Story Wonders: Japanese Thread Balls

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For this new year, I will be sharing the wonders I find when writing my stories. Even when my own words fall short, I find joy in my discoveries about the world around me. 

I am still shopping around for a new blog look, but, in the meantime, I wanted to get started with a colorful weaving I found.

Temari

Centuries ago, mothers in China and Japan began constructing balls for their children out of left over clothing. From strips of kimonos these balls evolved into today’s intricate Japanese thread patterns called Temari.

Check these out!

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Photograph by NanaAkua
Website | Facebook | Flickr

Often, the weaver places an object inside the ball to give it special meaning for the child. It might be a coin or some other small token that represents something special to the person.

I made my own simple ball a while back out of material I had in my crafting cupboard. Videos are all around and, once again, it’s amazing what you can do with YouTube. I am always impressed by people like Barbara Suess who take what they love and use the Internet to connect that love to others.

 

And here are more photos of those Temari. I found the photos below on Flickr taken by NanaAkua as well as an excellent article by Twisted Sifter on the the photographer’s amazing artist grandma. (These are only about a thousand times better than my first attempt.)

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Wishing you a joyful new year with your own story wonders,

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Wednesday Wonders: Finding Story in Dory

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Spoiler Warning: If you haven’t seen Finding Dory and still want to be surprised, don’t read this. 

I recently told my English class that I have two sons. One is 17 and the other is 6. This means, I told them, that I have been watching kid movies since 1999.

Many of the films numbed my senses. All the the Buddies flicks, for example, and most of the sweet Little Foot movies delighted my sons.

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While I see their value in cuteness and love to see my kids smile, the story lines make me want to bang my head against a sharp object, especially after the boys have seen them 20 or 30 times.

Sequels, I find, cause more trouble than most when it comes to head banging.

So the other night, when I was at my mother’s and we rented Finding Dory I expected to sit it out until about 7:00 pm and then tell my son we really needed to go.

An hour later, I still sat on the big blue couch, not wanting to move. The story had me completely hooked. I liked it even better than the original Finding Nemo. (I suppose I never got over the death of the poor mother at the beginning, and Marlin irritated me with his fussiness.)

We’ve since bought the Finding Dory DVD (because we have an outdated system), and I noticed a few things about the story as a writer.

I adored the main character.

I connected with Degeneres as Dory in the first movie, but this version opened with Dory as an adorable baby fish wandering the ocean looking for her parents. Her ‘short term memory loss’ kept her from even remembering Jenny and Charlie.

My sympathy for those great big eyes stabbed me clear through and made me root for that fish from the opening scenes.

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The story ties into the original movie

It felt as if the story writers had PLANNED a sequel. Maybe they did. Although the hero’s journey of Dory held up all on it’s own, learning why Dory could speak whale and why she sang ‘just keep swimming’ added bonus layers of complexity.

The old characters shifted position in importance

The movie successfully shifted from a story about Marlin and Nemo to the story of Dory with the clown fish as supporting characters.

The new characters made the movie fabulous

Hank the Septopus, Dory’s parents, Becky the loon, the two recuperating whales, and the rock possessive sea lions pulled me into the action even more.

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Finally, I noticed a technique that works with any good story. All the details moved the story forward. The first time I saw the movie, I didn’t give much thought to the adorable otters. The second time through  I saw that they came on scene just before Kid Zone and Poker’s Cove. This set them up to later stop traffic for Dory when she rescued Marlin and Nemo from the transport truck.

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The writer Andrew Stanton, also known as the voice of Crush the turtle, engaged a mom with over 17 years worth of kid movie experience. I liked it so much I even saw his name in the credits after Sia sings a gorgeous rendition of ‘Unforgettable.’

Not bad, Mr. Stanton and crew. Not bad at all.

A Story Comes to My Kitchen

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Water and Oars

Last spring, I read The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown for Pierce County Reads. The story wrapped me up, and I couldn’t help but tell my hubby.

I told Phil of the rowers from the University of Washington. I told him about the rower Joe Rantz and the odds he beat after taking care of himself from the age of 15 in rural Sequim, Washington — a place where I once lived.

I told him, also, of the amazing craftsman named George Yeoman Pocock who constructed the shell the team used to win the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Pocock used huge cedar planks to create boats that commanded high prices across the country for the sport that was so popular at that time. 

One day, my husband came home to tell me of what happened to the wood Pocock had but did not use for the shells. His family, apparently, sold it to a carver in B.C.

More recently, one of the Phil’s woodworking customers had bought the cedar from the carver.

“Oh! Do you think I could get a few scraps?” I asked. He often brings me small treats from his customers. A couple in Elma even sent me blueberries from their garden this summer.

My husband told me I must be kidding. With the popularity of Brown’s book, the wood is worth hundreds of dollars per board foot.

Listening to his good sense, I let that little idea die and moved on, tucking that rowing story into the back of my mind. I satisfied myself with my new The Boys in the Boat library card.

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Two things every writer needs: a pen and a gorgeous library card.

Then my birthday happened this last week.

Phil pulled out two bookends and told me his customers had made them for me out of Pocock’s cedar stash.

My husband rocks.

And stories live. One is sitting on my kitchen table now, in fact.

May you find your own stories coming to life.

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Hamming It Up: Why We Need an Audience

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(Photos by Alana T)

“Listening is an act of love.”

Two weeks ago Morf Morford used those words as he told his story right before I had to get up under the lights. Although I can’t find the person he was quoting, somehow the thought calmed me when I sat shivering in my chair in the middle of a dark audience, contemplating getting up in front of a crowd on the Drunken Telegraph, an amazing community story telling organization in Tacoma. It was my hope that the crowd would love me through that blinding stage light and the story I felt driven to tell.

I discovered a while back that I need an audience. A part of me worries that this makes me a ham. But I’m betting that we all need an audience, large or small — someone to witness us and push us to do things a notch or two higher than we would without anyone watching. Dan Blank, a writing and marketing coach, recently said writers fear apathy much more than we fear criticism. “The reality is that the WORSE thing is that you create and share something, and no one even notices.”

It’s true that I can practice by myself. I can write stories, knit doggie sweaters, bake squash or play Adagio on my clarinet without anyone watching. And sometimes this is best so that I can safely make the multitude of mistakes that I need to make in order to improve.

But I also need the pressure of knowing someone is watching or will be watching in order to push myself to get better.

This is what happened to me on that stage. I had been trying to tell a story about my experiences in an animal shelter for twenty years. It wasn’t until I had the pressure of getting up in front of an audience that I could tell the story and find the meaning in it. The relief of getting the story out was tremendous and only possible because I had to face the fire of getting the story told on a deadline with people watching.

So I keep posting to the blog, playing my clarinet in the community band, and standing in front of students even when my face feels so red hot I could start a fire with their textbooks.

I do it because it makes me better and it makes me feel more alive. I’m so grateful to the love of the listeners, students and readers. I could not do it without them.

 

What Richard Sherman and Harry Potter Have in Common

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The Seahawks and the words in a story. The two don’t seem to have much in common, but experiencing the buildup to the Superbowl within a few miles of Seattle’s epicenter has me thinking of crazy connections.

Many years ago I took a fiction writing class through the University of Washington. The instructor and the text informed me that, in order to write good fiction, I had to use conflict. And the higher the stakes, the better the tale. If the character fought death itself, this would be the best story of all.

I decided then and there that fiction was not for me. Secretly, I still loved reading it and tried to ignore that conflict pulled me into and through all of my most favorite tales from THE UGLY DUCKLING and IS THIS THE HOUSE OF MISTRESS MOUSE  to THE HOBBIT, the Harry Potter series and THE DAVINCI CODE.

But I would not be a part of writing such things, thank you very much. I needed to keep myself above all of that. I needed to focus on compassion and altruism and things like that there.

I squeezed my eyes shut to my need to write and look at fiction in the face until my life hit me full on with it’s own conflict. Until I could no longer avoid the conflict deep within all that is around me. I could be a vegetarian, sure. But the animals I refused to eat still ate each other. Plants have feelings to some degree or another, and I must eat something.

On top of that, I lost babies in miscarriages and in other ways too difficult to explain in this post.  After life brought me so low I could not get off the couch, a novel saved me. A story with life and death stakes. A story where the main characters discover things about themselves while running from bad guys attempting to kill them in unspeakable ways.

Saying a story saved me sounds exaggerated but it’s not. I remember that couch and that book holding me in this world when nothing else would. And then I remember picking up my pen to save myself once more by writing words I needed to hear.

That escape from the prison of my own mind Neil Gaiman described in my last post let me find light. And the only way for me to get to that light was to sink into a story while the thing that pulled me through that story was – you guessed it – conflict. Shooting and stabbings and burnings and other such dreck.

Like Greg Garrett, I feel deeply torn about cheering for my team to bash the other. But another part of me knows that the conflict drawing us in holds blessings in the shape of good deeds and a wonder that is a community.

So as I watch the Seahawks move to this battle full of hits and tackles like the one that took out my sweet husband’s knee umpteen years ago, I step back and see, too, the joy that it’s bringing the people around me: The kids in their green and blue. My friends Ginny and Robin in their a Capella singing group on MSNBC. The happiness that is a sporting event that pulls people together in parties with nachos and laughter.

Only a blend of bookworm and sometime football fan could pull this up but, for what it’s worth, here are five things football players and story characters have in common: 

1. The stakes are high. Both Harry Potter and Richard Sherman could die in the fight. Really. This, I know, is not the best reason we watch or read but it is a driving force that we cannot deny. I think admitting it helps us work through it.

2. They are fighting to win. Maybe the characters will not get what they want or the players will not catch the ball but, in trying, they win my heart as long as they do it with some semblance of grace and chutzpah.

3. The antagonists of a story and the other team (those Broncos this time) also have my sympathy on some level. It’s part of the conflict to be able to identify with the other side and be able imagine what it feels like to be on the other side.

4. The football game, just like a story, has a beginning, a middle and an end with a climax and even an epilogue. If the Seahawks win, it will be hard to get enough of the play by plays afterward. If my team loses, I will shut off the TV and make a bigger plate of nachos while listening to my brother-in-law grouse about officials. (In stories, I shut the book and complain to my family about how I hated THAT ending).

5. Players and characters become better through the effort. This is something I think draws us all into the games and stories. We love to see others grow and cross our fingers that we are doing the same in the stories and games of our own lives.

Yes, I’ll be watching on Sunday. I’ll see the giant young men slam into each other while the better part of me cringes when the players are injured as I know they will be. But I’ll also celebrate that we have something to cheer for. Something that gets us talking and pulls us from our lows to find yet another story. This one happens to play out on a screen rather than between the pages of a book.

Go Hawks! And may we all find the best in ourselves whether we win or lose the conflict that brought us to the game or story in the first place. 

Puzzle Patterns, Bells and Structure

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I often think of decoding grammar as piecing together a giant word filled jigsaw puzzle. A thousand pieces to put together on a kitchen table is really not so daunting compared to the complex ways English and other languages fit together, moving with our new ideas and needs for communication. The analogy somehow helps me get it together in my mind, especially when the puzzle feels as trying as this guy’s vase.

The other day I was talking to my class about parallel structure, that part of sentences where the pieces need to fit together. In parallel structure, the writer has a series of items that need to match or run parallel to one another. I wrote up a few examples to explain what I mean by this. Examples always work better for me in the puzzle of English than explanations.

With parallel structure in verb forms:

I like knitting, running, and looking at different art forms.

Without parallel structure in verb forms:

I like knitting, to run, and looking at different art forms.

With parallel structure in adverbs:

The great barn owl sat on the post regally, solemnly, and aloofly.

Without parallel structure using adverbs and a prepositional phrase (I think I’ve been guilty of this one):

The great barn owl sat on the post regally, solemnly, and with no interest in his onlookers.

With parallel structure in noun phrases:

The lady sat on a fence thinking about the ways she could get off the fence, the marvelous view she had while staying on the fence, and the horses who might let her stay for a few more minutes without demanding more grass.

Without parallel structure in noun phrases and an infinitive:

The lady sat on a fence thinking about the ways she could get off the fence, the marvelous view she had while staying on the fence, and to wish the horses might let her stay for a few more minutes without demanding more grass.

While I explained this, it occurred to me that another story I had just read by Miki Craighead would be the perfect example to help students understand the way parallel structure fits together. In my textbook there were several examples of patterns to show students to help them find the patterns of structure. The patterns were not very original and did not come with an interesting story. They looked something like this:

a, b, c, ?

10, 20, 30, ?

So I told them the story of Miki’s family bell system with its code for each of the children.

That pattern has a delightful story of children playing and a creative father who designed a sort of Morse code to call his kids in when needed. The pattern looked like this:

____ – , ____ – -, ____ – – -, ____ – – – -, ?

I sensed my students liked the bell system better than the overworked alphabet. And a neurologist I once listened to kept me spellbound for a 3 hour lecture by sprinkling stories into his lecture about Brain Rules. In any case, I am hoping Miki’s story lifted the grammar up a bit out of the drudgery for them.