Thursday, February 26, 2015

Welcome to the Writing Center

Every time a student checks in at the front desk of the Writing Center, we ask them the same questions. But that is the only thing that is the same for every session.

Where do we begin? I ask: "What are we working on today?"
Simple enough. Not everyone knows what they need, what exactly to expect from the Writing Center, or what the most pressing issue is. But everyone knows what they brought in to work on, and we can use that as a starting point. A one-page response, a three-to-five-page analysis, and a ten-page mid-term paper each carry their own built-in set of possibilities.

How can we narrow these possibilities? I ask: "When is it due?"
Before we even consider the possibility of spending our time brainstorming or looking at organization and cohesion, we need to know how much time we have to work with. For example, if this ten-page paper is due in an hour, brainstorming is out of the question, and we're probably not going to have enough time to consider reorganization. Instead, we're probably going to be looking at formatting issues, clearing up any citation confusion, or looking for any distracting grammar or punctuation problems.

However, I don't want to rule with an iron fist, so I ask: "What did you want to look at today?"
At this point, we should have a pretty good idea of what is possible. If a ten-page paper is due in an hour, and you are questioning their choice of topic, I'd suggest working on what you have and coming in earlier next time: we help writers at any stage in the writing process. If you bring in a three-page paper that's not due for a week, and you are worried about grammar, I can explain the importance of addressing early-order concerns first. We want to avoid sanding an edge if we're going to chop off that chunk with a chainsaw. I can only make suggestions, though.

I want to make sure you are comfortable with the agenda we set for the session, so when our time is up, I ask: "Do you feel better now?"
I want to make sure you have gotten something out of the session. If we didn't get to look through everything, I want to make sure you feel good about what we did accomplish. I want to know that you understand what we went through, that you are prepared to go through the rest of the paper looking for any similar issues--and that you are walking away with a better understanding of your choices as a writer.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Looking Back at Lions in Winter Again: Edward Kelsey Moore & Character

A couple weeks ago, Nathan took us back to Lions in Winter, filling us in on Stephen Graham Jones’s lecture on “info dumping” and hook lines. A second fiction writer, Edward Kelsey Moore, gave a lecture as wellAfter discussing some of his work in class and even hearing him read one of his stories online, I was eager to sit down, shut up, and soak in what he had to say about creating characters.

Moore began by talking about how well you should know your characters. But how do you do that? Practice. Moore had us write, starting with a simple scene of a single character doing the mundane. As usual, I wrote about myself, using another name.

He must have known I’d do this, because his next prompt suggested that we get out of ourselves by giving the character some quality, possession, or characteristic that would make this character different. This makes enough sense. To get into one head, we need to get out of another.

What’s next? Remove yourself even further. His next prompt asked us to think about what would naturally come next--and just ignore it. If your character is putting away groceries, and the next step would be to start cooking dinner, don’t let her cook dinner. This boring step could lead to more unimportant events, leaving you and readers with filler that’s not worth reading.

Make the character forget something at the store. Imagine that the cooking appliances won't turn on. Your character might see a dolphin jumping out of the backyard swimming pool and forget about dinner. Whatever it is, change the pace.

Moore’s lecture helped me understand some things. One is that I love the unexpected. Unfortunately, another realization is that I don’t get to read a lot of creative writing in the Writing Center. Yes, I love reading academic papers, personal statements, and resumes. But I’d also love to read some Moore-inspired, unexpected creativity too.  

So if you are taking a creative writing class, surprise us by bringing that work to the Writing Center!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Interview with Dr. Charlotte Pence



Dr. Charlotte Pence is an Assistant Professor in the English Department here at EIU. Last week, Dr. Pence agreed to sit down with me to talk about her upcoming book, Many Small Fires. We had a wonderful conversation, much of which is transcribed below.

On Thursday, Feb. 19 at 6:00 pm at the Doudna Lecture Hall, Dr. Pence will give a reading from her new book. The reading is open to the public, and everyone interested in the arts, culture, and supporting the wonderful faculty at EIU is encouraged to attend. 

Is this your first book?
It’s the first full-length poetry collection. There are two chapbooks that came before, but I also have a composition text and an anthology I edited. 

What’s the theme of the collection?
The book talks about how my father is a paranoid schizophrenic, and how he’s been homeless since I’ve been eighteen, through the larger evolutionary story of the human species. Questions about how we came to create communities and homes play out against more intimate questions of my roving home. As the book moves from my childhood in Georgia to my travels in Flores, Indonesia, we begin to understand a complex relationship between two people locked together by family, who sometimes understand, sometimes ignore, sometimes commit cruelty upon one another in competition, not just for resources, but survival.

What are you dying to say about this book?
I’m playing around a lot with form. There are a lot of disguised received forms as well as lines that use the full expanse of the page.

Why the focus on form?
You’re always going to choose a form. So, at least make a choice that helps you write the better poem. The more you have to say about a subject, try to limit yourself by finding a form that requires compression.
Your work is influenced by Darwinism and science. Why is science a place you go for inspiration?
For me, science serves as a good counterpoint to the material in the book, which tends to be emotionally charged, subjective, sensual. And I wanted something that pressed against that--to give it a more objective lens, make me look at it a little bit outside of myself. 

I’m trying to find as many as I can because I want to have more conversations between poets that are doing this. I think this could be an anthology down the line. Robert Haas has talked about it. Brenda Hillman brings in some science as does Sarah Lindsey, for example.

Based on the genre, I use different techniques. Poetry allows one to communicate through juxtaposition, for instance, by presenting different ideas and images. Within the confines of the page, the reader tends to make sense of it and fill in the associative gaps. Other genres, for example, might ask for those connections to be made explicit. So, I will change my approach based on the audience’s expectations for the genre.  

People criticize pop songs for using clich├ęs. But you could argue that is what that forms calls for. You have three and a half minutes to try to make a case to tons of different listeners who are in their cars, eating a Big Mac, and stressed about getting to work on time. It’s what works in that genre.

Which one is easier?
I find writing poetry to be easier because that’s what I practice every day. I also bring in science as a way to challenge myself. How do I communicate knowledge and translate it into a lyrical line, a compressed line, within a matter of a couple pages?

You’re the poetry editor at Bluestem. When you’re reading poetry submissions, what’s the most common mistake?
There’s the cover letter mistake and the poetry mistake. In the cover letter, a telltale sign is when they’re worried you’re going to steal their poems or ideas. To suggest thievery is not the best way to begin a relationship. The other cover letter mistake is explaining your poetry. 

The poem should do the work.
Yes. Sending notes or definitions about the terms. That sort of thing. Within the poems themselves, mixing around with fonts is a telltale sign. And then tons of abstractions usually separates the beginner from the more experienced writer. 

What are poets doing to gain more readers in the digital age?
Of course, there’s slam poetry, and that appeals to a larger audience. Also, more poets are writing creative nonfiction, especially the lyrical essay, because there’s a wider audience for creative nonfiction. I’m doing more creative nonfiction, and I’m seeing how the lyrical essay is wildly fun for the poet.

I’ve also noticed how poets are doing more collaborations with people in the visual arts.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Creative (Pre)Writing for Non-Creative Writers

I am not a creative writer.

I mean, I'm creative. I went to a youth conservatory for visual arts in high school. I can play "Colors of the Wind" on the piano. I'm crafty-as-all-get-out.

And since having children, I've gotten pretty good at making terrifying sea monsters with Play-Doh:
ARE YOU NOT AMAZED?

But I am not a creative writer. Poetry. Fiction. Novels. It's all magic and wonder to me. It is something I simply can. not. do.

Well, that's not entirely true. I do it a lot, but not for an outside audience. Instead, I dabble in creative writing to get my mind ready to tackle other tasks. Playing with creative writing prompts for 15 or 20 minutes helps me transition from the chaos that is my real life (have you ever tried to write a conference proposal with a 4 year old in the room? Don't) so that I can actually think. I can also use silly prompts as a way to motivate myself when I face a writing task I'm not looking forward to; I'll avoid things I dislike like the plague, but I can usually convince myself to write about silly things for a few minutes. Once I've started writing (even though it's not serious), transitioning to the writing I really need to do isn't as difficult.

Here are a few of my favorite creative writing prompts

  • Making Mythology: Explain why some aspect of everyday life is the way it is in the style of a myth, fable or creation story. How did the rock get to look like an elephant? Why do strawberries have seeds? What mystical Armenian immortals birthed the forefathers of the Kardashian clan?
  • Man Up!: Most of the time, manifestos are serious documents that declare a person's (or people's) views or intentions. There's Mina Loy's feminist manifestos (and Valerie Solanis' even more radical S.C.U.M. Manifesto). There's the Communist Manifesto of Engels and Marx. One of the great things about manifestos is how much they push and play with language and hyperbole; if Solanis' manifesto is an indicator, the more over the top the manifesto, the better. I give myself 15 minutes to write passionate, exaggerated treatises on tiny things that don't matter: turn signals, how to sit on a couch, what color highlighter to choose.
  • Rewriting History (with Zombies): self explanatory.
  • Limited Letters: Decide how do limit your letters (no Ws? Only words that start with consonants?), then describe a person, place or moment following the limit.
  • Writing Wikipedia:  Choose a random article on Wikipedia. Read the title (nothing else!) and write an encyclopedia entry for it. (caveat: with this prompt, there's the risk of falling into a wikipedia hole and spending 2 hours reading about obscure animals--oh hai, Jamaican Coney).
So, what about you? Do you incorporate creative writing in your writing routine? Got any prompts I can add to my arsenal?








Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Getting Started: Proposals as Prewriting

I spend a lot of time in the “getting started at getting started” phase of the writing process. For me, that’s the phase that comes after I’ve decided on a topic. I know what I’m writing about, but I’m not sure yet about how I’ll frame what I’m saying, what tone I’ll use, or how I’ll structure the piece.

I spend hours, days--for larger projects, sometimes even weeks--getting started at getting started. I play with ideas in my own head. I’ll talk options over with myself while I shower or walk the dog or with a friend during commercial breaks (only during commercials, though. We don’t talk when Olivia’s on screen. I mean, we aren’t heathens). I read things that might be useful as sources or models, highlighting standout information, phrases, or rhetorical devices. I jot down a few sentences--sometimes even whole paragraphs--that might be good starting points or conclusions or transitions.

In many ways, all this pre-start starting is useful. It helps me declutter my mind and focus. It gives me starting points and direction for when I'm ready to actually bust out a draft. It's also useful because I'm super distractible--OMG SHINY THINGS ON THE INTERNET YAY!--so having a more drawn out getting started phase keeps my head in the game.

But sometimes I just can't move from getting started at getting started to actually, like, starting. I have all the pieces I need, but for some reason I struggle to, as they say, just get 'er done. I'll sit in front of my computer screen, fingers on ASDF and JKL;, ready to tap tap tap out the essay or story or blog post or article or whatever it is and I just. can't. make. it. happen.

It's a problem.

But, over the past year or so, I've happened upon what seems to be a potential solution: proposals.

At its most basic, a written proposal is simply a document in which you offer up your plan for addressing a particular task. Engineers write proposals. Nonprofit groups write proposals. Academics write proposals for conference presentations. My husband, who makes crazy cool custom costumes, writes bids for contracts that function as, you guessed it, proposals. 

My first exposure to detailed proposals came last year, in a graduate level literature class. Our instructor had us write a 1-2 page proposal for our final papers. In the proposal, she asked us to not only explain what our topic would be, but to also give a brief run-down of how we envisioned the paper. She wanted us to map out, in detail, what our final paper would look like. Would it be broken down into sections? What would the introduction be like? The conclusion? What sources were we thinking about including? 

Sitting down to clearly articulate my plans for the final essay in writing got me ready to start writing for real. It was like freewriting and outlining had a baby: it pushed me to get something on the page (freewriting style), but in an organized fashion (a la outlining). And, a month later, when it was time to draft, I was able to turn to my proposal when I struggled to move from getting started at getting started to just, like, doing the damn thing. I was also able to turn back to the proposal as I got deeper into the paper. It was a way to keep me on track.

Since that first experience with writing a detailed proposal for a writing assignment, I've written many more proposals. Some (conference panel proposals; a proposal for a book chapter; my thesis prospectus) have been assignments in and of themselves and have been directed at outside audiences. But most have been proposals I've written just to get started. Writing a proposal has become a standard part of my writing process. Added bonus: it gives me an excuse to watch Single Ladies again and again.

And again.

If you find yourself struggling to get started, I recommend you give proposals a go. The Purdue University OWL has some fantastic sample academic proposals to give you some inspiration. And Dr. Karen Kelsky over at The Professor Is In gives proposal-writing advice that can also help you clarify your intended topic.

So, write on.





Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Lions in Winter Wrap-Up: Steven Graham Jones


Last weekend, a horde of creative writers descended on Eastern’s campus for the Lions in Winter Literary Festival, schmoozing in dens of highfalutin’ diction and leaving behind a snowstorm to keep you indoors—maybe long enough to write.

Two fiction writers gave craft talks to help with common issues in starting a story. Keynote Speaker Steven Graham Jones’ lecture demonstrated why writers should avoid “info dumping”: that is, stopping the story (or the blog post) to explain something to the reader, which is guaranteed to kill your momentum.

His advice? "Incluethe reader by dispersing those important details about your alien planet throughout the story. As he put it, readers want a story, not a Wikipedia page. Like a true crusader against info dumping, he cut away from this topic after one potent example. As he displayed a KISS album cover on the screen, he said that info dumping is the difference between that and, he paused, “This.” The album art vanished and then began to reappear as puzzle pieces of the image converging. This strategy, he said, gives readers the satisfaction of filling in the blanks themselves.

Jones then turned his focus to hook lines, the first line of a story. His advice was to keep that first sentence full of voice and surprise. And, more importantly, one-up yourself in the next sentence, using a “second hook.” Jones presented a list of different hook line types to the audience and challenged them to a game—Name That Hook Line.

Try your hand at some of his examples below. Guess correctly, and you win the internet! (I’ll know if you used Google . . . )

This first line is an example of the “Portentous” category, according to Jones, using almost pretentious cleverness to engage the reader.
1. “It was a pleasure to burn.”

Our next line is a prime example of the Second Hook.
2. “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”

Finally, we see what Jones calls the “Preview,” but this one also fits in his “Voice” category. Can you recognize whose voice it is?
3. “All this happened, more or less”

Now go hook some readers, people. And be sure to check out Jones’ website here.

Friday, January 23, 2015

When Bad Writing Wins



Sure, you’ve heard of the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Man Booker Award. And you might have heard about the Illinois Emerging Writers Competition, which awards a poet who has not published a book with $500 and potential publication in prestigious literary journals, like EIU’s very own Bluestem.

However, in the long and illustrious history of writing competitions, there have been some other, less prestigious venues for celebrating writing, showing off not the best of the English language, but the abuses. And the winners are hilarious.

From 1995 to 1998, the journal Philosophy and Literature ran The Bad Writing Contest. Former editor of the magazine Denis Dutton started the competition to draw attention to some of the “deplorable writing among the professoriate.” The Bad Writing Contest exhibited the absolute worst of obtuse, jargon-laden, clause-riddled academic writing.

Here’s a small sample: “An anatomo-politics of human and non-human bodies is sustained by accumulating and classifying such necroliths in the museum’s observational/expositional performances.”

Indeed. 



Not all of the contests were mean-spirited. One of my personal favorites is the now defunct International Imitation Hemingway Competition. Hemingway’s unique style almost begs to be mocked.

Or, as I should say: Hemingway had a unique style. He wanted to be mocked.

Contestants submitted a title and one page of their worst Hemingway imitation. Take a look at some of the winning titles—“Big Too-Hardened Liver” and “The Old Man and the Flea.” Personally, I would love to see this contest revived, perhaps with a different author. Don DeLillo seems like a prime candidate. I would submit “White Writing,” or maybe “Crawling Man.”

I also found a competition that still exists—The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, where WWW means “Wretched Writing Welcome.” The idea is to write “the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” Named after the poor sap who penned “It was a dark and stormy night,” previous winners are spectacularly poor in quality. Here is the 2013 runner-up: “As the sun dropped below the horizon, the safari guide confirmed the approaching cape buffaloes were herbivores, which calmed everyone in the group, except for Herb, of course.”

Next time you wrestle with the blank page, reading over a draft and wondering how you ever made it this far in your career and considering swallowing your computer key by stupid key, check out some of these competitions. They might make you feel better. At the very least, they’ll make you laugh.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Blank-Page Anxiety, Begone

As the semester winds down and Thanksgiving Break approaches, the last thing you probably want to think about is any final projects hanging over your head. But if you’re ready to tackle a big paper headlong and just can’t figure out how to begin, this blog post is just for you.

Take a few tips from a guy who loves starting new projects and simply reveling in the glory of an unrevised rough draft.

1.     Know thyself.
Before you take the plunge into your paper, think about how you typically write. While I always write my thesis statement first and litter my paper with quotes before I actually use my own words, you may have an easier time freewriting until the ideas fall together.

2.     Convert other documents into a paper.
You can turn notes into a rough draft or write on napkins so you won’t take the first words you write too seriously.

3.     Change form.
Try outlining, poetry, or something you’ve never done before. I start all my creative writing in the format of a comic-book script, and even some of my academic papers started as two characters arguing with each other.

4.     Find your opening rituals.
I begin all my drafts with five bold hyphens and a title, while a friend of mine starts everything she writes (even on Facebook) with “::”. If you’re curious about how to recognize rituals you might already have, think about the way you begin writing other things, like class notes or social media posts.

For example, I discovered that the hyphen ritual relieves my blank-page anxiety after I noticed that I actually put lines at the beginning of all my physical papers. I had a perfect ritual waiting for me, yet for so long I used to stare at blank Word documents and struggle to begin.

Don't overlook yours. Or just try out one or all of these.

And remember what we like to say in the Writing Center: It’s called a rough draft for a reason.