Tales of the Roaring ’20s, or adventures in grammar and syntax

By Fenton Johnson, Creative Nonfiction Faculty

Herewith, I record in print what many have heard me say in workshop: I will have inscribed on my tombstone, “He was the enemy of the ambiguous ‘it’.” In fact I have leaned on this topic so heavily that the most excellent Brittni Caudill has chosen “it” (ahem) as the topic of her graduation lecture. In deference to her lecture—and with the fervent hope that you will pull “it” up to watch and heed—I’ll defer my comments on the topic.

Be aware, however, that in general, pronouns are not your friends. If one subscribes, as I do, to the creation and maintenance of a smooth path for the reader, pronouns are a speed bump. Even when situated close to their appropriate antecedents (“Mary had a little lamb / whose fleece was . . .”) they require the brain to pause and think, “What’s the antecedent?”. Of course, they also provide pleasing variety and allow the writer to avoid awkward repetitions (“Mary had a little lamb / and Mary’s lamb’s fleece was . . .”). All the same: Be wary. In general, make certain that pronouns and their antecedents are in close proximity.

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The Poetic Justice of Grief

By Lesléa Newman, Faculty, Writing for Children & Young Adults

“You’re already writing about your mother?”
“It took me years to be able to write about my father.”
“Don’t you need time to grieve?”
“Wasn’t it incredibly difficult to write about your parents so soon after they died?”

These are the kinds of comments I received from people who couldn’t believe I picked up my pen immediately after sitting shiva first for my mother in August of 2012 and then again for my father in December of 2017. They were incredulous that I was able to write. I was incredulous that they were incredulous. I’m a writer, more specifically a poet. Writing (and reading) poetry is how I make sense of the world: the world outside of me, the world inside of me, and the relationship between the two.

So of course I turned to writing after each of my parents died. Not as a way to ignore my grief or postpone my grief or distract myself from my grief, but as a way to immerse myself in my grief. It may sound funny, but truthfully I was happiest when I was diving deep into my sadness by writing poetry about my parents. It kept them close to me. As I wrote about them I saw them, I felt them, I heard their voices in my head. And that was very comforting.

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The novel that started it all

By Kathleen Driskell, Chair, Spalding School of Creative & Professional Writing

The novel that helped launch the Spalding MFA Program: As we celebrate our twentieth anniversary, our Residency Book in Common for Spring 2021 is Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife

Several years before the MFA program was founded at Spalding, the Humanities Department, of which I was a faculty member, invited founding editor Sena Jeter Naslund and managing editor Karen Mann to move the literary journal The Louisville Review from the University of Louisville to a new home at Spalding. Sitting around the editorial table in my campus office, I remember when I began to hear that Sena was finishing her newest novel, Ahab’s Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer. She’d published a number of beautiful books of fiction before, but Ahab’s Wife was about to launch her into the stratosphere. After an exciting auction involving several New York publishing houses, we were delighted to learn that her novel had been acquired by William Morrow. The literary world was soon buzzing with anticipation for the publication of Ahab’s Wife.

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Multiple Perspectives: To Use or Not

By Beth Ann Bauman, Writing for Children & Young Adults Faculty

Maybe it’s just me, but the use of multiple perspectives in middle-grade and YA fiction seems to have swelled in the last decade. And it’s understandable why this is an appealing choice for a writer. It’s fun to head hop, use different voices, and create a broader understanding of the world. When done well, it makes for a satisfying, compelling read, such as in the young-adult novel Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys, a WWII story that follows four narrators seeking passage on a ship to escape a Soviet advance. The shifting perspectives provide a wide lens on this historical event while keeping a strong narrative focus. But handling multiple perspectives is tricky and complicated, and a book can easily lose its narrative unity. Before attempting, here are some considerations:

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Playing with Intention

By Erin Keane, Professional Writing & Poetry Faculty

When I interviewed Aimee Bender in 2010 about her novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, she said something about her process that stuck with me: Every day, she forces herself to be bored. “I feel like sitting through boredom is a major piece of being a writer,” she said. “There’s this intense restlessness that comes up when bored.” This makes sense to me—I’ve known since childhood how to invent ways to entertain myself when boredom crept in. That’s play, really. Telling myself stories, or tinkering with language and observation in poems, is a method of play that I carried with me into my adult life as a writer. But in the current iteration of that life, as the editorial head of a fast-paced digital publication that covers news, politics, culture, science, and health, boredom is frequently in short supply.

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Wisdom relearned in 2020: To every thing, there is a season

Perhaps 2021 will be a time to build up.

By Roy Hoffman, Creative Nonfiction/Fiction Faculty

[Originally appeared in The Boston Globe, Ideas section, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020]

Mobile Bay, Alabama
[Photo courtesy of Roy Hoffman]

In December 1965, the 2,300-year-old words of Ecclesiastes vaulted to the top of the Billboard 100, thanks to a group of mellow rockers, The Byrds, crooning “To every thing there is a season.” That year, marked like this one with strife and division — the Selma march, the Watts riots, the Vietnam War — the clear-eyed pronouncements of a Biblical sage, situated near Proverbs and the Song of Songs, were steadying. On our radios those holiday weeks and well into 1966, with Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” and the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out” also vying for dominance, The Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” — its title from the 1959 version by Pete Seeger — offered no-nonsense philosophy with a beat: “A time to be born, and a time to die.” There was destruction, “a time to break down,” and restoration, “a time to build up.” I recall, going on 13, a sock hop where teens slow-danced to the ancient wisdom. Each of us, in our personal journeys, experiences “a time to every purpose under the heaven.” Today, more than most years, we also do so collectively.

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My Hemisphere: American Theatre in a Moment of Transformation

Eric Schmiedl, Playwriting Faculty

So. I’m a Cleveland kid. Born and raised. Generations of my family – both sides – have straddled the Cuyahoga River. Making soups in the kitchen at Hallie’s Department Store. Stamping out engine parts in the small tool and die shops on the near west side. Cheering when Jim Brown broke another tackle at Municipal Stadium. Trudging through record snow and around burning rivers. We are Clevelanders, through and through.

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