Monthly Archives: April 2018

Creative Writing 101

My youngest daughter just finished her first year of a Creative Writing/English Literature degree at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec. She returned to Seattle this week and I was interested to hear what they teach about the craft of writing these days, so I invited her to take my spot writing this week’s post on Books Around The Table.

Introducing Clare Chodos-Irvine

I only have ¼ of a university degree, but after nine months of studying literature and attending writing workshops, this is what I’ve learned about writing:

  1. 90% of the time, avoid adverbs. I have a classmate who, throughout the five submissions I made over the course of a year, never failed to circle my unnecessary adverbs. I didn’t realize that I used so many until he pointed it out. More often than not, an image, sentence or metaphor is stronger without the use of an adverb. Usually, it stops you from repeating yourself. There’s no reason to say, “She ran quickly,” because if she was running, one would hope it would be quick.
  2. Classmates and teachers are there to help you. I’m lucky to have had professors in my first year who were constantly supportive. My classmates are all so talented, and having a group of people to bounce creative ideas off of is extremely helpful, even if you’re not a creative writing student.
  3. Pretty much anything can inspire you. I took a survey of British literature from the beginning of time until 1660, and although the course didn’t leave me a lot of time to read for pleasure, I was inspired by the alliteration in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and the complicated rhyme scheme in Beowulf. I read things I would never have read otherwise, thanks to my teachers’ thoughtful planning of the course reading lists. A story I have been sitting on for three years went from a fantasy/romance piece to a feminist werewolf story thanks to Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves” , and my fiction workshop classmates. I was inspired by my classmates constantly. They often found meaning in my writing that I hadn’t discovered myself. For example, they saw a woman chipping paint off her wall as an extended metaphor reflecting her decaying relationship. Being surrounded by a large group of creative individuals is electrifying because, for the first time in my life, the majority of the people I am around share my passion for writing.
  4. There is no such thing as children’s writing. If a children’s book or a YA novel is well written, anyone can enjoy it. This was emphasized frequently by my fiction professor, and is proven true by writers like Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket) or Roald Dahl.
  5. Don’t get rid of anything. I discovered this year that some of my pieces that were unsuccessful as short stories work very well as poems. I disliked poetry until I turned sixteen. Even after I liked reading poetry, I didn’t think I should write poetry. My poems sounded too confessional. But when I rewrote some of my short stories as poems, they worked much better. Fiction can work as poetry, and vice versa.

Lastly, I learned that creativity takes work, and it hurts and it’s scary to put a piece of yourself out there. But as intimidating as writing is, it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. I am eager to learn as much as I can about the past, present and future of the craft. I can’t wait to earn the next ¾ of my degree.

 

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How Well Do You Know Books in Art?

In my collection of images of books in art, there are a number of pieces by famous artists. Although, not always their best works, its fun to see how artists from Matisse to Magritte have portrayed the books in our lives.

Each artist is somehow unmistakably themselves (well, except one) despite a common theme. I bet you can guess most of them. Scroll to the bottom to see if you’re right. Enjoy!

 

 

In order from the top, we have Henri Matisse, Roy Lichtenstein, Renee Magritte, Thomas Hart Benton, El Greco (if you got that one, I’m impressed), Albrecht Durer, Arthur Rackham, Wayne Thiebaud (my favorite. All his paintings look edible to me) and, of course, Norman Rockwell. How’d you do?

 

Questions and Parrots

Parrot 1

In last week’s New York Times Book Review, author Ernest Cline was asked “What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?” He answered, “Apes don’t ask questions, even if they know sign language.”

Well, that sent my head spinning. I posted it on my Facebook page, and I asked this question (of myself and of my friends): Is the ability to ask questions and to wonder about things specifically human? Or is it the singular ability to articulate/voice that wonder which we lay claim to?

Matt Smith, a talented writer I got to know and work with at Vermont College of Fine Arts, sent me a link to a page in Birdology by Sy Montgomery in which we learn about a parrot named Alex and the woman who taught him to speak (better said, taught him some English vocabulary and concepts.) Alex had been taught colors, taught how to count, he recognized letters of the alphabet and numerals, and it seemed he could even add numbers. But the goal was not just to teach him words and numbers but to understand his thought process, to “show us something of how he saw the world.”

Parrot 2

Alex, it seems, could ask questions. When shown his reflection in a mirror for the first time, he asked, “What’s that?” He was told, “That’s you. You’re a parrot.” He asked what color he was and was told he was gray. When he noticed someone working at a desk next to him, he asked whether that person would like some food – a banana, a nut, and when told no he asked “Well, what do you want?”

He also invented words, among them “cork nut” for an almond, because of the nut’s porous shell, and “rock corn” when he encountered dried corn kernels as opposed to the moist kernels of fresh corn. He understood how language worked. He pursued information.

Inquisitiveness, the ability to question – that is, the ability not just to be curious but to seek answers, to be curious not just internally (wondering silently) but externally (asking) or, at the very least, the desire to know more, learn more, understand more – maybe it isn’t exclusively human. Again, my head spins. Setting my head spinning is a goal I embrace, a condition I enjoy.

I also embrace the act of asking questions and seeking answers.

As should any writer.

Or any parrot.

Parrot 3