Archive for July, 2011

Q&A with student Kait Burrier

July 27, 2011

It may be the middle of summer, but for the devoted writing students of Wilkes University’s MA and MFA programs this week marks the start of a very busy term. Kait Burrier is one of the newest editions to the Wilkes community and she was pleased to share her initial experiences with the program and discuss what she looks forward to in her first full term. Welcome Kait!  

Why Wilkes?

I’m from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area, but I applied to programs all over America and abroad. I knew I wanted a terminal degree from a multi-dimensional creative writing program and that I wanted to practice poetry, drama, and possibly translation. Once accepted to Wilkes, I scheduled a meeting with the director and told her my goals within the program. Dr. Culver gave examples of alumni who graduated with project ideas similar to mine, and the faculty members who mentored them. The pool of faculty is impressive, and the low-residency aspect provides the benefit of a cross-national community within the program. This nationwide network of support is an excellent resource; Dr. Culver ensured me that no matter the project, there is no exhaustion of the intellectual resources within the expansive Wilkes community. That commitment and community is why I chose Wilkes.  

First impressions?

I had no idea what to expect from a low-residency program; what I discovered was a supportive, vibrant community of writers who are all in different stages of the writer’s life. Between the faculty, my peers, and the program’s resources, I was more impressed each day of the residency.

Did anything surprise you during the first residency?

I was initially surprised by the diversity of the group—I’m one of a small few in the cohort who finished undergrad in the past year, so the other 15+ students are at completely different stages in life. There’s definitely a plurality to writers that allows for multitasking, whether we’re juggling the craft with a career, a family, etc. My cohort has a rich resource in diversity of voice and experience; we have a lot to offer one another.

So, now that you’re about to head into your first-year Foundations courses, what do you hope to accomplish through the Wilkes writing program? In which genres will you work and what might you work on?

As I mentioned earlier, I’m working on poetry and playwriting. Poetry and drama complement one another. I plan to apply lessons from one class to the genre of the other, hopefully finding a happy hybrid. I’m interested in translation, both in the linguistic sense and in the traditional sense of changing a piece’s form in order to communicate an idea through a new lens or to a different audience. I’ll be experimenting with cross-genre “translation.” 

You attended the Pittsburgh Poets Playshop last summer. What was your experience? How has the workshop contributed to your writing?

The Pittsburgh Poets Playshop influenced my philosophy on writing, mostly in its contribution to how I generate material. The moderators, Crystal Tzara and Renee Alberts, drew from the spontaneous methods of Surrealist and Dadaist poetry. There’s an emphasis in playshop; we’d play with words, teasing and prodding at the word choice and phrasing, until a line would suddenly bite back at us as poetry. Language was broken down and reconsidered in found-word and cut-up poetry. Narrative was left to chance in games like the Exquisite Corpse. There was no room for ego or insecurity in the impromptu, exploratory Playshop, and we’d share our work in person and online. A sense of community developed in the same way as it has in my Wilkes cohort, though on a smaller scale, through our writing exercises in person and online. 

You’ve also held some artistically interesting jobs. What was your favorite aspect of working with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History?

Working at the CMNH was fantastic. I was an assistant in the education department, so I held a few regular positions: monitoring the interactive Discovery Room, assisting docents and teachers during lively Overnight Adventures, and researching for and developing other departmental projects.

I especially enjoyed providing literary dramaturgy and playwriting for the Science Onstage program, which provides on-site educational theatre to students in Pittsburgh and the surrounding area. I had the privilege of working in a creatively stimulating environment where the change of an exhibit meant a new project. The Carnegie Institute—which houses two museums, a library, and a music hall—is bursting with creative energy. 

What are your plans for the rest of the summer? Do you have any plays or writing projects in the works?

I’m staying local this summer and focusing on workshops, poetry readings and performances in the Scranton area. I have a seated reading scheduled for a ten-minute play in late August. Also, I recently performed with a dance theatre company, Ellen Doyle Dance Experience. That has me revisiting past movement pieces in the context of current scripts, and vice verse, reconsidering the elements of the dialogue and action in each composition. 

What are you reading right now? Do you have a recent read you’d like to recommend?

I’m enjoying my subscription to Poets & Writers magazine via Kindle. I value their contests section, which typically leads me to most of the journals where I submit poetry. 

Let’s see; I typically enjoy nonfiction. Food always creeps into my poetry—it’s so inspiring and offers luscious metaphor—so I’ve been poring over some cookbooks I recently inherited, for inspiration. My theater read du jour is Ghostlight: An Introductory Handbook for Dramaturgy by Dr. Michael M. Chemers. I recently finished Kaylie Jones’s striking memoir, Lies My Mother Never Told Me, which I picked up during the past residency. Jones’s incisive voice guides the reader through the piercing content with wit and grace. 

Think about the sessions from the June residency. Any lasting impressions you’d like to leave us with today?

I’ve been reminded to constantly challenge myself, because even if it seems I cannot reach my goal on my own, I now have the Wilkes community to encourage and support my efforts.

***

Thanks to Kait Burrier for taking the time to chat with us!

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A Night at the Movies

July 20, 2011

It’s the middle of July. It’s hot. You’ve dipped in the pool. You’ve sat in the shade. You’re one iced tea past your taste bud tolerance and it’s time to get back to writing. But, it’s so darn hot. Perhaps you’re feeling defeated and deflated, that it’s just too hot to do anything, even write. Your motivation needs some cooling fuel, some air conditioning for the creative mind. Maybe, just maybe… it’s time to watch a few movies about writers/writing so you can get back to your own creative cave.  

Here, in random order, are 25 funny and/or moving and/or depressing and/or light-hearted flicks about this creative vice we share. Cool off with a cold one, put the feet up, and enjoy a summer night (or afternoon or morning) with some potentially inspiring (or self-affirming) movies. 

Wonder Boys

Iris 

Barton Fink 

Sunset Boulevard 

Howl 

Misery 

Naked Lunch

Pandemonium

Sideways

Finding Forrester

The Squid and the Whale

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle

Capote

The Hours

Miss Potter

Becoming Jane

Sylvia

Adaptation

Gothic

Shakespeare in Love

Almost Famous

Deconstructing Harry 

Harriet the Spy

In Love and War

Secret Window

Enjoy!

Q&A with Virginia Grove, 2011 Norris Church Mailer Award winner

July 13, 2011

Each year, a Wilkes creative writing graduate student demonstrating artistic promise is awarded the Norris Church Mailer Award. For 2011, that student is Virginia Grove. Here’s what Virginia had to say in a recent Q&A: 

Congratulations, Virginia! You must be pleased about the win. When and how did you receive the news?

I can’t say I do anything the traditional way, and receiving the news wasn’t an exception. Having opted to take an extra semester to work on my analytical paper, I didn’t attend the June residency. I arrived home banquet-night Friday to hear a message on my machine asking if I was coming to the banquet. By that time, the banquet had already started. Later that same evening a few cryptic messages started appearing on my Facebook page, letting me know it might be a good idea to reach out to the program director and that “I really, really, should have been at this particular residency.” The messages, coupled with the phone message, caused me to worry I had done something wrong so Monday morning I rattled off a note of apology to our program director, Bonnie Culver. Later that evening, my mentor left me a message and after a short-lived round of phone tag, she let me know I had been awarded the 2011 Norris Church Mailer Scholarship. Unfortunately, we both missed the banquet and so we both missed the presentation of the award. I am truly, truly humbled to have been nominated and awarded the scholarship. Norris was and remains a true friend to the program and a mentor to all writers. She ultimately gave herself permission to follow her passion and to be passionate about that passion– what a wonderful model for writers to follow.

Tell us about your time in the Wilkes creative writing program. What was your capstone project and at what stage in the process is it now?

I am doing additional revisions to my capstone now and plan to take advantage of having another professional reading on the manuscript by the end of the program. I love the revision process more than the writing, even. BREAK tells the story of my search for identity in the pieces of life from the moment I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. Through a collage of writing—grocery lists, poetry, dreams, and medical records, to name a few— I examine my past, my present, and my future as I navigate diagnosis and chemotherapy treatment and their effects on a self already broken. I come to see life as a frame into which pieces are placed creating the self-portrait each person adds to the collection of humanity.

Who did you work with and what did you learn most from your mentor?

I am so lucky to still be working with Christine Gelineau. When I initially began to pitch my capstone idea to the faculty in search of a mentor, it was Christine who seemed most excited and most involved in the idea… perhaps even more than I was. In tweaking the idea, she encouraged me to shoot for the bigger plans and she has continued to do so. 

Christine has taught me many, many things–some purely academic, some truly life-giving. With saintly patience, she has guided me through the process by being simultaneously involved and distant. The distance is what allowed me to begin to trust in my own abilities… in my own style. She has brought me back from the bridge of self-criticism more than once. Without her guidance, I know the capstone wouldn’t have made it even this far because what she has taught me most is that people do believe in my abilities whether, as a chronic self-doubter, I can believe in those abilities or not, myself. 

Think to way back when you first showed up on campus for your very first residency. Looking back on those initial days and thinking about your entire grad student experience, what advice might you offer to incoming students? Any tips for succeeding in the program?

This question could be a capstone in and of itself! Seriously though, there are so many tips and pieces of advice to share but I think, when boiled down, they all revolve around two ideas. (1) Be a part of the community– this means take advantage of the talent, experience, and drive of the faculty, your cohort, the program community, and be active in your own community as a writer. (2) Understand that sometimes moving forward is about standing still and be flexible with that understanding– when you end up frozen from so-called writer’s block or self doubt or if life decides it is going to get in the way of your pursuit of a degree, believe you will start again because you never stopped. When you are passionate about something, as I am about writing, sometimes the biggest steps forward come when it looks like you aren’t producing… when it’s all in your head and heart.

What are you working on now? 

Other than the analytical paper and further revisions to my capstone, I am always writing poetry. As a matter of fact, I had a chance to work with a great group of high school students late last month at Misericordia University’s Literature Camp where a fresh set of writers refueled my creative tank… especially the one filled with poems. Otherwise, I am tossing around a ton of ideas. I’m always brainstorming. I am a chronic over-thinker. I have a children’s book rumbling around in my brain and really want to take a stab at writing a play. 

There are opportunities on the horizon–some closer than that even–and I am both excited and terrified by the prospects. I am scheduled to teach my first class at Misericordia University this Fall semester, so I am actively working now preparing a syllabus and reading. 

***

Congratulations and thanks to Virginia Grove for taking the time to chat with us!

Photo Credits:
Norris Church Mailer — Photo by Christina Pabst, NYTimes
Christine Gelineau and Virginia Grove – Thanks to Ginny’s Facebook

Interview with author John Donohue

July 7, 2011

During our most recent residency, one of the dominant tips shared by authors, producers, and editors was that physical activity is not only great for the body but also for the mind of writers. Whether it’s to clear our minds and set the tone for the day by taking a creative walk or unwinding with yoga after a long day of editing and revising, physical activity can not only keep our blood but also our creative juices flowing.

One writer who takes the body and mind challenge to heart is John Donohue, author of the award-winning Connor Burke martial art thrillers Sensei, Deshi, and Tengu. An anthropologist who researches and trains in the martial arts, Donohue is associate editor for the Journal of Asian Martial Arts and member of the advisory board for the National Association of Professional Martial Artists. A black belt in karate and kendo, and a faculty member of the Albertus Magnus MFA program, Donohue resides near New Haven, Connecticut.

Donohue has just released his latest novel, Kage: The Shadow. Here’s a brief synopsis of the latest Connor Burke adventure:

In the withered and unforgiving landscape of the American southwest, Connor Burke must pierce the cloud of mystery surrounding the death of notorious ‘mystic’ and best-selling author Elliot Westmann. Hired by the deceased’s estranged daughter, Burke discovers that Westmann’s unfinished manuscripts may contain cryptic details that local border smugglers might kill to keep secret. As Burke digs deeper, facts get convoluted and events get downright dangerous. He soon realizes that he is in way over his head. His only hope is to take matters into his own hands, using his fighting skills and the aid and guidance of his warrior teacher Yamashita.

Here in this Q&A, John chats about his love of martial arts and the balance it provides for him in his writing life:

John, your involvement in martial arts has fed your creative life in many ways. Not only is your Connor Burke series centered on martial arts, but you’ve also credited the sport for developing discipline and persistence. How else has martial arts contributed to your writing life?

Much of the training in the martial arts stresses practice, repetition and the virtues of deferred gratification. The techniques involved are built on the rudiments of human movement, but refined and combined in a way that ultimately (hopefully) leads to a type of elegance.

It strikes me that writing is very much the same type of endeavor—one built on the mastery of rudimentary skills that are then combined to create (once again, hopefully) something of beauty.

Another important lesson learned from the martial arts is that you’re not always going to get it right. You’re going to make mistakes or fail. In sparring, you’re going to get beaten. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t keep at it. I often come across writers I teach who are almost paralyzed with fear—fear that they won’t get it right, fear of criticism. It’s good that they care so much about writing, but if that care keeps you from writing, you need to let that fear go. It’s like crossing swords with an opponent in kendo—if you worry about getting hit (because you will get hit, it’s the way it works) it just makes things worse. So when talking with students about writing, I laughingly use myself as an example and say that while I take my craft seriously I also abide by the motto that “hey, it ain’t Shakespeare.” It’s very liberating.

Do you have a set regime or daily routine? Do you work out and then write or vice versa? What do you find most helpful to motivate you through the day?

Like most writers, I have a day job. Which means I write when I can.  Quite often, I spend the middle part of the weekend writing. When I’m on a real roll, I’ll steal away in the evening to do a bit as well.

I do try to get a daily workout in—even if it’s just a long walk in the woods. I find that I can focus a bit on my writing when I’m walking or running or on the elliptical machine. While the body is chugging along, my mind is free to focus on the latest knotty problem or great idea in the writing project I’m working on.

As for motivation, I’m a big believer in “chunking it”: I break things down into manageable chunks—goals to achieve–and try to do that. Otherwise the prospect of writing a book seems daunting. I also keep an Excel spreadsheet tally of chapters, words, and pages completed. Every time I finish a chapter I enter it in and the spreadsheet shows me my progress. Silly, but I like it.

Some writers find it hard to break away from the computer. What advice might you offer for those of us who are a little more, um, ‘sedentary’ in our writing lives?

It’s easy to get lost in the writing process—after all we create little worlds with our words and enjoy exploring these worlds. But we still have to live in the real world. And being more active means that you can enjoy this world a little bit more (and perhaps a little bit longer).  Plus, I find that I’m more focused when I’m fit. The time I take away from the keyboard doesn’t detract from my writing. It actually helps me work through things. Then I can come back to the desk and get going again.

And you don’t need to sign up for the Ironman contest. A nice walk is a good way to start. How hard is that? If you’re really obsessive about writing, bring a friend or significant other along—you can bore them to tears as you talk about your project.

Does nutrition also play a role in your writing life? Or, when no one is looking, do you snack on fast food? Come on. You must have some ‘bad’ habits, right?

I am abundantly supplied with bad habits, nutritional and otherwise. But interestingly enough, I don’t usually eat or drink much of anything when writing. I occasionally brew up some coffee, but it almost always sits there and gets cold. Because when I’m writing, I’m writing.

Speaking of discipline, how do you balance your writing and teaching? You’re very prolific, yet you devote much of your time to student writers. Does the one activity feed the other? How so?

For me, teaching is a real treat. I spend much of my time at administrative duties at my college, so being able to walk into the classroom in the MFA program is like a holiday. I enjoy talking with student writers, of exploring issues and problems with them. I find that, as often as not, they’re teaching me things. In addition, when I have to prepare for a class, I need to think through my ideas about writing and set them down. It often helps me to formalize ideas that have been swirling around in my head but I haven’t had time to formally express them.

Your latest book in the Connor Burke series, Kage: The Shadow, follows Burke as he discovers mysteries buried in the unfinished manuscripts of best-selling author Elliot Westmann. Do you yourself have many unfinished projects? Were they deliberately abandoned or are any of these projects ones you may return to at some point?

Like every writer, I have “the bottom drawer.” It’s the place where finished (yet unwanted) manuscripts go to die. Or to age. I have had the experience of tossing something into a drawer only to pull it out a few years later and find that a publisher is interested.

Currently I have two novels in the drawer—Wave Man, about a mob leg-breaker who develops a conscience and is trying to get out of his life, and The Qi Eaters, which is a paranormal thriller with Asian mystic overtones.

I’m working now on the next book in the Burke series, but also have at least three other novel ideas in various stages of development.

Finally, you’ve found a nice balance between teaching, writing, and staying physically active. Do you have any tips to offer emerging writers?

You’ve got to keep at it. Think less. Do more. Stop worrying—most of us aren’t going to get rich and it probably isn’t going to be Shakespeare—but it’s important. And hard. So it’s worth doing. The Japanese martial artists have a saying: “hakka yoi”—keep at it.

So that’s my advice—hakka yoi.

***

Thanks, John!

Visit author John Donohue’s website here.

Read a preview and purchase Kage on amazon here.