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Authors on Craft: Lisa Papademetriou on Rhythm

A Beat of Her Own

“Rhythm underlies everything.” –Mary Oliver

I began my latest novel, Apartment 1986, with one goal in mind: I wanted to write a first-person narrator who sounded as unlike me as possible. That, it turned out, was much harder than I thought it would be. I hadn’t fully realized how internalized the beat of my own prose was. After years of trying to “write the way I talk,” I finally had to imagine a whole new pattern of speech—a brand new rhythm. And, of course, by rhythm, I’m talking about syntax. All writing speaks to the listening mind, and rhythms are foundational. Form and content are one thing. When we are trying to create an image in someone’s mind and a feeling in the heart, the image will dictate the rhythm we choose.

In-person speech is a rich mode of communication. If I were to stand before you and speak, you would see my gestures, my facial expression, you would hear the modulations in the pitch of my voice. All of these contribute to the clarity of what I am saying. If we were to communicate via phone, we would remove one layer of information. You could still “read” the pitch of and inflection in my voice, but you would not be able to see my face or gestures. The written word removes yet another level of communication, and that is why it is so important that it be clear. Anyone who has ever sent an E-mail that was taken the wrong way knows what I am talking about. This is why bad news is usually delivered in person. It’s so that the words can be conveyed, but the unspoken emotion, such as compassion, regret, caring can also be properly conveyed. As writers, our toolbox is limited to intentional grammar.

The narrator of Apartment 1986 is Callie, a middle-school girl who is feeling constrained by challenges at school and at home. She has a naturally positive outlook, but isn’t terribly sophisticated. Here, she explains why she sometimes disappears to the roof of her school, “Look, there are moments when a girl just needs a breath of air, and you can’t get it inside this stuffy school or anywhere in Manhattan when you are down on the street. The air down there isn’t air, it’s basically 80% exhaust fumes 5% heat and 5% dirt, which most of the time gets caught in your lip gloss which is ew. So if you want to breathe and maybe look at a few clouds, you have to get someplace up high.” Even from these few sentences, we get a sense of the character—and no one would ever mistake her for a 45-year-old woman. Callie’s tone is conversational, and the first two sentences ramble. But the syntax of the third sentence slows and presents itself more carefully. This is the part Callie wants the reader to understand and take seriously. The rhythm is a reflection of the progressing thoughts of the narrator, and the texture of the emotion.

Since reimagining the rhythm of Callie’s speech in Apartment 1986, I have begun to realize the intimate relationship between character and the rhythm of his or her speech. Throughout my current work in progress, I’ve made sure to experiment with writing from the first-person perspective of each of my characters, so that I have a sense of his or her internal rhythm. This has, in turn, made their dialog and interactions richer—I no longer have characters that sound similar to me or to each other.

Everyone, it turns out, marches to the beat of a unique drummer.

Lisa Papademetriou is the author of A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic (A South Asia Book Award Highly Commended Title), Apartment 1986, the Confectionately Yours series, and many other novels for middle grade and young adult readers. She serves on the faculty of the MFA program (Writing for Children and Young Adults Track) at Sierra Nevada College.


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Where To Get Writing Inspiration: Beg, Borrow, or Steal?


Oh my god that hair…(My HS yearbook pic)

For the writing class I’m taking I had to write a story in a genre that I don’t usually write in. It was supposed to be about something that had happened to me in high school, or to someone close to me. So, in case you don’t know me, I’m old. I went to high school a looooong time ago. I’m not one of those people with a great memory who remembers all the things. Truth be told, I think I remember the sad or traumatic things mostly. And I remember a glimmer of this thing and that thing… sometimes. But I felt like I’d mined my high school stories already (or at least the ones I’m willing to share). So I did what any self-respecting writer would do: I texted my daughters.

Me: Tell me a story about something that happened in high school. I need it for a paper I’m writing. It can be a story about anything… 😬

Daughter: how about the time you didn’t let us go to radiohead so we screamed about it in the kitchen during spencer’s drum lesson

Me: 😐

Daughter:  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Me: I don’t have to be in the story (especially as the bad guy)

Other daughter:

But then they helped. I mean, I did have to push a little until they each coughed something up. They both told me some stories though. There were some similarities to a couple of them. Some similar settings (on a boat!) and in what happened (adventures!). Well, sort of. And I was feeling some themes. So I picked a bit from one and a bit from another, and then I made up a bunch of stuff. I used the first names of some of their high school classmates and friends, for fun. I think it came out ok… I dusted the whole thing with a touch of magical realism (genre assignment: done!).

Then my daughters wanted to see it! I have to say, I felt a little funny showing it to them. Because I’d taken stuff from their lives, things that had really happened to them, and I had run with it. I made shit up! And it occurred to me that in the novel I’m writing (did you all know I’m writing a novel?!) I have characters that are sort-of-kind-of based on people in my life. But not really. Because I write fiction. So even if I take a phrase that someone I know might say in real life, and put it in the mouth of one of my characters, I’m not trying to have my character be the person who really says that thing.

I think why I ended up being ok with showing them the story is because a shit ton of mother love ended up in it. It was never really about either of them. It was their life events acting as writing prompts. I definitely didn’t tell their stories. Because you know I would never try to co-opt that from anyone (and especially my own children!).

It got me to thinking though. I believe that as writers we need to be fearless about what we put on the paper. And we can’t help but mine our own lives and the lives of those around us. But sometimes it feels like such a fine line between appropriation and inspiration.

What do you think? Do you beg, borrow, or steal your stories?





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Snow Day: a gift

Shoveling Snow With Buddha

by Billy Collins

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.

Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.

Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.

After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?

Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.

Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.


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