Since the midterm elections are taking place today in the U.S., it seems like an appropriate time to post a political poem. This particular poem, written as a hyperbolic ghazal, I wrote during my MA studies but revised after the 2016 presidential election. Following that particularly hard day, this feeling began to stir inside of me (well if I’m honest – loads of feelings began to stir), a feeling that I was, in part, responsible. No, I didn’t vote for him. And yes, I voted for someone else. But, I also didn’t take him seriously; I didn’t see him as an actual threat, and because of that, I didn’t do everything in my power to stop his rise to power. In this way, I feel I was complicit in his being elected to my country’s highest political office because I didn’t do more to stop him.
The ghazal form’s emphasis on repetition worked quite well here, as different variations of the word “excuse” emerge while the speaker (myself) laments the election results and her role in not doing enough to change the outcome. Humans are master excuse-makers; we’ll do anything to convince someone (even ourselves) that something wasn’t our fault; that it was out of our hands in some way when in fact there’s almost always a choice. Excuses take away our power. These days I try to give 100% to what matters most, and I try to steer clear of excuses as much as I can by explicitly owning my decisions (and my shortcomings) for what they are, and I feel I’m the better for it, both as a writer and as a human.
I’ve posted the poem below, but also please stay tuned — I am so honored that this poem will be featured on the Talking Ink Podcast, in which I will be reading the poem aloud and talking about the theme of “outsiders” as it applies to writing, to my life as an American living in Cardiff, and to this poem in particular. Finally, if you’re American, I hope you’re voting today and doing so sensibly and with discerning caution.
This poem was originally published in my chapbook Along the Diminishing Stretch of Memory by Dancing Girl Press in 2014.
Today began with a writer photo shoot this morning – Erna took pictures of me
in her neighbor’s studio. We set the scene up like a writer’s desk, and Erna chose to take most of the pictures with a black backdrop and low lighting, which made for an effect that I found extremely moving and that I’ve not seen before – just one of the many ways Erna is immensely creative.
We also worked in her studio this evening, and I got to see a bit of the early stages of Erna’s process creating her linocuts. At the same time, I worked to revise a couple of poems for the collaboration that needed a tweak or two.
I showed Erna a new poem called “Law of Love,” and she liked the idea so much that she spontaneously sketched the scene that came to her mind based on the scope of the poem. It was amazing to watch her mind work that fast and to see her imagination come to life.
After a hearty dinner with wine, we have been left alone in the kitchen for a final moment of collaboration as Erna’s husband and son have gone to bed. Tonight, she is revising one of her images, and I am working on the title poem for the collection, which I am composing based on the collaborative board of images and words that we completed on the first night.
Tonight, as we listen to the Amelie soundtrack (which has so many lovely memories for me) and work
at our respective and yet shared arts, I can’t help but reflect on the journey that got me to this moment. On Sunday, Erna told me that she’s never had a booth at the Christmas Market where I met her in 2016 except for that one day in which I just happened to be in Amsterdam with my friend Lauren. Lauren and I only just happened on that market after leaving the Van Gogh museum. Erna only set up at that same market one time because her other market had become overcrowded. We met by chance or did we? So much in my life had to line up just right; one turn of the dial and none of this (including my move to Cardiff) would have happened. All those failures, those heartbreaks, those despairing moments I thought would never pass lead me to this incredible new life ❤ So, I think there’s always purpose in pain, always. Feel it deeply, journey through it, and then keep on going…
“You strode deeper and deeper / into the world, / determined to do / the only thing you could do – / determined to save / the only life you could save.” – Mary Oliver
On Day 2 of the on-site collaboration, we left the studio in Steenderen and completed no actual tangible work on the project. And yet, we accomplished a great deal.
Early this morning, we loaded up in Erna’s van bound for Het Nationale Park De Hoge
Veluwe, a Dutch National Park. After all, I’m here to work, but I’m also a tourist.
We took the scenic route, which included a ferry over what to me was a very small river. I thought of the story of the troll under the bridge (even though there was no bridge) as we passed over the water; we were the only vehicle on the tiny ferry, and the ferry captain’s first mate was his well-trained black Labrador.
When we got to the park, I chose one of the park bicycles available for use. Bicycling is such a major part of Dutch culture that it felt silly not to try it, though I haven’t ridden a bike in something like 20 years. I do have fond memories of bike riding around Amory, Mississippi, in my youth; back then, I felt so much agency and energy in taking to the streets on my bike and going about my small world alone to observe the quiet town in evening air. It is, however, very much a lie that you never forget how to ride a bike. I did forget, but with the help of Erna, I relearned.
Over the afternoon, we toured the Jachthuis Sint-Hubertus, an iconic house in the Netherlands, famous for its grandeur, tall tower, and excessive religious allusions. We also visited the Kröller-Müller Museum and walked around the exhibit of around 90 Van Gogh paintings, including the famous Café Terrace at Night.
But, running parallel to the touring, bike riding, and car journey was a day long conversation between Erna and myself, including a timeless, open, and heart rendering talk in the woods overlooking the Jachthuis Sint-Hubertus and its lake in which we talked over our great loves, our great losses, spirituality, dreams, the energies that move us and rattle us. Erna had hot tea in a thermos, cheese on toast, and sultana cookies, and like two fairies in the woods, we used our powers to delve into the past. I also cut my ankle on a rose bush that I didn’t see coming; some beauty you never see coming until it cuts too deeply.
We didn’t complete a poem or an artwork today, but I have a feeling that we
strengthened and authenticated the collaboration more over today’s adventure than we could have in the studio. Because to me, a successful creative collaboration emerges from the connection between the two people involved; the deeper the connection, the deeper the joint creative venture can be taken. The stories Erna told me about her life are now a part of me, and mine are hers. When we start to tell our stories as well as my stories, we’re truly getting to good stuff.
“Our whole life is an attempt to discover when our spontaneity is whimsical, sentimental irresponsibility and when it is a valid expression of our deepest desires and values.” – Helen Merrell Lynd
Today was the first official day of my on-site collaboration with Dutch artist Erna Kuik. She and I have been collaborating on a book project (a book of poems and images) since early 2017, and this week I flew into Amsterdam for a three day in-person workshop at her beautiful home and studio in Steenderen, a city in the eastern Netherlands.
On Saturday evening, I arrived in Amsterdam and met Erna’s daughter, Jara, at the train station, and she was gracious enough to let me stay in her flat for the evening. She prepared me that her flat was tiny, and so it was, but it was also very warm and charming and full of character. We at burgers in the city, and then back at her flat, we had stroop waffles and tea, and she showed me videos of her clarinet playing (she’s a music major) and of her beautiful trip to Georgia (the country, not the U.S. state). We enjoyed a peaceful evening of culture and language exchange 🙂
The next day I went off on my own to explore the city before meeting Erna at the Artsplein Spui (a weekly art market on Sundays in Amsterdam). I had a few ideas in mind of places I wanted to visit, but then I had this overwhelming urge to find a café (my thought was to put “coffee shop,” but that is a very different thing in Amsterdam) and write this email I’d been needing to send. Suffice to say it will probably be in the TOP 5 most important emails I’ll ever send, and I did so at a café and bakery called Mensink, a name I quite enjoy. I then wandered the city. Amsterdam is so good for meandering with its dreamy canals, canal houses, gabled facades, and bicycles moving through the streets alongside the cars. I’d toured Amsterdam properly in December 2016, so on Sunday, I just wanted to walk and to observe and to eat fries with mayonnaise and peanut sauce (a Dutch favorite). An artist I met at the market told me some people call Amsterdam a “large village,” and I really agree; it feels so manageable and cosy, even through it’s a capital city of Europe.
After the market, Erna and I made our way to her home, which is about a 1.5 hour drive from Amsterdam. This morning Erna woke me up, and after I got ready, I met her downstairs for breakfast where she was already rereading my poems and sketching ideas. She had fried an egg for me and laid out bread, cheese, and orange juice. She also made me a very delicious and much needed cup of coffee.
We spent most of our time together today planning the project, choosing poems, choosing
images I would write on, talking book design, and Erna sketching three new images to correspond to three of my poems. We also talked about the book cover, which she will also design and which I’m immensely excited about. It looks like we’ll be including around 40 pages of poetry and around 16 images, and I am happy to report that all but around 5 poems are in some form of existence with 20 poems totally finished and another 10 in late draft stages.
I think what we both enjoy is that the other’s work deeply inspires our own creative work. We also both share the idea that art to image or image to art work shouldn’t be literal. When writing an ekphrastic poem, it’s far more interesting to push beyond the image itself – it’s colors, shapes, angles, objects, characters – and develop a new meaning, a new vision that uses but doesn’t merely summarize the artwork or poem. Since our vision is so in sync, we had an idea of working on an image/poem together, letting ideas ignite and fuse at the same time rather than one or the other writing or drawing on an existing image. So, tonight we started a collaborative idea board and worked on sketches, word associations, obsessions, and themes, which proved extremely plentiful, generating more ideas than I know what to do with.
In terms of themes, both Erna’s artwork and my poems include a lot of bird and nest images, so I found it quite meaningful when she told me today that the following is considered the only remaining example of Old Dutch: “Hebban olla uogala nestas hagunnan hinase hic enda thu uuat unbidan uue nu,” which translates to the following in English: “Have all birds begun nests, except me and you – what are we waiting for?”
Such a lovely day in Erna’s happy home and studio, which is filled with art, warmth, love, books, food, and mirth. It’s a place to rest and to create. More tomorrow 🙂
“A feminist is any woman who tells the truth about her life.” – Virginia Woolf
Something to know about me – as a creative writer – is that I’ve always had an exceptionally hard time starting and keeping any kind of consistent writing schedule. Also, I’m terrible to put everything else in the world before my own creative energies and creative needs.
But, I’ve turned my whole life upset down to have this time here in Wales (I moved to Wales, by the way) to write and pursue writing aspirations. Even though I’m here, my mind is still going in 1,000 different directions, and I have so many ideas (and so many stresses) that I’m not sure where to start. What ends up happening is a lot of time becomes wasted thinking about writing, planning to write, reading with the goal of writing, but no actual writing gets done. For one, I’ve started – due to both internal and external pressures – to think about whole collections of poems rather than the individual poem, which of course, has to come first. When you’re thinking too much about the macro, it can be hard to hone in on the micro. Also, I sometimes think if I can’t write something publishable on a given day, why write at all? I’m embarrassed to admit this because I know this treats writing as a means to an end rather than what it actually is to me – a matter of living, experiencing the life lived, and sharing that experience with others. This sad realization also underscores a crippling perfectionism that spans many areas of my life and work.
I’m also honored to be in collaboration with a wonderful Dutch artist and to be teeming with ideas following two very hard years of my life. It’s time to write, for my well-being, for my growth, for the things I left behind, and for my aspirations for the future.
So, the other day I was looking at a list of poems I have ready. I looked at the list critically and tried to make a secondary list of other poems I need write in order to flesh out the narrative arc I see forming in the work as a whole. When I was done, I made a list of 20 poems. My heart sank looking at the list. How long would this take at my current creative output rate, 12 years? But, the thing is, the poems are already inside of me. I know the story; I know the emotions. These specific poems don’t need research; they just need me to sit down and write them. But, for two days, I tried and all I could see was the macro – the list of twenty. My ideas went back and forth from one poem idea to another. And, I made some good notes. But, you know what I didn’t do? Write one single draft of one single poem.
Last night, an idea struck me. Why don’t I try to do one poem per day for 20 days? There’s more… As per my idea, I have to go in the order of the list I made out of specific poems I need to write. No jumping ahead or backwards. I would treat this like a firm assignment, like I don’t have a choice. Also, I can only spend one hour on the poem (+15 or 30 minutes if the energy is really flowing). The limited time, I thought, might create a sense of urgency, like that jolt of productivity you feel when the essay is due in five hours. Also, no social media or email. I could only use my phone for the dictionary or minimum pertinent internet research if needed, Finally, it shouldn’t matter if the draft is particularly good – only solid and stable as a first draft. After all, revision is often where the magic happens.
So, I’m going to do this thing. And I’m going to give a brief update here each day to share how it’s going. And, since I just finished Day 1, I can stop talking theory and now switch to practice.
Day 1 – October 8, 2017
I began the first hour of the first day of this challenge around 1pm this afternoon. About two minutes after I began, I wanted to scrap the whole idea I had for this poem into the electronic trash bin. But, my eye glimpsed the time, and I thought “Okay, one hour. I can do this.” The limited time turned out to be a great idea! It made me 1) quickly jump into serious work but it also 2) wasn’t so long that I started to feel tied down or bored. The poem today (and for the next five days) is a prose poem, so I had many thoughts about the form over the hour, wishing I had more examples immediately around for me to read/review. I resisted this urge, however, feeling that it wasn’t a good use of my limited time or internet privileges to look up sample poems. Also, I thought that might prove to be more distracting than helpful. I worked toward a natural end to the poem and then began going back through and adding other layers to the content and shifting phrases around. I remember by the time thirty minutes had passed I couldn’t believe how deep I had delved into some very real feelings crafted in a decent draft AND I STILL HAD THIRTY MINUTES LEFT. I ended around 2:05pm with a draft I’m pleased with. Don’t want to marry it, but you know what, it exists and for that I’m pleased. Hope the success continues tomorrow! Excerpt from today’s writing: “The highway calls for elucidation like any another notebook…”
Day 2 – October 9, 2017
Today was hard. I was quite productive earlier in another area of my work, but as the afternoon progressed, I started to feel tired and unwell. So, I napped, but about 1.5 hours later, I was ripped from the nap by the horrifying scream of the fire alarm (fire drill). After I got back to my room, I just felt very unmotivated and also like it should be the next day (the confusing power of naps). But, I need to stop being whiny. Because I still did it. I still got my laptop out, all sluggish and annoyed. I checked the list of poems, and I wrote a draft. I had a hard time tonight staying focused. I kept wanting to look at my phone and fidget. But, surprisingly, I think the poem draft I completed tonight is much more polished and cohesive than last night’s. So, I’m pleased again. Note to self: don’t save creative writing until the end of the day: you never know how you’ll feel by then (Or, conversely, maybe I write better when I’m tired… hmm…). Excerpt from today’s writing: “That’s the muscle and meat of it. Once you asked if I was happy, you had already written the answer.”
Day 3 – October 10, 2017
Bust 😦 But, it happens. And, luckily I make the rules! I’ve been dealing with a hurt foot this evening and a general tired/drained lack of motivation for all things thinking and doing. I’m going to give myself a break today, given the pain. But, the pursuit continues. 20 poems in 20 days must happen, so I guess maybe I’ll double up another day? TBD…
Day 4 – October 11, 2017
Well, the dream continues despite yesterday’s setback. I started around 9:20 tonight and really had to force myself to turn to creative writing over the other pressing, non-creative items on my list. I’m glad I did, though, and I’m glad to have started earlier in the evening before I got too tired. A few observations from tonight: I find myself starting each time very annoyed and detached from the work. At some point during the hour, that shifts. I suppose once a certain amount of raw emotion or original-ish lines come out in the work I start to feel invested in it, and the tone changes. In all three of the drafts I have written so far, I feel there are still some clichés, wordiness, and I’m probably being at times too crafted. But, again, I’m pleased with these existing as first drafts. Another not-so-new observation: I know I’m getting into some real emotion when after finishing a draft I start to cry. I hope what I feel when I write scenes like this translates to readers some day. Excerpt from today’s writing: “In their version of the story, we’d be bandits, derelicts, forever on the run from the law.”
Day 5: October 12, 2017
I didn’t write as long tonight as I wanted. I did the thing I said more than once I shouldn’t do: started too late in the evening. But, I start teaching a new class tomorrow for the first time, so I was putting effort tonight into finalizing materials. I also wonder if I started this 20 in 20 too soon after moving to a new country? I say this because my body is definitely still adjusting to its new surroundings: climate, walking everywhere, new food. I think I ate something that bugged my system because I’ve just been feeling not right for the last day and a half or so. But, still I got out my laptop and started plugging away at the fourth poem. Made it about four lines in when the fire alone went off (at midnight). Now that I’m back in my room, I’m just going to call it a night. Tonight’s poem was born; it will grow up soon enough. Tonight’s excerpt: “I’m measuring my life now in the weight of my key chain: the keys I’m removing; the ones I’m adding temporarily. Nothing seems permanent anymore.”
Day 6: October 13, 2017
Today I composed the first bit of a decent poem on my phone. I’m such a stickler for rules, but I broke one stated rule and one unstated. The latter being that I would properly write on my laptop. The former being that I would write the poems in the order I originally wrote down when I conceived the list. To this last one, I’ll say that I had good intentions when I sat out to try to force some rules on my unruly writing habits, BUT the first six I had written on the list were very intense and challenging, and the list was made out arbitrarily and before I started this challenge. I started to lose heart and so I decided to loosen the grip on the rules and write what felt natural. I think these kinds of changes are vital if good work and productivity are the end goal. Excerpt from today’s writing: “You tried to explain pressure to me. Submarine deep. Milky Way high.”
Day 7: October 14, 2017
Well, if I thought I broke the rules yesterday, then I really broke them today because the poem I wrote I didn’t actually WRITE DOWN. As I was winding through the hills of the Brecon Beacons here in Wales, I wrote another epistle poem in my head, thinking about the last time I rode through these hills. I probably spent four hours going over and over drafts of the poem in my head, and I’ll jot down this first draft over the day or when I get back home tonight. Two things I’m pondering today: 1) I once heard it said that if you’re thinking about work, that’s still working, especially if you’re thinking about it on vacation as I was yesterday. I believe I agree with this. 2) Why do I feel the need to justify changing the rules here in these little blurbs? Why are the rules (in this writing exercise and in life) so incredibly important to me? Maybe TOO important… Excerpt from today’s writing: “The Brecon Beacons haven’t changed for centuries, their rugged beauty intact and alive in the wispy and winding valleys, the craggy rocks which seem to grow out of the hills, the herds of sheep, their hides livened with spray-painted.”
Day 8: October 15, 2017
Tonight, I took one idea I had and broke it into two different poems, ending the writing session with one strong draft and one working okay draft. I’m happy with tonight’s work, and this also makes up for the bust on day three! I have eight drafts on Day 8! I am particularly proud of this because I am getting sick – head/chest cold. I’m trying to keep the illness at bay but not feeling my best. Still, I powered through. Also, a writing note: I think maybe I write better on an empty stomach. “Food” for thought… Excerpt from today’s writing: “I just got here, but everywhere I look there’s an injured bird.”
Day 9: October 16, 2017
I wrote two new poems tonight in addition to combining and recording several drafts written over the chaotic last few months. One of the new poems I wrote is a haiku in reference to the ME TOO movement that’s sparked on Facebook. The second is a poem about Hurricane Ophelia, which 1) came the U.K., a place that hasn’t seen a storm like this in decades 2) the storm brought dust from the Sahara 3) made planes smell like smoke as they were flying over 4) created a golden atmospheric effect with a red sun 6) what’s up with the name? What a great literary reference! Thank you, universe, for the overwhelming inspiration today. Excerpt from today’s writing: “Ophelia in the sky above me, in the wind that burns my ears.”
Day 10: October 17, 2017
Total bust. I’m super sick with a chest infection.
Day 11: October 18, 2017
Total bust again. The chest infection continues with its fever, aches, and general awfulness.
Day 12: October 19, 2017
Although I didn’t get as much done today as I hoped, I did sit down and type out the beginnings of a poem draft. I’m trying to slowly get back to work after this week of being confined and largely bedridden.
Day 13: October 20, 2017
Day 14: October 21, 2017
Interesting experience of writing a poem tonight that I think I’ll probably in a day or two trash. But, I think this was beneficial to try something I was unsure of and let the draft be imperfect and fragile. Previously, I wouldn’t have even started a poem at all unless the idea was so polished in my mind that it warranted a trial run as an actual draft. I haven’t before put down half-baked ideas. But, I’m committed to getting more down on paper, even the ideas that don’t make it out into the world. My idea of writing poems from the POV of fever dreams might not work out after all. But, that’s okay.
Day 15: October 22, 2017
Tonight, I got the idea for a poem draft from looking at a certain kind of Facebook post. I used to be cheekier in my poems and more ironic. But, then the subject matter I was focusing on changed a bit, and most of my work since has been in earnest, tone-wise. It was nice to go back to the playful, even though some real emotions are worked out in this draft. I think that cheeky tone is quite authentic to my voice, and I’m trying quite hard in this project I’m working to let my personal voice come out more, including the snarky, the dark, the messy, the obsessive, and the confused. Excerpt: “If you say you’re unhappy aloud, does the sky rain down in shards of glass?”
Day 16: October 23, 2017
A New Orleans poem tonight. The last time I was there I kept a journal, trying to remember the folklore, parts of the city, the way I was feeling at the time. Now, it’s time to make good on those promises…
Day 17: October 24, 2017
Another New Orleans poem tonight. Part of why this 20 in 20 is timely as well as super productive is that there are emotions in me that are presently rapidly changing. But, those emotions are in part a large key factor to the book I’m trying to finish. It’s like, in some ways, racing against the clock to try to get down some diminishing feelings that, once they’re gone, can still be written about but will have lost immediacy and fire. Well, even now, I’m writing from memories instead of feelings. Or rather, memories of feelings. This is why Anne Lamott is right about Shitty First Drafts. I wish I had some half-baked poems from when I was really in the thick of it. But, the problem is that it’s so hard to do Eros in poems, almost everything is a cliche. I never could really come up with the right configurations. But, I’m trying to let those anxieties go. Love may have been written about in all ways over and over, but there will always be room for more of it because people like the stories. They like feeling love and remembering love. One shouldn’t run away from writing about love. One should push at the hard wall that it is until the very authentic realities of the particular story comes through the writing.
Day 18: October 25, 2017
Tonight, I tried to write a poem inspired by the fever dreams I had when I was sick. And just the general loneliness one feels under the duress of a high fever when you have to be your own caretaker and your own sickling. No idea where this one will lead. Maybe its future is a solid poem, maybe its future is the delete button.
Day 19 & Day 20: October 26 & 27, 2017
Although I did finish the 20 in 20, I am woefully behind on updating! To close out the writing project, I went back to those more emotionally raw prose poems I started with in the beginning. Taking a break from that series gave me the space and time I needed to revamp and re-inspire myself.
CONCLUSION & TAKEAWAYS
*In the end, I finished the 20 Poems in 20 Days project with 24 pages of new poetry, even with the days I took off when I was ill.
*The exercise was wildly successful in pressuring/encouraging me to write regularly – daily in fact. It became a routine, something I did at the end of each night before bed. I allowed myself to write a couple of shit poems, but I am overall quite impressed by how far along many of the poems ended up. In the days since, I have not gotten back into the same swing. I needed a bit of a break. My plan is to start a proper and consistent writing schedule in the next few days and stick with it. If I don’t, I may do another 20 in 20 again. With that being said, I suppose doing a 20 in 20 every other month could be its own writing schedule, rather than thinking a writing schedule should be daily 365 days a year.
*Here’s the most important takeaway – I had to be imperfect to finish this goal. In my mind when I begin, I just knew I would sit upright with excellent posture at my desk every morning, sip coffee, and write poems on a perfectly set routine. Why do I do this to myself? I’m 33 years old – don’t I know myself yet? I rarely write at a desk. I write in bed – on my laptop with five books laying open and mechanical pencils lining the spaces between the books. Also, there were days it didn’t happen: days I was ill, one day I just didn’t have it in me no matter how hard I tried. I was honest about that in my write ups and let myself be with an almost-minimal amount of guilt. But, by giving myself this grace, I rewarded myself because there were other days that energies and inspirations were high, and I completed two poems drafts in a day instead of one. I still had to push myself on days, but allowing myself to be imperfect, to be human, to break and tweak the rules I outlined for myself is the only reason I finished this project. And, that’s the most important lesson that I, (myself – as a painful perfectionist) could have learned. By nature, I follow the rules; it’s natural to me and makes me feel steady, but in my writing life, it may be time to go rogue!
In the spring of this year, I was commissioned to write four poems for a successful LLC with national advertisement reach. I was honored and was PAID for my poetry writing. It was a wonderful experience overall. Below are the poems from this venture; they are now property of MONQ, LLC, who retain first North American serial rights ~Christie
In the fall of 2016, I reviewed Catherine Pierce’s new book of poems, The Tornado is the World. I was fortunate to have the review picked up by The Chicago Review of Books and published on their site on December 9th, 2016. Below is a excerpt and a link to read the full review.
Catherine Pierce’s poignant and brave-spirited third book of poems, The Tornado Is the World, takes the reader into the midst of a natural disaster. In the poem “True Story,” the primary speaker reveals that “once, in a Days Inn bathroom in Cullman, Alabama, / I covered my four-month-old son as my husband / covered me as the tornado went by.” As the book progresses, we, as readers, find ourselves survivors in the tornado’s aftermath, grateful to be alive but unsure of how to proceed or mourn those who weren’t as lucky. We find ourselves three months into the future, looking back and knowing that nothing will ever be the same. It’s from the perspective of a survivor that this book takes form, and to be sure, only a survivor could write this kind of exposé on a tornado, though the speaker warns that “no told story is ever true enough.” Read the rest of the review here.
CRAFT OF LITERARY 2.5 (Special Macro Edition): Featuring Raquel Hollingsworth – “Growing the .06%: Shifting the Classroom Focus from Creative Writing to Literacy”
The New York Times and The Huffington Post both recently cited surveys that claim at least 80% of Americans think they can or want to write a book (Dietrich and Epstein). However, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about .06% of the American working population are actually employed authors and writers. Just let that sink in.
For me, these numbers make a couple of things very clear. First, a large amount of people like the idea of writing a book; it’s encouraging to know that almost all of them have the desire to write, and that’s something nearly impossible to teach. That statistic gives me hope. The second thing to understand is that few writers actually make it happen, whether because of lack of skill or lack of perseverance, but this is where we may be able to do something about this discrepancy: our students certainly have the will to write, but they may not have the way. That deficit is one we can work with.
So considering the statistics, how do we successfully approach creative writing in the elementary and secondary classrooms, because without doubt, it must flourish there to stand a chance. How do we encourage and steer students who want to enter such a competitive field? What does such a classroom look like? It is definitely different than a strict English Language Arts classroom, but how? And it is undoubtedly different from the post-secondary workshop of more experienced writers.
And to complicate the matrix of obstacles, how do we fertilize young writers in poverty? This is especially unique to the elementary and secondary classroom. Unfortunately, most who fall victim to poverty will not see the workshop setting of college that is such an integral part of the field. So how can teachers foster and build the necessary skills and grit young writers need? That is the question.
The answer? Experience.
Most people say to write what you know. We’ve all heard the advice. The idea that our stories have more credibility, more believability, when we have experience on which to model our plots and characters, and they would be right, but the word encompasses so much more than just that.
I am a twenty-nine year old female English teacher from Mississippi. I graduated with my Masters from a Creative Writing program hailing from a dominantly agricultural university and a large number of my stories are from the point of view of an adolescent male – but none where he drives a tractor or sits in a classroom. None where he has what I would think of as an experience I’ve had. Yet, I still use my experience to inform my writing – in craft, in grammar, in tone, in character motivation. But so often we think of crafting plot when people say to write from experience, but in hindsight, that’s too limiting, especially considering the scope of successful writers and their stories.
We are only applying experience as half of the solution to the problem. So often, people think of experience as something that can be recreated in writing, and many would argue that primary and secondary students are too young to have the kind of experience that avoids cliched writing and leads to genuine stories. And in particular, students bound by poverty and its chains have even fewer opportunities to expand their experience.
But jumping to this conclusion ignores an important step in the process of building strong writers. Experience as a blueprint for writing is the second step to the problem. The first step is to create experience through reading. After all, good writers must first be good readers. For good writers, the two are undeniably connected.
Creating Experience Through Reading:
- The easiest and most accessible tool to grow the imagination is reading. Remember, our imagination grows from our experience. My creative writing thesis director at Mississippi State University, Michael Kardos, once asked me, “So you want to be a writer? What are you reading?” It is so critical to buy into the idea that writers are readers and visa versa. Good writing comes from reading good writing. Furthermore, there are only so many experiences we can actually have; after all, time is finite. Reading is a way to simulate new experiences and perhaps even reveal ones that students had and didn’t realize. Grace Lin has a TED Talk called “The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf” in which she argues that the texts readers/writers are exposed to should be texts in which the identifying characters are both symbols of mirrors (those who are like ourselves) and windows (those who are different from ourselves). Her argument supports the idea that reading can and should teach us about ourselves and others because it is only through getting to know people, all kinds of people, that we are able to write genuine stories that matter.
- Stop thinking of poverty as a boundary or a chain. In Mississippi, we are statistically one of the poorest states in the country, but we are also one of the wealthiest crops for successful writers born out of poverty: Oprah Winfrey, Muddy Waters, Ida B. Wells, Anne Moody, Jerry Clower, Alice Walker, Richard Wright, and even Rick Ross. Students should read their stories and learn about their lives. As teachers, creative writing or otherwise, we must encourage others to recognize poverty as a well from which experience springs. Poor kids do have experiences. The challenge is helping them realize that they have stories worth hearing, because so few think they do. The stigma around poverty has often defined it as something to overcome rather than something that creates beautiful life experience. That must change.
- Read the World! Yes, poverty is undoubtedly experience, but it also shouldn’t be a writer’s only experience. Students need to see the world. There is some credibility to the thought that travelers are cultured. And being exposed to culture creates experience. According to the National Household Travel Survey, nearly sixty-one percent of the American population does not travel more than fifty miles from their home in a year, and those who do travel usually take trips of 250 miles or less. Added to that, low-income families, especially those concentrated in metropolitan areas, take fewer extended distance trips than the rest of the population, somewhere from one to three annually. (“NPTS”) As indicated, sometimes travel isn’t possible; those students often have few opportunities to broaden their ideas and understandings of people and cultures largely because of poverty. But experience can be created. There are still ways to expose young writers to the world and help them gain diverse experience.
- Create a classroom community and bring the community into the classroom. This is two-fold. An important part of writing is sharing and revision. For young writers, sharing is hard (okay, maybe not as hard for this tech-social generation than some). But sharing real writing makes us vulnerable. Teachers need to build the kind of classroom that fosters a sense of community and safety that promotes trust, honesty, and acceptance, a classroom where a writer feels open to suggestion. The second part of this is to bring the community into the classroom. This obviously helps build a student’s experience, or at least his/her bank of experiences to pull from, even if they are not personal. Newbie writers sometimes need a word-bank of plots, so to speak. Introduce them to people in the community that they can relate to and who have stories to share. Young writers, and young people in general, need to see real people, their connections to the community, their struggles, their successes. They need to know there is someone on the other side of graduation who they can relate to.
- Take your students on field trips or invite guest speakers. I know what you are thinking. But I teach in a high poverty area; we don’t have money for field trips and I probably couldn’t get the permission forms back anyway. No worries. The field trips can come to you. Use tools at your disposal to take your students on journeys around the world. Periscope is a great tool to see the world! Start following teachers who can get their kids out of the classroom and want to share the fun. Ron Clark (Ron Clark Academy) recently had his students scope their field trip and share some of what they were seeing and learning in museums and around town. Invite people to speak – Those in your community, certainly – but those outside of it, too. Email authors and invite them to talk to your students. Several are happy to appear for free! You just have to ask.
Although reading and writing are presented separately here, it should be made clear that the two are inseparable and should always be taught in conjunction. One feeds the other and they should never be isolated. Therefore, as students are building reading experience, creating experience through writing is just as important to fostering weathered creatives. The process of writing should become one that is constantly reflective, fluid, and never-ending (but eventually reaching a publishable stage).
Creating Experience Through Writing:
- Once you have your students reading, they need to write about it! According to the Report of The National Commission on Writing, writing is the “neglected R” (“The Neglected ‘R’”). As experienced writers, we know that final products only come out of revisions which comes from writing, and writing, and writing some more. Students need time and opportunity to write inside and outside of the classroom. Suggest they set aside a predetermined amount of time each day to write or take this time in your class, and then stick to it.
- Have your writers experiment with different genres. So often, young writers think creative, personal writing means writing sappy love poems. Have them experiment with other text structures: blogs, emails, letters, memes, advertising slogans. So often, even we as teachers think of creative writing in terms of fictional literature. And while literary fiction is an important part of creative writing, remind students that creative writing doesn’t necessarily have to be narrative, and even when it is, narratives can be imagined or real. Creative nonfiction is a burgeoning new field. Encourage new writers to try it out.
- Write with your students! How can you teach writing if you never write? And why would a student of writing want to take advice from a teacher who doesn’t write? It just doesn’t make sense. In her book Write Beside Them, Penny Kittle argues that writing with your students is a critical step in the modeling process that students need to understand “thinking in its raw form” (7). At its core, writing with our students is showing, not telling – a skill we drill in writing classes. This essential step also helps students see how to go where the writing is going, to distinguish when the story should go one way, even when the thinking is going another. When we model drafting and revision, we teach students to be objective — essentially, how to write with a reader in mind – something impossible to understand when a writer isn’t reading.
- Create real pay-offs. Students want to know there is the possibility for success. We’ve already talked about success numbers, and logically, we know not all of our students will turn into John Grisham, but that’s not what I mean by a pay-off. Students who want to write need to know the reality of the publishing world, and that to seriously pursue a career as a creative literary writer will come with long hours and likely little financial revenue. But they still need to know the path to success, whether it’s paved in gold or not. Teach them the world of publishing. Write cover letters with them. Talk to editors. Have them submit real pieces for publication consideration. Several literary journals or websites are targeted to young writers. Check out Ricochet Magazine/Review (which strives to provide editorial feedback to all submissions), The Louisville Review, Phoebe: Journal of Literature and Art, Armchair/Shotgun, River Teeth, The Round, Stone Soup (8-13 yrs old, publications are compensated), Teenage Wasteland Review, The Blue Pencil Online, and Cuckoo Quarterly just to name a few.
The Center for Development and Learning argues that “reading, writing, speaking and listening … are all interrelated and affect one another. There is a fundamental and reciprocal relationship among oral language… written language, and reading” (“Language”). If we expect to grow young writers to be flourishing members of the creative writing community, we must stop teaching reading and writing in isolation and start encompassing literacy as a main goal, no matter the demographic of our classrooms. When we shift our thinking to encompass the malleability and vastness of literacy, we stand a chance of developing more experienced citizens, and thereby, more informed and genuine writers of such an important and influential field.
Dietrich, William. “The Writer’s Odds of Success.” The Huffington Post. 04 Mar.2013.http://www.huffingtonpost.com/william-dietrich/the-writers-odds-of-succe_b_2806611.html.
Epstein, Joseph. “Think You Have a Book in You? Think Again.” The New York Times. 28 Sept. 2002. http://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/28/opinion/think-you-have-a-book-in-you-think-again.html
Kittle, Penny. Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing. Heinemann, 2008.
“Language.” Center for Development and Learning. http://www.cdl.org/language/
Lin, Grace. “The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf.” TEDx 19 Mar. 2016. http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/The-Windows-and-Mirrors-of-Your
“The Neglected ‘R’: The Need for a Writing Revolution.” Report of The National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges. The College Board. 2003 Apr. http://www.collegeboard.com/prod_downloads/writingcom/neglectedr.pdf
“NPTS Brief.” U.S. Department of Transportation. 2006 Mar. http://nhts.ornl.gov/briefs/Long%20Distance%20Travel.pdf
“Occupational Outlook Handbook.” Bureau of Labor Statistics. United States Department of Labor. 17 Dec. 2015. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/media-and-communication/writers-and-authors.htm
ABOUT RAQUEL: Raquel Hollingsworth is a teacher of literature and composition at Puckett High School and Hinds Community College in Mississippi. She holds her MA in English with a concentration in creative writing from Mississippi State University where she also served as the associate editor of the Jabberwock Review. She is currently active with the National Writing Project and the College Ready Writer’s Program in Mississippi. You can connect with her on social media.
Craft of Literary features flash essays on craft, CW pedagogy, and publishing by emerging and established writers. For more information, click here.
I’m excited to share the news with everyone! I am transferring from the doctoral program in English/Creative Writing at the University of Louisiana Lafayette to the doctoral program at Cardiff University in Wales, UK! Because I’ll be considered the equivalent to ABD (all but dissertation), the program has offered to waive the residency requirement and allow me to work on the degree from the States, though I do look forward to traveling over for retreats and meetings.
Some might say inspiration leads English students away from the corporate landscape and down the same career paths as their instructors. Others blame comfort or fear. But I would posit these students simply don’t know other options exist.
The very purpose of education is preparation for the future. But, as of late, it appears institutions haven’t been doing their part. Most English students I’ve spoken with have expressed a severe lack of knowledge about corporate career choices, which is a shame because employers today actually prefer English majors. English students offer good critical thinking skills with the ability to articulate those thoughts – something few other majors can boast.
If you’re searching for a career outside of academia, here are some quick tips to get started:
1. Connect with Friends and Acquaintances
Begin with people you know. Ask them about a specific job title opening – not just “any job,” since it will prompt an “anything answer.” Some common titles that go well with the English major are Copywriter, Content Writer, Communications Specialist, Technical Writer, Brand Journalist, Copyeditor, and Content Specialist.
You’d be amazed how many people get jobs through friends or acquaintances. That’s one of the reasons why school is so important: it builds connections.
2. Connect Your Skills to the Role
Compare what skills you already have to the skills in the job post. Read between the lines here; you may have accomplished more than you think. For example, if they’re looking for someone who can write to persuade an audience, you’ve already done that in writing thesis-driven essays.
Here’s the big question employers are asking: “Are you a good fit for my team?” Be sure to connect your skills in both cover letters and interviews. If you don’t have a previous job title that implies a certain skill set, it’s your goal to inform employers you’ve already demonstrated these requirements
3. Update Appearances
You get an interview because you’re qualified for the job. You get the job because of your personality. It’s cliché to say, but dress for the position you want. It’s superficial—I know—but you can focus on changing preconceptions later.
Social media and job searching are a lot like online dating: make sure your profile reflects your best qualities.
4. At the Interview: Be Ready for the Unexpected
Have a great handshake. It’s your first physical contact with employers, and a firm handshake demonstrates determination. Practice common interview questions beforehand with a friend, spinning all questions about weaknesses into strengths (for example: I get anxious being late to meetings, so I always arrive five minutes early).
Research the average income for the position. Since you don’t have the average level of experience, calculate a desired salary below this number. The employer will almost always ask you for a salary expectation on the first encounter – always at a time when you least expect it.
Lastly, have questions after the interview has concluded: This shows you’re eager for the position.
ABOUT DANIEL: Daniel Lassell is a copywriter, poet and creative writer. He is the winner of a William J. Maier Writing Award and runner-up of the 2016 Bermuda Triangle Prize. His work has been featured or is forthcoming in Atticus Review, Slipstream, Pembroke Magazine, Hotel Amerika, Reunion: The Dallas Review, The Poet’s Billow, Split Lip Magazine, and New Poetry from the Midwest. He received his MA in English from Marshall University, and has written for such companies as MOBI and Angie’s List. Currently, he is a Content Writer for Bluelock, a cloud-based IT disaster recovery company. You can connect with him on social media or at www.daniel-lassell.com
Craft of Literary features flash essays on craft, CW pedagogy, and publishing by emerging and established writers. For more information, click here.