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Writing As Reflection

This morning I was listening to a CD (remember CDs?) of Juan Martin’s “Painter in Sound.” It is an album with the conceit that each track was written for/inspired by real paintings, including works by Leonardo da Vinci and Pablo Picasso. The very first track also features its painting on the cover of the CD case: David Hockney‘s “A Diver” (called “The Diver” on the CD). Hockney is well known for his many variations on the Los Angeles swimming pool and its swimmers. You can both see this particular painting and listen to the track in question here on YouTube.

“A Diver” by David Hockney. Poster for exhibition at the Australian National Gallery 1982. http://www.widewalls.ch/artwork/david-hockney/a-diver

I noted as I was listening just how much a musician’s personal experience comes into play when composing music intended to reflect a non-musical concept or image. Have a listen to the track if you like, and consider how your own experience with swimming and pools meshes with the music.

By this act of creation and reflection, the composer is saying “this is how this painting affects and inspires me.” The listener may disagree, perhaps intensely. After all, consider the range of possible “swimming pool” experiences there must be. What if you’d nearly drowned as a child in a clear blue pool under a clear blue sky? Your associations with that painting will be in stark contrast to the competitive diver, or the person who had their swim bottoms pulled off by accident or prank before a crowd of peers.

Writers deal with more literal ideas than the musician, of course. Even poets can set the word “terror” somewhere near the phrase “swimming pool” and so cement the association in a more concrete way, relatively speaking.

But a writer is making a blithe (and common) mistake if they assume that a phrase, an object, or an action all mean the same things to all people. The writer must take this reality to heart when attempting to communicate emotion and experience. And, importantly, they must accept that readers will change what the writer has written. Inevitably, the reader will hold their own lives to the mirror the writer creates–and, aside from the strictly technical or literal, all writing is in this way a mirror whether its creator likes it or not.

It is for this reason that I am firmly in the camp that disassociates who a writer is as a person with their writing (or a painter with their painting, and so on). But that is a topic for another essay!

Michael Fink

Reading, Writing, and Bookstores during Covid-19

Old Capitol Books - Monterey

Photo above from website: proprietor Ali Elfaki (upper right) and associates, Old Capitol Books.

So, here we are in the midst of the pandemic; and in this period of “social distancing” (a phrase that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives), many of us are missing that special sense of community that only bookstores and libraries can provide.

You know what I mean: bookstores are not only places to buy books and check out the latest bestsellers. They are also venues for readings and workshops; they are spaces that celebrate new and old books, as well as writers and artists; they cultivate the enjoyment of reading and knowledge.

The same can be said of libraries, which do all that, and mostly for free. In recent years they have been diversifying into community gathering places, providing lectures (check out DIY Science Saturdays), teaching opportunities, storytelling events and readings, annual free tax preparation and information, and even sheltering the homeless during daytime open hours. With pandemic restrictions, libraries have had to adapt.

We know that some of these venues are now struggling, and it’s difficult to watch it from a “distance.” So this site’s blog will be focusing, for awhile, on local bookstores and libraries, as well as writers — what they’re doing to survive and thrive.

Older photo of Old Capitol Books. Photo by JVengua.

One of my favorites is Old Capitol Books in Monterey. Housed in a building that was originally an automotive repair shop in the 1930s, and later a dance and martial arts studio, it became Book Haven in 1999, and later Old Capitol books, which is now owned by former bookstore employees Ali Elfaki and Stephanie Spoto.

They and their staff have made the bookstore into a community space with its own special qualities. As well as the usual promotional book readings, they offer weekly writers’ workshops, theory and philosophy discussions, LGBTQ hangouts, political prisoner support events, a virtual open mic event, live music, and even speed dating nights!

Now they ask for your support by donating to their GoFundMe site to save Old Capitol Books. In the meantime, there are other things you can do to help out, and continue to keep books and bookstores in your life: you can order books, book certificates, and “book care packages.”

Patrice Vecchione, author of My Shouting, Shattered, Whispering Voice.

I suggest that you check out their website regularly for updates, including events such as author and artist Patrice Vecchione‘s upcoming event, My Shouting, Shattered, Whispering Voice: A Writing Workshop. From the $80 fee, 50% will go to Old Capitol Books, and 50% to a writer, who can also use some support!

–J. Vengua

Gutenberg on WordPress

(This was posted in 2018)

For WordPress users, an alert: they are soon switching to a new editing scheme: Gutenberg, which will go from text-based to the more visual block-based editor. Supposedly this will give more power to editors who don’t know how to code, and make it easier to post on your mobile phone. This could possibly go up as early as Nov. 19, although it could also be as late as early January if it’s not entirely ready by Nov. 19.

I use WordPress a lot and I’m a “text person”; I do very little coding. So, how well their editor works always has a big effect on my posting process. Right now I’m taking Part I (presented by Machielle Thomas and Micah Wood) of the BlueHost Gutenberg seminar on this, so I will jot down a few of my notes here:

“‘Blocks can contain anything from images and videos to quotes and text…and you’re able to insert the block from the menu into any different format you’d like.”

You can create custom blocks with preset features for specific uses and effects, for example, to create all the formatting you need that you can just drop into your page.

“Blocks give you power.” Really? Sounds like a talking point to me… 😉 (they actually show an image with arms raised into fists here). Uh, OK.

“The blocks make perfect use of space…ability to create content without unnecessary white space” —  alright; they’ve got me there. One of my pet peeves (especially when working with poetry and line breaks) is too much white space.

Looks like you can do a lot in Gutenberg without hand-holding from a developer.

So I wonder how well this will integrate across all the different themes (templates) on WordPress. Will I have to switch themes? Answer: no, not all themes will be compatible.

Process of installing plugin will be exactly the same as previous plugins. But if you’re a Bluehost customer (promoted by WordPress), you might want to try it out in a staging environment first. Fortunately, they do show you how to do this in Part I of the seminar.

More later…

So, if you are a WordPress customer, your site will automatically be updated to Gutenberg. Regardless of whether you use Bluehost or not, you might want to back up your site before Nov. 19.

If you check out the seminar and just want to see what features Gutenberg has, skip up to the 20:40 point.

Micah takes us through the process of creating a page in Gutenberg. Initially, the editing page looks empty in comparison to what I’m used to seeing. Like – where’s the toolbar?

You click on a + button to insert a block, and clicking on the block brings up a menu. You can make images wider than the content area, and it should be a lot easier to place images side by side in Gutenberg (really looking forward to that), and you can also create a gallery.

There will be tools in a right-hand “document panel” that will allow you create up to six columns across your page, for example:

  • you’ll still have the ability to use the classic editor
  • ability to duplicate a block
  • code editor mode, if you want to do html
  • make a block reusable
  • for all you poets out there — there is a verse block! This is really a plus for me, because I manage an online poetry journal.
  • ability to add tables and columns of text
  • you can add different types of blocks within columns

All, or most, of this can be done without having to do any coding.

At this point, I’m really looking forward to this changeover to the Gutenberg editor. WordPress will integrate Gutenberg in several phases. It is now available as a plugin if you’re in the WordPress business plan (go to plugins in WordPress, and do a search for it). Eventually, in 5.0, it will be in WordPress’ core, hopefully available for everyone at all levels.

Update 11/16/2018: I logged onto one of my websites today, and received this message;

Check out the new building blocks of the web

A new publishing experience is coming to WordPress. The new editor lets you pick from a growing collection of blocks to build your ideal layout.

Be one of the first to try the new editor and help us make it the best publishing experience on the web.

So, here goes…

11/29/2018 update: Well, my first tryout of Gutenberg worked fairly well on the front page of my site, but I had problems posting with images in the blog;  I did not find the plugin to be very intuitive. Perhaps some parts of the theme were not well adapted to the plugin. But after all, it’s early, and the new editor is still in beta. Time will tell…

11/30/2018:  I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that all kinds of tutorials are now sprouting up on how to use Gutenberg for WordPress. Go to the Gutenberg Hub to get a rundown on some of the current best. And here’s WordPress Learning Lab’s Gutenberg Tutorial.

5/30/2019 update:

Six months later, I’ve got the image posting down, and I can’t imagine blogging without Gutenberg.

—– Jean Vengua

Genre: The Label on the Bin

“In some ways, genre is a marketing tool.”

Mark Z. Danielewski

I think Mark was understating the case. The book industry uses genre in much the same way that your local record store—remember those?—used signs to tell you that over here was “pop” and over there was “heavy metal.” It was how you found the music you wanted to hear.

Or as author and editor Cathy Yardley put it in her post on Writer Unboxed, “You want to make it as easy as possible for your reader to narrow down her choices. Genre is the first broad stroke in that attempt.”

Broad stroke, indeed, although the number of sub-genres and sub-sub-genres can be eye-opening when you are asked to pick from a list. At least that’s how I found it when I was first asked to classify my novel The Found Diary of Avery Alexander Myer (the link goes to Amazon).

The story has strong elements of magical realism, but at least at the time that was not an official marketing option. It is also an ontological mystery. Good luck finding that on a commercial genre list! What I eventually settled on was “contemporary fantasy.” Does that tell you anything about my novel? Kind of. It says it is a fantasy set in the modern day. Does it tell enough to inform a potential reader? That is a whole other question.

The problem, and the point of this article, is that there are cracks large enough in the commercial genre classification system to walk your dog through. Yet publishing companies, book sellers, and even libraries insist on fitting your story into a particular hole. This means that even if you self-publish, if you want to sell through a major book distributor like Amazon or Barnes & Noble, you must choose a genre. It is simply part of the process.

Should you write and sell for a mainstream readership, this will be a painless and valuable procedure. An author chooses a genre for their readers, not for themselves. Be sure to check out Yardley’s post, “Why Genre Matters,” to get some good commentary on that subject. But for those who write “across” genres, marketing your crypto-thriller-cooking-romance will be a struggle no matter how good your writing.

Some interesting compromises have arisen here and there: “Slipstream fiction,” first coined by author Bruce Sterling, is an attempt to place a tale that is just weird enough to make a reader question the story’s sense of reality. Steampunk is another example of cutting a genre as fine as a publishing house will tolerate. But if Netflix can categorize films as narrowly as “cerebral foreign crime dramas” or “crime late night comedies,” why can’t book publishers do the same?

—Michael Fink