as wide a variety of writers and genres as possible. The bonus is, I still have many of these collections to complete, so I’ll be working through my short story collection for many years to come.

I also strayed into creative (or literary) nonfiction, those mostly erudite gems whose facets include truth, dialogue, characterisation, setting and plot. This is one of my favourite genres and something I want to work on so Helen Garner’s recent book, Everywhere I Look felt like a literary benediction. I read each story slowly and I didn’t want it to finish.

I also discovered podcasts. This was in the latter months of 2015, when I was still teaching and struggling to stick to my resolve of consuming a story a day. Every time I caught the bus to work I set up my mobile, put in my ear plugs and clicked on to New Yorker: Fiction or New Yorker: The Author’s Voice. Oh, the joys of being read to again.

Regrettably I only dipped into one short story magazine, mostly because purchasing them would have stretched the budget too far. As a writer, however, reading as many magazines as possible is a good idea, especially when I’m considering submitting a story.

Another happy discovery was Wild  Ways: New Stories about Women on the Road.  WildWays It was given to me by a friend who was clearing books from her personal library. This friend is much travelled and I suspect she gave it to me because I’m just the opposite; I’ve been overseas once. I loved this collection. It was full of funny, feisty, adventurous women and while I was reading it I wanted to get on the first plane to anywhere.

I learned so much from this challenge, although only a little in terms of how to write a short story. Back in 2004 I studied short story writing in depth, when I returned to university as an undergraduate. This is not to say I know everything about writing a short story, far from it. Three months into my challenge, I found I was immersed in the world of short stories and the short story writer and I had started looking beyond the different elements that make up a short story. I think I developed a more nuanced awareness of the intricacies and complexities of the short form. I absorbed, I believe, a deeper understanding of how the genre works and why it is so important. If I chose, I could probably bash out an academic essay about each element of story writing, but a good short story is more than a clever arrangement of those elements. Having read 366 short stories in a year, I think a good short story is like a tree in the forest, the one you come across that makes you stop. The one that holds your gaze because, even if its branches are askew, its leaves withered, and its roots knotty, the pattern of light and shade that tree affords, the interaction of that tree with the earth and the sky, is so inspiring, so fascinating it doesn’t need to be perfect. All that such stories need is the brush of your breath on the page, like the wind that brushes through the leaves of a tree, to complete it.

I read so many short good stories it is impossible to list and discuss them all. More importantly, the ones I like may be the very stories you’d reject. Yes, there are classics, universally loved tales that most people agree have all the elements perfectly arranged, but over the last year I stepped into several beautiful forests, I was arrested by many single trees whose branches embraced me, who revealed in their pattern of leaf and twig, a different sky, a further horizon.

I miss the routine of sitting down each day and reading a story, although the truth is I didn’t manage to do it every single day. In late 2015, essay and exam marking meant I never quite found the right moment. Christmas and New Year always chews up my days; who would want it any other way? I always caught up though, and I learned to love missed days because it meant I could sit and catch up on two or three stories at a time.

Every so often, in the last ten days, I have stopped what I’m doing and wondered what is missing. Then I realise I haven’t read a short story and I remember; my challenge is over. Except it isn’t. I’ve set myself a new challenge, only this time I’m not going to work on it every day; I want this challenge to be more leisured and measured. I am going to read Shakespeare: all the plays (some of them for a third or fourth time), in the order he wrote them; all the poems and all the sonnets. NortonI’ve started with ‘The First Part of the Contention’, which, it is assumed, is his first play. I’m up to Act III Scene i and I can’t wait to read more.

I’m not sure how long it will take me to complete this challenge, and I’m not sure I care. What I can say is, in the process, I’ll learn a lot about drama, about writing and about the human condition. That’s why I read; it’s one of the best ways to understand our fellow humans.

WHAT challenges have you set yourself that you’re still involved in? What challenges have you completed? What did you learn about yourself and others while doing the challenge? What kind of challenges would you like to set for yourself and why?

References

Davis, Lydia. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.
Daly, Margo, and Jill Dawson. Wild Ways: New Stories About Women on the Road. London: Sceptre, 1998.
Garner, Helen. Everywhere I Look. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2016.
Goldsworthy, Kerryn. Australian Women’s Stories: An Oxford Anthology. South Melbourne, Vic: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Ondaatje, Michael. The Faber Book of Contemporary Canadian Short Stories. Faber, 1990.
http://www.newyorker.com/series/fiction-podcast
http://www.newyorker.com/podcast/the-authors-voice/introducing-the-authors-voice-new-fiction-from-the-new-yorker

(Edited 17/7/16)