The Girl Who Loved Books and Emdashes
January 29, 2014
I am a reader and being a reader made me a writer. I have loved books forever and they have loved me back. Grammar and punctuation did not love me and I pretended we would never meet again—until a few years ago when I entered the Wilkes M.A./M.F.A. program and began teaching part-time in Washington State.
One of my first gigs was a grammar review class. Learning theories acknowledge that students learn more when they teach a new skill to a classmate. When I had twenty-five students counting on me and I was hired to be the “expert,” I knew that I would never have a better occasion to learn the twenty different ways to use a comma or how sometimes subordination adds a touch of elegance to stale syntax.
As the time to intern with Etruscan Press approached, I was direct and told Phil Brady and Managing Editor Jackie Fowler that I wanted to experience the duties of a proofreader and editor. With a green light, Jackie sent me home with books to read and consider reviewing. A few weeks after residency, my first proofreading task arrived in my Gmail inbox.
Certainly, proofreading led me down roads I had never planned to go, but I loved each fresh challenge. My main technical question concerned the endash (–) so named because it is the length of the letter n and it is often used between numbers: such as, 3:00–6:00, and the emdash (—) which is defined by the length of anm, and can be used in place of a colon, and commas or parentheses that are placed around nonessential information—or to indicate a long pause. Dashes are entirely optional. When I went through James McCorkle’s poetry manuscript, The Subtle Bodies, I was in love with the language, but had to shut down the content reading part of my brain and look at the mechanics. What I found were endashes and emdashes employed inconsistently. This happens when files are transferred from laptops to desktop pcs. Mr. McCorkle loves his dashes, as do I, so my job as a proofreader for a dash-user just happened to be a good fit. And just a few weeks ago, McCorkle’s uncorrected proof appeared in my mailbox. I saw how what is often unacknowledged work bear fruit in McCorkle’s close-to-publication manuscript; I appreciated that background work is a good fit for me. During the internship, I took an additional brief editorial course and found that I want to go even farther and seek a professional certificate. Eventually, I would love to work as a book editor and shape a manuscript from submission to publication. For now, the unexpected offer to continue with Etruscan Press as a poetry manuscript consultant is satisfying.
My internship duties were primarily divided between proofreading and book reviewing. Before I approached Phil and Jackie about writing book reviews, I brought book review skills that I had begun to hone during my M.A. while reviewing memoirs for alumni Donna Talarico-Beerman’s Hippocampus Magazine, and a poetry review in [PANK] that I landed via another alum, Amye Barrese Archer. I wanted to offer Etruscan Press something in exchange for the chance to experience proofreading.
I worked harder on the book reviews than I expected to. While polishing them, I found my reviewer’s voice: a reader/writer that writes for readers/writers. Silly to say, but before the internship, I hadn’t considered my published book reviews as publishing credits. I followed up venues for book reviewing online sites that were in the Internship course packet. I was excited to see my reviews appear in Founding Editor Lori A. May’s Poet’s Quarterly and The Small Press Book Review. As I heard back from gracious authors who appreciated the time I took to review their books, I realized that the more I submit my work, and the more conversations that I have with writers, an intimate and reciprocal writing community exists. I may have never considered writing book reviews as a regular goal, but because of breaks given to me by Wilkes alumni and the internship, I will continue reviewing. On February 1st, I am launching a book review blog to feature my wide-range of reading interests and books that I choose, instead of my editors. I can be indulgent and celebrate exceptional writing talent at the same time. I am not saying goodbye to the Wilkes Creative Writing Program as I had expected to. I forged and fostered relationships that weren’t forced but are authentic. One of my writing mentors, Neil Shepard often said to me, “Onward!” and that’s the plan.
Kim Loomis-Bennett is a life-long resident of Washington State, besides a detour into Oregon where she met her husband. Her poems and book reviews have appeared in The November 3rd Club, The Copperfield Review,Poet’s Quarterly, and Hippocampus Magazine. Recent work is included inThe Prose-Poem Project and The Far Field. She has served as poetry editor for River and South Review. Kim also teaches part-time at Centralia College. She has an M.A. and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. Her work, Soiled Doves: A Poetic Sequence, published in 2011, is available as an e-book.
AWP: An Opportunity to Exercise Literary Citizenship
January 22, 2014
AWP: An Opportunity to Exercise Literary Citizenship
by Lori A. May
The annual AWP Conference & Bookfair is just around the corner. This year, writers from across the country and beyond will gather in Seattle during Feb 26-Mar 1, 2014. AWP is by far my favorite literary gathering of the year. It is the one event I bookmark in my calendar years in advance and for which I schedule everything else around; it’s a must-attend event in my books. Just last year I wrote abrief introduction to AWP on my blog where I also shared an excerpt, “Chapter 12: AWP Membership and Services,” from The Low-Residency MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Creative Writing Students.
I often speak about what opportunities writers may find during AWP. Yet in addition to the socializing, schmoozing, and general knowledge intake, there are also countless ways in which to exercise literary citizenship. That is, AWP presents an open door for writers to help others during this whirlwind week of events.
But what is literary citizenship? And why, of all places, would an emerging writer elect to spend time doing activities seemingly unrelated to his or her own writing path?
Simply put, literary citizenship is a topical term for engaging in the community with the intent of giving as much as, if not more so, than we take. Our literary world is a social ecosystem that relies on others: readers, writers, editors, reviewers, publishers, booksellers, and so on. The writing and publishing world is one made of relationships. Writing itself may be a somewhat solitary activity, but once the story or poem is ‘done’ we rely on others to read, share, and publish our work. Yet there are so many levels of participation from others in this community. We turn to others for support after rejection; we hope others celebrate alongside our successes. We hope to develop positive connections with readers and editors; we long to feel a part of this community that has called us in some way to participate.
Yes, there is much to personally gain in becoming active members of the arts and at-large community, but literary citizenship calls on our acts of giving, of giving back to the ecosystem so that we may actively ensure its sustainability. The beautiful thing is that it needn’t take much time or skill to offer something of ourselves, of our passions, to others.
Simple acts of literary citizenship can include reviewing another’s book, helping set up a reading event, proofreading a peer’s draft, or simply showing up at an event and being mindfully present. These acts of kindness needn’t cost us a thing; the best ‘gifts,’ as in other aspects of life, come from an authentic place within. We know that giving, indeed, is better than receiving.
It is through my activity in the writing community-at-large that I feel more like a writer, like an engaged participant in this network of dedicated creatives. It is through my involvement with small presses and literary journals that I feel a part of something bigger than myself, better than my own small presence. Contributing to, and impacting, the literary world is something outside of our own selves, and yet it benefits our personal goals and ambitions as we can’t help but grow as writers, as people, when we step outside of our writing dens and into the buzz of literary culture.
How, then, might a writer participate as a literary citizen during AWP? The organization itself has a number of volunteer opportunities to assist with the conference, but there are simple activities anyone, from any walk of literary life, can take under her wing during those few fast-paced days:
- help a bookfair exhibitor hand out materials and attract passers-by for an hour
- or, merely cover a coffee or lunch break for a bookfair exhibitor
- offer your time to an off-site reading and help set up chairs or hand out programs
- approach exhibitors you don’t know to introduce yourself to something new
- ask a literary journal how you can volunteer as a book reviewer or marketing assistant
- seek out publishers and writers from your region that you can help in some way when you both return home
- introduce people you know to others you just met; help make connections for others
- introduce yourself to the person behind you in the coffee line-up and ask what he’s writing/editing/publishing
- take photos of panels and speakers and then send them to those speakers
- when you meet a representative from a journal or publisher that doesn’t work with your genre, consider who you know that would find them a perfect fit and make that introduction
- most of all, engage: attend panels and approach the speakers after their sessions; be helpful to newbies who need directions in and outside of the conference; and make it a goal to come away from the conference having met at least three or four new people—and then make a point of contacting these folks after the conference winds down
AWP hosts a world of opportunities—for your own writing life and for engaging with others throughout the year. Yes, it’s a somewhat hectic place with too much to do and too many people to meet, and yet that’s precisely why it’s a goldmine for making things happen, for meeting new people and jumpstarting relationships that can extend throughout the year, throughout your life as a writer.
Going into the conference with the mindset to give back, to assist where your help is welcome, and to connect with others in meaningful ways can help fine-tune your social map for the week. While there are countless ways to participate as a literary citizen and you should definitely customize what works for you, I hope you’ll have a look at a few additional resources I’m pleased to share:
- In the May 2010 issue of The Writer (pg 8-9), I interviewed author Matt Bell, agent Andrea Hurst, editor Leah Maines, and author/editor Kate Gale about how to play an active part in the writing community (online link)
- In November 2013, I shared a round-up of resources and discussions about literary citizenship on my blog (online link)
And, lastly, a personal offering; if you’d like to ask more specific questions about AWP or literary citizenship, feel free to contact me personally firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll do my best to give helpful responses—and I’d love to shake your hand in Seattle.
Lori A. May writes across the genres, road-trips half the year, and drinks copious amounts of coffee. Her books include Square Feet and The Low-Residency MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Creative Writing Students. Her writing has appeared in publications such asThe Atlantic, Writer’s Digest, Brevity, Midwestern Gothic,and The Writer. Her editorial roles have included working with Kaylie Jones Books, Creative Nonfiction, and other independent presses. She is also the founding editor of Poets’ Quarterly. Lori is a graduate of the Wilkes University MFA program, where she was awarded the Norris Church Mailer Fellowship. She is a frequent guest speaker at writing conferences and residencies across North America. For more info, visit her website atwww.loriamay.com.
New issue of River & South Review
January 15, 2014
River & South Review is a student-run literary journal edited by current students of the Wilkes University Creative Writing MA/MFA Programs. River & South Review publishes new work by emerging writers of any age who have not gone on to a graduate writing degree. This may include undergraduates, writers without a formal education, and writers from other professions.
The latest issue, Winter 13/14, is now available online:http://riverandsouth.blogspot.com
River & South Review is published twice annually.
Then & Now: Q&A with Dawn Zera
January 8, 2014
Writer, editor, and instructor Dawn Zera is a graduate of the Wilkes University creative writing program. In this Q&A, she shares her experiences in working with Etruscan Press, Kaylie Jones Books, and Nancy McKinley as part of the education internship.
HL: What is life like after the M.F.A.?
DZ: I have to use the F words here—fabulous and frightening.
HL: What did you learn from your internship experience?
DZ: How to teach! Frankly, I knew nothing about pedagogy or teaching practices. Dr. Nancy McKinley is not only a teacher I want to emulate and a talented creative writer, but also is a source of constant advice for those students interested in entering the profession. I still check in with her every now and then for advice and encouragement.
HL: Has that experience helped you get to where you are now?
DZ: Absolutely. Thanks to Dr. McKinley’s advice, her recommendations combined with other instructors at Wilkes, and the experience I gained during the internship, I was able to land two adjunct college teaching jobs even before I officially walked at summer graduation ceremonies (in September) to receive my M.F.A. (I officially completed the M.F.A. program in July 2013. By August I was hired to teach at the University of Scranton and also Marywood University).
HL: Any advice for those considering the M.F.A.?
DZ: Do it. It’s only an extra year, which means only one extra residency. You do not have to attend the final residency. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of writing an M.F.A. analysis paper with my M.F.A. mentor Kaylie Jones, and I am using the books I read for that M.F.A. as a source of information for a World Literature class I will teach this spring.
HL: What is your current occupation?
DZ: Writer, college instructor at University of Scranton and Marywood University, editor with Kaylie Jones Books, public relations guru, creative writing workshop leader for Penn State summer camp and local libraries. I enjoy doing all these things and do not feel it necessary (or financially feasible!) to limit myself to one at this time.
HL: What were some of your favorite things about the M.F.A.?
DZ: The people and the learning experience. This extra year gives students extra time to get to know people in the program better, do creative work under the guidance of a mentor, and figure out a plan for how to proceed in life after earning their degree.
HL: What were some of your not so favorite things?
DZ: I think each student should be judged individually for whether or not they can handle both a publishing and teaching internship. I was told I could not do both because they had tried it in the past and the students had not been able to complete the work. Thankfully, I was able to figure out a plan in which I officially did the teaching internship to fulfill my M.F.A. requirements, but switched my graduate assistantship from the creative writing office to Etruscan Press. I also did volunteer work for the Kaylie Jones Books imprint. All of this was fun and I learned a lot. In addition, the work I did for Kaylie Jones Books has been of interest to people when I go in for job interviews. Even though I am doing it on a volunteer basis, I enjoy it and Kaylie wrote a nice recommendation letter for me.
HL: Would you recommend getting the M.F.A.? Why?
DZ: I believe it depends on the individual. There is never a one-size-fits-all solution. If a student plans to go into teaching or publishing, then the M.F.A. is ideal – it provides that extra calling card that says s/he did the extra work of analyzing a particular topic, writing a paper about it and did an internship. In applying for teaching jobs, it gave me an edge over others with similar credentials who had an M.A. but not an M.F.A. In order to reach a decision on whether or not to pursue an M.F.A., each student has to plan for the future and ask themselves why they are in the creative writing program in the first place.
HL: How did you make the most of your experience?
DZ: I was a sponge and worked hard. Serving as a graduate assistant taught me a lot about how Etruscan Press, the Wilkes University creative writing office, and SenArt works. I also listened to good people who gave me outstanding gifts of their knowledge and experiences. Everything my mentors—Bev Donofrio and Kaylie Jones—said was remembered and taken to heart. Every story of experience shared by Dr. McKinley, Dr. Lennon and Dr. Culver was remembered. I sought the advice of faculty members and cohort members whenever I could and every single one of them was approachable and kind and willing to share their knowledge. Ross Klavan gave me feedback on a screenplay synopsis. Fellow cohort member Rachel Wiren, a college teacher at Baptist Bible College, shared her PowerPoint presentations that she used in her composition classes and offered valuable advice. Fellow cohort member Laurie Powers gave me feedback on a play and did pro bono special effects work on a film I produced. Dawn Leas recommended me for the Penn State summer camp position. Ken Vose, Gregory Fletcher, Sara Pritchard, Lenore Hart, former Etruscan Press editor Starr Troup, former associate program director Jim Warner—all these people, in addition to the ones already mentioned, took time to assist me in some way even though they weren’t my official mentors. In turn, I stand ready and willing to help these people in any small way I can.
HL: Anything else you’d like to add?
DZ: The program is what you make of it. In order to get something out of the bank, you need to put something in. Invest your time, energy, thoughts, writing, and anything else you can offer into the program, and you will get it all back, with interest.
Robert May: A Producer’s Process
February 19, 2014
- Robert May is the founder of SenArt films, and the producer of several notable films: Bonneville, The War Tapes, The Fog of War, The Station Agent, Stevie, 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
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.
Lori M. Myers’ “Mirror Mirror”
March 24, 2014
Lori M. Myers is a graduate of the Wilkes Creative Writing program and her play “Mirror Mirror” will be performed in Brooklyn, NY on 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.
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.
Lori M. Myers, writer/author/playwright
3608 Green St.
Harrisburg, PA 17110
Figuring Out How To *Do* AWP
March 13, 2014
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
Saturday, I metJennifer 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.
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.
Robert May: Documentaries and Advice for Aspiring Artists
March 4, 2014
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.”
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.”
Overcoming Vanity; Just Write
April 14, 2014
“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 always 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.
Hillary 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 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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jeff Minton: Save the Essays
May 26, 2014
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.
2) to save the essays from becomingworthy 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 learnuntil 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
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.
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 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.
Corinne Nulton’s 14 Symptoms
May 20, 2014
A fellow Wilkes student, Corinne Nulton is currently running a fundraiser on IndieGoGo for her original play, 14 Symptoms, which 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
Corinne 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
“Almost everyone in town blames eight-year-old Violet Morgan for the death of her nine-year-old sister, Daisy. Sing inthe 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.”
Trigger Warnings: Survival of the Fittest or Life Spoilers?
June 9, 2014
Let’s face it. The world has become 360 degrees of constant chaos. Trigger warnings, which some academic institutions place in front of works of art and literature warning students that they may relive a traumatic experience by studying the work, are just one more reflection of how society has erected barriers. These same barriers prevent people from observing – and perhaps understanding – life. A trigger warning (or TW) is intended to allow readers to prepare for what might be an upsetting subject; yet it reduces a work of art to nothing more than its plot points, thus taking the moment of impact out of the equation.
The debate has left many academics fuming, according to New York Timeswriter Jennifer Medina (May 17, 2014). She suggests professors should be trusted to use common sense and that being provocative is part of their mandate. “Trigger warnings,” Medina writes, “suggest a certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace.”
Trigger warnings remove the substance from coffeehouse discussions and college seminars. When I was growing up, this was known as a conversation. Now, these same subject matters are considered dangerous. Really? How can we put a warning label on life itself?
Let’s put life and reality in perspective. The blog post by Jay Caspian Kang on http://www.newyorker.com (May 22, 2014) relays how during a graduate-school lecture on Lolita, his professor stood up in front of a crowded classroom and said something he had never been able to shake: “When you read Lolita, keep in mind that what you’re reading about is the systematic rape of a young girl.” Kang benefited from hearing a warning about a piece of literature that represents life, culture and raises questions about social norms. Why the warning?
I witnessed something just as disturbing as Kang’s experience. There was no trigger warning, nor was my professor cautioning me beforehand of the carnage I was about to witness. Long before Kang was in graduate school, I was driving on a crowded freeway in southern California and came upon the scene of a fatal vehicular accident. As my yellow Volkswagen bug crawled past the motionless truck, I saw an image that has remained imbedded in my mind for nearly four decades: the lifeless body of its driver suspended through the shattered plate glass window, with blood pouring from his puncture wounds. Haunted by this gruesome image, I wondered where the driver was from. Did he leave behind a wife and kids? How long after he was thrown through the windshield did it take for him to die? How much pain did he endure? Somewhat obsessed by the waste of a human life, I searched the newspaper in the days following the accident for a report or an obituary. Finding nothing, I wondered if this man’s life was meaningless, and his death had become nothing more than a traffic disruption.
The body sprawled through the truck’s window is an image I still remember today, yet I continue to drive. In fact, I used this image to propel the subject of my M.A. thesis about a young taxi driver who becomes comatose following an automobile accident. Did I get a TW on the freeway? No. I witnessed life – and death – unfold before my eyes; and from that experience I developed an awareness of how fragile life is.
While witnessing the still-fresh death of a gruesome auto accident pales by comparison to a rape or a violent attack, the trigger of a flashback is no less crippling. There is a parallel to living life, which is sometimes raw and often without any warning. Life doesn’t come neatly packaged with warning labels. It simply unfolds. As Kang opines in his blog, “A trigger warning or, really, any sort of preface, would disrupt the creation of those highly pressurized, vital moments in literature that shock a reader into a higher consciousness.”
Kang believes that literature should only be examined as an object unto itself – detached from time and history; however, it is the elements of story – both time and place – that help the reader better comprehend society and discover how culture has evolved over time. One thing I do agree with regarding Kang’s assessment about trigger warnings, is the impact they have on the creative process. Evolution requires freedom.
In his May 20, 2014 article, Conor Friedersdorf, a staff writer at The Atlantic, points out how trigger warnings are intended to caution about any content that might stoke anxiety or trauma. Friedersdorf suggests that critics of the “trigger warning” movement fear that requiring alerts in the classroom would chill speech and erode academic freedom. Others argue that the alerts are condescending, showy, or useless. The bottom line is that trigger warnings do not allow an audience to learn about life, even when the experience of life might be upsetting.
Several years ago I traveled to South Africa and Botswana, where I experienced life unfold in the most basic of ways: survival of the fittest. In the Kalahari Desert, animals fight to survive. On my second day of a safari, I witnessed a kill. An impala was attacked and ripped from limb to limb by a hungry cheetah. There was no trigger warning – only the blood-curdling squeal from an innocent impala as it was attacked, savagely mauled, and soon became the cheetah’s next meal.
Was there trauma? Yes.
Did I observe tricky terrain? You bet!
Was it graphic? Absolutely.
Did I watch crippling anxiety unfold? If you call death crippling, then yes; however, I realized that life as I observed it in Botswana was about survival of the fittest.
Reflecting back to my Kalahari safari, I wonder how trigger warnings would work. Friedersdorf believes that college students should know what’s coming when they set out to plumb human civilization. “A huge part of it is a horror show,” he says. “To spare us upset would require morphine.” There was no morphine on the floor of the Kalahari Desert.
Much closer to home, while waiting to take off from Boston, I realized how lucky that impala might have been to have lived life without a TW. There was a guy walking down the aisle of the airplane as I sat toward the front of the plane reading The Great Gatsby. He stopped near me as people beyond him were looking for a place to stash their luggage. No TW needed here. As I read my book, I was interrupted as the guy yapped on his cell phone. He was talking about some girl – Shelly – who was a slut. She had gone to bed with nearly every guy in his class. “Don’t repeat this,” he said. “She’s a regular patient at the abortion clinic.” Shelly was bad news, and if the person on the other end of the phone knew what was good for him, he would stay away from her.
As the line of passengers began to move, the guy continued to warn his friend about the fear of sexually transmitted diseases. The Great Gatsby no longer held my interest. I wanted to know where Shelly was. Where was the TW?
Singer-songwriter-musician John Legend recently performed a song he had written (“Maxine”) about a woman he was in love with. He was confused when he discovered her out at a club, wearing the dress he had bought her, the necklace he gave her on Valentine’s Day, the shoes that were her birthday gift. There she was, all dressed up, with another man. Legend’s heart-wrenching song was inspired by a tune recorded by Nancy Wilson in 1960, “Guess Who I Saw Today?” about a woman who finds her husband having lunch at a romantic French restaurant – with another woman. Both of these compositions reveal the pain and heartache when infidelity is discovered. In both scenarios, there was no trigger warning. The pain was real.
Life is filled with stories like these. Whether or not we want to know about them, they exist. Thus begins conversations about life.
Perhaps Mary Poppins was right in her rhythmic diagnosis that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” But then again, I caution everyone with this TW: life is not a Disney movie.
Be real. Experience life. Savor the moment. Endure the pain. Enjoy the journey. Conquer the nightmares. Share your story!
Bill Schneider’s previous experience includes a three-decade long career in the music industry accompanied by extensive travel throughout four continents. Prior to joining Etruscan Press, where he serves as managing editor, he resided at the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where he wrote near the same sand dunes that inspired Harry Kemp, Eugene O’Neill, Norman Mailer and Tennessee Williams. He received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism Magna Cum Laude from Suffolk University. Bill also earned his MA and MFA from the graduate creative writing program at Wilkes University.
What are you Writing for?
July 21, 2014
Let me introduce you to Gaia. Gaia is a human clone or more aptly, a human garden. She is a twisted, mutilated version of woman with little conventional beauty to behold. Yet there’s a sense of strength in her structure and: the beat of her HEART, the bright BLOOD pumping through her veins and the light yellow aura that floats above her- are riveting. Gaia struggles, as so many main characters do, to find her place in the world.
She is also the main character of my sci-fi script, GAIA, which took first place in The Indie Gathering’s sci-fi feature script contest, one of a couple dozen contests I entered over the past two months or so. The win is my first and a welcomed reprieve from the repeated thrashes of rejection from others.
Admittedly, the validity and usefulness of screenplay contests continues to be debated, especially for any contests other than the “Top 5.” Indeed, as I searched for contests, and weighed the benefits and costs of each, I struggled not to let the naysayers drag me down.
Site after site, person after person, nay after nay; these sounded much like this:
“contests that charge over $25 aren’t worth it”
“any other than the top 5 are a waste of time”
“contests are a waste of time… they won’t help you sell your screenplay”
“contests are good for the ego, but that’s all.”
Of course, some of these comments were by people who had not yet placed in any contest, but not all of them and some were directly from people working within the film industry. Regardless, the impact varied little.
With each nay, my enthusiasm waned, even after my win. That is, until I realized something so profound that when I told Confucius he said, “Do what?” Not really, actually he rolled his eyes and said, “Uh.. duh.” So what is this not-so profound realization?
In the screenwriting world (and in fact, most any artistic industries), a reverberating factor of success seems to be the ability to find like-minded people.
A win may or may not mean you write well, but it means that someone or several “someones” appreciated your writing. It doesn’t matter if they appreciated it because it was “good” writing, or because it was a “good” story or for some other reason. All that matters is that you made that connection. For that win, you “won” someone over, and each contest you enter increases your chance to connect.
Think of these contests as fishing. They take time, money and can be tiring. Sometimes you’ll get a nibble, sometimes a bite, but you won’t get anything if the fish in the lake don’t like your bait. Even the biggest worm won’t hook a fish if the fish in the lake prefer crickets. Thus, for me, these contests are my pole.
I use them to gauge the interest in my bait. What other route offers you so much direct access to such a large, diverse range of people. Whether the judges are members of the Hollywood elite or not, they are people you can connect with.
There are many reasons why cult followings are popular and movies that have them are ultimately successful. Not every success is based on the size of the catch. Sometimes it’s taste that counts.
And as I consider the value of screenwriting contests, I remind myself also that Indie films and the whole site of Kickstarter are all about funding based upon a connection. Not a network of who you know, but a connection of a shared vision and goal. And isn’t that why we write anyway; to connect with others?
Autumn Whiltshire earned her Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. She writes poetry, short stories and screenplays. Her thesis script, Gaia won first place in The Indie Gathering’s 2014 Sci-Fi Feature category. You can follow Autumn at: http://autumnwhiltshire.wordpress.com/
L. Elizabeth Powers: Contesting Rejection
July 14, 2014
Recently I shared the news with my Wilkes Creative Writing “family” that my short screenplay The Importance of Sex Education was chosen as one of six finalists in the D.C. Shorts Film Festival Screenwriting Contest. I had just sat down to a late Chinese Buffet lunch with my mom when the festival organizer called me to inform me of the selection. I was so thrilled I couldn’t eat another bite. (I had to pay the full “all-you-can-eat” price anyway.)
When I was asked by The Write Life to speak of my experience of submitting to festivals, I hesitated because in order to share such an experience in its entirety, I must admit to all the rejections!
As a burgeoning writer/filmmaker, one is inevitably guaranteed more rejections than acceptances, and while this is well-known, the rejections still sting. But, the stings lessen with experience and a good acceptance letter can numb any number of past or future stings. I am lucky that with this script, I only received one rejection prior to placing in this contest. But, I’ll be honest, it wasn’t exactly the same script.
I had entered this script into another festival some months ago. While it received favorable remarks, it did not advance into the final rounds. When I received the rejection, I went back and reworked it. Though I had shared it with a few people the first round, this time I found new readers. I did some polishing (mostly cutting) and then I sent it off again to the D.C. Shorts competition and this time, it advanced.
Of course, the standard advice is to not send work off to start with until you think it’s “perfect. “ For me, that would mean never sending anything. I have to let go and send my work off in the belief that it is ready. But, if it comes back, that gives me the guilt-free excuse to reopen it and piddle some more, or on rare occasions confirm that it’s as good as I can get it. I rarely resubmit the same exact work after a rejection.
As for screenwriting contests, there is an on-going controversy as to whether or not they are worth the effort. After all, there are hundreds of contest winners every year that don’t get their scripts optioned or produced, and tons of terrible scripts that DO get produced. I tend to think that for me, as someone who is early in her career, it’s worth the effort for networking, and for resume building. Of course, the networking aspect only makes sense for someone who actually means to attend the festivals. Festivals that are film and screenwriting are of particular interest to me because it’s an opportunity to meet other industry types and not just screenwriters.
The D.C. Shorts competition was for shorts only. I like short film festivals as you often get to meet filmmakers early in their careers as well. Some would scoff at the effort and cost of submitting a short film, preferring to submit only feature length in the hopes of getting it sold or produced. But, short scripts also show off writing skills, and for me, the goal is as much to garner notice as a writer as it is to sell any particular script.
Of course, some competitions are more valuable than others and it’s worth it to investigate them before submitting. One thing to consider is the cost versus payoff. How well-known is the festival and how much prestige would participation garner? If accepted, do you get a free pass? And, if so, what kind of conference offerings are there? Is there prize money? (D.C. Shorts offers $2000 production fund to the winner and as a filmmaker, I would like to shoot the script.)
Many script competitions offer coverage (feedback) for a few extra dollars. I’ve not partaken of this option, personally, and probably would not elect to do so unless I knew absolutely who was providing that coverage, and that the person was a true industry professional and not, say, a film school intern. That’s not to say professional coverage services aren’t valuable: I’m just not sold on the value of anonymous festival coverage. There are a few competitions that offer free coverage, though, so of course that is welcome.
As for the festival at hand, the six D. C. Shorts screenplay finalists will be read publicly September 19 at the U.S. Navy Memorial Heritage Center in Washington D.C. The winner will be chosen by audience vote at the end of the event. My script, The Importance of Sex Education is a short comedy that follows 12-year old Adeline as she fumbles her way into puberty in 1975 with some embarrassingly errant assumptions about sex.
L. Elizabeth Powers received her MFA from Wilkes University’s Creative Writing department in 2013. Before that, she worked for 12 years in feature film visual effects. She currently works as a freelance artist, and as a designer for Etruscan Press. Her short film, Killing Time, was a finalist in the Louisiana Film Prize 2012, and she has had work published in Poetry Quarterly, Red River Review, Every Day Poets, The Germ and Big Country Magazine. A story she penned while at Wilkes can be read in the current issue of Belle Reve Literary Journal. She has worked in Shreveport and New Orleans, LA for the past few years, though she is currently helping out on her family’s farm in Texas.
Ross Klavan’s (a) “Schmuck”
August 12, 2014
Ross Klavan, the charismatic voice of the creative writing program and one of our beloved screenwriting faculty members, was kind enough to share some of his thoughts and process for his novel, Schmuck with The Write Life blog.
Schmuck takes place in 1960’s New York, where Jerry Elkin and Ted Fox rule the radio airwaves. Between Elkin’s zany dialects and impressions and Fox’s golden, straight-man voice, they’ve got it down pat. But if listeners could hear between the lines, they’d notice an undertone of tension between the hit team. Jerry resents Ted for his dismissive attitude towards TV offers, and his ability to sweet-talk the ladies. Even his own son gets the girl, Sari Rosenbloom, an eighteen year old bombshell that Jerry can’t get off his mind.
Between seedy, well-connected mobsters, a head-swiveling femme fatale, and a son that just doesn’t get it, Jerry navigates this post-war, Jewish-infused, zany, larger-than-life landscape.
Schmuck was published by Greenpoint Press and is available through their website, which can be found by clicking here: http://www.greenpointpress.org/gb_book_schmuck.html
Schmuck is loosely based on your father’s radio show. Why write something so close to home?
The most famous joke about show business is the one about the guy in the circus who sweeps up behind the elephant. You know which one I’m talking about. He walks behind the elephant with a broom, clearing all the elephant crap and cursing to himself about how much he hates his job. And when somebody says, “If you hate it so much why don’t you quit?” He says, “What?! And leave show business?!” I’ve lived all of my life connected to show business and I’m sort of the guy sweeping up behind the elephant…and also the guy writing about the guy who’s sweeping up. All writing and performing is obviously based in your self since you’ve got no other place to begin. I’m lucky that my own personal lunacy–mishegas as the holy men say–leans sharply toward a combo of the masochistic and exhibitionistic. That means that I can exploit my own experience and then beautifully alter, embellish, form, shape, structure and compose until it both seems real and strangely heightened, both at the same time. It’s either that, or I go back into analysis.
Does your artistic work take from your real life often, and is it hard to balance between what’s real and fictional?
My work almost always takes off from real life, at least to start out. As for the line between real and fictional—I don’t know, it’s not so solid for any of us, I think. I like to jump back and forth across that line or blend both sides or step aside and see what gets called up from the dregs. That’s an incredible pleasure. Dream experience—that’s real experience, too, just a different kind. And like I said before, I’ve spent all my life around show business and I like writing about show business—not major movie stars and big money deals, for some reason that’s a snooze for me. I like the other levels. Clowns and jokers and radio guys who live in a world of TV. Where people are desperate and striving like their life depended on it and not usually succeeding. The screenwriter who can’t sell anything and who ends up shot dead by his mistress and floating in her pool, to me that’s a better story than the big names who end up on the cover of “Vanity Fair.” It’s plays more in my imagination. For a while, when I was younger, I supported myself as a reporter doing grunt journalism and you were supposed to be accurate above almost anything else. Eventually, my mind started to develop hemorrhoids. Even if you’re not going to be in the arts, I highly recommend living by the imagination as long as you’re not walking off a cliff.
“Schmuck” has been said to blend zany humor with a deadly somber undertone. Was it hard to write in such opposition?
It’s much more difficult to live with that opposition, which many of us do. It’s sort of like, one minute it’s all “ha-ha-ha” and you recognize the Absurd…then, when you see how absurd it all is, you start to feel it’s all so sad there’s not enough tears in the world to cry, and then you start laughing again because you hear yourself thinking that and it all seems so ridiculous. I tried to give Jerry Elkin that quality—underneath it all, he knows that we’re all sharing a misshapen rock spinning around in space and nobody really knows what the hell is going on.
Jerry Elkin is loosely based on your father. Has your father read the book, and if so, what does he think of Jerry?
My father died ten years ago so he hasn’t read the book—at least, I don’t think he has. I like to imagine that if he’s out there in that Great Radio Station in the sky, that maybe he got a few laughs out of it. He had a pretty wicked sense of humor that stayed with him until the end.
Do you have a specific process that you use when you write, and does “Schmuck” differ from your usual process because of it’s roots in your own life?
A theater director once told me that he went into rehearsal with a specific goal in mind for each particular session and then, when he got there, it was time to go home even if rehearsal only took five minutes. For some reason, that’s how “Schmuck” was written. Every time I sat down to work, I had a specific problem to solve—not a number of pages—but a chapter or a scene or a sequence of scenes to finish. Just what felt right. When that was done, I headed for the couch, lay down and put the “New Yorker” over my face. I also kept a notebook of ideas and lines and things to look at or change when I hit the next draft. Every project has something of its own character. I usually start off with a process of free association, just riffing and coming up with scenes and ideas that light up, even if they seem to be totally unrelated. Then, if I haven’t completely cracked up, I start finding some kind of narrative line that connects what scenes I’m going to use.
What the most important thing that you want to convey to an audience when you write, and how do you try accomplish that?
That’s an incredibly tough question to answer so I’ll hide from it as best I can. One way of looking at it—only the book itself can answer that question, otherwise there wouldn’t be a reason to write it. Also, you don’t want to get between the reader and his or her experience of the book–a writer has no business being there, you should be off working on something else or taking a nap. Then, overall, I’m going for something that’s tremendously alive and vital, or I hope it is, anyway—I don’t have any grand theories that make sense and I’m not smart enough to have any mind-bending ideas. But I hope the reader comes away at least with a feeling of life and enjoyment—like they’ve been hit in the head with some kind of weird tuning fork. And in a book, I think, you do that by rhythm, tempo, structure and a certain kind of language.
Sari Rosenbloom has been compared to Daisy Buchanan. Was this an intentional inspiration, and how else does “Gatsby” fit into “Schmuck’s” world?
Oh, yeah, there’s a definite “Gatsby” thread running through the story. Partly, that’s because I wanted to convince my audience that I’d actually read at least one great book. Also, growing up, I spent all too much time not too far from the real Gatsby House—or what was supposedly the house Fitzgerald used–and I got a feel for the parvenu’s outlook. Then, at one point, I started to think of “Schmuck” as a sort of “Gatsby” that’s told through the eyes of Meyer Wolfsheim, the Jewish gangster character, the guy who fixed the 1919 World Series. Which, by the way, is not a bad trick if you can get away with it.
You’ve written scripts for Miramax, Paramount, and TNT. How does your script writing differ from your novel writing?
At the gross level—which may be our favorite—a script has more people involved and you get a lot more money. But aside from the practical–there’s a common level in all narrative writing, I think, from commercials to novels to feature films. You’re dealing with characters and stories and people and you’re trying not to bore anyone. I wrote the film “Tigerland” which starred Colin Farrell but I did the script off the first draft of a novel I’d written. I’d worked out the story already, so it was much easier than starting from zero. For prose fiction–a novel can rest more in its language, going directly into the reader’s psyche, a mind dart. A screenplay has to do that also but it has to unfold in the reader’s imagination as a film, so that even a character’s consciousness is there to be literally seen, heard and understood in a medium that’s going to be watched and that takes place in time, somewhat outside of the viewer’s control. At some point, even if it becomes second nature, you have to care about that when you write a screenplay. I love film—I’d have to say that film and a kind of molecular understanding of what it is to write a screenplay have only been of the greatest help in other kinds of writing, especially prose fiction. It teaches you to move a story, not to be precious with yourself, to make everything count.
Your wife, Mary Jones, is a painter. Does her artistic vision bleed into your work, and vice versa?
Mary’s a terrific artist and I’ve probably learned much more from her than she’s learned from me. Her courage and seriousness and willingness to take chances, her connection to her own work and her respect for it, her ability to let it change…that this is part of everything she does and that she wears it lightly, I’ve gained from all this now for a long time. When we first knew each other many years ago, I remember once she lost a lease on her studio and was looking around for a new place. I asked her why she didn’t just rent a cheap apartment, what difference does it make where you paint? And she said, “Because during those times when you’re not selling anything or you’re stuck or you feel like everyone hates your work, it’s important to have a place to go that reminds you who you really are.” Maybe writers have to have a version of that, too…and since we don’t need a lot of brushes or canvases, it can just be in the mind.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Ah ha! The old advice question. Sometimes I hear writers say that there’s more bullshit out there about writing than there is about sex…but actually, I think, a lot of the writing advice is pretty good. It’s just…what do you do with it once you hear it? How do you make it your own? Can you actually sit down and use it? Then there’s this—I think what most of us want when we go after advice about writing is for somebody else to do the real work for us. I’m not talking about specific craft questions. But we live in a world that’s got a large sign across the sky that says, WARNING: DON’T BE ALONE IN YOUR IMAGINATION! And effort, pain or frustration? Forget about it, they get chosen last for the team. But that’s exactly what writers have to do and where they have to go, hour after hour. Real problems with writing are solved by writing. Eventually. Maybe painfully and with much frustration. OK, on some days, more easily. On some days, it’s like a tight muscle opening. So the best advice is that, ultimately, there’s no advice—you have to do your own work, day after day. Abandon all hope! Nobody can do it for you. And if you’re having one of those days when you think everything you’ve done sucks, you don’t deserve to live and you’re wasting your time at the pad or the keyboard…well, after you’ve screamed into the pillow, try not to have too much to drink and then, take a look at your stuff and try to see very, very specifically, exactly what it is that’s turning the blade in you. Try to see exactly what it is that you don’t like. Because that, exactly, can be fixed. With a generality, you’re screwed.
Ross Klavan’s work spans film, television, radio, print and live performance. His original screenplay for the filmTigerland was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, he recently finished an adaption of John Bowers’s “The Colony,” and he has written scripts for Miramax, Paramount and TNT, among others. The “conversation about writing” he moderated with Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer was televised and published as “Like Shaking Hands with God,” and his short stories have appeared in magazines and been produced by the BBC. An earlier novel, “Trax,” was published under a pseudonym. His play “How I Met My (Black) Wife (Again),” co-written with Ray Iannicelli, has been produced in New York City, and he has performed his work in numerous theaters and clubs. He has acted and done voice work in TV and radio commercials and has lent his voice to feature films including Casino,You Can Count On Me and Revolutionary Road and the new Amazon web series Alpha House, written by Gary Trudeau. He has worked as a newspaper and radio journalist in London and New York City. He lives in New York City with his wife, the painter, Mary Jones.
Todd McClimans’ Time Traitor
August 4, 2014
In collaboration with Wilkes Magazine’s Summer Reads Contest, in which participants comment on the featured book of the week in order to win a free copy, I interviewed Todd McClimans, author of Time Traitor, whose book is currently participating in the contest.
Todd’s book, the first in the American Epochs series, is a middle grade, sci-fi/history novel about the adventures of children who travel to significant events in American history, such as the American Revolution, and where they meet historic American icons like Benedict Arnold.
The book’s Amazon reviews are very telling, with comments like, “McClimans does a masterful job of character development with his young heroes Ty and Kristi as well as the story’s supporting cast of friends and foes,” and “The author doesn’t shy away from the brutality of slavery or ground combat, and he does a fine job of showing that history, even the most painful aspects of it, is more complex than any textbook could capture.”
Time Traitor is the first book in theAmerican Epochs series, a Middle-Grade historical/sci-fi series that is meant to take kids to important eras, or epochs, in American history and hopefully trick them into learning some important history while enjoying a story. I decided to incorporate science fiction and time travel instead of writing traditional historical fiction because, for one thing, I would LOVE to time travel myself and writing stories about time travel is the next best thing. But, equally as important, I want my readers to experience the events in history through the eyes of contemporary characters to which they can relate.
My main characters, Kristi (an African American girl from a rich family) and Ty (an orphaned boy from England) are real life kids with real life problems. Kristi is struggling with the divorce of her parents and lashes out in school as a way of getting attention. Ty is an introverted bookworm who deals with bullying and harassment and is unwanted by his step-father after the death of his mother.
The two discover that their eccentric history teacher, Dr. Xavier Arnold, is a direct descendant of General Benedict Arnold, a former patriot who sold out his friends and countrymen by switching to the British side during the Revolutionary War. Xavier Arnold, in an attempt to improve his tainted family name, invented a time machine to go back to the time of the war and assist Benedict in his plans for treachery and make him a hero again, but for the British this time. He drags Kristi and Ty back with him as pawns in his scheme and they have to traverse colonial America to stop Dr. Arnold and force him to return them to their own time.
How did the idea come to you?
I am currently an elementary school principal, but when I came up with the idea, I was a fifth grade teacher. I used novels about specific time periods in history to help the students gain a better understanding of the time periods and the cultures of the people in our social studies curriculum (Sign of the Beaver—frontier life and Native American relations, Rifles for Waite—western theater of the Civil War, etc.). But, beyond Johnny Tremain, I had trouble finding novels about the Revolutionary War for my students. So, I decided to write one of my own.
About how long did it take you to write it? What was your favorite/least favorite part of the process?
My first draft came to me quickly. It took me about six weeks to plan and outline the story. Once I had an outline, it only took me about two months to write my first draft. However, I am a compulsive reviser, so I spent the next eighteen months rewriting and revising before I started submitting. Revising is my favorite part of the whole writing process. In the classroom, I tried impressing upon my students that stories, or any other kind of writing for that matter, are never truly finished and can always be improved upon.
I love how you can simply change a few words or descriptions around to make a story funnier, scarier, happier—whatever-er.
My least favorite part is most definitely the submission process. Trying to boil your story, your baby, down to a few sentences in a query letter that probably won’t get past the cubicle of a college intern in a publishing office or agency is daunting and discouraging. I hate to use the cliché needle in a haystack, but that’s how it feels.
Have you started work on any of the other books in the American Epochs series? Can you tell me anything about those?
The second book, Time Underground, is currently with the editors at my publishers and is due to be released in November of this year. In Time Underground, Kristi finds out that her great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was a slave who escaped on the Underground Railroad and survived to sire her family. However, he had a younger brother who attempted to escape with him, but was caught and disappeared from history. Kristi and Ty go to 1858 to find Kristi’s uncle and help him get to the north and safety.
I’m about 25,000 words into the first draft of the third book in the series. My working title is Time to Heal—but I’m not in love with that title yet, so I expect it to change. The third installment is set during the Civil War where Ty works in the hospitals and experiences the horror of Civil War medicine before he’s dropped right on top of Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg and the Confederate assault.
What was it like trying to collaborate factual, historical events to turn them into a fictional, fantasy narrative?
It was very important that my narrative be as historically accurate as possible. As I stated above, I wanted my readers to learn about the historical events while they are reading, so I do a great deal of research before writing and while I’m drafting. I believe the term for it is active history. It’s not a rote recitation of historical events, but a recounting of events through the eyes of characters who do not see the outcomes as predetermined. It’s a fine line to tread, but that makes it all the more fun to write…and hopefully to read.
How do you work with suspended disbelief, making something so fantastical become a believable scenario?
I use some author’s license and try to write in a way that seems believable. My stories are technically science fiction because of the time travel, but they are not traditional sci-fi. I don’t go into extended explanations into the science behind my time machine or the theoretical possibilities of time travel. I think it works because my stories are written from the points-of-view of young characters who don’t really care how they were transported through time, just that they were transported and what they are going to do about it. I count on my readers to use their imaginations while they are reading, giving them an active role in the story instead of a passive one.
When writing a young adult novel, do you have to give your language any special consideration? Is it difficult not to condescend to your intended audience? What do you think is the real difference between YA literature and Adult literature?
My series is meant for a Middle Grade audience (ages 9-14), a step younger than YA. That being said, storytelling is storytelling so I don’t see a whole lot of differences in the language for different intended audiences. Kids are more intuitive than we give them credit for. They know when language and descriptions are condescending and they’ll drop a book much faster than an adult at the first sign of condescension. No middle grade reader would be caught dead reading a “kiddie book”.
I see the major task for any writer, whether he/she is writing MG, YA, or Adult books is the ability to get his/her readers to relate to the characters and the real life issues they face. A story comes alive when the reader can see him/herself in the main characters. Take an adult detective novel, for example. The antagonists often deal with social issues such as alcohol abuse, broken marriages, or kids who won’t talk to them. Adult readers can relate to those issues. YA readers deal with teen angst (do we still call it that???) in their real lives. Many antagonists in YA books deal with questions and decisions about overbearing parents, individuality and independence, an even sex, alcohol, and drug use because those problems/questions are real to YA readers. MG readers worry about their parents’ divorce, bullying, and mean teachers. I see these issues as more innocent, yet no less real to the characters and the readers.
Have your children read Time Traitor? What do they think?
My oldest son is eight and going into the third grade. He has the reading ability to comprehend Time Traitor, but he doesn’t have the background knowledge about the Revolutionary War to truly understand the importance of the events in the book. I’ll wait until he reaches that point in school to let him read it.
What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?
I’ll be cheesy and steal Nike’s motto. Just Do It. Everybody knows someone who wants to write a book someday. And all of those people have real, legitimate reasons for putting it off (jobs, family, time, etc.) But to be a writer, you have to actually sit down and write it. Then rewrite it and rewrite it. You have to understand that you’re going to write a lot of garbage along the way as you learn. But the more you read and the more you write, the better your writing will develop. I’m not aware of any savants who sat down and wrote the Great American Novel on their first shot. You get out what you put in.