Last night, or rather, early this morning, I got about five hours of sleep, so I took an hour and a half nap over the dinner free time so as not to interfere with the readings I wanted to go to. Tonight, we heard Judy Blunt read from the end of her memoir, Breaking Clean. A book which I started but was unable to finish due to the fact that I was at UM and I just couldn't get it done before the next book was almost due. I have it at home to finish reading though. I really must do that. We also heard from Bonnie Jo Campbell and Pete Fromm. All three had excellent readings. Man I love readings! Afterward, I went to the student reading. That takes place in a separate building. Fifteen students sign up to read and have four minutes apiece. The prose students tend to push that limit a bit. The emcees have taken to sitting up front and waving the lit screen of a cell phone when time is up. It worked a bit better tonight. I'm not reading until Tuesday. I hope I still have good voice by then. If this cold keeps up it's going to be close...
Our workshop today was with Ellen Bass. It was so refreshing! Her method of criticism for the poems felt so different than Kwame's did yesterday. Instead of getting all the good things and then all the things which needed work from each person individually and then hearing from the instructor, Ellen had the whole session carefully in hand. First someone summarized the poem. If anyone thought something different they gave their opinion. Then we moved on to what worked well in the poem. Then from there, we started discussing what we thought should be changed in order to clarify the work. But her personal criticism was very careful, like she had taken the time to note everyone's personal tone and style, and her comments went hand in hand with what would work well for the poet, not just for that one poem. I don't know how well I'm explaining it, but it was fantastic. We finished about fifteen minutes early and she asked if we wanted to write a bit. Yesterday, there was a panel where five of the faculty discussed the question 'Do I Dare Put This on the Page'. She told us today to try and write something which fit in that vein, something we're not sure we would really write, and to start it off with some sort of phrase. We went around and everyone said a phrase, such as 'If you could, So it goes, Have you ever, If not' and so on. She said to take that phrase and start writing. Any time we started to run out of steam or got stuck, we were to repeat that opening phrase again. It was a very interesting excercise to try, and the poem I started, I think, is work looking in to a little bit.
Ok. The craft talks. I went to three today. It seems there are sixteen or eighteen in all and I have to turn in reviews about twelve. The reviews I post here are, again, just rough drafts. The ones tonight are coming almost directly from my notes. Mostly because I think when I got up to head off to the readings, my imagination and thought process remained comfortably snoozing next to Small Fry. (For those of you who don't know, Small Fry happens to be the stuffed bear that I, at 23, still sleep with. So there.)
Present Mirth Hath Present Laughter - Rachel Toor.
The present tense is often used by rookie writers to attempt to bring a reader directly into the action. However, this is not a good way to try and draw your reader in. Present tense is, in fact, often dismissed as being 'not art' in nonfiction, and sometimes even in fiction. Done well, it can be energetic, but writers sometimes try to use it to make their writing more vivid. "Writing is vivid if it is vivid." Present tense does not automatically make the writing vivid, and it is a difficult technique to use well.
Present tense is also a touchy thing to use when writing memoir. In order to use it well, the writer must be able to not only re-enter the experience more or less exactly how it happened, but also to observe that experience and present how it is important for the reader, rather than how it was important for the author.
Some places where the use of present tense can work well follow:
- Personal Essay
- In order to keep the reader engaged and make the technique work well, the essay should be time bound - proceeding within a clearly defined and specified beginning and end.
- Literary Journalism or Reportage
- 20th century writers make use of present tense, such as Dickens, Hazlett, Lamb, and others
- Whether or not present tense is used does not matter if the narrator is not the subject of the work. i.e., if the author is writing about another person or object observed, the use of present tense matters less than if we are inside their head, reading their thoughts about the action instead of just reading about the action.
- Process essays
- How-to essays
- can be bossy or off-putting. Harder to be funny in these and easier to be tragic
Every essay is about re-definition; a venue to make the mundane new and interesting.
Long form writing in present tense is much harder to pull off. It is wise to also keep long form writing within an alloted time frame, much like the personal essay listed above. It is also best to focus on events rather than personal history.
- The 'I' is less important than the 'it'
- In fiction, the reader knows more than the narrator, which builds tension. That's ok. In nonfiction, that's a hard thing. You, as the character, can be uninformed, but that may cause the reader to find you ingnorant and wonder why you're writing about that subject.
- Again, memoir should be not about what happened to the author, but how what happened applies to the reader.
- Recollection often requires reflection. Reflect on past experiences and think about what they mean before you use them.
- Some memoirs can slip into present tense and it works, even if the whole book is not written that way.
First, Do No Harm - Jack Driscoll
"Speak what it feels like to be human and alive in the world." (That's a quote, but I didn't get where from).
Power in a poem depends on how the reader is drawn into the interior matrix - undress your characters and language.
Consider your characters people. Their clothing, just like the people you meet anywhere, can announce initial impressions. Appearance is a legitimate tool. Gestures, dress, and other specifics define people, even as an unauthentic proof of expression.
What makes or has made a person who he or she becomes? Every path has a reason or a source, one that explains what happened to them in their lives, and what went wrong. If the character can be followed to their source, hopefully there will be enough consequence (reward) for the reader for having followed them there.
- Humanize the character through empathy
- Love every character every bit as much as you do your other characters.
- Fiction that counts is about people.
- Motivation: what compels the character to do what they do, no matter how far back you have to trace their story. The 'why' behind the character.
- Motion: the way the character takes action against whatever stands in their way.
- e-Motion: the feelings which perpetuate the action/fuel the inner motion.
"Trouble is what interests; what compels."
Fiction depends on desire as its narrative engine. Two things that create a real world: Desire and decision.
When we understand the three Ms, even somewhat deviant behavior can be forgiven by the reader.
The characters need not be awful or extreme, but merely human or flawed.
Changeability in a Poem - Joe Millar
Stops and Starts.
One of the most interesting things about poetry is the invention which happens from line to line, day to day, and the way the poem invents and reinvents itself on its journey down the page. In this case, our focus is on changeability via association with the line before when you as the poet don't know where you're going.
In Segues, Marvin Bell says "A poem listens to itself as it goes along. A poem is complete when everything inside of it is used up."
Let the material talk abck. Like listening to someone performing on a musical instrument.
"Poetry is no more a thing than fire is. It witnesses its ability to grow and make everything itself." ~Dean Young.
If you consider poetry as fire, you must consider the fuel which makes it burn. What Marvin Bell referred to the first day as 'the materials'. The process of making the poem is a material which can be displayed to a point in the work.
As a corollary of mimesis vs. process:
"It is necessary to any originality to have the courage to be an amateur." Sometimes the only way tot get something right is to blurt it out as best you can, and fix it later.
Strategies for how to go down the page when you're stuck:
- Ask a question of the reader, a character, God, the universe, anything
- Direct address. Make a command or observation. Address the reader directly.
- Contradict what you just said. A reversal, a dialectic
- Repeat something. A word, a phrase, an image, etc. Sometimes repetition can take on elements of song.
- Collapse time, collapse space. Change the setting or the time suddenly.
- Follow the last image into philosophical speculation or history.
- Go back and forth between two things.
Look out your window, listen to sounds, smell scents. Changeability does well with repetetive poems. Make use of anaphora.
And from there, he went on to read several poems for examples. And that about sums it up for the craft stuff for the day. I did notice I have started listening for these techniques in peoples work, from just metaphors and comparisons, to methods of drawing out a poem, to the spareness of the language. It's actually pretty incredible when you're listening for it and you hear it at work.
And I'm off to bed in hopes of grabbing six hours sleep instead of five. Here's hoping the coffee shop is open tomorrow. Good Night all!