The Art of Writing

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Before I was a full-time instructor, over twenty years ago, I presented at my first national conference–the National Conference of Teachers of English. It was in Denver that year, and I paid for the conference myself because I craved professional development, even though I was a lowly adjunct, only teaching three or four large college classes each semester.

In a round table session, I  presented  an exercise that I had created for my developmental English courses called “The Art of Writing.” The students took a reproduction of a famous piece of art (I had many pictures for them to choose from) and told them to brainstorm about what they saw, using a handout I gave them.

One side of the paper was marked “Concrete,” where they wrote what they saw in the picture or what they could imagine that they could experience with their other senses. On the other side of the paper, I wrote “Abstract,” where students wrote words and phrases that represented how the painting made them feel or what memories, or thoughts in general, the painting helped bring to the surface.

After they brainstormed, the would develop some sort of prose writing based on the art and their brainstorming, combining the concrete with the abstract. I used as an example a short piece I wrote that was based on the iconic painting American Gothic by Grant Wood. Here is the painting and the creative piece I wrote based on it:

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American Gothic

I remember marrying him.  We stood together in the country church, farmer’s son and farmer’s daughter, too poor for ought else–too much a part of the land anyway.  My family sitting on those hand-hewn, hard-backed pews, witnessing.

That night I didn’t utter a word or a cry.  Closing my eyes, I imagined I was lying in the distant fields of my home, daises tickling my face and hands and feet.

I worked hard, learning not to expect any praise for the clean floors or hearty food. My greatest joy, to get all of the chores finished in time to head for the fields, to hold the soil of our land in my hand, to feel its moisture and smell its mustiness.

He did praise me once.  After three daughters, who were mine to raise, to teach, to find husbands for, I bore him a son.  I sweat and strained and screamed no less, but somehow it was different, and he thanked me.  Then, my son was gone, no longer mine.  So soon he learned not to cry.  So soon he became a man.

Now, in that same country church, as my youngest daughter gives herself to a farmer too poor to leave and too much a part of the land anyway, I sit in a hand-hewn, hard-backed pew, witnessing.

**

I quite like this little character study, which went on to be published by the way, but more importantly, the piece inspired my developmental students for over a decade. Some of my students’ writing was published in our yearly literary magazine–one even winning a cash prize as  the top fiction piece in that year’s journal.

Another student picked a famous photograph of an American flag on a front porch and wrote an amazing creative non-fiction piece about the meaning of liberty. That student was attending our school under the GI Bill, having served during Operation Desert Storm. I’m telling you, he had a heck of a lot to say about liberty that the younger people in the class needed to hear.

Were they inspired to write or did the assignment just help them feel free to use their creativity? Did the painting give them something to write about, a story already there that they just fleshed out? It was more than likely a combination of things, but whatever it was, many of my students, developmental students, did their best writing when writing about art.

In recent years, the state where I teach has discouraged creative writing or the study of literature  in writing classes, especially in developmental classes. The trend is towards more “practical” writing, utilitarian, without flair or heart or life. Surprise! I am bucking that trend. I don’t use my art assignment any more, but my students engage with and write about music, film, theater, literature and art, and their writing is better for it. They are better for it.

In 1938 Winston Churchill, said, “The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sus­tain and encour­age them….Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the rev­er­ence and delight which are their due.”

Maybe the State, as well as college administrators and curriculum developers, should listen to him.

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If you are, or were, an English composition teacher, do you have a writing prompt that you have used in class and would like to share like I did at the conference? If so, I would love if you would submit it to my literary magazine Teach. Write. 

In the magazine, I have a feature called “Write Your Own” where you do like I did and write your own creative piece using a prompt that you have once given your students. Accompany your piece with a brief explanation of the prompt or the purpose for the assignment.

I am also accepting general submissions of poetry, flash, short stories, and essays through March 1 for the spring edition. Click for complete submission guidelines. I look forward to reading your work!

Happy New Year!!!

And Merry New Semester!

 

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From Prompt to Publication

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My first stab at producing and editing a literary journal–Teach. Write. -is taking shape.

I have accepted quite a few wonderful submissions, but I am hoping to get some more before the August 1 deadline. If you are, or ever have been, a teacher of writing in any capacity, then I would love to see your work–prose or poetry–doesn’t have to be about writing, just writing by a teacher or former teacher. See the submission guidelines for more information.

I was inspired to start Teach. Write. because I have witnessed how writing for publication has enriched my teaching. I am more attune to the power of the revision process, more gentle with my criticism and more accurate, too. Because I am a working writer, I work better with writers who are just learning the process–it keeps me closer to them.

One feature included in Teach. Write. will be called “Write Your Own.” In this feature I would like to highlight writing prompts that  teachers have used successfully in class. To do that, I would like the teacher to not only include and explain the prompt, but also to write something based on their own prompt and submit that piece along with the prompt and explanation.

Here is an example of an explanation, prompt and flash piece that I created for my online British Literature I class:

I’m always trying to find ways to engage online students more effectively. It isn’t always so easy to do. A couple of years ago, however, I came up with a prompt for a discussion forum on Beowulf that has proved to be most successful. I wrote my own response to the prompt when I first posted as an example for my students and liked it so much that I tweaked it a little and sent it out into the cold, cruel world. After a couple of rejections, an online fantasy publication–Mirror Dance–accepted it for publication. I was quite pleased. See the results here: Waiting for Beowulf

The Prompt

The early Anglo-Saxon people were great storytellers. The story of Beowulf, as you saw in the BBC film this week, began as oral tradition, told and re-told around campfires and in great halls for decades, even centuries, before it was finally written down in the form we know it.

Americans are great story-tellers, too, especially here in Appalachia where many of us, including me, have Anglo-Saxon and Celtic blood coursing through our veins. For this assignment I’m going to let you tell part of the Beowulf story your way. Let’s get started:

Directions:

  • Choose one of the scenes you read in Assignment 2.1:
    • First Attack
    • Fight with Grendel
    • Fight with Grendel’s Mother
    • Fight with the Dragon
    • Beowulf’s Funeral
  • Review the scene so you are sure of the plot.
  • Rewrite the scene or a part of the scene from a specific character’s point of view–For example–write the scene of the first attack from one of the surviving men’s point of view or tell it from one of the women’s point of view. Your scene should be one or two well-developed paragraphs in length (seven to ten sentences per paragraph). It may be longer if you are inspired.
  • Post your scene, illustrated by an internet picture you’ve found. See my post to get an example of what to do.
  • Post a thoughtful response to either my sample post (if you are the first one to post) or one of your fellow students’ posts. Take a look at my sample response to get an idea of what I mean by thoughtful response. Also, look at the grading rubric in the Joule Gradebook to see how I will be grading this assignment.
  • Have fun with this assignment!

    The Post and Sample Response

  • stories_of_beowulf_water_witch_trying_to_stab_beowulf

    By J. R. Skelton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


    Waiting for Beowulf

    by

    Katie Winkler

    Come my beauties, writhing sea dragons and serpents, monsters with milky eyes, slouching on slopes by the cliff. Come greet our visitors–the loathsome King Hrothgar and his fiendish followers. And Beowulf, the son-killer, watch him don his war-gear, showing no fear. I will give him cause to tremble, cause to repent how he rent the arm of the monster-child, left him to die like a dog, denying a god the honor of a swift death.

    See the man take up Hrunting, the fool, thinking he will be victorious, boasting to his lord of its great strength as he comes to meet me in my own abode. He will swim to me through the depths, with great and mighty strokes, swim to my home some call a hellish turn-hole. Here he will sling the mighty sword. Its decorated blade will come down singing and ringing. Singing and ringing. But it will not touch the swamp-thing from hell. It will refuse to bite, and then this hag, this witch, shall take her revenge.

  • Response:
    • This creative response shows a good understanding of the scene in Beowulf that depicts the fight with Grendel’s mother. The author includes references to the description of Grendel’s mother in the original work as well as the underwater cave in which she lives. Also interesting is the use of kennings–compound words like war-gear, son-killer and turn-hole. Kennings are common in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Finally, it is interesting to see the story from the creature’s perspective. She is portrayed more as a vengeful mother who has lost her beloved son than a fiendish monster. The illustration is appropriate as well, showing that the illustrator obviously read and/or studied the original work before creating the artwork. Note: I used a different illustration in my post but could not include it here due to copyright issues.

Student Response to the assignment has been positive.

Most students respond well to Beowulf anyway. It is just such an exciting “action hero” story, but this prompt has helped many students take their studies a step further and start to explore the style and artistry of the poem as well as plot and character.

So if you have a prompt you really love, Write Your Own, and submit it and share your good idea with other teachers and writers.

Shameless Plug

 

unbrokencircleOne more thing before I say good bye. I have a story in this marvelous little anthology: Unbroken Circle: Stories of Cultural Diversity in the South edited by Julia Watts and Larry Smith, published by Bottom Dog Press. You can buy a copy at the Bottom Dog Press website or on Amazon. Print and Kindle editions are available.

Here is what Karen Salyer McElmurray, author of Surrendered Child, said about the book: “In turbulent times, what we need is possibility, and in this rich gathering of diverse voices, Watts and Smith give us just that….These are stories and essays about the blues, about poverty, about families lost and made. Unbroken Circle is about broken and unbroken lives, and ultimately, hope.”