Scholarships Now Available

Scholarships Now Available

Dana (pronounced “DAH-nuh”), noun. Sanskrit, Pali, roughly “gift, alms, donation”; voluntary giving of materials, energy, or wisdom (dharma) to others; generosity; regarded as one of the most important Buddhist virtues.

I grew up during the 1980s recession that brought us Ronald Regan and Black Monday. Between 1980 – 1987, my hometown of Elmira, New York hemorrhaged so many jobs our city’s economic crisis made the New York Times. My grandfather lost his job and pension in 1983. My father lost his job in 1985. After my parents’ divorce, he was functionally homeless for the next three years as he searched for steady work. During that same period, my mother, twin brothers, and I frequently lived on a lentil diet or ate dinners at my grandparents’ house.  

As I began to think about careers, everyone gave me the same advice. Be practical. Get a safe and steady job. Work for the government. Amass what you can now because one day everything will fall apart. 

Creativity felt like an impractical luxury I could not afford.  

And yet, creativity called to my soul. 

It wasn’t until I experienced a life-threatening bout of Lyme disease that I truly realized creativity was what sustained me and made me whole. As I embraced my creative life, mentors appeared. I received many generous gifts that led me to this job. 

Maybe you too feel like creativity is a gift—one you can’t afford.

And yet, maybe creativity also calls to your soul. 

While I don’t talk about it much, Dana has always been a part of my life. It’s a core tenant of my values. In 2020, I am going to put those values into practice within my coaching business. This year, I will award four partial scholarships to be used towards a one-hour coaching session or one of the four- or eight-week classes I’ll be teaching through Revising U. 

Scholarships will be awarded based on the following criteria: 

  1. Financial need 
  2. Dedication to the craft of writing and potential for success 
  3. A clear plan for how you will use this service to benefit your writing and others
  4. A commitment to be a good literary citizen and pay this gift forward 

 
Preference will be given to people with significant financial need and those whose stories have been marginalized. 
 
If you believe you would benefit from one of these scholarships, please send an email to lisa.cooper.ellison@gmail.com. In your email, please answer the following questions: 
 

  1. What financial barriers do you face when accessing writing classes? 
  2. What classes have you taken and/or what experiences have you participated in that demonstrate your commitment to your writing life? What successes have you had? 
  3. How will you use this scholarship to benefit your writing and others? 
  4. How will you serve as a good literary citizen and pay this gift forward? 

Questions? Send me an email. I love hearing from you. 

Write On, Friends!

Lisa Cooper Elison

Five Questions that Can Help You (Re)Define the Why of Your Writing Life

Five Questions that Can Help You (Re)Define the Why of Your Writing Life

Every essay and story must contain a why. The why is the story’s point and the reason we should care about the work. It’s often phrased as why this, or why now, or why you. As the writer, it’s your job to clearly articulate the why of your writing in the most engaging way. But have you ever thought about the why of your writing life?

Every New Year’s Day, I write about my year and examine the whys of my creative and personal life. It’s a practice I started at age eleven. For thirty-four years, I’ve never missed an entry. On this New Year’s Day, I looked at my past ten submissions and examined what I’d learned and how my writing life has evolved.

Thomas Mann said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” This is largely because as writers we care about the outcome. In my teens and early twenties, I cared deeply about spinning a good yarn. Yet most of my pieces were thinly veiled short stories I used to understand my experiences. In my thirties, I wrote to hear myself think.

During the following decade, everything changed. Between 2010 – 2020, I earned a master’s degree in counseling, contracted Lyme disease, experienced the kind of existential crisis that only a prolonged, life-threatening illness can expose, and determined to redefine my career and myself.

As a part of that redefinition, I started a business, wrote two books, taught writing classes, and helped numerous writers with the stories they cherish most. For a while, my why was about helping others heal through the power of their stories. When I got sick, I used the power of story to heal myself. In wellness, I’ve combined these goals into a creative calling I’ve labeled Revising U.

It doesn’t matter if you’re writing memoir, personal essays, fiction, or poetry. All writing is an attempt to understand the self, be it our shadow or our ability to transcend difficult circumstances. In creative nonfiction, we excavate real life in search of truth. In fiction, we push past the bounds of reality as a way to exemplify truth. In poetry, we use space, brevity, and precision to laser in on something essential. The question is not whether the writing affects you, but what effect you want the writing to have on you and the reader.   

My why is simple. I write to transform myself. I help other writers write, revise, and transform their stories into powerful works of art because art has the capacity to heal us. In that centered, whole place, we can create a better world.

Consider your why for a minute.

Why do you write
            even when it’s difficult?
            even when you’ve got nothing to say?
            even when you dare not express that forbidden idea or thought?

If you’re hearing crickets, use the following five questions to find your why.

  1. What do you write about? Are there specific themes that regularly emerge in your work?
  2. When do you write? Do your words flow freely from the depths of depression or during moments of joy? Is writing a way to understand your darkness or record the moments you don’t want to forget?
  3. Who do you share your writing with? Family? Friends? Literary Magazines? People on the Internet? If your answer is no one, meditate on this: If you could share your work with one person or group who would that be? Under what conditions would sharing your writing make you smile?
  4. How do you write? Do you love the feel of pen and paper or the clickety-clack of fingers on keys? Are you someone who has to speak your words?
  5. Where do you find inspiration? Do you go inwards or travel to a destination?

Once you’ve explored these questions, consider what they say about the role of creativity in your life. How does it help you make meaning from your experiences? In what ways does creativity make you a better person? Develop a clear and compelling why for 2020. Then ask yourself how you can add more of this why to your writing life. If your why doesn’t feel satisfactory, think about what you can do to build a better one.

Looking for assistance in this area? Send me an email.  

Dialogue Lab Two: The Power of Subtext

Dialogue Lab Two: The Power of Subtext

My grandfather was a huge fan of saying “actions speak louder than words.” He believed keen observation would prevent me from being taken advantage of. While this lesson has served me well in my personal life, it’s also wise dialogue writing advice.

Great dialogue contains two messages. The first is shared through the direct dialogue exchanged between the two characters. The second is the unspoken or hidden message revealed through characters’ body language and facial expressions. We call that unspoken message subtext. 

Tristine Rainer, author of Your Life as Story, calls subtext a “form of dialogue that contributes to the dance of power.” When subtext contradicts the message in your direct dialogue it amplifies the dramatic tension between characters and heightens the scene’s stakes. To understand what this looks like, let’s check out a few examples.

There are several ways to include subtext in your writing. Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” is about a couple contemplating an abortion. In this section, lines of direct dialogue coupled with the girl’s silence reveal each characters’ true feelings about the choice in front of them.

“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”

The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.


“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”


The girl did not say anything.


“I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.”


“Then what will we do afterward?”


“We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.”

Sometimes writers reveal subtext through gestures and observations as Pam Houston does in this scene from “Highwater,” an autobiographical short story from her collection Cowboys are My Weakness.

“So.” His voice made me jump. “What do you think our potential is in the long-long run?” It sounded like stocks.

“In the long-long run,” I said, “I think our potential is good.” His free hand drummed on the dashboard.

“Do you think I can satisfy you, sexually and otherwise, for a long time?”

I said, “I think you can satisfy me for a long time.” The veins around his temples looked like they would burst.

Without ever saying so, we know this man was hoping for another answer.

Sometimes subtext occurs between the story’s characters and the reader. Check out this phenomenal scene between the killer Chigurh and the owner of a convenience store from No Country for Old Men. In this scene, Chigurh is irritated by the proprietor’s “nosy” questions about what he’s been up to.  

CHIGURH
…What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin toss?

PROPRIETOR
Sir?

CHIGURH
The most. You ever lost. On a coin toss.

 PROPRIETOR
I don’t know. I couldn’t say.

Chigurh is digging in his pocket. A quarter: he tosses it. He slaps it onto his forearm but keeps it covered. Call it.

PROPRIETOR
Call it?

 CHIGURH
Yes.

PROPRIETOR
For what?

 CHIGURH
Just call it.

 PROPRIETOR
Well — we need to know what it is we’re callin’ for here.

CHIGURH
You need to call it. I can’t call it for you. It wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t even be right.

PROPRIETOR
I didn’t put nothin’ up.

CHIGURH
Yes you did. You been putting it up your whole life. You just didn’t know it. You know what date is on this coin?

When watching this scene, it’s clear the proprietor is afraid of his mysterious customer, but he has no idea who Chigurh really is or the stakes he’s playing for. But the reader does.

So, what can you do to increase the subtext in your dialogue?

  • When reading, identify passages where writers have created effective subtext. Pay attention to the hidden messages and how they’re communicated to you and the other characters.
  • In your own stories, analyze passages of dialogue that feel flat. Determine the purpose of the exchange. Identify what you want to say and what you hope to convey. Sometimes it helps to do this with a writing partner or workshop group. Make sure that at least part of what you wish to convey is unspoken.
  • Look for contradictory gestures, body language, vocal tics, and observations you can use to reveal the true meaning of the conversation.

Like all skills, subtext is one that requires practice. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll write engaging scenes readers will love. 

 

Dialogue Lab One: Dialect versus Diction

Dialogue Lab One: Dialect versus Diction

In early October, my father experienced a medical emergency that sent me to Upstate New York. During his recovery, I spent three weeks in my childhood hometown. During hospital visits and errands, I listened to the conversations around me—not just what was said, but the words each person used to convey their messages.

Dialogue is the lifeblood of any scene. When executed effectively, it catapults the reader into the heart of a story. The very best dialogue feels authentic and flows seamlessly from line to line. But don’t be fooled. Effective dialogue requires keen observation, advanced planning, and lots and lots of practice.

 Let’s start with two scenes.

Scene One

The pizza was cold when it arrived. Frank bit his slice then dropped it onto the table. “Man, those motherfuckers must’ve given us a bad batch.”

“A bad batch?” Gene raised an eyebrow in Frank’s direction.

“Yeah, a bad batch. You gotta watch out for dranos in a place like this—you know, people with nothing left to lose.”

Gene nodded as he pulled out a pack of Camels. Before he could retrieve a cigarette for himself, Frank expectantly held out his hand. Gene cleared his throat then handed him the pack. “Yeah, I know what you mean about dranos. Those fuckers will drain you dry.”

 Scene Two

A wall of heat blasted us as we entered the house. The thermostat hovered somewhere around eighty, even though it was only thirty-two degrees outside. After a few quick hugs, Grandma ushered us to the back bedroom. “I saved the medium-grit sheets for you’ins,” she said. “They’re the warmest ones.”

Eying the window I planned to open when we laid down for bed, I smiled and said, “They’ll do just fine.”

Even without physical descriptions, there’s no confusing Frank and Gene for Grandma. Two aspects of the writing differentiate these characters: dialect and diction.

You can identify the very best characters with only a few lines of dialogue. Often, their diction reads like a fingerprint.

According to Merriam Webster, diction is a “choice of words especially with regard to correctness, clearness, or effectiveness.”

When writing dialogue, correctness means choosing the right words for your characters.

 To develop a character’s diction, consider the following: 

  • Slang: Slang is time- and region-dependent. For example, something might be groovy, rad, or dank depending on when you grew up. Someone might make you wicked nervous or hella nervous depending on whether you’re from Boston or California.
  •  Phraseology: One character might use davenport to describe a piece of living room furniture. Another might say sofa. A third might say couch. Each choice reveals another aspect of who your character is and how they view the world.
  • Rhythm: A nervous character might speak quickly or run several sentences together while a depressed character might speak slowly and or use frequent pauses.
  • Idioms or Personal Phrases: An idiom is a figure of speech that means something different than a literal translation of the words would lead one to believe. Many popular clichés are also idioms. Think “piece of cake,” “wear my heart on my sleeve,” and “live off the fat of the land.” While you don’t want to fill your work with clichés, see if there’s a way to create some fresh idioms for your dialogue. A great way to find fresh idioms is to pay attention to the phrases used by people around you. For example, my brother is a fan of saying, “You’re risking a scab” anytime someone engages in risky behavior or makes a smart-aleck remark.

Novelist John Gregory Dunne recorded interesting phrases he heard on notecards he kept in his wallet.

Another way to increase the authenticity of your work is through the careful use of dialect. Again, quoting Merriam Webster, dialect is “a regional variety of language distinguished by features of vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation from other regional varieties, and constituting together with them a single language.”

In writing, dialect could look like “Y’all, I ain’t got a dog in that fight,” or “Yo, that’s some mad fresh pizza.”

While the occasional use of dialect writing can add flavor to a text, heavy use of dialect can backfire. This is more likely to happen when your character is from a group you don’t belong to or the dialect includes a barrage of phonetically spelled words and unfamiliar slang. At the very least, poorly executed dialect overwhelms readers with its unfamiliarity. At the very worst, it can reinforce negative stereotypes and discriminatory views.

Dialect writing is tricky. There are often nuances in regional speech patterns that even native speakers get wrong. When these faux pas occur, writers lose credibility with their readers.

The key to using diction and dialect effectively is to do your research.

  • Listen to recordings and historically accurate film clips from the time or region you’re writing about.
  • Look for what makes a speech pattern unique and capture that in your work.
  • Use dialect sparingly and avoid overuse of contractions and phonetic spellings. Instead of writing a word like “gotta” on the page, consider writing “have got to.” When reading aloud you can always use the shortened form to enhance the sound of your work.

In her blog post “A Writer’s Guide to Speech Patterns,” writer Mara Mahan has an excellent list of questions every writer should consider when designing a character’s dialect and diction. Her questions cover topics like a character’s rate of speech, use of positive or negative statements, and the importance of considering your context. For example, would your character speak to her best friend in the same way she speaks to her parents?

Fleshing out your dialogue is worth the effort. Effective dialect and diction can make the difference between a publication and work that gets buried in a slush pile. 

Thankfully, my father is recovering from his serious illness. This means I can focus on the gifts this experience has given to me, such as the chance to develop some mindful attention to dialogue. You don’t need a medical emergency to sharpen these skills. The Thanksgiving holiday is a great time to train your ear. As you sit with family members, listen to the words they use. Carry a few notecards in your pocket. When you encounter an interesting phrase, jot it down.

The Death of Sonny

The Death of Sonny

This personal essay was a finalist in the

 Hippocampus Literary Magazine’s Remember In November Contest

   

  “Without smoke, you can’t see the light.”

  My husband Alex said this to me while explaining why professional tours use fog machines in their light shows. The particles reflect the light so we can see the beam’s path. Without the particles, the beauty is lost.

 I already knew about smoke and beauty. As kids, my brothers and I had been firebugs who created blazes in the abandoned brickyard near our house. Some fires were taller than we were. Heat waves shimmered in the smoky boundary between fresh air and flame, creating an ethereal blur we called the place between worlds. Sometimes we jumped through those flames hoping to boundary hop into this magical kingdom of particles and light.

Sitting in the band’s touring van as we waited for our new driver, Mario, I was once again surrounded by smoke. It was March 5, 1997, halfway through the European leg of Biohazard’s Mata Leão tour. Alex’s band was Biohazard’s opener. I’d joined the tour a week ago, half-hoping to find myself. Today was the band’s day off. We’d spent the early afternoon wandering through Innsbruck, a small city high in the Austrian Alps. At 3:30 p.m., we boarded the van and prepared to leave for Prague. Mario was supposed to arrive at four. It was now five-thirty.

 He was late, even by rock-n-roll standards.

 

Pin It on Pinterest