Category Archives: Teaching writing

My student Ali gets published!

My creative writing student Ali Van Vickle recently took initiative and submitted a short story to TeenInk.com, which published her story! Here’s the start:

I was born in New Orleans into a wealthy family who gave me everything I needed. I’m your typical 13 year old. I love to ride my bike with my friends. As long as I can remember I’ve been happy. I remember my first day of kindergarten was terrifying because I didn’t want to leave my momma. I remember meeting all of my friends and all of the people who weren’t my friends. There was this girl named Sara. She has tortured my friends and I everyday from kindergarten to seventh grade. One day my friends and I were riding our bikes down by the bayou even though our mommas always told us not to. Sara and her friends came and told us that this was their bike path, and if they ever caught us there again they’d throw us into the bayou to the gators. I never road my bike so fast away from something before. I’d never been so scared either.

See more of the story here. She also dedicated the story to me:

My biggest inspiration is my Creative Writing teacher Mr. Hagemann. He has always been encouraging, supporting, and helpful with any of my questions. And he always gives me his honest opinion on my work.

Thanks, Ali! Keep writing!

How to break through writer’s block

Thanks to former student Sam Moore’s request for advice, I too have something to post this evening: 

Two pieces of advice:

1. Sometimes it helps to stop working now and try later if you’re really not feeling it. But if the deadline is soon,

2. Just do a freewrite where you throw down onto the page or screen any and all words that come to mind, the closer to the assigned topic the better. Afterwards, go back and delete as much of the crap as possible, and turn the assignment in and hope to do better next time.

Thoreau had some advice I like in the “Conclusion” to Walden:

Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life.

Or, in other words: If the quality of the work is the priority, then take all the time you need to make the work great. But if getting done on time is the priority, then do it without worrying so much about quality — it’s not the priority.

 

A sonnet of Eustace Tortoise

To have my high school creative writing students show they can write to the iambic pentameter rhythm, I assign them to finish the last 6 lines of a Shakespearean sonnet we start together in class. Rather than using our sonnet to present or evaluate a romantic claim, we told a narrative of one Eustace Tortoise, which narrative some students wanted me to post here:

So Eustace Tortoise went to chew some gum. 

He rode a unicycle to the club.

He wore a tunic but he looked a bum.

He hoped to meet a hamster with a nub. 

Then Eustace took the hamster by the leg

(which leg was made of dense and crispy lard);

they danced until the hamster lost its leg

that’s good. She hopped along the boulevard.

The students diverged in their conclusions of the narrative, but we all got some laughs out of our protagonist Eustace.

‘Time Closes One I’: Erasures and rewrites of Rod McKuen’s ‘Lonesome Cities’

Rod_for blog (1)

So, last January, about the time Rod McKuen passed away, I picked up his poetry book Lonesome Cities, which I’d obtained long after its publication in the 1960s but which I’d never read. I didn’t really like the poems: their language felt too chatty and their subjects too familiar and too precious.

But alongside each poem was plenty of blank space in which I could rewrite the poems to my own taste, to make the poems sharper and stranger, more surprising. Some of the poems are simple erasures (see also resources here), while others have some words replaced by sound-alike words, and all poems have certain amounts of re-arrangement, editing, and rewriting (however those definitions may overlap).

I debated whether to put my new poems alongside McKuen’s originals. I have chosen not to, partly out of concern not to step on his copyrights (and this writing process felt like authentic creation, but it also prompted questions of what, exactly, copying means). But I also don’t think comparing the new to the old is necessary, as the poems below range far beyond the topics of McKuen’s poems to represent their own questions of consciousness and philosophical inquiry.

Here are my poems, with reference to the titles of the originals the new poems came from:

“An Out,” an erasure of McKuen’s poem “An Outstretched Hand”

Each of us was God.

Some of us grew.

The wind bent.

Darkness-up life.

Love is, is.

Each eye turned sound,

shoulders their feet.

It takes a hand.

Ω

“Sting,” an erasure of “Rusting in the Rain”

The old world coming stops as it goes.

Did anybody ever grow older?

Come see where we have been.

Ω

“I’ve,” a rewrite of “I’ve Saved the Summer”

I’ve.

I give you to winter when new.

I’ve need. Darkness can feed. I’ve kept your smile.

You were 19. You’re older, you’ll know.

I know no answers. Your way lies somewhere.

But I’ll give you the road.

Ω

“Like the Window,” a rewrite of the last 2 stanzas of “It’s Raining”

It’s like the window if we wait.

There’s here now. Don’t be anymore.

It’s the crickets.

Do you think? You love.

Raining.

Ω

“Summer’s It,” an erasure/rewrite of the last 2 stanzas of “Sommerset”

wind

the memories–

times: summer’s set?

Life,

day: Sunday

month May,

years–

summer’s it,

Time?

Ω

“To Glean Sin from the Crows,” a rewrite of the first two stanzas of “Sommerset” made by replacing each word in poem with a sound-alike word:

Several ways were sunny.

Canned eels’ mouths were made.

Sand heavy birds down a long cane;

that seems to compensate

for muddy ears. Comb fuzzy bats.

Tin filters amore.

Hens heal ivy. Where summer went,

him no team ignores.

Cats rhyme some more. They gored some pigs.

Endure, he knew, but how?

Repair in size our wooden trunks.

Two seen beneath a stall.

Cows mainly hear enough of static

to glean sin from the crows.

Whine was learned, yet summer kept

land-cropping all sender’s snows.

Ω

“I Live That, Always,” an erasure of “The Single Man”

I live that, always.

For just a night,

the talk wasn’t a better day.

At home, or in his private cloud, I am

a time I can’t remember.

The house might have been help.

Ω

“Cans,” an erasure/creative edit of “Cannes”

Cans waking in the morning

sweep down the street.

The empty bottles go back.

As crossword puzzles on the sidewalk,

a new foundation crawls

back under buildings

to avoid the Jets.

Still adjusting our heads,

we shoe up in the hallway

and lose bed.

Thank God for the coasts.

Ω

“Form,” an erasure of “For Bimby”

Some things you can put down.

Sheep grazing on the airport stale February days.

Smile balloons look to me.

Surprises held in the day.

A blaze with tourists and cats ruins time.

Her smile is elaboration lost

Ω

“The cross Atlantic,” erasure/edit of “Atlantic Crossing”

I gave up a while.

I had written songs to my family’s safe for years.

Had some women liked my animals in luxury?

I’d miss me, but they’d be it.

The way did much paint.

I’ll admit there were eyes I’d keep.

All in all, I was ready, so I pray more.

God had frightened years.

He first did run down.

We’d play together if we weren’t one another.

Ω

“Beaching Manhattan,” an edit-rewrite of “Manhattan Beach” as a prose poem

I’m working in a house at Manhattan Beach. Eddie came by last weekend with two women and some books. The books and the women were stacked. (Ha!)

I sleep and breathe the waves. I think of my breathing. I mist my attention on the traffic. Familiar rooms sink past my songs. A half-packed suitcase buys me oughts.

My dog does stuff up on the beach–she doesn’t seem to care that this is the very end of the land. My friends may as well be weathered sticks or bottles sans notes. My dog smells of the smells she smells; they settle on her fur.

Boats fill harbors in a dance stretching back 10 years in a morning. I live mostly in afternoons.

I nearly died. Fever made doubt or walks along. I stayed alive. Letters came, and “I” was the island I would go for. The asshole rides me to see the dog embark a seal.

Ω

“Four for Hands,” an erasure-rewrite of “Concerto for four hands”

Shadows time me.

Mischief

winter

empties forms.

A mattress

grows tired

of some

backs.

Ω

“Now You’re Even,” an erasure-edit of “New Year’s Eve”

The snow

branches

like cherries.

Wind falls

like windows

dying.

The old die.

A hundred

time-products

choose me.

I am the green ground.

I have faces.

I need,–I know.

The town slopes

the curtains.

The next room waits.

Villages rain like celebrations.

Ω

“Urban Herb,” an erasure-edit of “Suburb”

The mountain winds around petals. A desert country like smoke. Those electric-nows pine for perfume towns. The smile is smiles. Centurions anticipate chopping. Down the trees and down the hills, ants make flat.

Ω

“Bag Age,” an erasure-edit of “Baggage”

Only one day shoulders disappearing.

Room crowds your face.

Help me suppose it gone.

Leave me so I stand.

Ω

“Boa Rid,” erasure-rewrite of “Boat Ride”

You yawn.

The boredom drove.

God was full.

You were Texas.

Your tongue, again, knows.

Your arms water time, privately.

Ω

“In Dian’s Summer,” an erasure-rewrite of “Indians”

In Dian’s summer,

riot-bank frogs

empty man.

Every thicket beds flowers.

Sunshine does the painting.

The hills buy the buffalo tower

and fence. Off the factories,

we’ll build shadows.

Men die but gray.

Ω

“Engineer of Pallidity,” an erasure and inversion of “Venice” (pages 34 through 31)

a whole long moment meets time.

I am handsome; a mirror could have a hope.

Find a way to own my reflection.

I excite you with motor cuisine. You, I’ll never smile.

The glance—once—keeps you. I buy. You coin the world, and back a secret.

The sun targets me. The sun beaches you.

My hair lies. I’m your engineer of pallidity.

Tomorrow, sun ends home, shade.

Waiting, the birds.

Feeding. Ignoring me, you, chattering, the pigeons.

Coming. Moving. Eating. Chewing.

Ω

“These,” a selection-rewrite of “Three”

I face country tablecloths.

I index fingers.

I till now.

I paint 20 minutes.

Your eyes say grapefruit.

I ruin mornings.

I draw evenings.

I even drawings.

Ω

“Tuesday,” an erasure/sound-replacing rewrite of “Two”

Back to look—I, you. No!

Understand: I speak same as I bathe,

with a winnowing and a leafing through.

The heat throws. Off, we wormed each other

into tarps in different booths.

Turning me, months mediate a simile.

In the laboratory at the lakefront,

there were some seaweeds in a hair curler—

my mind looked at them—

I had drained my face from the stairs.

Ω

“When,” an erasure/rewrite of “One”

When you corner change

and wrinkle it into day,

you and lovers lose

water to leaded crystal.

Ω

“Disbelief,” a re-make of “Morning, Three”

At any “and,”

disbelief smiles “yet, “or.”

Ω

Link: Marvel movies avoid character growth

This piece by Sady Doyle describes a problem she sees in too many Marvel films: a willingness to nearly forego characters in service of fights and set-pieces.

Character arcs aren’t negotiable. They’re not highbrow or pretentious or complicated. Character arcs are essential to the success of any story in any genre. To understand why all this matters, look at the Hulk’s arc in the first Avengers, which many people consider to be the most successful part of that movie. I would argue that it’s actually the most successful element of any Marvel movie to date. In the first Avengers, the Hulk (1) hates being the Hulk, (2) encounters a situation that can only be resolved by becoming the Hulk, and (3) embraces being the Hulk. Simple, right? Stupid simple. Yet it landed like a ton of bricks in the theater, because that’s what stories are. Stories use cause and effect to dramatize a process whereby a person is forced to change.

Hulk’s arc, simple as it might be, was a cause-and-effect process that dramatized a universal human problem: You might not always like yourself, so you can identify with someone who doesn’t like himself, and therefore,you will experience catharsis when a story gives the both of you permission to love yourselves. When he goes on that final rampage and slams Loki into the floor, that’s not just a cartoon causing some corporate-mandated violence: That’s you, loving your body despite being the “wrong” size, or making feminist points in a conversation without worrying that someone will call you a buzzkill, or being proud of your art despite the fact that it’s been rejected, or deciding that you can leave your abusive relationship because you are worthy of respect. Hulk smash inner self-loathing, and thereby becomes the most powerful force in the universe.

So finally, our hero, a suicidal man who has spent the whole movie telling himself he’s worthless and intrinsically inferior to other people, encounters Loki, an arrogant, sneering, hyper-critical, hyper-verbal character — a character who mysteriously chooses that very moment to begin a monologue about how worthless the Avengers are, and how inferior they are to him — and suddenly, Loki hits the floor. Hard. And every time Loki hits that floor, all over the world, the theater erupts with screams of joy. There is a release that goes beyond the rational or the personal, here: The noise of hundreds of strangers united for just one second in the realization that deep down, despite all the pain, despite all the shit they put themselves through, despite the endless cruelty that inner critical voice subjects them to, they don’t have to let it keep talking. Deep down, they are not ugly or stupid or unlovable or bad or worthless. Deep down, they are strong. They are heroes.

Speaking of heroes, here’s Joseph Campbell: “Atonement consists in no more than the abandonment of that self-generated double monster — the dragon thought to be God (superego) and the dragon thought to be Sin (repressed id).” When the superego’s judgment is no longer powerful enough to annihilate us (puny God) and the id is accepted by the ego without fear (I’m always angry), our wholeness is restored, our place in the cosmos is found, and we are free. It hits us so hard, all we can do is scream.

Don’t let anyone tell you that silly popcorn movies don’t matter, or that they can’t be smart or beautiful or profound. A silly popcorn movie can change your life. All it has to do is create characters with identifiable, human problems, and let them work out those problems over the course of the story. Stories are about change, and about people, because ultimately, they are about you, the person sitting in a dark theater, working out your baggage by projecting it onto CGI cartoons of overly handsome actors.

Here’s another way to put it: The extent to which a movie invests in character-based, character-driven storytelling is the extent to which it recognizes, appreciates, and honors the humanity of its audience.

So when Age of Ultron doesn’t invest — when it goes by the assumption that the formula, and the formula alone, is enough to appease the popcorn-eaters — it says something pretty bad.

And Doyle describes how short-cutting a story means the story relies on cliches and stereotypes:

But when the character-based screenwriting breaks down, so does the feminism. Black Widow is just as ill-served as every other character in that story, but because she’s a woman, it’s politically offensive as well as aesthetically offensive.

Let’s take a moment to recognize that, given the paucity of time for character work in Age of Ultron, nearly all of the character development is done with shortcuts. I’m talking real hack stuff, like “each character has a hallucination establishing his inner conflicts and backstory,” or “we know this character is old-fashioned because he doesn’t like swearing” (brought up so many times that I get the sense it was meant to pay off, in the same way the constant questions about Banner’s “secret” paid off last time — was there a climactic F-bomb from Steve that got cut for the rating?) or even “the circle of life is established by naming a baby after the dead guy.” (This, aside from giving me flashbacks to the infamously terrible ending of Harry Potter, is especially egregious because the baby’s mother never met the dead guy — and, if she ever knew that the dead guy existed, which is highly debatable, she knew him as “that guy who’s trying to murder my husband.” She names her baby after someone she never met, on the premise that her husband once slightly got along with him for about two hours. Stirring!) Jokes get underlined by characters explaining them and noting that they were humorous. Some characters just walk into a room, announce their backstory, and leave. (“How are you, Sam?” “I AM HAPPY PURSUING OUR MISSING PERSONS CASE IN DC.”) Nothing ever really gets written, or earned, just vaguely outlined. It’s a whole script made of placeholders.

But when you’re doing all your character work with shortcuts, and you have to write a shortcut for your female character, what do you come up with?She’s that one dude’s girlfriend, obviously, is a time-honored shortcut, used or teased by every Marvel writer who’s put Black Widow in a movie — as a woman, she’s an Other, and a sexual object, and therefore must be deployed as a potential or actual sexual reward for a male viewpoint character, rather than being a viewpoint herself. But that’s the same problem you find with every woman in every Marvel movie (Gamora, Agent Carter, Pepper, whatever Natalie Portman’s name is supposed to be) except for Maria Hill, who is clearly saving herself for her one true love, Exposition. If you want to deepen your female character past being a sexual object, in a movie that has no time or patience for anything resembling “depth,” what conflicts do you give her? Well, women have babies, right? Women want babies. Okay. She can’t have babies. She’s sad because she can’t have babies. There you go! Depth established!

I mean, it’s disgusting. Defining your female character’s motivation solely around the Betty Crocker axis of “wants boyfriend” and “wants babies” is 100% disgusting. But if you look around, all of this is disgusting, because all of the characters are exactly this vapid, because [“Avengers: Age of Ultron” writer and director Joss] Whedon can’t get more than five or ten minutes to establish or complicate their motivations, because Marvel is mandating that he not waste screen time on things like the characters’ motivations when he could be shooting ads for their other movies, because Marvel doesn’t care about men, women, or anything except getting you to show up in a few years for the next installment of Avengers.

I never thought I’d be the kind of person who believed that a crime against feminism was less important than a crime against storytelling, but in this case, they’re so interconnected that it’s hard to tell the difference. When you can’t write, you can’t write women.

And Doyle is concerned that maybe there’s a more depressing reason for the poor character development:

There’s an alternate interpretation for that Hulk-slams-Loki scene in the first Avengers. I try, very hard, to believe it’s not the correct one. Because it’s an evil message, which cynics will tell you is at the heart of every comic book movie. It is: Punching is better than talking.

It happens in a lot of big, commercial movies, right? There’s a guy who talks a lot, thinks, plans, tries to get somewhere by thinking. In the end, that guy is evil, because thinking is bad. He has to be subdued by the heroic brute: The guy who’s just “normal,” who’s more like you, more pure, because instead of thinking and analyzing, he just feels and does. Loki thinks he can get somewhere with a monologue, but surprise! Giant biceps trump clever monologue, every time.

So there’s your other interpretation, the thing I think is at the core of Marvel’s contempt for people: Punching is better than talking. Doing is better than thinking. Instinct is better than intellect; big is better than smart. We don’t need to understand the Stormtroopers; we don’t need to talk to them. That’s thinking, which is boring. We just need to kill: They don’t have names or histories or families or feelings, and by slaughtering them, thousands of them, we prove that we can do.

The audience doesn’t need dialogue or character or psychological growth. The audience needs explosions, because they’re animals, and all they want is blood on the floor. The audience doesn’t need to be surprised or challenged with a new story. The audience wants the old story, because they’ve bought it ten times already, and at the end of the day, we just convinced these f*cking yahoos to wait three years and pay us twenty dollars so we could tell them to come back in four years and pay us $40. Now you think they want personal growth? Give me a break. They’re barely even people.

I mean: You pump this message out into the atmosphere, and then you’resurprised when the biggest fans are ready to send death threats to a director to save the Almighty Brand? Punching is better than talking, rage is better than understanding, conflicts are resolved by annihilating the other person without feeling bad about it: You just told them that. Over and over, and made them pay for the privilege of hearing it. You can’t possibly be surprised that they believe it’s true.

It kills me that I am so bothered by this. I understand that these movies are power fantasies for nine-year-olds: At the end of the day, accepting that they’re stupid is probably smarter than wishing for them to be smart. But this is the epicenter of pop culture. Everyone is expected to share power fantasies with nine-year-olds now, and worse than that, to take them seriously; to make them into a lifestyle. The Marvel virus has already overtaken movies; now, it’s infiltrated a new host, TV, and is hollowing it out from within.

The aim is not one or two bad movies a year, it’s a total lifestyle regimen of bad pop culture: In order to keep up with the Avengers, you need to keep up with Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, and in order to keep up with those, you should probably be watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which will really help you keep up with Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, andGuardians of the Galaxy, and in order to make sure you’re on top of these nine essential movie franchises and able to make sense of their plots, you’ll need to keep a constant stream of Marvel product in your life, so make sure to tune in for Agent Carter, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and, of course, the forthcoming Hulu triumphs, Ant-Man’s One Weird Friend Gary and Guy Running Away From Explosion In Panel 17.

The problems with Marvel’s storytelling will be the problems of narrative storytelling for the foreseeable future. Once this is over, we’ll be dealing with a generation raised on this stuff, who believes it’s how storytelling ought to work: Harry Potter came out when I was in high school. I’m in my thirties, and I still haven’t seen the end of the “serialized YA fantasy” onslaught. Something this big sticks around.

I love stupid popcorn movies. I do. I believe they can be emotionally resonant, mythic, that they can do the same thing all stories are meant to do — speak to the soul; challenge us to be more and better than we were — and can use big, fantastic elements to tell big, human truths. I also believe that Marvel has no investment in doing so; that, even if they manage to grab a director who is capable of doing those things, the prioritization of the brand and the formula over individual creators will ultimately sabotage the attempt.

Avengers: Age of Ultron wasn’t just bad. It was, to me, proof that Marvel movies, even at their best, can only be bad. And that they are going to get worse. The human mission has been lost: these are faceless Stormtrooper movies, unleashed in waves upon the presumed-to-be-faceless Stormtrooper audience. Stories are an affirmation of our human value; they teach us what life means, make and keep us human. Marvel, by removing the human from its storytelling, may be bringing about the end of story altogether. F*ck Ultron: Marvel Comics has built the army of machines that might really end the world.

Experimental writing: Following my cellphone’s suggestions

Here is a text co-written by my smartphone and me. I provided the starting word, and then I repeatedly chose one of the 3 words my keyboard program suggested to me. Here’s one starting with the “rhinos”:

I am going out with you and Jessica Simpson. the other day I was wondering how much of it is not an intended recipient of the book, but I didn’t know that you have any questions about your business and look forward to hearing from a single person who’s both polished and good luck. I’m sure that you have a lot more than happy to help me with the same thing as well as other hand.

Here’s another one that my phone wrote with my editing assistance, starting with the word “constables”:

the same time as a result of this product is not a problem with the help of my favorite part. it was the first time in the world of difference between the ages of my own mind. I don’t want to hear that you can also be used for a few years. this was a great deal with the new year to the title of your choice. the only thing that I have received this communication in error. please immediately notify me immediately by return false alert.

And here’s another text, made by my wife’s repeatedly selecting only the middle of three suggestions her phone offered:

Ok! See you manana, and then I will be able to set up a few weeks or months, but it is not a parent or something. I’m not sure if you are free to contact me. I have to go to the doctor. I am a beautiful person. I am a beautiful person. I am a beautiful person.

‘Beowulf at Breakfast’: A poem

This famous poem-story, written in about 850 A.D. in the Old English/Anglo-Saxon language (and translated into modern English below by Seamus Heaney), is about a Nordic warrior tribe’s battle against the monster Grendel. This poem uses a solid, stolid language – lots of one-syllable words, concrete words (rather than abstract), and consonant-prominent words often repeated within the line.  For example, in translation:

Lines 442 to 455:

If Grendel wins, it will be a gruesome day;

he will glut himself on the Geats in the war-hall,

swoop without fear on that flower of manhood

as on others before. Then my face won’t be there

to be covered in death: he will carry me away

as he goes to ground, gorged and bloodied;

he will run gloating with my raw corpse

and feed on it alone, in a cruel frenzy

fouling his moor-nest. No need then

to lament for long or lay out my body:

if the battle takes me, send back

this breast-webbing that Weland fashioned

and Hrethel gave me, to Lord Hygelac.

Fate goes ever as fate must.

The assignment I gave myself (and, later, my students) was to write in the word-style of “Beowulf,” but in an everyday (not military) situation. I wanted to use Beowulf’s forceful language but not his subject matter. Here, then, is my poem “Beowulf At Breakfast”:

Back at my house-lair, I go to food-room

and gather eat-stuffs to break my night-fast.

Steel pot clangs hard on steel stove grate.

Flames cast blue light ‘neath flat pan-side.

Still-water soon leaps with boil-chaos; a song

of water-splash and fire-sputter dances away.

Whence I hear this ear-noise, I click knob

to off and pour steam-stuff into tea cups

and pour more soak-stuff onto flat oat-grains

in clay bowl. Also, there is syrup of maple

(or black-strap molasses) and raisin of grape

and butter of cow-milk and dust of red-bark

to boost my tongue’s taste-lust for else-dry oat parts.