Saturday, February 28, 2009

Back Country Messenger Writing Contest

The Back Country Messenger is hosting a writing contest for all ages. They will be accepting submissions in two categories:

1) Short Stories in the genre of Fiction, Nonfiction, and Fantasy

2) Poetry

Entries must be received no later than March 12, 2009.

The age categories are as follows: up to 8 years of age; age 9-12; age 13-15; age 16-19; and age 20 and above. Winners will be presented at an Awards Ceremony on Wednesday, March 18 at 7:00 PM at the Mountain Empire Community Center in Campo. Refreshments will be served and other awards will also be presented. Prizes include cash, retail store give-aways, and more.

Some of the entries will be published in the Back Country Messenger and all will be published online. All entries will receive a critique of their work along with suggestions for developing better writing skills if needed.

Entries may be submitted to:
BCM Essay and Poetry Contest
PO Box 71
Campo, CA 91906

(Entry forms are available on page 9 of the March 2009 issue)

or may submitted via e-mail to:
(electronic entries are preferred)

Please include your name, address, phone number, age category, and writing category on all entries.

You may click on this link to the website: Back Country Messenger for more information, and go to Writing Contest Link.

(Our thanks to Jess Goodman, a regular at our monthly meetings, for alerting us to this local contest.)

Monday, February 23, 2009

MECAC Writers' Workshop with Dean Nelson

If you were not one of the 23 writers who attended the first all-day MECAC Writing Workshop on February 21, you missed a gem of an experience. Dean Nelson, founder of the journalism department at Point Loma Nazarene University, presented a workshop that appealed to writers of all sorts: beginning writers to published authors, poets to novelists. My twelve pages of notes and two pages of original writing attest to the quality and practicality of this workshop.

The day started with bagels and coffee, fruit and granola bars, as attendees meandered into Conference Room "A" at the serenely beautiful Pine Valley Bible Conference Center. MECAC Director Judith Dupree informed the audience about our little arts council before introducing Dean, the author/co-author of thirteen books and countless articles and stories, many of which span the fifteen years he freelanced for the New York Times. Despite his daunting writing repertoire, Dean disarmed us immediately with his humor and his relaxed style. We were somehow immediately at home with him -- which is easy for me to say as I'm a former student and colleague, but I think everyone felt the same camaraderie, the kinship that comes with being on the same journey, even if Dean is much farther along than we are.

Dean started out the workshop by exploring with us the idea of "Why We Need to Tell Stories" and what "story" means to each of us. He discussed the two levels of meaning in good writing, a surface level and a deeper level that goes beyond the plot itself. He mentioned Madeleine L'Engle's idea that stories help us in naming -- in making sense of our chaotic world. Stories help us to live life creatively and without fear. Good stories, Dean informed us, point to something larger than themselves and contain intrigue for the reader, doubt about the outcome, character(s) with the potential to change, an emotional payoff, and sufficient attention to the craft of writing (concrete and significant detail, convincing voice, accuracy in research, striking (not cliche) figures of speech, etc.). Dean told us of two ways to improve our writing: 1) Write more. 2) Read more ... and read the good stuff. He reiterated what I tell my writing students: "Reading crappy books doesn't help with writing." Avoid preaching, Dean reminded us. Let the story unfold. Stick to the craft and trust the reader. Most importantly, writers bear witness.

In order to illustrate his points, Dean took us through a story he wrote for San Diego Magazine entitled "Flashback to Bruges." He read it aloud to us as we followed along on copies, marking as he read. We looked for shifting levels in the story, where the tension started building and how it was resolved, the universal import of seemingly insignificant details, the use of humor to release tension yet allow it to build to a higher level, the juxtaposition of marriage and grace, the mere suggestion of menace, the portrayal of characters, etc. It was a concrete learning experience as we dissected a great story, examining its inner workings and figuring out what made it tick.

After lunch in the Dining Hall during which the workshop participants had the opportunity to become better acquainted over soup, sandwiches, and salad, we returned to the conference room to examine some practicalities and do some writing. Dean started the afternoon session by assuring us that yes, we are going to write crap, but that even writing crap is a point of departure to better writing. He outlined the clustering technique and freewriting as ways to get beyond the blank page/computer screen, and we did some of the exercises together. He then gave us an indirect writing assignment with a choice of two topics: 1) Describe an object without telling what it is, or 2) Describe an incident from the last 24 hours without revealing what really happened. After writing for twenty minutes, we were to gather into small groups to read our sketch aloud, the listeners suggesting our subject matter.

To close out our day, Dean then opened the workshop for questions about writing, especially our problem areas. Writers weren't at all shy about asking about improving dialog, the value of blogging, the importance of journaling, and the lessening or absence of the self-publishing stigma. Dean also recommended his favorite writing books: On Writing by Stephen King, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, and If You Want to Write by Barbara Yuleland. Closing the workshop, Dean mentioned how several well-known writers got their start in writing: Stephen King was a sports writer. Anne Lamott wrote restaurant reviews. Hemingway and many others were journalists. Dean finished by reminding us to get comfortable with rejection; writing is a marathon, not a sprint. To practice being a wordsmith. And to remember the vast difference between "I want to be a writer" which involves a romanticized, idealized role of a writer, and "I want to write" which demonstrates a compulsion to write, something within that needs to burst out.

By 4:00, we were standing up and stretching, saying our goodbyes to each other and to Dean, and tidying up the conference room. About five of us stayed behind to share some short pieces of writing with each other and gain some helpful feedback.

We at MECAC and all participants in the workshop extend our thanks to Dean for presenting us with a practical and encouraging day of digging deeper into the craft and soul of writing. Thanks, Dean, for making the long trek up the mountain to teach us how to improve our work and to feed our inner compulsion to write. Dean's advice continues ringing in my ears two days after the conference, and I feel encouraged to master the frustration and to put in the long hours that the literary gods require in order to improve my writing. As Dean reiterated and as I tell my students frequently, writing is hard work. But learning how to shape words into meaningful narrative that affects another person's mind and soul is somehow worth the slaving over the writing pad or keyboard. It's what makes the hard work worthwhile.

MECAC hopes to provide another writing workshop this year, and until then we strongly encourage local writers to attend our monthly writing workshops the second Tuesday of each month at 7:00 PM in the Pine Valley Library.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Writing Workshop with Dean Nelson This Saturday!

To all Mountain Empire and San Diego Writers:

The Writing Workshop with Dr. Dean Nelson of Point Loma Nazarene University is fast approaching! The pertinent facts:

Saturday, February 21, 2009

9:00 AM to 5:00 PM

Pine Valley Bible Conference Center, 8668 Pine Creek Road, Pine Valley

Cost: $40, including lunch in the Dining Hall

Please register with Susanne Barrett at (619) 473-0085 or before Friday, February 20. This workshop is filling fast, so don't delay!

We look forward to meeting so many writers in our area and to learning much from Dean regarding the art of writing. Dean is a writer of national stature, so this workshop is an opportunity not to be missed by writers or those interested in learning more about writing.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Traveling in Colorado

Susanne Barrett

To Kathryn, who encouraged me to write again....

Hemmed in
by flat-topped mountains,
our motorhome only a tiny ant
crawling between, among
vast brown expanses of grasses,
peaks crowned with snow,
gray-green pines shielding the over-modest land.

“Pass with Care"
advises the square white sign
alongside the deserted two-lane --
wisdom given not only for highway travel,
I think.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Monthly Meeting on February 10!

Mountain Empire Writers --

Don't miss out on our monthly meeting this TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 10 at 7:00 PM in the PINE VALLEY LIBRARY COMMUNITY ROOM.

Bring a short piece of writing to share if you like, or just sit back and listen to what our own Mountain Empire writers have been working on.

Beginning writers are very, very welcome. If you're not sure you qualify as a "writer" but would like to learn more about writing, this is the place for you! Please come.

We'll be discussing our upcoming all-day writing workshop on Saturday, February 21, from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. You can access details by clicking here: Writing Workshop

We hope to see you there!

Writing Quote of the Week

"Poetry is an echo asking a shadow to dance."

-- Carl Sandburg, Poet (1878-1967)

Excerpt of his work:

At a Window

Give me hunger, O you gods that sit and give
The world its orders.
Give me hunger, pain and want,
Shut me out with shame and failure
From your doors of gold and fame,
Give me your shabbiest, weariest hunger!

But leave me a little love,
A voice to speak to me in the day end,
A hand to touch me in the dark room
Breaking the long loneliness.
In the dusk of day-shapes
Blurring the sunset,
One little wandering, western star
Thrust out from the changing shores of shadow.
Let me go to the window,
Watch there the day-shapes of dusk
And wait and know the coming
Of a little love.

Carl Sandburg

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Trip to the Heartland, Part II

(Part I is printed in the post below this one)

Judith Deem Dupree

It happens soon enough. "Welcome to Dupree -- home of 550 people and one old grouch." It's a decidedly home-made sign, tongue in cheek, the kind of off-road humor you don't see along the freeways. We hoot with pleasure; it looks promising.

The town is minimal, with signs of a livelier past. At the Post Office we are directed to the Court House, for this is the county seat. The staff person is waiting for us; a quick phone call had alerted her to these strangers with their quirky mission – to "claim their town." She grins. It's not an everyday event, someone dropping in from the mainstream of life, from the fast lane. We are welcome, and we end up buying a book on Ziebach county and its small-town histories. She directs us then to the newspaper office – a regional weekly – and we are photographed for a front-page feature! The volunteer editor and her husband are our kind of down-home folk; we chat delightedly and leave reluctantly.

Time for that cuppa and something sweet to wash down, to commemorate this small coincidence of names and maybe, some time long past, genes still buried beneath this soil.

The cafe is like any very small-town cafe. Dim, a bit down-at-the-heels, redolent with ham and eggs at this late morning hour. We settle in, skirting the long table that consumes the center. Three old fellers are draped over the chairs, owning their usual spots. They eye us, friendly enough.

It is more than I can resist. My coffee cools while I explain our visit, and hubby picks up the pace. We all banter back and forth for a spell, I inquiring if their table is "the liar's club," and they guffawing with obvious pleasure and agreement. They swap memories, interrupting and correcting each other easily. We learn more history, the written and unwritten kind. We inhale it all, swallow it with the bear claws and coffee. Yes, Our kind of folk, decidedly.

Reluctantly, we wave our farewells and climb back into the van, wanting to hang out a while yet. But they have their lives, and their life, and we are not a part of it. We take a few more pictures, hanging out the window, and slowly ease onto the blacktop. I look back until it's only a dot on the map again. Why do I feel a sudden twinge of homesickness?

This tiny burgh is not our home town. It is probably not even a part of my husband's ancestral roots, as far back as can be determined. But it doesn't matter. It is a bed-rock part of who we, the two of us, and we, all of us, are as a people. It is a part of home and family and what that means to us, a sense of who we are that we must tuck away beneath the trappings we wrap ourselves in.

With no fanfare, and despite the incongruities and disparities – between their stinging black brew and our Starbucks way of life – we did go home. Something shifted inside, and we found room for a chunk of reality we'd both needed. A slice of community, of history, of neighborness that gets lost in the rush of existence that is America today.

We have learned nothing "of substance", except the fact that we are all related, not by birth-names, nor geography, but by living. I think, in a way, that we are lost – or never quite found – unless, until we make this kind of stop, this kind of discovery, somewhere along the back road of life. A memory of something we never knew, waiting to be renewed.