Tag Archives: narrative non-fiction

Living the Writing Teacher’s Dream

One of the many advantages of teaching at a small college concerns the amount of one-on-one time we enjoy with our students. There is no amount of book study, assignments, online tutelage, lecturing or study groups that can equal the interaction between a caring teacher and a willing student.

With the creative writing program I’m helping to develop at Ananda College of Living Wisdom, we’ve ramped it up a step further  — individual courses for individual students.

It didn’t start out this way. The plan was to have group classroom study, followed by independent study sessions. However, when the roster came together for the 2011-12 school year, Dean of Academics Celia Alvarez realized that the students varied greatly in their writing experience, topical and genre interests, grade levels and approaches to learning. So she popped the question in an email the week before I returned to campus: “Can you create a separate course for each student?”

What a challenge — but what a joy. Two weeks into this rather maverick approach, I sit here buzzing over the spiritual and intellectual stimulation this has created. Not only does my versatility as a writing instructor receive the ultimate test, but it also brings into play all the books I’ve read, the different genres in which I’ve written, and the various skills I’ve learned to inspire, motivate and help students (both scholastic and professional writers) gather their thoughts, find the structure that suits them best, trust their instincts and voices, and lay one word out in front of another. For instance, in this term alone, assigned books include all-time favorites like Annie Dillard’s masterful Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Portable Beat Reader anthology, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road,  Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild, Coleman Barks’ The Illustrated Rumi, and new favorites like Susan Casey’s The Wave and Barbara Kingsolver’s Small Wonder, poignant essays she wrote right after 9/11.

The courses this fall are certainly varied. One is a study of the fabled Beat writers — all of whom had distinctly different styles, voices and works. We’re studying them as writers, not as readers — a far different approach that requires tapping into the Beat writers’ motivations, structures and voices as well as their words. Another is a freshman course that combines creative writing with instruction on developing and composing academic research papers. So that’s two courses in one.

Thanks to another student’s wishes, my poetic senses are being filled by teaching a poetry writing class with an emphasis on spiritually infused poets like Gibran, Hafiz, Rumi, Snyder, Yogananda, Khayyam, Sun-Tzu, Li-Po, Basho, Waldman and Tagore, along with Mary Oliver, David Whyte, Denise Levertov and a few other modern-day bards. The beauty of that course is that I finally get to utilize the book-length website I wrote in 2008,  Poetry Through the Ages, as a teaching tool (thousands of teachers and students throughout the country have sourced the website for its content and plethora of teaching suggestions, assignments and projects).

Enough already? Not so. My fourth writing course, an essay and narrative non-fiction class, involves the interweaving of personal story and experience into informational pieces (those who have worked with me at writers’ conferences and workshops know this course by different titles). And finally, I’ve brought a web content writing component into the social media class that I teach, with an emphasis on something every writer who builds a website should know up front: web and social media content writing is not a creative writing exercise. It is all about marketing and knowing what to write, how to use keywords, how to write posts and messages, and where to place them.

Put it all together, and it’s resulted in two weeks of gathering materials, writing syllabi, meeting with students, and already sharing some magical moments that can only be experienced with one-on-one learning. For example, my freshman student and I talked all about the way an ocean wave looks from the inside — when you’re being covered up in a tube ride while surfing, bodyboarding or bodysurfing.  Then he went off, wrote for 90 minutes about it and painted a beautiful wave (he’s also an artist). The next day, I sat with a senior — the young man who burns to write as much as Jack Kerouac did — and read him perhaps the longest sentence in modern literature, Kerouac’s 1,200-word riff in The Subterraneans that has the staccato pace and rip-roaring rhythm of a Charlie Parker be-bop jazz solo. The point? To demonstrate what stream-of-consciousness writing sounds like, which gives the budding writer of what it feels like to write so freely and openly.

How does it feel to be part of this very far-forward exercise (which, truth be told, has a lot of the simple charm of the one-room schoolhouse setting to it)? I feel like the most fortunate and privileged person on earth. I feel like the hundreds of workshops and classes I’ve given online, at retreats, conferences, workshops and libraries all feed this opportunity to help change and inform lives. I also feel like the 45 years since I started writing stories, and all the writing assignments, books, poems, essays, articles I’ve written and books I’ve read and edited come into play, right here, right now. It is the best mindset for teaching that I can think of: fully present, required to be fully present, with every skill or bit of knowledge that preceded this moment ready and available to be used as needed.

There’s so much more. Because of the uniqueness of what we’re doing with the creative writing program at Ananda College, I’ve decided to keep a journal log of the classes, what we discuss, reading materials, feelings, assignments and experiences, and post the highlights on my Scribd.com account every week. That will also include highlights of the students’ writing. It’s just something I want to throw out there as one person’s contribution to a greater educational process.

Bell’s ringing. Time to get back to class.

 

 

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Voice Lessons: A Different Approach to Reading (and Writing)

While discussing how a writer develops his voice the other night with one of my Ananda College of Living Wisdom creative writing students (quick answer: through A LOT of solitary hours of writing, experimenting with words and reading), I hit upon what I believe is the most understated factor: Our speaking voices. Or, to be more exact, the types of phrases, terminologies, colloquialisms, dialects, accents, and other aspects of language we hear and assimilate during our lifetimes.

Think about it: By the time we’re 30 years or older, nearly all of us have lived in more than one place — and more than one part of this or another country. We’ve gone to school, been exposed to a variety of dialects and accents, picked up sayings in our travels, perhaps worked with people from other countries for a period of time. In addition, some of us have lived in foreign countries.

In writing classes, workshops and in writer interviews, we talk often about how this type of exposure results in true on-the-ground life experience necessary to write most authentically. However, how many writers and readers stop to think of the many spoken-word influences, along with studies of other writers’ works and our own tireless practice, that we assimilate and later manifest in our actual writing voices?

Readers will see the answer to this question most often in narrative non-fiction, memoir and essay collections. Why? Because these are the most personal and direct-to-soul forms of writing. They live and breathe a writer’s direct experience with self, setting and circumstance or situation. Thus, the language that pours from the pen will be the closest thing to what I would call the author’s soul or heart language — their truly native language. A person’s soul or heart language is like a snowflake or a DNA strand — no two are exactly alike.

By reading these works with a watchful eye for nuances of language, we can not only appreciate the writer’s voice, but also the combination of life and people experiences from which he or she put it together. What a great way to better know the subject, the writer and the context of the story! I am forever fascinated when I read true first-person stories, and see how the writers’ experience wove into the articulation of his/her voice on paper. Talk about deeply authentic writing!

Here’s a self-example of how it works. As my friends know, I’m a walking, talking amalgamation of many different ways of speaking. (We all are; I’ve just identified them for teaching purposes). So when I write narrative non-fiction, you will see, if you look close enough, terminologies, imagery, and figures of speech consistent with: surfing and bodysurfing; yoga; sports (particularly running); slang and colloquialisms native to Great Britain, Australia, Hawaii, Italy, as well as Southern California, New York City and the South (and I know about 20 different regional dialects within the South); pieces of German, Italian and Spanish; and words consistent with writing, filmmaking, astronomy and astronauts, academia, a deeply seated love of ecology and the wild, business and Internet-based communication. That’s not everything, but there it is: the linguistic cross-section of my personal and professional life for the first 51 years.

Some linguists say it takes anywhere from 500,000 to 1 million words, from kindergarten through the “A-ha!” moment, for a serious writer to find his or her voice and move beyond mechanical techniques to seamlessly flow words and stories on the page. I’d like to add a caveat to that: 500,000 to 1 million words and the ability to convert assimilated dialects, vernacular, accents and figures of speech into narrative prose. As a writer, we know we’ve arrived when the right words happen in the right moments, and we’ve accessed our entire life experiences to get there.

As a reader, this makes for the kind of literary deep diving that is more fun than you can imagine. Try it the next time you pick up a memoir, narrative non-fiction or essay. See what you can learn about the author’s past — and then look them up. It’s an incredible way to get to the good stuff, the humus at the base of the forest that makes the tree grow.

Which reminds me: the next time I conduct an author interview, or have one conducted with me, we’re getting into this subject. I want to know where all the rich language in an author’s repertoire originates.

The answers are likely to lead to some fascinating stories of their own.

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30 Books (Plus One) Every Writer Should Own

Since the holiday season is upon us, thought I’d create a “gift list” to use when shopping for your writer friends – or yourselves.

This list is very simple: 30 Books (Plus One) Every Writer Should Own. I realize this is subjective, but it encompasses the type of material we need when working on our books, articles, essays or other projects. This list is also designed to spark new ideas, or to further exploration of ideas you already have.

In the list, you will find several self-help writing books, collections of conversations with authors, memoirs, technical books, books addressing other creative genres (music and art, specifically), and works written by some of the greatest authors.

While I would love to include my own writing books in this list – Writes of Life and The Write Time … that’s not for me to judge. One day, someone might create a list that includes them.

In no particular order, here is the list, with personal impressions from my experience as an author, poet, journalist, editor and writing teacher. You can order them through Amazon.com or your local bookstore. Take this list with you during Black Friday or Online Monday (or whatever they call it). Also, let me know what you would add to this list – I’ll run your suggestions and any comments in a future blog.

1 & 2. On Becoming a Novelist and On Writers and Writing, by John Gardner. We start with a bang – a two-for-one. No novelist has ever conveyed the craft and writing life better; then again, he was perhaps the nation’s most refined fiction writer and teacher of fiction at the time of his death in 1982.

3. Writers Dreaming, by Naomi Epel. Conversations with noted authors on their dreams, plots or ideas that came from dreams, and how they work with their dreams. A vital read if you, like me, believe the 6 to 8 non-waking hours of the day contribute mightily to the writing process.

4 & 5. Storycatcher: The Power of Story to Change Our Lives, by Christina Baldwin. Reading and working the prompts in this book is like drinking nectar, further flavored by your own words when they spin together perfectly. In other words, this book does magical things to one’s ability to journal, write an essay or story, and heal. Life’s Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest is another Baldwin title worth owning.

6. The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. After nearly a century, this book remains a staple of working writers and teachers. Its greatest value might be in emphasizing the need to write tight – crisp, concise, to the point.

7 & 8. Punctuation for Writers, by Harvey Stanbrough. This book deserves a spot on every writer’s desktop alongside The Elements of Style. It presents punctuation as a timely, valuable asset to every written sentence, rather than the necessary evil we first met in grammar school. Whenever I write a book, this gem sits on my desktop. An alternate Stanbrough pick: Writing Realistic Dialogue & Flash Fiction.

9. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard. In my opinion, one of the best memoirs ever written. I’ve read it 10 times, and counting. This masterpiece brings together nature, voice, observation, listening, creating, inner feelings, outer environment, hubris and hope … and every word sparkles with brilliance. What else is there? If you want more Dillard, go with Three By Annie Dillard – a collection that also includes An American Childhood, and The Writing Life.

10. A Natural History of the Senses, by Diane Ackerman. This is a tremendous book on how the physical senses play out in the natural world, and how we can attune better to our own senses … a critical aspect of deep writing. Some of the stories of how animals use their senses are breathtaking – and reminders of how much more sense-itive we can (and should) become as writers.

11. Color: A Natural History of the Palette, by Victoria Finlay. This book contains a history of primary colors, how they were mixed for artists since prehistoric times, and the fascinating stories behind the substances and creators of these colors. A great book of observation, journalism and craftsmanship. Good writers always form close alliances with color and tone; here’s a wonderful map into that journey.

12. Library: An Unquiet History, by Matthew Battles. I believe every writer should know basic library science and library history – and this book provides a wonderfully off-beat account of both. From Sumeria to your local library, the adventures of the printed word and its storage – and the wars fought over books – could not be better told.

13. The Browser’s Book of Beginnings, by Charles Panati. As writers, we should know the origins of every subject about which we write – and the etymology of the historical words we use. The incredible material can either be used in your works – or prompt little “archaeological” digs of your own. An alternate selection: The Book of Lists, by David Wallechinsky.

14. Writer’s Market, by Writer’s Digest Books. Between the great articles on marketing, editing and craft, and the thousands of publishing listings, how can any working writer not operate with this book close at hand?

15. 1001 Ways to Market Your Books, by John Kremer. John has been teaching marketing workshops to writers for a long time, and this book has become a staple for working writers nationwide. In this era of online communities and direct author involvement in promotion and marketing, its importance has never been greater. Writing today means doing good business; you will find a number of strong marketing strategies for your book in here.

16 & 17. Dimensions of a Life, ed. Jon Halpern. Written to honor great poet-essayist Gary Snyder on his 60th birthday, this collection of essays, stories and poems by more than 70 contributors focuses on aspects of Snyder’s life, work, personality, cultural influences, and more. It’s like taking 70 gemologists, peeling a diamond open, and seeing how that diamond comes together, one side at a time. Alternate selection for fans of Beat poetry and literature: Lighting the Corners, featuring the works and conversations of Michael McClure.

18. The Language of Life, by Bill Moyers. The subject of a 1995 PBS special, this book features conversations with 25 great current poets. In it, you will see how writers and poets develop voice, and read priceless insights on observation, imagery and craft.

19. Henry Miller on Writing, by Henry Miller. This book changed my writing life; I learned to really finish my book manuscripts after reading it. One of the 20th century’s most prolific writers and artists shares his take on the art and craft of writing – and the insights and tips fall from every page like fruit trees perpetually in season.

20. The Crossing Point, by Mary Caroline Richards. Every writer, teacher, artist, artisan, poet and those concerned with the creative process would do well to own this book of essays, talks, poems and musings by one of the 20th century’s greatest purveyors of personal creativity (and part of the famed Black Mountain literary movement). My copy is hopelessly ripped, underlined and dog-eared from extensive use; I can feel my creative electrons jumping each time I open this book.

21. How To Think Like Leonardo DaVinci, by Michael Gelb. Here it is, in a single hardback book: the visual imprint of the creative mind and creative process. Its exploration of the ultimate Renaissance man brings out the creator in all of us. This book is filled with page after page of creative inspiration; I can’t last more than four pages at a time without putting it down and writing to exhaustion.

22. A Writer’s Diary, by Virginia Woolf. The beauty of this diary is that we truly see the inner triumphs and struggles of a great literary figure – but also how every minute of every day was spent writing or gathering the seeds for future works. A great look at the inner world of the perpetually working writer.

23. The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight, by Marc Weingarten. The story of the New Journalists – the writers to whom every current journalist, memoirist and narrative non-fiction author owes a debt of gratitude. Beginning with Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, these were the pioneers of incorporating fiction-writing and deep inner personal feelings into non-fiction work.

24. The Language Instinct: How Mind Creates Language, by Stephen Pinker. During our growth as writers, we realize more and more how vital it is to understand the nuances of language, its im-pressions as well as ex-pressions. This book, written by a renowned linguist, shows the way. Read it, and you will find yourself listening to every person’s spoken word more closely – and capturing it more completely in your next piece of writing.

25. Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. A modern classic for writers seeking the deeper, inner places from which to write, and the relationships of their feelings and perceptions to the outside world. The vignettes and essays in this book are tight, concise – and built to prompt you to write.

26. Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music, by Glenn Kurtz. Music and writing are so closely linked, structurally and creatively, that it behooves every writer listen to music deeply, if not play or study it. But this stellar memoir is about more than music: it is about the art and hard work of practice, and how practice creates ultimate attunement with one’s instrument. In the case of writers, that means written vocabulary and voice.

27. Bird By Bird, by Anne Lamott. Anne’s deeply felt, highly observant look at the little things in life – a prime topic of both her fiction and non-fiction books – informs this collections of essays/prompts. In it, she shows how she invents verbs to suit the action of the moment – reminding us that we, too, can invent words.

28. Cultural Literacy, by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. While this book is somewhat limited, in that it spells out “only” 5,000 cultural facts or subjects people should know about, I consider it vital reading to every writer who wants to make an imprint on society – and in particular, younger readers. Due to breakdowns in education, funding and the like, writers are in a particularly crucial position of helping to educate and advance our culture. We can develop a strong base with this book.

29. On Writing, by Stephen King. The man who re-invented the horror genre – in both books and films – wrote this heartfelt, deeply informed book to the writer who fights, struggles, bleeds, perseveres and stops at nothing to write … then comes back for more. In other words, a book for all of us.

30. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee. The author put 40 years of screenwriting experience into this book, which rises far beyond the world of the screenplay into something much more universal – the art and craft of writing a compelling story by visualizing a moment and then drawing it out. This book works for all writers. Alternate selection: The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, by John Truby.

The Bonus Book: On Being a Writer, by Theodore Strickland. This Writer’s Digest Book Club selection is now 20 years old, but just as much of a treasure as the day it was published. It features wide-open conversations with a number of best-selling authors; between them, they canvass and discuss every nook and cranny of the writing process.

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