Words From the Wilderness: Nickolas Butler's Fiction Residency

photo courtesy Justin Patchin

photo courtesy Justin Patchin

by Geoff Carter

“You’re cheating! I smell lighter fluid.”

Guild Director BJ Hollars and I heard this from the Cirenaica lodge last Friday evening as we started the campfire…with a little help. In our defense it had rained the night before, so we could use a little help.

It was the second night of Nickolas Butler’s Fiction Residency at Cirenaica, and after a long day of tackling projects, workshopping, and gorging on succulent meals, a fire is just what we needed.

“Lighter fluid?” I lied. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Fiction is a lie; this was Nickolas Butler’s most important lesson for the group. A lie that, while holding emotional truths, is still fabricated from our minds. Butler used the analogy of a police interrogation: if a crime was committed and an alibi was needed, we give our stories to the police; they, like the reader, will spot holes in the story, and with too many holes the story will fall apart. As writers, we need to fill the holes to keep the lie intact, and the story fulfilling.

All weekend long, the ten participants worked in a circle with Butler, perfecting their lies. Each writer had previously submitted a story or excerpt earlier in the summer for the other writers, and by Friday afternoon, they hit the workshops hard, returning to a circle to discuss the pieces over the next days. It was hard, it was taxing, and it was rewarding. Under Butler’s guidance everyone was constantly engaged and learning, even when their piece wasn’t being discussed.

photo courtesy Geoff Carter

photo courtesy Geoff Carter

The purpose of the workshops was to give each writer in-depth, genuine, and meaningful feedback which they could incorporate into their work. No individual story was perfect, but the workshops helped pushed each story closer toward perfection.

When the workshops were not in session, we still found ourselves in circles. In the lodge living room, on the back porch, or around a roaring fire. Even a loud circle in the kitchen around a midnight hummus snack. Within the circles we conversed about our craft. We talked over House Chef Brent Halverson’s glorious meals, and we talked when we should have been writing. Wherever we wandered on the green grounds, we were always together in this writing world.

And we congregated around those early evening fires that turned into late-night embers, breaking the wilderness slumber with our boisterous laughter and personal stories. The smoke drew our eyes to the stars while I plucked away on the guitar.

Our stories and our time here drew us into tighter circles. There were never enough chairs.

Writing is often a lonely craft. Solitary on laptops and notebooks with a single pen. Here at Cirenaica, writing is never lonely. With plans already made to meet in the future, I feel like writing, from now on, will be solitary but never lonely.

We could all use some help sometimes. So, Saturday night, after a stirring and invigorating reading, Butler helped BJ and I start that night’s bonfire without using lighter fluid, just like he helped us all work together, write together, and create together.  

photo courtesy Justin Patchin

photo courtesy Justin Patchin

 

 

 

Words from the Wilderness: Allyson Loomis's Nonfiction Residency at Cirenaica

By Geoff Carter

Photos courtesy of Justin Patchin Photography

“There’s a lot of talent in the middle of nowhere.”

Early Friday morning I awoke while an old train whistle sounded from the Fall Creek tracks. It rolled over the waving greens and dead browns to the Cirenaica grounds. It was a sound not heard in cities, and it told me how special this would be. We were in the middle of nowhere, the perfect place for creativity to thrive.

Allyson Loomis grouped the writers  together Friday morning to begin the “hard work.” I joined in alongside eleven others as we gathered in a circle in the lodge’s living room. Steaming coffee cups in hand, generously shared donuts, and a calm through the log walls and outside wilderness. Allyson began by offering a lesson that would stay with us all: though nonfiction is often a story about us, it’s important that is speaks beyond us, too. We writers clung to this lesson, and over our three days together, wrote, crafted and, revised our stories with it in mind.

To be honest, I had no idea what to expect from my role as assistant arts administrator at Cirenaica. I was set to learn on the job, working alongside CVWG Director BJ Hollars and house chef Brent Halverson. Together we tag-teamed a number of tasks: from monkeying with the thermostat and arranging the rooms, to refilling the water pitcher (adding lemon slices for aesthetic purposes). In between these tasks, I worked with and observed these writers as they created their works and honed their craft while residing in this wilderness paradise.

The writers came from miles away, each with a story to tell, even if they hadn’t stumbled upon the idea yet. Some planned to write about their successes, others about their struggles. Through Allyson’s workshops, writing exercises, and thoughtful feedback, the writers allowed their creativity to thrive. They left Sunday morning with fond farewells and newfound friends, and each of them had created something to be proud of.

In between writing and revising sessions, the writers wandered the grounds. Walking among the trees or the gravel drive, gazing at a seamless wave of bright greens and dead dirt browns. I, like the others, marveled at the beauty of this place, a beauty that inspired us to hover over laptops with words spilling forth from fingers, taking occasional glances to the ceiling searching for words, meanings, or ideas. They frowned when words didn’t fit; they smiled when they did.

When the words ran dry after a successful day, we chatted in the kitchen and living room, sharing our work with one another while gathering around Chef Brent’s, anxious for permission to “dig in” and feast upon the delicacies he prepared for us. Laughter shattered silences. Records spun songs through the halls. The ping-pong table beckoned us to the basement. Then, we retreated to our chilled or stoic corners of the house for more writing

The upstairs library of Cirenaica was where I did most of my writing, mainly because my fingertips were within reach of century old books. Crumbling books yellowed with age that were older than the trees outside the window. Books that humbled me into the chair wondering how any words could ever survive for so long.

Will our words last that long? I wondered. Will they join this ancient collection or be forgotten?

Maybe, like the writers who came before, as we capture our successes and struggles and make sense of the wilderness of life, we can create something that might last a hundred years. It begins here with us writing word after word together.

As I shut up the lodge after a challenging but successful first residency, I heard, calling over the hills, a train whistle reminding me of the work that was done, and calling me forward to the work that has yet to be written.

Geoff Carter is the assistant arts administrator at Cirenaica this summer.

Craft Talk Rewind: "The Art of the Interview"

by Karissa Zastrow

 For the last craft talk of the season, the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild invited three reporters, Dan Lyksett, Julian Emerson, and Eric Lindquist from the Leader Telegram to discuss the art of the interview. Every day we read stories in the paper, magazines, or online, but rarely do we think about the effort and finesse that goes into successfully reporting these stories. Together, these three reporters created a list of important practices to keep in mind when conducting interviews.

1.     If possible, research what you are writing about. Look at records and documents surrounding the topic. Remember you might be dealing with experts on certain topics, so having a basic understanding of the language and details is necessary to understand what the subject is talking about.

2.     Be strategic with your interview. Prepare a list of questions that you want answered before conducting an interview. By prioritizing your questions, you know what you need answered in order to make your story work if time starts to run out.

3.     Take notes or record your interviews. This is essential to making sure your story is accurate and facts are correct. What you record may also have details you may have otherwise forgotten.

4.     Let the subject know what the interview is about. Being honest might help you gain their trust.

5.     Ask the subject how they want their name used in the story. Someone who goes by Bill might want to be referred to William in the story,

6.     Establish ground rules. Dan urges his subjects to not tell him anything he can’t use in his story. It can be too hard to remember what can and cannot be used when writing the actual report and it helps the interviewer not violate the subjects’ trust.

7.     Show respect for the subject and make them comfortable. It is natural to sit down and have a conversation in order to ease your way into the interview. Eric’s favorite way to start is to say, “Tell me your story.” Eventually, you may have to prod and ask questions, but by letting the subject talk, it can lead to a longer and stronger story.

8.     Start with simple questions and work your way into the tougher questions. Some times by addressing the hard stuff first, a subject can be easily scared off and unwilling to talk. Julian describes that there is a fine line between asking the tough questions and being accusatory. When asking questions, you do not want to offend your subject because this can quickly end an interview.

9.     Listen to the subject and let the interview breed. As a reporter, you need to let the subject talk and you need to listen carefully. It is important to give the subject time to answer the question. Really listen and then when they are done, stay silent for a little while longer. The silence might make the subject talk just a little bit more. Don’t try to help them out too much because you want their original thoughts. At the same time, don’t be afraid to redirect the conversation back to the topic if they get too far off track.

10.  Avoid expressing your opinion. Reporters need to stick to the facts and treat the subjects with objectivity. An interviewer’s job is to get information, not to judge people.

11.  Ask questions more than once, especially if the topic is controversial. As a reporter you need to make sure you understand the situation and get all the details correct. If you have any hint of doubt, don’t be afraid to ask the question again. It is better to ask the question again than to publish incorrect information.

12.  If the subject refuses to answer a sensitive question, move on and circle back to it once you’ve figured out how to rephrase the question.

13.  Always ask the subject if there is something you forgot to ask or if there is anything else you need to know. This is a great open ended question to get just a little more information and let them tell you something you may have missed.

14.  Be yourself—this can put both you and your subject at ease. Remember, you are doing a job and part of that job is asking the hard questions to get a story.

Interviews require a lot of tact, perseverance, and skill to complete successfully. After an interview, the reporter’s job isn’t done. Still, they have to figure out how to compile the information correctly and effectively, all while typically working under tight deadlines. This requires a lot of thought and excellent writing skills while working under pressure. So the next time you read an article, take time to appreciate the art of the interview.

(School) Year-End Review

Where Are We?

By B.J. Hollars

As another academic year winds down—dorms turning to ghost towns, school hallways buffed and shined and silenced—I wanted to take a moment to reflect on a few of the Guild’s major accomplishments since its founding in February 2016; specifically, related to our economic and cultural impact in the Chippewa Valley and beyond. We have much to be proud of, and we have you to thank!

Economically speaking, by summer’s end the CVWG will have provided our region with approximately $33,000 in economic impact, the result of hosting a total of 12 residencies, 11 of which were held (or will be held) at Cirenaica, as well as one residency which took place at The Ox Bow Hotel last February. Now, to be clear, this does not mean our coffers are full.  Far from it!  Rather, this is the amount of money that has cycled through our community as a result of our efforts to bring high-impact writing opportunities to the community. Simply put, what began as a humble organization has now become a significant contributor to our local economy, and we couldn’t be prouder. 

Culturally speaking, the CVWG continues to provide an array of high-impact opportunities throughout the region. One way in which we fulfill this mission is through our craft talk series. Currently we’ve hosted 13 craft talks—all of which are free and open to the public. These talks have featured an array of writers and editors, from Michael Perry, Nickolas Butler and Allyson Loomis, to literary agent Erik Hane, Barstow and Grand editor Eric Rasmussen, and Julian Emerson, Dan Lyksett and Eric Lindquist from The Leader-Telegram, among many others. Next September we’re pleased to host Holly Harden, a former writer for Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. In addition to these regular events, we’ve also hosted several new initiatives, including two “Poetry & Popcorn” events in partnership with Chippewa Valley Technical College, a “Joy to the Word” holiday reading for the community, as well as a live production of War of the Worlds which—thanks to UW-Eau Claire Foundation support—was later broadcast on Blugold Radio. I’m thrilled to announce that as a result of this latter partnership, the Eau Claire Community Foundation has generously awarded Blugold Radio and the CVWG a grant to allow us future collaborations as well.

Though there’s much to be excited about, perhaps our most notable contribution over the past year is the creation of a new publication, Barstow & Grand, which seeks to provide additional publication and professionalization opportunities for writers in our region. Writer and Memorial High School English teacher Eric Rasmussen serves as editor-in-chief, overseeing a team of 9 editors, all of whom bring a unique skillset and perspective to the editorial process. We’re grateful for the Eau Claire Regional Arts Council’s generosity in funding our inaugural issue, and we’re excited to share it with you next October.

In closing, a humble thank you for all you do to support the Guild.  Please take a moment to click here and check out our amazing sponsors, who have been vital in our organization’s success.  Additionally, to help our community grow, feel free to make a donation in the amount that’s right for you by clicking here.  If we all give a little, no one has to give a lot.

And with that, our newsletter signs off for the summer. Of course, we encourage you to check our website and social media platforms regularly to stay current on exciting opportunities taking place all summer long!

Most important of all, we wish you a wonderful summer of words.  Revel in them, relish them, and write them.

Be inspired.  Inspire others.

 

 

That’s Not Within My Practice

By Sarah Jayne Johnson

Around four months ago, I decided that I didn’t hate myself enough and began my journey into hot yoga. Perhaps you are unfamiliar with this flop sweat observance, and if that is the case allow me to explain; it’s yoga done in a room hot enough for the floor to open into heaven’s gates. If my calculations are correct, the room is kept at 900 degrees Fahrenheit and at one point they hold a lit match under your nose while calling you a maggot (okay, maybe I hyperbolize…but maybe…I don’t…) If you are looking for a spiritual journey of mind and body coming together as one, or a “self-help” saga into how to fully allow yourself to meditate then friend, you have lifted your hind leg upon the wrong tree.

I was first referred to hot yoga by my therapist, something I am very open about. If you have never seen a therapist and are able to do so, I highly recommend it. Having an unbiased person look intimately into your life and give an opinion that isn’t your mom saying, “you are better than the competition” or you best friend saying, “I’m sure you are just over qualified” is an cathartic experience. Their offices also smell great and usually have those essential oil diffusers that probably don’t really do anything other than make you think “Wow…I am relaxed”.

The first time I went to hot yoga I was nervous for a few choice reasons, the greatest one being “What if I yack all over my mat and then my upchuck sits there boiling in the Texan heat?” Luckily, no such tragedy ensued. In fact, after getting past the physical discomfort of doing movements in the core of the sun, I was starting to feel a little more confident. I wasn’t the best by any means, but I wasn’t falling over. It was then that a movement came along during which the instructor said, “If it is within your practice to do spider, please do so now” and out of the corner of my eye I saw a lean, tan, brightly dressed woman calmly prop her body into what I can only describe as sitting pretzel style in the air. I was overcome with inadequacy, self-comparison and (obviously) a looming dehydration.

After we had all “Namaste’d” and I quietly peeled myself from the floor to retrieve my things, I wondered how that was supposed to make me feel better. My limbs were burning (literally), my heart was pounding and I felt like Linus from Peanuts dragging my ripe mat next to my riper, fly attracting body. It was only the next day as every muscle from my big toe to my ear lobe throbbed in pain, did I recognize why it was important for me to witness a trapeze artist in hot yoga; it is okay if something is not within your practice.

As a creative writing major in college, I was forced to write in styles that I was (am) dreadful at. Styles like Science Fiction, Fantasy, Murder Mystery (okay fine, I didn’t have to write a murder mystery, but I guarantee it would be no dice), styles I watched others flourish at as I wrote self-deprecating notes on the back cover of my notebook. However eventually, I realized that the point of writing (as with many things) is not to be good at every single component of it, but rather to be outstanding at portions of it. Another perhaps, even greater point of writing (as with say, pulled pork) is to appreciate it for what it is and not overthink it. I learned not to compare my writing capabilities to others’ and to instead establish my own practices and procedures. I listened and appreciated others’ stories of far off lands and scientific something or others and I am sure they (reluctantly) listened to and appreciated my stories of grocery shopping and family gatherings. Just as I am not able to suspend my body in the air like a parrot, I am not able to write every kind of story there is to write; and that’s okay.

I still go to hot yoga. I still watch the woman levitate in the air and fly around the room like a ghost and wonder “how does she do that?” The difference is that now, I look at her with a sense of appreciation and respect instead of a sense of envy or disdain. I think of how perhaps she can’t play the jaw harp as well as I can, or eat green olives in large, undisclosed quantities. I respect her for her abilities and I like to think she (especially the jaw harp) respects me for mine.

I think it is important to write (and live) for yourself and hope others find relatability in the parts they can’t do themselves. You will not write the next Harry Potter, so stop trying. The wizards won, the owls went home and Harry is drinking spiked punch in Tahiti. I will continue to write about my trials and tribulations, whether they are hot yoga or hot ham and cheeses, I WILL BE HEARD! And I encourage every writer to do the same, because I want to read what is within your practice.

Eau Claire Alumni Publishes her First Book of Poetry: girls their tongues

By Jeana Conder 

Abigail Zimmer, alumni from UW-Eau Claire, has just published her first full length book of poetry, girls their tongues.  She completed her undergraduate work at UW-Eau Claire before accepting a graduate program at Columbia College in Chicago where she currently resides.  She has also published other chapbooks, fearless as I seam and child in a winter house brightening.  I got the opportunity to ask Abigail a few questions about her new book and how the Eau Claire area influenced her writing.  

CVWG: Is there a recurring theme in girls their tongues?

Abigail: Water appears often. The book begins with rained out performance art and ends with a car's moving windshield wipers. Water as tears/grief, as weather, as form-finding, as a body of water—lakes and rivers—which is a sort of home to me. The poems in this collection are from many different speakers, all women, with undercurrents of loss, an obsession with happiness and measurements, and a need to tell a story, to say simply what it is she sees. 

Has your experience living in Eau Claire shaped the content of this book?

Very much so. Eau Claire is where I met and fell in love with my husband, where we heard the diagnosis of cancer, where his family still lives. The long process of grieving him—and my memories of our time together—form the basis of the book. Some time after, I moved to Chicago, a city that I first felt was abrasive and lonely but have come to appreciate the surprising moments of intimacy between strangers—crushed up against each other on the train, good weather or city-wide celebrations calling everyone to the streets. Though unnamed, these two cities are the poems' landscapes.

How does girls their tongues differ from your chapbooks fearless as I seam and child in a winter house brightening?

The chapbooks each function as one long poem that makes or remakes a mythology: fearless as I seam is a series of prose poems that follow the protagonist on a journey through another world, while child in a winter house brightening retells the ugly duckling story with the duckling rescued by an ugly child. The poems in girls their tongues are not as explicitly cohesive, though as a collection they shape an emotional arc of the grieving process, of the disconnect experienced when one is forced to revise her reality. And while some of the poems have elements of the fantastical or pageantry, many chronicle small, everyday moments and interactions in a more personal voice than the chapbooks.

Do you have a poetic style you stick to in this book or did you experiment with various styles?

I don't fully understand the form of a poem I am writing until I am halfway through it, and even then it's often changed in revision, influenced by the forms of other poems in the project or perhaps what I am reading. There are a few long poems in the book in which I attempted to rely on space rather than line breaks for pacing and to convey formally an absence. And there are two series of poems threaded through the book, which repeat the same form. The "portrait" poems are short blocks of text made up of broken phrases to mimic a kind of stuttering, moving toward more fluid prose sentences as the narrator regains speech. The "sisters" poems follow two sisters on a series of adventures involving the high seas, a cooking show, deer hunting, and interior decoration. Keeping the forms the same I hope provides a familiar anchor for the reader, especially for those who don't usually read poems.  

Any advice for young writers seeking to do what you do?

Be gentle with yourself! It's okay if you go through times of not writing or if your work keeps getting rejected. Neither are failures. Being on both sides of the author and publisher process, I've realized how rejections do not reflect or define your work. Perhaps the editor enjoyed it but went with another piece or didn't think it quite fit the aesthetics of the press. Perhaps she was in a bad mood and barely looked at it, which is frustrating but does not mean your work is unlovable. I think what ultimately matters is that you become a person who is watching and reading and absorbing and considering until your reflections begin to take a form, whether that's in writing or another creative outlet, whether you write every day or only during specific seasons in your life.

 Girls their tongues can be ordered HERE

 

Sky Island Journal Offers New Way of Publishing Work

by Jeana Conder

Want to submit that flash fiction or poetry work you just created?  Don’t know where?  

Well local author and teacher Jason Splichal created a solution. Sky Island Journal is a new international online journal that accepts fiction and creative non-fiction pieces that are under 1,000 words.  Sky Island Journal will also accept up to three poems in a single document.  All submissions are made on Submittable and must be accompanied by a $3.00 fee to keep the journal advertisement free and focused on the works and writers. Sky Island Journal has a quarterly publishing with summer 2017 being their first issue; the deadline for this issue is June 30. 

The mission of Sky Island Journal is “to price our readers with a powerful, focused, advertising-free literary experience that transports them: one that challenges them intellectually and moves them emotionally.”   Jason has written six books of poetry and his works have been featured in local magazines such as Volume One.  Sky Island Journal has pages on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  Questions can be fielded to skyislandjournal@gmail.com.  The Chippewa Valley Writer’s Guild is proud to support Sky Island Journal, and we hope you’ll join us in supporting the new journal.  

Link: http://www.skyislandjournal.com 
Email: skyislandjournal@gmail.com.

 

Craft Talk Rewind: Jumping into the Unknown with Speculative Fiction

Charles Payseur

Charles Payseur

By Karissa Zastrow

Speculative Fiction is used as an umbrella term for genres like fantasy, science-fiction, and horror. All of these genres have one thing in common: they push the boundaries of reality. Speculative fiction tends to ask the question “what if,” as do most stories, but they take it to the next level by throwing out the rulebook of reality and breaking at least one of the rules. In fact, you can create your own rule book. Write a story about dragons going scuba diving or time travel back to the Ice Age and go snowboarding—the choice is yours!

Our brains are always trying to figure out what is real and true in the world, but in reality we don’t have all the answers, which is why speculative fiction works just like fiction and non-fiction. The brain knows this and wants to believe the stories, which invoke that same type of anxiety that attracts us to a book of realistic fiction. After all, strange and unlikely stories still have things to teach us.

Charles Payseur describes speculative fiction as a genre of revolution and change. By throwing out the rule book, speculative fiction shows us that change is possible and it is happening. Speculative fiction can be applied to reality in a way that pushes people to strive for change and create a better world for the future. Imagine if people just accepted the way the world is and never pushed the boundaries.  If we want to make a difference, we need to think about how the world can change.

Within speculative fiction, there are many subgenres and there is a following for each and every subgenre out there, even in publishing. Typically, if you submit a speculative fiction story, you don’t have to pay a reading or submission fee and if they choose to publish your story, you are going to get paid. Most places pay 6 cents or less. If you are paid 6 cents or higher, you are considered to be writing at the professional level and to be recognized by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America you need to get paid at the professional level for 10,000 words.

Payseur offers a lot of advice when it comes to what you should do after you are done writing a story:

  1. Don’t panic.

  2. Consider finding a place to workshop it. There a lot of places to get support for your story. In Eau Claire, there is the Chippewa Valley S.P.A.C.E.C.A.T.s, which Payseur founded. They meet every three weeks in person. There are also online options such as Critters.org, or once you have published something, you can join Codex.

  3. Submit! Once you have completed your story, it’s time to submit to different publications. He suggests using a site like Submissions Grinder or Ralan.com to track your submissions.

  4. Submit More! You will get rejections and it will suck, but you have to take it with a grain of salt. Yes, rejection is hard, but you have to keep going. Sometimes editors offer advice. You can choose to listen to them or not. Ultimately, it is your story, so you can make the decisions. If you get rejected, you can always send your story out again.

  5. Sell (or not). Not every story will sell, but that’s okay. If it does sell, remember to read the contract. Pay attention to what rights you have and how long they will have possession of your story. Usually, they will have your story somewhere between 3 and 6 months. Another detail to look for is when they will pay you for your work. One you sell, don’t be afraid to promote your writing and get your name out there.

  6. Write a New Story!

Payseur urges writers to find ways to keep you going, even when you get rejection.

Remember, there are people out there who like your writing and support what you do, like the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild. So writers, are you ready to throw out the rule book and jump into the unknown?

5 Reasons to Sign Up for Marsha Qualey’s Young Adult Fiction Residency – Today!

Marsha Qualey • Image: Addendum

Marsha Qualey • Image: Addendum

by Erin Stevens

Have you dreamed about writing the next big Young Adult fiction novel? Wish you had to a professional, YA author to learn tips and tricks of the genre? Say no more! Now, with the 2017 season of residencies at Cirenaica only a few short months away, writers who have an interest in writing YA will have the opportunity to learn from THE Marsha Qualey, a prolific YA author.

➜ Learn about Marsha Qualey's Summer (2017) Writer's Residency at Cirenaica

Here are five reasons to spend three days working on your craft with Marsha Qualey this summer:

1. Qualey brings her numerous accolades to Cirenaica.

She has two Minnesota Book Awards and appeared on numerous best-of-the-year lists, including ALA Quick Picks and Best Books for Young Adults, IRA Young Adults' Choices, New York Public Library's Books for the Teen Age, and School Library Journal's Best Books of the Year. Her novel, Thin Ice, was nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers

2. Work with an MFA professor.

Yes, you read that right! Marsha Qualey is a professor at Hamline's low res MFA program. This is your opportunity to learn from a real-life MFA professor. Not only will you get great feedback, but this is your chance to ask your burning questions about applying to and being enrolled in MFA programs. 

3. A chance to wow the crowd.

On the last night of the residency, you and your residency attendees will have the chance to read your original at a reading that is free and open to the public. This is your moment to let the world (okay, maybe not the world, but at least residents of the Chippewa Valley) hear what you have been working so hard on!

4. Take a break from “adulting” to be a kid again.

If you’ve been spending too much time in the adult world, getting lost in the work problems, trading in your writing time for paying bills, the YA writing residency at Cirenaica will allow you take a timeout from your regular day to be a kid again. Work on your own YA novel, or reconnect with the books and authors who inspired you to start writing YA. 

5. Special Guest Julie Bowe will make an appearance.

Eau Claire’s very own middle-grade author will stop by to discuss and answers any questions you may have about writing stories for young readers! 

If all these reasons sound great to you, what are you waiting for? Mark your calendars for July 21-24, and get your application in right away! Spots are filling quickly and our May 1 application deadline is just around the corner, so brush off your manuscript and submit right away! 

5 Reasons To Sign Up For New York Times bestselling author June Melby’s Memoir Residency

June Mebly (Image: Parker Deen)

June Mebly (Image: Parker Deen)

by Erin Stevens

When writing memoir you have to stick to the truth.  You can’t invent characters, or make your mother into a Soviet spy.  You might have an uncle who’s interesting, but he’ll shoot you if you tell. So, how do you keep the reader riveted?  Are you expected to reveal your most embarrassing family secrets?  What are the ethical lines, and how do you keep from crossing them? Join New York Times bestselling author June Melby (My Family and Other HazardsHenry Holt, 2014) for three days focused on writing and revising highly readable narratives from real events in your life.  

Learn about June Melby's Summer (2017) Writer's Residency at Cirenaica

See below for five fantastic reasons to spend three days working on your craft with June Melby this summer:

1. Share your work with a New York Times bestselling memoirist

It takes a special kind of writer to make the New York Times bestseller list, and June is that special kind of writer!  Her debut memoir, My Family and Other Hazards has been hailed as “enchanting” and “an outpouring of tender, witty memories” according to Publisher’s Weekly.  Click here for an excerpt.

2. She knows Wisconsin

Having grown up in Wisconsin, June knows our region well.  And not just geographically, mind you, but emotionally as well.  As proof, check out this delightful piece, “Don’t Go To Wisconsin,” featured on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Wisconsin Life” by clicking here

3.She was the voice of the alien Bang in Space Jam

Maybe it’s a stretch to say June co-starred alongside Michael Jordan in the movie Space Jam, but her voice certainly did!  In addition to being a fine writer, June has also done some cool voice work, recorded CDs, won poetry slams, and much more.  According to her website, she is a writer, spoken word artist, and yes, even a mammal!  To learn more about her diverse talents, click here.

4. She loves chocolate

Or at least calls upon chocolate for the answer to any truncated questions by us!  See this interview for more about chocolate, her influences, and what to expect this summer at Cirenaica.

5. Special Guest BJ Hollars

Yes, the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild’s founder and UWEC’s very own BJ Hollars will swing by to talk about his latest nonfiction project.  And if you ask nicely, maybe he’ll even regale you with stories on extinct birds, Bigfoot, and his typewriter collection.  (Well, he’ll probably “regale you with stories” on these subjects whether you ask nicely or not…don’t say we didn’t warn you!)

What are you waiting for?  Give yourself the gift of time, support and community this summer.  Click here to apply for June Melby’s “The Art of Memoir” today!

Living to Write

by Karissa Zastrow

I think the best advice I was given about writing had little to do with the technique of writing at all. As a creative writing student, I was given a lot of advice on how to write, such as kill your darlings, put every word on trial, and show, don’t tell. All of those recommendations are important, but looking back, the best piece of advice I received had nothing to do with how I was writing. On the last day of my fiction writing workshop class, our professor told us in order to become better writers, all we had to do was get out there and live.

At the time, I thought I was living. After all, I was going to class, working, doing homework with coffee, and drinking every night, sacrificing sleep because you never know what could happen. Yes, those were fun and exciting times, and I always had plenty to write about, but you can’t live like that forever.

Four months later, I found myself in my first full-time job, where I let my life be ruled by work, unable to figure out how to find a decent work/life balance. I saved the weekends for trying to keep up with my old lifestyle, but even then, it wasn’t the same. I thought that once I graduated, I would have all this time to write and then be well on my way to having something that was publishable. I fell into an endless routine and slowly, my creativity dwindled and writing was put on the back burner. Many times, I would sit down to write, but my words would run dry a sentence or two into typing. Feeling stuck and uninspired, I was ready to give up on writing completely. 

That’s when I needed a change. I quit my job and traveled to Europe, which I had been dreaming of for years. The second day into my journey, my brain started swirling with ideas for poems, short stories, and the need to document my adventures. Whenever we weren’t out exploring, I was writing—on the train rides, buses, planes, hanging out in parks, before bed, and after I woke up. I was bursting with creativity and for the first time in a long while, I felt alive. After coming back, that creative energy carried over and I worked four very different part time jobs to make ends meet. I didn’t have much time, but there was no shortage of ideas when I started to write. 

About six months ago, I took a full time job and I found myself falling back into a routine. My life wasn’t exciting and when I started to write, I couldn’t find the words. I was back in a slump, and I didn’t know how to change it. But, in February, I attended the Winter Writers Retreat at The Oxbow, and set aside that whole weekend for myself and my writing. The day of the retreat, I produced a piece of nonfiction and was pleasantly surprised with how it turned out. I started setting aside time to write a little more. Three weeks later, I traveled to the east coast to interview at a graduate school where I had been accepted for creative writing. While wandering the streets of Pittsburgh, ideas started popping into my head and between the interview and the informational meetings, I made myself comfortable on the campus terrace and wrote until I didn’t have anything left to say.

In the last few weeks, I have found more to write about than I have in the last three years. All of these different experiences, made me realize that a change of scenery, meeting new people, and trying new things inspires me to write and develop new ideas for all sorts projects. Since February, I’ve been seeking out new experiences locally, and so far, I have watched a soccer game in a snowstorm, pet stingrays in Iowa, visited Minneapolis, and made a trip down to Platteville. All these experiences have somewhat pushed me out of my comfort zone and given me a lot of inspiration for pieces that I wouldn’t have created if I had just stayed at home. Getting out of my comfort zone and pushing myself has not only taught me a lot about myself, but also about my writing and creativity.

It’s been almost four years since I sat in my fiction workshop and was told to go out and live, and I’m finally starting to figure out what my professor meant. Living is a way to figure out what inspires you as a writer and what gives you material for your work. As I mentioned earlier, through living, I learned what fuels my writing. Every writer is different and what feeds their creativity is different as well. Some writers are able to keep the routine of everyday life and are inspired by the beautiful, little things they find each day. Plus, if we don’t live, how are we going to be able to describe our experiences to our readers? So, my fellow writers, let’s get out there and live! I can’t wait to hear all of your stories.

May 1–4: Mission Impossible? Poetry Translation

How does one translate a poem? In an effort to find out, the Department of Languages at the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire will host a Symposium titled, Mission Impossible?  Poetry Translation from Monday, May 1 through Thursday, May 4.

The symposium will feature an array of events, many of which will be hosted by guest scholars Dr. Samuel Frederick of Pennsylvania State University and Dr. Graham Foust of the University of Denver.

The goal, explains University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire German professor and symposium organizer, Dr. Johannes Strohschank, is to “acquaint and familiarize both faculty and students, as well as a general audience, with the intricacies, problems, and benefits associated with the translation of poetry, in this case from the German to the English language.” 

“This symposium is not only for experts in German and English poetry but for lovers of poetry in all languages,” stresses Strohschank.  “German as a source language here only serves as an example from which to deduce the enormous difficulties, but also sweet rewards, associated with poetry translation, in general.”

The four-day event includes a reception and panel discussion, master classes in the Departments of Languages and English, and an evening with readings of international poetry as part of the International Poetry Reading on May 3.  More information on the time and place of these events will be released soon, which we’ll share on CVWG social media.

Exploring Boundaries and Identities in José Alvergue's New Book precis

Dr. José Alvergue (Image via theforeworduwec.com)

Dr. José Alvergue (Image via theforeworduwec.com)

by Jeana Conder

José Alvergue was born in San Salvador, El Salvador and was raised on the U.S./Mexico border.  He is a graduate of Buffalo Poetics and CalArts Writing programs.  José has written other works such as gist : rift : drift : bloom.  José currently teaches at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire.

His latest work precis, released on April 1, tells the tale of a girl that was killed by a drunk driver in San Diego’s Sidro neighborhood.  José takes the reader on a journey between the literal U.S. and Mexico border and the border between individuals, bodies, and communities.  Below is a brief interview with José on the content of his new book and the thought behind the format. 

CVWG: Precis, by simple definition means a concise summary of essential points, statements, or facts. How do you feel the title of your book reveals itself within your work and impacts the meaning?

Alvergue: The definition of the word was really important for me when thinking about the composition of the book. It’s an indication of knowledge, or knowing when it comes to people, place, and history. But it’s also an indication of genre in the sense that genre choreographs certain cultural expectations, values, and reveal reading practices: for example, the ways a cultural belief around “criminality” or “precarity” forms reading practices related to “border literature” or “immigrant literature.” I want to disrupt the continuity of these expectations with the story/-ies in the book. In many ways this is very similar to the Russian avant garde practice of factography from the 1920s, but it is also influenced by current day postlyric practices that treat language between its concreteness, and its social identity. You can’t summarize the assembly of the social, even if concreteness wants to show ‘the social’ as a static body––this gets even more entangled the more specific we are about the particular assembly in question. In this case, borders. There’s a review of the book I read recently and it sort of frustrated me because it assumed the names in the book are of immigrants, all of them. But this is not the case. There are Americans that live at the border too, yet the narratives concretized around border experiences are of immigrant contexts, which, as an expectation, not only reduces the heterogeneity of lives, but also essentializes one immigrant experience as a summary the many. So I include various instruments of summary: maps, etymological definitions, linguistics, industrial organization flow charts, finger tips, and ‘story’, both invented and non-fiction, but do not allow the gratification of the summary to complete expectation.

From the excerpt I read on the Omnidawn website, precis seems to be different than your average novel. Precis plays with structure, creating different emotions. From newspaper clippings, blacked out text, and more, how do you hope the reader will receive your message from such a unique format?

The first thing I guess is that I don’t imagine it as a novel. There’s a really great description of one of my favorite books, Theresa Cha’s Dictée, by a prominent scholar, who calls the book a recit. I really like this way of talking about books that are conscious of genre only if for the intent of unsettling genre as boundary––or I guess treating genre exactly as that, boundaries that can be approached without destroying what makes them such––a boundary. Like walking along that dynamic terrain where a body of water territorializes and recedes from a terrain. It gets cloudy and one leaves an imprint, but the wash always resets the boundary. That’s the beauty of genre. You can’t break them. I would hope that potential readers understand that. Experimental or conceptual work won’t undo identity, particularly a reader’s identity; they seek to expand the topology or landscape we envision ourselves to inhabit. Poetry is about nuance, not reduction. I think these existential questions related to Literature must also account for area literature, like US Ethnic literature; it’s not just for the big white authors of ‘Western Civilization’. I would hope that they understand the politics of this intervention as well.

Precis focuses on the literal border between the United States and Mexico, but also focuses on the boundaries between individuals and communities. Do you think one has to understand the broader aspects of divides to truly understand the impacts of the border between the two countries?

I don’t know if one needs to understand “divides” but rather be comfortable with the prospect of caesuras that are unbreachable. We can exist within difference without imposing homogeneity. The existentialism of this is important when it comes to considering legislation, because the ‘planning’ or the beliefs undergirding the support for political institutionalisms feeds into the feedback loop, which we experience as phobias. I think these fears, homophobia, xenophobia, and more specifically Islamophobia, are partially existential––a deep fear that the mere acknowledgement or presence of a person that exists in a state of difference to the normative will unrattle the veneer behind which Americaneity often resides. We all experience “divides,” but we also can’t level them as being the same. What we should be thinking about is the way a constructed fear is appropriated as a personal way of being American.

You start off your synopsis of the book by describing the border as "a policed realm, neoliberal market." With the newly founded Republican controlled government, do you hope Precis can make a political stand against the erasure of identity of those effected by the border?

The stand can never be structural to the degree necessary for actual protection against the policies that will prey and are currently preying on the already precarious. The project of conceptual poetry is one of meaning; it’s meant to encourage an enchantment with language in a manner that invites the invention of meaning on behalf of another, another who is not the writer or the lyric persona of the text: in other words, the reader. We often don’t realize that we place meaning back in the world with the ways we interact with representation. It’s not about purely binary, good/bad, do something/don’t do something responses. It’s about nuance. I think the stand against erasure begins with a recognition––as a self-care––of our own capacity to involve ourselves in the making of meaning.

From the Mouths of Writers - Week One: The Best Advice You Ever Received

mentor-2062999_1920.png

by Jeana Conder

A couple of weeks ago I set out on the task of asking local writers to answer a series of eight questions I compiled.  The responses I received are now creating our newest series, “From the Mouth of Writers.”  We hope that this series allows upcoming writers to gain knowledge from others with the same passion. This week’s question:

What is the best advice you have received about writing?

Allyson Loomis

A poet once told me that all you have to do to be a writer is (1) LIVE (2) READ (3) WRITE (4) THINK ABOUT WRITING (5) REPEAT UNTIL DEAD.  I’ve always thought that was a sound checklist.  I routinely share it with my students.

Sandra Lindow

When I was a sophomore in high school, my English teacher said that I didn’t need to “try to be different”.  He believed that I was “different enough” to become a successful writer by just writing the truth about myself.

Molly Patterson

The best advice given to me as a writer was to try different techniques, to push myself outside of my comfort zone. I used to live in San Francisco and had been writing for some time when I took a class with the Writers Studio. Their model was based on reading a published writer's piece, breaking down the various techniques in terms of voice, point of view, style, and approach, and then using those techniques as guidelines for beginning a piece of your own. This method helped me become much smarter as a writer and reader: by forcing me to take on different styles and voices, I expanded my range. The surprise is that in the process, I developed my own voice as a writer. I would recommend this process to anyone.

Bruce Taylor

“A fool on a fool’s journey would be a fool to stop.” Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Jon Loomis

Read everything and write every day.  I don’t necessarily follow it, but it’s great advice.  

Marsha Qualey

I have been teaching for ten years in a low-residency MFA program. Twice a year the students and faculty meet on campus (Hamline University) and the writing talk flows. I have taken in so much great advice, but possibly the most eternally pertinent to my own writing comes from a faculty colleague, Claire Rudolf Murphy, who likes to pound the podium and urge “Cut the exclamation marks.” That caution is about much more than punctuation, of course. My writing leans toward the emotional and I need to monitor that aspect all the time. Looking for exclamation marks is a good approach.

Sandra McKinney

Write every day; in a journal or otherwise. Meditation.  

Jay Gilbertson

I have been given a ton. As any published writer who has been around will tell you. I suggest you attend workshops or take classes and read writing books (or any book, for that matter) and look over the acknowledgements to see what inspired that particular author. Don’t Stop Writing! Oh, and read and read and read and NOT just in your genre.

Nickolas Butler

Read, read, read.  There's no way you're going to become a great writer, without first becoming a great reader. 

Brett Beach

In an interview on the Longform podcast, Cheryl Strayed talked about the success of her memoir, Wild. Paraphrasing here, she notes that the success was one part luck—extraordinary luck of the kind that so rarely happens, it should not be a thing people wish for—but, more importantly, she had written the best book she could, so that when luck came, she was ready. In other words, she had worked hard. Really, she had worked her butt off.

I think about this all the time: that of all the things writers believe they can control, in truth the only thing we can do is work, and do the best work possible. I believe deeply in working hard. I take writing seriously, and do not romanticize it (no lit candles, no prayers to a muse, no special pen, no writer’s block). Nor do I treat writing an occasional hobby. The writers I know, and respect the most, have all found ways to make space in their lives for writing. Writers prioritize writing—are sometimes even selfish about it. (Ha! Ha! you laugh. Does he have kids yet?) The act of creation can be wonderful, and frustrating, and euphoric, but it is also a choice I make each day when I sit down: I am a writer. I am here to write. So I do the work.  

Cathy Sultan

Things: Always be honest. Your reader will know if you aren’t; Write about something you know and are passionate about.

7 Questions with Cirenaica’s Memoir Writer-in-Residence June Melby

Credit: Parker Deen

Credit: Parker Deen

Love memoir?  Mini-golf? Wisconsin? Then allow us to introduce you to New York Times bestselling author June Melby, who we’re proud to host as a writer-in-residence at Cirenaica this summer!  June’s residency— “The Art of Memoir: Keep it Honest, But Keep it Interesting”—will teach writers of all levels great techniques for keeping readers riveted within the memoir form.  The author of My Family and Other Hazards (hailed as a “summer delight” and an “ode to Wisconsin” according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune) is a must-read for all Wisconsinites (though especially those who want to hear about June’s adolescence amid golf balls and tricky putts).

We recently caught up with June and learned a ton about her writing style, her influencse and how to handle a truncated question (spoiler alert: her answer is “chocolate”).

You grew up in Iowa, but spent much of your career as a writer in California. Do you think your move back to the Midwest has affected how you write?

Sure, because I have a lot more time now that I’m not stuck on California freeways half the day.  But seriously, I think that moving period has helped me as a writer.  I have found that throwing yourself in an unfamiliar environment is incredibly stimulating.  Anything that makes you challenge your own assumptions is a good thing.  Moving away helped me get the distance I needed to really think about growing up in the Midwest.  Moving back has given me perspective on the years I spent in California.  Buy mostly, I admit that moving back to the Midwest had a huge impact on my writing, because I came back to attend graduate school and get my MFA.  That experience was about as educational (and humbling) as it gets.  I learned to hold my work up to a higher standard.  Best of all, in Iowa City I got the chance to hear many great authors give talks about writing.  I think that was school in itself. 

How has your background in standup comedy influenced your writing style?

Yes.  It got me wonderfully prepared for rejection.  Ha.  But seriously, I think that comedy was a wonderful place to start.  For one, you learn how to be concise.  Comedy is a lot like poetry actually.  You learn to pay attention to each word, as well as the rhythm.  Also, it’s empowering to write and then not have to wait around for a publisher to give you the go-ahead. 

What would you say is the most…

The question is truncated, but in any case, the answer is “chocolate.””

Your Cirenaica residency is titled The Art of Memoir: Keep it Honest, But Keep it Interesting. How have you struck that balance in your own memoir writing?

It may sound simplistic, but I discovered that I got stuck when I was trying to say things that weren’t exactly true.  And in this case, I don’t mean true to facts, but true to what I am really trying to understand about the events and people in my life. I am very interested in this topic, because in my experience, it is nothing short of a wonderful miracle that if you write about the things you are curious about, if you really try to grapple with this strange miracle of life,  the reader will be engrossed and travel with you.  However, on the other hand, if you write to impress people, it’s not going to happen.  If you are bored while writing something, guess what, the reader will be too!

Who (or what) most influences your writing?

This is a toughy to answer. But I will say that recently I got the chance to travel, and it was just wonderful for giving me ideas.  Putting yourself in a situation when you feel off-balance, humbled, or even just plain lost can be a very stimulating thing.  It makes you think.  Question your assumptions.  It’s almost impossible to say where inspiration and ideas really come from.   So I’ll just add this quote from Dorothy Parker, “Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.” 

Is there anything you’re working on currently?

Yes.  I have three projects in the works!  A collection of humorous essays, a new memoir, and a collection of short fiction in the form of fairy tales.

 How would you describe My Family and Other Hazards in one sentence?

I grew up on a miniature golf course that my family ran for thirty years (and which I hated), but when my parents sold it I freaked out, fell apart, and wrote this book in an effort to make sense of it all. 

Want to share your work with June this summer?  Then apply today by clicking here.

And check out an excerpt from My Family and Other Hazards by clicking here.

Oh, and a special treat for those who read till the end: for each referral application, receive 10.00 off your own potential acceptance! Just have your friend type in your name in the "referral" box on his or her application.

5 Reasons Why Applying for Allyson Goldin Loomis’s Nonfiction and Memoir Residency is a must!

by Erin Stevens

As a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire alumna, I'm well aware of Allyson Goldin Loomis's prowess as an incredible teacher and writer.  Which is why signing up for her residency is a must.  Check out 5 reasons below!

  1. Allyson is an accomplished writer. Whether it be fiction or nonfiction, Allyson has published great deal of amazing work一 she was even an honorable mention in the 2016 edition of Best American Short Stories. Check out her essay, “Learning to Sleep” published in The Sun.

  2. She is a great instructor. Allyson is a beloved professor at UWEC who has earned the praise and adoration of her students. From her knowledge and passion for writing, to her interest and enthusiasm in student work, Allyson will be great for writers of all experience levels.

  3. You’ll learn how to really bring your nonfiction piece to life. If you’ve been struggling with writing about the details that will really bring your memoir or essay to life, Allyson will talk about different techniques you can try to make your piece as strong as it can be.

  4. You’ll have hours of designated, uninterrupted time to work on your writing. In our day-to-day lives, it’s easy to push our writing to the side. We have jobs to work, children to raise and various other commitments pulling us away from the keyboard and the stories, essays and poems we want to be crafting. Think of Cirenaica as the vacation/getaway that you and your writing need. No distractions, no work or kids一 just you and the memoir you’ve been dying to write. While there will be plenty of time reserved for workshop and instruction from Allyson, you’ll also have an abundance of time to write something new or revise the piece you submitted with your Cirenaica application. Find a sunny spot on the deck to enjoy your morning coffee and write a few pages, or pick one of the many comfortable chairs inside the cabin to and and type the morning away.  If you're really adventurous, try writing in a hammock!

  5. Special guest John Hildebrand. In addition to working closely with Allyson, you'll also get to meet writer-in-residence alumnus John Hildebrand, author of The Heart of Things  and  A Northern Front,  will be joining Allyson during the weekend to offer advice about all things nonfiction writing.

Don't delay!  Apply today!  Click here for more information!

5 Reasons Why NOT Signing up for Nickolas Butler’s Fiction Residency Will Be the Biggest Regret of your Life

                                                                                                                                                                                 Credit: Jeff Rogers

                                                                                                                                                                                 Credit: Jeff Rogers

by Erin Stevens

Okay, okay, forgive the hyperbole.  But as someone who attended Nick Butler's residency last year, I can tell you it's not something to be missed.  

Read below for 5 "must know" reasons to apply today!

1.) New Book Alert. When Nickolas Butler’s Fiction Residency rolls around, he’ll be hot off of a tour for his brand new book. The Hearts of Men, which was released in March and has been receiving rave reviews. While at the residency, you’ll have the opportunity to ask him about his new book, his writing process, the publishing process, and more.

2.) Opportunity for Local Publication. Did you know that the Chippewa Valley now has it’s very own literary journal? Special guest Eric Rasmussen, founder of Barstow & Grand, will talk to fiction residency attendees about the new addition to Eau Claire’s growing literary scene. Whether you have lived in Eau Claire your entire life, or you’re attending a residency in our corner of the world, any writer with a connection to the Chippewa Valley is encouraged to submit their fiction, nonfiction or poetry. And since you’ll be workshopping and revising your piece at the residency, you’ll be just in time to submit for the spring submission period!


3.) It’s a great place to ease into a writing group. Don’t believe us? Check out this testimonial: "This was my first exposure with any kind of writing group outside of a strictly business context. I have to say that [Nick’s workshop] was quite a life-changing experience. I learned so many things in regards to not only writing, but life in general. A fantastic experience recommended to all, not only those who consider themselves 'writers.'”

                                                                                                                                                                               Credit: Justin Patchin

                                                                                                                                                                               Credit: Justin Patchin


4.) Learn from a successful author in a supportive environment. Book List has called Butler "the front ranks of contemporary American writers of literary fiction..." His debut novel, Shotgun Lovesongs was a New York Times Bestseller. And while this might seem intimidating, it shouldn’t be. Cirenaica is perfect for writers of all skill levels, and our writers-in-residence are here to make your workshop/residency experience enjoyable. Whether you’re a New York Times best-selling author, or you’ve written your very first short story, we promise that Cirenaica will b e great for you.


5.) Your fiction piece will thank you. Having attended Butler’s residency last summer, I can promise you that these three days will be instrumental in improving your fiction. Not only will you receive invaluable critique from Butler himself, but you’ll also have nine other readers carefully considering and offering feedback on your work.


Now’s your opportunity to learn from the best, while also forming a writing community that you can call upon long after the residency has ended.

Apply for Nickolas Butler’s fiction residency today!

                                                                                                                                                                              Credit: Justin Patchin

                                                                                                                                                                              Credit: Justin Patchin

Teaching and Learning in Writing 101

By Brady Krien

On my first day of teaching college writing I handed out 3x5 note cards to my students and asked them to give me a little bit of information to help me get to know them. I asked for their name, their major, why they chose Marquette, and their favorite Tom Hanks movie. I also asked a few questions aimed at getting a sense of who they were as writers, asking what they struggled with most, what their semester goals were, and if there was anything that I should know about them as writers.

The responses were mostly unsurprising. Students were anxious about commas and the higher stakes of college, many just wanted to get through the class and improve their writing a little (or, in one case, to improve their “grammer”), and none of them had heard of Joe versus the Volcano. What I did not expect was the number of students who claimed that they were “bad writers.” Over half the class claimed to be poor writers.

Looking back, having repeated some version of this same activity with each of my classes, I should not have been surprised. This was the most common response that I received at Marquette and continues to be the most common response I receive at my current institution in Iowa. The odd thing is that very few, if any, of the students that I work with are bad writers. There are writers who occasionally produce bad writing, writers who’ve convinced themselves that they “write better on the first draft” and never revise, and writers who don’t yet understand a topic well enough to make a compelling argument about it, but there are few out-and-out bad writers. 

What I’ve come to understand is that this bad writer claim is less a confession of compositional incompetence than a request for help. It’s a way of saying that 1) writing is really hard, and 2) writing scares the bejeezus out of me. These sentiments are not uncommon, even (or perhaps especially) among people who write a lot. As I’ve worked with students to overcome these challenges, I’ve found that my own understanding of writing has profoundly changed. The three most salient writing lessons I’ve taken from this experience are: 

1. Revision is Key. So many of my students come to college believing that they draft so well that revision is unnecessary (I confess that I shared in this delusion once upon a time). A significant portion of my teaching is devoted to converting them to the school of Anne Lamott: write shitty first drafts and revise extensively. As I’ve preached this particular writing gospel, my own revision process has expanded dramatically. I now devote at least as much time to revising as I do to drafting (and often more) and I’ve come to find an extensive revision process to be incredibly liberating for both myself and my students because it dramatically reduces the pressure to produce high-quality drafts.

2. Silence the Critic. I work with a lot of students who struggle to start writing. They’ll sit down, write a sentence or a paragraph, hate it, and delete it. They will then repeat some version of this process again and again until they either give up and go watch Netflix or the deadline forces them to accept work that they hate. I’ve found that silencing this inner critic by forbidding deleting anything during the drafting process (after all you’ll come back and revise it, right?) goes a long way toward getting words on the page, a necessary prerequisite to producing any writing.

3. Write for Time. I tell all my students set time rather than output goals. Anyone can commit to write for two half-hour blocks during the course of a day and this helps to alleviate the dread of sitting down and writing out the entirety of a ten-page paper which often leads to procrastination and no writing at all. I’ve found that committing to write for a little while every day drives writing productivity way up and the frequency of late night writing binges way down. Energy drink companies will suffer, but you will prosper.

I’m convinced that I’ve learned more about writing from my students than they ever learn from me. Observing their writing struggles and helping them to overcome them has been the best part of teaching writing and has helped my own writing dramatically. It’s helped me to understand that, while we all have very writing processes, there are a lot of shared roadblocks and talking about them, sharing them, and helping others to overcome them is sometimes the best way to move forward with your own writing.

Photo by Caleb Roenigk: https://flic.kr/p/brNqFE

Scribble (March): "The ABC’s of Writing"

Scribble.jpg

Each month we’ll offer a low-stakes writing prompt applicable to all genres. Upon completing the prompt, send your piece (500 words or less please) to chippewavalleywritersguild@gmail.com for potential publication in next month’s newsletter!

Without further ado, here is your March Scribble challenge ....

When it comes to writing, rigid rules can produce fascinating results! Your task this month is to write a fictional short story that is 26 sentences long, each sentence beginning with the next letter of the alphabet. 

Photo by Marcie Casas