Writers Conferences: My Year of Living Quietly

October 18, 2017 § 2 Comments

zz 2017 head shot (1)Ellen Birkett Morris

I remember my first summer writing conference. It was set in a charming small town in Ohio. Workshops met in rooms that looked like something out of Hogwarts or in small cottages with inviting porches. The workshop leaders were smart, funny, and supportive and, oh, the students. Spending a full week with other writers was transformative. We talked about books and how hard writing was and writers and how hard writing was. After a few days it was as if we were all residents of a small island, a literary oasis.

I’ve kept up this habit of going to summer conferences over the years where I hear great writers read, gain insight into the craft and get that hit of writerly comradery that I crave. But this year finances and other circumstances made it hard for me to get away. This year I’ve spent the year writing—generating new work, revising, looking through my files for stories that were half-finished or abandoned and giving them a second look. I’ve also spent the year reading, not craft books but literature high and low. I’ve read international writers, popular writers, writers of every gender and background. I’ve read carefully and slowly, taking note of how they drew me in (if they did), how they kept me reading, and what made for a satisfying ending. I’ve eschewed the buzz of networking and reading for my peers in favor of getting back in touch with my instincts as a writer and broadening my sense of what stories can do.

It may be purely a coincidence, but I’ve found myself taking a different approach to my work. I am less satisfied with my first efforts. I am taking the time to explore the various paths a story can take and asking myself which of these paths is truest to my characters. I am pushing myself to take my stories further and questioning the story’s ending. I am asking if I have best exploited the dramatic potential of the story. (An insight gifted to me in a conversation with the writer Lee K. Abbott.)

In the quiet of my home office I am taking the information I have learned over years of summer conferences and integrating it into my writing practice. I feel my writing getting better.

I know that I will be drawn back into the warm fold of writing conferences again, but for now I am sitting alone doing my work at the intersection of where knowledge meets practice and this holds an excitement all its own.

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Ellen Birkett Morris’ essays have appeared in The Butter, The Fem, The Writing Group Book, The Common, The Girls’ Book of Friendship and South Loop Review. Her fiction, poetry, reviews and interviews have appeared in Antioch Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, South Carolina Review, Notre Dame Review, and The Rumpus. She is the author of Surrender (Finishing Line Press), a poetry chapbook.

 

Evidence: A Creative Writing Prompt in the Composition Classroom

October 16, 2017 § 8 Comments

zz nglishTwitterAvatarOver the next few months, author Stacy Murison will occasionally explore how she uses basic principles of creative nonfiction with students in her first-year composition classes. This is the first in the series.

We regularly ask our students for more supporting evidence in their essays, whether they are writing a rhetorical analysis, an argumentation paper, or a research paper. But it’s often challenging for students to understand what kind of evidence will support their ideas. Even with evidence, they don’t always feel confident making a hypothesis or developing a research question that may challenge them.

As their beginning research project for the semester, my students write an I-Search, which is a student-directed inquiry project. The main paper component is a 1,200-1,500 word narrative describing how they develop their question and conduct research. For this project, it’s the story of their research process that is important, not necessarily the results of their research. I spend most of the unit stressing the development of the best question they can ask rather than finding an answer to their question. This concept is often challenging as it is not a traditional research paper where students can expect to find at least the beginning of an answer to their question. The other challenge is getting students to write narratively about their research and question development, something beyond “And then, I went to Google Scholar.”

I decided to develop a creative writing exercise to help students understand how to craft a research question, how to gather evidence, and how to write their search narratives. While doing my own research for a young adult story I was writing, I had an idea for a group of teenagers who discover a well-preserved abandoned home to make their own. I spent weeks searching for “perfect” abandoned house photographs, which eventually became more interesting than my story. I was fascinated by the condition of some of these places, and was surprised to see that many of the articles that accompanied the photograph listed the contents of the houses, but the reporters often didn’t go the extra step of finding the family, interviewing neighbors, or sharing an educated guess with readers about what may have happened to the homeowner.

To guide students with both research and storytelling, I share my fascination with the abandoned house stories and photographs. I then show them a photo of this abandoned living room that also appeared to have functioned as a music room:

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The prompt involves opening with the question: What Happened Here? I ask students: what was this room used for? and what time period was this room “frozen” in? The first is often answered quickly: a living and music room (guitar case, multiple record players, and chairs possibly arranged for “listening”). This helps students develop their “research question.” The next step involves some actual research—usually we look at the furnishings and the stereos/record players, but also the books, using image searches on the internet. I might give them some hints, such as stereos from the 60s and 70s and furniture from the 40s and 50s. I even allow them to use their cell phones to search the internet.

Instead of asking them to write an essay with supporting evidence, I then ask them to write a story about what happened to the family using the evidence as descriptors of the space—the molded guitar case, the water-damaged bay window, even the fake flowers looking like just picked from a garden, etc. After they complete the exercise, we spend time reading and talking through some of the stories and what led each writer to their story of the place and the homeowners.

The challenge with this example is that we all want to know what happened to the homeowners from the photograph. I then share the full article with the class. Although personal papers were found on the premises, the reporter doesn’t reveal the homeowner’s name, nor does it appear that she attempted to find the homeowner. Each piece of photographic “evidence” presented—vacant, fully furnished rooms, silverware, beauty products—only adds to the question of “what happened.” The questions become more refined as we discuss the images and the article, such as “Why would someone leave all of that expensive audio equipment behind?” and “a guitar in a case is easy to carry—why didn’t someone take it?”

When the students get more excited about the types of questions they can ask based on the evidence, then I know it’s time to introduce the full prompt for the project. As they prepare their research questions and start to find some evidence, they can discern what makes a more complex research question and how to tell the story of their search. I see students take more risks with the questions they ask, and also in refining their question through ongoing research. One student is at the point now where each new piece of evidence she discovers helps her reframe her question. She is not going to settle on one question for this paper—instead, as she garners more evidence, her question continues to evolve. What she’s writing about now is how to craft the “right” question. And she’s still excited about the project, rather than being frustrated at not finding an easy answer.

Resources:

Filkins, Scott. “Promoting Student Directed Inquiry with the I-Search Paper.” National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Accessed 30 September 2017

Rahman, Khaleda. “Untouched for decades: Photographer captures perfectly preserved home that was abandoned for years.” Daily Mail Online. Accessed 15 September 2017
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Stacy Murison received her MFA in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University where she now teaches composition. Her work can be found in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, River Teeth, Hobart, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others.

Letting Your Neighbors Inspire Your Writing

October 13, 2017 § 11 Comments

zz Caren-TakenByRobTBy Caren Lissner

Each year around this time, as the temperature gets colder and the nights grow longer, I spend more time sequestered in my small fifth-story apartment, writing. Luckily, the neighbors always provide extra inspiration. It’s not that they stop up to visit or that I see them more often in the streets now that they’re back from their summers away. Rather, this is the time of year when they remove the air conditioners and fans from the narrow windows of their apartments and brownstones, and my view changes dramatically.

At night, I start to notice a beautiful contrast: rows and rows of glowing windows juxtaposed against a cobalt sky. But I notice something else: more clues to the occupants’ personalities, the decorations that were obscured by their hardware — the jaunty sports pennants, flags from other countries, swirling suncatchers.

I also notice much more, a glimpse of their daily routines, providing both a distraction from my solitude and a reminder of the types of quirks I need to include to deeply shade the characters in my work.

For instance, take the guy directly across the street, who lives on the fifth floor of a beige row-home. From January through April, I spy him up into the wee hours, hunched over a desk beneath a small metal lamp. He takes breaks to head to the kitchen, and then it’s back to work. Since he’s only up so late during tax season, I have a pretty good idea what he does for a living. When we’re both at our desks at 2 or 3 a.m., I feel a camaraderie with him, another soul who understands the value of being productive during the most quiet time of night.

I’ve seen neighbors go through family changes. A new pet appears, an orange kitten who climbs onto the sill to stretch in the sunshine, its eyes turning to contented slits. Or the side of a crib suddenly presses against the window like a temporary safety gate against the world.

A week ago, I noticed that all the shades and curtains disappeared from a window on the fourth floor of the building across the street, affording me a view of a cavernous room with shiny wood floors. Days later, a regiment of cleaning products lined the sill, and a young man moved in. I caught glimpses of him in his t-shirt and baseball cap. He’s probably one of the young people who flood this area to start their first job in Manhattan after college graduation, as I did two decades ago. Perhaps he doesn’t know anyone in this town yet, or maybe he has many friends who will fill his apartment this weekend for his first party. Perhaps he expects, as I once did, to be here only a few years before leaving for the suburbs. I may cross paths with him tomorrow when he’s dashing for the bus in suit and tie, and not even recognize him. But will he recognize me?

In the last few years, I’ve found out, through conversations on social media, that various childhood friends of mine lived in this town right after college, but moved to the suburbs before either of us realized that we were around the corner from each other. There was no social media to connect us then. It’s too bad that we didn’t at least meet up for a drink before our paths diverged. In fact, right now, there may be people all around me who have something deep inside that would amaze me, but we’re looking at each other’s glowing window and neither of us knows it. Perhaps we will never know.

As a writer, I often use my imagination to fill in the blanks of people’s lives, to make more sense of the world. But perhaps I should forsake imagination for a little initiative. Because I really don’t know enough of my neighbors. As the cold weather settles in, it’s tempting to hole up all weekend. The next time I go out, I’m going to say hello to a few more people I pass, perhaps ask questions about their dogs. If they don’t find it too much of a trespass in these isolated times, perhaps they’ll smile back. It might make autumn feel a bit warmer – that, and taking the fans out of the windows.
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Caren Lissner is a novelist and essayist who’s been published in the Atlantic, the New York Times, LitHub, and McSweeney’s. Her humorous first book, Carrie Pilby, was made into a movie that premiered on Netflix in September. She’s presently finishing up a new novel and a funny memoir.

My Affair with the Sentence

October 11, 2017 § 8 Comments

22282109_359766681112308_5299649755912659950_n(1)By Beth Ann Fennelly 

After many years of a fairly monogamous relationship with poetry, I began a flirtation with prose. Now it’s a full-blown affair. My newest book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, is a collection of little bite-sized stories about my life. Some of them are a sentence, some a paragraph, or a few. At times, when I was trying to publish them, my husband (also a writer) would call my attention to a prose poem contest, asking, “Why not send in your new pieces?”  My refusal was knee-jerk: my pieces weren’t poetry. “Does it matter?” he’d ask, genuinely curious.  It mattered, curiously. Memoir had allowed me access to material previously unavailable through poetry, and I wanted to credit the genre. Why, though, did writing in sentences as opposed to lines make a difference?

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The line versus the sentence: this distinction would seem twee to those who aren’t obsessed with words, who assume lines are chopped-up sentences. But those of us who are obsessed with words know the distinction changes not only how but what we write. After all, if lines were merely chopped-up sentences, and line breaks merely visual, we could delete them with no change to the material. But when losing the line break, we lose the white space that shapes the way we process meaning. Line breaks provide a rest, so the words on either side of the rest can require more effort in the processing of lyricism, tropes, syntax, and sound. These resting places—like stair landings in a walk-up—interrupt the exertion with a breather (literally), and so give us the strength to keep climbing. Without them, too much is demanded of us, so our absorption is hindered.

The poetic line also affects the reader because it highlights the artfulness and artifice of the experience of reading, as opposed to the sentence, which distracts us from it. The line, followed by its white space, metes out comprehension, followed by its disruption. The power play of the line break is that of withholding. We’re never unaware that our experience is being modulated by another as we follow the choreographer’s orders to leap and rest, leap and rest. This is fundamentally different than how prose pours itself into the vase of the page. Here, says the line, Now we are here. Now we are here. But everywhere, says the sentence. You are everywhere and nowhere. The sentence is always pointing outside of itself. This is what Cole Swenson means, I believe, when she writes “Prose exists somewhere other than the page.”

And, lastly, the line’s tension is different from the sentence’s tension. Tension in the line occurs as the unfurling sentence is interrupted by caesura and line breaks. These two forces, the force that pushes and the one that retards, become the warp and weft on which the skilled poet manipulates rhythm. Let’s compare this to how the engine of the sentence moves us. With prose, the rhythms are steadier, the goal accumulation. Chris Forhan, another poet-turned-memoirist, says on LitHub that “When writing prose, I can often afford to work at a lower idle.”  Indeed, the locomotive and the long distance car trip are frequent comparisons for prose, which feels horizontal, not vertical.

And all this influences the “what” we write. Without the push-and-pull of line breaks, the act of reading becomes less conscious. The physicality of reading–the eyes yanking back to the left margin, while the ear and brain rush toward comprehension–is lessened. As a result we’re less bolted to the moment, which is to say, the lyric impulse. The tension of prose takes place on a wider tapestry, the warp and weft tightening not over the course of a single line but as momentum builds toward and is delayed from its destination. Prose is more interested with the future, and sometimes the past, connected to the present, which is to say, plot. Prose is less about relating shifting parts of a sentence into a coherent now, and more about relating the shifting now to a coherent then, and then, and then, which better accommodates the narrative impulse.
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So, how did the rhythm of the sentence allow me access to experiences I hadn’t accessed with poetry?  I made that long-distance road trip into the past and stayed there longer than I would have with the line’s leaping insistence. By idling there, the past revealed its intricacies, fleshed out in a way that let me see how rich and detailed those memories were. The unfolding energy of the “and then” construction demanded these moments link up with a future, thus providing prospective. The person who lived those past moments, the “I of the then,” as Sven Birkerts terms it in The Art of Time in Memoir, intersected with “the I of the now.”  For example, my whole life I’ve heard how, when I was two, my four-year-old sister cut off my curls and eyelashes with safety scissors. This oft-repeated Fennelly family anecdote was not one I ever explored in poetry. But the fishing line of the sentence, cast back into the pool of 1973, lingering there, allowed me to sound the depths of that memory. As it turned out, there was something troubling about how that experience links up to our current relationship. There was a genuine question I needed to answer that the anecdote elided and the poetic line might have yanked me out of. The sentence got me there, inviting me to linger until I’d made the connection.

So I’m grateful to the sentence and all I’ve learned from it, all I continue to learn. Don’t tell poetry, but, at least for now, my love affair with the sentence shows no signs of fizzling.

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Beth Ann Fennelly is the poet laureate of Mississippi.  Her book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, is out this month from W.W. Norton.

Finding Poetry in Narrative Nonfiction

October 9, 2017 § 5 Comments

zz Amanda Profile PicBy Amanda Avutu

I was 21 and the worst kind of poet. By which I mean, I wore black dresses and had silver cat eye glasses. So, when a poet came to speak to my undergraduate poetry class about her novel, you can well imagine the twist my black knit stockings were in.

“How do you move back and forth between poetry and fiction??” I inquired during the Q & A session. It was not so much a question as an indictment.

Baseball players don’t play football! Ballerinas don’t dance tap! Hip Hop artists don’t sing Country! Poets don’t write fiction! So went my absolutist 20-something Poet logic.

Poets made each word justify not only its existence, but its placement, musicality, and visual appeal.

Poets were Allison from my fifth-grade class, nibbling tiny bites out of a bologna and cheese sandwich.

Other writers were competitive eaters, swallowing bologna and cheese sandwiches whole, not caring about the white bread stuck to the roofs of their mouths.

After the seminar, the visiting writer graciously signed copies of her book. In mine, she thoughtfully inscribed, “To Amanda, Wishing you luck navigating seamlessly between fiction and poetry.” I remember thinking—rather uncharitably— that I would never need her “luck,” because the only thing I wrote and the only thing I would write was poetry.

I’m 40, and while I still wear black dresses and glasses, I no longer consider myself a Poet or even a poet. I’ve written plays and short stories, novels and essays. I’ve also had brief—dark moments—where I was completely wordless. My god, those were terrifying. Generally, though I’ve become, quite simply, omnivorous where words are concerned. I consume them and produce them with vigor, regardless of their classification. What I’ve learned is that each form allows me to explore, and to expose, different pieces of myself. When I was writing poetry, my truth bobbed just below the surface of abstractions; bits of cereal swimming in the plausible deniability of milk. In my fiction, I anchored my tiny truth and then launched my readers and myself into an alternate reality. These days, I primarily write narrative nonfiction and I tell my truth as my truth. Nothing, however opaque, protects me from my reader’s gaping maw. And as much as my younger self might scoff at the idea, I’ve learned that my truth is my truth is my truth, which becomes my art, regardless of how I tell it.

There was a sense, over these last two decades, of betrayal. My husband fell in love with the poet, my degree proclaimed my proficiencies as poetry centric, since junior high—when I began writing awful rhyming verse—poetry was my identity. Now, though, I realize my poet self is there, making sure there is room for catharsis and that there is the strength to be a conduit. Making sure each word in each sentence justifies its existence. She buries tiny, delicious, moments for my readers to happen upon and savor. She has always been there and will always be there to make sure that whatever I write, it sings.

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Amanda Avutu’s nonfiction appears or is forthcoming in the New York Times’ Modern Love column, O, the Oprah Magazine, Atlanta Magazine, Bitter Southerner, and the New York Times’ Family Ties column.

Superstition Review Seeks Nonfiction

October 8, 2017 § 1 Comment

issue19coverfinalA look inside the submission and acceptance process, from Patricia Murphy, Founding Editor of Superstition Review:

We are currently reading submissions for our Tenth Anniversary issue, which will launch December 1. In each issue we feature 10 essays. Our reading period ends October 31.

Editorial Process:

We have three nonfiction readers: a rotating contributing editor, the founding editor, and our faculty advisor. Using tools in Submittable, each reader adds a “Vote and Note” to each submission. Essays with mostly yes and maybe votes bubble up to what we call “Greens and Grays,” which refers to the color of the submission once it has been given an up-vote. Our team meets each Friday for an hour to discuss the essays in the Green and Gray.

We very often ask for revisions to a piece that has great potential but needs some polish. In fact for Issue 20 already we have accepted two personal essays that took a few rounds of revision between our editors and authors. We find that the authors kindly welcome our feedback and that their work is much improved by the process.

Editorial Preferences:

We publish all types of essays but we are particularly interested in stories that are rich in sensory detail. In recent years we might have a bit of an added interest in lyric essays and pieces that show an innovative approach to form.

A fun way to quickly view a catalog of the 175 essays we have published is to visit our Nonfiction Pinterest Board. You can also link to all of the essays from our Archives page.

Some of my favorite pieces from the past ten years include:

Dear Baby,” by Kelle Groom

The Sparkling Future,” by Randon Billings Noble

The Things I Don’t Tell My Mother,” by Allegra Hyde

Rikers Island Workshop ,” by Kamilah Aisha Moon

Contradictions ,” by Patrick Madden

The Wide Open Mouth ,” by Ira Sukrungruang

We hope you will take some time to read the essays we have published over the years, and to submit your work to https://superstitionreview.submittable.com/submit

Writing as Laborious Play

October 6, 2017 § 4 Comments

zz3 copy(2)By Mary Volmer

The obsessions of writers and athletes begin the same way, as play.  In his memoir, Hoop Roots, John Edgar Wideman explains that his basketball obsession began, “as messing around…throw a ball through a hoop, a fun silly kind of trick at first, until you decide you want to do it better.” He might as well have been speaking about storytelling and writing.

Writing starts as novelty, as messing around, until you decide you want to do it better, and become willing, as Wideman says, to “learn the game’s ABC’s.  Learn what it costs to play.” What follows is a period of joyful mimicry. Not yet aware of the limits of your ability, you are burdened only by your own evolving expectations.  Try and fail and try again, until the ball begins to fall through the hoop with regularity–until the writing, once derivative, takes on its own life, and you become capable of original expression.

Because ultimately, expression is what athletes and authors crave. They live for those moments when body, soul, and mind operate in perfect unity, a kind of spiritual transcendence. Sports psychologists have named this transcendent experience “the Zone,” or, “The Zone of Optimal Performance.” Their perspective alters, so that nothing of consequence exists outside of the immediate action. Awareness expands to fill the moment. The game seems to slow, the goal grows wider and the body responds with uncalculated inventiveness to each unpredictable event.

Writers share similar experiences of altered time and heightened awareness. They, too, understand that discipline precedes transcendence. They, too, must be willing to show up and endure discomfort and labor every day, even on bad days. They, too, must find satisfaction in small daily victories, adapt to setbacks as the season or story progresses, and maintain faith in their purpose even when they have cause to doubt their abilities.

Writers and athletes recognize their pursuits to be, as Chad Hubbach writes so elegantly, an “apparently pointless affair…which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about the Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.”

Although at times marred by ego and that false god, glory, the desire to observe beauty and to have a hand in its creation, remains the noble center of both pursuits.

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Mary Volmer is the author of two novels: Crown of Dust (Soho Press, 2010) and Reliance, Illinois (Soho Press, 2016). Her short fiction and essays have appeared in various publications, including Mutha Magazine, Women’s Basketball Magazine, Fiction Writers Review, Historical Novel Society Review, and Ploughshares. She has been awarded residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and Hedgebrook and was the spring 2015 Distinguished Visiting Writer in Residence at Saint Mary’s College (CA) where she now teaches.

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