Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tight Lines

Hello, everybody! Although I’ve been writing for fifty years, I’m still nervous as I contribute for the first time to The Storyteller’s Inkpot. However, to paraphrase our MFAC theme of “Immerse Yourself,” here I go, immersing.
I’ve been on the Hamline faculty since January 2009 after speaking first as a guest writer in January of 2008. At that time I urged the audience to have “tight lines.”
In fishing language “tight lines” means to keep your fishing line taut, so that it is straight -- not limp, no excess line floating about -- in the water. This allows the fisherperson to be more sensitive to the fish’s nibble or jerk at the succulent bait on the hook and thus be more apt to catch it.
In the same way, a writer should have “tight lines,” so that each word is taut, exact, and succinct, yet offers the reader the most alluring bait -- titillating scenes, appealing characters, strong plot, evocative sense of place, and tantalizing sensory details -- to hook the reader’s interest, pull him/her into the heart of the manuscript, and land em, still mesmerized, at the end.
Tight lines!
Eleanora E. Tate, February 1, 2012

Friday, January 27, 2012

Taking Sensible Advice

Ron’s post about the screenwriter is a great case study of someone who knows how to take feedback.

I got a lot of practice processing feedback when I worked in public relations and museums. I found plenty of press releases in my inbox that were covered in red marks. I presented text blurbs of 50 words or less at meetings where ten people would then edit-by-committee. I handled phone calls like the following:

Person who hasn’t read the text, but wants to give a contract to a friend: “Why don’t we hire a professional writer for this?

Me: “We did, and it’s me.”

After a while, a writer gets a sense for which edits you just do—and there are plenty of those. You might implement them because they clearly make a piece of writing better and you’re learning something for next time. Or you might do them because they are a bugaboo of whoever gave the edits. Really, who wants to waste time arguing about “however” vs. “nevertheless”?

Some edits you don’t implement exactly as is recommended, but you do something else instead. Whoever is reading the piece may notice that something isn’t working, and they may suggest a “fix.” Writers should accept this information for what it is—another person’s best thinking of the moment. It’s the writer’s job to get deep enough into the piece to know how to best solve the problem, but we can give credit where it’s due to the editor for flagging the issue.

There are times when another agenda at work, but that’s the rarest case, and it’s pretty easy to tell.

Learning how to take feedback is like anything else. The more you practice, the easier it becomes. If we really open ourselves up to feedback, then we’ll be able to recognize and appreciate sensible advice when it comes--and our writing will be better for it.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Winter Workshop Wrap-up

So here you see our hail and farewell photo of the writers in the workshop I co-led with Marsha Qualey at the Hamline 2012 Winter Residency. Over six days we responded to nine fiction WIP's with designer homework on the final day to send the writers out into the blizzard with revision juices flowing. Marsha and I called it our fiction intensive, each taking our occasional turn at the board to plot out scenes and chapters. Participants were all so sensitive and precise in their feedback that I believe all the writers were grateful for the careful readings. I was honored to share these stories and listen to the excellent feedback that went beyond each day's stories.

That's what we all yearn for, isn't it? A careful reading of our work that focuses on the text on the page, but also examines it in the broader scope of literature. Story structure and POV were most often discussed. We had excellent talks throughout the residency on POV in all its complexities and this deepened our responses too.

Write on through the winter. It's been a pleasure to blog this past semester and I hope to be back. Claire

Tough Love

There was a piece in the "L.A. Times" recently about a guy (screenwriter) who finally got a niche at Sundance. His was a classic story -- somebody who loved movies, worked minimum wage jobs to finance his dream, made short films, got some nibbles but no bites, financed one last project with his wife's credit card, and suddenly a door opened. A movie about what he went through would be corny beyond belief (cue the violins) but it's not a movie. It happened and good for him.

What I liked about the story is this: the guy constantly changed and revised. He'd get some sensible advice from some studio wonk and he'd take it. He talked to other writers at his favorite coffee shop and listened to what they said. He didn't peddle the same script over and over. It was protean, a true work-in-progress. And it evolved into something he could actually sell. It's likely the final version barely resembled the first one.

When I do workshops, people come in with tattered manuscripts, something they've been toting around for years. When I see that, my little heart just sinks, because I know they don't want to take advice. They want their baby praised and photographed. And they want sympathy for the hard times they've had. Tough love is too tough for them.

But here it is -- Don't be that person. Don't keep picking at the scab on some precious wound. It'll just leave a scar.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Beginning the new year

With the arrival of Marsha Qualey on the blogging scene here at the Inkpot I will take my leave. I've enjoyed these occasional conversations and hope to pop back in once in a while to comment. But this is the first week of the Chinese New Year, and it feels like a new year in this part of the fairly-near east. So I am going to do some ritual cleaning, pitching, and tossing--not go so far as Henry Thoreau's suggestion that we annually burn all our belongings, maybe not even tossing, just shuffling things along to some new, more appreciative owner. I have an urge to clean my closets and my slate, to see what is left to live and work with.

And then to start to work.

What I will not throw out is Mem Fox's advice that there are three ways to become a better writer:

1. write

2. write

3. write.

I hope we all write the best words and stories of our lifetimes (so far) in this new year.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Back in the Saddle

After a semester of silence I'm happy to return to the Inkpot. Thanks to all who posted and commented while my head was in the sand.

I’m always looking for new writing exercises to do and to encourage students to try. The perfect exercise is one which not only helps me ferret out useful information about any character appearing in my story but also nudges me back into the writing itself. In other words, it must be effective but not too seductive as a distraction. A tricky balance.

I tried a new one this past weekend and I want to encourage all of you to give it a try if it seems the thing to do. It’s not my own invention, though perhaps the altered purpose is. I’m sure many of you check in frequently at McSweeney’s Internet tendency. One of my favorite features is the “Open Letters to People or Entities Who Are Unlikely to Respond” column. Well, this past weekend I had two of my characters write such letters, one to a snippy librarian she encountered and the other to a social worker at a youth shelter. Good stuff—in my estimation—presented itself as a result. I’m going to add the exercise to my list.

And even if it doesn’t work for you, read some of the letters. Most will make you smile.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Join the 46 Percent!

Have you articulated your writing goals for this year? And written down a plan for how to achieve them? And (gasp) told anyone?

Some people aren’t fans of New Year’s resolutions. A study by the University of Scranton shows why: By July, only 46 percent of people are sustaining the formal resolutions they made in January. However, the same study also showed that of people who have ethereal goals—but don’t make formal resolutions—only 4 percent are successful by July.

Another study, from the University of Chicago, showed that people with the best self-control plan ahead as a technique for reducing temptation to stray from the path. Both studies are reported in a recent article in the New York Times. It seems that setting specific goals, tracking your progress, and “publicizing” your goals by sharing them with someone else are common keys to success.

I’ll go first: My goal is to have a rough draft of my current work-in-progress, a mg novel, by April. I’m starting with about 80 pages that I wrote while in the Hamline program and will now be putting aside. I’ll take it from the top with an outline that reflects what those first 80 pages taught me about the characters and the story.

How about you? Let’s be part of the 46 percent!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Life After Graduation

Here's the thing -- keep writing. And for gods' sake keep revising. Here's a quote by Adrian Blevins (poet). The "him" is Rodney Jones, another poet and a guy she studied with:

"I remember telling him in an overconfident voice no doubt that I was rewriting my poems over and over again. Sometimes thirty times, I said. Have you ever done that? He took a deep breath and said in that accent of his that makes even hard lessons sound sweet, “I don’t stop before sixty.”

Someone is going to say to me, "Gee, I can't look at every page sixty times," and I'd say, "Why not?" Sometimes revising is changing a single word. "Loathsome" for "despicable." "Preposterous" for "fantastic." Manuscripts are like babies -- they need to be handled, fussed over, and played with.

I know a novel-in-verse (or any novel) is daunting. It's long and unruly. But page-by-page not so much.
Don't let many days go by without visiting your work. You don't have to look your best. The manuscript doesn't care. But drop by even if you can only stay a little while.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Shattering the Ivory Tower: Resources for Prospective "Academics"

Academic carries a snooty connotation. It is a label that undercuts the importance of a teacher's calling (yes, teaching IS a calling. Stay tuned). How about the ol' "Ivory Tower?" You know, that place of elitism, where the finest scholars cloister themselves from their non-Ivy League educated colleagues and all students to instead focus on dossiers and sip lattes as they discuss Foucoult and Spivak and whether the Subaltern can speak (all great conversations, BTW, except any about Foucoult *shudders*).

Bell Hooks ("bell hooks") in Teaching to Transgress, discusses the role of the teacher, her calling, the duties she assumes, a contract she enters, promising to give her students her all. Teaching is student-centric. There's a label for you--one I've always loved, though.

While I attended the Grad. Master Class, the lovely, insightful, second semester student and teacher, Sara Kvols (along with the fabulous Sherryl Clarke) talked with our fellow Hamline-ites about teaching in the community college. Marsha Qualey was generous enough to allow me to address teaching in the university, balancing the writing life with the full-time faculty appointment. Here's a recap and a few things I had discussed with Sara about the teaching life and our students.

Teaching is not a "job." Teaching is not a CV padder or a "hobby" you should do because you've earned an MFA. If you are called to teach, read bell hooks. Read her often. Read her work again and again. And if you are called to teach, your focus will be on the students, on their growth. You'll learn from them. You'll laugh with them. And you'll learn to laugh at yourself. This is key, for humor unites us all, no matter where we're from. Our students deserve our best, and not just a warm body standing behind a lectern. They want hope that they too have a story that matters, that their teacher will listen, that she will see a spark in them, in their writing, that she will listen to their stories in her office at seven thirty in the evening (beyond her "scheduled" office hours) because the student matters.

Teaching is a calling. Your students will look to you as some kind of omniscient, omni-present know-it-all. And it's up to you to reassure the students that you're not. You're just like them. Y'all are on the same team, and through hard work, listening, and lots of dialogue (spare them the "lectures--" they'll tune you out in a second), you'll find the ties that bind you because there are many. And maybe, just maybe, a student will write you a note or pull you aside and tell you that she was told her whole life that she couldn't write. And now, she can.

Teaching is a calling. Teaching is student-centric. Hold on tight, you'll learn from them. And your life will never be the same.

Websites for university, community college, and online/remote faculty appointments:


www.mla.org (this site will require an institutional username and pasword. If interested, please send me an email, and I'll pass mine along to you).

The Chronicle of Higher Education, a subscription worth your while: www.chronicle.com.

Feel free to ask any questions about the interview process, building a CV, managing 100 students (in composition courses--which are the courses one will teach in the university for some time, anyway), keeping your sanity, or any other facet of the teaching life. If you would like sample syllabi or just to chat, here is my email: tettertonm@ecu.edu. You learn to "teach" from your students, just as we learn to write from our own writing.

Our students deserve our best. We're all looking for the same thing: hope, affirmation, and light, a safe place (in the classroom, perhaps, in the office, in a coffee shop, in a stroll across campus). Teaching is a calling. And our students need us more than ever. Any advice from Inkpot Land? Resources? Thoughts or experiences that will help a new teacher cross the threshold?

***Much love to the teachers in the Hamline MFAC program for showing us all that teaching IS a calling.***

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Yearning for St. Paul in January

This is the time of year when alumni feel wistful and wish we were again at residency—the writing community at Hamline being warm enough to offset even the frigid temp’s of January in St. Paul. It’s a lifeline to see the nuggets Jackie has posted from lectures, but there’s nothing like being there in person.

Thankfully, the first weekend of residency is also alumni weekend. Last week was the first such weekend during a January residency and introduced some exciting new developments. In addition to workshopping and a special session with guest agent Kendra Marcus, the group enjoyed master classes with Phyllis Root and Mary Logue. Plus, the agenda now offers opportunities for alumni to present or facilitate writing workshops ourselves. A hearty thanks to our first alumni presenters: Andy Cochran, who talked about applying the MFA qualifications to teaching opportunities, and Daniel Campbell, who led a hands-on session about sensory writing. The word on the street and around facebook is that the weekend was refreshing and inspiring!

So, alumni, start planning ahead for July or beyond. The home fires are always burning at Hamline, and perhaps there’s a special topic you’d like to explore or present.

On behalf of the alumni, I extend a heartfelt congratulations to the graduating class of January 2012 (which includes our inkpot blogger Melissa Dempsey). By tonight, you will be officially alumni, and we are so proud. Your fellow alumni know about the hard work and personal growth this accomplishment represents. As you transition to life-after-the-MFA, remember that the Hamline community extends beyond the two-year program in many forms, ranging from writing groups to alumni weekends to personal relationships.

Remember that you can always come home again—and it will be warm, even in January.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Weather report

Six degrees this morning. No wind. Not enough snow to make a decent snowball, but the skaters are happy.

Anita Silvey gave a wonderful presentation yesterday on picture books from Wanda Gag to Lane Smith's new Grandpa Green. She began by saying she could feel the enthusiasm and energy (perhaps also cameraderie) in our lecture hall. I agree, though there is a sprinkling of fatigue in the mix.

She also told us she has been detecting signs that the pendulum is swinging back toward picture books (strength to your sword arms, picture book writers!) And she mentioned three that she is especially fond of this year--A Nation's Hope by Matt de la Pena (illustrated by Kadir Nelson), Grandpa Green by Lane Smith, and Me...Jane by Patrick McDonnell. Anita also reminded us of her website-- childrensbookalmanac.com-- where she posts about a different children's book every day of the year. Her posts are bouquets to books and writers. No brickbats allowed.

We wanted more and we get it this morning with her presentation on historical fiction.

But back to yesterday. Claire Rudolf Murphy gave a funny and brave talk on finding our own true tessitura. In the world of vocal music tessitura is the best range for each person's singing voice. I am going to share just a couple of nuggets from her presentation:

*at Mothshop Community Program (http://themoth.org/stories), a story telling project with homeless people, researchers have learned that when people tell a personal story or a story close to their hearts detectable changes occur in their brains. Such stories also change the brains of their listeners. Amazing!

*fear (our own fears about writing) are just clouds in the huge sky of our fearlessness.

Claire said, "Trust your writing because you've learned to trust yourself. Remember you don't have to be perfect. You can't be perfect. But you can go deeper. You can find your tessitura that allows you to go deeper, to do your very best work."

She ended her presentation with this poem, also printed below in Claire's post. I like it so much I want to include it again.

"It is so clear that it takes so long to see.
You must know that the fire which
you are seeking
Is the fire in your own lantern,
And your rice has been cooked from
the very beginning.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Coming up for air

Ron's right. We are in the middle of the residency. Tonight is "chill night" at the motel and nobody is having any fun (I don't know why they are laughing and clapping and singing).

The only problem that I can think of for this residency is that, as of today, we have no snow. This is winter residency. What is going on?

It was great to see alums last weekend. And we've had some wonderful lectures: Marilyn Nelson talked about persona poems and told us of the "power that comes from the creation of the mask and the creation of the voice for the mask to speak." And she read to us from some wonderful persona poems, including a piece from Carver, because Quinette Cook happened to have brought a copy to the lecture hall .

Anne Ursu gave us the basic grounding in point of view that we needed to get started in this residency on POV. I was doing common book discussion opposite Laura Ruby so I did not hear her informative and wonderful (I've heard frequently) talk that examined POV in greater detail.

Marsha Qualey discussed using the MFA to teach. Marsha Chall and her students went on a field trip through point of view in picture books and I've heard from many that it was very informative. We were scheduled opposite each other so I did not hear her talk and can't give a full report.

Swati Avasti showed us how to keep tension throughout our narrative with a three act structure for a novel.

And today Jane Resh Thomas reminded us that writing is our life, we write to save our lives, and we write to make our living. She talked about writing the truth: "You didn't come here to write happy little stories about happy little rabbits. Foxes generally come into the story."

And she ended her talk with a quote from James Baldwin that reminds us all of what we are doing: "For, while the talk of how we suffer, and how we are delightful, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell. It's the only light we've got in the world."

Hope you out there are all well and standing in some bit of the light. We are thinking of you.

Love vs Loathe

Most of the Hamline bloggers are in St. Paul with more than enough to do, so I'll don the mantle (Look how it matches my eyes!) and write a bit.

I was reading/reading about Mary Ruefle this morning and this caught my eye: "One of the most difficult things in life is to find the subtle balance between loving yourself too much and loving yourself too little." She goes on to say that self-adoration is bad and so is self-loathing. Then she wonders how we (writers) find the space in between.

It's a good question. I loathe myself regularly. Self-adoration? Not so much. But neither condition lasts very long. What I enjoy the most is flux. The journey in between the disgust and the ardor. For me, anyway, it's a space of great energy. The tatters of loathing are stripped away and before I can put on the robes of adoration I'm nothing but bodiless moxie. In those moments the writing problems get solved: the poem that wouldn't end ends. The story without a focus focuses.

Let's say I adore myself a bit right after that. It's a good time to revise, to shine that light on the work. But it's just as true for loathing. It has a murky and tenebrous beam that is as useful as its more brilliant (and more celebrated) counterpart.

I'll close, as usual, with a bit of poetry. This time a line from a Raphael Allison poem:
"The song poured over thorns and I took my time.'

Good advice. There will always be thorns, but there are songs too and, really, what's the hurry?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Finding Voice - Winter Residency, Here We Come

A final post before I head out to Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota tomorrow for our winter residency. Excuse my comments on other posts to those not in the Hamline crowd, but we all get rather excited as writing camp time approaches.

Our focus this time is point of view and voice and I will be giving a talk on uncovering our inner voice. It's been an insightful journey these past few months and I am looking forward to the risk of giving a more personal talk this time around. I will be sharing this poem below that I first read at age twenty-one when my older brother wrote it to me in a card as I headed off to Europe. I have kept it all these years because I think our writing voice is the fire within, the cooked rice that sustains us, but that we can't always hear or appreciate the fullness of.

I tried to locate the poet's name to no avail. But it's certainly popular on the Internet.

It is so clear that it takes so long to see.
You must know that the fire which
you are seeking
Is the fire in your own lantern,
And your rice has been cooked from
the very beginning.
Old Chinese poem

I have enjoyed blogging with my fellow Hamliners. We will be celebrating Mellissa and her fellow grads. I will try to post a couple of times from residency before I sign off for a while.

I am celebrating my publication news for a project that I first read and the audience sang along as a work in progress at the winter residency two years ago. My Country Tis of Thee: Song Of Patriotism, Song of Protest will be published by Henry Holt with Caldecott Honor illustrator Bryan Collier doing the artwork. I will toast my agent Kendra Marcus for her help as she will be presenting at the residency this weekend.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Work On Your Swing

I sometimes run little, informal writers' workshops at Senior Centers and every now and then I drop into the community college where I taught for two thousand years and talk to the Poetry Writing class.
The seniors (of which I am officially one) are usually fun to work with. They're often just getting out of the house, anyway, and they're amazed that the things they write can be manhandled so readily. "I never thought of starting somewhere besides the beginning," someone said recently. "But I see what you mean."
In the last poetry class I visited, however, I got nothing but flack. We had the "But-that's-how-it-really-happened" discussion: Me: "I'd make this about 1/4 shorter." Him: "But that's how it really happened." Me: "I know, but you can still edit it." "Him: How can I? That's how it really happened." I talked a little about rhyme and the usual rules that come with rhyme, so a guy in the back asked me when God had died and put me in charge. When I suggested to somebody that she cut the second stanza because it was pretty much like the first she said, "If I'm that bad a writer, I might as well give up!" And she rushed from the room in tears. It was just one of those nights.
In the recent "Water~Stone Review (Fall 2011) there's an interview with Richard Bausch. Toward the end he uses a golf analogy to talk about learning to write better. I'll just paraphrase, okay?
You go to a golf pro to improve your swing. He watches you and says, "Your feet are all wrong, your left arm is too stiff, and you're not keeping your head down. Try again." Do you say, "Oh, man. I give up. I'm hopeless. I'll never play better." No. You adjust your stance, pay attention to your left arm and keep your head down. You do it again. And again.
That's revision. Someone makes sensible suggestions, and you try them out. Take a look at the whole interview. RB is a smart guy.
Now to lighter fare -- the January poem is up on my website (or it will be by tomorrow). If you're interested go to http://ronkoertg.com/rons-books/