Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

The Art of Writing

It is the beginning of a new semester, and today I taught the first session of MUW’s introductory multi-genre Creative Writing class. As usual, as I walked the dog and gathered my thoughts before class, my thoughts turned to what we can teach about writing. It occurred to me, that in creative writing classes, we often gravitate to discussing what works (and what doesn’t). Sure, we want to move a an audience, but we often gravitate to the lowest common denominator, to the pragmatic approach. So one of my resolutions for the semester is to remind my students that writing is an art.

In class, we were discussing our goals. It was a good place to lay the groundwork by reminding students that in a creative writing class we focus more on the artistic side of what is said. When we write an essay, we care about communicating the ideas or making an argument. Those things matter in creative writing, too, but we focus more on the sound of the words or the patterns of a sentence. We have the luxury of writing something because we think it’s beautiful. (An essay written in rhyme might be unique, but I would still grade it primarily on the ideas, not the rhyme scheme.)

My goal in in this is to encourage students to move beyond the pragmatic and think about the beautiful. Of course, they don’t have to be opposites. Voltaire, in describing his utopia of Eldorado, praises it for making the practical beautiful. If I can begin to instill in some of my students a love of language and an attention to its subtleties, then I will be happy.

As I reached the farthest end of a cold gray walk along the river, which was already nearing flood stage, and as the dog and I turned around to come home, the looming clouds unleashed a steady rain that didn’t stop all day. Yet despite the cold and rain, the river retained its beauty and showed off its power.

Mystery and Mayhem

There’s plenty of mystery in this year’s Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium keynote novel, The Widow and the Tree, and there is crime, both contemplated and perpetrated, though I wouldn’t classify the novel as a mystery exactly. It blends some elements of that genre, along with the gothic modern fairy tale that Welty uses in her Robber Bridegroom. Both books serve as the inspiration for our theme this year, and consequently, we have a few mysteries in the group.

Carolyn Haines’ Bonefire of the Vanities may have the greatest claim to that fame, coming as the 12th in the Sarah Booth Delaney mystery series. Her intrepid detective is aided and abbetted by her sidekick and two dogs, as well as a relatively friendly ghost. Together they solve mysteries in the Mississippi Delta, bones of all kinds providing the common theme. Carolyn Haines will read on Friday 10/19 at 1:30 p.m.
Olympia Vernon also explores crime in her novel, A Killing in This Town, though the tone is a bit more sober, as she delves into the motives and the ramifications of a fictional civil-rights era slaying in rural Mississippi.

Finally, Michael Kardos brings his debut novel to the symposium. The Three-Day Affair has been called a mystery thriller involving a somewhat unintentional kidnapping and the college buddies who have to weigh their allegiance to each other against their conscience and better judgement. Both Michael Kardos and Olympia Vernon read on Saturday 10/20 from about 10:30-12:00.

Careers for English Majors

As I prepare for a presentation on career prospects for English majors (or should I say job prospects), I thought I would try out a few ideas here. Have you ever noticed that people seem to think English is an unmarketable degree? That’s been the case for as long as I can remember, but it hasn’t stopped the many English majors I’ve known from getting jobs and making a living. What those jobs are, though, can vary tremendously.

Though there isn’t an automatic career path for many English majors, the skills you develop in your English classes are actually in high demand in the workplace. The most obvious skill English majors have is the ability to write. This is usually more than just writing grammatically correct sentences and spelling words correctly — though that can be a huge benefit. Good writers understand how to craft an effective sentence, not just a correct sentence. Good writers know how to organize a paragraph clearly and concisely, and they know how to structure an essay, which can transfer into structuring anything from an email (or tweet) to a hundred page report. English majors should be good communicators, both in written and in oral form.

This can lead to jobs in many fields, though there aren’t recruitment fairs that focus on English majors. Typically, an English major has to make his or her own way. You have to knock on doors and get your resume out there. You have to be willing to start at the bottom rung and work your way up, and you might be able to do this in any field, especially if you have an interest in it.

Good jobs for English majors to consider might be working in arts agencies or museums. Sales and advertising might be worth pursuing, especially if the product you’re selling is one you’re passionate about. Consider working in a bookstore, if you love books. Technical writing doesn’t have to be about boring subjects (though it might be, and might pay the bills); it can be about subjects that you care about: the environment, music, gaming, film, social media, etc.

And don’t forget that one of the skills you’ve learned as an English major is to research. Though you may not continue doing academic research unless you go on to graduate school, your ability to formulate successful search queries, you ability to analyze and evaluate sources, and your ability to synthesize the information you have gleaned in your research and harness it to an argument, will all come in handy on a variety of jobs. And English majors are typically known to have a good work ethic, to be able to work well on a team, and to meet deadlines. Though I wouldn’t put that on my resume, you can use it to your advantage when on the job, as well as when you are looking for a job.

Treasure your Word Hoard

Classes are over, exams are graded, and I finally have time to get back to the blog, which means I have time to write and think about something other than papers and exams! This morning on the walk, as I was processing last semester’s writing class and thinking about what I’d like to be able to communicate better to students, I was thinking about how poets use patterned language. My textbook (most textbooks) approach formal poetry with lots of terminology for meter, especially, which tends to turn students off. Terms are good to give students a handle to remember abstract concepts by, but they also make it seem as if when you know the term, you know how to do it, and if you don’t get the term you’re completely lost. Of course, that’s not true, especially with rhythm.

I’d like to get students to play with more kinds of sound patterning in a poem without worrying about strict meter or end rhyme. I want them to hear how the vowels and consonants across a line of poetry that sounds good are structured in one of many ways. Assonance and consonance are only a bare beginning to getting how sound can be repeated in different patterns. A poet chooses a word that means what h/she wants and that also has sounds that form a pattern with the other words in the line or stanza. To do this, a poet needs a large, active vocabulary.

This is when it struck me how limiting, pedantic, and stale that word is in English: ‘vocabulary.’ It hardly says anything. In Dutch, the word is ‘woordenschat’ or ‘word-treasure.’ The word ‘schat’ can also be an endearment, like ‘my little treasure’ — ‘schatje.’ This gives more of a mental picture of a collection of words that someone holds dear.

A ‘schat’ can also be the treasure that a dragon would keep, and this got me thinking about how the way writers work with words is much like the way dragons work with their treasure. A dragon’s treasure may be gold, but it may also be anything that sparkles or seems precious. The things in it may be old (ancient) or new, broken or functional. The dragon in folklore actively collects items for its hoard, flying out each day or night to find new objects to add to it. But the dragon does not ignore the things it has gathered, either. It constantly pores over the hoard to make certain nothing is missing — at least it does in the stories I vaguely remember.

Isn’t this a good image for the writer? We all have a relatively large vocabulary, I presume. We know words and recognize them when we read them, but writers are more likely to actively search through that stockpile of words to find the right one to put in the right place. Sorting is a key pastime of dragons, I presume. All writers are (or should be) constantly on the lookout for new words to add to their collection. Those words may be bright and shiny on the surface or they may be unassuming words with a long history of connotations that lend just the right nuance to our pile of language when placed carefully in just the right spot. We tinker with them and shuffle them and toy with them until a pattern emerges.

So I propose a new synonym for ‘vocabulary.’ I’d like to call it your word hoard. I know that won’t catch on any time soon, but maybe in the book about writing that I’d love to write in all my spare time, that’s what I’ll call it.


This is just a quick follow-up post to yesterday’s and a note on the joys and dangers of writing exercises. This morning I wrote a poem titled Continental Divide based loosely on the exercise I described. When checking out the fact that Minnesota’s divide goes in three directions, I found the roadside marker that I linked to. It mentions a drop of water falling, which became part of the poem I wrote this morning. Or is it a poem? Is it finished? Probably not. Will it be finished? Hard to tell. It looks like a poem, and this morning I think it is a poem in some stage, so I’m happy. But that’s the danger of exercises. They may give me something that looks like a poem and feels like a poem, but only time will tell whether it is a poem I want to claim as my own. Of course, isn’t that always the case with early drafts!