Category Archives: Revising and Writing Process

Introversion: A Legacy Through Poetry

Although this photo doesn't have much to do with my grandmother's poetry, I absolutely love it.  Something tells me she wasn't particularly fond of shooting a gun.  Perhaps she was humoring Granddad, also pictured.

Although this photo doesn’t have much to do with my grandmother’s poetry, I absolutely love it. Something tells me she wasn’t particularly fond of shooting a gun. Perhaps she was humoring Granddad, also pictured.

I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southwestern Virginia.  My mother’s mother, Lucile Shanklin Hull, was a local poet and published several books of poetry about the region.  In her book, Lyrics of the Hills*, 1980, she celebrated the region and her community in Smyth County, Virginia.  Many of her poems feel designed to promote a warm and romantic version of the community, such as “The Gay Bazaar”:

Hurry, hurry, hurry
To the gay bazaar!
For just around the corner,
Where throngs of people are
All a-hustle and a-bustle,
There will be displayed
Such a carnival of color-
Mingled art and artless wonder
Eager hands have made. (48)

But in other poems, as is true of the region, there are quiet pools of darkness; she makes commentary about strip mining, rural poverty, and war casualties.  From page to page, there’s a rise and fall, mountain peaks warmed by sunlight—“From this tall pinnacle look far” (35)—to shady brooks haunted by loss: “She had come down the rocky path/ Winding along by Shooting Creek,/ And her clear young voice was mingled/ With the long, wild song of the water” (41).  In yet others, my grandmother expresses her grief and struggle with depression: “The things I fear have tentacles/ To reach the very core of me;/ They twine themselves vine-wise about/ My hidden self insistently (“The Things I Fear” 46).

While I was growing up, my family rarely discussed the darkness in her poetry; the mountaintops were emphasized, not the gloomy valleys.  I knew her as a young boy; she died when I was nine, and during years leading up to her death, her failing health had made it difficult for us to communicate.

When I was a sophomore in college, my mother showed me a folder of her unpublished poems.  As she handed it to me, a newspaper clipping fluttered out.  It was my uncle’s obituary.  Younger than my mother and her sister, he had died as an infant in 1938.  It was the first I’d heard of him.

When I asked my mother about it, she couldn’t talk about him—the pain, even after so many years, was still fresh—so I began rummaging through the poems, looking for those dark valleys in her work.  I came across a poem called “Unseen,” in which she writes frankly of her loss: “No patient toy dog keeps watch;/ No rusty soldier, staunch and true,/ Upon a seldom dusted shelf/ Waits endlessly for you.”  In Lyrics, there’s another poem which now I understand to be about my uncle: “When bugles blow/ And from afar/ The sound of war/ Shall echo near,/ He will not hear” (6).  She imagines him never having to go to war, never waking from his peaceful sleep.

I was startled by these poems; it challenged the notion I had of my grandmother as a person and as a poet.  I’d always read her poems as outward looking, whether she was describing life in rural Appalachia or making earnest objections to strip mining.  I’d not noticed the gloomy, tree-muffled streams in her poetry, the dark waters in which she reflected herself.  In her poem, “Introversion,” she writes:

I often come to you
So filled with thoughts of me
That your own finer self
I cannot see.

Perhaps you come to me
So full of you
That my own truer self
Is hidden too!

This poem is about failed communication, the inability for two introverted persons to reveal themselves to one another, how all that inward-looking can thwart connection, how our hidden-selves can distract us seeing others, from seeing the world.  Although short, this poem hits me hard because it has such clarity and because I see myself in it; I’m often captivated by my own internal world, sometimes blocking out the world around me. I am so much like her.

That her poetry, however quiet and moss-covered, tells me that my penchant for darkness, for depression kept at bay, is part of a legacy. If we’d known one another as adults, we would’ve understood each other well.

*Hull, Lucile Shanklin.  Lyrics of the Hills.  Radford: Commonwealth Press.  1980.  Print.

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Teachers must be subversive literary citizens

Photo classes at Flint Hill create posters of teachers with their favorite books.  This image was created by Afshan Bhatia.

Photo classes at Flint Hill create posters of teachers with their favorite books. This image was created by junior Afshan Bhatia.

While we writers often look to other writers for support and (one hopes) are good literary citizens ourselves, we shouldn’t limit the notion of literary citizenship to other writers and our partners in the publishing industry.  We should reach beyond the boundaries of our community and cross-pollinate with other types of communities, rooting out and connecting with anyone who has a passion for the written word, which of course, means expanding our idea of our own citizenship.

Because I chair English for 7-12 grades at Flint Hill, a day school outside of DC, I’ve become aware of what good literary citizenship looks like in secondary education.  Our education system in America isn’t structured to support a love of reading.  The proliferation of standardized testing and the college application process with its emphasis on test scores and APs attempts to quantify, reduce, and box learning, which places great importance on the acquisition of information and the automatization of skills, and de-emphasizes (or altogether ignores) the richness and diversity of aesthetic experience.

The system, you see, is inherently suspicious of emotional response, of intimate connection.  Defining how a story or poem makes you feel and the exploration of why it made you feel that way is a rigorous step toward self-understanding.  It’s the only way literature has a chance of helping us become better people.  Tests, however, can’t quantify that sort of exploration—it’s not compliant enough and much too slippery, too out of the lines—so test preparation doesn’t emphasize or value it.

To build future literary citizens, which I believe is a significant act of literary citizenship, is working against the flow of contemporary education.  I’m happy to be a part of an educational institution that, given the constraints of being a college preparatory school, does understand this, but it’s not true for many schools, even despite the many passionate English teachers out there.

At Flint Hill, we weave living writers into the curriculum (Kazuo Ishiguro, Marilynne Robinson, Chris Cleave, Gene Luen Yang, Khaled Hosseini, Alan Moore, and Cormac McCarthy to name a few), exposing our students to narratives and voices that immediately resonate with them.  We also fund a professional author to visit for a Writers’ Day celebration, during which we honor student writers for their excellence in creative and academic writing, and provide the time for students to interact with the visiting author.  All of this is our way of suggesting to students the idea that literature isn’t primarily a thing of the past, but a thing of the present—and that reading can be about experiencing something, not just acquiring information, all with the hope of building future readers of contemporary writers, perhaps even future literary citizens.

So I encourage writers to pair with teachers whenever they can to fight this trend and find a way (even if it seems mildly subversive) to reach those students blue about being in a box and hungry for aesthetic experience.

This post originally appeared as part of the Gertrude Stein blog series on the Renegade Writers’ Collective website.

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“The Next Big Thing” Interview: Kate Hattemer

I’m happy to host my once colleague (she left FHS to concentrate on her writing) and now amazing, soon-to-be-published novelist Kate Hattemer as she answers the “The Next Big Thing” interview questions:

What is the title of the book?

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

When a sleazy reality show hijacks their school’s culture, Ethan and his friends write a seditious long poem to foment rebellion — until Ethan’s best friend gets pulled onto the show and betrays them all.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s a realistic, literary, young-adult novel.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Whenever I start something new, I feel as though I’m flailing around at sea, and I end up grabbing hold of anything that’s even possibly driftwood.  So I started with a list of three totally arbitrary things that I thought I just had to include:

1)  A strong and funny first-person narrator.  (This one actually stuck around.)

2)  Embedded text from different genres.  (This one didn’t.  But it gave me the idea that Ethan and his friends would write a long poem in the tradition of Ezra Pound to protest a reality show’s intrusion into their school.  I originally had excerpts from both the poem and the episode scripts, but thankfully, those all got scrapped.)

3)  Pets named after condiments.  (As I mentioned, arbitrary.  I’d just met a dog named Pickles, and thought idly, “Somebody should vow to name all their pets after condiments.”  That’s how the heroic gerbil Baconnaise was born, and it’s from my narrator’s devotion to this rodent that the book gets many of its thematic concerns.)

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Let me start with the disclaimer that I’m terrible with actors, and that answering this question involved googling “teen actors who are smart and possibly secret nerds.”  Logan Lerman might work for Ethan, my narrator.  Ethan’s charismatic best friend Luke — the man to Ethan’s hench — could be any number of those handsome Hollywood types.  Michael Cera — is he still a thing? — could possibly up his awkwardness quotient enough to play Jackson.  Jackson’s cousin Elizabeth could be Katerina Graham.  And Ethan’s crush, ballerina Maura Heldsman, is obviously Emma Watson, because I would like to be her.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I was working part-time, and the very first draft took about two months.  That draft included lots of parenthetical notes such as, and I quote, “Oh my gosh, this is so terrible” and “Have fun dealing with this crap, Future Kate.”  I had to spend several months rewriting before I could show it to anyone.  I almost got hit by a car a few times while I was running or biking, and what flashed before my eyes was not my life but rather my wretched first draft.  I could just imagine my teary parents opening up my files.  “Oh,” they’d say.  “Well, that’s a disappointment.”

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The vast majority of the high school students I’ve gotten to know lately — from my siblings to my students — are intelligent, hilarious, and deeply engaged in their worlds.  They’ve got this really endearing mix of irony and sincerity.  I wanted to write a book with characters like that — who joke about calculus and about farts, who sometimes spend English class arguing that Ezra Pound’s fascism shouldn’t affect our interpretation of his poetry and sometimes spend English class zoning out as they stare at their crushes’ necks.

At the time, I hadn’t read much recent YA, and when my sister gave me a John Green novel I was poleaxed by his hyperverbal, hyperintelligent characters.  It reminded me of the first time I read a David Foster Wallace essay:  I don’t want to apotheosize either one of them, but both times, it felt as though I were experiencing a new way to use words and genre.  Reading An Abundance of Katherines clicked with my distaste for some bad YA I’d read (I hate books that pander) and my perhaps regressive love of hanging out with my teenage siblings and students.  That’s when I started to write.

I try to keep in mind that my favorite books don’t sacrifice readability to literariness nor literariness to readability.  That’s always my ultimate goal.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

My agent, Uwe Stender of TriadaUS, recently dubbed “The Nicest Man in Publishing,” sold Vigilante Poets to Erin Clarke of Knopf a few months ago.  It’ll be published next spring.

(“The Next Big Thing” book interview project asks writers to answer a series of questions about their recent or forthcoming book, post it on their blog/web-space, and tag others for the next week.)

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“The Next Big Thing” Interview Project: John Copenhaver

Me in hat“The Next Big Thing” book interview project asks writers to answer a series of questions about their recent or forthcoming book, post it on their blog/web-space, and tag others for the next week.  Thanks to poet Chloe Yelena Miller for tagging me last week!

What is the title of the book?

Dodging and Burning.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

My inspiration came from two separate but connected events:  My reading of Walter Benjamin’s analysis of photography, and my decision to come out of the closet as a gay man.  Benjamin argues that photographs distort reality and only can be given value if paired with the right caption.  Being in the closet is like being a photo without a caption.  The only way to correct that distortion is to tell the story behind the façade.  Dodging and Burning is the mystery behind a crime scene photograph, but more accurately it’s an exploration of the way photos can twist our understanding of others and ourselves if their captions remain unwritten, their stories untold.

What genre does your book fall under?

Literary Mystery.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I love this question, because I think about it a lot.  Sadly, most of the actors I’d cast are dead.  One of my main characters, Bunny Prescott, is based on Gene Tierney; in fact, other characters tell her that she resembles Tierney.  But, to play fair, I’d cast Elle Fanning as Ceola (my earnest teenager), who has both gravitas and levity, Saoirse Ronan as Bunny (my love-confused debutant), who can be chilly and vulnerable, and Andrew Garfield (my wounded gay war photographer), who is wonderful at playing pained but not self-indulgent characters.  I loved him in Never Let Me Go.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Two young women attempt to solve the mystery of the photograph of beautiful corpse only to discover that the true mystery lies in the heart of the photographer.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Three-years.  Keep in mind of course I was working full time as an English teacher.  It took several more years to whip it into shape.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?


It began at Bread Loaf English of English when I took a course called “Photography and Modernity.”  It changed the way I looked at photography and, eventually, all visual media.  Also, I read Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, a genre-bending novel, a masterpiece that skillfully weaves together low and high forms.  And of course, my own personal journey out of the closet.  My theme, as I see it,  is the need for narrative.  Images without narrative (or worse images with a false narrative) can twist our understanding of reality, pushing us further from empathy and deeper into darkness.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m represented by the fabulous Annie Bomke of ABLiteary and currently in search of a publisher.

Look for these writers’ Next Big Thing interviews:

Kate Hattemer

Andy Peters

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Why failing gracefully deserves admiration

I’ve been thinking a lot about why taking risks is so important.  It’s actually a theme that emerges both in my profession as a teacher and my desire to be a published writer.  It’s also something which is necessary for growth.  It’s something that each of us needs in order to develop intellectually, physically, and spiritually.  If we don’t take risks, we don’t evolve; if we don’t evolve, we are static—and static beings perish; it’s a law of nature.

Often the byproduct of risk is failure.  Our society—particularly American culture—despises failure, whether it’s in the arena of sports or in business ventures or in an artistic endeavors.  This mentality rolls down from popular culture through peers, parents and even educational institutes, and gathers in many of the students I teach, filling them with anxiety and tipping them toward neurosis.

This fear of failure takes an even more troubling turn when students believe that grades—simply having A’s—is more important than learning.  In other words, seeming to have succeeded is more important than actually succeeding.  Having an A in English is more important than having learned how to write a clear and cohesive argument.  I hardly blame the students, though, when our culture is giving them every indication that this is a perfectly acceptable way of thinking.  Even our political parties are more concerned with “winning” instead of compromise and healthy debate.  They don’t want a clear and cohesive argument; they want their position of power, their A.

We need a paradigm shift where taking risks, whether the individual fails or succeeds, is respected, and playing it safe is viewed as cowardly.  We need to punch holes in superficial success, often monetary success, and define what real success is—which is, in a word, growth.  More specifically—growth of character.  You never grow more than when you fail, so in that sense, failure—at least failure born of risk—is success.

So, all pontificating aside, I must turn that theory back on myself and my professional goals.  I must take risks in my teaching.  I must take risks in my writing.  And when I fail, which I will, I need to fend off that horrible anxiety, those whispering judgmental voices, which often are only promoting or critiquing superficial success.  Of course, the best defense against those voices is the voice of a friend, loved-one, or colleague reminding me of what I believe deep down—that to gracefully fail, to learn from that failure, is succeeding.

I hope I can do the same for others.

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Using Scrivener in My Classroom

A while ago, I blogged about why I adopted Scrivener as my new writing program of choice (“Why I Love ‘Scrivener'”).  This year in my novel writing class, I worked with our wonderful tech specialists at Flint Hill and Scrivener to bring the program to my students.

Each of my students received the program in the first week of the second semester, and after I worked with them to propose a novel-length project, they used the program to write approximately 40 pages over the duration of the spring.  Although it was a learning experience for me as well as for them (and there is much I have yet to uncover), the program has the potential to support writing instruction of all sorts in some amazing ways.  The qualities of the program that I found my students most benefited from were its visual and intuitive format, and its organizational flexibility, especially in that it allows the user to keep all aspects of a project—notes, research, etc.—in one document.

Flint Hill is a one-to-one laptop school, which is wonderful because my classroom is nearly paperless.  It’s also wonderful because 80-90% of my students’ work is online in Googledocs or saved on their computers; I see fewer jumbled lockers and backpacks shambling homework papers and notebooks.  However, students still struggle with organization.  The messiness is now on the computer desktop instead of the backpack.  Since everything related to a project can be stored in a single document on Scrivener, it helps students who find organizing their work a challenge.  It also allows students to arrange and rearrange sections of their writing with great ease within individual documents, its intuitive visual format making it simple for them to find all the different components.  They don’t have to spend time combing their laptops for mislaid notes or outlines.

For my student creative writers—particularly those hardy enough to set out to write 40 pages of a novel—it was incredibly helpful for all the reasons mentioned above, but also because Scrivener is a program which by design supports creative thinking (which is gaining more emphasis in the English classroom these days).  Although most narrative projects end up having a chronological construction, they rarely begin that way.  Whereas Word forces students to think linearly— “I can’t get from A to C if I don’t know B!” —Scrivener provides an environment which allows a student to pursue A and C before he knows B.  A left-brain linear program, such as Word, especially for right-brained students, can shut down their creativity and their desire to problem solve.

In my creative writing class, I allowed my students to explore different elements of their projects as they wrote and then later I asked them to fit the chronology of their work together through revision.  Scrivener supports this mode of instruction, which is yet another reason why I love it.

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Finding what I was looking for … at the Lambda Writers’ Retreat

Left to Right: Andy Peters (Queer Y/A Fastasy Writer), Robin Talley (Queer Y/A Writer), Katherine Forrest (Retreat Faculty, Mystery Writer), Yours Truly

Here, in DC, I have many lovely and supportive writer-friends, and many wonderful and encouraging gay and lesbian friends, but I know—really know—no gay or lesbian friends who write seriously.  Last week, I spent seven days at the Lambda Writers’ Retreat at UCLA getting to know many amazing LGBT writers and learning even more about craft in my workshop on genre fiction led by Katherine V. Forrest, a pioneer lesbian mystery writer and editor.

I’ve been in and out of a lot of fiction workshops and literary communities, and frankly, before I arrived at LA, I was worried that this experience would be no different.  By this point—after cycling through both undergraduate and graduate writing workshops, which for the most part confused and befuddled me—I’d written off that sort of experience.  I craved direct instruction on craft, something I’d never had in a fiction workshop.  I’ve been critiqued out of my mind by my peers, but never explicitly lectured to about the do’s and don’t’s of craft.  For the most part, I’ve had to figure out craft on my own.  Thank God for Katherine! For the first part of the workshop, she offered concrete guidelines on writing genre fiction.  Then, when we began critiquing novel excerpts, I had the most supportive and honest workshop I’ve ever experienced.  It was downright therapeutic for me.

What amazed me the most about the Retreat, however, was that so many people with so many different backgrounds, inclinations, and identifiers could come together and support one another without the uneasy undercurrent of competition.   I know this sounds a bit sentimental—believe me WASPy stoicism runs deep in my blood—but what I witnessed was a community of people whose first impulse was to love and accept one another, not be suspicious of one another.  Perhaps, it’s just that I’ve lived in DC too long, but that experience was really unique for me.  It has a lot to do with the strength of the LGBT community and with the way Lambda Literary is getting things right.

Writers and artists of all types need to support one another like this more often—but as it becomes increasing competitive to publish, this sort of experience, I imagine, will become even rarer.   My hope is that, in the future, MFA programs and the like will begin seeing that part of their responsibility to their students is to help them form a strong sense of community.

Ultimately writing is a solitary experience, but being a writer doesn’t have to be.

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