On Sensationalism

I’ve had the privilege of working with junior and senior high kids at the annual Lighthouse Young Writers Summer Camp. The cool thing about teaching at summer camp is you get to teach, encourage kids with their writing, and never have to grade a thing. It’s really the way teaching should be. But I’ll save that rant for another time.

Between the creative writing class I teach at school and the classes I’ve taught at Lighthouse, I’ve noticed that young writers are sensationalists. Parents get killed. Alcoholism tortures every family. Shooting sprees are common endings and solutions to a character’s problems. On occasion, I find myself wishing for a therapist’s number on speed dial by the time I finish reading these stories.

Why is it that so many writers resort to blood bath?

Because young (and/or inexperienced) writers are afraid. I know because I’m guilty. When I go back and look my undergrad writing projects, I wrote to shock. I wrote to offend. I wrote violence because I didn’t know any other way to make my writing interesting. I was afraid of being boring.

(Gasp!)

Now I know that simple is best. Great tension and conflict can come out of a simple, common, mundane desire of a character. But young writers don’t have the confidence (or developed storytelling skills) to trust their idea. So they cop out and sensationalize.

As a teacher, how do you teach students to be sensational rather than sensationalists?

Truth be told, that is truly the million dollar question. I equate the blood bath story ending to the dream ending. The worst possible story conclusion is the “I woke up and it was all a dream.” What a joke. I think Mark Twain would say that writers who conclude their stories this way are rescuing their characters through miracle. However morbid, killing your character (or sending your character to murder or even suicide) is rescuing through a miracle of sorts. The character doesn’t have to live with consequences, and the writer doesn’t have to flex his/her writing muscle to figure out how to really resolve the conflict.

I have my students write two possible outcomes to their story: their central character either gets what he wants or he doesn’t. Write it both ways… and none of this “he wants to die!” crap either. Secondly, I have students figure out surprises along the way. The character may get what she wants, but it might not be all it’s cracked up to be.

One of the greatest reasons for reading that I’ve ever come across is that we read to experience life in ways we will never achieve in our actual lives. So if we are writing stories that have easy outs, then we don’t offer any challenges or hope to our readers.

I’m not advocating happy endings by any means, but what if the characters we write about have to actually deal with consequences? What if we as writers have to just sit there with our pencil in our ears and think about ways to write an engaging resolution?

Our students will complain about writing being too hard. And then we all get to enjoy the fruits of our labor.

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Renga Party!

Calling all poets and writers! Let’s have a renga party. Right now. For those who don’t know what a renga is, click here for a quick tutorial. Here’s a quick rundown (summary) so we can get this started:

  • Renga is linked verse, composed by a group
  • Each verse must stand alone and somehow relate to the verse that comes before it
  • Verses alternate in length between 3 lines and 2 lines
  • First verse is a haiku (and all subsequent verses are written in a similar style)
  • The opening verse mentions the season of composition (it’s winter here in Colorado, USA)
  • Over the course of the renga, every season should be mentioned (not necessarily in order)
  • Each verse should link to the verse in front of it, then shift to another image/idea

That’s enough for the first go around. Let’s go for 20 verses by using the comment stream.  Don’t worry if you don’t feel like an accomplished poet. Join in the fun. Let’s see what happens! See the comment section to read the first verse. Then, first come first serve!

Beetle Trees and Creativity

Scientists are predicting that by 2012, most lodgepole pines in the Colorado Rocky Mountains will killed by beetles. I saw this sad reality in Grand Lake this past week, as my family took a quick vacation. We rented a paddle boat and chugged out into the lake. A truly gorgeous morning to be out in the mountains. And on every side of the lake, I saw more beetle-dead tress than living trees. And it made me sad. I hunted up here once with my dad when I was in high school. I camped up here one summer as a kid. My wife and I honeymooned here. And it’s all dying. You can see in the picture that the hill in the distance is covered with dead or dying trees. Forest experts say that the only way to truly kill the beetles is to burn them. I doubt that the forest service will ignite entire regions of forest land in the Rocky Mountains. Sadly, scenic drives may result in a gray and brown rocky landscape, much like McCarthy’s The Road.

As I sat in my paddle boat in the middle of Grand Lake, my family bobbing happily along, I thought momentarily about cultivation. In Genesis, God commands man to take care of the land. Even now, the land still needs our help to be healthy. Nature is equally destructive towards itself as we are, something Emerson failed to acknowledge in his Transcendentalism utopia. Our earth has the ability to restore itself, and we see it as destruction. But forest are healthier when we remove the dead wood. Various animal herds are healthier when they aren’t over-populated. There’s something to be said for intentionally nurturing, cultivating, and caring for our home. The beetle tree problem is just another example of how our world needs us as much as we need it.

And the same goes for creativity. Our natural inclination is to move towards contentment, be okay with where we are. There’s a time for that, but if we, as artists or as people, ever buy into the lie that we have arrived, that we are the ultimate in our field, the moment the beetle begins to eat away at our creative spirit. The same applies if our audience becomes more important than our actual writing, or if success and the American Dream supersedes our art. I don’t say this to suggest that we should ignore our audience. Readers are part of the process, and alienating them doesn’t really help anything. Keeping an audience in mind is different than making the audience more important than the art.

What are some things that you do to stay fresh? To nurture your creativity? To refocus on the art instead status?

Social Networking and the Artist: Part 1

I’m one of the 5 million who have had the privilege to test Google’s new social network, Google+. I’ve been sharing about g+ quite a bit on Facebook, to the point where one friend asked if I worked for Google. Social networking is an interesting phenomenon, especially for the generation of digital natives (I really don’t like that term by the way, as it isn’t accurate. Kids are supposed to natively adapt to technology. I don’t by it…kids play with technology, but don’t automatically see how it can be used for work.) Social networking is especially important for writers. Writing is an isolating career–most of us write alone so that we can concentrate. I know that I write better when it’s quiet, when there are no interruptions, when I sink into my creative process and frolic with my imagination. With this isolation in mind, it’s important for writers to come up for air, to know and talk with other writers; social networking is a great way to do this. Today I’m going to highlight the usefulness (and annoyances) of Facebook  and Twitter. Part 2 will explore Google+.

The story of Facebook is well documented, so I won’t go into it here. What we have now in the network is connections with over 750 million people of all walks off life. We can connect with friends from high school and college, we can our favorite bands, magazines, businesses, the list goes on and on. If that wasn’t enough, you can play any kind of game to waste as much time as you want. As writers, we can easily network and connect with other writers and resources. The challenge behind Facebook is oversharing. If you are  with family, coworkers, writers, and old school buddies, when you post something about your kids pooping on the toilet for the first time, it could ruin your professional image. If your high school friends talk about all the times you got high together, it could damage some family relationships (regardless of whether or not it’s true). If you have an artist page independent of your profile (which I’m working on), you then have two comment streams to monitor, two places to post updates, etc. On top of it all, the interface is cluttered, busy, and distracting. I haven’t harnessed to full potential of Facebook as a writer, probably because I spend too much time playing Bejeweled Blitz.

Weary of all the extras, I opened a Twitter account and linked it to my blog. Within weeks, I had networked with 5 or 6 poets, 3 journals, and random other people who are interested in my writing. I use Twitter to  short poems, links to my blog articles, and links to other great writing resources. There are so many articles that never would have crossed my radar if I did not  other writers and publications on Twitter. I prefer Twitter over Facebook because there’s less clutter, no room to spare, and nobody is asking me for secret potions to make mutant lambs (yes, you know who you Farmville people are. And for the record, I have never played). It’s easy to keep Twitter strictly business, though I can’t help myself posting about sports from time to time. Congratulations to the National League for winning its second straight all-star game. Woot!

It’s easy to be on information overload, so it’s important to create lists to make it all manageable. My students have often told me that they think Twitter is stupid and boring (another reason why they are not digital natives), but it’s such a great tool for quick links and bits of information. More teachers should find a way to utilize Twitter in the classroom.

I’ve had a better time networking on Twitter than Facebook, and my Facebook profile will soon be converted to a writing page, making that strictly business as well. Which brings me to Google+, the newest hottest social network around. My next post will cover how Google+ can simultaneously serve personal and professional needs without crossing the boundary of over-share.

What about you? How has social networking impacted your writing? Your writing network? Are either problematic for your work flow?

Becoming an Authority (on overcoming doubt)

I just read this essay by Jeff Goins. His main advice is fake it until you make it, but don’t be a fraud. This is also the anthem of new teachers (or experienced teachers teaching a new prep), so I’m very familiar with it. After blogging about poetry, writing, faith, and teaching for almost 4 years, I’ve gained great confidence in sharing my views, showing what I’m learning about writing, and even sharing my poetry online. I’m less worried now about getting published by the big-name magazines, and more intent on getting the best possible work into the hands of my readers. (Side note: It’s not that I’m giving up on the publishing route, but I am trying to maximize my audience. That’s only possible if I maximize my avenues of getting my writing out there.)

Despite this confidence, I’m faced with my own FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt–to use a techy term) as I sit and write book reviews for a journal. There’s something about presenting information through your own channel in comparison to presenting it through another channel you don’t have control over. Now that my writing will be reaching an entirely new audience, I begin to doubt whether or not my voice is reputable and meaningful. I know it’s all hogwash, and I’ll get over it. But there’s always something to hurdle in this game of writing. My next race starts in 3…2…1…