Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Book Review: Daniel Wallace, Extraordinary Adventures

Extraordinary AdventuresExtraordinary Adventures by Daniel Wallace
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Daniel Wallace has given us another thoroughly enjoyable read. His characters are easy to invest in. Nothing that extraordinary happens in their lives, at least not until Edsel Bronfman receives an offer for a free weekend at a time share in Destin, Florida. Then his life does take a few fantastic turns. In this latest novel, the tall tales from Big Fish have been brought down to a human level, yet the choices and adventures Bronfman faces are no less dramatic. Wallace still questions whether the invented reality or the mundane events of life are more real. This is an unassuming tale, much like its unassuming and ordinary main characters, yet it has pathos and depth, showing that still waters run deep and that even a mild-mannered clerk from Birmingham, Alabama, can experience something extraordinary. And speaking of Birmingham, this novel is well worth the read for its loving portrayal of Wallace’s hometown.

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Daniel Wallace will appear at The Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium, Oct. 19-21, at Mississippi University for Women. the symposium is free and open to the public.

Book Review: Heirlooms by Rachel Hall

Heirlooms: StoriesHeirlooms: Stories by Rachel Hall
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I’ve known Rachel Hall since we were at Knox College together, so these stories would have been a joy to read no matter what, just for her voice and wry humor and the memories they evoke. Though that friendship is what prompted me to buy and read Heirlooms, I can sincerely say this is a great book, and one I would highly recommend to anyone, especially if you’re interested in World War II (especially the Holocaust, the resistance, and collaboration in France) and how it is remembered (or misremembered). Issues of immigration, race, and discrimination in the U.S. are also folded into the stories as time progresses. It is no wonder that Marge Piercy selected Heirlooms for the C. S. Sharar Chandra Prize. These stories are tightly crafted with economical language and image that nonetheless pack an enormous emotional punch. They are deeply philosophical without being ponderous. They explore the past and our tempestuous relationship with it, clouded with guilt, understandable revisionism, and attempts at retrieval of the stories that have been lost. Individually, each story is poignant. When taken together as a collection, the stories speak to one another and build deeper themes that will reward multiple readings. Characters appear and reappear in new contexts, giving the reader multiple perspectives on their stories as we follow the main characters through four generations.

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How I teach 4 Genres in 1 Semester, Part I

When I was at AWP talking about my new textbook, A Writer’s Craft, several people reacted with a question which usually amounted to the following: how can you possibly teach 4 genres in one semester? This usually came from someone who was used to teaching a 1- or 2-genre course, and I can relate to that initial shock. As I mentioned in my previous post, “Why 4 Genres?,” I started out teaching poetry and fiction together, and gradually added creative nonfiction and drama. In the beginning, I gave less time to those two step-children, but in recent years, I’ve tried to be more even-handed.

There is no one right approach to teaching creative writing for everyone, so what I do may not be perfect for you, but I thought I would try to lay out how I have learned to go about teaching 4 genres in one semester in case that will help. I figure it will take more than one blog post to do that justice, so this is Part I.

This part will be primarily about how A Writer’s Craft is structured, and how that helps me cover the material more efficiently. Part II will be about some alternative workshop strategies that help me handle larger class sizes (when I’ve had them) and get through the material more quickly while still giving students time to talk about their writing. Part III, if there is one, will be about anything I haven’t covered in the first two parts. So let’s see how it goes.

Cross-Genre Teaching

One of the main things that makes teaching creative writing in 4 genres interesting, fun, and more efficient than teaching the genres individually, is that you can see how each genre relates to and informs the others. In teaching multiple genres at the intro level, there is greater efficiency. Certain early chapters automatically relate to any genre. When we talk about the writing process, the process of finding inspiration, finding form, and revising until you have a final product, it doesn’t matter whether we are writing story (fiction or nonfiction), essay, poem, or drama. When we talk about image or the way creative writers use language differently than they do when writing essays, letters, or grocery lists, the genre of creative writing doesn’t matter. In fact, talking about the way poets do this helps fiction writers, and thinking of dramatists or novelists helps poets.

It’s not just that we don’t have to repeat those opening chapters in each successive course (Introduction to Fiction, Introduction to Poetry, etc.), but that seeing how different writers approach the same issues helps me cover all the genres in greater depth.

I didn’t come up with this approach on my own, of course. It was one of the qualities I most admired about The Creative Process by Carol Burke and Molly Best Tinsley, the first textbook I used, and it was a quality I looked for in every textbook I used or considered thereafter, though I never found one that was quite as even-handed and truly cross-genre as theirs (though it didn’t include drama).

In A Writer’s Craft, I’ve tried to make it more cross-genre, not less. The opening chapters on the writing process and working with language, image, memory, and the imagination are all very open to cross-genre work. At that point, I stress that writers often don’t know what form the final product will take, and maybe they shouldn’t try to decide too early, since a predetermined form can get in the way of an idea, especially when we’re not fully comfortable with that form. With practice, form can actually lead to new ideas, but that usually works better when we know the form inside and out and can use it as a generative device, not when we’re learning the form and trying to come up with an idea at the same time.

This approach carries over into the first chapters on finding form. When discussing character and point of view, I try to apply the concepts to all genres, not just fiction. Poetry has a dramatic moment and a speaker of the poem. A creative essay has a character, even if that is only the narrator’s voice. Drama considers point of view in how it’s presented, though it doesn’t usually have a narrator. Considering point of view from these angles, for instance, helps students make sense of an abstract concept and apply it to fiction better, too. I try not to leave any of the genres out of the discussion in the opening chapters, in other words, and this helps me to find new ways to think about and explain these issues of form.

Because I am concentrating on a cross-genre approach, this also helps me introduce some topics specific to one genre in the early chapters. For instance, in the chapter about language, I introduce the concept of rhyme and rhythm. I say we’ll bring this up again when we get to poetry, so I don’t talk in terms of rhyme schemes or meter, only in terms of how writers pay attention to the sounds and rhythms of their language. This helps me when I get to poetry because I don’t have to fight as many battles about end-rhyme. We can talk about what it is and compare it to internal rhyme, but it isn’t the thing that defines poetry. Meter is easier to discuss if writers have started to notice the rhythms of stress in their sentences before they have to memorize technical terms.

Similarly, talking  about dialogue in general terms when discussing character and voice, helps me when I get to the chapters on fiction and drama, where we cover some of the more technical ways of dealing with it, like how to print it on the page. Discussing the persona of a poem, helps when talking about the narrative voice in a personal essay later.

Even in the chapters on specific genres, I always include a section on what the genre can teach writers of other genres. What do fiction writers learn from poets or playwrights, what do poets or fiction writers learn from memoir or essay? In this way, these chapters build on one another, reinforce lessons learned in a previous chapter, and challenge writers to try new techniques learned from another genre.

Rather than viewing the four genres as separate beasts or even the only options for creative writers, I try to see how they are interrelated, and how they can be remixed and reconfigured in new, hybrid forms like the prose poem, flash fiction, kinetic poetry, or hypertext fiction, the mapped essay, creative gaming, etc. Genres are choices, and as you begin to make those choices, it affects the final form of what you write, but there are great advantages to knowing and learning from the forms of other genres, even if they aren’t the forms you gravitate to. Studying them together makes for a richer and more efficient discussion of them all, and that’s one way I’m able to teach all four in one semester.

Why 4 Genres?

In A Writer’s Craft, my textbook for introduction to creative writing

Talking to people at AWP about my forthcoming textbook, one question I get is why I teach an intro class with 4 genres. The other question is how I do it, which is a more involved answer, and something I hope to write about soon. “Why?” is a little easier to answer. It is something that has developed for me over time.

When I first started teaching at The W, there was one creative writing class, EN 312 Creative Writing. We still have this as our intro class today. There was also a rarely taught Seminar for Playwrights in theatre and a course with the lovely title Advanced Prose. I was happy to keep Creative Writing as a mixed genre course, and soon developed advanced workshops in poetry and fiction. This allowed me to justify teaching just poetry and fiction in the intro class. i felt nonfiction and playwriting could be handled elsewhere, even if the situation wasn’t ideal.

My textbook at the time, The Creative Process by Carole Burke and a Molly Best Tinsley, covered 3 genres. But I left out Creative Nonfiction and told students to take Advanced Prose, which we soon renamed Nonfiction Writing. Still, it began to bother me that I wasn’t covering one chapter in the book, and eventually I found ways to incorporate some Nonfiction as well. When I finally moved on to a new textbook, I had the same transition with drama, initially ignoring it because we had another class, and eventually experimenting with including some playwriting in my class. Now, though the emphasis isn’t exactly equal, I try to spend about as much time on all four genres, and I’ve found that it really helps my students.

Everyone in my class writes at least a short, early draft in each genre, and then develops finished pieces in the genres they choose. I do require some lyric and some story forms. Fiction writers learn from playwriting, as much as I always thought they would from poetry. Poets learn from drama and nonfiction, too. Having to think about how a scene or poem might be staged or spoken aloud affects how you see it in revision, even if the final product is poetry or fiction. Writing from life in creative nonfiction, or exploring the personal essay informs the fictional story or suggests structures and imagery for a poem.

And students have the opportunity to explore modes of writing that they never considered before. I’ve had very good, albeit beginning, playscripts, and I’ve had drama scenes that turn into a story or memoir or dramatic poem. Some fiction writers or poets have been turned on to memoir or essay. We now are revitalizing our playwriting class, in part because we have someone who can teach it more regularly, and in part because there is more interest. We can treat Nonfiction as more of a workshop class and less of an intro class. And each of the genres feed off each other more when they are introduced together. I’m happy that when we focus on poetry or Nonfiction, my fiction writers don’t feel left out because I treat it as part of a study of all genres that helps us learn from each the tools that can help us with our chosen genre, and I want students to not limit themselves to one.
I don’t feel that we have less time for fiction or poetry now that we include two more genres, in other words. I try to think in cross-genre ways and have more time for all the genres because we don’t study them as isolated things. When we do this, there are a lot of topics we can cover together about the writing process and even basic issues like character, voice, or point of víew. This is much more efficient than separate intro classes by genre, and it helps students find the genres they are actually good at instead of the ones they think they are good at (and I hope they add genres they like, not replace one with another).

Why 4 genres? Because it is challenging, rewarding, and fun to teach them together and learn things from each that can be applied to any genre.

Southern Literary Festival 2014

Each year in the South, a group of undergraduate English majors and their professors descends on one member institution for a weekend of readings, workshops, and fun. This year, the host school for the Southern Literary Festival was Ole Miss (University of Mississippi to the rest of the country), who did a fabulous job arranging panels and entertainment. It didn’t hurt that the festival ran concurrently with the Conference on the Book, an annual event hosted in Oxford, so there were quite a few other authors milling around and some of the events were combined. So, for instance, we all got to witness the live Thacker Mountain Radio program as it was recorded for public radio, there was a Blues performance, and of course there was a chance to wander around the Square and browse in Square Books. SLF panels included readings by Cheryl St. Germain, Ann Fisher-Wirth, Chiyuma Elliott and Dereck Harriell, Megan Abbott, and of course the student prize winners, whose work was published in the annual literary magazine of the festival. Students also had master classes in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and playwriting, and there was an open mic where anyone could read.

Started in 1937 at Blue Mountain College by a group of professors, which included Robert Penn Warren from LSU, the festival has a long and storied history. It has fostered many young writers, including the young Flannery O’Connor, and has featured many greats of Southern Literature. Each year is a little different, tailored to the strengths and talents of the host institution. Yet each year features the literary contest, readings, and workshop or master class experiences. It is a great asset for Southern schools, and membership is open. So if you are associated with a college or university in or near the South, contact me or the current host for more information.

The opportunity to hear good writing and have conversations about craft, and the chance to interact with students and teachers from schools around the region is an incredible experience. Though I know well how hard it can be to pry yourself loose from the demands of the current semester, those days spent in a festival like this can be incredibly invigorating and rewarding. If you don’t live in or near the South, search for opportunities like this in your area. Then make the time to attend. You won’t regret it.

Nonfiction, what is it?

I’m constantly being asked this question, since the creative writing program I teach in has a class in it (that I don’t teach, but I’m the program director, so I get asked a lot anyway). It’s a tough one to answer, and usually I list some of the kinds of writing, I think might be in the class with the caveat that since I don’t teach it, the person who does might have other ideas.

But today we were covering creative nonfiction in my creative writing class as we start to think about genre, so I tried to be a little more specific with the help of our textbook. We discussed why some people don’t like the term. It makes fiction seem like the norm and anything else is an aberration. Is poetry nonfiction? By this definition, it is. One writer I was reading in preparation for class wondered whether there should be a genre called non-poetry (and I have to believe she said this somewhat tongue-in-cheek). And why not? Isn’t all prose nonpoetry: somewhat poetic, but not entirely?

The textbook I use (Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing) talks of creative nonfiction primarily in terms of the essay that uses some techniques of fiction (and poetry). [My beef with this book is that it doesn’t really do justice to poetry, but I try to compensate.] And nonfiction does or can use strategies from the essay, though it doesn’t have to. It can use strategies, like scene and even character, from fiction, but it doesn’t have to, and it certainly doesn’t use them the same way fiction does, usually. Plot is often less important in nonfiction. The dramatic tension of a scene doesn’t have to be as high or might not even be present. A scene in nonfiction can simply take us to a moment or a place without any drama or change — in a story I would expect that of a scene.

But in a poem, we often have scenic treatment of the material (imagism, for instance) without a plot or dramatic tension. In a poem we might speak of lyric tension. The arrangement of images in a poem or the arrangement of scenes in creative nonfiction often work in similar ways. Juxtaposition is part of the argument. Associations formed between scenes or images that aren’t connected by plot or linear logic work in a poem or in an essay. The poet or nonfiction writer may comment or may not. Associations based on the sound of the language or on the connotations of the words may be as productive as associations strung together on a plot.

As we discussed sub-genres of creative nonfiction, one of my students raised the question of whether blogging would fit. I agreed that often it would, though some blogs may be fiction or poetry, and some blogs might not rise to the level (sink to the level?) that would be called creative. Blogging may be the most ubiquitous form of creative nonfiction: the personal not-quite-essay, not-quite-story, not-quite-lyric-prose-poem. Maybe one day we’ll have to call all other writing nonblogging once blogging becomes the norm and everything else an aberration.

What’s the point?

At the beginning of the semester, I sometimes stop to wonder what is the point to this education thing, especially for undergraduate creative writers. Often at AWP conferences, panels bemoan the number of writing programs out there (usually MFA programs but it applies to undergrad as well) and lament the prospects for their students. Some go so far as to wonder whether they should even allow their students to take their classes (though they do). In this day and age, when college tuitions continue to rise and when students are increasingly practical in their choices of major (or believe they are), how do we justify what we do?

On the one hand, it is tempting to simply justify it because it exists. Poetry has been around for thousands of years, and fiction as we know it for nearly as long. Creative writing has been part of human culture since humans learned to write, before that there was storytelling and oral poetry, so there should be no need to justify teaching it. Oh, that life were so simple.

Students (or their parents) want careers. Actually, many students don’t want careers, or if they do, they want exciting careers, and ‘famous writer’ is right up there with ‘film star’ for some of them. Yet if that were the promise we held out to students, then I might agree that teaching creative writing is unethical. Rare is the student who will go on to a career as a writer, though they do exist and I know several of our alums who are well on their way. Even rarer is the student writer who will someday be ‘famous,’ though that may depend on how one defines fame. So I am looking for something a little more practical in what we teach.

Ultimately, it boils down to two things: self-awareness and expression. Really, aren’t these the hallmarks of a liberal arts education? They may be developed in many fields, but no fields are more appropriate to this than the creative fields of writing, art, music, and theater.

Most students seem to take creative writing classes because they have a desire to express themselves. In order to do this, they must by definition, know themselves, and the process of creative writing involves considerable exploration of the self. Though it is not psychoanalysis — there is no analyst in the room — the creative writing class provides this opportunity, as any art class might. This clearer understanding of the self may be more beneficial to the student in the long run than any professional education, even if it is never directly applicable to a career. It may help the student choose a career or decide when to change careers, who to marry (or not), what to do in her/his ‘spare time,’ etc.

Certainly, creative writing classes can not take credit for every decision students make in the rest of their lives, but there is value in fostering a thoughtful self-awareness. Of course, many students may still make a mess of their lives (who doesn’t at some point) and cope with their messes for better or worse, and this is an aspect of learning that is impossible to grade or assess. Some of those ‘messes’ may lead to brilliant works of art, for which we also can not take full credit, anymore than we can be blamed for a lack of brilliance.

So I usually come round to fostering expression as the main value of what we do as teachers of creative writing. If anything, I hope we teach (and can grade and assess) care with language. Creative writers should pay more attention to how they write what they write. The language of a poem should be beautiful (or intentionally and beautifully ugly), even if the subject is not. A paragraph of prose fiction should be musical as well as informative. Writers should choose the word that is right in a given context, not just the most expedient word, but the word that means, sounds, and feels right. Syntax matters for the patterns it creates (not just grammatical correctness), and paragraphs, poems, stories, even essays are developed with a structure in mind, though that structure often arises out of the material rather than being imposed from outside.

This attention to detail and care for language carries over from writers’ creative works to all their writing. Emails from a writer ought to be better written than most others. In an age of information, when we are flooded with ‘communication’ vying for our attention, the messages that are well crafted will stand out from those that aren’t. There may be more need for poets and writers than ever before, and more need to develop the skills of a writer for those who do want to stand out and make their mark, whether that is with a book of poems or novel or with a memo or blog or tweet or whatever the next technological innovation will bring.

Let’s face it, most creative writing students aren’t hell bent on a career. They may end up in a closely related field, or they may end up doing something completely different from what they studied in college in order to make a living (which is true for students in any major), yet the skills students develop in a creative writing class will stand them in good stead no matter where they go or what they do.