Friday, December 05, 2014

Teaching Children about Writer's Block

Last year, I explicitly taught my third graders about the term "writer's block." It was a remarkable thing to see how it changed their view of getting stuck or not knowing what to write about. They still got stuck, but suddenly, they knew this didn't mean they "couldn't write." They knew, instead, that this was something real writers, published writers, experienced and gifted writers, have struggled with throughout history. It made them part of the writing community.

Mind you, I didn't just tell them what writer's block was, I gave them some strategies writers use to try to break through writer's block. Their faces lit up in recognition as they realized some of these strategies are things they themselves have done, or could try. "I do that!" "That's what I do!" Getting up and stretching intentionally, in an effort to break through writer's block, with the goal of getting back to your writing, is very different than aimlessly wandering around the room sharpening pencils and annoying other writers.

It wasn't a fancy or complicated lesson. I simply told the kids that getting stuck happens to even the best writers, that it has a name, that they are not alone in this struggle, and that there are things they can try to help them get past it. I gave them a list of strategies, told a little about my own writer's block experiences, and about which strategies I or my writing friends used, and asked them to mark any of the strategies they thought they could try. I also gave them a visual, a quick sketch of a stick figure walking into a wall. We talked about the strategies as ways of dealing with the wall - one brick at a time, or digging underneath the wall or flying over it or going around it, etc. - thinking differently about it, in other words.

I revisited this lesson this year, with similar results. Suddenly, my students are seeing themselves as writers (which has been the goal all along, but it hit a new level after this conversation). "Is there an age limit on how old you have to be to publish a book?" asked one young man. "Can writers get ideas from other writers?" asked another, whereupon I told him about critique groups, and how writers plan times for working alone and times for connecting with other writers, and that it's important to know how to help yourself move through writer's block when you are working alone, but that another day I could teach them about writing groups.  At the end of the lesson, as we transitioned to the computer lab, the room was still buzzing. "Ms. McGean," announced another young author, eyes shining, "I broke through my writer's block today!"

When your enemy has a name, it loses power.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Neglect Zones

Back in June, I started a blog post in here called "Neglected Zones." I reflected on my writing and my garden and how they had suffered in similar ways from my neglect during that last push at the end of the school year. I never posted it because I'm generally opposed to blog posts about "why I haven't blogged lately." Then, I sat down tonight and realized I was once again in a similar place. Surrounded by neglected zones.

Maybe I just haven't felt I had much to say. Maybe I've just been swamped by the demands of the kick-off to the school year. Still, when I find myself lost in the neglected zones, I need to ask why. Why have I stalled out on that one novel yet again? Am I making excuses? Why have I let so many pieces languish without resubmitting them? Why have I dropped out of the blogosphere so notably?

Yes, the school year is part of it. And, other projects are part of it, too. My writing brain spent part of the summer working on the script for Willamette Radio Workshop's "Around the World in 80 Days." And then, I was adapting my short story "Mrs. O'Leary's Torment" for WRW's Halloween show. I also started a new short story, which seems unsure whether it's a short story, a novella, or a novel at this point. So it's not like I wasn't writing. And I kept plugging away at that novel. But still ...

I think it comes down to simple discouragement. I needed a pause to pick myself up and dust myself off after a rather long stretch of rejections and general apathy from the world at large about my writing. If a blogger types in cyberspace and there's no one there to read it, did she really make a sound? If a writer pours her soul into a piece and no one ever publishes it, does her soul disappear? So, call it recharging, taking stock, rebuilding the damaged ego - what you will. Sometimes, you have to pull back.

However, this weekend, I finally sat down and started resubmitting my work. I re-read most of my short stories that have been traveling the submission merry-go-round, and found myself liking what I read. Here and there, I discovered a sense of clarity about some revisions and dove right in and made them. Good steps.

Now I am easing my way back into the tougher stuff - the raw acts of creation that are waiting for me, two projects I feel strongly about but also find daunting. Time to pull them back before they languish too long in the neglected zones.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Grass Harp: Writing That Takes Your Breath Away

Some writing just takes your breath away. My writing friend and critique partner recently recommended THE GRASS HARP, by Truman Capote. It is a novella, a form that seems these days to elicit both love and disgust. It is beautiful. Breathtaking. And I'm only on Chapter One. Here's an example:

We reached a field of Indian grass at the same moment as the sun. Dolly's veil flared in the morning breeze, and a pair of pheasants, nesting in our path, swept before us, their metal wings swiping the cockscomb-scarlet grass. The China tree was a September bowl of green and greenish gold: Gonna fall, gonna bust our heads, Catherine said, as all around us the leaves shook down their dew.
Such a short passage, with so much going on! You have to stop and take it in. You have to slow down, to notice. The words make the world magical, without ever introducing any magic. It takes your breath away.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Be Specific!

Be specific. Make the mundane memorable.
I've been on a binge of nonfiction reading this summer, which is odd since fiction is usually my go-to summer read. But the heart wants what the heart wants, and this summer, my heart wants nonfiction. I am reading it first for the content, but it's hard not to read with one eye on the writing style, which has ranged from the highly academic, loaded down with the kinds of words and sentences found in an Ivy League senior thesis, to warm, simple and intimate, elucidated through anecdote.

The latest nonfiction on my bed table is AN ALTAR IN THE WORLD, by Barbara Brown Taylor, whose personal and connected style really speaks to me. She does occasionally get lost in a wilderness of metaphor, but her ability to ground spiritual things in the real world is powerful and engaging. I realized today that part of her magic comes from being specific.  Here's the sentence that pointed me in that direction:
While I was a cocktail waitress I once spilled a whole Singapore Sling down the back of an Australian woman's red fox coat.
 I read this sentence several times. It seemed so exotic and interesting to me. Then I stepped back. This was no adventure on the high seas. What was she really saying? "One time when I was a waitress I spilled a drink on a customer." BORING!  But make it specific and it's almost like a travel brochure. We visit Singapore and Australia and go fox hunting in England all in one sentence, and suddenly this mundane bit of narrative is rich and textured.

For most of us, specificity belongs to the realm of revision, until we're practiced enough for it to become second-nature. On a first draft, you're capturing ideas and broad strokes. It's not the time to linger over every word and wonder "Is this specific enough?" But when you revise, look for those places where you have chosen the overly general word. Then take it further. Not just a waitress, a cocktail waitress. Not just a drink, a Singapore Sling. Not just a customer, a woman. What kind of woman? An Australian woman. Where was the drink spilled? Down her back. What was she wearing? A coat. What kind of coat? A red fox coat. Bam. Be specific and the mundane becomes the memorable. A rose by any another name may smell just as sweet, but it will affect your reader differently.

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