Tag Archives: compassionate & compelling stories

How to write a “kick-ass” sentence

The Newest Book from Larry L. Franklin
Mnemosyne: A Love Affair with Memory

It’s interesting how skills acquired during one occupation are applied to a future endeavor.  I’m thinking about the connection between music and writing: how to perform or write the perfect phrase.  I have my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music, played first trumpet in the US Navy Band in Washington, D.C., and taught trumpet at Southern Illinois University for five years before moving to a different profession.  My trumpet performances and teachings were focused on the classical genre where perfection is the key.  The great musicians perform a near, and sometimes perfect phrase, while the lesser musician’s efforts are sprinkled with flaws.  A tone as pure and clear as a freshly fallen snow, meticulous mechanics, and your musicianship lead to perfection.

Musicians have different ways of achieving perfection.  I used a technique common to both musical performance and writing that originated in my 6 x 10 foot cell-like, smoke-filled studio:  two filing cabinets leaned against one wall, a couple of chairs and a black music stand stood in the center, a tile floor partially covered with cigarette ashes, a desk marked by cigarette burns and coffee spills, and a reel-to-reel tape recorder waiting to record the perfect phrase.  Smoking cigarettes was a large part of the process, but that’s when smoking was cool.  Each recording was viewed through my internal microscope as I examined the cell structure of each musical phrase.  It had to be perfect.

In 2003 I received my MFA in creative nonfiction writing at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, which served as an incubator for my growth as a writer.  I read book after book, and secretly hoped that each author’s creativity would magically slip through the pores of my skin.  Eventually I returned to the techniques that I had learned as a musician:  how to perform the perfect phrase.

Oh, what makes a perfect phrase/sentence, the one that makes goose bumps appear on your skin, curls your toes until they begin to cramp, gives you the illusion that you are a great writer, and allows your emotions to drift to a higher, more spiritual place?  A certain amount of the perfection is in the eyes of the beholder. That makes sense.  But you can study the works of the authors who have grabbed a critics praise, impressed academia, and yes, are worthy of your time.  What is it about that particularly sentence that stirs your interest, and causes you to sit with the author and imagine what he/she did to produce such a masterpiece?  Thank God for my internal microscope, or “shit detector” that has given me the ability to determine what makes a sentence work.  (I wrote an earlier blog about the value of a shit detector.)  The process did not happen in that same smoke-filled, cell-like studio that I had used decades earlier.  I moved from one coffee shop to another, sometimes a McDonalds, my home office which my wife calls my “man cave,” and in the confines of my head.  Writers constantly think about their work.

I remember reading “On a Hill Far Away,” a short story by Annie Dillard, and being so taken by a particularly sentence.  “In Virginia, late one January afternoon while I had a leg of lamb in the oven, I took a short walk.”  Dillard provided the unexpected punch that caused me to read and reread the simple sentence.  Oh, if I could write like that, I thought.  I tried duplicating the structure and strength of Dillard’s sentence.  Sometimes I almost succeeded, but most efforts ended up as waded, crunched up pages lying in and around my trash can.  I chewed on each word of that sentence, swallowed it, and now have it as a part of my DNA.  While reading the entire story was important, I learned more from dissecting that single sentence.

What about “The Bell Jar,” by Sylvia Plath?  She could put together a strain of words that would rip the heart from your chest.  “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.  I’m stupid about executions.  The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers — google-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway.”  Oh my God that was so good.  Get the idea? I tasted the flavor of each word and even memorized one sentence at a time.  This is what makes a great writer.

Another example of some remarkable writing is drawn from “Seabiscuit:  An American Legend,” by Laura Hillenbrand.  I was particularly taken by a her description of Tom Smith, the manager of the race horse, Seabiscuit.  He was fifty-six but he looked much older.  His jaw had a recalcitrant jut to it that implied a run-in with something — an errant hoof or an ill-placed fence post — but maybe it was the only shape in which it could have been drawn.  He had a colorless translucence about him that made him seem as if he were in the earliest stages of progressive invisibility.” 

With each example, notice the rhythms, the punctuations, the tension and release, the vocabulary and the use of action verbs.  It’s how the authors use the tools of their trade that creates interest, excites your emotions, and can even stir your hormones.  If you can’t get this excited about writing, then you should consider doing something else.  Life is too short.

For your information, I found “Literary Nonfiction,” by Patsy Sims to be quite helpful in examining the author’s craft.  Sims takes a close, analytical look at outstanding contemporary essays by fifteen accomplished writers.  Examine powerful writing, that’s what Sims does.

The man with a crack in his back likes green eggs and ham.

The Newest Book from Larry L. Franklin
Mnemosyne: A Love Affair with Memory

It has been so long since I last wrote a blog.  What seemed so smooth and effortless has become herky-jerky as I stutter through broken words.  I have lost my rhythm.  In a rut, that’s where I am, where life is sustained more by the involuntary movements of my heart and diaphragm; unable to feel the gentle rhythmic flow of life’s changing meters.  Younger people might say that I have lost my “mojo.”  But for me, it’s all about rhythm.

I think that I’ll try writing about this man called “me:”  A musician/financial planner/writer, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, who had a crack in his back and just happened to love green eggs and ham.  He is a complicated man with complicated ways, and yes, a bit strange, that’s what his friends might say.  Even through difficult times, he managed to maintain a primitive rhythm, more of a “boom-chick-boom-chick,” but not the hypnotic, sensual feeling that he had grown accustomed to.  How can I explain the concept to those who have never danced like a child, placed a piece of popcorn between their lips and transferred it to their dog, or became — even for a few seconds — part of the moment?  Oh the rhythmic sound of a childhood story that makes you want to dance in circles as you read to a child.  Slide into the feel of “Green eggs and ham,” as you say Sam, I am, Oh Sam, I am, I don’t like those green eggs and ham.  But in truth, I do like green eggs and ham, even with some toast and jam.

Back pain, yes that God-awful mother-fucking back pain turned off the metronome in my life.  Two years ago I began the quarterly trips to pain management where an injection of goodies were shot into my back.  Good while it lasted, that’s what I say, I say to Dr. Sam who knew my ways, but said that he will no longer play.  Then the pain, pain, pain that lasted for three weeks until the surgeon repaired two herniated disks in my lower back.  It was like magic, the pain was gone and I began to write again.  I’ve got rhythm, I’ve got rhythm, who could ask for anything more?  Then as if God had decided to tease me a bit, the pain began in another place, my sacroiliac joint to be exact.  The writing stopped. In order to avoid another trip to the operating table, my surgeon suggested that I go to a chiropractor whom he believed might reduce my pain.  Well, four weeks later the pain is decreasing and I’m beginning to feel the rhythm.  No boom-chick, boom-chick, for me.  It’s more of an effortless changing of meters from 2/4 to 5/8 to 3//2 to 13/8.  Words are beginning to fly off of the keyboard, my mind feels all blurry and good and a bit goofy.  Sam I am, I am, don’t let me down said the man with a crack in his back who just happens to like green eggs and ham.

There’s no rosin on my bow.

The Newest Book from Larry L. Franklin
Mnemosyne: A Love Affair with Memory

I ran across this brief essay that I had written at the time of the 9-11-2001 tragedy.  This came at a time when I was heavy into psychotherapy for childhood sexual abuse. Reliving my experiences caused me to make a comparison between the misery of 9-11-2001 and childhood sexual abuse.  I’m sorry if I offended anyone involved in the New York City tragedy, but if I’m afraid to write something that is uncomfortable, I shouldn’t write at all.
So metronomic, like the orderly flow of a Mozart symphony.  A masterpiece of design; an act of evil.  At 8:48 a.m., on september 11, 2001, the opening movement:  a Boeing 767 fully loaded with fuel, crashed into the north face of I World Trade Center.  An explosion, clouds of smoke, and flames blew upward as tremors rattled the structure.  Fifteen minutes later, the second movement:  a Boeing 757 was eaten by II World Trade Center in one giant bite, only to be regurgited through a projectile vomit of flames and debris.  Civilians ran for cover and rescue workers ran inside and people jumped from the 80th floor.  They fell like apples.  The south tower suffered a breakdown and dropped to the ground.

At 9:40 a.m., the third movement:  a Boeing 757 struck the western part of the Pentagon.  And finally, the fourth:  a Boeing 757 that through the heroic efforts of a group of passengers, averted its target and was forced to crash in an unpopulated field outside Pittsburgh.

People in agony:  their faces in contorted expressions never experienced before. Some estimates show hundreds dead and 6,000 missing or presumed dead.  Every image, every sound, was seen from New York to the Philippines to Kuwait.  No one could deny the magnitude of misery that sprung from nowhere and pulled a hunk from our side.  We were injured.  Over the next few weeks, the major news outlets deluged us with stories about victims, survivors, heroes, and men sitting at Elmer’s coffee shop in midwestern-Illinois discussing how this will effect the price of beans.

Now we have the threat of Anthrax and worry how our bodies may be eaten alive, leaving only a remnant of rubble, a pile of powder, or a slab of slime.  A fog of depression covers the horizon and lingers as America struggles for ways to live with a new epidemic called misery.

CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, and the Fox news service explore each threat, some imaginary, some not.  How do we protect ourselves?  Will we live?  Will we die?  And if we die, will it hurt?  Our politicians are scared.  I read the other day that the governor of New York said he wasn’t going to be tested for Anthrax but he and his staff were taking Cipro.  Now that’s kind of like receiving rape counseling before you’r been raped.

As America struggles with this new phenomena called misery, me and my fellow abuse victims meet in coffee shops and whisper our concerns, “I don’t want to sound cold,”  I whispered, “but why are people so vocal about what’s been going on?”

“I don’t know,” my friend replied.  “It’s like they’ve never experienced misery before.  Maybe they don’t know how to deal with it.”

“We can’t say anything,” I said.  “People will think that we’re sick, bitter, or just don’t care  And that’ not the case.  I do care.  Still, I’m bitter.  But, mainly, I just don’t understand.”

Why would Americans be more upset about our recent misery than other atrocities that have and continue to occur?  That seems to the question.  Lets take a look at the numbers.  According to the findings of the Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-3), 1,553,800 children in the United States were abused or neglected under the Harm Standard in 1993.  The Harm Standard is relatively stringent in that it requires that an act or omission result in demonstrable harm in order to classified as abuse or neglect. Broken down, the figures for 1993 include 217,700 sexually abused children, 338,900 physically neglected children, 212,800 emotionally neglected children and 381,700 physically abused children.
It all seemed real, as most dreams do.  I was playing second violin and sitting in the back row just in front of the timpani.  It was an evening concert; penguin-like men, and women draped in black filled the stage.  I felt the tightness of an undersized collar and the warmth of spots that beamed brightness from ceiling heights.  The first oboe sound an A. Each musician entered the fray, searching for the matching pitch, playing an occasional scale, arpeggio or other pleasing note.

A tapping sound, then silence.  From the wings, the conductor and guest violinist walked across the stage and took their positions.  A downbeat, and we were into the allegro movement.  The soloist was on tonight.  Each phrase was clean and powerful and enhanced by the near perfect acoustics of the hall.

I moved my bow in long slow strokes, taking advantage of the brisk tempo.  I watched the audience from the corner of my eye.  Each face told it all.  The passion;l the attentiveness; the tears; it was all there.  I couldn’t help but wonder how it would fee to be heard by so many.  Oh how I’ve yearned for such a moment.  And then, as if directed by God, the soloist turned and looked m;y way.  It’s you turn, he seemed to say.

I sprung to my feet and pulled the bow across the strings while the fingers of my left hand pushed firmly against the board.  This was my chance.  But the strings stood still.  My eyes looked downward across the bridge and watched the bow hair brush past each string.  My right hand gripped hard and pushed the bow hair downward, harder and harder.  Still, no sound.  Just silence, followed by tears.  I want to be heard.  Oh God, I thought, there’s no rosin on my bow.

Fiction or Nonfiction, characters need depth.

IMG_0088I was in a small room waiting to see my pain management doctor.  There, taped to the wall, was a series of bright yellow faces staring at me, ten of them as I recall, each with a particular facial expression, indicating the level of pain that I was experiencing. At the time, the pain in my lower back was at a level six with surges reaching number ten.  Being a writer, my mind began to wonder.  Could I produce a chart showing the ten levels of emotional depth for the characters in my stories.  Fiction or nonfiction, characters need depth.  Number one would indicate the most depressing feelings possible, like my dog had bled out on me, vomited, empty her bowels, and died in my arms.  Number ten would represent the happiest of all feelings:  I went home for a quick lunch and ended up getting lucky.  Each number, from one to ten, would represent a particular depth of feelings.

I’ve had people ask me how to write a memoir if they haven’t suffered through hard times, how to write about war when you’ve never been in combat, or how to produce a fictional character with depth.  Now I’m not an expert on such matters, whether it’s about me or a make believe person.  Years ago, I would have registered a two,  maybe three on the depth chart.  Now, things are different.  

When I had been diagnosed as having PTSD brought on by horrific memories of childhood sexual abuse, I began what became longterm psychotherapy.  I’ll never forget the first time my therapist made a particular statement followed by, “How do you feel about that?”    “What do you mean, how do I feel?”  I asked.  “Just what I said,” she answered, “tell me what you are feeling.”  “Well, you either feel good or bad,” I said.  “Now I’m feeling bad.”  “Can you be more specific?” she asked.  “Do you feel sad, happy?”

It took several sessions before I could even answer the question:  “How to you feel about that?”  I was so lacking in feelings that I sometimes imagined that my two daughters had died, and then I would measure the depth of my feelings.  Empty feelings, that’s what I had.  I asked my therapist why I wasn’t able to feel like other people.  She assured me that I was a loving, compassionate man and that, in time, I would experience a whole range of feelings.  The journey was not easy.  It required a lot of hard work, emotional suffering, and a willingness to keep an open mind.  Well, it turned out that my therapist was right.  In time I became a different person, and I should say, a different writer.  I was able to connect with my feelings as never before.  I am now a level eight with surges to ten.

I remember the main character in my first book, “The Rita Nitz Story:  A life without parole.”  After several interviews Rita became upset with the directness of my questions, and accused me of being just like the prosecutor in her case.  “You’re all  the same,” she said.  Six months passed before she granted me another interview.  I had completed enough interviews that I could have finished her story, but that was not what I wanted.  I though about her background of sexual and physical abuse, the men in her life, dysfunctional family, etc… and realized that given her background, her behavior was quite normal.  Without realizing it, I was showing empathy, a characteristic that I had learned in therapy.  You can’t get into a character’s head without empathy.  Otherwise, you, as the author, become too much of an outsider.  And compassion, let’s not forget about having feelings for your character, and an open mind.  Empathy, compassion, and an open mind, all things I learned in therapy, opened the door to a deeper relationship between Rita and myself.

A character, whether yourself or fictional, doesn’t have to have a load of experiences or accomplishments to have depth.  Every person has a story, has depth.  What about a person that is superficial, seemingly empty, devoid of feelings, without material accomplishments, etc….?  I would argue that the person who holds all of these characteristics and seems to have no meaningful life, is a character with depth and has the potential for a great story.  And don’t sell yourself short.  With empathy, compassion, and an open mind you will find that you could be the character in a great story.

Go to the movies:  a great place to study characters.  Go see Blue Jasime written by Woody Allen.  Cate Blanchett does a magnificent job of playing a a New York socialite.  Although this is a great movie, I have to admit that Cate Blanchett’s character made me deeply depressed.  I found myself so sad that a person could be like her character, and not know how to correct her shortcomings.  She didn’t have to be like that, I thought.   But all of the character’s shortcomings is what made this into a great movie, in my opinion.  Now, apply that to our writing.

Fiction or Nonfiction, characters need depth.  Depth is not measured by a resume. Writers need to have empathy, compassion, and an open mind.  Then, and only then, will we see the depth in every character.  Yes, even when writing about yourself.  If you find this a bit weird, or unattainable, I suggest looking into meditation, therapy, and soul searching as a means for finding the empathy, compassion, and the open mind that all writers need.

Every writer needs a “shit detector.”

larry headshot   It was twenty or some years ago when I studied with Lisa Knopp, a faculty member who taught creative nonfiction writing at the local university.  I worked privately with her for over three years.  Of all the things that she taught me, and there were many, I’m continually reminded of her advice each time I examine my writing.  “If you want to be a good writer,” she said, “you have to have a good “shit detector.”  She went on to say that I need to know when my writing is a piece of shit.  Each time I go through my multiple drafts, I need to clean out the “outhouse.”
Now for the non-writers, I should point out that a shit detector is not something you  purchase at the local Lowe’s store.  No, it’s not a mechanical device that has a low, medium, and high setting that is used when you determine the level of shit in your writing.  No, that’s not how it works.  Your intellect, mastery of writing, emotional maturity, and whether you bleed when you write, all of those, and probably some long forgotten,  encompass the shit detector.
How we use the shit detector helps determine the quality of our writing.  I suggest not using the detector until you have written your first draft.  Otherwise you will always regard your writing as a piece of shit, and never be able to write anything; not even the first draft. I use two techniques when utilizing the shit detector.  First I read the work out loud.  Sometimes I think that I have written a masterpiece and then I read it out loud.  OMG, what a piece of shit.  After I have cleaned out the outhouse, I step away from my work for a day or two.  By this time the shit will have floated to the surface.  Then it’s just a matter of picking out the pieces and tossing them away.
The final step is achieved when you read it out loud and feel an emotional rush throughout your body.  That’s a sure sign that you have a worthy piece of writing.  It’s something that enables the writer to handle the rejections, loneliness, depression, suicidal thoughts, and the lack of self worth.  It can feel so good.
When my teacher told me about the shit detector, I didn’t know if that was her original thought.  It wasn’t until I began to write this blog that I wondered if other writers knew about the shit detector.  Well, much to my surprise, I found a blog written by Ashley Perez on the shit detector.  “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit-detector.” — Ernest Hemingway.  Hemingway has some powerful quotes.  Remember the one about how to write?  You sit down at a typewriter and bleed.
Ashley adds an important element to the shit detector.  Not wanting to steel from Ashley’s blog, I will direct you to her blog so you can read the rest of the story.  I promise that it is worth your time.   http://www.ashleyperez.com/blog/item/23-the-most-essential-gift-for-writers-hemingways-shit-detector

To the mentally ill who have no voice. Please listen.

cherryblossom_cover_smAfter visiting family in Wisconsin, a place where cold people have warm hearts, it is good to return to our home in Southern Illinois.  I have been thinking about what my next blog would be.  The answer became clear while I was surfing over the internet and discovered a blog that grabbed my attention.  Because of time restraints, I do not follow a large number of blogs.  But this one caused me to quickly click the “follow” button.  The blog, “Weathering the Storm: Overcoming Bipolar Disorder,” is truly remarkable, and is written by Kait Leigh, a young lady who has bipolar disorder.  Kait’s life is one of overcoming the struggles brought on by mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder.  Even if you or a family member do not suffer from bipolar disorder, you should check out her blog, http://weatheringthestormbp.com/contact/  Where her story is filled with the blackness of night, she has become a truly compassionate and caring person. Please check it out.
I became very interested in bipolar disorder when I wrote my second book, “Cherry Blossoms & Barren Plains:  A woman’s journey from mental illness to a prison cell.”  Rebecca Bivens was found “guilty but mentally ill” for killing her five-year-old step-daugther.  Becca had been diagnosed as being bipolar but was not taking her medications.  Add to that the fact that she was being physical and sexually abused by various men.  Combine the two and you have a formula for a trip into madness.  Now that Becca is in prison and taking her medications, I find it difficult to believe that this woman committed such a violent crime.  Becca, the woman that I know, is a loving and caring person.
Through my research on mental illness, I have discovered that if someone suffers from a severe mental illness, he/she is not necessarily violent.  If untreated, they can be.  But with proper counseling and medication that can become valuable members of our society.  With all of the shootings that make headlines, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that the mentally ill are violent.  We usually find out that each one suffered from a severe mental illness but was not receiving treatment.  Yes, the mental health treatment in the USA is lacking.  The gov’t does not care to spend the money on people who have no voice.  You will learn more about mental illness if you click onto Kait Leigh’s website & blog at weatheringthestormbp.com
When I wrote my book about Becca, I used different metaphors to describe what a person suffering from bipolar disorder might experience.  Here is one of my metaphors.
“It was as if someone or something, possibly alien, took over her mind.  I can see how an imaginary octopus-like creature might have controlled her thoughts.  Living in the lowest part of her brain and hidden by darkness, this creature, the one I imagined, reached outward with its eight tentacles, each lined with two rows of suction cups, and latched onto her hard.  No one escapes its grip.  When threatened it released an inky-black liquid that allowed it to slip away.  Even if one of it’s tentacles was severed, one quickly regrew, making it impossible to kill.
This octopus-like creature, the one that I imagined, the one that invaded Becca’s mind, is called bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness.  More than 2.5 million American adults, or roughly one percent of the population, struggle with bipolar disorder…..”

Bleeders make the best writers.

IMG_0088I had to post a quotation that was shared by Teretha G. Houston on her twitter account.  “There is nothing to writing.  All you have to do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” — Ernest Hemingway.  Wow, is what I thought when I first read Hemingway’s quote.  I certainly feel that way when I write.