April 10, 2013 § 5 Comments
One of the ongoing debates in the creative writing world surrounds creative writing programs vs. real-life experience. Can you learn writing by being in a classroom, or do you need to go live and have lots of varied experiences? This article from the Atlantic emphasizes the importance of having life experiences so that when you sit down to write, your stories are filled with meaningful characters and adventures. Reiner says:
“But what [creative writing programs] can’t do is provide writers with real-world experience and the perspective to make sense of it, without which there is no storytelling, there is no “editor I’m going to work with” giving the green light. Creative writing programs can teach you how to write, but they can’t teach you what to write. No instructor or Zellowship can transform you into a storyteller without experience strutting your ambition.”
I agree. While creative writing programs and workshops can be a great place to examine craft, they’re not going to give you ideas.
I don’t necessarily think people with more life experience write better stories. There are lots of people who have had compelling life experiences that would make amazing stories, but don’t have the skills to bring those stories alive in a complex, subtle way on the page. And there are people who have lived quiet, “ordinary” lives that see deeply into the human experience and have great perspective on their experiences. Some people have a knack for attuning themselves to character details and making emotional connections. These people can write at 16 and 35 and 52 and 97. They can certainly hone their skills over time, but I don’t think they necessarily need to wait for some magical length of time before they’re able to write stories.
Examples: Emily Dickinson wrote stunning poetry while being largely a recluse. I don’t think she had a lot of “life experience.” And Keats got all his writing in before he died at 25.
Basically, writing is different for everyone. There’s no age at which you’re “ready” to write amazing stories or experiences that will guarantee to make you a better writer. I’m a great believer in practice, not time or experience, making people better writers. Focus on your craft, where that’s in a formal workshop or at your own desk. No matter where you are, notice details and listen to people. Open yourself up to everyday experiences and making emotional connections. If you’re someone who already thinks of story ideas, those will come to you no matter where you are or how old you are.
April 9, 2013 § Leave a Comment
This week is the national Days of Remembrance, which commemorates Holocaust victims and survivors. I remember learning about the Holocaust in school, primarily with two main books. The first was Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, which my class read in third or fourth grade. I knew about WWII in general, but this was the first time I remembered hearing about the significant threat to Jewish people during that time. The book provided a safe way to learn about a very scary part of history; the threat to Ellen’s family is very real but Lowry is careful not to go into too much detail about what could have faced the Rosens if they’d been caught.
Night by Elie Wiesel was another significant book in my learning about the Holocaust. By the time I read it, I was in eighth grade and knew millions of innocent people had been tortured and killed. I didn’t expect Night to affect me so, but I read it in one evening and spent the entire time crying. For me, it was an opportunity to understand the Holocaust in a very personal way. Somehow it’s easy to gloss over statistics about how many people died; it’s far harder to ignore real stories about the horrors that individual people experienced.
Which is why the Days of Remembrance and honoring all the specific victims and survivors are essential. We need to hear their stories and remember that these were/are specific people with specific lives. They were mothers and singers and readers and kids who liked silly jokes and lawyers and on and on. All of their stories are valuable and need to be shared.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has resources for taking part in the Days of Remembrance, including a webcast of the national ceremony on Thursday, April 11 at 11:00am. In case you can’t take part in an organized event, you can also share the stories of victims and listen to the stories of survivors, as documented on the museum website. Make sure their voices are heard.
January 28, 2013 § Leave a Comment
January 25, 2013 § 4 Comments
A personality quiz based on Shakespeare characters? Just what Friday ordered!
I got Ophelia and although they don’t give any reasoning for this result, I’m going to assume this means that I’m really trying to hold it together surrounded by a lot of evil and crazy. And I like flowers.
In case you want even more Shakespeare, tonight PBS airs Shakespeare Uncovered, which explores some of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, including Hamlet, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest. And heads up, Whovians–there’s an episode in which David Tennant talks about Hamlet.
December 17, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Still a beautiful way to talk to children about death and grief:
I love that they didn’t try to explain why we lose people. At times like these, it’s incomprehensible how life can be taken and how tragedy can occur. But it’s important to focus on the people lost and the memories, not just the sadness.
Even for families not directly affected by the tragedy at Newtown, it’s still a horrible situation to deal with. The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance also offers some suggestions for helping children cope with this terrible news. And that can include children of all ages, not just the youngest ones. Ongoing, supportive dialog about loss can be good for people of all ages.
December 14, 2012 § 4 Comments
The Hub has a great defense of “weak” YA fiction in the face of rising literary pressure from the Common Core and what this means to teen readers. Maria talks about why not all books need to be weighty works of literature, and why those stories aren’t necessarily going to inspire all readers anyway. One point I liked:
“Thinking about reading for pleasure, I realized an important point. Literature that is “weak” — not intellectual, not “literary” — is often very enjoyable. It doesn’t require a dissertation; it just takes you along for the ride. And this is exactly the kind of literature that has the most power to motivate a struggling reader who thinks reading is boring.”
Although it’s important to help students’ vocabulary grow and to teach them how to analyze a text, it can be just as important to show students how awesome reading can be. Some students may love The Great Gatsby (crazy drunk parties and romance? heck yeah!) but others might be put off by the initial effort involved in reading and analyzing it. Lighter YA might never show up on the curriculum, but these can be so helpful for students who are developing their love of reading.
On a more personal note, I was always a reader. I was never put off by analyzing books in class or old-fashioned language. But I also read a lot of “weak” fiction in my day. Even though I’d like to claim that my young reading experience was all Madeleine L’Engle and Lois Lowry, I also read a lot of Sleepover Friends and Baby-Sitters Club. Those books didn’t hinder my reading experience; and honestly, sometimes it’s nice to balance reading experiences between the light and the heavy.
Also, I can name at least three times when reading lighter fiction worked in my academic favor:
- In history class in 7th grade, we were just starting our Civil War unit. Our teacher asked when the Civil War ended and I knew it was 1865 because of Happy Birthday, Addy.
- On the AP US History exam, I knew the answer to one of the multiple choice questions (can’t remember what it was about, exactly) because of the Felicity books. (Basically, all my knowledge of US History comes from American Girl.)
- Taking the SATs, I recognized the word androgynous not from our English class vocab lists, but from Francesca Lia Block’s I Was a Teenage Fairy.
Again, this doesn’t mean Great Expectations or Hamlet should be taken off the curriculum. But I think we need to remember that students can get a lot from learning how to love reading and understanding that this experience can be part of their everyday lives. And a lot of times, that connects with reading “weak” fiction for fun.
November 7, 2012 § 1 Comment
What does it take for a book to connect with teen readers, and can you teach those books in the classroom? At Slate, Jessica Roake says: “Young readers need a new coming-of-age classic, a book that has yet to be discovered and co-opted by the culture,” because apparently JD Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye just doesn’t do it for teen readers anymore.
I don’t want to argue that The Catcher in the Rye is still what Roake wishes it were–a novel that’s ‘cool,’ that gets passed from reader to reader and deeply affects students. But I think she forgets that English classes aren’t always about reading on your own and discovering books. Most teachers have to work from a syllabus, make students write essays, and analyze metaphors.
A heads up: this is not fun. This is not adventure reading.
Not to say English class can’t be an excellent place to discover literature. I remember diving into The Great Gatsby and being surprised at how awesome it was. But there’s also an aspect of work to it. You’re not allowed to discover the book in our own way because, most often, the teacher is working to make sure the entire class understands the text. It’s a totally different setting than discovering a thrilling and controversial book on your own.
My own Catcher in the Ryeexperience was a good one. I had a fantastic English teacher who didn’t shy away from the book’s racier aspects. (Our final essay was an analysis about the use of “fuck you” in the last few chapters.) I thought a lot about what it meant to save your essential innocence in a world determined to destroy it. I’m really glad I read it in a classroom setting that pushed me to analyze the book.
But I think Roake has a good point–The Catcher in the Rye isn’t a surprise in the same way it was when it was first published. We all know about Holden’s angst and the novel’s use of swears and sex (which are pretty tame compared to what you see on tv). And that’s okay. I don’t think you need to say “we should get rid of it in English classes because it’s not a secret powerful read anymore.” I think it’s still an enormously valuable text and can lead students to a lot of other books–especially YA novels like The Fault in Our Stars, Speak, Story of a Girl, etc. Roake’s suggestion of Black Swan Green sounds awesome, too.
Basically, we should open up syllabi to different and unexpected books. You never know what’s going to connect with students. But I don’t think that should come at the expense of rejecting older works because students already know about them. Students can find something in The Catcher in the Rye or Black Swan Green or Hamlet or Antigone.
September 5, 2012 § 1 Comment
Another reason to pay attention in school–you could get ideas for your own bestselling dystopian YA series. The Oxford Dictionaries looks at the language of The Hunger Games. They point out how Panem is a take “panem et circenses,” a reference by Roman poet Juvenal to Ancient Roman society. Another part I liked in particular:
“Like many fantasy writers, Collins has invented some new vocabulary of her own. Anavox is akin to a slave – someone who has been punished for a ‘crime’ and thereby made a mute servant. Her reason for choosing this word is simple: the Greek prefix ‘a’ means ‘without’ and the Latin ‘vox’ means ‘voice’ so avox literally means ‘without voice’.”
When I was in sixth grade, I was so mad at my parents for signing me up for Latin class. But apparently they–and Suzanne Collins–were onto something. From real history to bits of inspired Latin, a little knowledge can really inspire your book.
(image: NYPL Digital Gallery)