Content Tagged ‘Jill Christman’

Writing loss: God’s in the details

October 5, 2016 | 8 Comments

Teaching memoir, ver. 3.0

March 11, 2015 | 14 Comments

I blogged last year about teaching memoir by emphasizing the essentials of persona, scene, and structure. Except now I list and teach scene first because students get the macro aspects of voice faster—essentially persona, the writer now, talking to us about the past—but many need help understanding how and why to dramatize, to make scenes. So SPS: scene, persona, structure. From the start, this gives us a shared vocabulary. To understand scene, you must understand summary—and often students who have written vivid summary think they’ve written scene.

That’s the thing about teaching writing: you must teach so much at once. You hope that by providing good models, students will emulate more than the stated focus. And they do. Nothing teaches the teacher, however, like teaching. Last year, my college juniors and seniors in “Writing Life Stories: The Power of Narrative” said they wished that I’d emphasized structures earlier. So this time I have.

Structure, the shaped mode of presentation, excites students. They see how it can help them crack open their material. They grasp that it can cut plodding “and then” or unnecessary backstory. Halfway through the semester, already I’ve shown them: braiding; framing ; collage; and Hermit Crabs. Next we’ll look at segmentation.

Emphasizing essay structures has caused me to realize that I can organize my entire class by examining different writing structures.

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Content + Craft = Art

March 13, 2014 | 13 Comments

This is the second Spring I’ve taught “Writing Life Stories,” which is creative nonfiction for non-majors, college juniors and seniors. As always, this class underscores for me writing’s good news/bad news situation: writing talent is common. Among about 20 students, one is a writing major, and several others are avowed artists—of ceramics, music, theatre—but the largest single cohort this year is nursing students, who are doing impressive work. The most advanced writers, as always, are readers and journal-keepers, or who were in childhood, whether they’ve ever taken a creative writing class or not.

The first night I drew on the chalkboard a huge circle with an arrow from it to an equation: C + C = A. The circle is the vast self (which to me includes the collective unconscious of our species, though I don’t go into all that). The first C is in a rectangle and represents what the self is given to work with, which is content—the self’s encounter with the world. Both the circle and the first C are black-box mysteries, as far as teaching is concerned.

The second C is craft, and the line that flows onward from it goes to A: art.

“Craft is what releases art,” I told the kids that first night. “And art announces itself in form.”

While talent is common, the higher levels of craft are not, so craft is our appropriate focus. If I’m wrong, at least I’m clear. And let’s face it, clarity is rare in this world too. Looking back, I’ve made mistakes in teaching—just as I’ve lamented some of my shoot-from-the-hip posts here—but an instructor’s passion counts for a lot, as in blogging, even if he later views his ideas as half-baked or his execution as inept.

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Teaching memoir’s essentials

February 28, 2014 | 22 Comments

For my second year, I’m teaching “Writing Life Stories: The Power of Narrative” to a class of college juniors and seniors. There are 19 students this year, only one a writing major, though several other declared artists—of music, theatre, ceramics, film—among the future nurses, veterinarians, and teachers. In short, this is creative writing for non-majors. For the seniors, it’s their final semester. Their last chance to take a “fun” elective. Perchance to reflect, to second guess, to move forward. Seeing college careers end with my class is always so poignant. When the glory of late spring comes at last, there they’ll go, flying into their futures like so many valiant storm-tossed sparrows.

I loved last year’s class, but feel I’m doing a better job this time. I’ve codified everything learned last time—and from many other journalism, memoir, and cnf classes I’ve taught or taken over the years—into a focus on three essential elements of personal narrative nonfiction. In practice, I know, you have to teach much more than that at once. I harp on sentence diversity and rhythms from the start, for instance. Writers must learn to do so much at once, which is what makes writing challenging. Some talents do burn bright and quick, but I think of writing as a comparatively late-blooming art. Though I may change my tune by the end, for now I love the focus provided by telling the kids from the first day that our three big tools for reading and writing memoir are persona, scene, and structure.

Lee Martin, through his craft essays and memoirs, has taught me more than anyone about the use of persona. Point of view, voice, and tone all arise from or are inseparable from persona. I’ve become increasingly sensitive to the richness for readers in the fact that at least two distinctive and different voices from the same writer can tell the story in memoir: you “then,” mired in the action, and you “now,” the wiser person telling the tale. Surely this reflective narrator is embedded in our DNA.

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My top 10 essays of all time

September 14, 2013 | 11 Comments

Not that you asked. Yet who can resist such lists? Not me. Even if they are ridiculous. There are so many great essays, how can any reader limit himself to ten? Imagine doing that with short stories. But recently I got sucked into reading a list of others’ favorites, and so I made my own. Even as I wrote it, I began to disagree with it.

My top essays are listed in more or less chronological order—but also somewhat in rank order, only because an essay like “Never Thirteen,” a source for me of such delight and admiration, is so recent that no one else, to my knowledge, has ratified its greatness. So I am ahead of the curve—or just quirky. And seeing someone expose his peculiar taste is a good reason to read his list.

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Time to kill your manuscript?

September 3, 2013 | 15 Comments

There’s a paradox in book-writing. While it’s a true feat just to finish the draft of a book, few rookies and no civilians have a clue how hard it is to make that draft publishable. Yet even when the manuscript is ready, some of the would-be author’s advisors, usually fellow writers—not to mention those he’s pitching, the editors, agents, publishers—will still hate it. Or just be uninterested because it doesn’t do what they need or what they would’ve done. Once technique is under control, which of course is another matter of opinion, loving or hating a book comes down to taste or to preference or to market. Sometimes to character, on both sides of the equation: the writer’s and the reader’s.

And once in a while, because there are so very many ways to go wrong, the writer himself decides to put his manuscript out of its misery, to file it in the darkness under his bed. I’ve heard it said you’re not a true writer until you do that. Give up. Admit defeat. Start something else.

That’s what Dinty W. Moore did with a book he worked on for five years, according to his fascinating essay in a new book, Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, edited by Joy Castro (University of Nebraska Press, 224 pp.). I’ve heard Moore refer to this lost project, or read his references to it, and have always planned to ask him some day what happened. What was the problem he couldn’t solve? He wasn’t a rookie, having published a book of short stories and two nonfiction books, including his very successful The Accidental Buddhist.

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About writers’ conferences

June 24, 2012 | 18 Comments

When I was farming, at first it surprised me how much farmers love conferences—just like everybody else. Isolated most of the time, farmers liked to get together, have a learning vacation, stay in a motel with a pool for the kids. I already knew they’d adopted the digital world, its message boards and email lists. Just like writers, whose own conferences bear a striking similarity—though lacking booths devoted to kelp meal and artificial insemination. The mother of all writing conferences, …

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