Posts Tagged With: writing

What I’ve learned from Kentucky writers

Our state has phenomenal writers. Is it the beautiful landscape which inspires our stories? Or is it really something in the water? Some will tell you it’s the supportive literary community found here in Kentucky. Whatever the reason, Kentucky has a number of writers topping the bestseller lists and winning national awards.

I’ve been fortunate to learn from several of them through readings, workshops, and conferences at the Carnegie Center where I work. I’ve gained an education on how to be a better writer, and thought I’d share some of my favorite writing advice with you.

At the Books-in-Progress Conference last year, Pulitzer Prize Finalist Barbara Kingsolver said that the first draft of a novel is always “crap.”  Revision is “making it less crappy.”  Do you know how much better I felt hearing this woman who can write such eloquent and well-crafted words share her honest opinion of her own drafts? There’s hope for us all if we revise, revise, revise!

New York Times Bestselling thriller writer Will Lavender teaches intense workshops on how to start your novel. For many writers, finding where the story really begins and how to begin it is one of the most difficult parts of writing. He recommends studying how successful writers begin their stories. None of them did an information dump or included pages of back story. Often, the first sentences alone provide the hook that makes the reader want to discover what happens next in the story. (Just pull out a novel by former Kentucky Poet Laureate Sena Jeter Naslund; her first sentences always strike me as perfect).

I’ve seen more than a couple of published authors use national award-winning author George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From” poem to inspire workshop attendees to write and write well. The trick is to add specific details that both tell the reader what kind of person your character is and what the character’s life is like. It’s a list poem that tells a story, and teaches us that details add spice to our writing.

Affrilachian poet Crystal Wilkinson knows about characterization. She says if you don’t know what your character would eat for breakfast, then you don’t yet know your character, even if you think your novel is finished. For ideas on building characters, she suggests we take note of the people we see while we’re sitting in rush hour traffic, standing in a crowded room, or passing someone on the sidewalk.  The little details that stick about the people we meet “are the details that were meant to be stuck,” she says. And those details are what breathe life into a character.

At any stage of our writing and writing careers, there is always something to be learned about the craft. Sign up for the Kentucky Literary Newsletter to learn about literary opportunities across the state. As many published writers have said, make time to hone your craft, and no matter what, keep writing!

Jennifer Hester Mattox, Carnegie Center development director & coordinator of the Kentucky Great Writers Series

Categories: Literary Arts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Ekphrastic Poetry: Inspired by Art and Structured According to W. C. Williams

For the past six years, I have been conducting ekphrastic poetry workshops in classrooms throughout western Kentucky, guiding students in grades 3 – 12 to write original poems inspired by works of art that are recorded and broadcast on our public radio station, WKMS-FM, every weekday in April to celebrate National Poetry Month. Response to the program has been overwhelmingly positive, not only as stimulus to writing and listening to poetry, but also as motivation to appreciate public radio and its role in the cultural life of the region.

Typically, one class period is all the time available for the workshops. Because of time limitations, I use short poems by William Carlos Williams as structural models, and images from “Picturing America,” a program of the National Endowment for the Humanities, to inspire the writers. In 2011-12, we used images from the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum on Main Street program, “Journey Stories.”

Williams’ short works (most notably “the red wheelbarrow” and “this is just to say“) offer permission to break some rules and focus on economy of language without sacrificing meaning. Especially with younger students in grades 3 – 6, the short poems are useful to review common core poetry concepts regarding stanzas, line breaks, word choices, imagery, etc. Between the images and the model poems, students of all levels are able to complete the assignment: to write a minimum of one poem before the end of the class.

A simple organizer guides writers in the number of stanzas and words per line of the poem. Students are urged to write, not to ponder too long over any aspect of their poems. Once they have a draft, it is easier for them to see where adjustments are needed. We dive right in and work fast, but there is always time allotted for students to read their poems aloud, with emphasis on reading loud and clear. Feedback focuses on specific strong points in each poem. (There is always something positive to say, now isn’t there?)

Some sophisticated concepts that are readily discussed in relation to the work include things like word choice, imagery, near rhyme, rhythm, line breaks, stanza breaks, point of view and parallel structure. Grammatical concepts sometimes arise — verb tense, subject-verb agreement, active voice — and, all are discussed within context. Kids beg to write more, and even after the bell has rung, they clamor to share their work.

Here are a couple of my favorites from this year’s batch:

Constance Alexander, faculty scholar, college of education, Murray State University, calexander9@murraystate.edu.

Categories: Arts Education, Literary Arts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Can a poem still change anything?

On January 22, 2013, the day Alexandra Petri asked this question in an article titled “Is poetry dead?,” seven people in Lexington, Ky., were tattooed with words of their choice from a poem Bianca Spriggs had written as a love letter to, about, and for Lexington.

On the pages of the Washington Post, Petri responded to her own question without skipping a beat: “I think the medium might not be loud enough any longer.” In Lexington, Andreea McClintock and Sonya Sisk showed up at Charmed Life Tattoo at 3 p.m. after carefully rearranging their work schedules in the ER. Because they are friends, they wanted to get their poetic tattoos together.

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Can a poem change anything?

Titled “The _______ of the Universe: A Love Story,” Bianca’s poem challenges the belief that poetry is outdated, irrelevant, and useless, that you might as well put it out of its misery by donating the whole genre to a book drive to be shipped some place where no one speaks its language.

Bianca started her poem by inviting everyone to write with her on her Facebook page. Asking people to fill in the blank of “Lexington is the ______ of the Universe” was like offering free tickets to the opening day of Keeneland, take the grandstand seats and remember the sunscreen!  (“the opening day of Keeneland” became part of the poem when Bianca asked folks to tell her their most beloved places in Lexington.)

At 496 words, including the title, Bianca’s poem is already spread across 247 bodies, soon to be 249. Each day, Bianca’s words stretch, go for a brisk morning run in the dark, carry a newborn, bake chocolate-bacon cookies, drink buttered-rum flavored coffee, and do all the things that make up our daily lives. On January 22 at 2 p.m., Kate Hadfield got tattooed with “and were so busy,” a phrase that reminds her of her ever-busy life as a poet and dancer. When Kate dances, Bianca’s words refuse to sit still; they absolutely refuse to die.

Reading Bianca’s poem is, more often than not, a public act: one that takes place in public and makes it necessary to look at skin, ink, and hair, not yellowing pages. “Hello, fried delicacies!” we shout to Hampton Fisher whose tattoo might just be the funniest. At 8 p.m. on January 22, Mikey Wells got “from” — a word he chose to remind him of where he comes from. Like many others who received Bianca’s words as tattoos, Mikey does not hesitate to take his right shoe off, revealing his part of the whole. His tattoo makes you wonder, “from where?” Mikey is from Lexington.

Can a poem still change anything?

Bianca’s poem—spread like a city-wide mural over 249 bodies—changes our ideas about poetry, tattoos, art and love. “The ________ of the Universe” changes our ideas about a city large enough to adopt so many willing to sink deep roots in Bluegrass soil.

Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova

****Note: This blog entry is 496 words long, the same length as Bianca’s poem. Reading “The ________ of the Universe” after this blog entry should make it clear that poetry can get a lot more mileage per word than prose.

Categories: Literary Arts, Other | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What’s going on in Kentucky? by Lynnell Edwards

I was privileged to be part of two Kentucky-centric panels at the annual conference of the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) this year in Chicago, which, with almost 10,000 in attendance, is undoubtedly the largest gathering of writers, editors, promoters and lovers of literary writing in the United States, if not the world.  So it was a surprise when out of this carnival of ages and faces, of academics and independents, of the conventional and the frankly unconventional, a member of the audience at our reading for the Kentucky Women Writer’s Conference asked: “With four panels—and counting—focused on or showcasing Kentucky writers, Kentucky is the single most best-represented state at the conference. What’s going on in Kentucky?”

What’s going on indeed.

I don’t remember that there was a single, extended answer from our panel—someone joked about the water (or maybe it was the bourbon)—but there was consensus that at least some of it had to do with our ability to support one another, for the established to mentor the emerging, and for the urban and the rural to find points of engagement and admiration. The Kentucky literary community is a big tent, a literary front porch that welcomes all.

Now a month past that question a more expansive response begins to take shape, though the brief space here allows just a few notes toward a full discussion of “what’s going on in Kentucky.”

First, a strong community depends in large part on the willingness of its members to work for common good. Among Kentucky’s most highly published contemporary writers are also some of the state’s best literary citizens. They run reading series, put on festivals and operate literary presses and journals that take chances on new writers; they visit schools and offer writing workshops for teens; they send out newsletters and share opportunities; they fund prizes and raise money for literary causes.

But it’s not clear that all this literary citizenry is necessarily peculiar to Kentucky; perhaps it’s just a particular convergence right now of literary folk who are also enthusiastic organizers.

A second reason, perhaps, gets more precisely at the question of a writer and her region. We are a conflicted history of a conflicted people. Kentucky is eternally a state of contradictions: are we north or south? And if we’re part of the Bible belt, then why are our top industries gambling and distilled spirits? We have a bounty of natural resources and beauty that we are systematically destroying. We are abundant in our literary wealth, yet continued and historically poor support for education and a powerful current of anti-intellectualism keep our graduation and literacy rates low.

As difficult as this condition makes it to get anything done in Frankfort,  I do think there is a particular kind of passion and violence in Kentucky’s conflicted history, in our complete disregard for the rules that can impart a fearlessness in its writers, however they make their claim to Kentucky. Hunter S. Thompson exhibited this kind of fearlessness when he reinvented journalism as did Robert Penn Warren of the prior generation when he reinvented literary criticism; the late poet Aleda Shirley in her final book “Dark Familiar” stared down mortality with a fearless eye; James Baker Hall brought the all-seeing camera’s eye to his fearless composition on the page. And now, Nikky Finney writing devastatingly beautiful poems about Condoleeza Rice in her National Book Award-winning collection “Head Off and Split”; Wendell Berry—not because he’s the most radical writer on the environment around (he’s not)—but because he fearlessly reaches into philosophy, religion, science, natural history and political science to create a far-reaching, widely accessible polemic about what we’re doing to our Earth and why. All of them fearless Kentucky writers. What’s going on in Kentucky?  Don’t be afraid to ask.

Lynnell Major Edwards is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently “Covet” (October, 2011), and also “The Farmer’s Daughter” (2003) and “The Highwayman’s Wife” (2007), all from Red Hen Press. Her short fiction and book reviews have appeared most recently in Connecticut Review, American Book Review, Pleiades, New Madrid, and others. She lives in Louisville, Ky. where she is on the board of directors for Louisville Literary Arts, a non-profit literary arts organization that sponsors the monthly InKY reading series and The Writer’s Block Festival. She is also associate professor of English at Spalding University. She also teaches creative writing workshops at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and is available for readings and workshops in a variety of settings. http://lynnelledwards.wordpress.com/

Categories: Literary Arts | Tags: , , , , ,

The ability to simplify

On Saturday, July 30 I judged plein air paintings for Lexington Cityscapes 2011, a paint-out hosted by Gallery B. Over thirty-five artists painted pieces from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. They had to be thoughtful about what they depicted. There wasn’t time to include every detail they saw. The first prize winner, Marilyn Sadler, used an American flag as the compositional and thematic focus of her painting, “Morning Glory.” The flag anchored her piece and pulled together several disparate elements, resulting in a strong and appealing image.

Now, I am supposed to be working on a blog entry about writing to tie into the “Writing Good Copy” webinar I’ll be presenting on August 10. It’s not an easy task. I’ve spent a lot of years working on my writing. To become better at it I’ve read books, practiced regularly, talked with professionals and listened to critiques. It’s hard to take all that experience and condense it into a few paragraphs that say something meaningful.

It’s like when you have to write an artist statement. You probably have years of experience making your artwork—countless hours spent honing your skills, developing your vision and living the life of an artist. How can you express all of that in a few lines of text.

The fact is that you can’t. Not all of it. If you try to cram too much information into your artist statement it will fail. A large block of text that does nothing but list facts about you is boring, and a group of long sentences full of art jargon is hard to read. If your readers are bored or overburdened, they will stop reading. The effort you put into writing your statement will have been wasted.

So approach your writing as if you were painting en plein air. Carefully select something from your experience to serve as the focus of your piece. Pick other details that can tie into that main theme and support it. Keep your writing focused. Give enough information to intrigue your readers, but don’t try to include all that you know and think about your art. Give them a basis for exploring your work then let them discover things for themselves.

If you follow this blog, you know that I use a quote in each of my entries. This is a habit I picked up from writing my artist statements. As I read about art I jot down lines that capture my attention. When I need to write something of my own, I review these quotes to help organize my thoughts. I then select one to focus my writing as Marilyn selected the flag to focus her painting.

Here are my strategies for painting and writing significant pieces. Select elements of interest and place them within a thoughtful composition. Work hard and let your talent and experience guide you. Be bold and be yourself.

Craig Kittner, arts marketing director

Categories: Literary Arts | Tags: , ,

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