March 2017 Inside: ▪ Q&A: James Bash on blogging about classical music▪ Woodshop Writers read on March 23▪ Writing prompt: Weather effects▪ Marke

Kickstart Your Writing Blue

March 2017



Q&A: James Bash on blogging about classical music
Woodshop Writers read on March 23
Writing prompt: Weather effects
Market tip: Send your best work
Let’s hear it for green-leafed trees
Online techno-tool: Write or Die
Nerdy Words: He, She, or Orshe?
Showcase: “Bigrat“ by Howard Schneider
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James Bash

James Bash

Q&A: James Bash on blogging about classical music

Joining us for a Q&A this month is James Bash, who co-writes the classical music blog Northwest Reverb with musician Lorin Wilkerson. Their posts presents concert reviews and musician interviews related to all sorts of classical music, from solo recitals to opera. The blog also presents a daily list of composer birthdays and other important dates in the arts.

Bash started Northwest Reverb 10 years ago to expand coverage of Portland-area classical music—and to get free concert tickets while he was between jobs. His blog now attracts about 10,000 readers a month, from the United States and beyond.

How have you been able to attract so many readers?
I started by reviewing concerts of high-level local ensembles and individuals. Apparently, they told other people about it. I have never advertised the blog, so it has just been by word of mouth. If you review a choir and the choir consists of 60 people, then you have 60 readers and their friends and family.

I have written articles and reviews for many other publications. I am also a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and write occasionally for its online publication. Writing for these publications gives a sense of legitimacy to what I do in the blog.

What do you like about writing Northwest Reverb?
I have heard a lot of amazing music. I’ve learned a lot about music. I’ve met and interviewed many, many singers and musicians. The style of writing is a lot freer than technical writing, so that makes reviewing music a lot of fun. The blog has also sharpened my skills as a reviewer considerably.

Do any particular posts stand out as having been especially fun to write?
Interviews are always fun when the person I am interviewing likes to talk. Occasionally I get someone who is very pithy, and that makes things difficult.

What are the greatest challenges in writing your blog?
My main problem is getting the time to write a review. I have a day job and that gets in the way, so sometimes the review is completed and posted several days after the concert took place. Sometimes I go to three performances over a single weekend. I take notes during each performance and then have to write the reviews. I try to do them in order, but often the writing starts a few days after the concerts.

Many of the readers have music degrees and/or are performers who really know their stuff. I try not to write something completely stupid. Classical music, like any music genre, goes pretty deep. There are plenty of ways to trip up!

What makes writing about music different from writing about other subjects?
If you want to review concerts, you have to learn something about music. I don’t have a music degree, but I’ve learned a lot in writing about music. It is easier to write about opera because you can mention the visual aspect as well as the musical aspects of the performance. Purely instrumental music is harder to describe because music is fairly abstract.

Do you ever blog about concerts that won’t be repeated? If so, what do you consider the purpose of those posts, since the reader won’t be using them to decide whether to attend the concert?
Many of the concerts I attend are not repeated. But football and baseball games aren’t repeated, and they are reported on. A lot of the time the ensemble that I review and its supporters would like a review—any review, good, bad, or otherwise. Reviews give performers the feeling that what they did was actually experienced by someone, beyond the immediate concert experience. The performers also use quotes from reviews in their websites and to get grant money.

In your opinion, what distinguishes a great blog from a good blog?
I really don’t know. I just don’t have time to read other blogs. I barely have time to read my New Yorker every week.

What advice do you have for writers considering starting a blog?
If you are willing to write reviews, almost any group or individual will give you free tickets, CDs, etc. For example, if you want to review plays in Portland, you can contact the public relations people of that organization and usually get at least one free ticket. Then, of course, you have to write the review and post it. The same thing goes for rock music, jazz, and so on. You don’t have to earn money to buy the ticket, but you have to spend the time to write a review.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about blogging?
Blogging can be a good way to improve your writing skills. If you grow tired of what you have written and want to stop, you can. You can also delete your blog and start a new one. Most blogs don’t cost anything except your time and effort.

BeLonging cover

Woodshop Writers read on March 23

Celebrate spring by coming to hear the Woodshop Writers: Jamie Caulley, Catherine Magdalena, Kerry McPherson, Anika Moje, Mark Robben, Howard Schneider, and Ann Sihler, all of whom study their craft with Kickstart publisher Nancy Woods. The group will read from their fourth anthology, BeLonging, at Annie Bloom’s Books on Thursday, March 23, at 7 p.m.

BeLonging explores home and homelessness, identity and discovery, growth, change, and understanding—of both self and others. Together the pieces in this volume underscore how basic and vital a sense of belonging is for everyone, and how many different forms belonging can take.

BeLonging is available for purchase online and at the March 23 reading.

Writing Prompt

Writing prompt: Weather effects

According to this article, Portland, Oregon, is one of the most depressing places in which to live. How does the weather where you live influence you? Does it depress you? Lift you up? Relax or restore you? Write about that.

Market Tip

Send your best work

With what may seem like annoying regularity, editors of literary journals remind writers to “send us your best work.” This admonition may be easy to dismiss: What writer thinks they are NOT submitting their best essay, poem, or story? Yet in many cases, it could be worthwhile for a writer to examine whether their submissions are the best they can be.

Cristina M.R. Norcross, editor of the online poetry journal Blue Heron Review, offers some help by describing characteristics of good poetry in “What Are Magazine Editors Really Looking For?” Norcross poses ten questions that poets can use to assess their work before they submit it. Is the language fresh and innovative? Does the poem have natural rhythm and flow? Do certain lines jump off the page?

The answers to some of the questions are subjective. Nevertheless, poets would do well to check their work against Norcross’s questions—and revise accordingly before submitting—to ensure that they are indeed sending their best work.

Let’s hear it for green-leafed trees

In a recent blog post, Kickstart publisher Nancy Woods offers a poem on how our world of wonder results from the interplay of boldness and quietness.

Write or Die cropped

Online techno-tool: Write or Die

If writing productivity is your problem, Dr. Wicked’s website “Write or Die 2”could be your answer. This site encourages you to meet your own word-count goals by offering rewards and punishments as you type.

Keep your fingers moving? You’ll hear kittens purring or ocean waves lapping. Pause while you’re writing? The screen will turn pink, then an angry red. Don’t get back to work? A car alarm or scratchy violin will start up. If you set Write or Die to kamikaze mode, the site will even nibble away at the words you’ve already written, while you are busy gazing out the window.

Write or Die is great for timed writings, breaking the habit of editing while you write, and generating what writer Anne Lamott calls a “shitty first draft.” Even a few minutes experimenting with the site can make you more aware of how often you pause while you are at work.

Maybe a slow writing pace and lots of time musing are what you need for your best writing. But if not, Write or Die will encourage you to hurry up, because Dr. Wicked is coming after you!

Nerdy Words

Nerdy Words: He, she, or Orshe?

By Ann Sihler

In one of my favorite comic novels (Richard Russo’s Straight Man, from 1997), a young English professor continuously corrects his colleagues when they use “he” generically, to refer to both men and women. “Or she!” the professor keeps piping up, until everyone starts referring to him as “Orshe.” As I remember it, Orshe’s actual name is used only once in the entire novel, when the narrator first introduces him.

The novel mocks Orshe’s awkward inclusive language, but many of us can sympathize with his predicament. What are the alternatives to “he,” “him,” and “his” when the word refers to a person whose gender is not relevant to the subject matter, as in “A cook should always sharpen his knife before carving the turkey”?

For decades, feminists and literalists have offered solutions, such as Orshe’s “he or she” phrasing (“A cook should always sharpen his or her knife”), use of the plural (“Cooks should always sharpen their knives”), and use of the singular “they” (“A cook should always sharpen their knife”). There’s also the possibility of recasting the sentence to eliminate the problem (“Sharpening the knife is important preparation in carving the turkey”).

What works best depends on the particular sentence and the tone of the written piece. But finding a solution is a must. Gone are the days when “he” was an acceptable way to refer to the half of the human population that happens to not be male. Nowadays, virtually all newspapers, magazines, governments, and book publishers require the use of gender-neutral language.

Personally I lean toward using plurals (if appropriate) because they are quick, easy, and clear. If it strengthens the writing, I might recast the sentence. Sometimes I use “he or she,” as long as it doesn’t sound too awkward or pretentious. And I even use “they,” as in “Somebody left their umbrella on the porch.”

Sticklers frown on this usage, claiming that “they,” “their,” and “theirs” are always plural, as in “They all went off to the restaurant.” Yet the singular “they,” as in “A cook should always sharpen their knife,” has been used informally for centuries, by Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Lewis Carroll, Jane Austen, and Shakespeare, among others. It even appears as far back as the 1400s, in Geoffery Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales:

“And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame,
They wol come up …”

Grammarians began arguing in favor of the singular “they” in 1879. Although some people still object to its use, the singular “they” increasingly is being accepted in formal English, including by such authorities as The Chicago Manual of Style (in 1993) and The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (in 1996).

The English language is always changing. Although this particular change appears to have been driven by the need for gender-neutral language, it may also be that we are simply relaxing more about pronouns now that transgendered people are requesting that we refer to them individually not as “he” or “she” but as “they,” “ze,” or “per.” (More on that in a future column.)

Either way, the options are many, and I appreciate that the growing acceptance of the singular “they” gives me more opportunities to use gender-neutral language without being mocked as an Orshe.

Student Showcase

Student showcase: “Bigrat” (excerpt) by Howard Schneider

Howard Schneider began writing flash fiction when he moved to Portland in 2006. With encouragement from his Kickstart class he expanded to longer fiction. The excerpt below comes from a fantastical short story he wrote for the Woodshop Writers’ anthology BeLonging, available online from Lulu and Amazon.

Travis stepped forward and held Bigrat’s cage over the arena for a brief moment, just long enough for the audience to grasp the size of the huge black rat. With a quick flick of his thumb, he pressed a button and released its latched door. Bigrat edged closer to the opening, paused and glanced around at the people staring at him, then, with a remarkable display of agility, leapt from the cage into the performance area. Gasps and cries of surprise and amazement erupted spontaneously.

The rat landed solidly on the trampoline, bounced high into the air, did two perfect backflips, and came down onto a garishly decorated wooden croquet ball. After a fraction of a second to gain his balance and adjust his feet to maintain his position, he rolled the ball completely around the circumference of the green-felt-covered plywood floor of Jack’s magnificent arena. The crowd clapped and hooted, clearly astounded by the rat’s skill. Travis and Bigrat ignored the wild response and carried on with the performance. After thirty minutes of Bigrat’s tumbling, rolling, twirling, prancing, dancing, and flipping, the crowd’s expressions of wonder and awe were even more exuberant.

After the final trick—a series of cartwheels around the arena—Travis set the open cage onto the felt floor. Bigrat entered at once and claimed a well-earned reward: a generous slice of cheddar cheese on a Ritz cracker. Travis bowed to the applause, retrieved the cage, latched its door, and walked off.

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Nancy and Ann

A Nancy Woods production

Thanks for reading Kickstart, which is a publication of Nancy Woods—author and writing coach. If you have any comments about the newsletter, feel free to email them to Nancy or her newsletter sidekick Ann Sihler.

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