Wisdom from a Master

By Virginia Parker Staat

“Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”
~ Barry Lopez

Acclaimed nature writer Barry Lopez passed away on Christmas Day, 2020. I recently read a tribute to Lopez in the journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. I learned several interesting things about the man. For example, Lopez was an accomplished photographer before he became a writer. Perhaps his beginning in photography enabled him to paint those lovely landscapes into words. Lopez was a master at writing landscapes. His lyrical descriptions earned him a National Book Award and other exemplary honors.

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The Original Photo Essay

Photos & text by Virginia Parker Staat

“Visual storytelling utilizes both language and art to pass on
the essence of who we are.”  

~ Debbie Millman

It has been over a year since David and I visited Australia. One of the highlights of our journey was our trip to the Mitchell Falls rock art complex. These ochre paintings are believed to be among the oldest surviving rock art in the world. Some as old as 80,000 years.

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A Run-In with the Run-On

By Virginia Parker Staat

Punctuation is a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story
without stumbling. ~ Lynne Truss

It was early in my college career, long ago and in a time when students learned to diagram sentences. One of my English professors challenged the class to diagram a 1,288-word sentence. It was a convoluted, rabbit-trail of a sentence, filled with countless clauses. I took the challenge… and failed miserably.

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Listen to the Music

by Virginia Parker Staat

When the lyrical muse sings, the creative pen dances. ~ Aberjhani

I am working to revive an old manuscript. The story is the retelling of a myth I found buried in the ancient Mayan Popol Vuh. It is a strange and lovely story but has remained so incomplete and unsatisfying to me that I tucked it away in a drawer for nearly twenty years. When I pulled it out of its hiding place several weeks ago, the secret to what is missing fairly exploded in my face. Quite simply, my words lack rhythm. They do not dance.

We use rhythm in our writing to set our story’s mood. It is not about writing rhyme or flowery and fancy words. It’s about combining words like a composer builds a symphony to make his music a sensory experience.

Author Henneke Duistermaat writes, “In music, tone length and the silences in between tones define rhythm. When long notes blend together without silences, the music flows smoothly. In contrast, when you play short notes with clear pauses in between, you get a more abrupt style of playing. It wakes you up. In writing, rhythm is defined by punctuation and the stress patterns of words in a sentence. Long sentences sound smoother, while short sentences make your content snappier. When each sentence follows the same structure and rhythm, your writing becomes boring.” 

Writing lyrical prose is especially important in our nature writing. In addition to setting our story’s mood, it pulls our readers in, helping them connect with landscape and subject. For a more recent example, I invite you to read The Eagle’s Way by Jim Crumley. A more thorough examination of writing lyrical nature prose can be found in Mark Tredinick’s The Land’s Wild Music, which focuses on the prose of outdoor writers Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiesson, Terry Tempest Williams, and James Galvin. 

To briefly illustrate rhythm and how it sets our story’s mood, let’s look at a few lines from the children’s book The Man Who Could Call Down Owls, by Eve Bunting. An award-winning and prolific writer, Bunting is best known for her quiet, lyrical prose. These few lines offer an excellent example of how she draws emotion from her readers using rhythm.

“An owl no bigger than a sparrow came to nestle in the shadow of the wide hat.

‘Elf owl.’ The man smoothed the pale chest feathers till the owl eyes closed.

Deep in the dark of the trees was a hoot, hoot, hooting and a great horned cut the air to land on a stunted branch, so close that the boy could see the ring of white feathers that lay mysteriously at its throat.

Owls everywhere. And the man in the middle, his cloak drifting about him like marsh mist, and Con, always Con, and the man with the owls around him.”

Bunting uses similes and metaphors to evoke images in her words. She uses alliteration and repetition to create patterns. She uses a syllabic style to set her cadence. She uses punctuation to control pace and space and rhythm. She uses sentence length to establish tone and topic. In short, her words dance the mystery surrounding the man who could call down owls.

With a strategy found in Roy Peter Clark’s book Writing Tools, we can use math to analyze how the lyrics flow in these few paragraphs from Bunting’s work. Bunting writes 102 words in six sentences. These sentences contain 17, 2, 12, 43, 2, and 26 words respectively. The longer the motion described, the longer her sentence.

Clark writes that the rhythm becomes more interesting when we match sentence length to content and use it to create suspense and control emotion. He continues, “The writer controls the pace for the reader, slow or fast or in between, and uses sentences of different lengths to create the music, the rhythm of the story.” 

In Bunting’s last sentence, using 26 words, readers can nearly feel the cold wind in the man’s cloak as it swirls about him. Gary Provost explains this technique in his book, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing. He writes that a sentence of considerable length “burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals – sounds that say, listen to this, it is important.” 

To repair my Mayan myth, I am studying our photographs from the great Mayan city of Teotihuacán and its surrounding countryside to awaken memories. I am listening to ancient Mayan songs to familiarize myself with the beat used during the time of the Popol Vuh. I plan to rearrange my words to fit the rhythm that best evokes the story’s energy, building my cadence with appropriate metaphors, similes, alliteration, and repetition. Finally, I will sound out my words, reading them aloud to make certain the story’s intensity ebbs and flows until it reaches a crescendo.At our best, when we write, we write music. Our words resonate with rhythm. They blend together like a melody. They mesmerize and pull our reader in, creating mood, emotion, and tone. In essence, they make our pens dance.

Believing in Fairy Tales

By Virginia Parker Staat

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” ~ Neil Gaiman

I suppose some may consider it an odd place for a nonfiction writer to begin, but for me, the fairy tale structure is the one I use most frequently. Fairy tales use a narrative structure, which lends itself well to nonfiction. I’m not talking about fairy tale formula. I can’t recall a single piece of nonfiction that includes magic beans or a pumpkin turning into a carriage. Rather, a fairy tale narrative structure uses specific building blocks to tell a story. This narrative structure determines how our plot is unveiled to our readers. 

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Sensory Perception

Text & photo by Virginia Parker Staat

Writing is like painting with words, the paper is the canvas, the pen is the brush, the words are the colors and the verbs, nouns and adjectives are the blending of the hues that add depth to the picture you are creating.  ~  Reed Abbitt Moore

baobab tree
The magnificent and wondrous baobab, or tree of life.

On our recent visit to the Kimberly region of Australia, we discovered the baobab. These trees are truly magnificent with their massive, bottle-shape trunks, spreading crowns, and finger-like branches. They only reside in the drier regions of Africa, Madagascar, and northern Australia. Known as trees of life, a single baobab can hold 120,000 liters of water in the fibrous pith of its trunk and branches. In times of drought, Bushmen poke holes in its trunk to draw out the water while animals chew on the baobab branches, using them like straws to drink. 

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Ode to a Chippendale Dancer

By Virginia Parker Staat

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining;
show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
~ Anton Chekhov

When we travel into the city, we almost always stop by our favorite Italian restaurant. It is a third-generation bistro begun in 1938 in the home where the owners raised their children. At one time it was billed as one of the top five restaurants in the world to visit. Now, with his beloved Josephine gone and Sammy in his eighties, the restaurant still has excellent fare but not the five-star quality it once boasted. 

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Happy Punctuation Day!

By Virginia Parker Staat

“In the family of punctuation, where the full stop is daddy and the comma is mummy,
and the semicolon quietly practises the piano with crossed hands, 
the exclamation mark is the big attention-deficit brother who gets overexcited and breaks things and laughs too loudly.”

~ Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

On September 24, our nation will celebrate its 16thNational Punctuation Day. Jeff Rubin founded the event in 2004 as “a celebration of the lowly comma, correctly used quotation marks, and other proper uses of periods, semicolons, and the ever-mysterious ellipses.” 

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The Cutting Room Floor

By Virginia Parker Staat

“Cut a good story anywhere, and it will bleed.”  ~ Anton Chekhov

I remember my first attempt at writing a young adult novel. It took nearly six months of my life to complete it. I immediately put it in a drawer to let it heal itself. When I read it in its entirety several weeks later, I was astonished to discover the book actually began about sixty pages into the piece.

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