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I recently attended a weeklong workshop at the venerable University of Iowa.  This was my second year, and it seemed this time around more was gained from the experience.  It was an advanced short story workshop. 

Here are a few of the insights I took away.

Keep your promises.  The craft books all say it, Chekhov’s gun being the best example. Nevertheless, until it appears in your own work, it’s hard to see a promise made at the beginning that wasn’t kept.  In my case, I’d set up the reader to expect a resolution to something on page one, and didn’t realize it. It took a seasoned reader to point it out. My first instinct was to delete the promise until I realized it would be a more satisfying read to come up with a plausible way to keep the promise.

Combine Characters. Short stories are inherently, well, short. Too many characters, especially if they serve a nonessential purpose in the story, should either be eliminated or better, combined with an essential character to get the work done but without unnecessarily confusing the reader.  If multiple characters are needed, say a bar scene, don’t try to give names to everyone, but do give a sort of handle, or code to differentiate the masses for the reader.

Titles Should Do Double Duty.  We went through several examples of titles that were both intriguing and satisfying.  Here’s a change I made to one of my own. The title went from “The Frog with the Red Spot” to “What Did the Frog Say”. The latter came from an actual line in the story. Using a line within the story is a much better set up. The reader discovers the meaning of the title while immersed in the story.

Why is more important than How or What. Getting characters moving, talking and acting is important, but the action shouldn’t get in the way of understanding why a character made one choice over another. Whether through interior dialogue, or gestures, a character’s intent is more meaningful than the action itself. A reader will keep a tally of questions if the writer doesn’t provide the emotional logic behind the action.

The Page Two Move. The story starts in the dramatic present and then suddenly comes to a halt on page two as the author stops to provide the back-story. The more a story unfolds without flashbacks full of only description and exposition, the more interesting it is for the reader. Stay in the dramatic present as much and as long as possible.

Subjecting your story to a room full of strangers is a painful experience. However, often strangers are the ones who help us see our story for what it can be, and offer suggestions that can satisfy the reader even more. And, that’s what it’s all about.

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A Pocketful of Prosody

American author Stephen Crane in 1899

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I love poetry, and as a high school English teacher, I would like my students to enjoy it as much as I do. While this may be an inherently futile endeavor, I continue to fight the good fight anyway and make pitches for my favorite poems and poets. If I’m lucky, the students who’ve learned to hate poetry may come to dislike like it perhaps a little bit less. At the very least, I try my best to repair the damage done by their former (albeit well-meaning) teachers who managed to drive the love of verse out of my students somewhere between kindergarten and junior high.

One thing my school did this year to promote the enjoyment of poetry was participate in “Poem In Your Pocket Day,” an exercise sponsored by and The Academy of American Poets. The idea is simple. On Thursday, April 29, students are encouraged to keep copies of their favorite poems in their pockets to share with friends, teachers, co-workers, and family. Our school librarian even organized a prize drawing for students who showed their poems to their English teachers.

The results of the event were both interesting and encouraging. First of all, more than a quarter of my students carried poems with them to class—a much higher percentage than I anticipated. Some of the poems were classics, others were written by contemporary authors, a few were song lyrics (a valid form of poetic expression, in my opinion). The encouraging thing was that students seemed genuinely excited about sharing their poems with their classmates, and most insisted on reading the poems aloud so that the words could have maximum impact. Perhaps poetry as an art form is not dead after all.

By the way, the poem I carried in my pocket was one by Stephen Crane:

Poem 96

A man said to the universe:

“Sir, I exist!”

“However,” replied the universe,

“The fact has not created in me

A sense of obligation.”

I love that poem.

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Rules for Writing

I recently read an article in the Guardian titled “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction”. It was primarily a platform to promote Elmore Leonard’s new book 10 Rules of Writing. Of course, six of the ten Leonard rules I’ve been guilty of breaking.

But the article went to garner ten rules from 28 other authors, some familiar writers, others more obscure. There were a few comical tips, like Get an Accountant, or Abstain from Sex, but many of the authors shared common ground in their suggestions: read, a lot and widely; editing is important; get in the habit of writing every day; cut out all the prose that readers skip over; and read your work out loud to improve it.

Pretty basic stuff until one recommendation caught my attention. Hilary Mantel’s second rule was to read the book Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. I bought it and was instantly engaged by the content. It’s not the typical how to write book. Originally published in 1934, it was out of print for a number of years. The edition I bought included a foreword by John Gardner where he pretty much said he thought it was the most important book to read if you want to write fiction.

A warning though – it’s scary. Frightening because she makes a bold statement fairly early on. If someone wants to write but can’t manage to complete the first two exercises she assigns, then give up writing. Yes, that’s precisely what she says – Stop writing if you can’t learn to write first thing in the morning, and at a preset time each day for a couple of weeks. It’s all about taming what she labels the unconscious writer.

 She goes on to give an insightful prescription on how a beginning writer can use those daily musings to gain a sense of direction. It’s based on understanding the strengths of your individual unconscious writer, the voice within.

 Find the article, and see which of the rules capture your imagination

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“Only the educated are free.” —Epictetus

Title page to Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning...
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These are tough times in the world of education. It seems hard to believe that just a few short years ago a person with solid teaching credentials could get a job practically anywhere. (Or at least this was true in the part of the country where I live.) How quickly things have changed. With cities and states across the country now facing draconian budget cuts, schools are downsizing, classes are growing larger, and the demands on teachers are increasing exponentially. In spite of this, I still love teaching, although my antagonism toward schools continues to grow. (And no, this is not a contradiction). Part of my frustration is the schizophrenic nature of American education. Historically, we have never truly decided what sort of students we want to produce. Should schools concentrate on teaching people or tasks? Do we want workers or do we want citizens? Can we have both?

Mark Slouka addresses this issue in his article, “Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School” (Harper’s Magazine, September, 2009). In it, he chronicles the process by which American education has been usurped by the worlds of science and commerce (especially commerce which, in our society, ultimately controls the funding of scientific research). He also raises questions about the effect such a narrow academic approach has on people’s ability to act as soulful, discerning human beings who are able to challenge the status quo and move our society toward its more democratic ideals.

Much of Slouka’s article focuses on the American tendency to equate good education with the ability to earn a lucrative income and grow the nation’s ever-expanding GDP. The study of the arts, for example, is seen not as a way to explore the potential of human creativity as much as it is to develop thinkers that industry can use to maintain our country’s dominance in the fields of business and technology. Slouka asks, “Why is every Crisis in American Education cast as an economic threat and never a civic one? In part, because we don’t have a language for it. Our focus is on the usual economic indicators. There are no corresponding ‘civic indicators,’ no generally agreed-upon warning signs of political vulnerability, even though the inability of more than two thirds of our college graduates to read a text and draw rational inferences could be seen as the political equivalent of runaway inflation or soaring unemployment” ( 37).

When economic times get rough, political pundits exert pressure on the educational establishment to narrow its curricular scope to only those standards that are quantifiable. But as Slouka notes, “By downsizing what is most dangerous (and most essential) about our education, namely the deep civic function of the arts and the humanities, we’re well on the way to producing a nation of employees, not citizens. Thus the world is made safe for commerce, but not safe. We’re pounding swords into cogs” (33). For Slouka, the key to maintaining a soundly functioning democracy is to produce well-educated and well-reasoned citizens. A broad education facilitates this, because the “humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be” (36-7).

As an English teacher, my sensibilities fall on the side of the humanities. (No big surprise there.) While I understand that part of good Language Arts instruction is producing people capable of composing letters and business proposals that make sense to readers, I believe it is also essential that I provide opportunities for my students to expand their thinking outside realms of office cubicles and spreadsheets. After all, if the prevailing economic mission for American schools is to churn out drones, its intellectual imperative is to produce thinking human beings who will challenge the assumptions of the “suits” who occupy the lofty corner offices and dictate the terms of their economic futures. But then again, that’s dangerous thinking—the kind that gets people thrown into prison in societies less tolerant than ours.

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I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar (Archetypal Women “Fighting the Man”)

Jeanne d' Arc, by Eugene Thirion (1876). Late ...
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They are the women we admire: strong, intelligent, determined, resourceful. To their opponents, they are gadflies. To the oppressed, they are cherished protectors. They stand alone against the world—and often pay the price for it. These feminine crusaders spend their days fighting the powers that be in order to bring about change, and stories of their exploits abound.

Two of the earliest examples of civil disobedience in literature involve crusading women: Esther and Antigone. Both of these ladies put their lives at risk by openly defying their kings’ laws for religious reason; Esther desires to save her fellow Israelites from annihilation, whereas Antigone feels that she is obligated by the gods to put her brother’s soul at peace. So in a time when women had very little real political power, they used the only means at their disposal to affect change—namely, themselves. A comic take on this approach is when Aristophanes’ heroine, Lysistrata, urges the housewives of the Athens to withhold sex from their husbands in order to force the men of the city to make peace with Sparta.

History is replete with examples of courageous women working to sway the affairs of men. The French maiden, Joan of Arc, and the ancient Hebrew prophetess, Debra, lead their respective armies to victory. Likewise, the legendary Celtic warrior queen, Boudica, dies trying to drive the Roman legions from her homeland. England’s Queen Elizabeth I spent much of her early reign battling the power-brokers who questioned the legitimacy of her succession. (She survived more than twenty assassination attempts).

In more recent years, figures like Harriet Tubman and Corrie ten Boom show how far women are willing to go to rescue the oppressed and the persecuted. Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks were arrested for their political and ideological stances, and the Dutch feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali continues to receive death threats because of her outspoken criticism of the Islamic treatment of women.

Aside from history and literature, crusading women are also a regular staple at the movies. Sally Field’s portrayal of Norma Rae (an Alabama textile worker fighting to form a union) and Edna Spalding (the matriarch in the film Places in the Heart who struggles to keep the bank from foreclosing on her family’s cotton farm after her husband’s death) provide inspiring examples of women who do battle against the system. And who could forget Erin Brockovich’s real-life experiences fighting corporate greed?

A question remains, however, regarding a particular category of crusaders who are reflected in the classical character mentioned earlier, Antigone. Antigone fights “the man” (her uncle/king) and is vindicated by the gods for her actions. Yet in the end, she takes her own life. Is this act heroic? What about other suicidal heroines who follow Antigone’s path, such as Ophelia, Anna Karenina, Hedda Gabler, or Edna Pontellier? Are their deaths courageous or cowardly? Perhaps that is a topic for another day.

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