On Teaching Writing

I always feel a tiny bit of “why’d I ever say I’d do this?” when I first start a class. Like many writers, I’m more comfortable with a book than with a room full of people.  But it is always worthwhile if the room full of people are writers. And despite the disclaimers of “I’m not a writer,” I hear as a class starts, by the end of the first session, we are all writers. As a writer who is also a teacher, it doesn’t get any better.

The SOAR writing class I taught this spring confirmed for me, again, my faith in two conditions that will help writing break out in a group: time to write and time to share that writing and get audience response. Long ago a colleague taught me, “If you want something from your students, teach it to them.” Following his wisdom, whenever I teach writing, I teach how to respond to a piece of writing in a way that encourages the writer to keep writing and entirely avoids false praise.

Getting a response from a reader is such an important element of the process of crafting a well written piece that I am very specific in how students can respond to each other. I limit feedback to these two observations: “I noticed . . “.   and, “I wonder . . . ”  Just that, and it works.  There’s no room for false praise because the only praise that fits with those two sentence starters is the praise that the writing got my attention in some way, and it got me thinking and wondering.

Another ‘rule’ I impose on my students is that as we’re learning this approach to feedback, the writer doesn’t get to respond verbally. Why do I do that? Because I want the writer to listen to the feedback and process it – mentally and in their writing. I don’t want them to ‘answer’ the feedback, but to use it to consider its value to them and to think about whether to return to the piece and implement something that the feedback made them want to explore.

No doubt I’ll teach other writing classes. For the moment I’m happy to refocus my creative self on my own writing, and I’m back to devoting more time to working on my novel, Lucky.

“Secrets of Good Writing”

‘We are two classes into our three session SOAR class, “Secrets of Good Writing.” Below is a list of the books I’ve mentioned so far along with the reasons I mentioned them. You’ll see that I’ve got a big section on writing morning pages under the Artist’s Way listing: that one strategy moved my own craft forward in unexpected ways, and I highly recommend it.

As a writing coach, I often advise “just write.” This advise is pretty ubiquitous – everyone from Nanci Atwell to Stephen King offers it in one form or another. Basically, if you don’t know what to write, write that: “I don’t know what to write.” (Something will come to you, grab it and write it down.) As Natalie Goldberg says in her book, Writing Down the Bones, keep your hand moving across the page. Goldberg has 5 more rules to this kind of writing, but I find that students do well starting with just that one – keep writing. That said, Writing Down the Bones is a classic for a reason, and I love introducing people to it – for people across the age spectrum, this book can serve as a revelation on how to break away from the “shoulds” about writing that can hamper actually getting words on the page.

Here are the books I mentioned, and why I mentioned them:

Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr. Doerr’s first book, published when she was 74. It is beautifully written and a very encouraging example of what people can do in their older years.

Solitude: A Return to the Self  by Anthony Storr.  Published in 1988, this book helped strengthen the persistent myth that writers (and other artists) are loners. I like to point out that Storr thanks eight people for helping him with the book – must be he didn’t spend all his time alone.

Starting from Scratch by Rita Mae Brown  (author of Rubyfruit Jungle) One of the key (and unusual) messages Brown has about writing is that writing is a physical activity, and our craft of writing benefits from our paying attention to our body’s needs.  In fact, her first chapter is titled: “The Beginning of All Literature: Your Body.” So, roll those shoulders, take a good belly breathe, and get to work. Getting tired? Try a short walk and a glass of water. And, if you’d like to get a good scolding about the evils of sugar and/or enthusiastic coaching on the benefits of studying Latin, this is the book for you!

The Business of Being a Writer by Jane Friedman

Friedman is a kind but firm guide to what it takes to make money at writing. Even if you don’t care two hoots for making money, she is so articulate on the page that reading her words is a pleasure. Here is a line from her book that I particularly like to share, “One of the great secrets to building the writing life you want is to pursue a vision that is truly yours, rather than someone else’s expectation . . . “

Check out her website – especially her blogs and her book recommendations. Here’s a link to her recommendations. I’ve ordered two of them – some of these books are probably available through libraries.   https://www.janefriedman.com/best-books-on-writing/

3 a.m. Epiphany by Brian Kiteley  I haven’t read this book, in fact I just found out about it on Jane Friedman’s website.  At least my writer who wakes up at 3:00 a.m. knows she’s got company when those great ideas come to her during the night.  

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron – I learned about the idea of writing a set amount every day from this book. The book offers daily things to do to empower the creative self. I made it about half way through the book: I’m not sure if anyone actually makes it all the way through. I stopped because I felt I could set out on my own and didn’t need the book anymore. (Not needing the book anymore is, I think, a recommendation for the book – all our teachers should be so effective that we don’t need them anymore!)

Cameron calls her version of daily writing, “Morning pages.” The key element of the method is writing daily for a set number of pages — longhand (she suggests, and I have used, 3 pages). Doing this moved my writing forward more than any other thing I have done over the half century I’ve been putting words to page. It also helped me stop paying attention to things that didn’t deserve my time: if I got super annoyed with someone, I’d just think – I’ll write about it tomorrow. But when tomorrow came, whatever it was just wasn’t that interesting anymore.

If you want to give morning pages a try:

Just write – write about anything, just keep going. .

Doing these pages in the morning will get your day started one way, but if you find you’d rather do them another time – go ahead, look for and do whatever works for you. I do find that writing them out longhand generates a different level of engagement with the words, and I recommend trying that method – even if you usually much prefer to type. Here are some arguments against longhand and my answer for them:

a) It will slow me down.

That’s actually okay: your brain will learn to not race ahead of your ability to get the words down.  

b) My handwriting starts out bad and gets worse over the course of the three pages.

That’s okay. Why? Because you never need to go back and reread these pages. I get my student’s point about not wanting more journals to pile up – if that describes you, too, you can try this: write the pages and shred them, or crumple them for fire starters, or put them with newspapers to use for mulch in the garden. The words serve your purpose when they land on the page. You don’t need to keep them. You are working to develop the connection between your brain and your getting words on the page.

c) It will take too long.

Fair enough. Divide the time you do have between handwritten and type written.  For example, you could try writing 1 page out longhand and then setting that aside and continuing on with the computer. Besides saving you time, this experiment might help you determine if there really is a difference for you between writing long hand and typing.

d) I really don’t like the idea.

This is the best reason of all to not do. (That’s not a typo – just don’t bother with it. It really is your work on your craft, and you are the best judge of what will work for you.)

All rules, hints, and other advice aside, a writer is someone who writes. It really is as simple as that.

For Valentine’s Day

I love photographing insects and spiders and discovering details I didn’t see until I opened the photographs on my computer – the lovely striped abdomen of the Drone Fly, the butterscotch color of the Deer Fly, the slim white line that etches the outline of Sehirus cinctus, the White-margined Burrower Beetle.

drone-fly.jpg  deer-fly.jpg      white-margined-burrower-beetle.jpg         

I love the sense of wonder when I realize that what I have seen and photographed is a grasshopper laying eggs, a wasp with her long, slender ovipositor slid into a blossom’s bosom.

wasp ovitpositing

I love discovering a crab spider on the yellow petal on which I saw and photographed a Jagged Ambush Bug: in successive frames they edge closer, then edge away.

jagged-ambush-and-crab-spider-eudora-watson.jpg

I love the names of insects – the scientific names I would stumble over if I tried to say them aloud, but which somersault on my mind’s tongue with joy: Agelenopsis, Araneus trifolium, Neoscona Arabesque, Ellychnia corrusca, Reduvius personatus,  Lygaeus kalmia, Podisus placidus, Stiretrus anchorago, Herpyllus ecclesiasticus. predatory stink bug e watson

And the common names: Grass spider, Shamrock and Arabesque Orbweavers, Winter Firefly, Small Milkweed Bug, Masked Hunter, Predatory Stink Bug, Anchor Stink Bug, Eastern Parson Spider.

14 spotted ladybug e watsonI love the practicality of the names that describe their appearance: Three-lined Potato Beetle, Tortoise Beetle, Fourteen-spotted Lady, Thinlegged Wolf Spider, White Admiral, Painted Lady, Pearly-eye, Zebra Caterpillar Moth, Twice-stabbed Stink Bug.

And I love the names that describe Long bodied cellar spidertheir behaviors: Tumbling Flower Beetle, Jumping Spider, Fungus-eating Lady, Cobweb Spider, Rose Chafer, Oil Blister Beetle, Sharpshooter. And the names that do both: Milkweed Longhorns, Dot-tailed Whiteface Skimmer, Four-spotted Skimmer, Longbodied Cellar Spider.

hummingbird moth_ e watson

And I love this world of wonders in which the Lady Bug is not a bug but a beetle; in which the nymph of the Masked Hunter covers itself in dust and lint and patrols our sheets and pillows for bedbugs; in which the hummingbird is,  in fact, a moth.

 

Book Review: The Awakening & Selected Stories by Kate Chopin

The sidewalk outside NYC’s largest public library building is embedded with plaques such as this one in honor of Kate Chopin. Stopping to read them as I walk along may make me look like a tourist, taking photographs of them definitely does. But surely their purpose is to encourage lingering and contemplation . . . and so I linger, contemplate, and take a photograph.

At home, the 1981 Modern Library version of a selection of Chopin’s work waits by our bedside, our current nighttime read-aloud. Within that volume, the strong wings of Chopin’s words guide us along the inroads of mind, heart, and body. Kate Chopin’s stories are peopled with those who act from deep motivations, and very often they pause to consider the nature and source of their emotions.

The stories are short, well-paced, and thought provoking, making this volume a wonderful read-aloud for adults – and worthy of a book club. The introduction by literary critic Nina Baym offers valuable historical context, and the glossary of terms helps fill in where context clues don’t seem to be enough.

If you pick up this volume and the first two stories lead you to believe that all will end with a lovely sweetness, keep reading. These two stories, “Love on the Bon-Dieu” and “Beyond the Bayou” will begin to teach you how to read Chopin’s stories, but they do not reveal the full arc of human potential that Chopin explores. Highly recommended.

Book Review: Two Good Dogs

Apparently, given how many books she’s written, I’ve come late to the game of reading Susan Wilson’s work. Yesterday, I was browsing library shelves, wondering how I was going to find a comparable title for my own novel, when I saw the word “dog” and pulled Two Good Dogs from the shelf. I skimmed the back cover and the beginning of the front flap copy and plucked The Dog Who Danced from the shelf as well.

At home I settled in with the more recent book first. A few pages into 2GD, I wasn’t optimistic. The writing itself was more than adequate, but the pace at which plot lines came at me was daunting. I don’t need a slow-poke start, but I was too clearly reminded of novels that rocket along in this way all the way to the end, throwing characters and complications in right up to the last chapter. I was looking for a book to relax with, not keep up with. I was very glad, then, when the story line settled down. The world-building had done the job, and I could relax as the story unfolded.

There are complications of modern life to be had here: teenage addiction, dog-fighting and dog rescue, parent-child wrangling, economic woes. So this isn’t a sappy book. But there is the reassuring sense that things will turn out all right: a big dose of realism meets an equally big dose of good fortune. Is that escapism? Probably, but in a world that is going, as my grandmother might have said, “To hell in a hand basket,” I, for one, can use the break. I’m 14 chapters into the book, and I’m glad to keep going.

Recommended.

Book Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

I’m working on a ghost story and, by way of procrastination as much as by way of research, I settled in with two slim volumes of ghost stories: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and More Scary Stories, by Alvin Schwartz. In their pages, I was amused to find a few traditional ghost stories that I myself had heard and passed on. Two of them I heard from my uncle, Gerald Shattuck. He was a very good story teller. The first story he told was a “Cemetery at Night” story.  We were amused, but not scared much. But then, in a low, serious voice, he told the tale of his own experience with the “Ghostly Hitchhiker,”

One night, my friend and I were driving along on a dark road. Suddenly, in our headlights we saw a distraught young woman by the side of the road. She flagged us down. Of course, we stopped. We wondered if she were hurt, but she insisted that she just needed a ride home. She gave us an address and we started off. From the back seat she told us how grateful she was. We were very worried about her, and when we asked her a question and she didn’t answer, I turned to the back to check on her – she was gone! She had disappeared! We stopped at the first little store we came to and reported what we had seen. The people there had heard this story before. We discovered that a young woman had been killed by a hit-and-run driver at the very spot we first saw her. Her spirit has haunted the roadside ever since, looking for the guilty person who killed her.

Told this way, it is a compelling story: we young listeners were suitably caught between belief and disbelieve. I, myself, passed on the story when I told it to a carload of middle-schoolers I was driving to an activity night. To my great surprise, the most credulous among them fell for it hook, line, and sinker, and I spent some time back peddling and explaining the nature of ghost stories.

When they were first published, the series was very popular with children, but deemed too gross and scary by some adults. The stories are based on folktales – old and modern – and they are scary, especially the illustrations. And if you find ghosts eating the pus of their rotting stomachs gross, (which I do!) they are gross. All in all, I agree with Harper’s 1984 review of another Schwartz publication, “a nicely nasty collection.” I’ll be on the lookout for more volumes.

If I find any, I’ll be looking for more than ghost stories. In the Acknowledgments section of the two volumes, an interesting tale is hinted at – that of a marriage and of the changing public roles of women. In the first  volume, published in 1981, the author acknowledges his wife with these words, “My wife, Barbara, who did the musical notation . . .  carried out bibliographical research, and contributed in other ways.” By 1984, he identifies her in this manner, “. . . my wife and colleague, Barbara Carmer Schwartz.” How she came to be acknowledged with her full name and a more professional status is a story I’d like to hear.

Writing Prompt

Sometimes “what to write” comes easily; we walk the street or overhear a conversation, or glimpse a memory, and we have enough material to last us for hours. But sometimes we could use a prompt to tickle our imagination, get us to jump off our usual track and find rich new material. In that spirit, here’s a prompt (with a bit of backstory):

In her memoir, Just Kids, Patti Smith – poet, artist, rock star – includes this story.  She and her very sick lover have left a flophouse on the advice of other residents who recognize that these two young people are misplaced among the terminal junkies who make up most the population. The pair sneak out taking only their two portfolios, but Patti goes back later to settle her bill and retrieve their belongings. She sees that her most prized possessions now decorate the landlords’ sitting room, some of them displayed on his mantel, one of her drawings hanging on the wall. Her books and record albums are packed in boxes. Over coffee Patti and the landlord negotiate the bill. All but her notebooks and a few other items are left in payment for the rent. She ends the scene with this comment, “I said goodbye to my stuff. It suited him and Brooklyn better. There’s always new stuff, that’s for sure.”

Prompt: What have you left behind? Is there always new stuff? Do you recognize it when it arrives? What is it about ‘stuff’ anyway? What role does the ‘stuff’ we gather around us play in our lives?