About Sarah McElrath

A seeker, looking to find truth and wisdom in the world and through art, I work as a school librarian, writing and painting when I have time.

Day 7 – Poetry for Lent

Winter Exorcism

Those early signs of Spring are so welcomed and cherished despite the crazy business of this time of year. Often I agonize over poems, but this one just slipped out. Gotta love it when that happens.

The owl out back is
asking questions again,
and I lie here hoping
to hear the answers
--or maybe just to 
understand the questions.
Life goes by so fast
I’m moving clocks
forward, backward, and 
forward again,
losing and gaining hours
I didn’t know I had
--or that I have already spent
ten times over,
like my Christmas money
or my summer vacation.
The rain brought the 
mist rising off the snow
today like it was exorcising 
the spirit of winter,
what with the crocuses
delicately craning
their necks above the soil
to watch while I cheer.

Spring is coming.

Day 6 – Poetry for Lent

Brother in Arms

I sat down to write this In celebration of my brother’s birthday–but it didn’t go exactly where I expected it to go. Such is the way of writing….

Brother in arms he was
two years younger
but alike as two
blonde-haired, blue-eyed
peas in a pod.
Together we
terrorized the neighborhood with pea-shooters
and ding-dong-ditch-it,
wandered the woods
impersonating book characters
--Henry Ware and Silent Tom--
building forts during the summer
and burrowing through snowbanks
in the Michigan winters.
On other days we christened ourselves Scott and Greg,
smoked cigarette butts found on the street 
(once was all it took to kill that habit),
ate snot berries plucked off yew bushes
(thankfully not the seed later found to be poisonous),
and attempted to create the world's largest ball of gum
--not all the additions chewed by us.

Brother in arms he was
but not me
"You're a girl"
a neighborhood kid pointed out
one hot shirtless summer day
when we were putting baby snapping turtles
through the races in the front yard.
Such a small change
--shirts and skins--
but then came middle school
with new friends, boyfriends and girlfriends
and though still blonde and blue-eyed,
we were no longer peas in a pod.

Brother in arms he was
but we fought different wars
in high school and college
dragons, secrets and skirmishes
closeness becoming competition
battles over the cat
ending at the point of a knitting needle
until time, distance
and busy schedules
saw the brotherhood disbanded
save for occasional reunions
where news of accomplishments
--battles fought and won--
bring respect and admiration

and a wistful longing
to go back to my childhood days
where I parted ways with
my brother in arms
and travel a different path
together.

Day 5 – Poetry for Lent

Night Rain

I love listening to the sound of rain when I’m in bed. It raises a sense of nostalgia, a feeling of melancholy–but not in a bad way.

The night saturates
the land
Dark fat drops
plink and plonk
before settling into 
a steady drumming
beating a rhythm
the lyrics full of 
longing, burgeoning
with desire and
melancholy
the notes rise
like trout to a
fly floated down a
dark slick of water
just there and then
swallowed.

Day 4 – Poetry for Lent

This poem isn’t finished–time got away from me today–but I had fun playing with the senses.

If only I had known

The weight of silence
hangs from my shoulders
like the wet wool coat
I wore that
dark November day

You stood next to me
Tight lipped
Droplets of rain
Jeweling your hair

The ground gaped open
sodden dark earth 
bleeding into pale grass
while pouring rain 
drummed a mournful tune
on hollow wood 

If only I had known

The taste of regret
sours my mouth
like the black coffee 
I drank from
a flimsy paper cup
In the hospital 

You slept buried 
Under mounds 
of sterile blankets
hair winging across pillow

The curtains hung open
White moonlight
Shining into dark room
while monitors
beeped the sad echo 
of a broken heart.

If only I had known

The smell of missed opportunities

Day 3 – Poetry for Lent

A Morning Job

This is a poem I could probably write on most days ….

Waiting for coffee
a morning job
to shake me loose from
dreams and sleep
inspire action - not reaction -
to start on the list
of chores and should-dos

but instead I sit
pondering the warmth in my cup
the meaning of life and words

and the necessity of
putting life into words
to experience it fully
to live -- or to know
that I am alive
as I sip the bitter
elixir of life

Day 2 – Poetry for Lent

This poem was actually started some time ago. We’d had a sermon or two on Daniel and his friends, and I had jotted a few lines at the time wondering (like I do with most survival stories) whether I would have been able to do what they did. Would I –say in a school shooting situation–be able to stand up for what I believed if it meant death? Of course, whenever I think this, I quickly throw in a “Please God, let me never have to find out.”

But there are all those little moments–standing up to bullies, racists, haters of any sort–or even harder, those who profess to believe the same things I do. Sure, maybe it only involves anger, social disgrace, ostracism–but do I stand up? Small things build, so where do I draw the line? What do I stand for?

Would I, Could I, Should I?

Would I stand up 
when all else bowed
legs strong, backbone straight
furnace flames licking heels and thighs?
And when challenged on that upright pose
would I collapse
knees buckling like
a mighty oak
felled with nothing but an axe?

Could I kneel down
when law denied
bow my head and pray to God
while lions roared in nearby den?
Or would I hide my godly pose,
afraid discovery's fangs 
might rip and shred
my heart and soul
until I'm nothing, almost dead?

I confess,
I hope I never know.

But should I encounter
no furnace flames or lions' den
but merely tests within, without
and trials in my daily way
Remind me then, oh Holy One
to whom I owe my everything
of Daniel and his mighty friends.
Though knees may quake
and fear course wild through my veins
place Your hand on me
and still my mouth
  if that will close the lion's maw,
or help me speak
  to put out hatred's fiercest flame
for I am Yours
  though small and weak.
 

Day 1 – Poetry for Lent

Angel Sighting

This poem is essentially a prose poem, but since I’ve never written a prose poem before, I wasn’t sure what the structure should be. When I have more time, I’ll revisit and try it in paragraph form.

The content came to mind during the last several sermons we’ve had in church, where people shared a personal experience they’ve had with God. It reminded me of a time (way back) when I was visited by an angel–or so I do believe.

I met an angel the other day,
   downtown, in the rain, by the swollen river.
I was supposed to be scavenger hunting
   with a group of teenagers from my friend’s church,
   but they were clean and bright, and alive
      —it was April and most things were coming to life—
      searching for a statue, stained glass window, pigeon,
           and a playground with a slide.
I didn’t fit in, so I told my friend
      —a good, long-suffering friend who didn’t deserve 
      to be saddled with someone searching meaning instead of a statue, 
           for peace instead of a pigeon, 
           for a window, stained or otherwise, out of the pain—
I had to leave
      and that’s how I ended up untethered by all that rushing water
           offering peace
           —or at least an escape from pain.

I watched a branch twirl,
      spin, go under, and re-surface,
          dancing in the current that bore it inexorably away
                until it was no more.
And it looked easy,
      like I could jump in
          and disappear,
                that water delivering
                     a cold hard slap to startle in a breath
                     like  a new born babe
                          but instead of air and cries,
                          water and silence.
It would be like going backward, I think,
   like being unborn, 
     taken apart until there is no more known or unknown,
         no more pain that eats and eats and eats 
             chewing through heart and soul until one is consumed alive
                 but still ravenous.
I think all these things, 
      growing numb in the downpour,
      leaning a bit farther over the riverwalk edge
      to peer at the welcoming waters below.

And that’s when the angel appeared 
  —although maybe he was there for quite awhile and I just never noticed,
  too engrossed in beating back thoughts of failure, 
         the words never get better
         clashing in my head with always feel this way,
         supposed to be fixed,
         and can’t stand this anymore.
“Whatever you’re thinking,” he said, voice calm and tug-boat steady,
      as if we were friends in the midst of a conversation,
“It’s not the answer.” 
      Solemn faced, brown eyes clear and direct, 
      he held my gaze.
“Ok,” I said, 
  nodded and polite smiled, 
    looking back at the water which churned indifferent below,
        wondering what he saw, what my face could possibly have shown.
    “How—" I turned back 
           —whether to plead or question, I’m not sure-
but he was gone. 
  Not just walking away
—the area open with nothing to block my view, no place for him to hide—
      but disappeared. 
Gone.

Sure, you might be skeptical
      might think I made it up
          or maybe even imagined it.
He certainly wasn’t how I would’ve described an angel before
      —no wings, no bright light—
but how else might you explain what happened?

I sought a different answer
     than what the river offered that day.

Poetry for Lent

This year I’m giving up Facebook for Lent. With the time I would have spent perusing social media, I’m going to write. My goal is a poem every day for the 40 days of Lent. Mind you, I’m defining poem very loosely here. It might be as simple as a list, and idea, a sentence, whatever. I don’t claim to be a poet–I just like using that format to reflect on life, the universe, and all matter of other things.

I’ll create a page called Poetry for Lent under the Poetry tab, and you are welcome to check back throughout the days leading up to Easter to see how my goal is coming along. It might very well be a bit like wandering in the desert, but hey, I hope to stumble across some new life somewhere in the midst of it all. I tend to find that if I show, my muse will meet me half way.

Becoming A Story Genius

School’s out, which means I’m able to be more of a writer. This summer, as I revise my novel, I Feel For You, I’m studying how to be a story genius. The “textbook” I’m using is Story Genius: how to use brain science to go beyond outlining and write a riveting novel. 

According to author Lisa Cron, a story is basically “about how someone grapples with a problem they can’t avoid, and how they change in the process.” (pg. 30) Story is, therefore, the internal struggle and change–compared to plot, which is the external events. The book not only talks about why our brains crave story, but it also helps provide what the author calls “a blueprint” for your novel. The blueprint talked about in Story Genius “is not a general outline of the things that happen in the plot; it’s a fully realized synthesis of the internal and external layers of your story from beginning to end.”

Throughout the book there are sections the author calls What To Do.  I stop and work on those in my IFFY novel notebook — which is just a notebook (see above picture) where I put ideas, thoughts, diagrams, drawings, explanations… whatever has come up in the course of writing I Feel For You. For me, it is easier to allow imperfection when I write on paper. Something about switching to Scrivener (the writing software I use) makes it feel more like it has be to be… well, good. So I do the brainstorming on paper.

Story Genius would be great for those who have an idea, but haven’t started writing yet. I’m revising, but it is still helpful for that as well. The shitty first draft has been written, but I knew I needed to ratchet up the tension. Unfortunately, I wasn’t exactly sure how. Working through Lisa Cron’s book allows me to pin-point WHY the lack of tension, the absence of urgency–and it is also helping me know how to build that urgency into my manuscript.

I’m far from finished, but I definitely have a better handle on what my STORY is — and a blueprint for the plot events that need to happen to create that story.

Are your settings multi-tasking?

Utilizing setting to deepen your storyold-1130731_1280

Last night I met with my writing group, and it brought home yet again why writing groups are so important. As a writer, I don’t always realize how much is in my head, but not on the page. My writing group is very good on pointing out what is missing–or what is leading them a down a different path than where I’d intended the reader to go.

In our group, the author reads her piece of writing while the others follow along on their own copy. Then the author sits back like a fly on the wall while the “readers” talk about the piece of writing. So last night after I read my scene, the very first comment went something like this: “I can’t see them–I mean, I can’t picture where the characters are–and that makes it difficult for me to visualize what they are doing.”

Oops, I did it again (to quote a popular but definitely not favorite song). I knew where the characters were, but I forgot to look around and describe it for my readers. The scene started with this sentence:

After school, we headed back to what I called the training room, having finished eating hummus and chips in the kitchen. Grandma Lange led us through the practice of Grounding, and I dutifully imagined roots growing into the floorboards beneath me…..

So okay, we have a time of day–after school–and we have a place–the training room. But that didn’t give my readers enough to see what the characters were doing. Were they sitting? If so, on what? Maybe they were standing–and if so, were they close to each other? Far apart? We can’t SEE them, and that makes what follows confusing.

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Not only did my lack of description of the setting make the scene confusing, but I missed an opportunity to deepen the story.

So what can setting do for your story?

In The Urban Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to City Space by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi, setting is described as “a powerhouse of storytelling description that deepens every scene.” Not only does it root the reader in the events–or fail to do so, in my case–but it also, if chosen carefully, can “help characterize the story’s cast, deliver backstory in a way that enriches, covey emotion, supply tension, and accomplish a hot of other things to give readers a one-of-a-kind experience.” (p. 1)

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In The Rural Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Personal and Natural Places also by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi, setting is described like this:

They’re places that hold meaning for the character and evoke emotion. They provide opportunities for conflict and personal tragedy and growth. As such, birthplaces, bedrooms, schools, workplaces, hangouts, and vacation spots play a pivotal role in shaping who a character is and who he will become. [ ] Written effectively, this emotional connection reaches out to include the reader too.”(p. 1)

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Setting, done right, can help a writer:

  1. allow the reader to visualize/understand what is going on in the scene
  2. develop character
  3. provide backstory that both advances plot and/or develops character
  4. supply tension and/or a source of conflict
  5. convey tone/mood

Let’s look at another example where I think I did a better job making the most of my setting.

     After bundling up in winter gear, I stepped into a blinding world. Wherever the sun struck the snow, it sparked a million different colors, like diamonds in the firelight. Wiping watering eyes with the back of a mitten, I headed down the street. My breath plumed out clouds, and the cold air stung the tip of my nose.

     In the neighborhoods closer to Lake Michigan, the houses grew bigger. Not that the Williams lived in a mansion, but it doubled my house. The sidewalk ended, and I headed across the street to where it picked up again on the other side just past the entrance to the Lake Forest cemetery. A blanket of untouched snow covered the ground and tucked around the gray and black tombstones and mausoleums.

     Once, I’d admitted to Eva that those little stone houses both creeped me out and fascinated me because I imagined someone opening the door and coming out.

     Eva had rolled her eyes and said with mock chagrin, “Only you bleeding heart religious sorts believe in anyone coming out of the grave. Stick to scientific fact, you’ll sleep better, I promise. Cemeteries are a waste, just dead space. I plan to donate my body to science. My mom tells me it’s hard for the university medical program to get enough cadavers for student use.”

     That’s Eva in a nutshell, I thought, turning to walk the rest of the way to her house. If she can’t test, slice, dice, or document it in some way—it doesn’t exist.

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I’d like to think that in this passage, I used setting (the neighborhood and the graveyard) to do more than just help the reader visualize what is happening in the scene. The description of the houses in the neighborhood inform the reader that Eva’s family is richer than Jane’s family. 

Having Jane walk past the graveyard allowed me to practice what Fleda Brown (a poet who was a speaker at a writing conference I attended) called going out from where you are. This means using something in the story (in this case, the mausoleums) to travel somewhere else–or some when else. Think about it–our memory often works by association. So a writer can provide backstory in a way that seems natural by using something a character sees, hears, smells, does, or tastes to trigger a memory. In my example, the sight of the mausoleums reminds Jane of a previous conversation she had with Eva. 

Adding this bit of backstory triggered by the setting created (or at least, indicated) a source of tension, setting Jane’s view of the world against Eva’s. That tension hints at the larger conflict involving the struggle to accept that which cannot be scientifically proven.

Could my setting do even more? Maybe. I’ll keep working on making my settings multi-task. That’s the joy of re-writing.

Is your setting doing all that it could for your story? 

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