Saturday, January 15, 2011

What Should You Celebrate?

I recently encountered another one of those necessary demons of the writing life - the rejection letter. Mind you, it's not the first one and I doubt it will be the last. With each one, my skin gets a little tougher, but they still take the wind out of my sails. As I bemoaned this fact, a wise woman from my online critique group reminded me I still had something to celebrate. "You've actually finished something and sent it out. Some of us are still mired in the mess of our first-ever first draft." And I remembered a time, not so very long ago, when I "wanted" to write. I actually wrote even then - I wrote and wrote, but I never finished anything. I had sketches and scenes and half-formed notions, images and descriptions and little splurts of characters. My friend's words reminded I had much to celebrate. I had finished a novel - my second novel. And I had had the courage to send it out. In fact, I've been able to finish and send out quite a lot of work over the past few years. And my friend had reminded me that this fact was worth celebrating.

So what should you celebrate? Even rejections are worth celebrating because you had the courage to send something out and the world didn't end when they said no. Celebrate the personal rejection letter, because it's not a form letter. Celebrate the form letter because you ventured forth. Celebrate your decision to share your work with someone else. Celebrate your first paragraph or page or chapter, because you found the time to write. Celebrate putting pencil to paper or fingers to the keyboard. Celebrate the next word you write because you had the courage to do it.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Write Like a Third Grader

I've learned more about the craft of writing in the nine years since I became a teacher than I did at any time in college. Granted, I am thinking more like writer, and seeing myself as a writer, which helps. But in teaching my third graders the craft of writing, I have received an education myself. By teaching the process, I think about my own process. When I teach my students strategies for planning their writing, I discover my own strategies. When I talk with my students about revising by identifying whether they have a good balance of dialogue, action, internal story and sensory details, I must ask myself the same question. Have I oriented my reader to the setting? Introduced and described the characters? Am I writing in scenes, stringing together small moments, or just telling what happened? Have I chosen a story or topic that I care enough about to spend time with?

I have to give a great deal of the credit to the writing curriculum we use in our school, a curriculum developed by Lucy Culkins. Culkins' curriculum is designed to help children think and work like real writers. As a teacher when I conference with students I must hone in on what they're doing well and what they need to work on. In a conference, I ask them "What are you working on today as a writer?" "What are you trying to do with that story?" "Can you show me an example of where you did that?" I teach my students to be the boss of their own writing. When they sit down to write each day, they make a plan, asking themselves where they are in the writing process and deciding what they will work on that day. Are they generating ideas? Organizing their thoughts, perhaps with an outline or storyboard, a timeline or a story mountain? Maybe they're writing a discovery draft or rehearsing their story. How can I not become a better writer when I ask these questions day after day and hear eight-year-olds telling me, "I noticed I didn't have enough dialogue and I didn't orient my reader to the setting?" If my third graders can hone their craft, so can I.

Every third grader in my class, and most of the younger students in our school, also know Lucy's mantra "When you're done, you've just begun." I finished my novel and sent it out. Now what? "When you're done, you've just begun." Go back to your writer's notebook and start thinking about ideas for the next piece.

If you are not a teacher but you are a writer, I encourage you to find some of Lucy Culkins' work. THE ART OF TEACHING WRITING is a great place to start. You might even use it as a template for your critique group if you have one.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Epistolary Novel Reborn

A while back I posted on facebook about a blogged novel that a writer friend was working on called MURDERER'S MOM ( The writer, Jan Bear, is in my critique group. I'd watched her developing her ideas for this book over the past year or so, but when she decided to dive in and start writing it one blog entry at a time, online, it leapt off the screen with a life and immediacy that it never had before. The immediate past tense vision and the intimacy of the blog format were the perfect fit. When I posted about Jan's work, another friend, opera soprano Jennifer Wilson ( made the insightful comment that this form hearkened back to the old epistolary novels of bygone years (eighteenth century?).

Jennifer's comment set me to ruminating a bit on the blog form in general and the way in which it seems to have revived the voice of letter-writing, albeit with a twist. Blogs have the length, contemplative tone, humor and individuality that used to be part of the lost art of letter writing. The difference - we now write not for the highly specific audience of one, but as if our letters were already intended for posterity, cleansed of all mundane details of daily life (one hopes!) and raised to a higher level by drawing conclusions about our world, engaging in humorous observations and waxing vaguely philosophical.

Perhaps email and facebook and twitter have irreparably altered the epistle as a literary form. Or perhaps it has merely shape-shifted into a new guise.

I wonder ... are there any courses or books examining online content as literary form, the way we examine other genres? What defines it? What are its limitations, its strengths?

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