GROWING UP WRITING

By Nancy McCabe
Spalding MFA Faculty, Creative Nonfiction

“…reminiscing about my origins as a writer is not just a nostalgic act, but one that helps me to keep sight of the reasons why I write.”

I’m surprised by people who think of writing as drudgery, an onerous task we take on to punish ourselves only because of our unforgiving work ethics. For me, the need to write goes back to my childhood, when writing was just another game, like playacting or drawing. Writing, when I was young, was a pleasure, a refuge, solace, a chance to play, with no need to demand perfection from myself, and writing as an adult, is, much of the time, an attempt to recapture that experience. Continue reading “GROWING UP WRITING”

CUT, PASTE, REPEAT: Collage Writing

by Dianne Aprile
Spalding MFA Faculty, Creative Nonfiction

…the collage form encourages us to write in a distilled, imagistic, unconsciously meaningful way…

A year or so ago, I started thinking about teaching writing classes at an art center near where we live on the east side of Seattle. At first, I thought I’d like to lead ekphrastic writing classes, making use of the art exhibited at the Kirkland Arts Center, which draws to its gallery the work of artists from all over the country—and beyond. Continue reading “CUT, PASTE, REPEAT: Collage Writing”

SPECIAL EVENTS AT THE FALL 2016 RESIDENCY

by Katy Yocom
Spalding MFA Associate Administrative Director

A priceless Shakespeare first folio, the new and improved Speed Art Museum, and a musical interlude with the Louisville Orchestra all figure into the Spalding low-residency MFA in Writing program’s Fall 2016 residency. The residency will include dozens of special events and sessions, acclaimed guest speakers, faculty craft lectures, and a special focus on “Will in the Ville.” Residency takes place November 11-20 in Louisville, Kentucky.

Continue reading “SPECIAL EVENTS AT THE FALL 2016 RESIDENCY”

All Moments Are Present to This Moment: The Elasticity of Time in Storytelling

by Fenton Johnson

Spalding MFA Fiction and CNF faculty

Here’s the great secret to the storyteller’s approach to narrative time:  It has nothing to do with the time of clock and calendar.  In a very real way, storytelling time is timeless – outside of time – if one needs evidence of this, consider the power of that magical phrase, “Once upon a time . . .”, which might be appended to the beginning of every work of fiction and creative nonfiction, even those that we think of as “realistic.”  (Involuntarily I think of the great novelist and memoirist Vladimir Nabokov’s observation:  “Reality is the only word that ought always to be enclosed in quotation marks – ‘reality.’”) Continue reading “All Moments Are Present to This Moment: The Elasticity of Time in Storytelling”

Writing With Art

by Roy Hoffman

Spalding MFA Faculty, Creative Nonfiction and Fiction

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With art nearby when I write – from our Georgia O’Keefe kitchen calendar to the paintings, sculpture, and ceramics, many by friends, throughout our house – I find myself inspired, as a word person, by the color, shape, and texture of the visual. From the time as a college freshman I taped up a poster of Henri Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy” on my dorm wall, to trips to New York where, ritually, I visit the Metropolitan Museum’s Rembrandt room to gaze into portraits where time creases faces, I find, in art, places to lose myself, to dream, to learn, ever more clearly, to see.

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That my wife and I – Nancy a teacher and potter, I a writer – have collected pieces we can both afford and love, enriches my hours putting letters on a page. Some remind me of travel – we have artworks we found in out-of-the-way places on journeys to Buenos Aires, Venice, and Beijing – but many come from close by.

In my study is a row of masks whose faces look down on me as I write. Among them is an African mask from the Lega tribe (#1), a gift from an art dealer friend of mine in New Orleans who owns Barrister’s Gallery. The primitive face, with its straw beard, is impassive, his expression at first glance unknowable, with cutouts for eyes and mouth in the oval of wood. But as I look up from my endeavors he seems to reflect my moods, a timeless visage inviting me to cast my emotions into his.

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Another is a double portrait by an Alabama artist, two rudimentary faces cut from sheet metal hammered onto a blue broken board (#2), with fragments of pottery beneath. The signature, “Tin Man,” refers to Charlie “Tin Man” Lucas, an outsider artist in Selma, Ala., whom I visited to write a profile. When I gaze back at Tin Man’s faces, I am reminded how we can cobble together works of art from what, in ordinary view, might seem like detritus, can create treasures from what would otherwise be fragments for the trash heap.

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At the top of our stairs is a painting as tall as I am, a branching of lines inspired by the rivers of a Texas boyhood (#3). The pleasure of this artwork is esthetic – ribbons of white, gray, and black acryllic on a scroll of handmade paper, giving me the sensation of a physical landscape as well as an interior one, coursings of water, streams of thought.  The delight is personal, too, in that I met the artist, Bill Pangburn, in college, and we shared an apartment sophomore year. Since then we’ve watched each other’s creativity, no matter visual or literary, evolve and mature. An encaustic by Renee Magnanti, Bill’s wife, is in our dining room, a geometric puzzle of carved wax in different colors, inspired by Indonesian tapestry (#4). It’s fascinating to see how one art form, textiles, migrates into another, created from wax. The works of Bill and Renee make me ponder how we are shaped by images from our youth and the world around us, and, as writers, by genres other than our own.

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Some artworks speak to me of friends no longer with us, like the exquisite porcelain of Scott McDowell (#5), a ceramics artist Nancy befriended when we were dating in the early 1980s, and I was living in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. Scott’s studio was around the corner. There was little hope, in that era, when he was diagnosed HIV-positive. Toward the end he worked feverishly to create stunning art objects that would endure. There is energy in his art pieces, a dynamic presence that still speaks to us of him.

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And a carved rooster (#6) holds memories, too, the story of a wonderful Kentucky couple, the late Bob and Pam Sexton. Long before the Spalding Low Residency MFA Program existed –  where I would teach and Pam become a student – I met Pam when I traveled to Lexington to write an article for the Ford Foundation on Bob’s herculean efforts to reform public education. As the Sextons showed me around, we visited a folk art shop where I bought a piece of wood transformed by artists Lonnie and Twyla Money. When I see that folk art rooster in my kitchen today, I think of Pam and a story she shared in a fiction workshop, and a river in that story, and how art can join us in ways we can never predict.

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The work of four Gulf Coast artists, three of whom live near me in Fairhope, Ala., or across the bay in Mobile, play off one another in our home and create other ties. The first is a pen and ink work by New Orleans artist Anastasia Pelias (#7), an abstract couple so entwined their faces merge with each other. I am reminded, passing by, how art can evoke mystery within a sense of familiarity.

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The next is a photograph, made with digital finesse (#8) by Russell Goodloe, a retired orthodontist in Mobile and a passionate photographer, of an empty bench before a Western backdrop of mountains. Sometimes, before I return to my writing chair, I imagine lingering on that bench, thinking up what I want to write back in my Gulf Coast den. The image helps me relax. It also tells me to linger before landscapes, to let a sense of place envelop us.

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“Violata Pax,” (#9) a dove with a torn claw standing before barbed wire with a blood-red rose on the ground, is a giclee print by Nall Hollis – known as Nall – a Troy, Ala. native with a global reach, images from his “Wounded Peace” series in prints, sculpture, and mosaics shown from the U.S. to France to Italy. That Nall has a studio a few minutes from our house in Fairhope underscores how art that crosses oceans can be made in world capitals – or small towns. And his wounded dove is instructive of how to find tension in beauty.

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The painting that dominates our living room is by Brad Robertson (#10), a huge work of rich blues and greens, shot through with light, which gives me the feeling of an incoming storm. I first saw this painting in Brad’s studio in Mobile, and knew right away this was the mood I wanted to be at the heart of my novel, “Come Landfall.” The painting became the book’s cover (#11). We didn’t intend to buy it, but the thought of its going somewhere else, hung on a stranger’s wall far away, seemed somehow not right. Having it in our home completes a circle.

 

Roy Hoffman, who lives in Fairhope, Ala., and teaches fiction and creative nonfiction in the Spalding Low Residency MFA in Writing Program, is the author of five books, including Alabama Afternoons, an essay collection, and the novels Chicken Dreaming Corn and Come Landfall.  On the web: www.royhoffmanwriter.com 

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Beets

by Fenton Johnson

At the grave risk of thumbing my nose at the writing goddess for whom I have such love and respect, I don’t believe in writer’s block. The words come or they don’t. Sometimes – for me, rarely – they come easily. At other times, they are fearfully hard. There are long periods of generating crap. Sometimes the crap extends over weeks, months, years. There are long periods of silence. Sometimes the silences extend over weeks, months, years. I don’t think of that as writer’s block. I think of it as writing. The silences are part of the process. Am I producing words to feed a post-industrial capitalist / academic publishing machine, or – worse yet – my own ego? Or am I striving to write what needs to be said, when it needs to be heard?

Having said that, I also believe in sitting at the feet of the masters and striving to imitate them, brushstroke for brushstroke, verb for verb, comma for comma. Stuck against a deadline? Words not coming? Sit down with a paragraph of a writer who stuns you into silence. Then write that paragraph, laying aside any thoughts of plagiarism, holding in the heart only the desire to learn. Amazing what that gesture of respectful imitation can do to liberate the imagination from its self-imposed fears and fetters.

The first writing was plagiarism. All that came before is lost – except as it filters down to us through the writing of our conscientious thieves. It is the conscientiousness – the desire and determination to make it new – that distinguishes that gesture it from real plagiarism and makes it unique, makes it new, makes it mine, makes it yours.

Now I light a candle to the writing deities, Seshat, Saraswati, Hermes the messenger, St. Paul (St. Paul?), in gratefulness and supplication.

But while I’m waiting for those really fine golden beets I came across at the farmer’s market today to roast, let me grind a favorite kitchen knife and underscore the distinction, familiar to many of my Spalding students, between “fact” and “truth.” “Fact,” as the roots of the word suggest, is malleable – the root is the same as that of manufacture, i.e., that which is made by hand. “Truth,” on the other hand, is enduring, eternal – the root of the word is the same as that of “betrothed, i.e, “be-truth-ed”.

Newscasters and others who use phrases carelessly may use “fact” and “truth” interchangeably, but we are serious writers whose task and discipline – never forget, voluntarily taken on – is to use words with care and attention.

If you think I’m wrong, take a quick tour of “facts” that a century ago were taken for granted: non-Anglo races genetically inferior; women inherently weaker; same-gender love between men an unspeakable crime and between women nonexistent; two clearly defined, black-and-white genders; black and white. Try this parlor game, after a bottle of wine and/or bubbly water at your next dinner party: Ask the guests to imagine what “fact” we now take for granted that a century hence will be trotted out as evidence of how primitive, silly, and wrong-headed were our ancestors, by way of proving how much superior we are to them in perspicacity, judgment, and intelligence. As is demonstrated, say, by the rhetoric of the midterm election, upcoming as I write.

Then, after everyone has spoken to much discussion and hilarity, at the party’s end, speak this single truth: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

q.e.d., quod erat demonstrandum: Thus the proof is made.

Beets done — a kitchen knife, the very kitchen knife we met in paragraph five, above, sharpened by the intervening words, pierces easily to the center of the beet. I’m off to supper.

Tutoring

by Joan Donaldson

Alumnus, Creative Nonfiction/Writing for Children & Young Adults ’08

For over twenty years, I volunteered as a literacy tutor at my local elementary school, but this fall I began assisting adult students who need to improve their writing skills. On a Saturday morning, I pulled up a chair next to Nancy, a single mom in her early thirties who had participated in remedial course work offered by a Michigan university, and while she excelled in her creative writing she failed the critical writing exam. In order to be accepted into regular college course work, she needed to achieve a score of sixty-five points out of a hundred, and Nancy scored three points.

Nancy probably felt as overwhelmed by her miserable score as I did. The director of the tutoring program gave me a sample of the type of short narratives and questions that Nancy would encounter the next time she attempted the exam, so we set to work. Drawing from experiences with younger students, I read the passage to Nancy, watching her face and pausing when I thought she didn’t understand a word or a concept. As we picked the passage apart, I realized that she lacked the critical thinking skills to comprehend both the small and overarching ideas, so I leaned on my gifts as a storyteller honed at Spalding. To supplement the text, I created word pictures to help Nancy visualize the concept of lending micro-loans to people in developing countries who have no collateral or credit.

“Imagine that you want to push a fruit cart through your local market. What would you need to buy with your loan? How would owning a small business change your life and how you feel about yourself?”

Together, we built a story around the ideas exposed in the article so that Nancy could comprehend the information and the deeper meanings. I reminded her to ask the “who, where, what, why and when” questions as she read a narrative, and she scribbled down more notes.

When we moved on to the multiple choice questions we ran into other problems. Nancy did not know the necessary elements of a sentence such as the need for a subject and verb or to make sure of subject verb agreement. She couldn’t explain how to make the possessive form of a noun and other elementary writing concepts. Part of me wonders how she ever managed her high school studies, while another part reminds me that this woman was raised in a dysfunctional family and has overcome many obstacles in order to sit next to me.

“For next week, pick a book from this list, and read even just one chapter and write me a couple of paragraphs about it.” I scribble out titles such as Undertakings and The Liar’s Club, hoping one of these books will show Nancy how other people survived problems.

“Maybe I should start helping my ten-year-old with his homework,” she says.

“That would be a good way to review this basic writing, and it would prepare you to become a teacher.”

That’s Nancy goal, to rise above her writing score of three to passing the college entrance exam, to slogging through the coursework to become an elementary teacher. At age thirty-four, with three kids to support, Nancy faces an arduous journey, but not an impossible one.

We walk out to our vehicles and after Nancy stows her backpack in her van, I give her a hug. As I drive home, I thank God for my excellent education and hope that over the next months, my gifts can kindle new ideas and skills in this young woman who wants to claim a future and a purpose for her life.

Preventative Measures Against Despair Caused by Divided Energies

by Katy Yocom

Associate Administrative Director

In 1909, while working for the Insurance Institute in Prague, Franz Kafka wrote a report titled “Preventative Measures Against Accidents Caused by Mechanical Brushes.” It’s accompanied by illustrations, including a drawing of a hand missing its index and middle fingers. The hand is truncated with a hard line at the wrist, as if it had never been attached to a human arm.

In a way, that severed hand is Kafka. He bewailed the six hours a day he spent at the office, six days a week, spending his writing energies penning pamphlets about accidental amputation. He had already discerned that creative writing was his purpose in life. “Naturally, I did not find this purpose independently and consciously, it found itself, and is now interfered with only by the office, but that interferes with it completely,” he wrote. “ … For me in particular, it is a horrible double life from which there is probably no escape but insanity.”

Fortunately, most of us are not as sensitive as Kafka. Still, we feel his pain. Put together that hand and other body parts found in illustrated advertisements of the era, throw in the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg to keep the literary theme going, and you could build a whole person that way: a Frankenstein’s monster created in the name of commerce and gainful employment. A physical manifestation of the life of the writer who holds down a day job. Or raises children. Or cares for aging parents. Or suffers her own infirmities.

We all know the stories of pluck and perseverance: Christopher Paul Curtis wrote his Newbery Medal-winning Bud, Not Buddy on lunch breaks at his factory job. J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book in a crowded café while her daughter napped. As a writer who doesn’t write daily, stories like this leave me feeling half inspired, half ashamed: If they can do it, what’s myproblem? And then there’s that Faulkner quote that leaves me burning with resentment and envy:  “I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning.” Oh, the smugness! I’m tempted to wish it weren’t inspiration that struck Faulkner every morning but the flat of my palm.

Although people don’t talk about it much, I suspect that I’m part of a large group of writers who don’t manage to pull off a productive daily writing life. I think what that looks like is very diverse:

We write even when we can’t write enough to keep the creative fire fully lit.

We don’t write at all, for months, even years.

We write every day in astonishing bursts on deadline. Once the deadline passes, we stop.

We take retreats that allow the words to pour out of us for a week or a month at a time, then return to our daily lives and set the work aside till the next retreat comes along.

We take ten years to finish a novel.

We accomplish less than we might, if things were different.

I did write daily, for about six weeks in the spring of 2012, on deadline. I got up at 5:00 or 5:30 and wrote, seven days a week before going to work or taking care of weekend errands. I kept that schedule through the spring residency. When Jacqueline Woodson spoke at that residency, her words sparked with me so brightly that I cancelled my dinner plans, hurried back to my computer, and broke through a point-of-view problem that had been dogging me for years.

I suspect the timing of that breakthrough was not a coincidence. If I hadn’t been writing daily, likely Woodson’s words would have drifted away without leaving a mark.  Madeleine L’Engle once said, not smugly, “Inspiration usually comes during work, rather than before it.” Yes.

I hit my deadline, and I stopped getting up at five to write every day. I’m not proud of that fact, but I’m less ashamed than I used to be. I accept dry spells now in ways I once couldn’t, because accepting them seems better than following the path Kafka foresaw for himself. I suspect insanity wouldn’t feel like much of an escape in the end, anyway.

Better to accept the times when other demands push writing out of our lives. Better to tell ourselves it’s all fodder. Better to know we are still writers, even when we’re not writing.

But also this: Better to make a conscious decision to free up whatever time we can, to shed whatever responsibilities we can morally and financially justify ditching. To disappoint people, if we have to. To let go of the commitments that feed our egos and win us approval but undercut our creative output. Sometimes we feel so dismembered by our obligations that we forget to look for the places we can reintegrate ourselves. “In the end,” Twyla Tharp writes in The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, “there is no ideal condition for creativity. What works for one person is useless for another. The only criterion is this: Make it easy on yourself.”