Jeff Minton: Save the Essays

May 26, 2014 by

I mean this in 2 ways:

1) to save the essays from the dumpster:

Roughly 12 million essays are written every year by college freshman comp students, and, by my educated guess, roughly 12 million of them are eventually trashed, in one way or another. Once graded, they’re eternally stored away in folders, on backup discs, in the dusty closets of hard drives, they’re cheerfully deleted, or thrown away. As a recent MFA grad entering into my first instructional position, the inevitable doom of my students’ papers made me question the point of it all. Here I am preaching audience audience audience, know your audience, and they’re thinking dumpster dumpster dumpster, what’s the quickest route to the dumpster.p12608

2) to save the essays from becoming worthy of the dumpster:

What’s even sadder is that many—if not most—freshman papers deserve their wasteful fate. If they were written for the dumpster to begin with, then the dumpster can have ‘em—who’d want to read them? To “save the essays” we need first to inspire essays that are worth saving.

I do not mean to say that all college freshman writing is bad. Certainly, there are a few exceptions in every comp class—self-motivated students with a predilection for writing. Ask any English prof, though, and you’ll hear a dismal testament of the student majority. Comp students just don’t care that much. And why should they? No one’s ever going to read their writing, right? Except the instructor, who is paid to be sympathetic to shitty work and polite in criticizing it. If they can get past the instructor, then they’re golden, and they know it.

In his article English Compositionism as Fraud and Failure, veteran instructor Jeffrey Zorn describes the field of composition pedagogy as his “adrift, embarrassing, infuriating, failing profession.” I agree.

Many experts blame the students: a spoiled, lazy, inept generation. Seriously? Take a look on YouTube—the greatest showcase of talent anywhere ever. Read the quippish genius happening all over Facebook and Twitter and in the captions of memes. People are brilliant . . . when they care—the same ones texting in the back of class and citing Wikipedia on their research papers.

Perhaps the predominant view is to blame lackadaisical and feeble professors for skirting extensive feedback because it’s either too much work or they don’t want to upset students and face grade disputes, that instructors need to push harder, be tougher. I used to share this outlook, before I experienced how poorly it works.

You can drill students until their typing-fingers blister, but they won’t learn until they want to. To an unreceptive student, intensive line editing and heavy-handed feedback teaches only how to imitate your correctness. So yes, you can improve a student’s writing by telling them what they did wrong and how to fix it. They’ll fix it, and it will be better, just like a patient takes pills to get better. You gave the student a fish. If they don’t care, all your brilliant advice goes into the dumpster along with their papers the second they see their final grade. Try as you might, you cannot teach a student how to fish until s/he’s hungry enough to need to learn.

How hard is it, anyway, to learn active voice? Every writing text and a thousand websites explain it pretty clearly. If you don’t care, you’ll struggle with it all semester, and then you’ll use it (badly) in the future because your professor told you to and you assume it’s always best. If you care, you’ll look it up and teach it to yourself in an afternoon, and when you use it in the future it will be because you want an active agent in your sentence in lieu of stating existence or victimizing your subject. Yes, it’s vital to teach craft, but it’s futile to shout it into deaf ears.

In my (fairly virgin) view, issues of craft are secondary to the primary concern: saying something worth reading—eschewing vapid bullshit. I’ll get 20 papers on gay marriage rights, 30 on marijuana laws. Gay marriage should be illegal because it’s in the img_6025
Bible. Legalizing weed will stimulate the economy because of the tax surplus. Every round of papers amounts to a grand collection of other people’s ideas. The papers are so fluffed and formulaic and monotonous and trite that offering feedback is an often worthless endeavor. You can’t polish a turd, as the saying goes. More aptly, you can’t edit substance into a vacuous composition.

Editors won’t take the time to line edit unless the manuscript is worth the work. Why should teachers? We know how to teach grammar and logic. That’s the easy stuff; it’s concrete. Railing students on passive voice and semicolon use while ignoring the banality of the thesis at best churns out exceptionally active, grammatical writers who actively and grammatically say nothing. I see a greater challenge. How do we teach significance? Passion? Originality? A desire to express oneself, to seek information and self-improve?

Call me a hippy (I’m not), but I believe everyone loves writing, in some form. It’s one of the defining traits of being human. It’s tragic that so many people are growing to hate it. How do you effectively teach someone how to do something they hate? You don’t. Thus, first and foremost, I believe my role as a comp teacher is to tap my students’ natural love of writing to draw out substance. I don’t care if there are a hundred passive constructions. If the core is strong, we have something to work with, and the student will lead the charge if s/he actually wants to make it better.

So how do we teach caring?

I’m asking as much as I’m suggesting. In the past, I’ve tried provocative prompts, personalized assignments, peer evaluations, every manner of bonus offering (this at least gets a response), hard-ass threats (this doesn’t), public challenges, direct communication, the “you’re all geniuses” approach, sardonic humor, harsh criticism, all positive criticism, all negative criticism, extensive feedback, sparse feedback, and on and on. Some methods work better than others, but in the end the papers are compost, and who knows if anything stuck. The core of the problem remains. They’re writing for a grade, not for an audience.

Perhaps the solution, then, is to provide an audience?

This question echoes back to my previous life as a music teacher, where I faced a similar problem. Kids would come into my little guitar closet and genuinely want to learn, but weeks of practicing at home and playing for me and practicing at home and playing for me would gradually suffocate the students’ fire and they’d often quit halfway through. Then I joined the faculty of a progressive school of rock (www.musichouseschool.com, ftr). They held end-of-semester performances, which gave a stage to the students. The same kids who took months to learn half a song were suddenly learning full songs in a week, perfecting them in a few. The difference was staggering.

This past semester, I reflected heavily on my past student rock stars. I wanted to offer a “stage” to my writing students, so I tried something entirely new. I published my students’ writing—like for real (contracts and all). I aimed to kill the arbitrariness of my assignments by providing a real outlet. We worked together toward a common goal. I needed them to write well because their papers would be in a publication associated with my name. They needed to write well if they wanted to get their name in the publication, and to be proud to have other people read it, which gave them an incentive to write beyond the grade. The focus remained on the writing and the publication as much as possible and shifted to grading only when the college demanded it.admin_1-asset-5036304298008

Aside from the lectures, which I viewed more like training seminars, class ran like a publication house. I was the editor. They were staff writers. Instead of requiring assignments and arbitrarily grading them, I gave prompts and payouts for those who responded. They chose which prompts they wanted to respond to. The payouts came in the form of “class cash,” which accumulated to determine their final grade (a bit corny, I know, but it gave the realistic feeling that I was paying them for their work, which essentially I was). When they submitted papers, instead of line editing, I played editor and either accepted or rejected their papers. If rejected, I would give a paragraph or two detailing the reason and offer them the chance to resubmit for the next revision period.

Some of the papers I read 3 or 4 times before accepting, and they vastly improved throughout the process. Often, in narrative writing, students would interpret their experiences through sentimental, vague, clichéd language in their early drafts and then gradually comb out the mawkishness in trade for original expression that conveyed their significant and inimitable human plight. Many students clearly learned something about themselves through revising: that they weren’t just “a broken heart” or “an ordinary kid”—they saw that they were distinct and complex people living complex lives and that personal writing is a process of unraveling and understanding who they are and what made them. I’ll take that over active voice any day.

At the end of the semester, the students took roles as editors to address the minutia—at the point where it’s actually appropriate to deal with such issues. The entire class came together to edit and produce all the accepted papers into journal form, which now has its own website (www.thefreshmanreview.com) and is available in print through lulu.com.

The semester was not without its problems (I have many tweaks planned next time around), but for the first time, on a large scale, I saw students take genuine interest in their work—especially during the production process. When I turned the responsibility over to them, they took off. Apparently, real responsibility incites real effort.

My publication, however, is a temporary fix. It’s absurd for me to create an external publication company just to get my students to care. If everyone did this, there’d be 100,000 new publications just to cover freshman writing, and the overabundance of publications would become another type of dumpster. I believe firmly, now, that students need a real audience to develop writing skills, and I think colleges should be the ones to provide it. They could run a freshman publication within the college for the best papers—perhaps through the school paper or university press. Or, professors from different fields could commission papers from freshman students: allow them to provide real-world, needed research. Freshman writers are a valuable untapped resource. Use them. Save them.

Let their 12,000,000 papers count for something.

 

Jeff Minton Photo

Photo by Shauna Yorty

Jeff Minton lives in Camp Hill, PA, where he divides his time between his wife and three boys, his writing, composing music, disc golf, and teaching English at Elizabethtown College and Harrisburg Area Community College. Recently, his fiction won finalist for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award and he presented a panel titled “Orchestration for Writers 101” at the 2014 AWP Conference. He holds an MFA in Creative writing from Wilkes University.

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Corinne Nulton’s 14 Symptoms

May 20, 2014 by

A fellow Wilkes student, Corinne Nulton is currently running a fundraiser on IndieGoGo for her original play, 14 Symptoms, whichcorinneblogphoto will appear at the Brick Theater in Brooklyn, NY this summer. The page for the fundraiser includes a video featuring some of the characters from the play and the lovely playwright herself and can be found by clicking on the link above or the picture to your right.

She was kind enough to answer some questions about the play for The Write Life blog!

Tell me a little bit about your play. What’s it about?

14 Symptoms follows the story of four very different teenagers—an egotistical hacker, a predetermined serial killer, a cheerleader with an alter ego, and the ghost of the ideal best friend. The play unfolds as they collide online through chatrooms and games in both the present and the past in order to investigate or conceal a gruesome murder.

I’ve heard that the play was inspired by an actual murder. Could you tell me more about that? 

Intrigued by the mis-identities on the internet, I was drawn to the article “Murder by Text,” published in Vanity Fair in October 2011. According to sources, the real Kruse Wellwood and Kimmy Procter often passed each other in the hallways of their small high school. As a cheerleader, Kimmy seemed to have little in common with Kruse, an outcast whose abusive father was arrested. However, the online game World of Warcraft leveled the social stratifications that existed in high school. Kruse offered her a secret friendship through games, chats, instant messages, and texts. He would tease her about sex and death while engaging in the adolescent sport of video game competition, and despite his warnings, his confessed desire to kill her, all of his foreshadowing was shrugged off, because the chats did not feel real to Kimmy, who assumed Kruse was only as dangerous as his avatar. Ultimately, the story ends with an adolescent from a broken home brutally raping, dismembering, and burning a classmate with no real explanation as to why except for a blog entry listing the “signs” of a serial killer, of which, Kruse had all fifteen.

I realized this was exactly the sort of problem I wanted to artistically portray—the blurred boundaries between reality and cyber reality that gave Kimmy this false sense of security while also allowing Kruse’s cyber-girlfriend to listen to his murder confession, but wait months before calling police. The blog entry, likewise, filled my head with questions about fate.

While researching, I was able to access the private chat logs between Kimmy and Kruse, the integration videos, interviews with Kimmy’s parents, her facebook memorial page, and even a recent letter Kruse wrote to the judge overseeing the investigation. It was sickening how easy it was to access all of this information in our post-crazy society—no, I’m not hacker, but it was just all out there waiting on the internet. However, what I discovered was that Kruse, essentially, was a writer, a master at voice imitation and at reinventing himself through words. And as this brief description indicates, there were a number of philosophical, practical, and psychological questions left in the incident’s wake that would forever remain unanswered, which seemed unbearable.
However, my play isn’t an adaptation of this event for my characters are different individuals entirely facing only a similar experience. I hesitate to even say “was inspired by”. It certainly moved my pen for two years now as I tried to wrap my head around it, but the result is something that stands alone, bearing little resemblance now of the event that kindled it except for the names which I kept as a sort of tribute as the play evolved. It is by no means a justification, nor is it a definite answer to many of the questions it poses. It’s merely an illustration of these topics in order to inspire serious discussion.

What was the writing process like for you? How long did it take until this play was complete? How different was the first draft from the final?

A word on the writing process : Hell.

Since fourth grade I was a perpetual daydreamer, scribbling down bits of my imagination, but this was my first piece of substantial length and my attention span and sensitivity as a shy undergraduate could hardly bear it. Initially, I was obsessed with the project, and couldn’t wait to declare it as my creative thesis. I decorated all the walls of my dorm with serial killers and chatlogs and any bit of evidence I came across. However, after the first few months, I was bored with what was trying to write and ready to start a new short story but my mentor wouldn’t allow it. I had to keep with it, regardless of all the other issues I wanted to pursue. He also liked to make me think by responding to all of my questions with more question. I also wasn’t sure how to sustain interest for my audience or how to write convincing dialogue and for a while I couldn’t hear the voices of my characters. Draft after draft after draft I’d hand in and rewrite and hand in again and scrap and rewrite and complain and rewrite and curse mentor and rewrite and listen to it read aloud, curse, and rewrite and beg my mentor to let me quit and rewrite and listen to it again and rewrite. I’m pretty sure I killed a whole forest, and I took every edit so personally in the beginning that I grew to hate writing. But eventually I noticed my fiction was getting better, my imagination more refined, my dialogue more genuine with actual voices. I started getting recognized in the community, even if the play wasn’t in a state of progression but digression, and it served its first year and a half as a learning experience and towards the end things began to “click” into place.

And being in and out of Kruse’s head for months was hardly an enjoyable experience especially at first. I tried to write only in broad daylight in populated places after suffering several chilling nightmares, and I began regretting my dorm decorating, since it seemed too frightening or too overwhelming at times.

It wasn’t until recently I went back to review the play with new eyes using what I learned in undergrad with some of the new things I learned at the graduate level. I was more emotionally removed, too, which also helped in refining the latest draft. I used the contest mainly as motivation to review something I had tucked away, and its acceptance was a complete shock. Thus, the company is scrambling to gain publicity and adequate funds.

But as always, it’s still a work in progress. I’m sure it will continue to evolve in little ways throughout the next round of rehearsal as well.

How did you research the project? What sources did you use? Were there any surprising discoveries?

As mentioned I raided the internet for newspaper articles and found more than I should’ve, but I went in another direction, too. I read books on human nature, like “Radical Evil” by Bernstein and I studied philosophies on predeterminism vs. free will. I read memoirs of former children who suffered from abuse. I looked into serial killers and what they all shared or how they were different. I read about sociopaths and psychopaths and empathy disorders and passion murders. I even played W.O.W. But, more than anything, I read plays. I read close to a hundred in a single summer that shared those ideas and used language to manipulate, like Dark Play or Story for Boys and Speech and Debate.

What is it like seeing something you’ve written performed on the stage? Is it exciting? Are there some disappointments?

The first readings were unbearable—I couldn’t seem to separate myself from the words and from the audience’s reactions or failure to react. I’d just sit in my seat shaking. However, seeing it come to life in rehearsal has been a surreal experience, both chilling but also rewarding to experience the things I imagined and watched how the actors and director not only enact, but enhance my original words. Every now and then I will slam my palm against my head—and think, it’s not said like that! Timmy Flynn, for example, our original hacker-character barely knew how to turn his computer on, so he would murder the pronunciation of words like Linux, but he eventually grew so close to the character that in my rewrites I could hear his voice as Cam.’s voice—the two were one in the same by the end, which is sort of magical

corinnebiophotoCorinne Nulton is a recovering coffee addict and is one semester into Wilke’s MA/MFA program in Creative Writing. She recently graduated from the University of Scranton as an English major and has since become an adjunct professor and professional writing tutor at Penn State Worthington. As far as writing, she has had several short stories published in college literary magazines such as Esprit and Ellipses. . . and her ten-minute-play, Flesh, was a Kennedy Center Finalist in 2010.

Barbara J. Taylor’s Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night

May 1, 2014 by
Barbara J. Taylor received her M.A. in Creative Writing from Wilkes University in 2008. Her first published novel (and the first book in a series of three), Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night was recently selected for Publishers Weekly’s “Best Summer Books 2014” list. Akashic Books have also provided a description of the novel on their website:
“Almost everyone in town blames eight-year-old Violet Morgan for the death of her nine-year-old sister, Daisy. Sing in SingintheMorningCryatNightthe Morning, Cry at Night opens on September 4, 1913, two months after the Fourth of July tragedy. Owen, the girls’ father, “turns to drink” and abandons his family. Their mother Grace falls victim to the seductive powers of Grief, an imagined figure who has seduced her off-and-on since childhood. Violet forms an unlikely friendship with Stanley Adamski, a motherless outcast who works in the mines as a breaker boy. During an unexpected blizzard, Grace goes into premature labor at home and is forced to rely on Violet, while Owen is “off being saved” at a Billy Sunday Revival. Inspired by a haunting family story, Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night blends real life incidents with fiction to show how grace can be found in the midst of tragedy.”
After hearing about the novel’s success and having enthusiastic discussions with other members of the Wilkes Creative Writing program who are excited about the book, I prepared some questions for Barbara Taylor. Luckily, she was kind enough to share some of her insights about her novel with The Write Life blog!  (Clicking on the book cover above will take you to the Amazon page where the book can be purchased.)
Your book Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night was just put on the Best Summer Reads list for Publishers Weekly. You must be completely thrilled! How did you feel when you saw that?
 
I was stunned and delighted. When you’re writing a book, you never think about how it will be received once it’s out in the world. I had a moment after I signed my contract where I realized people who don’t know me, people who have no idea how hard I worked, will be reading my book. That was a little scary.  
 
How does a writer get acknowledged by a publication like that? Did you have to do anything special to promote the book?
 
You’d have to ask the amazing people at Kaylie Jones Books and Akashic Books. They are responsible for getting Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night to places like Publishers Weekly. As far as first book experiences go, mine has been amazing. My publishers are so author-centric. I found a very safe place to land.
 
How long, from the original idea to the publication, did it take for you to produce this novel?
 
I started writing Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night in 2007 and finished my first official draft (with lots of unofficial revisions in between) in late 2008. I probably spent another year revising after that. My agent sent the book out, and while there was some interest, no one picked it up. I decided to move on and wrote the first draft of my second novel. Then, one summer, Kaylie Jones had an idea for restructuring the first book. I spent the next year doing rewrites, so the novel took about four years to complete over a period of seven years.
 
What was that process like? Was it an emotional journey?
 
The process was definitely emotional at times. My novel is based on a family story. Growing up, I always heard about the death of my Aunt Pearl, my maternal grandmother’s sister. She was baptized on July 4, 1918. Later that day, she and her friends were playing with sparklers and Pearl’s dress went up in flames. She survived for three days and sang hymns. When I was partway through my novel, I remember sitting at my desk, staring at the last picture taken of Pearl, a group photo from the day of her baptism. The picture was always in our house, but for some reason, it really hit me that night. This was more than a story. This was someone’s daughter, sister, friend. I sat there and cried as if I’d just lost her myself. 
 
The process was emotional in other ways as well. I started the novel just after my divorce, and my dad got sick along the way, so there were hardships. While it wasn’t intentional, I’m sure I poured some of that emotion into the work as well.
 
How much research was involved in writing this novel?
 
Since my novel is historical fiction, there was a great deal of research involved. I spent countless hours at the Lackawanna Historical Society, the Albright Memorial Library, and the Anthracite Museum. I also interviewed numerous people, visited mines, and read lots of primary source material.
 
You mentioned that the story was inspired by a family tragedy. Are there any other real life events that made it into your novel?
 
At one point in my novel, several of my characters get snowed in at a Billy Sunday Revival on March 1, 1914. Billy Sunday was a well-known evangelist at the time, and he held one of his campaigns in Scranton that year. My grandmother used to say she was born during the “Billy Sunday Snowstorm” where 2500 people were stranded overnight with the very charismatic preacher. I thought that would be an interesting setting for my characters.
 
What advice do you have for other aspiring writers/novelists?
 
Read. Read. Read. Write. Write. Write. Repeat.
 
And get involved in a writing community, be it a local workshop or an MFA program. Writing is such a solitary activity. It’s good to have a network of like-minded people to support and encourage you. 
 BarbTaylorBarbara J. Taylor was born and raised in Scranton, PA, and teaches English in the Pocono Mountain School District. She has a master’s degree in creative writing from Wilkes University. She still resides in the “Electric City,” two blocks away from where she grew up. “Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night” is her first novel.
CONTACT:
Webpage: barbarajtaylor.com
Facebook Author Page: facebook.com/barbara.j.taylor729
Twitter: twitter.com/barbarajtaylor

Overcoming Vanity; Just Write

April 14, 2014 by

“I want to make something of myself. I believe it’s called a statue.” –Jarod Kintz

Lately I’ve been having a problem, concerning my writing, that has affected my personal blog, a few pieces I’ve been asked to write as an “expert” on being inside of juvenile detention centers, and even in my creative writing classes. Okay, particularly my creative nonfiction class. I constantly find myself falling victim to “impostor syndrome,” a condition characterized by the inability to take credit for one’s own work, or in my case, the constant feeling that what I’m writing is self-indulgent, unimportant crap that nobody cares about.

To spare everyone the tedious lecture, I’m going to avoid a long, preachy blog post where I pontificate about self-confidence. That would be incredibly dull and the last time I checked, I’m not exactly qualified to be giving people self-esteem pep-talks. (See what I did there?) Anyway, I want to focus on the writing part because that’s the theme of this blog, and that’s what really matters.

During my first residency, all of the speakers emphasized the importance of our unique voices and unique perspectives that we can use to bring our writing to life, but I just can’t help feeling a little less than unique lately. For example, I’ll be typing up an assignment for class, when I look back over the material, I’ll see some awful cliché and think to myself, “I’m the most boringest person ever!” Then I criticize myself in my head for bad grammar, then I begin to wonder about the neuroses behind correcting my inner monologue’s grammar, then I wonder if it’s normal to be having this discussion in my head, and then I end up on Web MD for several hours researching mental illnesses. The point is, instead of just writing, I stare at the page for unprecedented amounts of time, fighting off an anxiety attack because I can’t reconcile with the fact that—yes—making an effort to write with the intention of sharing my experiences with a large audience may be slightly self-indulgent, but it does not make me a bad person or some sort of ego-maniac. It makes me a writer.

Excuse me for a moment while I act like a hypocrite and provide you with some possibly needless preaching to suggest that we all want to be validated. Everyone wants to feel that his or her experiences are unique and that they deserve to be heard. Just because people don’t alwaysFunny Cry for Help Ecard: Me? Vain? Oh I just took all those shirtless mirror pics of myself to prove my photography skills to Facebook. put it in writing, doesn’t mean they don’t constantly do the same thing when they talk to co-workers, family and friends. I mean, just look to social media sites like Facebook or Twitter if you’re worried you might sound a little vain or self-important . People express their unique perspectives every day, and they don’t sit at a computer screen frantically typing “narcissism” into Google about it.

Needless to say, even this post was a huge obstacle for me. What will people think of me, I wondered, Will they be offended by what I have to say? Will people feel I am unqualified to speak on this subject?

The truth is, fretting about whether or not people are going to believe your opinion is valid is the most egotistical thing you can do. You’re not being humble, you’re being obsessive, and according to Web MD you are expressing several symptoms of narcissism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression, and…well, you get it.

Just sit down wherever it is that you write (I personally enjoy doing so at my little desk in the creative writing office—all this typing makes me sound very busy, and I don’t have a 90 pound puppy whining loudly at my feet), and write something down. I’m sure we’ve all heard this enough times during residency, but stop thinking about the writing and just write! Get something down; then worry about whether or not it’s any good, or if you might sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about. Chances are, if you say it confidently enough, people will be too impressed by the writing to know you’re an impostor sense your self-doubt.

butttrumpetHillary Transue is a current student in the Wilkes Creative Writing program and the editor of The Write Life blog. She spends her time engaging in futile attempts to train her 11-month pit-bull puppy and thinking up really good excuses not to write–most of which she finds at 3am on Web MD.

Christoph Paul’s Bizarro World

April 3, 2014 by

by Christoph Paul

I keep getting asked a lot what is “Bizarro”, but I never intended to be part of the genre or even knew what it was until I put out my third book “Great White House”.Great White House Final COVER

 Working with an editor who lived out in the hills of Vermont, and myself isolated in the Bronx, I started writing strange short pieces to get my writing confidence going again; they were a combo of surrealism, satire, and having fun with genres and turning them on their head.

I was looking for a renewed confidence in my writing as I started as literary novelist and finished an ambitious literary novel for my thesis at Wilkes called “Prophet”, inspired by Dostoevsky and Camus.

 After giving it my all, I ended with an ambitious and beautiful book that was still a few years away from being ready from publication. I was disappointed but instead of giving up I went a different route for inspiration and started getting back into lower art like Grindhouse 70’s films, Horror, and heavy-handed satire and followed that love of lower art and put them into fiction as these stories started to flow out of me.

 They were not post-modern or academic and no reputable literary journal would or want to publish them, but they were entertaining. I started to post them on my blog and people thought they were really funny and I got a small following and caught an editor’s eye.

Big Foot Cop The editor and I did not know what to call what I was writing and even though I enjoy being pretentious, ‘Christophian’ was not going to cut it. We didn’t know how to market what I was writing but the stories and strangeness kept coming and we just embraced it but struggled to market them.

 I started to get on a roll writing in this very playful style mix of Gindhouse, humor, satire, and decided to put all together in longer form as a novella about a shark attack on the white house, which I ended up cowriting with a Wilkes alum who goes by the author name Brody Thomas. The idea was so ridiculous, but we loved it and it made us laugh. I realized I had one golden rule: the more ridiculous the idea the tighter the writing and structure.

He was a screenwriter and our goal was to make it feel like a “South Park” movie on the page. We wanted (and still do) to be a movie, but loved the idea of a movie being in book form and just putting it out ourselves under my own imprint The Only Rx Press named after my old band.

 As I started to promote it with a marketing budget of a seventh grade science project using guerrilla marketing tactics of social media and a single poster of the book cover, it ended up exposing me to an audience where someone told me on Twitter, “Hey, I like Great White House it is a cool Bizarro novella.”

Happy to get praise I googled “Bizarro” and saw a writer come up I’ve known and liked for a while named Carlton Mellick III; I’ve been a fan of his for years but I never thought about his genre but I saw there were many others like him and realized that I was part of a genre across the other side of the country that was thriving in Portland and didn’t even know it existed.Morbidly Obese

 It’s weird (not just the genre) but I prided myself on being independent and just doing my own thing but I really loved finding and being part of a genre; I even went to BizarroCon and it was like Wilkes but everyone was way weirder but in a good way.

 What was interesting about the bizarro crowd was they speak and act very much like screenwriters: very interested in structure, story telling, 3 acts, and of course a great pitch and title. I saw book deals get made there at the Con and now seeing them published as I write this blogpost.

 I think that is what’s so appealing and what this genre is really about, it is like a bunch of lovers and film makers of the cult movie section on Netflix who found their way into literature.

 Time PimpIf you had to label Bizarro that’s what it is: a cult-like B-Movie done with a lot of craft and a fast moving entertaining structure into prose.

 It follows the same rules of good writing: great character development, settings that serve the story, and a structure that is tight and moves usually at a film-like pace.

 The only difference is it is really weird, but weird in a very great way.

 I feel very at home with the genre and it’s ok if it’s not taken seriously or will not win a Booker Prize, it’s getting young people to read books which is the best award an author can ask for these days.

head shot

 

 

Christoph Paul is an award-wining humor/Bizarro author of five books of prose and poetry and the singer/songwriter of rock band Moses Moses. He received an MA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. He has managed an adult video store and worked for the Department of Labor which he found both to be morally dubious. He is currently working on his 6th book.

Lori M. Myers’ “Mirror Mirror”

March 24, 2014 by

Lori M. Myers is a graduate of the Wilkes Creative Writing program and her play “Mirror Mirror” will be performed in Brooklyn, NY on playposterModern-DayMirrorMirror (2)March 28th and 29th.  In the following interview she shared some of her thoughts about the play and what it’s like to have a play produced. (The website for the theater company producing her play can be found by clicking on the poster to the right.)

HT: Your play “Mirror Mirror” is about to be performed in Brooklyn, NY on March 28th and 29th. Can you tell me what it’s about?

LM: It’s about the sometimes wonderful, sometimes complicated connection between mothers and daughters. “Mirror, Mirror” explores this relationship, but instead of the young daughter being the rebellious one, it is the mother dealing with issues of drug and alcohol abuse. As much as the daughter yearns to separate herself from the mother’s situation, she finds that she cannot.   

HT: Do you have any inspiration behind the writing-any particular reason you chose to write this piece?

LM: The phrase “I have my mother’s hands” is one that many women seem to acknowledge once they reach their 30’s, 40’s, and beyond. I’ve heard and read this a lot. Sometimes it’s said with pride, and other times with dread. That was the springboard for the play.

HT: How did this piece get picked up by a theater company? How did you go about that process?

LM:“Mirror, Mirror” is a short play  that was produced last June by Gaslight Theatre Company in Wilkes-Barre. After it completed its run there, I sent it out to a theater or two based on announcements appearing on websites and Facebook pages for theaters requesting plays. Honestly, sometimes it’s a crapshoot as to whether a play gets accepted or rejected because it may depend on a theater’s mission or theme. I was thrilled when I received word that “Mirror, Mirror” made the cut at Modern-Day Griot Theatre Company. I’m looking forward to seeing their interpretation.  

HT: What is it like seeing your piece performed by others? Do you feel pride, elation, etc.?

LM: I certainly feel pride that my words and story are on stage and elation that an audience is experiencing a piece I’ve written. I also write musicals for young audiences which are produced at a professional theater about an hour from me, and I’m always delighted by children’s reactions. But what I mostly feel is fear because I have absolutely no control over the final product. I’ve worked as a professional actor and director and in each of those areas there is some degree of control; as an actor you control how you are portraying a character and, as a director, you are controlling the look and feel of the production. A playwright hands over their pages and hopes for the best.  But that’s as it should be.

HT: Do you take any part in the process? Does anyone consult you on how the piece is performed?

LM: I truly believe that playwrights need to trust the director and actors; they want the best for your piece because they want to look good, too. When I write a play, I purposely don’t include a lot of action as I want the director to place his/her own stamp on the piece. The New York director from Modern-Day Griot Theatre wrote me and said that she and the actors were having fun exploring these characters. As a writer, THAT made me feel wonderful. 

HT: After the show, how quickly will you move on to another project? Do you take breaks between writing or wait for inspiration?

LM: I always have some sort of writing project going on as I am also a freelance writer who writes for magazines. Deadlines are amazing motivators! If I don’t have ideas on paper or on the computer screen then it’s swimming around in my head.  

HT: What advice do you have to give to other aspiring playwrights?

LM: I always give the same advice to all writers: persist. Don’t give up. Rejection is part of the process. Keep sending your work out, keep reading, and keep writing.

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Lori M. Myers is an award-winning writer and Pushcart Prize nominee of creative nonfiction, fiction, essays, and plays. Her work has been seen in more than 50 national and regional magazines, literary journals, and anthologies. Her plays have been produced on seven regional stages, two have been published, and one was a Broadway World Award nominee. Lori has a masters in creative writing from Wilkes University, is interviews editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and teaches writing at York College of Pennsylvania.

CONTACT:

Lori M. Myers, writer/author/playwright
3608 Green St.
Harrisburg, PA 17110
ph: 717-580-2152
email: lmyers316@comcast.net
web: http://www.lorimmyers.com

Figuring Out How To *Do* AWP

March 13, 2014 by

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VIDA put out its now-annual The Count a strategic two days before the start of AWP when a butt load of writers, and teachers, academics, students, editors, agents, publishers were in conference prep mode and travel toward Seattle, WA. The Count is a collection of data about the proportion of female writers represented in individual literary publications, reviews, etc. from the entire previous year. Find it here.

Clever timing, VIDA; I salute you as always.

The results are better this year than last year, but still inappropriately non-balanced, and this annual study is one of the artifacts that convinces me it’s worthwhile to be a feminist.

When I was a young warthog

I took the train to Baltimore for AWP in 2003 as a 22-year-old Undergraduate Literary Journal Editor. Like most 22-year-olds, I had no idea what the hell I was doing.

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I was still saying dumb shit like, “I don’t call myself a feminist because… [fill in the blank with nonsense].” I had green hair.

I lost my cell phone, new to me, in the lobby of the conference hotel. The space was so big it felt like I was being actually swallowed by it and the swarm of writers and neurotics. I had a sense of nebulous non-selfness and of belonging at once.

The experience was insane and overwhelming. I read (an awful story full of heavy-handed symbolism, badly) at an open mic reading. I went to some panels full of writers I was reading at the time. I heard Darcy Steinke and Dave Davies speak.

I spent some time at the book fair, but it was with the no-future spirit of a person who can lose herself in a crowd, of a person who only knows one sure thing about herself: she is a writer. I ran around giving out copies of our journal, trading with other undergrad lit mags.

As a wise old grasshopper

For AWP 2013, I drove to Massachusetts, stayed with friends in Gloucester, and commuted to Boston. I volunteered at the Wilkes/Etruscan booth.

I was ready to be overwhelmed and worn out in the same way as I’d been ten years before, but it was different. Because there was only one train to Gloucester and it only ran till five, I only did AWP during the day. I went to a wonderful panel about what I was working on: nonfiction essay collections + how to order them. I herd Cheryl Strayed talk. I learned the word twee.

I bought a Rumpus mug that would remind me in the coming months to “write like a motherfucker.”20140227_112750

The difference between conference experiences was clear: I could go take it in without letting it take me over. I was older and better at life. I took myself and my work seriously (not to say that people with green hair don’t take themselves seriously, just that I didn’t: I still believed excellence was not my birthright; sensed I was only worth my ovaries).

The book fair was useful. I was neck deep in drafting at the time. I subscribed to Creative Nonfiction. I was thinking future, sort of. As well as I could. I knew more things about myself and the world: I knew I was a feminist and a writer. I knew I no longer needed green hair to be distinct. I knew that having girl parts didn’t disqualify me from entering and thriving in this world, even if it would be harder than if I had boy parts.

Third time’s the charm

In 2014, I got myself to Washington with laser focus and agenda. 1) have a fucking vacation  and 2) learn about presses and journals that might dig my work.

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I skipped Thursday and my partner and I did Seattle (space needle, museums, etc), I showed up early on Friday, picked up my registration materials, and slowly, deliberately visited every booth in half of the book fair. I discovered PM Press, Third Place Books, and talked with (and bought books from) their people.

I introduced myself to the representatives from Bitch Magazine, in case you don’t know, the subtitle is, “feminist response to pop culture.” I picked up their food issue and subscribed.

I talked to Foreword Reviews, about becoming a reviewer. I grabbed guidelines for The Review Review whose newsletter is INSANELY valuable.

I looked for books like my MS: books by women about woman stuff that may have a broader appeal. I talked to people. I seized every opportunity to write something on a post-it for a chance to win, for another chance that someone might recognize my name when it lands in their submission manager.

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Saturday, I met Jennifer Basye Sander, a former Big Six/five editor, book writer and packager, and feminist who said, “Henry Miller’s a fucking misogynist.” She apologized, but I don’t. It’s true. I couldn’t read past one chapter of Tropic of Cancer or forgive his insane depictions of vaginae.

Jennifer throws writing retreats in Washington and Northern Cali just for women writers. I’m going to try to get to one.

Then we spent a couple more days doing Seattle, ate so much good food, walked dozens of miles uphill. It wasn’t part of my plan, but the cool-down days gave me time to process and plan for next year.

And that’s just the highlights. I spent less time and got more out of AWP 14 than ever before. Next year, I’m going to spend two days going to panels and readings and presentations, and one day strategically hitting the book fair (like with the map and a highlighter).

Thanks, Wilkes, for the opportunity to get there.

April Line

April Line

BIO: April Line is working toward her MFA at Wilkes University. Her work has appeared in Sou’Wester and in several north-central PA regional news and lifestyle publications. She blogs at www.AprilLineWriting.com, hasn’t read a book by a man in more than a year, and lives in Williamsport with her partner and daughter.

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Robert May: Documentaries and Advice for Aspiring Artists

March 4, 2014 by

My previous blog entry discussed producer Robert May’s creative process and the mechanics of moving a fictional film through production. This week, I conclude the two-part series by discussing his process for documentary films and his advice for aspiring story-tellers and film-makers.

According to May, there are two prominent categories of documentary films: ones with an active story, and ones in which the story has already happened (inactive story).

While the story components of an inactive story are already present, there must be an especially compelling reason to revisit the events. Otherwise, retelling a pre-existing story may not be worth the investment. “There is more research required,” May explained, “because you may need to find a new angle.”

For either form of documentary, “seed money” is needed to begin a project. People need to be hired to gather the initial footage, and then if the project is worth moving forward, the rest of the money is raised. If the project is deemed unworthy of production, it is abandoned entirely.

An active story, however, is an entirely different type of project. It is already compelling by nature, since it’s still unfolding as it is being told which gives the story momentum, but May cautions that, “an active story can’t be too tragic; it has to have a dynamic for people to be interested in seeing it.”

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May used his most recent film, Kids for Cash, as an example of what he means by “dynamic.” He does not believe that any story should be presented from a single side, because much like the reality he is trying to capture, people on both sides of a story present sometimes opposing perspectives. He insists, much to my unbiased approval, that he would not have begun production on the film without having the former judges appear in it as well.

In order to gather footage from both angles and to have both “villain” and “victim” appear in the same film May makes it clear that the producer must maintain absolute secrecy until the film is finalized. Because obtaining an interview from a subject requires building a rapport and earning that person’s trust, the discovery of an interaction between the film-maker and the subject’s offender can cause emotional repercussions (I assume), or even negatively affect the promotion of a film.  Furthermore, if the subjects suspect that an undesirable contact is being interviewed, their responses will be less genuine and the project will lose its integrity.

A hazard of attempting to film active stories is that they can be extremely unpredictable because they develop as the project is being filmed. “You know it’s going to be a wild ride; you have no idea where the story is going. You just need to keep assessing and reassessing the footage,” May said.

As an example, during former Judge Ciavarella’s trial, an outraged mother burst onto the scene to confront Ciavarella on the courthouse steps. She began raging at him—who she blamed for the tragic suicide of her only child—and her raw, emotional outburst intrigued May greatly. He knew then, roughly two years into filming, that he had to include this woman in the movie.

 Because of the wide variety of people filmed, some characters must be cut entirely for the sake of time constraints. May filmed many people who were involved in the Kids for Cash scandal who did not make it past the editing room. His explanation was that, while initially the story may not be clear, once it begins developing and gaining prevalence, filmmakers must decide which “characters” contribute directly to the overall theme or point.

There is also a certain sensitivity involved regarding what the subjects choose to divulge. According to May, unlike reality shows, the subjects’ interviews cannot be altered to take statements out of context. It is a careful science conveying the subjects’ meaning precisely as intended.

After filming is complete, the editing process can take longer than a fictional narrative because of the “sheer mountain of material.” At one point he had three editors, five assistants, and an assistant editor working on the project at a single time.

Once the film has been released and is in its final stages, May initially feels “exhilaration,” but he quickly explained, “…if there’s a lot of money owed, I worry to death. ‘Can we pay people back?’ ‘What will people think [of the film]?’ ‘What will critics say?’” May spends the few months after a release fretting about the film’s success.

Another big source of anxiety for May is sharing the film with its subjects. “When you put the ‘villain’ and ‘victims’ in the same film, you have to be worried about the victim’s response. The product can take a very human toll, but hopefully the movie will advance the healing of the people involved.”

While May recognizes the necessity of promoting his movies, he does stress the importance of moving on to begin development of another project. He indicates that some of his colleagues have recommended taking a break between projects, but in an admirable admission of dedication to his art, May claims that, “You need to be doing it[film-making]…you need to keep moving forward.”

In regard to other potential projects, May clarified that Kids for Cash is his first directorial credit, a role in which he is beginning to gain confidence. He is now considering taking up the mantle of director again for future projects. Either way, May does not plan to linger long in the ether of “between projects.”

Finally, May provided some useful advice for aspiring writers, story-tellers, and prospective film-makers alike:

“A film is the most collaborative art form there is; you have to be a good collaborator.” All of the people involved in the production of the film are necessary to create a successful product. You have to be open to criticism, willing to work with others, and unafraid to change anything that isn’t being perceived the way you want it to.

With that in mind, he goes on to say, “Writers need to be very open to ‘trying to figure it out.’ When we give notes and people contend every note—Don’t! Try to figure out why people are saying what it is that they are saying. Embrace the collaborative process and embrace the notes that people are giving you. Decide whether you want them to feel that way, and if you don’t, figure out how to change it.”

Robert May: A Producer’s Process

February 19, 2014 by
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Robert May

Robert May is the founder of SenArt films, and the producer of several notable films:  BonnevilleThe War TapesThe Fog of WarThe Station AgentStevie, and the producer/director of his most recent documentary Kids For Cash. He has been an advisory board member for the Wilkes Creative Writing program since 2006, and the Wilkes Creative Writing department worked extensively with him on the production of Kids for Cash.

I interviewed him about his creative process, after several days of metaphorically tapping his shoulder and finally managing to acquire some of his time. I began our interview by asking about which kinds of stories particularly spark his interest. May enthusiastically replied that he is a man who is enthralled by characters and intense character development.

“I like to read nonfiction primarily, but something that is character driven fascinates me immensely because of my intrigue with real people and characters. The challenges they face and the ways in which they get themselves out of those situations interests me a great deal.”

May also insisted that he enjoys the unexpected in characters, “I like characters who initially appear as simple but who reveal themselves to be complex.”

Next I was curious about the elements of a story that are indicative of success for May. What inspires him to move forward with a project?

“Every film script, documentary, etc. has to have a hook for the audience,” says May. “If there is no compelling reason for an audience to be interested in a story then it doesn’t get made.”

This much would seem obvious to most people, if the script is not worth reading then it is certainly not worth investing in as a project. However, May continued to clarify:

“If it’s a script—narrative film—when I read the script I want to be really attached to somebody within the first ten pages.” May says that it is crucial that he is drawn to what happens next.

He also made it clear that, “this is not a hobby,” and that when he does move forward with scripts they do need to be “commercially viable.” He had once abandoned a script he really believed in because a similar movie was being produced, and he was concerned that it would create commercial competition.

Once May has decided to move forward with a project, a long sequence of events must take place in order to produce the final product:

For a fictional narrative, a script must first be sent to a reader who will write a synopsis that determines whether or not the script is fit for production. From that point, if the script is viable, it will go either to May or his production partner, Lauren Timmons (or both), to read.

For May, a script needs not only to be compelling, but also must have a meaning or a point. He’s not into goofy comedies made for pure entertainment value; he wants the audience to learn something.

If May likes the script, the writer will be contacted, and the script will be sent to a line producer, who assesses the cost of production down to the very day—taking into consideration variables such as time, location, etc.

After May evaluates the budget and decides if the film is financially feasible, the “script breakdown” will begin. During this process, speaking parts will be numbered, locations taken into account, and then actors will be considered for roles; May will have to weigh the importance of having a “big name” actor as opposed to one with less commercial success. (An actor with more fame may detract significantly from the budget in cost, but could also potentially bring in more money for the film.)

May will call up an agency, pitch the project to an actor’s agent, and if the offer is accepted, he will then have to negotiate cost. For some actors, they won’t even agree to be a part of the project until it is “green-lit” or fully funded. The risk that the project may not acquire enough money to finish is too high for an actor to compromise his or her schedule.

That being said, raising money for a film is a project in and of itself. “Sometimes,” May states, “if you are friends with an actor you can use those connections to raise money.” Otherwise, one must obtain a private equity loan, convince a studio to finance part of the film, or pre-sell international rights in advance, which May explains as a promise to finish the film in exchange for x amount of dollars.

Once the money is raised, pre-production can begin on the film. A team of roughly 25 essential people are hired and every single aspect of production is converted into a timed schedule. The schedules of every actor on the film are manipulated to make sure that they can be present for filming. Location scouts are sent out and the budget for the film is continually updated and reviewed during the entire process.

Once filming starts, at the end of each day footage is reviewed and, ideally, the editor is beginning to participate in the process as well. Editing, May says, can take up to about 14 weeks, during which time the editors manipulate the footage into a coherent, cohesive piece. The producer typically cannot even look at the film until ten weeks into the editing process, and then he or she works to help refine the material.

However, May was very careful to distinguish the process of producing a fictional film from the process of documentary film-making. He emphasized the dramatic difference between the two, to the extent that I feel it is necessary to divide the discussion into two parts. Cliff-hanger!

Next week: Documentary Film-Making and Advice for Aspiring Story-Tellers with Robert May

Hillary Transue: Grad Assistant

February 4, 2014 by

As the newly instated Graduate Assistant for the Creative Writing department here at Wilkes University, the task of maintaining The Write Life blog has been delegated to me.

That being said, I would like to take this opportunity to introduce myself to my fellow Wilkes University students, faculty, alum, current members of the Creative Writing M.F.A. program, and The Write Life readership:

I am a local resident of the Wilkes-Barre/Northeast-PA area, I am 22-years-old, and I have just recently graduated from Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, NH with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature Studies.

Also, because of the huge contributions that Wilkes University (more specifically our beloved Creative Writing department) has made to the upcoming documentary produced by SenArt films, which premieres this week, I feel it would be impertinent not to mention my personal involvement in the film.

When I was fifteen-years-old I was unjustly imprisoned and sent to a girls camp for juvenile delinquents in Jim Thorpe, PA. My case was responsible for alerting the Juvenile Law Center, a child advocacy group located in Philadelphia, PA, to the questionable actions of former Judge Ciavarella and his heinous mistreatment of juveniles who appeared in his court room. Because of the Juvenile Law Center’s involvement and their resulting investigation into the former judge’s court proceedings one of the biggest juvenile justice scandals in our nation’s history was unveiled.

I am featured in the upcoming film Kids for Cash by SenArt Films (alongside several other juveniles affected by former Judge Ciavarella). And while it may seem as though my decision to enroll in the Creative Writing M.F.A. here at Wilkes was a calculated career move, I assure you that it was more of a cosmic coincidence, divine intervention, or some sort of profound indication of the synergistic qualities of the universe.

I have been a voracious reader from a very young age and have experimented with writing for an equally long amount of time. However, as many of us writers must feel at some point during our lives, I have never had the self-confidence in my own writing to pursue creative writing beyond writing mediocre, mopey poetry in my diary (“…it’s a journal, mom!”), and a personal blog for the entertainment of friends and family.

In fact, it was my intention to apply to Wilkes in order to enroll in graduate education classes. However, Wilkes does not currently offer graduate Education courses for students who do not already have their teaching certification. As I continued to investigate some of the programs Wilkes does offer for graduate students, I happened upon the creative writing program and something inside me—perhaps my inner authoress—demanded that I apply.

Having just trudged through the 501 residency, or “boot camp for writers” as many of the students so affectionately refer to it, I am much more optimistic about my potential to grow as a writer and I am beginning to put the title on, one sleeve at a time.

From here on I hope to fade into the background and let my writing speak for itself, but I just wanted to make note of the transition currently taking place as I become the new Editor for The Write Life blog. I look forward to generating new ideas for blog posts and interviewing the talented writers made available through the creative writing program. I can only hope to be as successful an editor as the lovely Lori A. May, whose previous contributions as editor proved to be invaluable resources for fellow aspiring writers and members of the Wilkes community.