Summer Residency

This afternoon our Low-Residency MFA program starts its summer Full Residency class — 10 intense days of workshops, seminars, and readings. It’s been a ton of work to get it ready, and I hope everything will go well! All our food is ordered, and the restaurant reservations have been made. Workshop groups have been set up, and students have been exchanging texts. The syllabus is ready, speakers are lined up… now the time for prep is nearly over (okay, there are a few minor details to attend to and a little food to get), and then everyone will start to arrive (at least one is already in town).

That’s when the real excitement begins. It’s why we set the program up as a low-residency, not a fully online program, which may have been much easier. But seeing our students face-to-face, having a chance to host readings, workshopping together in the same room, trading ideas about how to live the life of a writer in our seminars, and generally just getting to hang out together, that’s what makes the program work as well as it does.

Online classes are great — and much better than they used to be — with video conferencing and discussion boards. It almost feels like you’re in a real class (except for the constant technical difficulties with the server or someone’s connection or software configuration — there will probably always be something!), but almost is never quite a good as the real thing. Yes, it takes an amazing effort to put it all together, and it takes our students an amazing effort to get here, but once we’re all in the same room, it really is worth it.

And this year, we’ll have our first two students defend their Master’s theses. We’ll get to sit down and talk to them about the exciting book manuscripts they’ve been working on — what may still need to be done and what successes and challenges they’ve had. It will be a bitter-sweet moment because it will mean they’ve completed a major project and completed the program, but it will also mean they’ll soon no longer be our students, but will remain our colleagues and friends. And a good number of the students in our program will be here to witness — not the defense itself, but the accomplishment and their public readings.

So let’s hope I’ve dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s, and let’s hope there are no crises like last year (when a restaurant had to close the night of our reservation!). And no matter what happens, we’ll all have a great time!

Talking about Meter

Meter has to be one of the hardest subjects to tackle in Creative Writing, and how you handle it can make or break your students’ experience of writing poetry. Some teachers probably ignore it altogether, which seems a shame, yet others quickly get into the weeds and make poetry seem complicated and impossible to write, which is another kind of shame that’s easy to do. In my textbook, A Writer’s Craft, I try to take a middle path by introducing concepts of meter and feet, but not stressing them too much. I also try to explain why it’s so complicated, which I’d like to get into in a little more detail here.

When working on the proofs for A Writer’s Craft, the editors wondered why I didn’t give a one-word example for pyrrhic, like I had for all the other feet. About the only example I could come up with is “uh-uh”, but even that could be pronounced differently, depending on the context. A pyrrhic foot has two unstressed syllables. But it’s impossible not to stress a syllable at all, so I like to say it has two less stressed syllables. Less than what? Less stressed than the other syllables that surround it.

In performance, I might pronounce “uh-uh”  with the accent on the first “uh” or the second “uh,” or I might pronounce them the same relative to the other stressed syllables around them. Any examples I find for the pyrrhic foot (or dibrach) can be viewed the same way, and most examples of the spondee (with two stressed syllables) are suspect: viewed in isolation, we probably stress one syllable of a pair more than the other, but in a sentence when surrounded by other unstressed syllables, the spondee stands out. (The word is a pretty good example of the foot, but whether you say SPONdee or sponDEE or SPONDEE may depend on your preference and the words in the sentence around it.) With no words around it, our example, “uh-uh,” might sound like a spondee (“UH-UH”), an iamb (“uh-UH”), a trochee (“UH-uh”), or a pyrrhic foot (“uh-uh”). The way you pronounce it may also affect the meaning. So I chose to leave the example blank.

Disclaimer: all of my examples of metrical feet in the textbook are a little misleading because they are words. Typically, when scanning a line of poetry, the feet in the line and the words in the line don’t match up. A word may have parts of a couple of feet in it, or a foot may be made up of more than one word. Often the foot starts in one word and ends in the next, and the next foot starts in that same word. Some polysyllabic words may even have parts of more than two feet in them.

Looking words up in the dictionary is only a partial help. The dictionary usually marks the strongest stress in the word, but when scanning poetry, relative stress is also taken into account, and sometimes there is a syllable in a polysyllabic word that has more stress than most syllables, even if it isn’t the most-stressed syllable in the word. “Polysyllabic” is a good example, since I would stress the first and the fourth syllables, though I would probably stress the fourth slightly more than the first. Syllables two, three, and five definitely have the least stress.

When looking for examples of metrical feet, I came across an example of a scanned poem by James Merrill that illustrates my point of how difficult and subjective it can be to  scan a poem. The example is at the OWL at Purdue, which I respect, so I don’t raise it to criticize them but to consider the challenges of scansion. For now, I’ll ignore the fact that the example poem, “A Downward Look,” is in free verse, so scanning it may be anathema. Their attempt, though often good, raises some issues. For instance, in the third line of the poem, they scan the word “luxurious” as having 4 syllables, which is true, but in performance it often sounds like 3 with the accent on the middle syllable. In the scanned line, OWL seems to end the line with an anapest (they don’t mark the divisions between feet, so it’s a little hard to tell). I’d probably call it an iamb with “ious” sounding more like “yus” than “ee-ous” and ending on the stressed syllable “bath.” The full line, scans well either way: “Foam on a long, luxurious bath” with one trochee and then 3 iambs or 2 iambs and an anapest, depending on your pronunciation. Both the trochee and the anapest would be acceptable variant feet in a mostly iambic line.

Another bothersome line is the first line of the third couplet, “Over the protuberances fault,” which OWL scans as having only 3 stresses: “OVer the proTUBerances FAULT.” The dictionary would agree that the most stressed syllable in “protuberance” is the second, yet it also notes a secondary stress on the last syllable. Scanning, “erances” as three unstressed syllables is problematic, since that’s rare. You could say this line contains a dactyl “OVer the” followed by an amphibrach “proTUBer” followed by an anapest “-ances FAULT.” But that would be a very muddy rhythm indeed, with no clear pattern and completely different from the rest of the poem. More likely is that the line falls into iambs after an initial dactyl “OVer the | proTUB | erANC| es FAULT.” The stresses aren’t all even, but they are all more stressed than the surrounding syllables. And if you wanted to scan it as a trochee followed by an anapest and then two iambs, there wouldn’t be much difference other than where you divide foot one from foot two.

There aren’t always hard and fast rules for scansion, in other words. You need to listen to the pattern of stress in the line, not only think about the stress in the words. And ideally, you begin to recognize a pattern of stress in the lines and stanzas of the poem, which will help you decide how hear the dominant rhythms and variant feet.

In this example, I would also hear two stresses in the word “radiates” of the fifth stanza, which makes that line a regular iambic line. And in the last line of the example “Happens upon the plug,” I would scan it as a trochee followed by two iambs, stressing the second syllable of “upon,” rather than the first as OWL does it. The dominate rhythm of the poem seems to be iambic, and there are a few alternate feet for variety or for effect. Usually there is only one alternate foot in a line or the difference isn’t very noticeable, such as an anapest in a mostly iambic line (which only adds an unstressed syllable).

What makes it a free verse poem, rather than a metrical poem, is that the line lengths vary  from three to five feet (trimeter, tetrameter, and pentameter lines) and there isn’t a consistent pattern. The fourth stanza is even one line, whereas the rest are couplets.

It may not make sense to scan a free verse poem, but doing so can illustrate that rhythm is important, even if there isn’t a meter. Free verse has patterns of rhythm, though they can be looser and less regular.

Introducing meter as something to listen for and learn about is worthwhile in the introductory classroom, but it’s important to stress that rhythm often varies by performance and virtually no poem in meter holds slavishly to the dominant foot. Most will include variant feet for variety or to better show the emotion in the line. This is one reason I introduce rhythm in an early chapter on language, and then look at meter again later when talking about poetry.

Scanning poetry is complicated and frustrating, but it can also be a good group activity where everyone can laugh at their own attempts to figure it out. I’ve had students clap, tap their desks, or even bring in percussion instruments to break the ice and help them recognize the more stressed syllables in a line. Make it a game, and acknowledge that there’s rarely one perfectly right answer. Even the experts can get it wrong, and poets rarely scan their poems — they listen. Develop an ear for meter, and you can ignore all the Greek terms and diacritical marks, and just enjoy the rhythms of language.

Another Creative Writing Myth Debunked

Stories and Poems Were Written the Way We Read Them

This isn’t a myth we teach, which is one reason I didn’t included it with my previous post: 5 Creative Writing Myths Debunked. Instead, it is one I find a lot of students have when they come to my class. Maybe we all have it, but it’s one we constantly need to remind ourselves doesn’t have to be so.

Stories and poems usually aren’t written from the first sentence to the last in the order we read them. Yes, sometimes that happens, but often the first sentence of a story or the first line of a poem may be moved or discarded before a draft is finalized. The conclusion may be written first, or the first written paragraph may end up somewhere in the middle of the final piece.

Writers don’t sit down with a poem or a story in mind. We sit down to write. We write some things on the page, and we find the story or poem in it. Revision is about more than  ‘fixing the problems’ in a draft. It is about re-envisioning that draft and finding the best way to write what we discover.

It’s probably easier to write down a poem in the order you want it because it’s easier to carry a poem around with you in your head for awhile before you ever write a draft. Many poets work this way, and they may have a pretty good sense of the final poem before they ever commit it to paper. That doesn’t make that the best strategy! Sometimes it’s better to just write words on paper and not worry about how to start a poem. Many poets don’t even think about line breaks or stanzas in their first draft. They just write the words and worry about the form later.

Many times, writers block seems to come because people don’t know how to get started, but if you start in the middle or if you start before the beginning, then the pressure is off. Of course, we want a great opening line to a poem or first paragraph to a story! But the pressure to start with that great opening makes it nearly impossible to write. So just start writing, and worry about what the opening will be later.

In the same way, we want to keep writing until we get to the end of a piece. But often I talk to students who are stuck at a given point in a story, and I encourage them to take a scene they do think they know and write it. Don’t worry about how to get from point B to point G. Just write what you know you want to include and connect the dots later, if you need to.

A poem is the same way. It might be written in perfectly reasonable stanzas and lines, yet lack energy. Taking those lines, rearranging them, changing the line breaks, cutting out the dead wood, finding new connections between images or just allowing the images to resonate without any explanation, putting the poem through the blender, in other words, and then sorting out the pieces, all can lead to a better final draft.

But the myth comes from the fact that we tend to read finished stories and poems. We don’t see the messy process that led to the final product. We think that the writer had an idea, wrote it, then refined it, and ended up with the final draft. What often happens is that a writer has a vague idea of what he wants to write, stumbles towards it, gets lost, finds another path, discovers something worth pursuing, then comes back later and tries to make sense of all the mess. What we see when we read the final draft is the sense that was made. We don’t see the messy process that led the writer there. So when we sit down to write, we criticize ourselves for the mess we produce, rather than digging in, rearranging, sorting and sifting to find the meaning and the form that will reveal it, and obstinately stumbling forward to that final product.

5 Creative Writing Myths Debunked

We all do it. We perpetuate these myths, and often they can be good advice and even good teaching tools, yet just as often these five catch phrases can create stumbling blocks. They aren’t right for everyone in every situation.

Know Your Characters’ Motivation

This is the myth that started me thinking about writing this post. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with knowing your character’s motivation when writing a scene. In fact, it’s one piece of advice I give in the chapter on character in my textbook, A Writer’s Craft. It’s just that this advice often leads to the assumption that writers always have to psychoanalyze our characters. Sometimes you don’t have to understand why your character does what she does. It may be enough to know what and how she does it, and let yourself and your readers wonder why. Writers are keen observers. We watch what people do and how they act. We often wonder about what motivates people, but we don’t have to have all the right answers. Our characters don’t have to figure out all of their foibles and be perfect humans by the end of our stories. Sometimes the motivation is a mystery for the writer, the character, and the reader, but the mystery is precisely what is intriguing. I haven’t stopped handing out this advice, in other words, but I do it with the reservation that there are some things we just can’t know.

Write What You Know

Here’s another valuable piece of advice that I’d like to reexamine. It’s true that it can be easier and more comfortable to write what you already know. You are on more certain ground and are less likely to make mistakes that would lose the trust of your readers. But it can also be exciting to write about places you’ve never been or subjects that you are only just learning about. This can provide a level of mystery and exploration for the writer that can drive a piece of writing in ways and directions that writing about familiar terrain can never reach. So I prefer to rephrase this as “Know What You Write.” This may mean you know it already or it may mean that you need to do significant research, and probably this means experiential research — going out and doing the things you’re writing about or digging deep into the study of the subject you want to write about. Surface knowledge is rarely enough. You need to live and breathe what you write until it does become what you know. By the time you are finished writing, “Write What You Know” makes sense, in other words, but in the beginning, it could be that you decide to write about an unknown subject in order to explore it thoroughly and intimately in the process of writing.

Show Don’t Tell

This is one myth that I firmly believe — most of the time. I’m an advocate of the image, and I’m always trying to get student writers to show me more. But even as I do that, I am always a little uncomfortable treating it as a rule of law. There are plenty of times in writing that we do want to tell. A poem may have no images and still be a poem if it has form or if it experiments with language. A story may begin with a scene or it may begin with narration. I’ve known a few stories (and have even written one or two) that relied primarily on narration with very little scene. The flow of language in a prose paragraph can be just as inviting as an image, and the thought behind a story is sometimes best placed in the foreground. So I want images, sometimes I even demand them, but I also want to acknowledge the times and forms where showing might take a back seat to telling.

Write From Your Muse

We all want to be inspired. We all want to find the subjects or the material that make us eager to write. We long for the moments when writing comes natural and feels like it’s hardly any work at all. But we also can waste a lot of time and energy waiting for the muse to arrive or being frustrated that the writing feels more like a slog through the mud than a sprint to the finish. When inspiration becomes an unattainable muse, then we may feel like we aren’t writers or that we have writer’s block when the muse doesn’t show up very often. When we instead acknowledge that the inspired moment is the rare anomaly, or that inspiration comes more often when we put in the work than when we wait for it to happen, then we are moving down the path of the professional writer. Writing without purpose, not knowing if the work you are doing will be productive or not, but doing it anyway because it is writing: that’s the hard part. But writing for the sake of writing, trying out an idea even if you’re not sure if it’s ‘inspired,’ is often what’s needed to get you to the inspired moment you long to have. Without the first stumbling five lines or ten pages, the poem or story may never get started. Once you have a sense of where you’re going with a piece, you’re more likely to feel inspired about it, but getting there takes courage, dedication, or just pure obstinance. Worshipping a muse can make it seem unattainable; bringing it down to earth and thinking of writing as a process that sometimes takes effort can also make it seem more manageable.

Write Every Day

This is probably the best advice I’ve given, yet it is also advice that I’m rarely able to follow. To not sound like a hypocrite, the practical advice might be: write regularly and often, and try to do it more and more often. The problem with the advice to write every day is that we feel like a failure when we don’t. And who is able to really keep this up all the time? There may be periods when you can write every single day (or 5-6 days a week)  and there may be periods where writing a few times a week is a struggle. We have to learn to live our lives and still call ourselves writers, yet we also need to strive for good writing habits. The more regular your writing time is, the more likely you’ll be ready and able to write when it arrives. But professors have different daily schedules, so I often have some days when its easier to work in writing and other days when it’s more of a challenge. If I can write three days a week and find ways to work in some writing when I can on the other days, that’s pretty good. If I can build in some writing retreats or extended periods where I focus on nothing but writing, that’s even better. But the reality of most days is that writing competes with so many other obligations that maintaining a daily writing time is a challenge. Finding ways to cope with a challenging schedule and to keep the writing going helps, but sometimes it is also good to acknowledge that life happens and the goal of writing every day can be unattainable. Rather than beating ourselves up for failing at that goal, isn’t it much more productive to try to do the best we can to write as often and as regularly as possible?

These were the five myths I came up with when I sat down to write on this topic. There are probably more. What myths do you struggle with in your writing?


Creative Writing Final Exam

This is a follow-up post to my series on teaching a 4-genre introductory creative writing class: Why 4 Genres?How I teach 4 Genres in 1 Semester, Part IHow I teach 4 Genres in 1 Semester, Part IIHow I teach 4 Genres in 1 Semester, Part III, and Teaching Creative Writing with Literary Magazines. All have been written as worked on the proofreading for my multi-genre textbook, A Writer’s Craft, which has now gone through final proofing. Exam copies should be available soon!

This semester, I’ve tried to describe my process of teaching creative writing, and now that we reach the end of the semester and our Full Class Workshops are over, we are turning to the final exam.

When I first came to Mississippi University for Women, I was told we were required to have a final in every class — in part, this was due to meeting the contact hour requirements for a semester. When I started teaching creative writing, I initially chafed at the idea, thinking the final portfolio ought to be enough. However, since it was a requirement, I set about creating an exam that made sense for the class. One reason I didn’t mind, especially since I require hard copies of portfolios, is that it gave me one last chance to see my students and return their portfolios. It also allowed students some more time for reflection.

Over the years, I’ve given many different permutations of the exam, and I realize there’s no perfect one, but a few things have remained constant or at least been popular variations. One has been to include a writing exercise. I might bring in a number of objects or photographs and ask student to write about whatever they like related to the prompt. I’ve had some good work come out of this last exercise, and it relieves some of the stress of the exam.

Another question that I’ve used, which I’ve usually given in advance, is to write a self-assessment of their writing. I assign this after they turn in their portfolio, and I collect it after the portfolio is graded and as it is returned, so my comments don’t influence their self-assessment, and they know their comments won’t affect my grade. I find this a very valuable exercise for most writers.

I may ask questions about the genres that we’ve studied, but I try not to ask for the kind of detail I’ve quizzed them on earlier in the semester (I give them 4 tests in the early weeks of the semester, so they can show they understood the material as we covered it.) On the final exam, the questions are more open-ended and allow students to tell me what they know and to use some of the terms we’ve discussed, but not to have to define terms or recall specific ones. They can describe the topic in their own words, too.

I often ask a question about the workshop experience and about the comments from other students that were most influential to their revision or the comments they gave others that were most insightful (in their opinion). I want students to reflect on the workshop experience, and I often get their opinions of the small group workshops and the full class workshops at the beginning and end of the semester respectively.

I want students to review and reflect before they come to the final because that will help reinforce what they’ve learned. But I don’t want them to have to memorize or cram for the exam, since that would defeat the purpose.

I always enjoy grading these exams, and they give me valuable insights into what has worked well this semester and what I may want to try next semester.

Where Have I Been?

It’s been just over a month since my last post to this blog. Before that, I had been on a roll, posting frequently about creative writing pedagogy issues and my new textbook. So what happened?

Life — Okay, Spring Break

That’s right. Once every semester, even professors get to take a break. Often this is productive time spent grading and cleaning house. Occasionally, we actually take trips to keep up with our students! This year, I took a college trip with our 16-year-old junior in high school (hard to believe it!), Aidan. For Spring Break, we left the South and headed to snowy Ohio to visit Oberlin and Cleveland Institute of Music. We also took a morning to drive through the Cuyahoga River Valley National Park, see some beautiful, if chilly, waterfalls, and learn the correct pronunciation of the river, which sounded more like “Cayoga.” We had a great time, learned a lot about these schools and his ideas about college, and enjoyed the snow (the locals seemed to be getting pretty tired of it by now).


Book — Editing the MS

Shortly after Spring Break (thank goodness), I got the manuscript of A Writer’s Craft back from the copy editor. This meant going back over it with a fine-toothed comb, double-checking every comma and word. We didn’t always agree, and I will admit that she found some of my stray commas, though I corrected some of hers. The copy editor is in India, so there were some differences between American and International British usage we had to iron out, and a few places where she simply didn’t understand what I was trying to say (I doubt the copy editor is a creative writing instructor). And there were a few places where she called me out on potentially confusing or just awkward phrasings (not too many), and where her suggestions weren’t much better but did cause me to find another way to put it. And there were a few places where I simply put my foot down and said that’s what I really meant, darn it (or something to that affect). Then there was the task of checking the bibliography formatting and other mind-numbing but essential tasks. All in all, I’m glad to have had another set of eyes on the manuscript. It will be better for it. The final page proofs come back soon, and then I can create the index, which I’ve already been working on.

Southern Literary Festival

Yes, though I had a bad cold or possibly bronchitis, I hopped in the car and drove to Ft. Smith, Arkansas, for this annual meeting. I’m co-executive director and we’re desperately looking for a host for 2019, or I might have skipped it this time. The W won in the literary magazine category, but I couldn’t convince any of our students to take the 7-hour drive with me. The festival was great—I heard some great readings, had a chance to catch up with colleagues, and met some students from other schools—but I was still working on my edits and trying to recover from my cold, so it would have been a good year to stay home. Yet duty called.


Did I mention this traditional Spring Break activity? It didn’t happen this year, thanks to our travel, so after SLF, I had a fair amount of catching up to do. I’m now caught up to the point that all the grading I have left was turned in less than a week ago, so I’m pretty happy. Just in time to get serious about taxes…

Those are just a few of the things that kept me away from blogging, but I hope to get back to more entertaining or informative posts very soon!

Teaching Creative Writing with Literary Magazines

I’m a big fan of teaching creative writing with literary magazines, and have been doing it my whole my career. When I first started teaching Creative Writing, I used the textbook The Creative Process by Carol Burke and Molly Best Tinsley. It is a thin little book with chapters on poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, along with cross-genre introductory chapters, and it was very influential to me in the way that I teach. One of the things it doesn’t have is an anthology of readings in the book. I was happy with that.

Since I was guest-editing an issue of The Literary Review, I began by ordering back issues of it  for my class. I would order a box and sell them at cost to my students. Usually I broke about even, though collecting their $4 was sometimes a challenge. I never lost much on the deal, though, and I was supporting a good journal.

One challenge of doing it this was was that I usually got our sample back issues just a week or so before classes started, or sometimes even after they had begun. I would pick out stories and poems for the class to read, and I often didn’t have a chance to review them. Students knew that; we were all exploring brand-new work together. That was also part of the thrill. It made class a little unpredictable, though I always knew the quality of the work would be fantastic.

Eventually, I decided to move to different textbooks after The Creative Process began to feel a little dated for me. I tried a couple that had selections of readings in them, and it was always a little bit of a let down. It was nice to have the readings well in advance of teaching the class, when I ordered my exam copies, but it never felt as fresh as when I was using a lit mag.

So when I decided to write my own notes, which I’m now publishing as the textbook A Writer’s CraftI also opted not to include an anthology of readings. Instead, I’ve been having my students purchase a recent Pushcart anthology. This has the advantage of having more selections to choose from, and it’s not terribly expensive (though more than a magazine’s back issue). There is also an index of magazines consulted in the back, which is helpful for students who want to find more. But I do miss teaching with an actual magazine.

Another way I’ve always tried to introduce literary magazines in an intro to creative writing class is to have students write a magazine review. They have to find their own magazine, get a copy, and then write a short review of it. I have them focus on the kinds of things a writer would care about if deciding where to submit. What is the quality of the magazine, who publishes in it, what styles do they seem to prefer, etc. Finding a magazine can be a challenge if you aren’t in a city with a good independent bookstore. But there are libraries with magazines, and students can always order one if they start early enough. And I’ll allow an online journal if students can access a full issue. New Pages even has a magazine store, where you can buy sample copies online, which can help the students who plan ahead. I’ve learned about a lot of good journals through this assignment!

CLMP also has a lit magazine adoption program for use in the classroom. As I understand it, they are revamping and relaunching the program this year, and faculty will be able to let their students purchase subscriptions for use in their classes. When that is available again, I may go back to assigning a magazine for the readings for my class! It sounds more convenient than ordering a box of books and guessing the right number of students who will enroll.