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On the Road to Writing, It’s Okay to Stop and Ask for Directions

Mitzi Phelan, consultant

Have you experienced getting into your car, and while driving to a familiar destination you start thinking about all the things you need to do, or even just start daydreaming? Suddenly, you snap back to the present and realize you are at your intended location but Mitzihave no recollection of the actual drive. It’s amazing how we can become so familiar with the way we do something that we can actually can execute the activity on autopilot. Our brains are amazing objects that can run millions of processes at once. While one “system” is working through our schedule, another is thinking about summer vacation, and yet another is executing turns down familiar streets (hopefully one is watching for pedestrians). When the path we are navigating is so familiar to us, we can easily “switch off” and let the brain make all the decisions in default mode. But, if we are checked out of the process, are we really getting the best experience?

I gave the above example as a way to talk about the process of writing. By the time you have reached the level in academia where you would be interested in reading this blogpost, you have most likely been asked to do a lot of writing. Often, we are given a writing task and, just like driving, we set our brain to autopilot, or “writing mode,” and let come what may. We see our end destination (our “completed writing task”), hop in our mental smart cars, activate cruise control, and are on our way. The problem with this is that we only have one way of getting to the destination programmed into our mental maps. When we only allow for only one way of doing things, we ultimately produce the same type of writing, just with different topics. This doesn’t only apply to class papers–we can fall into the same rut with our creative writing as well.

To be completely honest, in the busy world of academia, writing on autopilot is convenient. It always gets us safely to our destination and conserves our valuable brain energy for the thousands of other demands that come on a daily basis. However, it does not help us develop into better writers. To produce better work, we have to mentally show up for the process. We have to switch off the autopilot and challenge ourselves to consider that there are valuable alternative routes to getting to our final destinations. Understand, however, that the goal in switching off autopilot and taking control of the wheel is not necessarily to get to the destination more quickly, although that may happen, but rather to truly immerse yourself in the writing process and gain insight to tools that you may be missing out on.

If you are like me, my cruise control looks like this: I get an idea for a paper, lock on to it with a death grip, think about it until the night before its due, word vomit on the paper, and then spend the wee hours of the morning its due making revisions. This process works for me and I am comfortable with it; however, I have realized that I am cheating myself out of being a better writer by not exploring other processes. Recently I have been trying to add practices that other writers use into my repertoire. I started with reverse outlining, now I’m committing myself to writing down my favorite thesis and then writing two more possible theses that either invert or challenge the original as a way to enhance my critical thinking of the topic. This has been immensely beneficial and has positively affected my writing skills.

If you feel like your writing has become stale, or that you are not meeting your full potential as a writer, I challenge you to see if you are still in the driver’s seat. Consider pulling out your old writing guidebooks and going back to the basics. Look to other writers for inspiration. Take time to go through the process. You’ll be amazed at how much of the beautiful scenery you have been missing.

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Is Your (Writing) Body Ready for the Summer?

Rachel Knowles, consultant

If your situation is anything like mine at this point in the semester, you are struggling to keep up with class readings as you begin drafting your final papers, and of course, this has you dreaming about summer. Summer when, yes, you still have to work (we are all adults here, after all), but when you also have time to dedicate to fun activities that you Racheldon’t get to do during the semester – like actually sleeping!

While doing “nothing” can seem like an enticing way to spend your three-month vacation from academia, this time can be much better spent on improving yourself in some way – and the best part is that YOU get to choose what this looks like. For some, it’s finding time to be active, and for others, it’s getting through a reading wish list. But for most of my peers studying English at UofL, summer is a time for writing.

As I have gotten older, I have struggled increasingly to find time to free write and, as a consequence, I sometimes feel out of practice when writing outside of academic genres. Summer gives me the chance to really stretch and work those creative muscles that, if we’re being honest, are often bound up by the constraints of higher education. In the summer, I get to write about what I want, how I want to: no prompts, no criteria, and no deadlines.

Like anything else, writing takes on a different tone, a new pleasure, when it is done out of inspiration and free will, rather than in answer to requirement and obligation. Yes, it can be a lot of work, but it doesn’t have to be. All it takes is finding something you’re passionate about. And thanks to digital and new media, it’s easier than ever for you to share your passions. The greatest thing about this technological age is that people now have the power to connect to one another from across the globe, but most people don’t realize that this link is often forged through (you guessed it!) writing.

Even if you don’t plan on sharing your personal thoughts with the world, there are still plenty of benefits to writing. I for one sometimes need a private place to vent, and journaling (which I wrote about in my last blog post) is a convenient and safe place for me to get any stresses off my chest. And the best part is that paper can’t grade (or judge) you!

So, while it may seem too early to start thinking about it and perhaps even exhausting considering current circumstances, I would encourage you to find excuses to write this summer: take note when an intriguing thought strikes you, record your dreams (or nightmares), write a drinking chant, compose a goofy poem, or describe the feeling of the sun on your skin, lest you forget it when the cold snow returns.

Most importantly, have fun while you write and have a great summer!

Giving Voice to Dirty Words

Tim Phelps, Consultant

In 1991, an era still rampant with fears and misinformation about HIV and AIDS, the hip-hop group Salt-n-Pepa released a song called “Let’s Talk About Sex,” which celebratedTim Phelps safe and responsible sex through healthy and honest communication.  The song found success, not only for its catchy beat, but for its unashamed use of the word “sex” itself—the message being that the only useful way of handling the subject was to talk about it clearly and openly.  “Let’s Talk About Sex” argued that the first step in tackling a difficult subject was to not be afraid to say its name.

In that frame of mind, we should consider another word that can also bring up difficult conversation, one that is sometimes considered a dirty word.  It’s a word that really deserves a fair chance, and one that we can’t ignore if we are going to improve our writing.

Let’s talk about manipulation.

Yes, I’m about to argue that manipulation can be a good thing.  I know, I know.  The word has a pretty tough connotation to overcome from the start—it automatically brings about all the negative experiences we’ve had with bosses, parents, friends, and significant others.  If we hear a description of someone being called “manipulative,” we automatically know we don’t want to be around that person.

But if we can distance the word from its negative associations for a moment, we’ll see that almost everything we do is manipulation.  Looking at the professor while you’re really thinking about what to have for lunch?  Using certain words around your friends that you wouldn’t use around your grandma?  Wearing nice clothes, or putting on makeup, or fixing your hair before you go out in public (even though your three-days-dirty pajama pants would be super comfortable while sitting in class)?  These are all manipulative, and we are doing this all the time.  What I hope you’re beginning to understand is that manipulation is not automatically negative.  Plenty of our day-to-day lives are filled with us manipulating each other, and most of the time, we wouldn’t be able to say it’s exactly bad.  While there are certainly nefarious and selfish uses of manipulation, it all boils down to how it’s used.

Manipulation is crucial for quality writing.  If we can’t find ways of manipulating our various audiences, then we simply won’t be effective with our arguments.  We usually talk about manipulation in high school or college English classes using nicer words such as ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos, but rarely recognize these persuasive appeals for what they really are.  Writers who can expertly deliver what the reader needs to hear at that certain moment can convince others of almost anything.  To write well is to have control over your message, and to have power over your audience.

As I’ve said before, this shouldn’t imply an automatic negative connotation.  Sure, I could potentially use that power and control for my own selfish needs.  Or, consider the alternative: I could use that power and control to fight for what’s right in the world, to help people up when they are down, to support the emotional, physical, and financial goals of those I care for.

In order to do that, in order to have even a chance at that positive power, we have to be willing to consider our writing from our audience’s viewpoint—ideally, a viewpoint that does not agree with us.  By taking this approach, we can start to see where our efficiency breaks down, where changing the organization of logic makes it easier to follow, where adding an emotional appeal might make it easier for that audience to agree.  As you practice more and more, you’ll find individual words that could make all the difference between success and failure.  This becomes just as true for writing that isn’t even (technically) an argument.  If I’m reading fiction or a poem, I still need convincing that what I’m reading is worth my time.

None of these skills are easy as a writer, but we can begin by not being afraid to admit that effective writing is really just effective manipulation.  Salt-n-Pepa manipulated a new generation positively by giving voice to a word that plenty of households considered a dirty topic at the time.  Once we reach the same step of awareness with manipulation, we can experiment with ways of making our manipulation stronger, and by extension, our writing more powerful.

The Writing Center Diaries: Dispelling Myths About Journaling

Rachel Knowles, Consultant

I’ve recently been (re)obsessing over The Vampire Diaries, a book series that inspired a television show about a teenage girl who falls in love with a vampire. As indicated by its title, the series is centered on narrations by the main characters’ diary entries, which Rachelnaturally feature their tumultuous love lives and frequent brushes with death.

Fictitious as they may be, these characters seem to have plenty to write about within this false reality, and their diaries, compelling enough to make any “Bestseller List,” have helped fuel romantic notions of what I have long believed a journal should be: dramatic in content, flawless in grammatical structure and, of course, held together by an expensive lavender cover – but more importantly, a journal must be routinely attended to by a dedicated writer.

I have always jealously admired the “habitual writer,” the person able to effortlessly record the juiciest tidbits of their daily lives and musings. I tend to imagine that these rare beings keep a leather-bound journal at their bedside, easily accessible for a late-night scribble. Or perhaps they carry a little black book in their pocket to write down their thoughts as they appear. They’re probably also cat people that enjoy gin and travel. By their very nature, they must have such interesting lives – can I really say the same?

For the longest time, I shied away from keeping a journal, unwilling to face my mundane existence and afraid to ruin the clean white pages with my unedited nonsense. But I’ve made an effort to rid myself of these damaging assumptions; that is, I’ve come to a new understanding about journals, thanks to recent conversations with a few of my Writing Center colleagues.

Journals don’t have to be biographies. They don’t have to consist of poems, or lyrics, or stories. They can hold the truth or be full of lies. They are whatever you want (or need) them to be, and their purpose can change at any time – and that’s the true beauty of it. So it shouldn’t matter if I make a spelling mistake or draw an ugly flower in the margins when I get writer’s block: I love writing, so why shouldn’t I write? In other words, who am I to get in my own way?

One of the best pieces of advice I received from a professor was that if you want to journal, do so in a plain, ugly notebook so that you won’t worry about how “good” its entries are. If you can get out of the mindset that you are “ruining” a pretty book, then you remove the temptation to tear out its pages and “start over” or give up. Just like the journal itself, not everything you write has to be a masterpiece, and the moment you realize that, you are free to explore the endless possibilities.

How I Write: Ian Stansel

Our “How I Write” series asks writers from the University of Louisville community and beyond to respond to five questions that provide insight into their writing processes and offer advice to other writers. Through this series, we promote the idea that learning to write is an ongoing, life-long process and that all writers, from first-year students to career professionals, benefit from discussing and collaborating on their work with thoughtful and respectful readers.

Ian StanselIan Stansel is the author of the novel The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) and the short story collection Everybody’s Irish (FiveChapters, 2013), a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous venues such as PloughsharesSalon,JoylandThe Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD from the University of Houston. He currently teaches creative writing at the University of Louisville. He lives in Kentucky with his wife, the writer Sarah Strickley, and their two daughters.

Current project: A new story collection and a screenplay

Currently reading: The Deadlands by Ben Percy and a large number of stories by my students

1. What type(s) of writing do you regularly engage in?

I write short stories, novels, screenplays, essays, and the occasional poem.

2. When/where/how do you write?

The joke of course is this: a person is lying on their couch, head on a pillow, eyes closed, unmoving. Someone enters the room and says, What are you doing? And the person responds, Writing. Ha ha. But see, there’s a good bit of truth to it. I say with a straight face that there are few moments in my life when I am not writing. I go to bed working out stories, and I’m back at it soon after waking. I’m thinking about a scenario or a character while I’m making my kids’ lunches. I’m working out a plot problem while driving to campus. At some point in a writing career, it’s just hard to turn it off. Or at least it is for me.

But practically speaking, I try to write—like, actually typing words—every day. Try. That doesn’t always work out, but I can say I write at least a little most days. And I’ve learned to be pretty good at writing anywhere. I can write while my daughters are watching Curious George just a few feet away. I can write in my office on campus while students chat outside my door. It’s something one has to learn to do, otherwise the words just don’t get strung together.

But on a good day I don’t have too many other pressing matters and I can spend a good four or five hours working. On those days I am home alone. I start with my laptop at the dining room table (I do have a desk but it is barely noticeable under a mountain of books and papers). I stay there until my back hurts from the chair, and then I bring my laptop to the couch, and work there until the battery gets low, at which point I move back to the table and uncomfortable chair. The dining room is also good because it doubles as our home library, so if I need a book it is usually within reach.

3. What are your writing necessities—tools, accessories, music, spaces?

I often have music specific to whatever project I’m working on. The last couple of projects have been soundtracked by country music (mainly from the 60s and 70s…the best decades for country music). But in general I write to instrumental music. A lot of ambient and minimalist stuff: Eric Satie, Brian Eno, Hauschka. Music that borders on classical, but is too weird to be firmly in that category.

Other than that, I don’t need much. For screenplays I use the software program Final Draft, which helps a lot. But I’ve done script work without it, so it isn’t a necessity.

4. What is your best tip for getting started and/or for revision?

Just start writing. You don’t know what the perfect first sentence is because you don’t know what the story is because you haven’t finished a draft yet. So don’t sweat it too much. Just start writing. You can change it later. You will change it later, most likely. If it’s a story, write scenes with a few characters, and don’t leave the scene until something interesting has happened. If you are writing a poem, write concretely. Don’t go abstract. If you are writing a play or a screenplay, establish the conflict quickly. But regardless, just start writing. And when you have a draft done and you’ve set it aside for a bit and gotten some perspective, revise without mercy.

5. What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

I don’t know if anyone has ever actually said it to me, but it has been said by someone to someone that you should write the story you want to read. I like that as a motivator. Write the story you’d want to read, not because you wrote it, but because there is some part of you wanting badly for it to exist.

Do you know someone who would be great for How I Write? Send us your recommendations!

Getting Started with Genre

Isaac Marvel, Consultant

Back in the 70’s Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier were working together on Marathon Man, which is a pretty intense, thriller type of film. Before the filming of a Isaacscene in which his character had apparently been kept awake for 72 hours, Hoffman decided that he too would stay up for three days, the idea being that this would help him get into the mind of his character—Hoffman was quite the method actor. Upon hearing this and witnessing Hoffman’s exhausted state, Olivier confronted him and asked “My dear boy… Have you tried acting?”

As Mary-Kate mentioned in “Writing as a Medium,” writing is not necessarily this art that requires this Hoffmanesque kind of inspiration. You needn’t spend days mentally fortifying yourself and getting into the head of your audience. Olivier’s implication of how acting operates is a much more effective example of the writing process—it’s a craft that one learns over time, with practice.

Therefore, this leads to the big question: “If writing is a craft, how can I improve my craftsmanship?” The first step is, essentially, just start writing! As Tim discussed in his blog post last week, creativity is a grind: “The best way of fighting through it is committing to fighting through it.” Wearing yourself out yearning for inspiration will likely only result in nothing being written, possibly serving even as a justification for procrastination. To go back to the example of Hoffman and Olivier, yes, Dustin Hoffman is a world-renowned actor, but so is Laurence Olivier, and he managed this without staying up for days at a time!

On the other hand, ensuring that your writing is effective is also vital—“just starting to write” may be the first step, but it isn’t the only step. After all, there’s no point in writing if you end up throwing away all of your drafts. Thus, one’s mentality is key: you need to be keeping your audience in mind as you write. Similarly, one trick that can make this process easier for you is learning the genre expected of you. Simply stated, expectations are going to vary wildly depending on what genre you’re working with—are you working on a research paper, a novel, or a tweet? Learn the conventions of that style and you’ll find yourself writing like a pro in no time.

So how, you might ask, can one go about learning said conventions? Honestly, my first step would usually be Google; you’ll find innumerable examples of what to do and what not to do. Possibly too many examples, in fact—it can be difficult to sort through and figure out which sources are credible and which should be disregarded. At that point, I would recommend coming to the University Writing Center, as our consultants have a wide range of backgrounds in different genres, and the odds are very, very good that we’ll be able to help. Alternatively, if you’re working on a school assignment, odds are that you can ask your professor about examples and about what’s expected of you. Regardless of what you choose, or what you’re working on, learning your genre is key to successful writing.

Creative by Choice: Persevering through Doubts and Droughts

Tim Phelps, Consultant

Perhaps nothing can be as daunting to a writer as an empty screen or a blank piece of Tim Phelpspaper.  It taunts you.  It knows you can’t do it.  It erases every budding idea you have and replaces it with indecision.  It’s the ultimate bully–the one who manifests your fears with more efficiency than Pennywise the Dancing Clown.  You’ve lost any ability to be rational at this point.  You know you’ve faced this demon before and made it through, but you’ve convinced yourself you won’t be able to do it again.  This will be the end of you.  This will be the first time you’ve failed to turn in a paper, or—even worse—you’ll end up stringing together an essay of words so incoherent that everyone will finally find out you’re just an imposter.

That worst-case scenario never comes to fruition, of course, but it sure feels like it will sometimes.  We find a way to get through it, and the world keeps turning.

I’ve come to believe that the roots of this struggle are based in creativity.  More specifically, our doubt-ridden self-image about our creative talents.  If we have convinced ourselves that we are not creative, then it makes sense that we’d have difficulty designing that eye-catcher the beginning of our paper deserves.  It makes sense that we would look at polished or published writing and be unable to picture ourselves producing it—when the words feel so good, it’s more appropriate to call it a “creation” instead of a text.  Writing like that must have been fashioned by someone who won the creative gene lottery, we might think.  This creativity is not limited to fiction writing or poetry; its presence is just as ubiquitous in well-written academic work as well—we feel the sting of its absence when we can’t come up with a compelling thesis statement or find incontrovertible evidence in our research.  Even pallet-wood projects on Pinterest and sugar-cookie decorating on Instagram haunt our creative confidence.  How can I possibly create if I’m not creative?

It’s important to recognize that all writers have faced that empty-page paralysis at one point or another.  It’s even more important to recognize, however, that practiced writers have found strategies for dealing with times like these. We’ve accepted it as a part of the process, and have found solutions that work for us.  Some writers make a pointed effort to temporarily abandon the writing for a little while, refocusing their brains on something unrelated until they feel ready to give it another try.  Some find solitude, others seek out company.  If writers are constantly finding themselves in this struggle, they might ask if they are trying the same ineffective strategies over and over.  If so, I encourage them to try doing something different and see how that works.

The longer I write, the more I’m comfortable that I’ve found an effective strategy for me.  If I just start writing something, even if it’s horrible, it will eventually evolve into a final product.  I’m not always satisfied with what I write, but these are first drafts we’re talking about here.  They’re allowed to be horrible.

I will admit that it’s more complicated than just getting words on the page.  Word production does not automatically create a well-written paper.  Strategies may get you started, but what use is that if none of it has that unique, creative zing?  It boils down to either accepting that certain lucky people are born with a creative gene, or accepting that creativity, like having any other skill, takes practice and hard work to develop.  Subscribing to the former absolves the writer from any responsibility.  But the latter makes the writer accountable for improving, which is a scary prospect.  If creativity is indeed a product of practice and effort, then that includes a heavy implication of failure.  For writers, the fear of failure is often what keeps the page blank to begin with.

However, I’m convinced it is a struggle worth fighting for.  Once writers accept that it will take work, they can focus on combining strategies with perseverance.  It’s the confidence (whether real or faked) that the words will eventually come to you, and a willingness to embrace the discomfort of labor.  It takes patience, comfort with failure, and a commitment to pushing through the block.  It’s not a problem limited to non-professional writers.  In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King compares writing not to “creative fluttering,” but to blue-collar labor such as plumbing and driving long-haul trucks (153).  (I know that this is my second King reference of the post; I offer no apologies.)  Common metaphors we use to describe this kind of toil are just as pitiless as you might expect: “putting your nose to the grindstone” and going “off to the grind.”  Both examples express this undertaking as a prolonged and drudging effort.  Even video gamers, when faced with challenging goals that require lots of time, effort, and perseverance, call the act “grinding.”  The origin of using “grind” in these metaphors is a reflection of two inventions of production: a vertical, spinning stone for knife sharpening, and the giant stone wheels used to pulverize grain into flour in watermills.  These examples represent the unforgiving nature of this approach, and in all fairness, sometimes the grind is tedious and exhausting.  But the metaphors also represent a connection between writing and the efforts of other disciplines.  These commonalities highlight a stark truth: those who find success usually have to work very hard for it.  Creativity therefore, and its subsequent creation, are choices.

This all means that, when faced with a writing block, the best way of fighting through it is committing to fighting through it.  The writing that looks easy for other people is less likely a product of a lucky birth and more likely the result of a practiced skill.  That practice means that once you have a merely acceptable idea of what to write, you keep grinding until you create something you’re proud of.  It won’t come easy.  It will be frustrating.  Failure is a real possibility.  But just like anything that is challenging, you will be rewarded when you work for it.

Works cited:

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Hodder, 2012.

Writing as a Medium

Mary-Kate Smith, Consultant

Writing as a Medium

Too often, people view themselves as poor writers based on the understanding that there is a correct and an incorrect way to write. However, writing is a versatile medium used to convey a diverse array of ideas. And as with other media, the tools and techniques used depend on the intent of the message. There is no clear correct or incorrect method of writing. There are simply conventions and the choice of how to work within, around or without them.

Writing as ArtMary-Kate Smith

The conventions surrounding artistic painting, like those of artistic writing, have evolved throughout decades and throughout centuries. In Vincent Van Gogh’s day, the artist was considered a mad man and a failure. His thick vibrant brush strokes were unconventional. Now an average of 1.5 million people visit the Amsterdam museum, named in his honor, each year. Similarly, the poet Emily Dickinson was a recluse who published fewer than a dozen of her nearly 2,000 poems during her lifetime. Her use of slant rhyme and varied capitalization were eccentric and unusual for her time. Her poetry now has international acclaim and has been translated into French, Spanish, Russian and a number of other languages.

Poetry, like painting, develops continuously. Writers of today rarely use the Shakespearian sonnets as a mode of communication. Likewise, modern day artists, such as Banksy, often create pieces as illegal street art rather than as works commissioned by royal patrons. Writing, like art, has conventions that adapt and evolve overtime. Often, these evolutions in convention occur through the creation of art and writing that exists outside the realms of the previous conventions. Boundaries change as boundaries are pushed.

Writing as Utilitarian

Just as every paintbrush holder is not a Picasso, not every penman is a poet. Writing has pragmatic and utilitarian purposes. Police reports, prescriptions and postal codes are all written in formulaic, objective fashions on a daily basis. The same spray-paint can used by graffiti artists to adorn a boxcar can be used by a little league football coach to reline a field. Comparably, the same words can appear in a legal paper, a sales receipt, a children’s book and a text message. Paint is the medium of both the Mona Lisa and kitchen walls. Written word is the medium of the New York Times and grocery lists alike.

Writing in Academia

Rarely, when a writer says they are bad at writing do they find themselves incapable of sending an email, jotting down class notes or creating a shopping list. Often, instead, these writers see themselves as incompetent within the sphere of academic writing. At times, the conventions of scholarly research and writing are daunting. However, if writers work to express ideas clearly as the primary target, the seeming “rules of writing” can offer structural support rather than insurmountable obstacles. Remembering the purpose is often more beneficial that remembering the practices. The more people write, the more control they gain over language. The more writers make mistakes, the more they can learn. The mindset that writing is a tool rather than a task can make all the difference in getting a writer started.

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Fun Writing Comics at the Library in the Summer!

The University Writing Center is committed to writing and literacy projects in the Louisville community. This summer, continuing our work in the Western Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library, several staff and volunteers from the University Writing Center facilitated four writing workshops for K-12 students. In consultation with Natalie Woods, the manager of the Western Branch, we decided to connect the workshops to the Library’s summer reading theme of “Super-Readers,” and help young people write their own comics. The four workshops had a total of about fifty participants. It was a great experience for everyone, as you can see in the reflections of the University Writing Center staff on their experiences in working with these young – and enthusiastic writers.

Cassandra Book, Associate Director

For the first of four workshops, Layne, Chris, and I came in with a plan, though we didn’t know what or who to expect. At 2 p.m. on the rainy afternoon, about ten eager kids rushed down the stairs from the main part of the library to the spacious basement conference room. Our workshop plan, developed by our fearless leader Christopher Scheidler (aliases: Omega Ant and Fry Guy), broke down the comic writing process into three stations: character, plot, and design development. Most kids flocked to the

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Ultra-Guy, one writer’s superhero

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Catgirl, one writer’s superhero

character development station. The children’s own identities, their lives, and, of course, their beloved superheroes and villains provided inspiration. Spiderman, Wonder Woman, Cat Woman, Iron Man, and The Joker all made appearances. When they finished with creating characters, many moved to plot development. Layne helped to guide their thinking through the beginning (set-up and introduction), middle (problem and climax), and end (resolution) of the plot. One surprise to us was that several of the plots intersected. The children created intertextuality—a character in one comic appeared in another writer’s as well. By the end of the two-hour workshop, we received one of our biggest compliments, that the workshop was “better than playing computer games upstairs.”

Chris Scheidler, Assistant Director

I thought that our comic book workshop was more fun than playing computer games, too. Of course, one of the reasons I initially suggested a

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Chris working with creative writers.

comic book writing workshop was because I thought it would be a way to quickly make writing fun and accessible. I also thought comic-book writing would be popular because of recent superhero movies and the library’s summer program on superheroes. Originally, I had suggested using one of the several computer programs or web-apps that are freely available, but Bronwyn raised a good point: namely, the importance of writers leaving the workshop with a tangible and material sign of their effort. Indeed, one of the biggest highlights of this summer’s workshop was during our third session where one of the writers laid-out, glued, and bound several pages into what would become a full-fledged comic book.

Of course, because comic books rely so heavily on visuals, the workshops had the added effect of pulling us a bit out of our creative element. I was particularly uncomfortable with having to draw and during the first session I found myself repeating “I’m not a good artist”. Yet any perceived lack of artistic aptitude didn’t dismay from us being creative and fully investing in the stories of our superheroes. Indeed, by the end of the second workshop writers were narrating stories as we all took turns sketching out scenes for our comic – we didn’t hold back from trying to put together interesting plot points, daring visuals, or exciting dialogue.

Layne Gordon, Assistant Director

At both of the workshops I attended this summer, I was most interested in and inspired by the writers’ desire to create superheroes that resembled themselves, as Cassie mentions above. At the time of the first workshop Wonder Woman had just premiered in

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Wonder Woman

theaters, and several of the girls wanted to draw a Wonder Woman character. But when they did, they added curly hair or glasses or a super power that they found more interesting and relevant to their own lives. They literally re-vised this character, remaking her in their own images. At the final workshop, I chose to do the same as I drew alongside the young writers. I created a superhero called Flash Mom inspired by my recent escapist foray into the Flash television show and my renewed interest in running—now with my one-year-old in tow in a jogging stroller. This required a lot more vulnerability than I expected as some of the writers asked me about what I was drawing and why, but it was also really fun to turn a male superhero into a mom superhero. I learned a lot from these young writers about the power of reimagining and revising our heroes as people more like us.

Jessica Newman, Assistant Director

I am so pleased to have had the opportunity to help facilitate one of the Western Branch Comic Writing Workshops this summer. The other University Writing Center facilitators did a great job of creating activities and prompts to help participants with different aspects of the comic writing process. During the workshop that I helped facilitate, Cassie held down the fort at the creating your superhero station—generally the first stop in the workshop—where participants thought about and drew their superheroes. 015918d57fdb4c6c54b8e73865805859135908e76fChris collaborated with an enthusiastic table of participants to create an entire universe of food superheroes and supervillains. At a third table, I helped participants think through their superheroes’ narratives (including things like conflict, resolution, characters and setting), and I was so impressed with the story lines and details that they come up with. I hope the participants had as great a time as I did creating superheroes (mine was Picasso Girl) and stories, and seeing what everyone else created. We could not have had such a successful series of workshops without Western Branch’s enthusiasm and support, and certainly not without the excitement and creativity of all the workshop participants.

 

Flying Out Loud

Ashleigh Scarpinato, Consultantashleigh-s

As a Writing Center tutor, I am always encouraging the writers I meet with to read their work aloud because there are so many benefits: it helps find typos, places with awkward syntax, etc. Sometimes, I have noticed that hearing someone else read your work aloud is also very beneficial. So, I have also suggested to the writers I tutor to download reading software that will read their work back to them. Given that I offer this advice fairly regularly, you would think I would have taken that advice for myself.

I had the honor of reading some of my poetry for the reading series Flying Out Loud on Monday, February 13th. First there would be an open mic for any local poets, then the featured writers would each have ten minutes to read their work. I had never read in a coffee shop or for a reading series. I knew I needed to prepare accordingly, so I organized my poems and began reading them aloud, in a soft, mumbled whisper to ensure that I was within my time limit. With my printed poems in one hand and a copy of The Woman in White in the other, I walked into Sunergos Coffee Shop—the smell of freshly brewed coffee whisking through the air. Arriving early, I ordered a decaf Frappuccino, and when I picked up my order, I noticed that the baristas had pulled designs through the froth. I collapsed on the couch and attempted to get some reading done.

The open mic started just after 6 o’clock, and it was so enjoyable hearing poets read their work—with varying rhetorical choices. As one of my poetry professors once said, poetry is meant to be read aloud, so no amount of internal reading can quite do a poem poetic justice. And with each poet, the clock crept closer and closer to my time slot, and those familiar butterflies began creeping their way back into my stomach. Finally, it was my turn to read my work—to say aloud the words I had crammed in the margins of notebook paper and reworked into stanzas on my laptop. I was going to read some poems that I had never read for anyone other than myself; I never feel quite as honest as when I read someone one of my poems. I fumbled my way through the chairs in front of me and up to the microphone, centered in a dim spotlight. I began reading my poems to the audience, attempting to regulate my breathing and pounding heart. While reading, I noticed a typo on the page, but luckily my brain registered the error before my mouth could formulate the mistake. I knew what I wanted it to say, what it was meant to have said. And when I finished reading, just under my ten-minute limit, I looked up for an applause of reassurance. I kept thinking about that single error no one else was even cognizant of. After resuming my seat on the couch, I reflected on my decision to whisper my poems while practicing. I thought about the fact that if I had just read them aloud with a full, clear voice, I would have caught the typo before printing the copy.

Will I read again at another reading series? Yes, and I would encourage all poets to do the same. I truly believe that there is nothing else in this world quite like reading your work aloud. So, even if you do not have the connections to be one of the featured readers in a local reading series, try to do the open mic. You can hear yourself read in an authentic setting and provide yourself with an opportunity to see and hear the way an audience responds to your writing. After all, reading and writing go hand and hand, and along with that comes the benefit of reading what you have written aloud.

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