Category Archives: Teaching and Writing

In Search of Messy, Overwritten Beauty

tender-is-the-night-original-dustjacketYesterday I was reading Ali Smith’s book Artful, a form-challenging mash-up of an essay collection and a novel, and as a part of a section about form, Smith quotes Katherine Mansfield, a modernist whose stories I deeply admire.  Inside a copy of D. H. Lawrence’s Aaron’s Rod, Mansfield writes: “There are certain things in this book I do not like.  But they are not important, or really part of it.  They are trivial, encrusted, they cling to it as snails to the underside of a leaf … and perhaps they leave a little silvery trail, a smear, that one shrinks from as from a kind of silliness.  But apart from these things is the leaf, is the tree, firmly planted, deep thrusting, outspread, growing grandly, alive in every twig.  All the time I read this book I felt it was feeding me.”

This quotation resonates with me.  So often I feel this way about books I love.  Yes, they may be by today’s standards overwritten, overly “encrusted,” but ultimately the beauty of them, the energy of the story, of the characters, “feeds me.”  To often—and this is true of a lot of writers who are also reviewers—we judge a book by its editing, not its narrative life-force.  We use descriptors like “clean” and “diamond-hard” or “muscular” to describe fiction, which in my mind is describing editing and perhaps style, not necessarily the full, breathing machinery of fiction.

For this reason, I’ve always preferred Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night over The Great Gatsby.  As a novel it’s messier, more experimental, darker.  For that reason, although at times a little overwritten, it speaks to me on a deeper level, perhaps even because of its messiness, if that’s really a fair word for it.  One mistake book reviewers, often reviewers who are also writers, make is to review a book’s editing, or at least to preference the editing, over the substance or the energy of story.  I’m curious how many of you, out there, have a book which you thought overwritten or messy, but spoke to you despite (or even because of ) the quality of the prose.  I’d love any suggestions … or thoughts.

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Making Summer Reading Lists

As the school year comes to a close, I begin looking forward to the summer by crafting a reading list.  I know, I know, this sounds like it’s making work out of fun, but there’s an art to the reading, particularly the different types of reading, I want to do over the summer.  I want the ebb and flow of challenging books and light reading, fiction and nonfiction, and genre and literary.

Also, I like what creating a reading list tells me about my own tastes, and how those tastes reflect back on the choices I make as a writer. If my novel were sitting on my shelf, would I be reaching for it? (I hope so … but it’s a good question to ask.)

I also like it as a log of my development as a reader and a way to reflect on the influences on my writing.  Over the years, I’ve read books—The Blind Assassin, The Big Sleep, etc.—that have had powerful impact on my work; however, it’s only been since I’ve consciously curated my reading that I’ve started to understand my tastes better: fiction with female protagonists; stories with a historical milieu; morally ambiguous characters; dark emotional terrain; rich, at times lyrical description, but not as the expense of plot—and never sentimental.  Unsurprisingly, my writing embodies my reading tastes.

However—and what interests me the most—are the outlier books, works that don’t easily fit in.  For instance, I placed Ali Smith’s Artful on my summer reading list, a genre-bending book, part novel, part collection of essays.  Am I curious even now why I was initially attracted to this book?  In part, it’s because of its lovely cover (no joke) and in part its because I’ve heard so many intriguing things about Smith’s writing.

Most of all, my reading list is a declaration to myself that I’m free to read what I want (for the most part) after a year of reading for school.  As much as writing, it’s a form of self-expression and requires that freedom to survive.

So, here it is .. and of course it can (and will) change.  (If you have any suggestions, respond to this blog or be my friend of Goodreads.)

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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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Is Seeing Believing?

Ways of Seeing, a famous book by John Berger about reading art and images, begins with the statement: “Seeing comes before words.  The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.”

As a high school English teacher, I’m aware that the students I’m teaching live in a primarily visual culture.  The texts that I’m asking them to read—whether it’s Richard III or 1984—are in competition with the visual stimuli that glows on their computer screens or smartphones or high-def TV sets.   They are bombarded with visuals and visual language every day—and because seeing comes before understanding, these images are incredibly powerful in shaping the way my students (or frankly, many adults) view the world.  If perception helps mold that amorphous thing we call reality, then visuals and all the editing and crafting and contextualizing that goes into making them is altering and at times unhinging reality.

Reading, of course, is in part an act of creation where the participant must visualize and internalize the text in hand; viewing images—whether in a YouTube video or a movie or a TV show—can also be an act of creation and interpretation—but very few students understand how to read visual media.  They are easily persuaded to believe what they see because they don’t understand it as an art form—that it is, in part, artifice.  In terms of news media, it’s clear to see how this is dangerous.  The degree to which the news alters the truth and changes our sense of reality is upsetting—but in some ways, that’s old news. Many teachers are already arming their students with the tools to question what they see and hear in journalistic media.  But there’s more to it than that …

Fictional visual narratives—from “Realty TV” shows to AMC’s serious dramas like Madmen or Breaking Bad—also have a powerful ability to shape our sense of reality.  For instance, I wonder how many of you who are Madmen fans are convinced that the 1960s were just as the show’s creators have portrayed them.  The show’s images and characters are so powerful (and so well crafted) that, to a certain extent, I find myself visualizing that decade based on the show’s terms, which if I didn’t question what I saw, could be problematic.

When we read a novel set in the 1960s, we’ve been trained to see as emerging from a particular perspective—the writer’s.  However, when we watch a TV show, although we should realize that we are getting a specific point-of-view, we don’t think of it that way because we haven’t been trained to think of it that way.  As a culture—and I see this in my students all the time—we give the visual narrative greater authority than the written narrative.  It seems to us to be more authentic, more believable, more real.  And this really concerns me.

As an English teacher, my ultimate goal in terms of the content of my courses is to help my students understand the craftsmanship behind of what they read.  For some time now, to varying degrees of success, I’ve been doing this.  It helps the kids to become better readers and better writers.  However, now, I’m also feeling the need to teach them how to interpret the craft behind the visual narratives they are confronted with every day.  I want them to understand and appreciate a well built film or TV show or photo story, but I also want them to realize these art forms should not have greater authority than the written word—and that if we give them that authority, we can warp our sense of what it real and what isn’t.

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