Tag Archives: writing

Writers in the Schools — A Second Time Round

(This is Part Two in a series on teaching a fanfiction workshop. Part One is here.)

When planning the fanfiction workshop, I had the benefit of experience to look back on. The MFA program at the University of Washington offered an internship called “Writers in the Schools.” I worked with a classroom teacher at a local school to teach short story writing to a class of 7th graders. That was a challenging job and although we all made it through, with some great short stories, I never quite felt I was up for the task. I was pretty shy and had absolutely no idea how to keep the attention of thirty teenagers! They were awestruck for the first few weeks, but when my “author glamour” wore off, it was a struggle to keep them quiet enough so that I could give my lessons.

On top of that, after the class was over I felt that I had taught them the wrong things. I spent so much time explaining the conventions of the short story form, the mystery genre, the adventure genre, and so forth, when many of these conventions are already imprinted on our brains. I spent much less time with confidence-building and tips and tricks for getting unstuck. And when their stories were finished I critiqued them in the same way adult writers critique each other’s stories, not understanding that I was sending a message that a Professional Stamp of Approval would be required for their art.

I gave it my best, and I did a good job, but still . . . . I wanted a do-over!

Since then, I’ve had a lot more experience with teaching and public speaking. I now know that teaching is as much performance art as it is transmission of information. It’s about knowing when kids’ attention is lagging and how to get it back.

I’ve also had a lot of time to think about what kinds of help young writers actually do and don’t need. In general, it’s helpful if it’s about how to get ideas out of your brain and onto the paper. It’s not helpful if it’s about how to do it correctly. It’s helpful if it’s about practice. It’s not helpful if the initial focus is on final product.

Above all, it’s helpful if it’s fun.

Enter the fanfiction component.

Next up: Day One

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On teaching a fanfiction workshop for kids

This year I volunteered in the classroom to teach a group of 4th and 5th graders how to write fanfiction stories. It was a great experience! I got the chance to see some really excited writers and read their work, and the kids got the chance to have fun writing.

When planning it, I thought about what would have helped me as a young writer. I was constantly writing stories, but I felt like they all had the same character in them . . . a girl with an embarrassing similarity to me! There’s nothing wrong with that, but it made me feel self-conscious about my writing. I was also self-conscious about writing stories featuring my favorite book characters. I didn’t realize that authors are always borrowing characters and plots and then reworking them.

I also thought about what would be helpful for kids who think they can’t write. Grownups make writing quite difficult for kids by insisting it be done “the right way.” That’s why so many adults have writer’s block. In some ways, schooling seems to have improved — I’m seeing more focus on starting out with a rough draft and not worrying about spelling and punctuation in that rough draft. But at the same time, there’s a much smaller emphasis on teaching handwriting, and that hinders kids’ fluency and their feelings about their own writing. So writer’s block isn’t going away anytime soon!

Teaching fanfiction instead of regular fiction had big advantages for both these groups. Self-conscious writers don’t have to worry that their characters or plots suck, because somebody else made them up. And they don’t have to worry so much about pleasing adults — only themselves.

In the next few blog posts, I’ll be writing about my experience. I also have some worksheets to share, so I’ll be uploading them to this blog for general use.

Next up: Writers in the Schools, The Second Time Round

– Kristin

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The author versus the person

It’s nature’s joke that introverts should be authors. We don’t want to be the center of attention, but at the same time we’re compelled by our art and craft to lay out our dreams on the page to be seen by friends and strangers alike. So far, a fair number of people have bought my book and are reading it. Success! says the author. Um, are you sure you wanted to let everybody see that story? says the person. I’m getting more and more queasy as my first reading approaches. It will be so exciting to see so many people I know, and I’ll have a great time up in front of the microphone bringing my characters to life, but the anticipation is rough. Antacids ahoy.

What’s wrong with John Gardner’s concept of narrative structure

This weekend I had the opportunity to read a negative review written about someone whose stories I found dazzling. The reviewer has since admitted he was wrong about the review, so I suppose the less I say about the whole thing, the better. But I was intrigued by the reviewer citing John Gardner as the example of How One Must Write.

John Gardner has been on my mind lately as one of the people who studied at the Creative Writing Workshop From Hell — run by a highly authoritarian program director who also pioneered the Creative Writing Program as Anti-Commie Propaganda. (For background, see Creative Writing Programs and the CIA Fan Club and More on the Iowa Writers Workshop.)

Did the authoritarian workshop impact Gardner’s aesthetic, and through that, the writing advice that is handed down to writers, editors, and reviewers? I don’t know.

But I’d really like to, because John Gardner and his Way One Must Write has been on my mind since 1996, when I wrote a critical essay on narrative structure for my master’s thesis. I’m including an excerpt here.

The form of a story does influence its subject. A traditional narrative structure, such as that found in many nineteenth century novels, has strong closure, in which something happens that limits the characters’ options or makes them unable to change in some way. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner describes the story’s denouement:

“The conflict is now resolved, or in the process of resolving, either because the will of the central character has been overwhelmed or because he has won and his situation is once more stabilizing (188).”

In the first instance, where the character has been overwhelmed, the character cannot change because he or she has failed. In the second, the character cannot change because he or she has won; this is not necessarily bad for the character or the reader, but it can mislead the reader by obscuring the fact that something always happens next.

This traditional plot structure is well suited to death and marriage stories; death and marriage can both limit the characters’ options in the way that Gardner suggests they should—by making them either fail or “succeed.” However, many other stories don’t fit this traditional plot structure—especially quest stories in which the protagonist continues questing at the end of the novel. Song of the Lark, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit don’t fit this structure because the female protagonists don’t seem to be able to conclude their quests or stop their emotional and intellectual growth. That is, although they do “win,” their victory doesn’t halt or obscure their growth. Another kind of story that can’t be told using this traditional narrative structure is the story in which the characters don’t win or lose, but instead simply live in some kind stasis. For instance, in Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, the main character, Oliveira beings the story with no real battle to fight and reaches a point in which he literally cannot go on to do anything else, either living or dying. In Hopscotch, Cortazar gives the reader the alternative of reading the novel by skipping from one chapter to another in a prearranged way. At the “end” of the novel, Cortazar directs the reader to chapter 131, then to chapter 58, then back to chapter 131 and so on, for infinity or until the reader decides to put the book down. Here Oliveira has not won. He might be said to have lost, because he has no hope, but I would argue instead that he is simply in a deadening stasis, much like the drug-addicted mother in Paley’s story.

If traditional narrative structure doesn’t provide a way for these stories to be told, it also doesn’t provide a way to keep the struggle between possibilities and limitations unresolved at the end of the story; or to show life as a process rather than an end product.

If I had this essay to write over, I would probably say many things differently. If I look at John Gardner’s book again, I would probably read it differently. But one thing’s for sure:

There is no One Right Way to make stories.

Thank goodness.

So little time, so much to do

Now that I’ve published Misfits from the Beehive State, I’m ready to get going on other projects. So I took a peek at everything I’ve left undone over the last seven years. I have stories that got published in magazines but really would like to live in a book, stories that I finished and set aside because I wasn’t sure if they were good, and stories I sent away, again and again, and never got published anywhere. I also have new stories, which I submitted to my writing group and incorporated feedback, but not yet sent off for publication. And I have unfinished stories, waiting for me to get to them.

All told, I’ve got 12+ stories that fit into one or another of those categories. And every time I look at them, I get anxious. Fiction is like that for me. I write nonfiction easily and (obviously) send it out shamelessly to the world in my blog. But fiction scares me. I’m scared to write it, send it for critique, look at the critiques, incorporate the critiques, and send it off. Now that this collection is done, I’m scared to ask people for reviews, to ask bookstores to buy my books, and to ask about setting up readings.

I do it all anyway, because, well, I’m brave. But now that I’ve got my list in front of me, I’m feeling especially queasy. And I have a new problem:  Where do I start???

So much to do, so little time.

Tunnels of Time

By fdecomite (Tunnels of Time) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Aside

Walk into a bookstore and pick up a highly acclaimed book. Look at the cover. Some of them have accolades like “National Book Award Winner” or “Pulitzer Prize winner.” That’s a mark of favor by the literary establishment, which includes … Continue reading

more on the Iowa Writer’s Workshop

In my post “Creative writing programs and the CIA fan club,” I talk about Eric Bennet’s essay on how Iowa Writer’s Workshop director Engle (1941-1966) procured lots and lots of money from govermental and private organizations for the explicit purpose of anti-communist propaganda. Fifty years ago, so that’s ancient history, right? Nope.

Here’s just one example of how its influence passed through various people to me. John Gardner, 1958 Iowa Writers Workshop graduate, wrote The Art of Fiction, championed by one of my professors as the authoritative volume on how to write. It’s really good in many ways. I love his concept of fiction being a “vivid and continuous dream.” But there are certain Rulez in the book that limit the types of stories that can be told.

John Gardner inspired Raymond Carver, another student of the Iowa Writers Workshop (1963-1964), and Raymond Carver was a leader in “minimalist” writing, which was in favor during my undergraduate years. He’s a great writer. My favorite: his story “A Small, Good Thing.” But minimalism leaves out a lot of things — language, intrusions by the narrator, and commie politics. How much of that was influenced by the Iowa Writers Workshop of the 1960s?

It would be an overstatement to say that Gardner and Carver took anti-communist propaganda whole cloth and passed it on. (We’ll leave that to John Irving, graduate of the late 1960s, who according to Wikipedia wrote, “This is Marxism. It’s leveling everything by decimating what works … It’s that vindictive ‘We’ve suffered, and now we’re going to take money from your kid and watch you squirm’… There’s a minority which is an open target in this country which no one protects, and that’s rich people”)

No, this is only influence, and one influence among many. But it passes on from writer to writer, from institution to institution, and its ripples will be felt for years to come.