Books are a forest and it’s hard to see the trees, except the tall ones or the old ones. But when you enter the forest, it’s the new growth that emits the sunlight....

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Creative writing education?

People are wondering why.  Usually they are people who, without writing courses, wrote a book.

In the fall of 1979, I tried a graduate course in library science.  In the fall of 1980, I was in a writing program at the University of Minnesota.  There weren’t many writing programs then and mine was actually an M.A. in English, Emphasis in Writing.  Not necessarily creative writing.  Library science was going to be a field of information technology, not necessarily about books.

Yes there was once education in Minnesota
One day as I wondered if I could really like the computer future of the library, a friend of mine told me about the new writing program.  I thought that fantastic!  I sent a pile of poems and got in, one of 15 students.  In Minnesota, I had resident fees for courses and a fellowship.  I would never have taken out huge loans for creative writing.  I’d always believed writers were chosen.  In grade school, I tried to write a novel about a girl in a flood, inspired by pictures I’d seen of a flood in the region, but I realized how hard the work of a novel was and gave up.  I guess I didn’t believe that writing courses could make a novelist succeed.  

What I wouldn’t have done then was to go for a graduate degree in journalism.  I’d left a newspaper job and was frankly leery about the popularity of journalism and also the sensationalism that was happening because of journalistic competition.  If I had gone to a larger newspaper, my articles would become more compact and features would have been a fight.  At a suburban newspaper, I got to do features and reviews, photo pages, and even a cooking contest.  But I wasn’t making much over minimum wage.  I dreamed of a teaching salary and a three-month summer vacation. 

Thirty years later, when I found internet sites like, I knew I wouldn’t want to pay for a fiction writing course if I was 25.  I didn’t want to say that at the Authonomy forum because I was afraid the sites might consider charging membership fees.

But they advertise workshops that offer the benefit I paid for at the University of Minnesota and at literary organizations, The Loft and the Split Rock Arts program.  My writing instructors were published by major publishing houses; two worked as editors.  Unless a student had some work to present, the courses might only be for observation and discussion.  The first day of an advanced creative writing class, one student simply pulled out a short story from her folders.  I hadn’t brought my recent writing but I saw how she had done the right thing.  The classes were like today’s internet sites, students bringing in written work and obtaining feedback.  That was crucial to me when it came to fiction.  I needed to know how other people responded to my work, whether it was worth pursuing, and which project.

There’s the idea that writing courses are “how-to.”  I never encountered that. 

Literary.  That’s another term that affronts people.  The answer, to me, is again that writers are chosen.  Literary encourages people to write about their own experiences and to develop style.  A person might be a strong stylist and a competent storyteller but if their material doesn’t excite people or obtain a common identification, then they are literary. 

Yet I prefer mysteries, women’s stories, and children’s novels that have literary value.  Great novels have it all:  literary, mystery, thriller, romance, historical.  However a writer starts, as genre, literary, or with a large intent, they’ll do better if they enhance anything that gives a feeling of emptiness.

Creative writing degrees have become like the journalism education of my schooldays.  Hands-on training really did produce great journalism in the U.S.  I notice that in collecting old magazines.  But I remember when a guy with an M.A. in journalism was hired into our newspaper office.  He was less impetuous than the other reporters and at the time, a relief to have at the next desk.

Still, I think the internet programs were what I wanted so far as creative writing was concerned.  They just didn’t exist then.  The only drawback is that you can’t sit in a room with the people who critique or give feedback.  It’s nice to see your readers.  But it’s hard to find knowledgeable readers of your genre or type of writing in any given region.    

The big difference between the classes and the internet seems to be that in classes, students talk to each other while on the internet, writers write to each other. 

Possibly, it’s better to get on Professor Geezer’s Geezermobile if you want to write The Wizard of Oz.


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Fantasy Reviews: Sarah Renee and Catherine Condie

Fantasy thinking is an art.  It can happen anytime.  I used to fantasize about wonderful things happening, successes and of course romantic outcomes, only to be disappointed.  Last weekend, while enjoying yet another day of a summer so idyllic that it didn’t even include a storm with power outages, I was being attacked by the worst mosquitoes recorded.

I was wearing shorts and waiting for a garage sale to open when I noticed gnat-like insects near my feet.  I’d not needed mosquito repellent all these years in Duluth so I donned my shorts and waited 20 minutes for a book collector’s estate sale to open the next day.  People were talking about the “new crop” mosquitoes.   The surprising high value book I found was a children’s book, Boy of the Pyramids.  A pharaoh’s curse?

In the next 48 hours, my legs were covered with bites that made my legs look like a leper’s.  Mosquito repellent and calamine lotion were all sold out at the drugstore.  My mind raced.  What kind of mosquitoes were these?  What if they carried disease?  The whole world would change if these awful mosquitoes became the assailants of the human race.  Four days later, I began to think the world we know would end with a bite, not a bang.

Fantasy has rules, I read in grad school.  In children’s fantasy, the fantasy world is an author’s creation with rules of its own.  I suppose that’s because children are always entering a new world, one with rules that are strange to them.  My fantasy realm in The House in Windward Leaves centers on children becoming the identity of their Halloween costumes.  When the fantasy realm convinces, a reader wants to explore that new world as I did, reading Sarah Renee and Catherine Condie.

In Sarah Renee’s fantasy The Tiger Princess, the title tells the rules.  Losing her security, the protagonist becomes more tiger than princess.  Princess Sederia belongs to a world where she lives in many ways like a girl though she has paws and the intent curiosity that opens up the secrets of her parents’ death in a fire. At first, she lopes in and out of the palace, giving excuses to her aunt and uncle, the royals now, while she investigates.  It’s as if her tail begins to curl as she slips behind doors to find keys and her mother’s diary.

I relished the Princess Sederia becoming more tigerish as she roams the forest and eventually fights Dastarius, the lion whose counsel has betrayed her. 

This is more than an accomplishment that Sarah Renee has written in her teenage years. She has entertained and created entrancing characters for young readers. Sarah Renee is an author to watch!

This fantasy caught my reader’s eye at with its potters wheel and the physics of time-travel contrasting with the wheelchair that slows down its protagonist.  The wheel became the fantasy rule here, a symbol for the similar plights of children who are separated by more than five decades.

Whirl of the Wheel has a mystical shape, taking its reader in cycles of time-travel that hold together like a vase on a potter's wheel. I was enamored with the characters, Connie's leaving her wheelchair during 1940s air raids and her brother's leaping the gap of decades.  It is cleverly wrought while portraying the displacement of children during World War II.

Catherine Condie's colorful prose almost camouflages the fantasy and the Wendlewitch while drawing the reader into the character challenges. When Malcolm, the son of a developer who is displacing Connie's family, shows up in the time travel, the plot takes an irresistible swing. It's a very satisfying read as the treatment of the characters is rounded, spirited, and retains its mystical quality throughout. The construction feels seamless at times while being hospitable to young readers.

Although The Switch isn’t fantasy, I’ve added my review here because I read it while writing this post.  It’s a fantastic book, not fantasy as I said, but the kind of book that is one person’s fantasy, another’s person’s reality novel.  This brings up the point that fantasy is going on with real life.  A reader would probably assume that Lily, the protagonist in The Switch, may have fantasized about living in France as an exchange student.  But as often happens in real life, whatever she expected or fantasized was entirely different from what happened.  Fantasy about the real world is often interrupted by bothersome facts.  Lily wouldn’t have dreamed that her experience in France would be so frightening.

From the first, The Switch has exciting momentum.  The infrequent switches to the French language are explained well in dialogue while the setting and characters emit the flavor of France.

That's in fast flow because Lily is caught up in a drug bust that involves the brother of her exchange friend.  Lily's tourist camera catches some of the events, and while she suspects the boy's step-father, a policeman. But an ex-policeman is implicated and he follows Lily to the Eiffel Tower after a second confrontation.

Later, Lily's mother says that she thought a policeman's family might be a safe one for her exchange. Though adults in this book calm Lily, her witnessing of the boys' injuries keep this book at breakneck pace.  As Lily grasps each development, the Parisian scenes and her emotions are told in poignant detail.

The Switch is a stunning book. I'd expect that teens would be even more compelled to read it!