Posts Tagged: Writing

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Young Writers and Workshops

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Kelsey Adams, one of IR’s wonderful interns, for south central Indiana’s NPR station, WFIU. Kelsey is an undergraduate fiction writer in her senior year at Indiana University, and she makes for an eloquent and thoughtful interview subject. (Stay tuned for a couple of follow-up talks with her in the future!)

“Here at IU is where I really began to feel as if I was a writer,” Kelsey says, and–though this didn’t make its way in to the final interview–she told me with humility and wisdom that she sees herself writing in the tradition of Lorrie Moore. What a gift, I thought, to find your writerly identity as an undergrad! A long time ago, I had a conversation with a friend that would always stay with me, a conversation about the importance of heroes. I think one of the great benefits of creative writing programs is that they expose young writers to older ones, allowing them to find their literary heroes. Creative writing workshops let us see our own writing as literature, just as we learn to read literature as if it were workshop writing. Only when we’re then able to locate our work in the vast landscape of literature that’s already out there, workshop wisdom tells us, can we take ourselves seriously as writers. (And only then, paradoxically, after we begin to take ourselves seriously, can we actually become ‘serious’ writers.)

They also teach us some serious rules. As anyone who’s been in a creative writing workshop knows, there are a handful of sayings that come up a lot: “Show, don’t tell!” “The ending has to be earned!” “Let your characters make their own choices!” The list goes on–and gets more and more specific. Of the story from which she reads excerpts in this interview, Kelsey says, “This one started [with my reacting to how] they always tell you, ‘Never write a cancer story.’ …I did it anyway.” Another thing you learn in a creative writing workshop is when to break workshop commandments. The premise of Kelsey’s “cancer story”? A woman discovers her cancer has been cured, but realizes she wishes it hadn’t been, wishes she were still sick.

On the excellent Web site Open Culture, there is a recent post recounting advice about writing from great writers: Henry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, George Orwell, and that poster boy for grammatical correctness, William Safire. A couple of these pieces of advice stick out as particularly hypocritical–and particularly wise. Neil Gaiman advises:

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

And George Orwell says,

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Summer Writers Programs

It’s that time of the year when a lot of deadlines are coming up for applications to summer writers’ retreats, residencies, fellowships, workshops and conferences. I’ve had students ask about the Indiana University Writers’ Conference, which opens for early registration this month, and many of my colleagues are applying for residencies and workshops at excellent places like the Vermont Studio Center,  the New School Summer Writers Colony, the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop, and endless others. Even beyond the problem of that ambivalent apostrophe (is it writers’writer’s, or simply writers?) these programs can pose a problem for writers who aren’t funded by grants, universities, or their families. If we saved all we spend on application fees, contest entry fees, reading fees, and so on, many of us could probably afford to pay rent thirteen months a year.

In 2010 I attended the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College, two fabulous weeks of workshops, readings and talks.  I had the opportunity to work with a couple of writers I deeply admire, and I made some great friends. I couldn’t have done it without the generous scholarship I received. Virginia Woolf’s famous assertion, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” is especially well taken when the former is necessary in spades to afford the former. (The A Room Of Her Own Foundation, an organization that took Woolf at her word, offers a writers retreat for women in New Mexico.)

The writers retreat can be very inspiring. It can wake up a writer who feels she is in a rut, and help to affirm her writerly identity. It can foster intellectual dialogue, and ignite lasting friendships. It can help fend off that ailment peculiar to writers, loneliness. It can be an adventure! There are retreats in the mountains, on lakes, and in cities, in Gambier and Saratoga Springs, in Greece and Spain. When space tourism really takes off, there’ll probably be a writers retreat on Mars. If the question is why to go, the answers are innumerable.

If the question is how, though, I’m not sure. Trolling the Internet the other day I found the site of an idyllic-looking retreat on the coast of Ireland, and was instantly swept into a sea of reveries (most of which involved walking barefoot on long rocky cliffs, salt spray on my face and wind in my hair, like some extra in The Lord of the Rings) before finding that it cost over seven thousand dollars. Not going to happen. I closed my browser. I rearranged the framed photos I keep on my desk: seagulls on a white rock in the ocean, a sunset over a lake I know. All this hoopla about writers retreats suddenly seemed like nothing more than an attractive distraction.

Paying it Forward

 

Image: OPL Teen Space

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how lucky I’ve been to have had some really incredible teachers, over the years. Their encouragement and enthusiasm and knowledge and example was invaluable to me as a young writer, and has continued to be invaluable. More and more, I realize that, while I may never be able to repay them for all the time and attention and faith they’ve given me, I can do my best to pay it forward.

For the past five summers, I’ve had the privilege of teaching at a workshop for high schoolers, and the students I’ve met there are intelligent, enthusiastic, eager to learn, and excited to be part of a writing community.

Do you know any young people who love to write? Below are some great opportunities to let them know about!

  • The Academy of American Poets website has some great resources for teens.
  • There are several really fantastic writing programs for teens, such as the Reynolds Young Writers Workshop at Denison University, and the Young Writers Workshop at Kenyon college.
  • New Pages’ Young Authors Guide has a comprehensive list of literary magazines that have contests and submission opportunities for children, teens, and young adults.
  • The Scholastic Arts Awards has several great opportunities for young artists to submit creative work.
  • Remember the beloved children’s poet/illustrator Shel Silverstein? Last year, Every Thing On It, a collection of previously unpublished poems and illustrations, was published posthumously by Silverstein’s family. This article has the scoop, as well as a touching audio recording of kids reading the poems in the collection.

Happy reading, writing, teaching, and learning!

National Novel Writing Month

Today I ran into a colleague of mine who looked particularly haggard. It being the rear-end of a long and grueling semester, I thought nothing of it at first. But after watching her fall asleep during office hours and noticing the black pies pooled below her eyes, I asked how things were. Great, she assured me. I must have looked at her skeptically though, because she proceeded to explain that on top of her teaching and coursework, she has undertaken quite the task: writing a 50,000 word novel by the end of November. This means a little more than 1,600 words a day–no small feat! The novel must be new (no copy pasting from older writing) and all the original work of the author, and more than one word. Other than that, no rules, except the clock!

As I heard this I wondered a) at her sanity and b) at the type of writing a project like this fosters. On further reflection though, I can’t help think this is a pretty neat national campaign, especially in a culture less than obsessed with the written word. The value, I think, becomes less in finishing a 50,000 word masterpiece in 30 days, and more in putting up a valiant effort. Many people never finish, and only one wins the official contest, but the benefits are far greater. Making writing a habit, approaching it as a creative challenge worth pursuing, embracing it as a way of life–all things National Novel Writing Month fosters–are things I believe in.

I’m not a fiction writer but a poet, so the idea of writing 50,000 words scares me silly. That being said, I think I can learn from my fellow writers–part of writing is putting something on the page every day and believing in one’s ability to write something grand. It’s about writing as part of a community and encouraging each other in creative pursuits. About the powers of chocolate and caffeine and the inspiration procrastination can lead to. We’re halfway through November, so I don’t think I’ll be writing a novel this month, but I will be writing. Every day.

Tell us about your novel writing experience, or get going. Only 14 days left!