Teaching Poetry

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“In high school your teacher made you analyze a poem and then told you that you were wrong, correct?”

Applause. Nods. Agreement.

If at all possible, stop doing this to students. That is why so many people dislike poetry. They feel it’s too hard to understand and when they try, they are told they are wrong.

In my class, I allow students to choose which poems they want to read. Then I ask why they chose those poems. They all have their own reasons, looking for something interesting, the shorter the better, some element they can relate too.  And I ask them what they got out of it.

Not what it meant. Not to analyze it. What did you get out of it? No wrong answers, no judgement.

My students have told me that I’ve allowed them to love poetry, to appreciate it for whatever they feel it adds to their lives.

We go over the elements, the possible meanings; but, mostly, I just want them to love poetry again. And it works.

I’ve taken away the fear of being wrong, of being stupid, and gave them the sheer enjoyment of language.

Deeper meaning will come – at their own pace – and when/if they want it to.

Writer Wednesday: Faux Deadlines

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My students, and other writers, often tell me that deadlines and time limits are the only things that inspire them. That last minute of the clock ticking down puts the pressure on enough to force them to write, and they swear better writing comes out of them.

Although I think there’s some truth to this, overall teachers and editors agree this isn’t the best form of writing.

However, what if we forced ourselves under faux deadlines?deadline1

I’m suggesting you create your own deadlines.  Some writers enforce rules for their writing, like they must produce five pages a day or a thousand words, etc. But if you feel you write best under deadlines, the pressure cooker ready to pop, then do that. Or do it for an experiment, for fun.

There are programs you can download (or are on your computer, so I discovered on mine) which will shut your wifi off for a certain amount of time. While I don’t think many of us could comfortably go wireless for an hour or hours at a time, I suggest you do fifteen minutes. Give yourself a challenge and free write for 15 minutes. After that fifteen minutes, if you want to keep going do so, but I’ll suggest another challenge – stop, read over what you wrote and pick out a really good idea or line, and then start another freewrite – maybe turn your wifi off or turn a timer on…  for whatever amount of time..

deadlineSet a timer or an alarm on your watch or cell phone for five or six minutes and write whatever comes to mind. If you can’t think of anything, then use one work to start. The word I use in my classes is “movies.” Perhaps you could use “love”, “news”, “dog.” Any word will actually do. Don’t worry about what you’re writing or where it’s actually going – just write and if at the end of five minutes all you have is a freewrite about rover doing his business on the neighbor’s lawn, then you haven’t wasted that much time. Do it again.

Speaking of wasted time, consider all the time we stand in lines doing nothing except checking email or social media. Next time you’re in line at starbucks or waiting at the doctor’s office, use your phone to brainstorm an idea. If you’re stuck, take an idea from whatever’s around you.

No excuses. Give yourself a deadline. Write ANYTHING in order to shake something loose.

DEADLINE

Not Writing is Not an Option: Rethinking Writer’s Block

I’ve been under the impression that writer’s block was actually procrastination; however, someone wrote recently “whoever doesn’t believe in writer’s block has never experienced the sheer frustration it can cause.”

This, and the comments that followed, made me reconsider my position on writer’s block.

Experts state that very few people actually experience the psychological issues that cause real writer’s block. That statement, and my observations of procrastination in action, have lead me to believe that most people who say they suffer from writer’s block aren’t actually suffering from deep mental disturbances but of more common problems that plague us all – distractions.

However, the advice this person received caused me to pause:

“Drink heavily.”

“Don’t force yourself to write, it’ll come.”

These seemed the least helpful. While I know there’s a stereotype that follows artists and writers – the best ones suffer, and suffer from addiction in many forms. I doubt very seriously whether getting drunk will help the person. And, if you don’t write at all, how will anything come?

Other advice went something like this:

“Just write.”

To which one person wrote a long response about the ridiculousness of this answer. I, however, disagree. When asked by my students “what if you get stuck on a part?” I answered, I go on to a different part, or I write something else. I usually have more than one project going at the same time. I know some writers don’t do this, and I understand their reasoning. At this point, it works for me.

“Go for a walk, do yoga, meditate.”

This is actually pretty good advice. Studies show going for a walk or exercise in any form can feed creativity. Yoga is meant to calm the energy in the body so one can focus and/or meditate.

Others said, “listen to music” or “write a character study.”

This could help. While writing one novel, I listened to blues and jazz to help me give the character depth and personality.

Finally, someone asked the person who’d posted they had writer’s block and needed a solution: “What’s bothering you?”

Now, that’s a damn good question. Most of my writer’s procrastination comes when some thing is bothering me.

The person’s answer was different than I expected.

“I can’t make the story go where I want it to go.”

OOOOHHHHH!

This is a whole different type of problem. I learned writing in two ways. One method was to write a formulaic story with beginning, middle, and the end in mind. Use an outline and stick to it. And I can do this. But it’s no fun for me. The second way I learned was to just write and see where the story wants to go or needs to go. Most of my writing comes this way. It’s natural, it’s organic, it’s unforced; maybe that’s why it flows.

Think of how much power water has. Human-made streams run over their banks, create their own pathways; in one way or another, they defy the path man made. Think of how much concrete and lead it takes to build a retaining wall to create a dam, and still they must have holes or release valves. How many still end up crumbling, breaking, or overflowing?

That’s what writing should be.

Ideas and words should flow. Let them live. Trust them. Trust yourself.

If they are dammed up, forced into an unreasonable plot or direction, then I can understand that type of writer’s block.

The advice offered for that was: “write the end, and work backward,” and “move on to another scene.”

This should probably work if the plot of the story is strong and the elements are all in place. However, the person maybe be stuck because a needed plot point is absent.

Before any solutions can be offered, the type of “block” the writer is facing must be addressed.  Is it really, “I’m stuck,” or is it “I’m distracted”? If there’s a phone in front of you, and facebook, twitter, or your blog open while you’re writing – that’s probably writer’s distraction. If the writer is stuck at a plot point, at a character arc, I’d suggest to meditate on it, sleep with it, think about it until it works itself out, but I also suggest skip ahead, write another scene, write that scene/character you tell yourself you’ll never use.

See – it’s still writing. NOT WRITING IS NOT AN OPTION. No one ever got better at something by NOT doing it. No one ever finished a project by not doing it. No one ever became successful by stopping what they were doing.

 

 

Best advice for new writers?

READ!

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Seems pretty commonsense, right?  I don’t understand when students or writers say they don’t read.

I think it’s common knowledge that reading helps you gain knowledge. Some of the most intelligent and sensitive people I know are not (or not only) college graduates, but are readers.

One faculty member said, how do writers who don’t read know what came before them. If you’re a writer, you should know who and what came before you. Whether or not you agree with them, like them, admire them, writers needs to be aware of the talent, the styles, the accepted and the outcasts who made literature what it is today.

One writer said – it ruins her style to read other writers.  What is her style and how did she come up with idea of style if she hasn’t read other writers?

Numerous articles and books cite findings and research that state readers are more empathetic, understand human motivations, reactions, and emotions, than non-readers. How do you write an authentic character not having an understanding of these basic things?

Intelligence – so many people like to cite those people who didn’t finish college. (I did another blog about this.) But they read! They worked! They learned their craft prior to becoming successful.

We read not only for these things, but to form our own opinions, to be able to think critically about the world around us, to continue to grow and understand the world around us.

I mean, yeah, definitely, you can stay stuck in your little narrow world. Good luck with that. With the world of self-publishing, you can still publish something and call yourself a writer, too.

BUT – what have you learned? what can you pass on?

Our purpose lies in more than publishing and calling ourselves writers. Our purpose is to spread knowledge, add to the conversation of literature, to become better people than we are so we can positively affect others.

Have you heard that old saying, “Hard work won’t kill you, but why take chances”?

Well, a good book won’t kill ya, take the plunge.

BTW – Author Interview – Leonard Foster took time to interview me for his blog. Thanks, Leonard!

 

 

What Do Published Authors Know?

Recently, I read a mini article posted on a blog of sorts, wherein the writer called out Stephen King’s book On Writing, concluding that “famous writers don’t know Jack.”

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WOW! Really?

 

I was shocked and offended. And I assume that is the reaction she wanted to elicit in order to bring traffic to her article or her own website.

Let me clarify that I am not an avid Stephen King reader. I’m not much into science fiction, but I have been reintroduced to his work upon reading Doctor Sleep, the continuation, in some sense, of The Shining. I have read On Writing some years ago. I’m pretty certain it’s still on my bookshelf as it’s required reading for anyone who wants to write – whether you like it or not. And my favorite essay of his, which I sometimes share with students is “Why We Crave Horror Movies.”

Therefore, I’m not defending a writer I love with a passion but an author I admire with sincerity. And I am taking issue with the blogger’s lack of professionalism in her disrespectful and disingenuous response to a successful and prolific author.

Stephen King

In Academia, occasionally members of the community in praising literary fiction take issue with popular literature. In one such class, when someone asked about King, the instructor responded – “In 100 years, no one will remember him.”

Yeah, I’m guessing someone who has written over 50 novels as well as over 200 short stories, among others projects will be remembered.

Again, my issues with her article is that she comes across as disingenuous. I don’t believe she really believes King is wrong, I think she wants to make a name for herself and create a controversial reaction and bring traffic to her website, so she can look at the numbers and get a little thrill when it pops up instead of actually presenting sound and original ideas. I say this because she didn’t actually say much of value.

This blogger’s premise is that writing is a gift and it is done intuitively, so authors don’t necessarily know how to explain writing. Understood. As well, she takes issues with some basic rules that I’ve learned since third grade. She says, “we’d all end up sounding like Stephen King.” Not necessarily so.

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Her final claim: “You can do anything, provided that you can pull it off.”

 

Well, duh! You can break every damn rule of writing if you’ve got a story so great that Hollywood will buy it and the publishers are going to make bank from it.  Dare I talk about The Hunger Games?  As an English teacher, it hurt my eyes to read the numerous punctuation errors. But, as one of my editors said, Story is King. It’s the story that matters, not the comma splices that most non academics won’t even notice.

However, every good writer should know the “rules.” And I’m using that term loosely here. A writer should be familiar with what has come before, what others are doing, as well and what others believe the rules should be.  How many people have commented on Picasso’s blue period, ignorant of his background, and said “I could do that!” Picasso learned and practiced the rules. Then he chose to break them. When I break a rule of writing, I ask myself: “Is it for effect, and is it resulting in the desired effect?

I say: “Break that damn rule if you want. Just know why you’re doing it and if it’s working.” If Stephen King breaks a rule, even his “own” rule, I imagine he knows it and knows why he’s doing it. I don’t think On Writing is prescriptive; I believe it’s meant to be descriptive.

So, I suppose I don’t even have that much issue with what she said, but it’s how she said it. Stephen King is an award winning, multi-best-selling author, show some respect. That’s called Professionalism. You can disagree with someone, you just want to do it respectfully.  She says she leaves the “writing instruction” to the “less qualified people -“.

king3.gifREALLY?  The author of over 200 short stories is less qualified than who – YOU?  How many books have you published?  I looked her up. A few “middle grade readers,” a nonfiction book, a few short stories. She says she prefers to tell people how to get published.

I go back to her line, “famous writers don’t know Jack.” How unprofessional can you be?

I teach a business writing class (among others); I run the class like a course in professionalism. And this is something I would say is an absolute NO! We can disagree with anyone – I tell my students – but we should know how to respectfully disagree.

As a writer, I see a lot of unprofessional behavior. (I in no way claim to be perfect myself).  I belong to writers’ groups and read (more than I post) in these online writers’ groups. And it can be things like this – open to the public – that can get a person in trouble. You never know who you are dealing with on the other end of that computer. Random arguments, stupid comments, and radical, unqualified statements can hinder one’s success.

I was asked recently by a publishing company for my CV. This is not a problem; I sent it right over. Why would I not?  I posted asking for advice about the CV, for future reference. Some people seemed beside themselves, as if a publishing company asking for my CV was out of line. The publishing company is my potential employer. They are entitled to my CV and, as a professional writer, I want to show it to them!

Now, what if I had written a blog such as that – disrespectfully and disingenuously criticizing one of their best authors? It might cause the publishing company to think twice about even looking at my work, let alone looking at my CV. The cold, hard fact in this world is most companies are not going to hire or work with people who are unprofessional. While they may want people to speak their minds, they don’t want people publicly running off at the mouth. Charlie Sheen and any number of actors learned this the hard way.

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I am not at all saying that we shouldn’t voice our opinions! If you disagree with anyone, you should be able to, and have the absolute right to speak your opinion. I’m suggesting it be done with polite professionalism.

Who is this author of a few middle-grade books to be criticizing King? She is never going to convince ME or many writers that King is wrong. However, had she respectfully disagreed with his views on the certain aspects of writing, clearly stated her reasoning – it would have been far more professional and more believable! I would have read it, taken her opinion into consideration, and possibly even agreed with her. However, by her announcing that he is “less qualified” and doesn’t “know Jack,” not only do I question her intelligence and her integrity, she’s possibly offended people she’d rather have as friends or colleagues. (You’ll notice I didn’t link her article here. I’d prefer not to give attention-seekers more attention).

I, personally, would rather respectfully disagree with people than announcing contrary opinions for the sake of readership. I guess being boisterous will get you noticed. But, it will also get you noticed, if you know what I mean.

I’ll take her words, “You can do anything, provided that you can pull it off.” – Yes, yes, you can. You’ve seen numerous examples of people running off at the mouth about others and nothing happened to them or their career. However, are you sure you can do it and not experience consequences? Have yking5ou built up enough credit, have enough backing, or whatever else you need, to make certain you will not face consequences. OR – have you done this, seen it done, heard it done, and the person hasn’t gone very far in their career. Hmmmm.  Might be a reason.

Say what you will. I suggest you say it with respect.

 

 

Namas-Cray

My friend Laura LaBrie from Lovely Lattitudes, first said this word to me.  It describes life, don’t you think?  My new book was all set to go, it just needed a title.  I felt like this word, “Namas- Cray” accurately described the stories involved.

In everyone of these stories, the characters are, shall we say, a little off. One woman is planning her “Perfect Day,” when she’s interrupted by a young couple about to rob her. Did  I mention her perfect day involves suicide?

In “Harvey Levin Can’t Die,” the narrator is just going about her life, working at a coffee shop down on Ventura Blvd, when the whole world seems to get serious. Her b/f leaves her to go back to college. Customers want to talk about serious stuff, not reality tv. WTH? But she finds the underground – and accidentally – I mean, it was probably an accident – mows down Harvey Levin with her car.  She tried to report it! The police didn’t want to hear it!

Talk about having a cray day –

So this title fit PERFECTLY.  I think whether you are an avid reader or someone who picks up a book to make it look like you’re an avid reader, you will love this book.  (Humble, right?)namascraycoverwithfilter

You can win a copy on GoodReads!

 

Why Literature Matters …..

open old book, a rose in a vase and a feather

 

This is a repost of an article that appeared in the New York Times in 1985.  In 1965 Congress passed The National Foundation of the Arts and Humanities Act to protect and support the arts.  A nation is historicized  by the art and literature produced by ALL LEVELS AND CLASSES of our society.

Read it – see how apropos it is today:

The Arts’ Key Role in Our Society

By ARTHUR SCHLESINGER JR.    Sept 20, 1985

This is a year curiously dotted by anniversaries; and one must hope that, as we salute the bitter memories of war, a less dramatic anniversary will not slip by unnoticed.

Twenty years ago this week, the Congress passed the National Foundation of the Arts and Humanities Act. The act’s preamble declared that support of the arts and humanities, ”while primarily a matter for private and local initiative, is also an appropriate matter of concern to the Federal Government.” In enacting this law, which led to the establishment of the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities, Congress affirmed a conviction that the arts and humanities are vital to the health and glory of the Republic.

This was not a novel idea. In his first annual message, President George Washington told Congress he was ”persuaded that you will agree with me in opinion that there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature.” A third of a century later, President John Quincy Adams called for laws promoting ”the cultivation and encouragement of the mechanic and of the elegant arts, the advancement of literature, and the progress of the sciences.” In the third year of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln ordered that construction of the Capitol dome be completed. When critics objected to the diversion of labor and money from the prosecution of the war, President Lincoln said, ”If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign that we intend this Union shall go on.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt recalled this story in 1941 when, in a world ablaze with war, he dedicated the National Gallery of Art in Washington. And President John F. Kennedy recalled both these stories when he urged public support for the arts in 1962. Both Lincoln and Roosevelt, Kennedy said, ”understood that the life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose – and is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization.” The policy of Federal support is an expression of the value the Republic places on the arts, a symbol of the role assigned to the arts in our national life. And Congress today remains steadfast in its belief in the centrality of arts to a civilized society. It has shown no disposition to repeal the act of 1965 and has steadily resisted Presidential attempts to cut National Endowments budgets.

Yet the idea of public support, and with it the idea that the state of the arts is a matter of national concern, are under increasing challenge -ironically not from Congress but from renegade parts of the intellectual community itself. We live in a decade that likes to disparage government and to exalt the market. We are told that, if a cultural institution cannot pay its way, then it has no economic justification and, if no economic justification, no social justification. Art, we are given to understand, must stand or fall by the box-office test, and the devil take the hindmost.

To deny the arts a public role is the real trahison des clercs. For painters, composers, writers, film-makers, sculptors, architects, orchestras, museums, libraries, concert halls, opera houses contribute indispensably to the pride and glory of the nation. They are crucial to the forming of national traditions and to the preservation of civic cohesion. George Washington wrote: ”The Arts and Sciences essential to the prosperity of the State and to the ornament and happiness of human life have a primary claim to the encouragement of every lover of his Country and mankind.” The arts and humanities serve us all. They are surely as worthy as banks, corporations and other agencies of private profit to be objects of Federal concern, subsidy and even bail-out.

If history tells us anything, it tells us that the United States, like all other nations, will be measured in the eyes of posterity less by the size of its gross national product and the menace of its military arsenal than by its character and achievement as a civilization. Government cannot create civilization. Its action can at best be marginal to the adventure and mystery of art. But public support reinvigorates the understanding of art as a common participation, a common possession and a common heritage.

”Great nations,” said John Ruskin, ”write their autobiographies in three manuscripts – the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others; but of the three the only quite trustworthy one is the last. The acts of a nation may be triumphant by its good fortune; and its words mighty by the genius of a few of its children; but its art only by the general gifts and common sympathies of the race.”