Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Faculty Voices: Ron Koertge

Writing Isn’t Everything. There’s Also Handicapping.

The Kentucky Derby is run on the first Saturday in May, and almost everybody watches. It’s the World Series of thoroughbred racing and it takes about two minutes.

Ron Koertge
Every colt (and it’s almost always colts) is three years old and he’s been pointed toward this race for a long time. Young horses are nominated and fees are paid to keep them eligible. As hopes flicker and die, most are taken off the Derby Wish list and become simply race horses, the ones who fill the starting gate at tracks all over the country day after day.

For the twenty who step into the starting gate early in May they have qualified by earning points in prep races and have avoided injury. Few if any have run a mile and a quarter. It’s uncharted territory.  The crowd will bet the most on someone and he’ll be the favorite. But long shots are common. California Chrome, for example, is a likely and deserving favorite based on what he’s done so far. But will he like the dirt track at Churchill Downs? What if he gets in behind horses and can’t find a way through? What if it rains?

The Derby is boiling with potential. Will the winner go on and also win the Preakness and the Belmont? Will he sire terrific sons and daughters? Some Derby runners never race at anywhere near Derby-level again. Many are simply good horses. Some, however, are so roguish and obstreperous that they’re gelded. This tends to make them much more cooperative as they start musing about shopping at IKEA, and not the cute filly in Barn 14.

I’m writing this just about a week before the Derby, so here are the top contenders: California Chrome, as I said, looks very good. His prep races were strong and he seems adaptable. Wicked Strong would be my bet at 4-to-1 or more. (A lot of amateurs bet on the Derby, and they tend to go for the marquee horse.) Hoppertunity is peaking at just the right time. Danza surprised bettors recently with a very impressive race, but can he do that again? Candy Boy was terrific earlier in the year, but lately not so much. Tapiture had a surprisingly poor prep race but if he snaps back should run big.

Favorites have won three of the last twenty runnings of the Derby. Not my kind of bet, but I’ve been wrong before so if it’s yours, good luck! It’s always a great race to watch.



Monday, April 28, 2014

Inkpot Interview: Cheryl Minnema

Cheryl Minnema's picture book, Hungry Johnny, is illustrated by Wesley Ballinger and will be published May 1, 2014 by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. Cheryl will graduate from the Hamline MFAC program in July 2015. She lives, writes, and creates beautiful art in Milaca, Minnesota.

Please describe the book.
Hungry Johnny is about a five year old Ojibwe boy who likes to eat, eat, eat. He attends a community feast with his grandmother and experiences a series of events before he gets to eat, which teach him to be patient and have respect for elders.

As the story progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about? When did you first begin work on it? When did you finish?

One of the main editor changes was taking out any Brand Name toys and television characters. Another main editor change/suggestion was to add more information about who Johnny was (fleshing out his character a little more). I first began working on Hungry Johnny in 2010 and tinkered with it until submitting it to the Loft in 2012. This was my first attempt at writing a children’s picture book and have been surprised by the success of the story.
One of Cheryl's beaded
bandolier bags.
See more.
What research was involved before and while writing the book?
This is partly based on a memory of my little brother always going into the kitchen when grandma was cooking and how he had to wait to eat if she was cooking for a feast.

Did you ever workshop this story at Hamline?

I did not. Hungry Johnny is one of the Loft Literary Center 2012 Shabo Award winners. It was work shopped with Susan Marie Swanson.
Did you discover and fall in love with any books while in the MFAC program? The TigerRising by Kate DiCamillo and all Laurie Halse Anderson books.

Without naming names, tell us who your first readers are (e.g., live-action writing group; online writing group; editor; agent). When do you share a piece of writing?

I have been writing poetry for an adult audience for many years have shared my work with a published poet, who has since become my mentor. As far as writing for children, my first readers were a writing group. I start to share my writing when I feel like I’ve done everything I can and need direction.

What’s your current favorite jolly word?

Howah, “An expression used exclusively by Ojibwe to express awestruck wonder or amazement at another’s or ones own actions.”

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Alumni Voices: Sherryl Clark

Loneliness vs. Solitude &
The Long Distance Writer

When I think about being a long-distance writer, literal distance is not what comes to mind first. My fellow Hamline students and faculty know that I travelled over 100,000 miles to get to Hamline during the two years of my MFAC, because I live in Australia. But it wouldn’t matter where I lived – for every writer, it’s the writing itself that is the marathon, the huge journey, and it can involve experiences of both solitude and loneliness.
(Not to scale)

We need solitude to write. Oh, how we need it! One of the things I ask my students is – where do you write? Do you have a place that is all your own, where you can shut the door? I wrote at home, on the kitchen table, for more than 20 years. From that table, I could see outside and yet be inside, and inside my head, because I was the only one there.

Then my husband retired, and suddenly I realized that, no matter how quiet he was, it was almost impossible to write with him in the house. I tried the library, the cafĂ©, the room outside with the dust and the spiders (even after I cleaned it up, there was still dust). It’s a little better now, but I still yearn for that wonderful daily solitude I used to have.

Residency at Hamline is the opposite! It’s all about writing for 11 straight days and every time, I couldn’t wait to get there and dive in. But away from Hamline, it’s easy to feel lonely, to miss that buzz and excitement, that total focus on what matters most – your writing. In between residencies, I kept the loneliness at bay through emails and letters to my advisors, and through my class Facebook group. I reminded myself that, hey, they weren’t all going out for coffee and having a great time together without me! They, too, lived long distances from each other. We were all in the loneliness together, and still connecting.

Writing can be the loneliest profession in the world, if you know no other writers. Writing groups, writing friends, mentors, friends who “get it” – make all the difference. They support you when your spouse grumbles about your daydreaming, when your mother asks you when you’re going to get a real job, when your kids throw tantrums because you’re not at their beck and call 24 hours a day. We have to fight every day to make time for our writing, to keep some of our headspace for our current novel, and to grab that solitude with both hands and hold on tight.

I’m about to go on a different kind of residency, sponsored by the May Gibbs Trust here in Australia. It will be four weeks (two now, two later) of time alone in another city to write. Blessed solitude.

Who knows what writing will come out of it? Big advances in current projects, or something wild and new? But I know anytime I’m feeling a little lonely, I can go online and be cheered up by a writer friend somewhere in the world!

Sheryll Clark is a July 2013 graduate of the MFAC program. She lives in Melbourne, Australia. To find out more about Sheryll and her writing, visit her website. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Faculty Voices: Eleanora Tate

A Few Essential Ingredients
for My Writing Stew

After eating another bowl of my chicken vegetable stew, I lean back in my Bentwood rocker, with bulging belly. I’ve been making this same basic stew for years. I only cook stews that I know I’ll love to eat.

Eleanora  E. Tate
It’s the same with my writing. I can only write books that I know I’ll want to read. I’ve been writing for sixty plus years—since at least third grade, when I remember writing my first short story.  After eleven middle-grade realistic fiction, historical fiction, or biography novels, and numerous magazine stories later (not to mention hundreds of newspaper feature stories, weddings, engagements and yes, obituaries), I realize that some of the same basic ingredients in my chicken vegetable stew are also present in my literary stew.

The Pot
. First I must have the right pan in which to prepare my stew—the steel bottomed brown Dutch oven style one. For my characters I also must have the right pan—aka setting—in which to place and prepare them. What happens to them is dependent on where their experiences mainly occur, like Gumbo Grove, SC; Raleigh, NC; Harlem, NY; Nutbrush, MO. Raisin Stackhouse, Big Boy, Big Head, and Celeste wouldn’t be who they are in my books if I placed them in some other town and state, and neither would my stew.

Pot Liquor
. The spices, vegetables, and bits of chicken bubbling in my liquid are what make my stew juicy. It’s not just tomato-flavored water. Renowned storyteller Jackie Torrence, the “Story Lady,” called this leftover liquid in the pan “pot liquor” in her landmark book of tales The Importance of Pot Liquor. Pot liquor was a “southern staple” during the days of enslavement, Torrence wrote. Enslaved people, having mostly only scraps of fatback, ham hocks, and collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens and beans for their meals, cherished the leftover liquid for its nutritional value, and saved it to initiate the next meal. Pot liquor helped to keep people alive in the face of from “can’t see” in the morning to “can’t see” at night after unbelievably debilitating toil.

Meaningful juices, too, must flow through my characters’ veins to make them come alive during their experiences and to hold the story together. One might call these literary juices themes.

Ms. Torrence, by the way, was one of the world’s most respected and accomplished storytellers. She captivated audiences merely by the sound of her voice, choice of words, and facial expressions. Storytelling aspirants should study her performances. Oral storytelling (orature) is not gyrating around the stage, dressed in costumes, shouting and howling.

Got to have cornbread with stew, for sopping up the last of the juice, crumbling into the stew, satiating my needy taste buds either way. In writing, that cornbread might be my regional vernacular—phrases I use in narration or in dialogue reflective of where my characters live (that anybody living there might reasonably use), and at least one relative who advises my main character.  

Regional vernacular isn’t jargon that imitates phonetically in print how I think my characters are “supposed” to talk according to stereotypes of race and ethnicity.  “But they said it that way!” some writers wail. Having heard it said in real life doesn’t make it right or appropriate to write down for publication.

cornbread in my books are the comfort kin—a grandmother like Mary Elouise’s grandmother, Celeste’s father, or Zambia’s Aunt Limo. They were folks who loved their young relatives unconditionally and will let them curl up beside them when times were tough.

I begin cooking my chicken with the meat still on the bone, and let them simmer until the meat falls off the bones. Then, of course, I remain the bones. To me cooking with the bones on help to give my stew body. The marrow gleaned from the inside and the calcium from the outside enrich the stew and me. In my books body could also mean substance, and character. My little Black Girl warriors must have spirit, determination, intelligence, common sense, humanity—i.e. character—to enrich their lives, too. Though Mary Elouise in Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.! and Zambia in A Blessing in Disguise might not be smart or show common sense at the beginning of the story, they will have learned something about consequences and common sense—enriched—by the end.

. I like a variety of vegetables in my stew—red and green peppers, green peas, red homegrown tomatoes (or tomato soup), brown, black, red and green beans, white and red onions and garlic, orange carrots, yellow corn. They each serve nutritious, tasty purposes. I don’t just throw them in.

I don’t “throw in” characters of color into my books, either. Each character has a purpose (and so does the ethnicity). I believe in conducting sufficient research to make it so. My stew is not a meal I cook just to be doing something and my books are not “art for arts’ sake.” I don’t believe in “casual diversity” and I don’t believe in being a “culture vulture” who the late beloved storyteller Mary Carter Smith warned us about. Writers who write about cultures foreign to them have the right to do—even the right to write about them poorly, but they don’t have the right to squawk when their terrible efforts are justifiably criticized.

. Like cayenne pepper, paprika, onions and garlic, turmeric, Kitchen Bouquet, basil, bay leaf and other flavorings in my stew, humor, metaphors, similes, and description in my writing spice things up. When used selectively humor can have a place in even in the most dreadful situations. Humorist Eddie Murphy spiced up his early stand-up comedy routines by stringing together hot words to describe objects and people. I borrowed his technique in my Front Porch Stories at the One-Room School chapter “Possum in the School.”

Here’s my description of Smokey, a Chihuahua who the teacher thinks is a possum:
“Smokey was a pointy-nosed, swaybacked, fat-bellied, bald-headed, bug-eyed, white-haired Chihuahua with a long, skinny tail. Smokey had scratched so much over the years that he didn’t have much hair on his little head, those little legs, or that stringy tail. And those few little patches of hair on the rest of him? They stayed gray and speckled with black dirt from where he rolled in the mud to relieve the itching he had everywhere else.”

When Smokey waddles out of the storeroom of her one-room school the teacher shrieks, “Get your bad-luck, snaggle-toothed, grave-robbing, garbage-eating, rat-nosed self out of my school this minute!”

A “Spicy” Tate Tip
: When I conducted creative writing residencies for elementary school students I used Front Porch Stories’ possum chapter to inspire them to write stories about something in their classrooms that they had to try to remove. Of course, the students alleged that they didn’t know how to write about anything. I told them to first identify a couple of specific animals, places and/or objects in their own classrooms. Then they created lists of spicy (succinct) modifiers of those subjects, according to taste, smell, touch, sight, sound and/or personal opinion.

This warm-up writing propelled them into producing great passages and eventually some fine original stories. It was harder for their teachers to visualize their classrooms like this until they were prodded into releasing inhibitions.

Another “Spicy” Tate Tip
: Read Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, her spectacular 2011 National Book Award winner. In this epic chronicle about an impoverished Mississippi family facing and struggling through Hurricane Katrina in the bayous as told in the present tense through pregnant teen daughter Esch’s eyes, Ward’s metaphors and similes are riveting, like these similes: “Even though we are in the shade, the heat is worse in the shed, like the inside of a hot fist.” (99) Esch looks out into the storm through the open roof of a shack on the hill where she and her brothers and father had swam after raging waters had destroyed their own: “The sky was so close (with the low-hanging clouds) I felt like I could reach up and bury my arm in it.” (238)

Ward actually lived through Hurricane Katrina and so knew whereof she wrote. That doesn’t mean that one must experience everything that one writes about, but in many cases it certainly helps. It’s good to sample the stew; experience from having cooked stews in the past tells me exactly what to add.

Metaphor and simile addicts should analyze Ward’s book to study her techniques of craft. But remember, just because Ward did it doesn’t mean everybody can write like that—or should.
There’s more to my stews and certainly more to my writing, but I’m full right now. Enjoy!

Happy eating! Happy reading!

©2014 By Eleanora E. Tate