Tag Archives: Goucher college

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.

Fish heads in an open bag — listening to the mentally ill.

Mcherryblossom_cover_smThese  are excerpts taken from my second book, “Cherry Blossoms & Barren Plains:  A woman’s journey from mental illness to a prison cell.”  I have drawn from the chapter called Fish heads in an open bag. Becca, the subject of my book was serving sixty years for allegedly killing her five-year-old stepdaughter.
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I have listened to Becca for hours upon hours.  In every season of each passing year, I have sat across from her in the visit room looking at her drawn and tired face, listening to her struggle to find ways of expressing her mental and emotional realities.  What she says is not always cohesive, or narratively coherent, but over time, I have learned to piece together the fragments of her mental processes, and the images that she sees, in ways that blend with my imagination.  If Becca hears “voices” or “racing thoughts,” it might now be said that I do, as well.  I believe that I understand her and can, in one sense, show what Becca might say if she could find the words.

My name is Becca.  It was the 1980’s.  I was barely a teenager and the summer days were long and dry.  Bacon was frying in a black metal skillet, and the morning was clear.  My mother was talking and pouring her first cup of coffee.  Her voice was faint and the words made no sense and the sounds became one, like the annoying hum of a fluorescent light.  She probably told me that Dad and my brother were going fishing for the day, or that my room was a mess, or that I was just a bad kid.

I might have been thinking about the fish heads I saw at Friday night’s fish fry.  The severed heads were stuffed into open bags.  The bodies were gutted, washed, and rolled in seasoned flour, and cooked in black skillets like my mother used.  The heads were alive.  The eyes and mouths continued to open and close, and called out for help.  Their misery was real and hard, just like mine.  My mother’s shouting brought me back to her reality.  My mind jumped around a lot in those days.  Maybe that’s when my mind began to slip away.

The voices have no name.  They’re not these booming commandments from up above or down below.  They’re more like thoughts, racing thoughts that pound the inside of my head like a jackhammer.  Sometimes I write the words on a piece of paper, and then another, and another. Later, when I’m kind of normal, people tell me that the words make no sense.  They stare at me like I’m different, and then they turn and walk away.  It’s so lonely in my world of cherry blossoms and barren plains.  I wish that I could take you on a tour of my brain.  All of the twists and turn through the cerebral matter must be a bit like running through a maze.  Wherever I turn, I’m always lost.

It’s been nearly ten years and some ten-thousand pills later, since I killed Dani.  I can barely say it since I still don’t remember doing it.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about it.  But each time I try, I end up seeing fish heads in an open bag.  Now I try not to think about that part.  I just think about what a wonderful girl Dani was.  I tell Larry, my writer friend to write more about Dani.  I want everyone to know her like I did.  I want them to know how she liked to read books, listen to music, and play make-up.  I bought her a long blond hair piece.  She loved wearing that hair piece.  

I haven’t gone completely manic since I’ve been here.  I take my meds eery day.  I can’t take a chance on losing control of myself.  But the meds are not easy.  I never feel right.  My hands shake, I get nervous, and I always have some kind of depression.  Sometimes I wonder if that’s God’s way of letting me know that I’m a bad person.  But that’s not what my psychologist says.  I get to see him one time a month.  And that’s not what Larry or the Pastor say.

How do you know when you begin to lose your mind?  I don’t think that you can pick a certain day, an exact time, or even an unusual event.  Maybe it’s a bit like cancer.  One day a doctor tells you that the MRI shows a cancerous growth the size of a grapefruit, and if untreated, you will die.  The tumor had been growing for some time, somewhere in your body, unseen by the naked eye.

My mental illness was the same and went undetected until the doctors told me in 1993 that I was bipolar, and if untreated, I would lose my mind.  Looking back, I believe it began the day when I saw fish heads in an open bag.  But as bad as I felt, I’ve always had my doubters.  Some think that I faked it and used mental illness as an excuse for my violent behavior.  Others believe that I’m an agent for the devil.  But until you’ve visited the dark side and felt my torment, I’m here to say that mental illness is for real.

My fourth book, “Supermax Prison:  Controlling the most dangerous criminals,” will be released in a couple of weeks.  Please check it out.

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When I first heard the words in the dark black night.

IMG_0088I was three, maybe fourth months into therapy.  Horrific memories of childhood sexual abuse came in different ways — sometimes a complete memory, other times in bits and pieces while meditating.  I was very proficient in meditation, and would sit for thirty to forty-five minutes, and even an hour.  The really bad memories erupted during nightmares in the form of metaphors which had to be analyzed in order to grasp their meaning.  On this particular night the meditation flowed nice and easy, allowing me to experience the sensation of floating throughout the darkened room.  Only the street light slide under the window shade.  Otherwise, it was a dark black night. This was when I began hearing words that jumped in my mind.  The structure and rhymes seemed like poetry — crude, unrefined, but powerful nonetheless.  Maybe my surprise came from  the fact that I had no interest in writing or reading the written word.  I moved to my computer to see if I could recall what I had heard.  My fingers flew across the keyboard as lines of poetry appeared on my computer screen.  It was easy and without effort.  I was writing poetry about the sexual abuse I had experienced during my childhood.  It felt like I was in the middle of some alien experience, or perhaps a miracle.

The next day I was sitting at my desk where I maintained a financial planning office.  I couldn’t help but think about the previous night’s experience when I actually wrote some poetry.  I couldn’t wait until I went home and sat at my computer.  Evening came.  Okay, I thought, let’s see what I can write.  My mind was in lock down.  No words came forward.  Finally I gave up and assumed that last night’s experience was unexplainable and would never happen again.  So, I returned to my meditation and settled into my soft chair.  Thirty minutes into meditation the same thing happened again — more poetry about childhood sexual abuse.

In the days that followed it became clear that the key was to meditate and wait for something to happen.  The meditation somehow eliminated the wall that had previously blocked my creativity.  In time I could enter the place where poets dare to tread.  My therapist suggested that I contact a writing teacher and see where my writing might lead.  I took her suggestion and talked with a client of mine who happen to teach in the English Department at the local university.  She worked with me for about 6 months and then suggested that I work with a teacher of creative nonfiction writing at the university who worked with me for three years.  Upon her suggestion I completed my MFA in creative nonfiction at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.

Here I am three books later, thinking about the wonderful journey that I have taken.  My therapist and writing teachers changed my life.  I can now enter that well of creativity, floating through a liquid-like gel which must be love.  Not only does it happen when I write, the love comes forward anytime I open the door.  What a life changer it has been, and is there for the taking.  One only needs to trust, to feel, and ultimately to love.