The Colors of the Writing Rainbow

As time pushes on, as the months and years pass by and life navigates its twists and turns, the things we learned in school sometimes blur into the trees and promontories of the background.

windingpath

 

We might remember our first date, our best friend from school, we may recall, painfully, feelings of rejection and loneliness, moments of ridicule.

But how many in-class lessons do we remember?  Can we remember anything pertinent our 8th-grade algebra teacher taught us?  (Well, surely, Marc Kuslanski can!)  How about 10th-grade history or chemistry?  Sadly, so much is lost, often irretrievably so.  But some lessons endure.  Some remain vibrant and alive, decades later.

lessonslearned

 

For me, one such lesson occurred one sunny spring day in English class when I was a freshman in high school.  The teacher, a large, balding man with a soft voice, was a writer at heart, and sometimes, seemingly at random, he would provide the class with tips for the craft.  Some of the students would roll their eyes, yawn, check their wristwatches.  But I was riveted.  Even back then, I knew I wanted to be a writer.  So I watched as he scrawled his ideas on the blackboard, and I listened . . .

rochesterspring

 

That particular early May morning, one of the first hot days after the grueling, gray upstate New York winter, at the start of class, he had written the following on the blackboard . . .

R

O

Y

G

B

I

V

“Can anyone tell me what those letters stand for?” he asked?

Several students looked away–at their sneakers, their desks, their textbooks, the wall–anywhere but at the teacher.  But one girl raised her hand, eager to provide the answer.

“They’re the colors of the rainbow,” she said.  “Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and . . .”  she paused for effect  . . . “violet.”

roygbiv

 

The teacher nodded, but then explained that, today, they stood for something else.

“Let’s call them the colors of the writing rainbow,” he said.  “Each letter stands for some quality you should always bring to your writing, be it essay assignments, newspaper articles, poems, or the great American novel.”

greatamericannovel

 

He turned to the blackboard, and began to write.   Many of the students in class that day did not take notes on what followed.  It wasn’t something we’d be tested on, after all.  It was just an ancillary lesson, a teacher’s effort to venture outside the box of the curriculum and share with us something he loved, something he felt deeply about.

I did take notes, however, jotting them down in my spiral notebook.  Even today, they serve as a reminder, a guide of sorts, and they were very much with me when I wrote The Eye-Dancers, like lingering echoes from an old friend.

notebook

 

What follows, in a nutshell, is what my 9th-grade English teacher taught that day.

***********

R is for “Read.”  Any writer serious about his or her craft, first and foremost, needs to read.  A lot.  Read what you like and read a few things you don’t like.  Learn what works and what doesn’t.  Absorb like a sponge.

read

 

O is for “Open-mindedness.”  When someone criticizes your work, listen, carefully, to what they are saying.  Do not close your mind or your ears.  Weigh the critique, objectively, examining its merit.  Do not become defensive.  If you agree with the criticism, even in part, then keep it in mind for future writing projects.  If you genuinely disagree with it, factually disagree with it–then brush it off and move forward.

critique

 

Y is for “Young.”  “Even I can remember what it was like to be eight years old,” he said, smiling.  “So surely you can, too.”  Approach each writing project with fresh eyes and a child-like enthusiasm.  Be excited.  Be passionate.  Don’t be jaded.  Rekindle that sense of wonder you once had.  Remember the first time you wrote something you loved?  Try to approach each new creative project with the same spirit.

passion

 

G is for “Give.”  Give of yourself, generously, completely–be willing to bleed, to open your heart and spill its contents onto the page.  Be honest with your readers always.

heart

 

B is for “Basics.”  They are not the most exciting aspects of the writing trade, but the fundamentals are crucial.  Sweat the small stuff.  Revise, revise, and revise some more.  And learn the nuts and bolts of the language, the rules of grammar and usage.  Don’t fall into the trap of saying, “That’s what my teacher is for,” or, “That’s what my editor is for.”  You are your own editor.

grammar

 

I is for “Indefatigable.”  Be tireless, be persistent, never give up.  If you send out a hundred stories for publication and receive a hundred rejection slips back, send out the one hundred and first.  Persistence is as important in writing, and pursuing your goals, as talent, perhaps more so.  Do not allow yourself to quit.  Hold on tight to your dreams, and keep reaching for the stars.

tortoise

 

V is for “Vistas.”  Explore new areas of interest, read and write in new genres.  Swim far out, where you can no longer glimpse the land, and dive down deep into the creative waters.  Try not to allow yourself to be pigeonholed as a writer.  You are not exclusively a “poet” or an “essayist” or a weaver of “fairy tales.” You are not a “suspense” writer or a “romance” writer or a “young adult” writer.    You are a writer.

vistas

 

*****************

When he was finished with this impromptu lecture, he simply segued into that day’s regular lesson.  I can’t remember what it was.

But I’ll never forget the Colors of the Writing Rainbow.

rainbow

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Show . . . and Tell

The great Russian author Anton Chekhov once said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

chekhov

 

In a single sentence, Chekhov illustrates one of the fundamental tenets of good writing, something so ingrained in writers as to be self-evident; a core principle so universally accepted, acknowledged as truth, it is generally regarded as beyond debate . . .

“Show.  Don’t tell.”

donttell

 

I can’t even count how many times I’ve encountered that piece of writer’s advice in my lifetime.  In nearly every essay or book or column on creative writing, “show, don’t tell” is right at the top of the list.  And rightfully so.  To be able to transport a reader, an author must be able to paint word-pictures that are crisp, clear, vivid–images that resonate and stick in the mind long after the page is turned.

showdonttell

 

Consider the following example from The Grass Harp.  Here, in the story’s second paragraph, master wordsmith Truman Capote’s descriptions are so vivid, you are immediately placed in the world of his imagination . . .

grassharp

 

“If on leaving town you take the church road you soon will pass a glaring hill of bonewhite slabs and brown burnt flowers: this is the Baptist cemetery.  Our people, Talbos, Fenwicks, are buried there; my mother lies next to my father, and the graves of kinfolk, twenty or more, are around them like the prone roots of a stony tree.  Below the hill lies a field of high Indian grass that changes color with the seasons: go to see it in the fall, late September, when it has gone red as sunset, when scarlet shadows like firelight breeze over it and the autumn winds strum on its dry leaves sighing human music, a harp of voices.”

Reading a paragraph like that, the words and images are not soon forgotten.  It is Capote’s tremendous gift of language and style, and his ability to “show and not just tell,” that turns the trick.  The imagery is so vivid, it is as if he has taken a photograph and placed it in the margins of the page.  Close your eyes and imagine the field of high grass, the blades swaying in the autumn wind . . .

indiangrass

 

And yet . . . for all its merit, “show, don’t tell,” is only half-true.

*********

At the end of chapter 8 in The Eye-Dancers, soon after arriving in the variant town of Colbyville, Mitchell Brant meets a girl by the name of Heather.  Red-faced and tongue-tied around girls, his speech impediment made worse than ever due to nerves, Mitchell is shocked when she calls him cute.  As the chapter ends, he watches her walk away, thinking about what has just transpired . . .

blushing

 

“He just stood there, gaping after her.  Thoughts of the ghost girl, of getting back home to his mom and dad and sister were ten billion miles away.

“‘Cutie.’ She had called him ‘cutie.’

“For a second, one beautiful moment in time, he felt like a hero, like the guys at school who all the pretty girls wanted.

“He wished the feeling would last, linger like a sweet aftertaste.  But he knew it wouldn’t.  Not for him.  Not for the dork who couldn’t talk right.

“Not for Mitchell Brant.”

If you were to analyze this passage through a strict lens of “show, don’t tell,” it would fail miserably.  There is a lot of telling going on here.  We are told that, for a brief moment, Mitchell feels like a hero and wishes the feeling will last–though, ultimately, he realizes that it won’t.  But I would argue it is precisely this quality that sets the printed page apart from the Silver Screen.

silverscreen

 

In a movie or a television episode, the creators are forced to show, all the time.  Unless there is a voice-over, there can be no “telling” in a movie.  In the excerpt above, if The Eye-Dancers were to be made into a film (I can dream, can’t I?), maybe we would see Mitchell reaching after Heather’s retreating figure, grabbing a fistful of air.  Maybe his expression, initially, would tell us that he is basking in her compliment.  But then, with a twitch of the mouth, a downturn of the face, a shake of the head, the actor playing Mitchell would convey his sense that nothing could ever come of it, that the pretty girl he’d just met would never really be interested in him.

Maybe.  But even if this happens, it wouldn’t be with the same depth that fiction can provide.  In a story, a novel, we often go inside the POV character’s head, living with their thoughts, their secrets, their forbidden longings and deep-rooted fears.  We get to know them intimately, and in ways we never could in a movie.

And how is this possible?

insidehead

 

Because we are told what they are thinking.

At the start of A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, one of my favorite novels, the main character returns to his old stomping grounds, The Devon School.  And he tells us what he is feeling . . .

separatepeace

 

“I didn’t entirely like this glossy new surface, because it made the school look like a museum, and that’s exactly what it was to me, and what I did not want it to be.  In the deep, tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought, I had always felt that the Devon School had come into existence the day I entered it, was vibrantly real while I was a student there, and then blinked out like a candle the day I left.”

***************

“Show, don’t tell,” would be the appropriate mantra for a movie producer or a screenwriter.  But for a fiction writer?  There needs to be a blend, a happy medium of internal thoughts and outward displays, interior monologues and sequences where actions do all the speaking.

writingclass

 

“Show, don’t tell,” is only partially true.

When it comes to storytelling, perhaps we should say, instead . . .

“Show, and tell.”

showandtell

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Marc Kuslanski, “Know-It-Alls,” and the Sixth-Grade Spelling Bee

Marc Kuslanski is a know-it-all, plain and simple.  From the time we first meet him in The Eye-Dancers, in chapter four, it’s all too evident that he loves the sound of his own voice, and rarely doubts that his theories or explanations are accurate.  Marc’s the kind of person who, when asked a question about anything, will be quick to offer his opinion.  Even if he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he acts like he does.

I have to admit, I used to be a little bit like Marc myself.  I like to think I’ve matured a bit over the years, and no longer go around trying to prove my point or picking arguments about inconsequential pieces of trivia (though some of my friends may disagree!).  But when I was right around Marc’s age in The Eye-Dancers, I was all too quick to try to prove how much I knew.  Geography?  I memorized the state capitals of all fifty U.S. states, not to mention numerous nations around the world.  Presidents?  I made it a point to recite all the U.S. presidents, in a row, in under twenty-five seconds.  When my parents had guests, I’d go over to them and say, “You wanna hear something?”  And then:  “WashingtonAdamaJeffersonMadisonMonroeQuincy-AdamsJacksonVan BurenHarrisonTylerPolkTaylorFillmore . . .”  I don’t think I ever stopped for a breath.  And when I ended with Reagan (this was the ’80s, after all), I checked my watch.  My record was eighteen seconds.

Looking back, I shake my head.  I needed a humbling experience in the worst way, and in the sixth grade, I got one. . . .

The Spelling Bee.  I had done well enough in the preliminaries to make it to the final bee–in the school auditorium on a cold, snowy western New York winter day.  The auditorium was full of parents, teachers, students.  Was I nervous?  Who, me?  I would win the bee, no problem!  I didn’t have a doubt.  I looked to my left and right–sizing up my competition.  A dozen students sat in a line, on metal folding chairs.  Onstage, we looked out over the auditorium.  I saw my mom and dad four rows back.  They caught me looking and waved.  Let’s get this show going, I thought.  Time to win.

Mrs. T. asked the questions.  She had been my third-grade teacher and was once again my teacher for sixth grade.  She approached the mic, and asked the first word to be spelled.  The boy next to me, Tom, from my homeroom, misspelled it.

“I’m sorry, Tom,” Mrs. T. said somberly, her curly red hair a shade too light under the harsh, bright stage lights.  She held the mic with her left hand, the multiple bracelets she always wore jangling on her wrist.

Tom, defeated, bowed his head and walked off the stage.  I saw him slink in beside his parents in the audience, forced to watch the rest of the competition from the crowd.  Beside me, his empty gray chair seemed lonely and forlorn without its occupant.

“Michael,” she said, smiling at me.  I stood up.  And then she asked me the same word that Tom had just misspelled.  Honestly, I can’t remember what the word was.  But I spelled it right, and sat back down.

By the time the next word came my way, three other students had been sent to sit with their parents in the crowd.  There were eight of us left.

“Okay, Michael,” Mrs. T. said, the sound of her jangling bracelets competing with her voice.  I stood up, ready.  “The next word is ‘boundary.'”  And then she used it in a sentence, the way she always did when introducing a new word.  “The boundary between the two nations was well defined.”  Thinking about it later, I realized, she had pronounced the word in a very clear manner–stressing the “a” between the “d” and the “r.”

And yet, at the time, standing there under the lights, looking out at the audience, I somehow overlooked it.  And I didn’t think through the spelling.  I just whipped off a fast response.  After all, it was simple, right?

“Boundary,” I repeated after Mrs. T.  “‘B-o-u-n-d-r-y.’  Boundary.”  I prepared to sit back down in my metal folding chair, without a doubt in the world.

But then Mrs. T.’s voice cut through like an ice pick.  “I’m sorry, Michael.  That is incorrect.”

For a moment, I thought I’d heard her wrong.  Incorrect?  But how could that be?  How could I get such an easy word wrong?  I stood there, frozen for a second, and the clinking of Mrs. T.’s bracelets seemed like giant metal boulders clashing into each other, creating a cacophony of sound.  I glanced at my parents, and they looked at me as if to say, “It’s okay.  No big deal.”

But it was a big deal.  It felt like one, anyway, at the time.  I walked off the stage, looking down at the floor the entire while, and quickly joined my parents in the fourth row, eager to merge with the crowd, turn invisible.

I can’t tell you who won the bee that day, or what any of the other words were.  But “boundary” stays with me, even to this day.  I laugh over the memory now.  It was a lesson I needed at the time.

Marc Kuslanski needs the same lesson.  And over the course of The Eye-Dancers, he does in fact learn it, however reluctantly.  In the end, he has no choice.

So, here’s to you, Marc.  Here’s to the know-it-all in each of us . . .

“Boundary,” huh?  No problem.  Piece of cake.  “B-o-u-n-d-r-y.”

Next question, please . . .

–Mike

%d bloggers like this: