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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.

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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.

Artistic Awards in a World of Divisiveness

Katie Kohls, Consultantkatie-k

The Grammys were this weekend. Besides the beautiful and oftentimes odd fashion that will be on the pages of every magazine, musical artists (albeit primarily English speaking) were rewarded for their talents and creations. Since its introduction in 1959, The Grammys have been the highest award most musicians can achieve. The Grammys are ranked among the top award shows like the Emmy Awards (television), the Tony Awards (stage performance), and the Academy Awards (motion pictures). Like the Pulitzer Prize is for composition, these awards attempt to recognize creative people and their accomplishments.

I think it is important to appreciate what these awards, and others like them, attempt to do. They recognize and promote creative artistry that typically doesn’t have a pragmatic use. A song isn’t supposed to cure cancer, a film isn’t made to stop world hunger, a television series isn’t created to raise math and science scores, a stage production isn’t performed to create the next technological advancement, and many texts aren’t composed to achieve any capitalist aim. These pieces of creativity are crafted to appeal and help something that cannot be measured and that doesn’t have a logical end goal. In a world where STEM is prioritized and money seems to be the greatest source of power, these awards stress and celebrate almost a counter-culture of creativity for the soul’s sake.

And this is not to say that science, math, and pragmatic things aren’t good or necessary, but living in a world with only them is not only boring but also stifling. Creativity is necessary even for science and math and sports. A few months ago there was backlash against actress Meryl Streep for her comments on some people’s feelings on immigration and what makes America great: “So Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners. And if we kick them all out you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.” You can read the rest of her speech here https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/08/arts/television/meryl-streep-golden-globes-speech.html?_r=0. Whatever your opinions on Streep’s talents or her political opinions, I think she gets at another issue with this comment. Football, MMA, and other sports aren’t the arts; they have artistic elements and places for creativity, but they are not the arts. They, like the sciences and math, have their places and uses, but they cannot be substituted for the arts. Sports champion physical strength and competition above all, and fall short of what arts allow and the people the arts bring together.

The arts bring people together not by competition or to see who is superior, but by something deeper that cannot be adequately defined. A song can’t cure cancer, but it can give strength of spirit and comfort to a suffering patient. A film can’t feed every hungry individual but it can bring recognition to people in need. A television series can’t raise test scores, but it can make learning enjoyable. A stage production can’t make new technology, but it can cause people to think differently about their world and history. And a piece of writing, along with most of these endeavors, can and do make money, but most of the time they have bigger, more important meanings behind their creation. The Grammys and other creative awards celebrate a part of our culture we must try to champion and show its importance. We must not let our creativity and connectedness be trivialized or dismissed. These award shows are important, and they, in some respect, represent all of us creators who dare to do something beyond the logical, beyond the normal, and beyond the expected.

Pulling Together a Portfolio

Ashleigh Scarpinato, Consultantashleigh-s

There are so many help systems and articles designed to help you write a research paper, but what about all us Creative Writers out there? Who is going to guide us through the chaos that is a printed rough draft with a coffee stain in the center or a Cheetos smudge on page seven? If you have taken any Creative Writing classes, chances are you have had a chance to workshop your pieces in class, but where do we go from there? What pieces make it into our portfolios, and how do we make all the peer reviews when they are often telling us differing or conflicting suggestions?

Here are some notes about my method for pulling together a portfolio:

Phase 1: What to Include

Drafting a poetry portfolio is going to be different from drafting a short story portfolio, but the method can be the same. Start small, go through and pull out your best pieces. Look at your feedback, what did you peers identify as your strongest work? When deciding which pieces I want to include, I always look back at the speaker’s voice. I start by identifying which speakers are the most honest or believable. I had a peer in undergrad that would say, “I am not buying this line,” and it became my goal in writing and revising to ask myself: is this believable, will my reader buy this? And I challenge you, reader, to do the same.

Phase 2: Making Revisions

After pulling together the pieces you (and your peers) identify as your strongest pieces, collect all your peer reviews on each of them (hopefully, you still have them hanging around somewhere). I put all the peer revisions and notes in one pile and have a freshly printed copy in the other. Now, begin reading more thoroughly through those comments, noting which ones you like and find most effective. As you identify which changes you would like to make, write them onto your clean copy. This helps give yourself a base while also eliminating some of the chaos.

Phase 3: More Revisions (they never truly stop)

What if some of your peers recommended you change something in your piece? Do you have to listen to them? Although this might depend on their suggestion, please do not feel the need to change something that you do not feel comfortable with. As the writer, if you feel as though you are not doing the writing justice, that might be a sign to leave that detail, image, or word. Most importantly, if you do not change something, make sure that you can justify that choice.

Phase 4: What Time is it?

Get some sleep. I promise you will make more errors and have more typos on a lack of sleep than you will well rested. Along with lack of sleep may come lack of motivation, and you might find it difficult to convince yourself to read back over your revisions. I repeat, get some sleep. Your work will still be there in the morning—provided you didn’t forget to save it while surviving on coffee and Cheetos. When you come back to it in the morning, try reading your work aloud. This can help you hear how something sounds and allows you an opportunity to locate the typos you may have glanced over while skimming the piece.

Phase 5: Come to the Writing Center

We love Creative Writing pieces, and we do not get enough in here! Creative Writing work can be more personal, but as writers ourselves, we understand that the speaker’s voice does not necessarily coincide with the author’s voice. As tutors, we do not need to know if a piece is non-fiction or fiction, and we can help you through whatever part of the writing process you need help with.

I hope you found these notes helpful as you go forth into the world of revising and editing. Stand strong; you can do this.

How I Write: Deja Curry

Our “How I Write” series asks writers from the University of Louisville community and beyond to respond to five questions that provide insights 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.

During our 2016 National Day on Writing Celebration on October 20, Deja Curry stopped by to reshow-i-write-dejapond to our How I Write question prompts. 

About Deja

My name is Deja Curry, I have lived in Louisville, KY  all of my life. I am currently a Biology major but want to minor in English, because it was one of my first loves. I am a 2nd year student at the University of Louisville, and come from a huge family. I have hopes of one day opening up my own Women’s Clinic to help young mothers. My wish is to help educate and enrich the lives of people around me either through word, song or play. I hope that my poems or writing can help these causes that I hold so dear to my heart.

Currently Reading: Unwholly by Neal Shusterman

What type(s) of writing do you regularly engage in?
Poetry, freestyle writing, lines of plays

When/where/how do you write?
On the bus, on campus, in my spare time

What are your writing necessities– tools, accessories, music, spaces? 
A pen/pencil, a notebook, a blank computer screen, then I unleash

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received? 
Dig deep, write what you know, but don’t be afraid to write what you don’t know.

You Are Not a Unique Snowflake

katie-kKatie Kohls, Consultant

If you are interested at all with musical theatre and haven’t been living under a rock for the past year, you have probably heard of a little show called Hamilton. Created by Lin-Manuel Miranda who wrote the music, lyrics, and book. This musical had taken the world by storm, and if it wasn’t about the Founding Fathers, many of the songs could be in the Top 40. Just go listen to “My Shot”, “Non-Stop”, or “Burn” and hear what I mean. The entire score is amazing. And Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican descent, played Alexander Hamilton for the first year of its run on Broadway. And no role in the musical is limited by color or race; the Founding Fathers in Hamilton are as diverse as America today. Miranda is changing how we look at musicals, actors, and history.

Miranda also wrote the musical, In the Heights, and has composed the music for Disney’s new movie, Moana, to give a few of his other works. Basically, Miranda is a phenomenal person and writer, who has literally changed the world with his work. But on September 23, he reminded his Twitter followers that even writing geniuses have their rough patches.

Miranda’s Twitter is a place of beautiful positivity and updates on what he is doing with his time. His good morning and good night tweets are motivating and touching whether you know him or not. On September 23 though, he tweeted a ‘memory’ from three years’ prior (memories on social media remind you of popular posts that you posted on that day in previous years). This memory was a conversation Miranda had with his wife, Vanessa, about writing:

lmm-tweet

Miranda’s tweet says, “This conversation happened 3 years ago. Keep Writing. Get back to your piano” with a picture of the 2013 tweet which said:

Me: Sometimes the writing doesn’t happen as fast as I’d like it to.

Vanessa: I know.

Me: I have a hard time finding the balance between not beating myself up when it doesn’t happen as fast as I’d like it to, and not wasting time while I wait for it to happen.

Vanessa: Everyone has that problem all of the time.

Me: You mean these aren’t unique snowflake problems that happen to me because I am a unique snowflake?

Vanessa: No.

Me: Oh, good.

[End of Play.]

This tweet shows Miranda’s humor, but it also reminds us as writers and creative beings that we must keep going. Like Miranda said, the balance of not beating ourselves up and not wasting time is difficult. And we can take some small comfort in arguably one of the creative geniuses of our time has trouble writing sometimes. Who knew?!

But in all seriousness, we all struggle, but we all try to mask it. We don’t want to admit our weakness, and admit we just can’t sometimes. But if one of the greatest creative geniuses of our time is admitting that he struggles, shouldn’t we, the lowly uninfluential peasants, be okay with our struggles? I’m kidding about the peasants, but I am serious about being okay when we can’t write, can’t create. Our struggles to write aren’t because we are some special unique snowflakes with unique snowflake problems. I’m sorry, but in writing, you are not a unique snowflake but neither is Miranda.

So “What Comes Next?” Just because your problems are not unique, does not mean that your writing is not unique. So next time you are stuck or “Helpless” or have no clue how to begin again, “Take A Break” and “Wait For It” because you will “Blow Us All Away”. Soon your writing will be “Non-Stop”, and you should have confidence because “History Has Its Eyes On You”. And maybe you will make it to a point where some poor grad student fixes her writer’s block by incorporating your songs into her conclusion.

 

A Conversation with Recent MFA Graduate Martin Jennings About the Low-Residency MFA Experience

kevin-bKevin Bailey, Consultant

Have you ever considered pursuing a graduate-level degree in creative writing?  If so, you’ve perhaps heard of MFA programs (Master of Fine Arts in Writing).  An MFA in Creative Writing is a terminal degree (i.e. the furthest one can go in the field).  There are two main styles of MFA programs: high- and low-residency.  Despite this, information sessions on MFA programs tend to focus mostly, if not entirely, on the more traditional, high-residency programs.  I interviewed recent Spalding MFA graduate and writer Martin Jennings in order to get some insight into the less-frequently-discussed low-residency MFA experience and, thereby, open up new opportunities to creative writers seeking graduate study.   As a side note, writers can also achieve a terminal degree in creative writing by completing a PhD.  The following interview, however, is specifically about the MFA process with a special focus on low-residency schools.  Bear in mind that not all low-residency MFA programs are the same.

 

First off, why don’t you let us know what the difference is between a low-residency MFA program, like the one you recently attended at Spalding, and a high-residency program?

Sure.  There are some key differences.  The main one is that while you’re in a low-residency program, you do not stay on campus for two years and live in that area, as you would in a high-residency.   For low-residency, you do most of your work from home, while staying in touch with your professors and regularly turning in packets of new and revised work.  During the residency period, you have your lectures and workshops the same as you would at a high-residency program, except it occurs over a ten-day span, so it’s very intensive.

Early on into your MFA program, I remember you telling me that Spalding had helped you develop your own voice as a writer.  Do you still feel that way, and if so can you explain that in a little more depth?

Yes, I do still feel that Spalding helped develop my voice.  They were very encouraging in my low-residency MFA.   The instructors were particularly interested in seeing students experiment and try out different styles, themes, and perspectives in their stories.  And I was lucky enough to have had mentors who were very knowledgeable and able to point out new (to me) writers and books.  One writer whose work I was introduced to was Nicholson Baker.  He was recommended to me in my last semester at Spalding.  I remember thinking, “How haven’t I heard of him before?”  I saw my own voice, though much less refined, in his writing.  My mentors were very perceptive and able to take what I had written, show me my strengths about my particular style, and also instruct me about things I could do better, so as to make my work more cohesive.

Were there any other changes that occurred in your writing style/lifestyle while getting your MFA?

Yes, there were quite a few changes on both fronts.  As far as my writing style goes, I did a fair bit of experimenting with different types of stories and different narrators, subject matter, varying lengths (including a lot of flash fiction and longer stories) – just to get a feel for how you go about writing each type, what the differences were with each, and what they had in common.  I found myself somewhat favoring the smaller, more concise stories.

And as far as the lifestyle changes go, since I was responsible for turning in 35 to 50 pages of work each month, comprised of both new and revised work, I had to find a new way to incorporate writing into my everyday life.  And this was in addition to working a full time job and managing other responsibilities.  So writing became more a part of everyday life.

How did the low-residency program work for you in ways that a high-residency program might not have?  By contrast, is there anything offered by a high-residency program you feel you may have missed out on?

The volume of work that I produced in my low-residency program, based on what I hear from people who have done the high-residency, was much greater.  You get more specialized attention on your writing in a low-res program, and you’re producing so much material, you get into the habit of writing on a regular basis.  Spalding did offer experience in academic writing, but that was not the main focus – rather the creative writing work was.   I think you could say that low-residency MFA programs are designed for people who want to become better writers, as opposed to people who want to have careers in the teaching or in the academic world.  Generally speaking, high-residency programs seem to have greater teaching experience options – there seems to be more opportunity for it.  This can provide you with job experience.  There were workshops in low-residency that focused on creative writing pedagogy, but again, this was not the primary focus of the program.  And I would be remiss not to point out that low-residency programs are generally not as well funded, which means you often have to take out loans or pay out of pocket.  And it isn’t cheap!

What were some preconceptions you had about getting an MFA that didn’t pan out?

That I would graduate with sort of a collection of short stories that were ready to be published as such.  That by the time I finished – after two years – surely I would have enough pieces to flesh out a full collection and achieve great critical and financial success.  This wasn’t the case.  I did graduate with a lot of strong pieces that have gone on to be published, but it is a much more intense and lengthy process than you imagine going in.

I also had a fear that I would come out with cookie-cutter pieces of writing after having been exposed to a specific program and set way of doing things.  Fortunately, that didn’t come through at all, and I was allowed to experiment and find my own style of telling stories.

Finally, any cautionary words/suggestions for writers considering a low-residency MFA?

I do have some.  I would caution writers to make sure that what they want out of their program is to become a better writer, not to secure a set of marketable job skills.  The low-res program will teach you to be a better writer, and while it may offer some positive job-related skills, producing better writers is the primary goal of a low-residency program.  The focus is always on the writing, not on securing you a job.

Martin Jennings graduated from Spalding in the Fall of 2015.  His work has been featured in multiple publications since his graduation, most recently his story “Bodies of Water” in Sick Lit Magazine and “Hammer Space” in Under the Bed Magazine.  Martin writes, works, and lives in Louisville.

 

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