Report on The Last Ekphrasis

IMG_3748Last night we enjoyed one another’s company for the last time — at least, it was the last time that Ekphrasis will gather under my auspices with its regular purpose of sharing and critique, since I’m moving to Texas to start my PhD at Baylor. It was a magnificent meeting! There were food and flowers, hilarity and drama, literature and art. In attendance were myself, Sharon G, Devon W, Eric M, Richard B, Curt D, Laura W, Andrew S MacD, Betsy G, Jeff H, Amanda L, and two newcomers, Thaina D and Diante R.

Even though it was a sort of a going-away shindig, it was really just an ordinary hard-working meeting. Lots of people shared excellent work.

IMG_3744(1)At the beginning of the meeting, Thaina and Devon shared the hot-off-the-press Spring 2016 issue of Xanadu, Lehigh Carbon Community College’s literary magazine. Thaina and Devon, along with Diante, are student editors of the magazine this semester, and I’ve been a faculty adviser to it for six years. This semester’s may have been the most professional issue of the magazine we’ve ever produced: the design is streamlined and debonair. Diante has a poem published in it; Thaina has a few poems and several pieces of prose.

indexThen Sharon G read another chapter of her Robin Hood novel adaptation, Mercy and Justice. This chapter included a sad story of a poor, cast-off, single, expectant mother, helped by Marian and Robin, which was a good way of revealing their compassionate character. Sharon has completed about half of this novel and hopes to draft the rest of it this fall, after finishing her current novel-in-progress, Chrysalis!

13184680_1014038361966917_2053915199_oRichard B and Eric M each showed pieces of their artwork. Richard is writing and illustrating a comic book starring his Jack Windsword character. Eric is working on drawings he’ll bring to the Baltimore Comic Con. Their work is somewhat similar–both depict heroes, villians, mythic, archetypal characters with bold lines and swift action–but their techniques are quite different. The black-and-white image to the right is from Richard’s book. The colored images below from Star Wars and Star Trek are some of Eric’s works of art.




Then we moved into a sort of stage-like area we had set up, in order to watch several theatrical scenes.

First up was a stage adaptation of a bit from a Brandon Sanderson novel, by Betsy G. It was a scene packed with secondary-world-building, lots of neologisms and names and cultural references. In it, an experienced con artist is teaching her apprentice how to fool her potential victims by posing as a foreign princess. The prize? Her dupe’s boots. 13184742_935769666536853_1112604979_o

Next up was a selection from Jeff H’s recent full-length adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, which was recently produced by Players of the Stage. This scene was Toad on trial for causing a motor car accident–which is really just a cover for his enemies to lock him up and take his ancestral mansion.

Then came my short play, Galatea Awakes, which I wrote for my creative writing class at LCCC, and from which I previously posted a selection. It’s a retelling of the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, and I’m exploring themes of the artist’s isolation and relationships, the idea of the art as a child, issues of voyeurism and objectification, questions about the nature of beauty, etc. It was admirably performed by Richard, Andrew, and Sharon, and much hilarity ensued–sometimes when it wasn’t in the script, such as when Pygmalion whispers to his animated statue to “scroll down, scroll down” for him so he can read his script!

We got to see another play from my creative writing class, too: this one by Thaina. It is a side-splittingly funny drama entitled Why Deals With the Devil Never Work (And You Should Always Read the Fine Print). I’ll give you just a tiny snippet here to give you an idea of how funny it is:

ASH: Look man, I just really want my soul back. Please? Pretty please? Have a heart.
SATAN: What part of Lucifer, Demon, King of Hell, do you not understand?
ASH: I know you’re Satan and all, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk!
SATAN: Do you listen to yourself when you speak?
ASH: Hm? Of course I do! My soul is gone, not my hearing!

Yup, it’s all like that. With a great twist at the end.

And we were treated to a performance of a powerful slam poem by Diante, a tale of troubles and salvation. It is meant to become his final project for Creative Writing class.

Finally, Laura W ended our evening with a mind-boggling 2-min mystery: a piece of flash fiction in 500 words. Since Laura won most of the weeks of Signum University’s “Almost an Inkling” flash fiction contest, you won’t be surprised to hear that it was magnificent!

There were some amazing conversations, too, about the “Artist-as-inspired-romantic-genius” myth, about the use of profanity and taking the Lord’s name in writing and drama, about anachronism and style and craft. These are the talks on which my soul feeds.

So, yes: a fitting ending for, what, eight years, I think, of Ekphrasis meetings. I’ll miss you guys, and I hope you carry on!



Not Quite a Novel: Sørina’s #3DNC Report


The Coffee Pot.

The three-day novel contest is over again for this year. We survived, happily, with deeper friendships and great work accomplished. I at least am amazed that we have managed to make this dream come true three years in a row in the face of enormous obstacles. And, as is usual for me, the work is barely beginning. Here are the stats of what was accomplished, a narrative of the weekend, and a plan for what to do next. 

8 Ekphrasians participated in some permutation or other of this intensive writing retreat, composing well over 100,000 words collectively! These words were written in community, alone, in the woods, in a cabin, at a retreat center, at home, in various states of euphoria, inspiration, or drudgery.

IMG_2594* I began a new novel, a murder mystery. I wrote 27,005 words, but only got about 15% of the way into the plot. The story takes place over a 20-hour period, and I only got my characters through the first three hours. They kept doing things that weren’t in my notes!
 * Sharon wrote an entire play. It is called Love’s Labours Happily Ever After, and it blends fairy-tale characters with Shakespearean plot lines from Love’s Labour’s LostMidsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, and As you Like it. She completed a full draft at 17,000 words. She also worked through a book about structuring fiction and wrote her outline for her next book!
* Betsy
roughed out the entire plot of her novel, Demae’s Story, writing what she calls the skeleton of the story at 24,000 words.
* Steph is the only one who paid the fee and entered the contest for real. She wrote most of the story she had planned.
* Jeff spent the time working on a play called “Hail Mary.”
* Andrew worked on a novella and wrote about 18,000 words.
* Marian wrote a complete children’s story, called “Piccalilli.” (Which I love, by the way). She wrote a journal, did lots of homework, practiced her lines for two roles she’s got in upcoming plays, and edited some of Aakroveil, the novel she completed earlier this year.
* Devon planned to spend the weekend editing her personal narrative.
If this year goes like previous years, most of us should have complete manuscripts by Christmas, then spend any number of months or years revising, revising, revising. (I also plan to start The Four Senses, my 2013 #3DNC production, over again from scratch. Sigh).


The situation room, with a map of my cemetery setting.

Unfortunately, most of us had a very interrupted weekend. I traveled up to Massachusetts on Monday to be with my mother, who had unexpected heart surgery. I did get home late on Thursday, and Betsy and I made it up to the cabin on Friday evening, but we didn’t really start working until Saturday morning. Marian got cast in two plays and had rehearsals until late Saturday afternoon, so she arrived Saturday evening. Sharon got cast in one play, is directing another, and had both a funeral and a wedding to attend on Saturday. So she and Betsy worked at home on Friday, then Sharon joined us on Sunday. We all left by 7 on Monday evening. Next year, we all want to join the official contest, get up there earlier, start right at midnight on Friday, end at midnight on Monday, and leave on Tuesday. I plan to develop a plot for a novella that can be completed within 30,000 words.

But what a beautiful time it was! The Coffee Pot, the cabin owned by Betsy’s family, where we have the retreat, is an idyllic location. We enjoyed it thoroughly. We didn’t push ourselves, sleeping eight hours a night, going for long walks, swimming (and washing) in the creek, having hour-long intense conversations. Sure, we could have written more words if we hadn’t taken those mental-and-physical-health breaks. But I think we are happier people for those times. And now we have all those words there, ready for the adding and editing. Stay tuned for selections and for posts by the other Ekphrasians!


The #3DNC Plans of Andrew Stirling MacDonald

Reblogged from

Every Labor Day, a great many authors and author-hopefuls embark on a mad quest – attempting to write a novel in three days. It’s a sort of NaNoWriMo all compressed into one weekend of frantic, don’t-stop-writing-no-matter-how-silly-it-gets work. I will be joining several of my friends this year, and I will be trying to write a complete short story, or perhaps novella. I recently read (and reviewed!) The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, and came away from the book very impressed with the way he made his city come to life. My goal with my novella is to make a part of my Noose world come to life in a comparable way. I have a few small ideas now, but I think I will be setting my story in the capitol city, following one main character and focusing on the part of the city in which he spends his time. I’m looking forward to the experience, and may publish the story here once I’ve edited the work.

Creative Goals for MMXV

andrewEkphrasian Andrew Stirling MacDonald is blogging! Below is the beginning of one of his posts, reblogged from He has written out a list of what he would like to accomplish for creative projects this year. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to create such a list of your own.

Creative Goals for MMXV

I’m going to post this here so that I can periodically check back and see how I’m doing throughout the year. Here are my creative goals, and a very general time frame of when I’d like to accomplish them.

read the rest of the post here

Sentences, Music, and Nudity: Meeting Report 7 April

This past Monday evening, Ekphrasis hosted a very special guest: Tobias Emanuel Mayer, German pianist and singer-songwriter. Check out his website,

But first! We had the most exciting event ever….drumroll, please… hold your breath… wait for it…. A grammar workshop! That’s right, kids: grammar can be fun. OK, it was a bit more advanced than grammar: it was called “sentence stylistics,” and it was about how the architecture of a sentence carries its emotional impact. Take this passage as an example: the opening of A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Take a look at how the first three sentences are built, then at the last. Do you see how the last sentence uses polysyndeton (extra conjunctions) to string together lots of short independent clauses? Well, what’s the effect of that? The effect is to make the reader rush along through the sentence, feeling the meaningless haste of the troops marching and marching along in an endless, meaningless cycle. Isn’t that great?

OK, maybe I’m the only person on the planet who gets wildly excited about grammatical structure, but there you have it.

IMG_0293Anyway, then Tobias presented his program. He had prepared a series of pieces, interspersed with a meditation on the life of David. His talk was very inspiring, taking us through some of the moments in David’s life when he was closest to God. And the pieces of music he played were sweetly integrated into the mood of his meditation.

Here is his program.

Yearning for the Sound of Heaven:
Episodes of David’s Life – The Man after God’s Heart
A Short Concert at Ekphrasis, Pennsylvania, Mon., April 7th 2014

Music and Moderation by Tobias Emanuel Mayer

I. Living Water: How David’s journey began
Piano Piece No. 1: Lebendiges Wasser / Living Water

II. Yearning: David’s longing for God’s presence
Piano Piece No. 2: Sehnsucht / Yearning

III. In His Presence: Worshiping day and night at the tabernacle
Piano Piece No. 3: In Seiner Gegenwart / In His Presence

IV. Take Me to Your Sanctuary: The Vision “on earth as it is in heaven”
Song: Zieh mich in dein Heiligtum /Take Me to Your Sanctuary

I must say, his entire presentation was very moving. He has a very close, even mystical, relationship with Jesus, just dwelling and luxuriating in God’s loving presence. His motto is “Playing and Praying.” (I didn’t ask him whether that rhymes in German). He prays while at the piano, and God guides him into words and melodies. He plays at a local prayer chapel in his hometown in German, and often feels the Spirit moving him to play things he’s never played before and maybe cannot capture afterwards.

After Tobias played, we asked him lots of questions. We talked about where he is from, his education, his compositional process, and his inspiration. One particularly good question had to do with absolute vs. programmatic music. The questioner wanted to know what made a musical element match up to an event, emotion, or other topic. Take Beethoven’s 6th, for instance: What’s particularly “Pastoral” about that? How do its sounds suggest a story? Specifically, he wanted to know how those instrumental pieces, without text, mapped on to the life of David. Now, that’s  a good question in any language!

The answer was, essentially: They don’t. Tobias did not compose those pieces with the life of David in mind. Later, when he was asked to participate in a program about David, he chose his Scripture passages and pieces of music that he felt fit. They certainly were meditative and thus worked well with the thoughts he was giving us.


Andrew Stirling MacDonald at the piano

After Tobias finished his program, we had two more pianists. Later on I will post videos of these three performances.

Curt D. performed two jazz pieces: one of his own composition and another his Latin-style arrangement of Brubeck’s “Take Five.”

When Curt played, I got inspired to plan a future “Ekphrasis Live!” event at which we have all the visual artists exhibit their work, and the musicians perform for an hour each. We’ll do that this summer! Details are forthcoming.

Then Andrew Stirling MacDonald played an original composition that he wrote as a 21st birthday gift for Betsy G. The composition is entitled “An Old-Fashioned Girl,” after a book by Louisa May Alcott. Betsy was the first person Andrew met who had also read that novel. The piece goes through several sections, exploring aspects of Betsy’s personality, her sweet childlike nature, and her love of history.

After the musical section of the evening, we moved into visual art. Chrissie S., she of the many nicknames (most commonly “Momo”; sometimes “JoJo”; I call her “Mojo”), is taking an art class at her local community college. She shared a few drawings she made in soft pastels. Here is one of colorful cabbage leaves: IMG_0310

Momo talked about how she works in soft pastel, and that they are quite a challenge (they smudge very easily) and that she loves getting really messy with them.

Then she shared a first at Ekphrasis: two fine art nudes. I have a photograph of one below. We talked only a little bit about how she was uncomfortable drawing nudes at first (working from photographs, not from a live model), but that she very quickly lost her discomfort and discovered how beautiful this form can be.

IMG_0313After Momo finished presenting her pieces, Sharon G. brought two works-in-progress to share with the group for notes. The first was a graphite-pencil drawing of her nephew, shown from an interesting, top-down perspective. The photograph she’d used as a reference for the drawing included a bit of motion blur, and we had a brief discussion as to how that could (or whether it should) translate into the drawing itself. Sharon’s second piece was a project she’d begun work on five years earlier, and recently decided she’d like to try to finish. The drawing was of several pieces of a mirror, reflecting different parts of her face. She had originally intended to connect the mirror-pieces with another drawing in the background, and we discussed her new ideas as to how the piece could be finally brought together.

Earl P. continued his magic-colored-bread project. The bread he brought to this event was intended to be Mana-blue. He discussed some of the techniques he’d used to try to color the bread without using artificial food coloring. The bread did have a somewhat blue color to it, though it did not turn out as blue as he’d hoped. Next up is black, and we gave some ideas and suggestions as to the best ways to accomplish it.

Josh L. gave the evening’s final presentation, a series of photographs captured in his signature style, without editing or alterations to the original photographs.

With the night winding down and the person who had the keys to the building wanting to go home and get some sleep, the group decided to continue the fellowship and socializing at a local diner, where we met and whiled away the time until the wee hours of the morning.

— Written by Sørina Higgins and Andrew Stirling MacDonald

Ekphrasis Report, 03.03.14 – Commas, Short Presentations, Musical Performances, Asyndeton

March’s Ekphrasis gathering began with Sørina H. leading a workshop on the proper use of commas. As several of the group’s regular members are currently working on long-form narrative fiction, Sørina has been offering some instruction on different English techniques. Several people brought in sample sentences from different works, punctuation removed. After the workshop, several people presented works. The group had been asked beforehand to bring works that could be presented in three minutes or less, rather than the much longer chapters from our respective novels that have marked many of the recent gatherings.

Jeff H. started us off with a page of cryptic notes that he didn’t remember writing (but which was clearly written by him). He found it in a folder on his computer, apparently.

I presented a short work of prose that I’ve been working on, and the group then had a lively discussion as they worked to interpret the meaning behind the piece. I listened to the discussion, but did not participate in it, which was a very interesting and fruitful experience.

Josh L., a frequent attendee but first-time presenter, brought in a series of his photographs. We talked about his composition style and shooting techniques.

Sharon G. unveiled an acrylic painting she’s been working on for several months, a still-life which pictured several different types of glass vessels.

Marian B. read us a short story she’d written called “Steph,” which was inspired in part by Steph H, another person present that evening. It was a funny story, which claimed to be full of inside jokes, but ended up being quite accessible to everyone who heard it.

Betsy G. finished the non-musical presentations for the day with a poem called “The Battle of the Galloping Sausage,” a rousing epic about a food-fight.

The group then moved into the room with the better piano, and the musical performances commenced. Betsy and I have been working (in a very languid manner, I grant) on a duet performance of the song “My Eyes” from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which we presented to the rest of the Ekphrasians. I sang the part of Billy and Betsy sang Penny’s part, and I accompanied on the piano. We’d planned to perform the song with microphones, but it seemed that only one microphone was present in the building. We decided to muddle on anyhow, and sing it without any amplification. This proved to be a mistake. Our execution on that first attempt might have been the best we’d ever performed (extra impressive since we hadn’t sung together since the middle of January), but heartbreakingly, the audience could not hear our beautiful voices.

We decided to try again, and attempt to share the microphone. I moved the bench over so that Betsy could sit next to me and hold the microphone. What followed was not exactly terrible, but did include several false starts and two abortive restarts of the final verse.

Finally, I performed a song I’d written, accompanying myself. The song was a reprise of a longer song from an album I’ve been working on. I hope to make a rough recording of it this week and upload it here, so that all of you gentle readers can enjoy it.

After that, people trickled out slowly. The remaining attendees had an impromptu sing-along party, performing songs from Les Miserables, Frozen, Once More With Feeling and several other works, until the night eventually wound down to a close. Overall, it was a very good meeting.