Can Anyone Really Teach Writing?

One Saturday morning, I noticed a package on our front porch. Puzzled I opened it and was pleasantly surprised to see that a playwright friend of mine sent me Wonderbook; The Illustrated Guide Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vanderweer. An attached card said, “Go get writing!”

I stopped cleaning house and curled up with this new book instantly. Never mind those other books that were stacked up, waiting to be read for years. This one looked so beautiful on the outside that it demanded to be read immediately.

I admit that I detest reading books about writing. I’d rather do housework or watch stupid television before reading a technique book. When writer friends talk enthusiastically about How To books, which one they consider the Writing Bible, or which author is the authority, I have nothing to add. So it is unusual that I would open Wonderbook at all.

The frame of the book resembles a college textbook, with basic chapters covering point of view, voice and how to start a story. Authors and college professors contributed essays on various subjects related to the craft. The illustrations were entertaining and unique. If you have to read a How To Book, this one has a lot of “eye candy” plus great basic information about writing.

One essay by Kim Stanley Robinson stated that the technique of “show, don’t tell” was a “zombie idea killed forty years ago…by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.” What a blow.Less than twenty-five years ago when I attended The National Writer’s Project in El Paso, Texas, “Show, Don’t Tell” was the hallmark of good writing. This meant I was obsolete in writing technique at the very moment trainers sent me out to teach young writers. Yet, this discouraging thought verified what good writers know: rules in writing are thrown out the minute someone does the opposite better. It also validated my feelings about most How To books: just because it can be packaged and sold, doesn’t mean anyone can completely capture the skill of writing.

All this made me wonder, can anyone really teach good writing? It is, after all, a craft, an art, a skill. Our colleges usually insist freshman take a year of composition, and high school English teachers still require the research paper. These institutions recognize the need to master technical writing.

But creative writing is so hard to teach that usually it’s not in the budget of a small town high school. In college, you might find one or two classes on it. Compare that to theater or art, where most college campuses have whole buildings dedicated to those disciplines.

Though defeated by the Don’t Bother Showing moment, I found two liberating ideas in a different composition by professor and writer Mathew Cheney. First, he wrote, “One of the most important expectations to give up as quickly as possible is the expectation of being original.” Shakespeare’s work wasn’t remotely new, so if the old bard could steal ideas, I guess it is all right for me. However I’ve longed to hear critics refer to my stories as “fresh” or “unique.” If I can’t produce fresh work, why bother writing? Cheney called originality a burden, and wondered if anyone would ever write anything with that kind of burden. Fear of not being original has been a burden for me, and it’s time to let it go.

A second helpful point he made was that expectations are “the cousin of ambition,” and that all of us have the ambition to be the best. He stressed in his essay that harboring the ambition to be the best leads to defeat immediately. I can truly relate to this. I always felt that my playwright friend is a much better writer than I. However, the truth is, we are different writers with unique styles and we write in different genres. The idea that I don’t have to be as good as anyone else as long as I do the best I can, is quite liberating.

The book is also thorough in scope. For example, the chapter covering Point of View, actually explains Second Person, something I had not heard about in ages. Second Person is used so infrequently, and usually badly, that most writers don’t ever attempt that perspective. In fact, few high school English teachers mention it to their students at all. It was good to be reminded that Second Person exists, and it was wonderful to have solid, successful examples.

I suspect Wonderbook will someday be a college textbook. It’s a good one and deserves that kind of status. And while I may not spend hours delving into other “writing Bibles,” this one gave me some peace of mind and a few reminders. Besides, looking at the artwork was fun. To my playwright friend: I’m now properly inspired to “get writing.”

Author’s Bio.:  Beth Rose is a former high school literature and composition teacher, who lives and writes in Henning, MN.

What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

A well-meaning friend of my mother asked me the question many years ago, and I had to think about it. In those days, if you were a boy, the common accepted answer would have been fireman or policeman. More often than not, little girls, being put on the spot, responded with social correctness by choosing nurse, teacher, mommy, or if they were dreaming big, ballerina. When I was a little older, I might have secretly confided that I would like International Film Star or World Famous Explorer added to my resume. But this was a time when I had only seen the movie, Dumbo, and I hadn’t yet read “I Married Adventure” by Osa Johnson (and wanted to be her).

I never coddled my dollies, drilled them on their numbers, or pretended to burp them. But I did regularly prop them around in a semi-circle, Melsina and Marcella the large baby dolls in the choice rocker in the middle. Teddy and Jocko, the Australian koala bear, snuggled at their feet. Nurse Jane had to be propped on the side of the chair because her legs didn’t bend. Leilani in her green grass skirt and Elizabeth, the very proper English girl, sat together because they were unlikely but bosom chums. Beloved Belindy completed the grouping with the Raggedys, of course, sprawled in front.

When they were quietly assembled, I sat on a small stool and opened a book. I hadn’t learned to read yet, so I turned the wondrous pages and told the stories of what I saw –tales of being bundled in bed with a stuffy nose, kept company by miniature creatures who trounced among the covers and burrowed about the pillows; the adventures of a golden haired maiden who rode in a chariot pulled by sweet tabby cats, up and over the rainbow; a winter world of icicles ruled over by a beautiful but scary queen.

Eventually I learned to read and write and proudly shared my stories, written pain-stakingly in pencil on lined notepaper, and as the years passed I filled up many notebooks and read my tales to others beyond my little group.

All these years later, in retirement and after many different jobs and wearing a multitude of hats, I find myself in our upstairs office/all-purpose room, where whatever doesn’t fit in another part of the house is deposited. To my left sits Melsina and Marcella in a child’s rocking chair, Nurse Jane and Leilani and Elizabeth are propped about, Teddy and Jocko are on the bookshelf and the Raggedys are nearby.

I sit in the middle, typing away on my computer keyboard, telling tales. I know just what I want to be when I grow up.

Author’s Bio.: After retirement and a lifetime of living in California, Diane Johnson moved with her husband three years ago to her ancestral roots in Minnesota in order to be near family, to retreat from the hustle of the west coast, and to provide time and the environment to reflect and write. She is a member of the board of the Lake Region Writers Network, the Fergus Falls Writers Group, and she writes the blog: snowbirdredux.com.

 

Exquisite Corpse: Folding and Unfolding Poetry

After completing their final exam last December, my poetry students contributed one line of verse to a collaborative writing activity known as the Exquisite Corpse. Exquisite Corpse, which derives from the French cadeayre exquis, meaning exquisite cadaver, was introduced as a Surrealist parlor game for activating and capturing the creative consciousness shared among a group of people.

Imagine partaking in a poetry relay where other poets contribute one line of verse, but you are able to read and required to elaborate on only the line presented to you. The line which precedes the line you’re given is invisible to you because it has been folded under the page. After writing your line, you conceal the preceding line by folding the page and giving the evolving poem to the next contributor who sees only your line.

Here is the result of the Exquisite Corpse experiment I conducted with my students (sounds like a mad scientist!). The students’ names are listed in parentheses at the line endings. It’s important to note that the students were not gathered in the classroom when they wrote their lines. Over the course of an hour, they randomly stopped by the classroom, wrote their lines, folded the page and departed. They said nothing to each other about the poem. Amazingly, Courtney, who wrote the final line about the sun setting, had no idea the poem had begun in a moment before dawn. Stranger yet, the second, third and fourth lines describe an auto accident, mentioning nothing about sunlight. Then, in the fifth line, the sun imagery suddenly reemerges in Drakirah’s contribution!

In the quiet space just before dawn (Paul)
the silence is suddenly shattered by a sound (Kristen)
of brakes screeching, glass shattering and horns blaring. (Jackie)
The car comes to a halt, void of all life. (Erin)
The sun peeks through the windshield, illuminating a heart-sunken slumber. (Drakirah)
My skin is warmed by the yellow rays. (Alexis)
They call to me, beckoning me home like waves to the shore. (Caity)
The smell of the water extracting from the salty sand. (Tailanaa)
A warm breeze envelopes my entire being. (Kenzie)
The sun could be my God. (Daphne)
My particles accelerate inside and I shine with celestial glory. (Sam)
The sun sets, painting the sky like an artist’s palette behind the old oak tree. (Courtney)

Try this exercise at a family gathering or in a coffee shop with friends and/or strangers. Launch an exquisite corpse poem with friends via email or texting. More often than not, the fragmented pieces of verse will coalesce into a poetic mosaic.

Here are a few first lines to get started:

  • At night my parents fill the silence by
  • Upon this morning’s warm breeze floats
  • We suppressed the argument at our son’s

Author’s Bio.: Paul Carney joined the English Dept. at M|State Fergus Falls in 1988. During his tenure at M|State he has taught courses in composition, literature, humanities, men’s studies, criminology, and creative writing. Carney has served two terms as President of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of English. He is a former fellow and board member of The Minnesota Writing Project, the state affiliate of The National Writing Project. He is the developer and coordinator of Ready or Not Writing (https://www.centerforcollegereadiness.org/), an online program that invites high school students to submit their writing electronically to college faculty for feedback and support. In 2008, he created the Roadside Poetry Project, a project that celebrates the personal pulse of poetry in the public landscape (Http://www.roadsidepoetry.org). A writer of poetry and prose, his work has appeared in The Lake Region Review, River of Time, The Sun, and The Minnesota English Journal. When he’s not writing, he enjoys collecting old radios, planting trees, listening to jazz, and watching The Andy Griffith Show. He lives on an 8-acre hobby farm in Underwood, MN, where his lifelong quest for Mayberry has ended.

Creative Writing as Spiritual Practice

A while ago, I asked, if prayer, meditation, tai chi, and nature walks can be considered spiritual practices. Why can’t creative writing be a practice which awakens my sense of the spiritual? I began jotting what I considered spiritual thoughts into various notebooks I had strategically stashed around the house: on a bedside stand, in my office, in a magazine rack, and in my briefcase. Before long, I had a collection of jottings that lead me to write a piece called “In Search of Wholeness.” I shared the piece with several writers in my church, who meet every third Sunday morning to share our writings.

Our protocal is simple:

  • We write individually as a spiritual practice on our own schedule.
  • We share our work only when we are ready.
  • We do not critique work that is shared.
  • We encourage one another and try to understand.
  • If the author considers their work, spiritual, it is spiritual.

I was introduced to the concept by Minnesota writer, Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, who had written a book titled Writing as a Spiritual Practice. Elizabth was one of the “teaching artists” from The Loft Literary Center, which sponsored the event held on the beautiful campus of St. John’s University Campus near St. Cloud. She now does her workshop on Madeline Island, Wisconsin. On her website, Elizabeth encourages creative writers with this statement, “May the rigor of learning to write well deepen your insights, widen your relationships, and enlarge the sacred presence you bring into the world.”

This month, our writing group at the Unitarian Church of Underwood is hosting Minnesota author, Karen Hering, who recently published her book titled Writing to Wake the Soul: Opening the Sacred Conversations Within. Rev. Hering serves as consulting literary minister at Unity Church – Unitarian in St. Paul. Karen’s literary ministry is popular within Unitarian – Universalist circles as well as with writers from other religious traditions. For more information, see Hering’s website: http://www.karenhering.com.

For more information about her workshop being held in Underwood on Sunday, May 18th, see the Upcoming Events section of this Lake Region Writers Network website. The public is invited to this special, low-cost writing workshop. All experience levels of writers are welcome.

Author’s Bio.: Luke Anderson started writing poetry and memoir after retiring from a career managing nonprofit organizations. He calls himself a “late onset writer.” His work has been published in The Talking Stick, The Otter Tail Review, The Northwoods Press newspapers, the Lake Region Review and has received several literary awards. He is retired and lives in Battle Lake. He is a member of the Fergus Falls Writers and a founding board member of the Lake Region Writers Network, currently serving as President of the LRWN Board.

Southwest Minnesota Read Local Program

The Marshall Area Fine Arts Council is soliciting published writing for its Read Local Program. Books in the program will be offered for sale at the MAFAC store in downtown Marshall for the 2014 Summer Offering running from June 1 – October 31, 2014 on a consignment basis (75% – Author / 25% – MAFAC).

The authors of books included in the program will be expected to participate in a minimum of two promotional events in Marshall, MN during the time period. MAFAC will attempt to coordinate these events with additional promotional activities hosted by local education, community and media organizations. The author or publisher of any book is eligible to apply to participate in the program including fiction, poetry and nonfiction, but there will be an emphasis on Minnesota Authors.

The Selection Committee will give special consideration for books published by authors residing in the Southwest Minnesota region or books with a regional focus in plot or setting. Applications not selected for the Summer 2014 Session will be put into a registry located with the collection called “Other Books You May Like” for customers to find via the book’s or author’s website.

Additional information can be found at http://www.mafac.net/read-local.html.

Crossing Arts Alliance Call for Submissions

The Crossing Arts Alliance (TCAA – Brainerd, MN) invites visual and literary artists to submit original work for the BEHIND THE BRICKS community art project. Artists, photographers and writers from the community may select a piece of artwork created by a Crow Wing County Jail inmate and create a companion piece (writing to art and art to writing) that reflect the mood, meaning and/or feeling of the original work.1

Artists can select a piece of inmate artwork at the Crossing office, 1001 Kingwood Street, #114, Brainerd Minnesota, April 22 through May 2, Tuesday through Friday, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. or by appointment calling 218-833-0416.  Deadline for submissions is August 1. 4

The BEHIND THE BRICKS exhibit of original work with the companion pieces will be displayed at the Crow Wing County Jail for staff and inmates and at the Q Gallery, Franklin Arts Center, 1001 Kingwood St #222 in Brainerd, from September 25 – October 11 for the greater community.  An opening reception is planned for September 25.

3BEHIND THE BRICKS was designed to bring access to the arts as a vehicle for communication to a traditionally underserved audience. Instruction to develop artistic skills in inmates of Crow Wing County Jail began in the fall of 2013, where inmates began creating both visual and literary artwork.

A book of selected inmate artwork will be published by RiverPlace Press of Brainerd and will allow the artwork to be shared and distributed to a larger audience. The publication will be launched to the public at the September reception exhibit in the Q Gallery.2

Crossing Arts Alliance activities are funded, in part, by the voters of Minnesota through grants from the Five Wings Arts Council, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund; and grants from Brainerd Service League, Mid Minnesota Federal Credit Union, Kohl’s, and the Anderson Family Legacy Fund. For more information visit www.crossingarts.org.

Extraordinary

The audience for the LRWN blog varies from university professors to creative writing teachers to high school teachers, memoirists, genre writers, librarians, bloggers, those who just love to read, and those wonderful folks who are brand new to writing. For most of those listed above, the world of writing is an ordinary part of every day.

But it’s not ordinary for new writers. For many new writers, entering the world of writing doesn’t even seem like a remote possibility, but rather it is a presumptuous, crazy aspiration. Meeting authors and beginning to write is a hand trembling, heart pounding, impossibly unbelievable, extraordinary dream. We should remember that.

The desire to write stories began one Christmas, when I was eight. Santa had given my older brother a white rocket with red fins and the letters USA decaled on the side. I wrote a story about a mouse commandeering that rocket and flying it to the moon. My mother was proud; my brother told me not to touch his stuff.

In my teens I spent two summers working with the Youth Conservation Corp in the Superior National Forest and the BWCA. I kept detailed journals that my naïve youthfulness knew I would need when I wrote that bestseller about my experiences. Positive I was compiling potential Pulitzer material, I even remember telling a dear friend to keep the letters I wrote to her because when I was famous they would be worth something. It’s okay to laugh here, really–I can take it. There were novels in my future, scads of them. I just knew it.

Then life happened. Marriage and a daughter. Quilting and crafts, church and volunteering, Brownies, dance lessons, swimming lessons, skating lessons, starfish costumes with hand-sewn spangles, birthday parties, lazy afternoons at the lake, road trip adventures. And I let my writing become rare and sporadic. Oddly guilt ridden, too. Perhaps because my readings tended to exact the same reply from my non-literary husband: “You have too much time on your hands.” The more of that I heard, the deeper I tucked the desire to write. Time, after all, is a commodity a stay-at-home mom might have too much of. But if there is none left over for me–for you, then really, is there too much?

The less I wrote, the further away the possibility being a writer became. Eventually it was something too amazing, too impossible to even dream about. Writing a novel would be like becoming a movie star; nope, sorry that ship has sailed. Then one day at Target I came across a book by one of my favorite authors: Stephen King. Except this book wasn’t a horror story, it was titled On Writing. I paged through it with a trembling hand, then placed it back on the shelf. I stared at it. My heart beat with anxiety. Is it possible? Could I be so presumptuous? I finally remembered to breathe, then took the book back off the shelf and placed it facedown in my cart. I underlined and scarred it with notes as I waited for my daughter at a Fargo track camp, glancing around to ensure no other parent could see what I was reading. I didn’t want even strangers to think I was so bold as to presume to be a writer.

But the more I read, the more the impossible became possible. Even to this day reading that Stephen King book evokes the heart-thumping trepidation I felt as I finally stepped into the writing world.

I devoured that book, then those by Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovich, and James Frey. Anything I could find related to mystery writing in particular. I took free online writing courses from Barnes and Noble: mystery, fiction, screenwriting, and forensics. Dozens of books and writing magazines later, I attended a summer workshop, which led to a crazy big adventure to the University of Wisconsin- A Weekend with Your Novel. (Disoriented, I ended up driving the family minivan out onto a dark pier, “Why is there water on both sides of the road?” (but that’s another story). The first LRWN Conference led to joining the Fergus Falls Writers group, then joining the LRWN Board and chairing the annual writer’s conference.

And suddenly, I look around amazed. Here I am immersed in the writing world and thinking of myself as a writer. How did that happen? Somewhere along the way, as I read and learned and wrote, I also changed. From a trembling housewife with impossible dreams to someone who thinks it just might happen.

I know you are out there, too: reading this and hoping. George Eliot said, “It’s never too late to be who you might have been.” Welcome to the extraordinary.

Author’s Bio.: Lois Reff has published a monthly motivational newsletter since 2002.  She enjoys learning about and writing in the genre of fiction.  She has participated in several Barnes and Noble writing workshops, and the Weekend With Your Novel workshop at the University of Wisconsin.  She is an active member of the Fergus Falls Writers’ Group.  She is currently working on a mystery novel. She and her husband, along with six pets, live north of Fergus Falls by Jewett Lake. Lois is serving as the LRWN Conference Director.