When Words Grow Up and Want To Leave Home

Cadens Corridor

CADEN’S CORRIDOR                                                                                                 January 2018  

If you’re like me, not really a novice anymore but not quite ready for that leap of insanity, or faith, then you scour magazines, sign up for webinars, and click on anything that might help you hone your craft. There was an article in the January 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest that I thought belonged in my time corridor.

I read my hot-off-the-press January 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest in December. A bit early, but I wanted to check out the deadlines for their 87th Annual Writing Competition. Once I noted the contest deadlines on my trusty calendar, I happened across an article by Lucy Snyder titled, “Applying Poetics to Prose” and subtitled “The Poetry of Flash Fiction.” Catchy title. I love writing poetry, and since flash fiction has always eluded me due to a tendency to overwrite, I wanted to know more. She suggested using a discarded poem or a poem that just wasn’t working, and transforming it into a short story, i.e., flash fiction! So obvious, why didn’t I think of it? After all, as she reminded us, poems are complete stories condensed, but they can easily be expanded into 300 or 500 words. What if your poem’s not working as a poem because it secretly dreams of being a short story? What would happen if you took that poem, stretched it a little, blended in some prose, and allowed it to blossom into fiction.

If poetry isn’t your thing, try tinkering with those little ideas that are pretty amazing—you know the ones I’m talking about—those germs of what-ifs that come at 2:00 in the morning, but don’t contain the wherewithal to morph into a novel. Yeah, those. Play with them, explore what prompted the idea to begin with, and lastly, “engage the senses” (as Lucy says in her article). But be careful. She warns us to be specific, bring the story to completion, and don’t forget plot or characterization.

Lightning struck, and I realized I’d already done that with a poem I wrote about a marriage falling apart on a train in Wales. It’s now a novella! Will it be a novel when it grows up? Entirely possible. Why didn’t I repeat the process with other poems? I considered it a fluke and didn’t purposefully try it with another poem that refused to stay a poem. When I expanded yet another poem, it worked again, and bloomed into a short story. I thought, hey, this is good stuff! Of course, my imagination flew into overdrive. Would it work just as well on nursery rhymes, or even songs! If the nursery rhyme of Old MacDonald Had a Farm had been fleshed out as fiction, would it have become something incredible like Charlotte’s Web? What about songs, which are simply poems put to music? I thought of the words to the famous Canadian poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne. If that’s not a powerful story, I don’t know what is. Spoiler alert: it first appeared as a…you guessed it…poem. Allow me to tease you a little with the first three lines:

     Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
     You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night forever
     And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there …

I don’t know about you, but I’d love to flesh that baby out, expand the setting, play with some dialogue, get into their mindsets, and follow wherever it leads me. Give it an actual ending. Even do a little head-hopping. Wait—did I say that out loud? Don’t forget about quotes, sayings, maxims, and proverbs. What’s the difference between Confucius’ famous saying, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves” and Shakespeare’s MacBeth? Around 17,110 words, give or take.

So how about taking some time to resurrect what’s not working in one form and breathe new life into it. Does it work in reverse? Sure thing. If a novella isn’t working, try taking the best sections out, rework beginnings, endings, characters, and plot, and you might just have a super short story when the dust settles! Let me hear your ideas! I’d love to know if this works for you as well! Shoot me an email (below), and thanks for walking through the corridor with me.


In All Humiliation

A worldwide observance of Humiliation Day is scheduled to occur on January 3, 2017, in an effort to raise awareness of the negative effects of humiliation. Unlike humility, which is a virtue characterized by inner strength, humiliation is a degradation of another human being through intimidation, unwarranted criticism, or mistreatment that results in the lowering or loss of that person’s self-respect. Many times, it is a tactic employed by people to cut other people down in order to feel good about themselves, usually a sign of insecurity. That same insecurity comes through as a defense mechanism if a person feels threatened by the words or actions of another. Often, we defend ourselves automatically to cover our own inadequacies or to avoid having to face our own private demons.

Parents often feel they have a right, a duty, to “teach” their children – a concept that is often used to excuse using hateful, hurtful words that cut into a child’s mind and heart. Such criticism is destructive rather than constructive, and can linger forever. For example, every time I visit my mother, she criticizes my weight, knowing full well the roadblocks I battle daily, including diabetes and depression. You would think, being a Registered Nurse, she would at least show her own daughter the same compassion as one of her patients, right? Wrong. Being verbally abused and unloved herself as a child, she seems determined to repeat the same horrendous behavior toward yet another generation. If she had said, “I’m worried about your health; is there anything I can do to help you with weight loss?” – I would have felt love and concern instead of degrading criticism and humiliation.

Recently, I was privileged to hear Danielle Metcalfe at a meeting of The Final Twist. Ms. Metcalfe has written several histories based on the indigenous peoples of the Northwest and Canada. Her focus has been on aviation and the overlooked role of women and First Nation pilots during WWII. In her book, “In This Together,” she compiled 15 stories written by the indigenous peoples of Canada, explaining how the history of colonialism impacted their society and affected their “path toward reconciliation.” Her words brought to mind my own country’s history of inflicting humiliation and degradation on those not of Eastern European descent – which includes not only the slaughter and subjugation of Native Americans, but the placement of innocent Japanese families in internment camps at the start of WWII, the mistreatment of the Chinese who built our great railroads, the enslavement and discrimination toward African Americans that has been a harsh reality since before our nation was founded, the threat to send illegal immigrants and their families back to Mexico and Central America, and, more recently, the animosity shown to innocent Muslims caught in the middle of a search for terrorists. With our history of open immigration, fear-mongering, slavery, and blatant discrimination, the United States may have more to regret and/or apologize for than other countries when it comes to the humiliation inflicted on others.

In “The Power of Words” Yehuda Berg wrote in The Huffington Post that words possess “energy and power” and have the ability “to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate, and to humble.” His article exhorts us all to listen and think before we speak, to view gossip as trivial and a waste of our attention. He mentions Nelson Mandela and how his years of solitude while in prison taught him how precious words can be. Mohammed Quhtani, a world-renowned speaker, said words “whether verbally or in writing” determine how others perceive you, and can also build or destroy relationships. Perhaps, in our world of social media, we should think before we text, so as not to humiliate ourselves and others. Humiliation is not a human characteristic you want to pass on.

As writers, with the possibility of reaching a wide range of readers, we need to be continually cognizant or Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1839 quote reminding us that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proved how words can change an entire society for the better, and Adolf Hitler proved the opposite with propaganda and hate speeches. Even more awe-inspiring are the words of King Solomon in Proverbs 18:21, that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” And I have personally wondered at the words found in the 38th chapter of the Book of Job, when God “spoke the world into being” and “the morning stars sang together.”

Finally, in 1624, John Donne wrote a poem titled “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” referring to the custom of ringing funeral bells when a person died. This title was later borrowed by Ernest Hemingway as a title for a novel, paying tribute to Donne’s famous exhortation that “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main” and “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in all mankind. Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Imagine the beautiful music that would echo across the land if, when we humiliated a fellow human being, we rang a funeral bell as our just penance for causing the death of an innocent spirit. Perhaps, and not just on Humiliation Day, we should take John Donne’s words to heart and avoid humiliating others; it only serves to diminish the humanity in us all.