A Tasty Bit of Writing

There’s a scene I love in an old book I love, Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge. Hillary, the  humble, clumsy old priest, has returned, on a cold, gray day, to his cold, gray home. And there he finds a cold, gray dinner, left for him by his housekeeper, who has the night off.

Hilary’s spirits plummet even further when he sees the plate with its gray, sodden potatoes. There are greasy chunks of sausage, much the same color. The meat and potatoes are held together by thick, damp pie crust.  Hillary, whose arthritis aches in the cold, takes the unappealing meal into his study, where he lights a fire and waits to warm up and prays for the spirit to eat the food and be thankful for it.

And then Jim Maloney pounds at the door. Jim is the very man Hillary’s been out looking for–a gallant little Irishman whose talent extends from acting to engineering to being a dab hand with food. Hillary ushers Jim into his study, where the visitor takes in the situation at a glance. He asks the priest’s permission to take that plate into the kitchen. Hillary, of course, says yes.

And Jim searches cupboards and chops  and heats and improvises, and then he comes out with a meal transformed. He has minced and fried and made the ugly meal into a kind of farmer’s breakfast, an omelet deluxe, with a steaming mug of tea and buttered toast on the side. It smells wonderful, and Hillary’s pains are, now, not so bad. As he tucks into the appetizing dinner, Hillary feels that there IS hope, that things CAN change, and then he is able to help Jim, who is badly in need of spiritual mending.

Goudge could have just told us Hillary was discouraged, deeply and heartily discouraged, and that he suddenly began to recover his native optimism and joy. Instead she revealed the plunge into the depths and the breaking through into the light by writing about Hillary’s meal.

One of my favorite professors once told our British lit class that United States writers don’t write food very well. And writing food well was important, he maintained. A passage with food written well takes the reader there in ways that description of other sorts just can’t do.  I began, after that, to notice food in my reading.

In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith shows us how Francie and Neeley Nolan’s mother makes dinner special at the end of the week:

Saturday supper was a red-letter meal. The Nolans had fried meat! A loaf of stale bread was made into pulp with hot water and mixed with a dime’s worth of chopped meat into which an onion had been cleavered. Salt and a penny’s worth of minced parsley were added. This was made up into little balls, fried and served with hot catsup. These meatballs had a name, fricadellen, which was a great joke with Francie and Neeley.

Such a humble meal to be so anticipated! Smith wraps a whole world of revelation into that little passage. She shows us that the Nolans are poor, and that the little pleasures are terribly important. She shows us that the mama is tough and resourceful. Taking the things on hand and morphing them into something special. Giving that Saturday night treat a funny, outlandish name to make the eating even more pleasing. Smith reveals that Francie and Neeley are loyal and grateful, hungry children thoroughly satisfied with their treat.

Madeleine L’Engle is a master at writing food. In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg’s mother simmers stews on the Bunsen burner and brings her family together around the old, scarred table, warmed by steaming portions, steeped in the smells of rich gravy and tender vegetables, safe in their homely kitchen–unaware of the dangers outside. When she ventures into those dangers–travels through time and space to rescue her father,–the enemy feeds Meg food that, while it offers a brief illusion of lovely smells and nutritious goodness, is as flat and tasteless as sand.

We know the falseness of Meg’s enemy through the food that he feeds her; we know the love of her family through the meals that they share.

In one of Anne Tyler’s books, she writes about a cautious widower who makes a pot of chili on Sunday, and measures and freezes six tupper-wared portions–dinners to last him through each night of the week. Think of what we know about that careful man from what his meticulous, repetitive meal planning.

(I think my professor, yea, those many years ago, may have been right…then. But since then, the United States has gone from being a nation that embraces Spam to being a nation that embraces flavor and freshness and diversity. That growth, I think, shows in the writing of modern US writers.)

Writing food can help us, as wordsmiths, to show our readers what we need them to see.

Think: the passing of a juicy peach between lovers.

Think: the gluttony of a lonely woman healing her hurts with Twinkies and Hohos.

Think: the unsated hungers of a lonely child denied enough food, and savory food, to eat.

Humble, everyday meals tell one story. Lavish banquets tell another. A breakfast shared by newlyweds lets us see an intimate, budding tale.

Traditional family foods tell a lot about the family that eats them. What a person eats by herself with no one to share the meal tells us a lot about that person.

And the food itself gives writers abundant opportunities to set the scene. The scents of food–oh, a good writer makes those scents lift off the page and tickle our nostrils. There are textures and tastes to explore and explain, and there’s the way the food looks on the plate. There’s the plate itself. There’s the place the food is eaten, and the company it’s eaten in–huddled together over the fire, digging potatoes out of hot coals with a stick, passing them back and forth and then eating them–who could resist?–steaming, tongue-burning, hot. Or sitting stiffly on uncomfortable chairs at a long banquet table where thin people, who complain of sporting an extra pound or two, place tiny spoonsful of food on their plates, then push it, listlessly, around with their forks.

Show, don’t tell, the wise ones warn us. And weaving food into our writing–letting the meal or the snack or the sip of wine open the curtain and reveal the truth–is one great way to do that.Can the food you write show your world to hungry readers?

Happy blogging, friends!



Again: Prompted to Write, I Take Pen in Hand…

Sometimes I can’t think of a thing to write about. Sometimes I have topics, but they seem labored or repetitive. I want something fresh, a break from the same old, same old.

Those times, I go looking for a prompt.

I like to give myself a choice.  So I pull up two prompts, thinking if one doesn’t speak to me, the other one will.  I take a slip of paper from my prompt jug, a mason jar into which, when I think of it, I throw compelling words and phrases–or even simple, ordinary words and phrases that mean something specific to me at the time I offer them. They rest in the jar; they steep and simmer in time, and when I pull them out, they have gathered bulk and meaning.

Today’s word is a simple one: “sun”.

And I grab a writer’s book of days, too, and I flip it open randomly.  Write, it challenges me, about a failure.

For a moment I just sit, staring out the window, watching the night sky darken into day, and I let the prompts settle. Then I pick up my pen and start jotting down thoughts.

I think about failure.

I think about things I tried to accomplish in my former job–and I recognize how many initiatives never grew to bear total, fully ripened fruit.  Maybe, I muse, 2/5 of them actually became practice. Half of those were then undone, but there were kernels of gold gleaming among those everyday stones. Forward: we did move forward for a time.

I think of parenting. There’s what we HAVE to do, what we think is IMPORTANT to do, and then there are those lofty heights to which we only aspire. Some of my parenting failures are difficult to hug close–and even harder to hold at arms’ length for objective examination…

Hmmm… examinations. Exams failed?  Drivers tests.  Typing tests.  Not too many bombed academic exams (although there was that geology class; THAT was a disaster!)

Sins of omission–failing to be there. Failing to be a support in a time of illness, failing to read the signs of need and desperation; failure to attend… Failure, indeed, to take the time to understand.

I am not liking, entirely, the sad roads the examination of failure is leading me down.

So I think of the sun, too, and how it’s been both nemesis and joy. How as a pale-skinned red-haired child, I sought a tan–and that, too, was a quest that ended, over and over, in total failure.

Hey. My prompts have just snicked slickly into one another; they slid together and snapped so firmly I can’t make out the join lines. I will write this week about being a milky-skinned child in a Coppertone time, and I’ll note my ultimate failure, except for that one glorious, tennis-playing summer of beigeness, to achieve anything remotely resembling a tan. I’ll explore that in my writing, those days of baby oil and aluminum foil, the days when “tanning” and “skin cancer” were seldom ever part of the same sentence.  The days when I was a pale, wan person living in a boisterous land of large, bronzed beings.

Prompts are sturdy little needles.  Left to sit on a table, they’re not so very useful.  They do not magically worm into our consciousnesses, disappearing into the pulsing gray mass and secretly fomenting inspiration until an idea springs forth, full and healthy. Instead, we need to pick that prompting needle up and work it.

We poke: listing. Here are all the things I think about when I take in the word ‘failure.’ The prompt pries the words out, nuggets of thought, and I sort them.  They’re all raw and dirty, but I see glints, in some, below that crusty surface.  I write those glimmers down.

Some glow red. They’re too hot to touch, too recent or too painfully wide open. But I write those down, too. Maybe I can’t approach them right now, today, but their intensity tells me they’re important themes to revisit when my right perspective has been gained.

I think of people, legends, of stories from my life, of beloved failures, of the fact that sometimes, failing is also succeeding.

I think of that famous job interview question: Tell us about a time you failed. What did you learn from it?

The concept and the memories churn, and then that second prompt slides in front of me and mental doors slide open.

“What we have here,” I think, “is a failure to tan.”

What we have here, I know, is a memory stash picked out with those prompt-y little needles; memories pebble out, all those silly sunburned summers and the peeling and the blisters and the longing to be bronzed. I sit at the end of my 61st summer, a summer when I remembered after long, vain spaces, just how much fun it is to don a bathing suit and jump into the pool–white legs, flabby thighs, be damned. I need to explore what tanning meant to me, what its achievement symbolized. Why was a tan the holy grail for, yea, those many years?

Other nuggets were picked loose in this exercise. They await me. A day will come when one of them slides neatly into conjunction with another prompt–one overtly chosen or one that comes like a gift. So I may go to my prompt jar or my writer’s book of days–or do both, like today, at once,–to forge the kind of connections today’s explorations wrought.

In WordPress, I can go to the Daily Post, which not only offers me a prompt, but a place to share the result. (https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/melody/)  It’s a way to meet new writers and gain new followers and marvel at the way one prompt can have 642 different interpretations.

Or–I may pull up to a stoplight and see a lanky girl with magenta dreadlocks ambling down the sidewalk holding a puppy, and unassisted by my searching, that life-prompt begins to needle around in my thoughts.

It could be a street sign advertising Wonder Bread.
Or it might be a cautionary word from my boss.
It could be a moment of hearty celebration for a richly deserving friend.

Life itself can often supply the prompt if I am awake, aware, receptive.


Sought or encountered, a prompt pries richness loose, fishes it out of the muck. I wash it off, rub it down good, examine it. What does THIS mean? How do I feel, today, when I think of THIS?

Is this important?

What do I believe about this?

I pick up my pen. I slide my keyboard over. I write tentatively through the dross. I write until the tiny nugget of inspiration catches on, nudged out into awareness by that prompt.

I write until that nugget begins to glow and dance.

Happy blogging, my friends!



Timeless Writing Advice

I’ve been reading a controversial collection of short stories called Crimes of Love. (Oxford World Classic, translated by David Coward) The author is none other than the notorious Marquis de Sade. That’s right, the man’s whose name is the origin of the term sadism. Before you bail on me, just listen. As a preface to the collection, the Marquis includes his insightful Essay On Novels.  I am pleased to share some of his timeless wisdom with you today.

“The novel, if I may express it so, is the ‘picture of the manners of every age’. To the philosopher who seeks to know the nature of man, it is as indispensable as history. The historian’s pencil can draw a man only in his public roles, when he is not truly himself: ambition and pride cover his face with a mask which shows only these two passions and not the man entire. The novelist’s pen, on the other hand, captures his inner truth and catches him when he puts his mask aside, and the resulting sketch, which is far more interesting, is also much truer; that is the point of novels.”

“The first and most important requirement is an understanding of human nature.  … A man learns nothing when he talks; he learns by listening. Which is why those who talk the most are, in the ordinary run of things, fools.”

“Any fool can pick a rose and pluck its petals, but the man of genius breathes its scent and paints its forms: that is the kind of author we will read.”

“But while I advise you to embellish, I forbid you to depart from what is plausible. The reader has every right to feel aggrieved when he realizes that too much is being asked of him. He feels that the author is trying to deceive him, his pride suffers and he simply stops believing the moment he suspects he is being misled.”

“No one forces you to ply the trade you follow. But if you do choose it, then acquit yourself to the best of your ability. And above all, you should not think of writing as a way of earning your living. If you do, your work will smell of poverty. It will be colored by your weakness and be as thin as your hunger. There are other trades which you can take up…  Our opinion of you will not be any poorer, and since you will be sparing us acres of boredom, we may even think the better of you.”

Regarding characters:

“If you send your characters on a voyage, be sure you are acquainted with the countries where their travels lead them, and spin your tales with such magic that I can identify with them. Remember that I voyage at their side wherever you send them to, and that I may know more than you and will not excuse your errors in reporting manners and costumes nor forgive a geographic blunder.  …you must make your descriptions of your chosen localities authentic, or else you should stay at home. This is the only area of what you write where invention cannot be tolerated, unless the lands to which you transport me are imaginary.”

“Avoid any display of moral earnestness. Morality is not something anyone wants in a novel. … It should never be the author who preaches, but his characters, and even then only when the circumstances leave him no alternative.”

And finally, in his defense (because he was in trouble most of the time…) he writes:

“It is not my wish to make vice attractive. … I harbor no dangerous plan to make women love men who deceive them, but on the contrary, to ensure that they loathe them. …  And with this in mind I have made those of my heroes who tread the path of vice so repulsive that they will certainly inspire neither pity nor love. In this I make bold to claim that I am a more moral writer than those who make their villains attractive.”

Fascinating insight, no? And really, advice on novel writing that stands the test of time. As always I hope you enjoyed and found this helpful.

#weekly #creativewriting

The Time to Break ‘Em Is Now!

I think it was my fourth grade teacher who said it to me first:

If you want to break the rules, you have to know the rules!

And from then on, from grammar school to grad school, I would hear that philosophy, that mantra, that iron-clad rule, over and over again, from mentors and professors and tutors and gurus. Mastery is needed, they would point out in so many different phrasings, before you can presume to deviate from the rules of English. If you don’t know how to do it RIGHT, don’t attempt to write it WRONG on purpose.

I took that wisdom to heart.  The trouble was, I never felt that I entirely mastered English.  I would get to a certain level of competency, start feeling a little comfortable, and then I’d blunder into a whole new area, with rules that were new and different and often unexpected.  Or–rules would change. (I’m still struggling to NOT double-space between sentences. Thanks so much, technology, for changing that drilled-in practice…)

So I’d struggle to master rules.  I’d read and I would write; I would lay my words bare to the pummeling of peers and professors. I’d work with editors and marketing folk and send in job docs, some of which elicited quick responses, and some which seemed to sink below the surface without notice. I tried hard to note what worked and what didn’t. I listened when people in the know calmly reminded me I was putting commas where no commas were EVER needed.

Finally, though, I realized that, while I will probably never master ALL the rules, I have conquered some of them quite thoroughly. Or at least, thoroughly ENOUGH. And, son of a gun, I’m 61: if I don’t start mindfully breaking those rules now, when will I ever get the chance?

So here are the rules I often, willfully, break.

1. Always use complete sentences.
It is tremendously important to be able to craft complete sentences and to understand how they should flow, and to know how to connect independent clauses when I am linking more than one.  But sometimes, a sentence fragment can bring readers up short.  Grab their attention. Quickly make my point.

Sometimes, there’s good reason to string clauses together without conjunctions, to let them flow without the interference of ‘and’ or ‘but’, to allow my words to surge without interference.

Not always.  But sometimes, both of the above are wonderful techniques.

2. Never start a sentence with a conjunction.
This is good advice, in general.  But sometimes, I just need to emphasize what follows.  Starting with a conjunction works, I believe, in that regard.

3. Don’t make up words.
I love to search out words that mean just exactly what I want to say–often there is a new word, an undiscovered word, that I can employ to perfectly, aptly get my meaning across.

Once in a while, though, I need a word that I don’t think exists.  In my family, we say we are befoogled when complete and utter fogginess and befuddlement descends.  Befoogled is just exactly what we are; there is no other word that can describe our precise states of mind. And when my crazy little dog jumps on my bed, mid-night, mid-thunderstorm, there is no one word to describe her quivering and whimpering.  But quimpering will do it.  I’ll blend those words and use the result.

4. Spell and punctuate correctly.
Of course, we must always follow the rules of spellin’…unless we are trying to get a tone or a mood across.  Unless we are writing in a voice that demands a difference. Unless nothing else will do but to be creative with the way a word appears on paper–if we are trying, say, to capture the tone of a fourth grader writing a note to her BFF, or a young mother texting her husband… Sometimes, in cases like those, the right thing to write is an oddly spelled word.

And punctuation–we honor punctuation; we know its proper usage creates meaning and clarity, and the lack of it, in certain documents, undercuts our authoritative author’s voices. Oh, but sometimes…sometimes words have to tumble and flow jouncing into one another without separation without the common courtesy of a comma or a period or a semi-colon for heaven’s sake.  Sometimes, we need to consciously ditch the comma, or whatever punctuation mark we may need NOT to write to get the feel we need to get.

5. Put your thesis statement in your first paragraph.
Often, especially in cover letters, grant proposals, and sets of instructions, this is absolutely what one should do: hit that reader right on the head with the main idea. The audience needs to get it right from the get-go. Sometimes, though, when you want to build your point, or intrigue your reader, or culminate in one great comment, you put your thesis statement elsewhere.  You put it, for example, at the end of your essay.  Or–you don’t ‘put it’ at all: you imply it, and you let your smart and savvy readers supply it themselves.

You don’t have to wait to be a word-master to break the rules. You just have to know enough about the area in which you play to mindfully, consciously, choose to craft your words in that alternate path.

What are your favorite rules to circumvent? I’d love to hear about them.

Happy blogging, my friends.

#weekly #creativewriting

Organize Your Writing

One of the things that can get out of hand quick when you’re writing a novel is keeping track of the details. As the story pours out beneath your fingers tapping away on the keyboard, you don’t want to have to stop and page back through the previous 10,000 words to find an important detail that’s relevant to a scene you’re currently developing. It might be things like who said what to whom, how many days have passed, does it makes sense with the way the plot is unfolding, and so forth.

I use several tools to organize my writing so as to avoid rereading the whole manuscript to find one detail. Here are a few of them:

  1. Timeline spread sheet:  this is essential for keeping track of the order of events. The way I do it is to decide on a date for the opening of the story, and since my books are set in present day, I usually pick a day and the date of the current year. Then for each day on which action happens, I make a brief note of the significant event. For days where nothing happens I may make an entry that reads: August 4-6 Jen waits for news from the police, or something like that.
  2. Character biography database: this can be as simple as writing your character’s physical description, age, career and hobbies on an inex card. I keep mine filed on another spreadsheet. Other details that are helpful to include are personality traits. List things like he is intelligent, short tempered, bossy, meek, shy, funny, easy going, intense, artistic, serious or grumpy. You may also include events that have shaped their life so far. For example they were raised in a wealth and comfort or they were abused as a child. They lived in the city or grew up on a farm. They might have been happily married and widowed or divorced with a nasty custody battle. All this helps shape the way your characters will act and react in certain situations.
  3. Pinterest boards: this is something that won’t appeal to everyone, but I like doing it. I create Pinterest boards for each of my novels and “cast actors” to “play the roles” of each character. This helps me to “see” the character perform the action in the story.
  4. Mapping the location: I physically draw the layout of my locations: the town, the character’s house or apartment layouts, and so forth, again to help me visualize the scenes. And you don’t need to be an artist to make this work for you. A crude map is fine. No one else has to see it!

Keeping track of the details means you won’t be making as many mistakes along the way. This will save you a lot of time and aggravation when you begin proofreading and editing. And being able to visualize your characters and the setting of your story will help make it more real to you and that will translate into your work. As always, I hope this was helpful. Have a great weekend, everyone!

#weekly #creativewriting

Need Inspiration? Then, watch TV!

Before I started hardcore watching television again, I had a month’s worth of writer’s block. I could barely write about Swiss cheese in an interesting way, no matter how hard I tried (to be fair, work has been crazy; thus, my creative juices had been sucked out of me). So, I became an information vegetable/sponge and started watching television at work. Oddly enough, my inspiration came from watching Littlest Pet Shop (2012). I really like the orange hedgehog named Russell. He is very similar to me because he is obsessed with neatness and order and is intellectual (and lets everyone know about it, too) and surprisingly the most social. So, my stories have involved him or rather, people being in love with him. Blythe, the human who takes care of the pets as her day job, is the person I pair him with. She is also similar to me because she works very hard and is always busy doing something productive. She also likes to balance many facets of her life like I do. Also, Russell is her favorite pet, so it only seemed appropriate (despite the non-canon aspect of this unique pairing). He also spends more time with her than any of the other pets do; there was an entire episode devoted to both of them spending alone time together at a sleepover at the pet shop (until Sunil (the moongoose) and Vinnie (the gecko) crashed the party). Also, there are many times when they are caught spending time together without the other pets (an example of when Russell is sitting on the sales counter while Blythe was the cashier). So, I’ve been writing a bunch of RussellxBlythe fan fiction; one of my stories is devoted to a spin-off of that episode.

So, if you have severe writer’s block like I do, you could always revert to writing fan fiction. I know that it might be frowned upon to encourage fan fiction, but it’s a good start to get out of having a writer’s block.

Xara Nahara O’Connor
#creativewriting #weekly

Red Rover, Red Rover (Then, Suddenly, It’s Over)

I was thinking, for some reason, of the words we used to chant when we were kids playing games–things like, Red Rover! Red Rover: Let Sheila come over! That was Sheila’s invitation into the rough and tumble of the game. She’d loose her grip on the hands that held hers and fling herself into the fray.

Or when we jumped rope: there was a cadence that the rope-spinners would trill as a soon-to-be-ejected player jumped:

Pom, pom, pompadour Joanie! 
Showing Pammie to the door! 
Joanie’s the one
who’s gonna have some fun,
and we don’t need Pammie any more. 
Shut the door!

And out Pammie would go, with grace, she hoped, and not tangled or tripping, as Joanie got her two solo minutes to dance in the swinging rhythm of the jump rope.

Clear, inviting, satisfying: the words of those games drew us in, and the words of those games ushered us out. In between, there was a robust and satisfying interlude, and we’d usually want to go back and do it all over again.

That, I thought, is just like writing.

Our titles have a big job. No pressure, of course.  They just have to connect with potential readers, and intrigue or perplex or interest them enough that they find our work and read it.  Like a wonderfully designed book cover, an irresistible storefront sign, or an outfit that makes you think, “I HAVE to meet that person,” a title is the compelling opening gambit.

If the title is dull, ordinary, or uninviting, the treasures behind it it might never be fully discovered.  And that would be a shame.

I’m looking at one of my bookshelves, and I see Molly O’Neill’s Mostly True, which is a memoir.  I was drawn to that book for multiple reasons: It’s about food, by an expert; gotta love that.  O’Neill is originally from Columbus, my adopted nearest-‘big’-city.  And–she grew up as the only girl in a baseball family, and I know about that.  So I was inclined to the book, anyway, but the title sealed the deal.  Mostly true, indeed–when you write a memoir, your truth is definitely subject to the judgement and memories of others.  Sometimes, even, you exaggerate on PURPOSE. And  I wanted to read a book by a writer who was honest enough to admit that, up front.

The book followed through, with wit and humor, warmth, and adventure. And baseball. And food.

A wry statement that sets the tone is a great way to title a work.

There’s The Small Rain, a Madeleine L’Engle novel, nestled nearby O’Neill’s book on the shelf.  It was L’Engle’s first novel; I tracked it down after reading her Wrinkle in Time series again, as a grown-up who’d loved them as a kid. Then I  traveled through her memoirs and dabbled in her writing on spirituality, and finally, I decided to find her early fiction.  The title of The Small Rain comes from a snippet of poem L’Engle quotes in the beginning of the book:

Western wind, when wilt thou blow,
        The small rain down can rain?
    Christ if love were in my arms
        And I in my bed again!

Well, THAT’S intriguing, isn’t it? It certainly gives me an idea that the book is about a passionate physical love and wrenching separation, and a resolution that slakes some sort of thirst. And yes, indeedy: I want to know more about THAT.

Taking a bit of a quote, maybe one that others recognize, or maybe one that just resonates perfectly with the content of your writing, is a wonderful way to title a work.  (Include the whole, fully-formed quote at the beginning or the end; center it and put it into italics. Then those unfamiliar will get your connection.)

A quote is a great source for a title.

So is a saying we all know, used in a fresh way.  One of my favorite practical-philosophical books is by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin; it’s called Your Money or Your Life.  That’s a famous saying from  old cowboy movies, or films with scenes of varlets in the English countryside stopping the fancy coach and stealing the gold and jewels. It implies danger, an act of theft, loss, and a sudden impoverishment.

So it’s interesting that this book deals with our own modern relationships to money–and what our societies tell us about that relationship.  Who, in this version, is the thief?  Or–could we be robbing ourselves?

Taking those familiar words and using them in a totally unexpected, but totally applicable, way, makes for a great title.  Could I do the same, maybe, with, say, my mother’s famous line: Let me make a short story long?

What pre-packaged sayings populate your lexicon and might just title your work?

Or–could you take something very familiar, words we all hear over and over, and morph them slightly to match your meaning?  Can you change them just enough that they tantalize and lure?

One of my favorite books is The Persian Pickle Club, by Sandra Dallas; I think it’s one of the mostly deftly woven mysteries of modern times. But I was first drawn to it, when I saw it on the library shelf, because of its title.  What the heck, I had to know, is a Persian Pickle?

Turns out it’s a name for a particular paisley pattern.  The book is about a group of small-town quilting women in Dust Bowl, USA, during the Great Depression.  Like their description, they seem ordinary and unremarkable.  Like the title, there’s something a little more exotic, a little more daring, about the ladies in the group.

So a unique or unusual way of phrasing the familiar or the tame might be a very intriguing way to title a work.  If you’re writing about cooking spaghetti and how that has been a part of your life since way back when, for instance, why not title the work with the name your little brother used to call the dish? I would have to read an essay titled “Bizgetti and Beatmalls.”

A title that surprises and delights, but is directly connected to meaning, is a great front door to your work.

And then, oh Lordie, there’s the ending.  Sometimes I get to the end of an essay, and I have said everything I want to say, and, oh, man: my work is just hanging there.  Stopping at that point would be like leaving a house where I’m visiting and not closing the door behind me–kind of rude, kind of awkward, and maybe the rain comes in and ruins the memory of a wonderful visit.  I need to wrap things up in a way that makes sense and satisfies.

Mostly True ends with a quote from an important presence in the book. The last line is this, something O’Neill’s mother said: “My Gawd, Molly, maybe it was all worthwhile.”

(Did O’Neill’s mother really say just those words?  I don’t know–remember, this is MOSTLY true.  But the author surely captured the essence of her mother’s persona, and surely chose a perfect phrase to wrap up her work with a satisfying entry.

The Small Rain ends with a person on the beach, watching a departure.

The last line in Your Money or Your Life, the end line in the epilogue, is the point of the whole book: There is more to life than nine-to-five.

And The Persian Pickle Club ends with a challenging puzzle, with an acknowledgement that some accounts and some appearances can’t quite be trusted.  It ends by letting us know, surely and definitively, that we will never know for sure–but it requires that we ruminate.  (Saying more than that could ruin the ending of a very crafty book.)

So–looking for a conclusion, we could end our writing with a quote that sums it all up.  We could end it by describing some sort of fitting act of farewell. We could slap what we English teachers LOVE to call the thesis statement at the END, the very end, instead of the beginning.  We could, if appropriate, end with a quandary, with the puzzle we want our readers to walk away pondering.

Or–we could revert to the classical five-paragraph essay form, a disciplined (sometimes overly so) kind of work–but one that, in a pinch, usually works.  And we could end our work, our writing that threatens to dangle and bleach out into nothingness, by tying it up nicely and referring back to the way we began.

Just like a game we played as children, we can exit our reader as neatly as we drew them in.

Our topic is done;
there’s surely no more fun.
We do not want to write much more.

Shut the door.