May 17, 2018

What I Learned From Teaching Creative Writing

Not much happens without a due date.

Photographs are great prompts. "Write a letter" is a great prompt.

Nouns and verbs provide visual images and action, but adjectives and adjectives provide none.

Decisions about punctuation and syntax might reflect one's writing voice. They also might reflect poor proofreading.

Structured writing exercises and formulas can produce results, but the results aren't useful unless the writer uses their own unique voice.

What gets in the way of your work can become your work.

Scenes are the building blocks of essays and fiction. These are made of character and action. The character always wants something, but he or she meets an obstacle. The next action reveals character and advances the plot.

Dialogue should have subtext. It signifies a constant exchange of power that might be romantic, physical, political or social. It communicates conveys conflict, attitudes, and it is shaped by intentions. environment/setting, secrets, objectives, and conflict.

Fiction has sometimes been described as conflict: man against man, man against nature, or man against self. There is another way to look at this: fiction is about trouble.

Don't judge a piece of writing too early. It needs time.

It's easy for a teacher to work harder than any student.

Teaching has helped me to articulate my own values and goals as a writer.  Reviewing the basic skills help me be skillful in my own writing.

Support (encouragement and critique) for writers is essential. 

Students love to work in pairs or groups. Why haven't I had more collaborative projects? 

Teachers get to witness growth, breakthroughs and successes. They can see that people who put in the time and effort will gain skills.

Teaching is a creative act. It takes time and attention. Because the rewards of teaching are more tangible that months or years spent on a novel or new writing project, it's easy to value it more than one's own creative writing.

Doing my own creative writing is the best way for me to stay in touch with the struggle to create a new piece of work. 

Creative writing is an excellent way to prepare for a career in any field.  It gives students practice with project management. It demands deep listening, attentiveness, problem-solving, persistence, originality, and receptiveness to feedback.  When we learn to nurture our own creative projects, we have learned patience. Creative writing teaches us to work hard and make changes. It's a true gift to be able to adapt and respond to challenges. 

April 27, 2018


by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance and lust,
The Inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,
No vested power in this great day and land
Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry
Loud disapproval of existing ills,
May criticise oppression and condemn
The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws
That let the children and child-bearers toil
To purchase ease for idle millionaires.

Therefore do I protest against the boast
Of independence in this mighty land.
Call no chain strong which holds one rusted link,
Call no land free that holds one fettered slave.
Until the manacled, slim wrists of babes
Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,
Until the Mother bears no burden save
The precious one beneath her heart, until
God's soil is rescued from the clutch of greed
And given back to labor, let no man
Call this the land of freedom.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox(November 5, 1850–October 30, 1919), from her 1914 book Poems of Problems (public domain | public library), written at the peak of the Women’s Suffrage movement and just as WWI was about to erupt.

Carl Sandburg: Hyacinths and Biscuits

Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits. ~Carl Sandburg

At a Window

Give me hunger,
O you gods that sit and give
The world its orders.
Give me hunger, pain and want,
Shut me out with shame and failure
From your doors of gold and fame,
Give me your shabbiest, weariest hunger!

But leave me a little love,
A voice to speak to me in the day end,
A hand to touch me in the dark room
Breaking the long loneliness.
In the dusk of day-shapes
Blurring the sunset,
One little wandering, western star
Thrust out from the changing shores of shadow.
Let me go to the window,
Watch there the day-shapes of dusk
And wait and know the coming
Of a little love.

April 16, 2018

What is Poetry?

The Greek word poiesis means “making.” 
  • Jorge Luis Borges believed that “poetry is something that cannot be defined without oversimplifying it.  It would be like attempting to define the color yellow, love, the fall of leaves in autumn.”  
  • Joseph Brodsky described poetry as “accelerated thinking."
  • Seamus Heaney  called it “language in orbit.”
  • Coleridge claimed that poetry equals “the best words in the best order.”
  • Gertrude Stein decided, “Poetry is doing nothing but using losing refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns.”
  • George Santayana said that “poetry is speech in which the instrument counts as well as the meaning.” 
  • Paul Valery said the difference between poetry and prose is physiological.  
  • Marianne Moore says it like this: 
It comes to this: of whatever sort it is,
it must be "Lit with piercing glances into the life of things";
it must acknowledge the spiritual forces which have made it.

April 14, 2018

Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) decided, “Poetry is doing nothing but using losing refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns.”

Poetry & Memory

Poets and writers draw material from every day experience, from place, from memory and from interactions.

I gather together the dreams, fantasies, experiences that preoccupied me as a girl that stay with me and appear and reappear in different shapes and forms in all my work. Without telling everything that happened, they document all that remains most vivid. ~Bell Hooks, essayist 
The past is never dead. It’s not even past. ~William Faulkner, novelist
Certain experiences mark us, and images and memories lodge in the subconscious to emerge and re-emerge in dreams and in stories. They frame an individual's reality and filter new experience.  In poetry, another element is the body.

Paul Valery said the difference between poetry and other kinds of writing is physiological. Poetry is connected to the breath. Whether or not the poem is in formal verse, the rhythm, meter, and beat affect the lines in a poem, and these affect the reader who speaks these lines. In a poem, a reader steps into the breath of the writer for a few moments and from the writer, through the page, experiences the images, the body, and the experience. What has marked another writer is capable of marking a reader.  

Writing teacher William Zinsser said: 
Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition. It may look like a casual and even random calling up of bygone events. It’s not; it’s a deliberate construction.
As a window, a photograph, and a deliberate construction, the image and poem is grounded in the body and also is a pattern of sound. It may be lyrical or not. It may be formal or not. The poet chooses words, vowels, consonants. The poet creates the energy.

I think of the poem as an instrument. It is a body with memory; a culture with a his(her)story. It has a shape with a resonant chamber, an architecture with a listening space, an ear for sound and composition. The poet deliberates on every element: the sound might be mellifluous or cacophonous. The poet makes the pauses and almost-rhymes, the length of lines and stanzas, and the arrangements and disarrangements. Along its strings or nerves, music rises in the images.  Listen. See.

March 31, 2018

Advice from Virginia Woolf

"Then let your rhythmical sense wind itself in and out among men and women, omnibuses, sparrows—whatever come along the street—until it has strung them together in one harmonious whole. That perhaps is [the writer’s] task—to find the relation between things that seem incompatible yet have a mysterious affinity...."  from A Letter to a Young Poet, 1932. 


March 4, 2018

Writing Workshop for Women Veterans

Women Veterans are invited to a retreat at Giant's Ridge in Biwabik.

I will be teaching a writing workshop at this event, on Saturday May 5, 2018 from 3:00-5:00 pm.

Every veteran has a story to tell, and we welcome you.


Recently, the Washington Post reported the United States has 2 million women veterans, and once they are back from duty, their service is often unacknowledged or even forgotten in our culture. Their stories are just now beginning to emerge.

Read more at :

Publishing opportunity for veterans:

Form and Fairy Tales

I happened across an interesting essay by Kate Bernheimer, "Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale."
The essay begins by three inscriptions from Walter Benjamin, Italo Calvino, and Angela Carter.  Walter Benjamin says:
The fairy tale, which to this day is the first tutor of children
because it was once the first tutor of mankind, secretly lives on
in the story. The first true storyteller is, and will continue to be,
the teller of fairy tales.
The fairy tales are enduring cultural narratives that have shaped every storyteller on earth. Bernheimer asks us to appreciate their qualities, which are not the qualities often celebrated or taught in creative writing classes. She says they have "four elements [in]  traditional fairy tales: flatness, abstraction, intuitive logic, and normalized magic."   She goes on to explain these four characteristics:
Fairy-tale characters are silhouettes, mentioned simply because they are there. They are not given many emotions—perhaps one, such as happy or sad—and they are not in psychological conflict.
 So, it is curious that we are so deeply imprinted by these characters.
Fairy tales [often tell not show]…rely on abstraction for their effect. Not many particular,
illustrative details are given. The things in fairy tales are described with open language.
Often called "just-so" stories, fairy tales relate events that would seem to have no connection, that are outside of concepts of cause/effect, commonly thought of as plot.
The language of traditional fairy tales tells us that first this happened, and then that happened. There is never an explanation of why. In fact the question why does not often arise....
The natural world in a fairy tale is a magical world. The day to day is collapsed with the wondrous. In a traditional fairy tale there is no need for a portal. Enchantment is not astounding. Magic is
Bernheimer says fairy tales bring together traditional and fantasy and avant garde writers, Countless poets have written work connected to fairy tales. Here is the first stanza of Sylvia Plath's Mirror:

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful-
The eye of the little god, four cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles.
I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart.
But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

This poem alludes to the queen's words, mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all? Fairy tales are a rich source of material for all poets.

Read Bernheimer's full essay here:

February 19, 2018

Chance ::: Poems

Chance ::: Poems - Reading and Book Release Celebration on February 20, 2018, 6-8 pm in the Sax Brothers Gallery, Tweed Museum at UMD. A quartet of poets, Michael Kleber-Diggs, Julie Gard, Sheila Packa, Kathleen Roberts have their work brought together into a book with full color visual art by Kathy McTavish. The poems are also coded spaces that explore the intimate relationship people have through their devices to a rapidly developing networked omniscient intelligence.