Fun with Rubrics

Author Jo Knowles wrote a blog post called “Some Things I Learned from Being ‘Judge-y’”, in which she reflects on the experience of judging writing competitions, and compiles the feedback she gave to the submissions. Looking across her feedback, I was struck by the common threads and my mind started to bunch certain comments together. I was also super grateful that she generously shared her experience so that the rest of us could learn a thing or two. Her post epitomizes the generosity of the writing community. Three cheers for writers!

I thought it would be useful to apply Ms Knowles’ criteria to my own submissions, to see how my writing would fare and, most importantly, asses where it needs the most improvement. For ease, I adapted her comments into a rubric. By referring to the rubric during revision, a writer can see what he or she already does well, and which areas of the writing are weakest. And, then, by following a column, the writer can even figure out what to do to move his or her writing into the next category.

Can’t take the teacher out of the girl, I guess.

Here’s a link to the Writing_Rubric I made by adapting Ms Knowles’ comments. I tried to make it feel as universal and non-genre specific as possible. Feel free to use and share. I hope it’s helpful to others.

To learn more about author Jo Knowles, check out her website or follow her on Twitter.

 

DYI MFA: Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice, Post #2

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
I’m continuing my DIY MFA by writing about Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice and, though I’ve already discussed each book’s central relationship in a previous postmy thoughts are still on romance. I think there are two types of book romances. First, there’s the type of romance in which the author tells the reader that the characters are in love, usually from the first scene in which the characters lay eyes on each other, and the stated fact of that love is supposed to be enough to get the reader interested and invested in their love story.

The other kind of romance, the kind I prefer, is the Pride and Prejudice, Eleanor and Park variety, in which the characters develop deep love and understanding over time. By showing us how the relationship develops, the author earns our investment in that love working out in the end. I’ve noticed that this kind of romance frequently begins with the two characters actively disliking each other. Is the dislike a necessarily component of the romance? Do the characters ever feel ho-hum, just okay about each other, then fall in love?

The characters beginning with active dislike is an incredibly effective narrative device. First, it gives the characters’ feelings more runway, so they get to change more over the course of the book. It’s more satisfying for a character’s feelings to travel the long distance from dislike to love, than if they were to change from ambivalence or mild like to love.

Secondly, the initial dislike shows an attraction, and is itself the kernel of the connection that will later develop. My mother used to always say, “Hate is not the opposite of love,” which was a way of saying that a person who inspires us to love him or her can more easily inspire other strong feelings, like hate. For instance, Elizabeth’s dislike for Mr. Darcy is still a connection; he occupies her thoughts because he aggravates her. But she is thinking of him, much more so than she would be if she’d hardly noticed him, or thought nothing of him one way or another.

It might seem odd to think of dislike as an attraction, but in our own lives this is very true. Just think about when you’re mad at someone. You might tell all your friends about the unbelievable thing that person said, the way he or she betrayed you, or the way you plan to get back at the object of your anger. The person you’re mad at occupies your thoughts and energy, just as a person you’re falling in love with does.

The more books I think consider, the more I find this to be true, that two characters dislike each other upon first meeting. Furthermore, the initial dislike or distrust is often most strong on the female protagonist’s side. My hunch is that a story in which the boy’s affection is constant while the girl’s affection must be earned appeals heavily to girl readers, who are probably the intended audience in romance-heavy Young Adult novels.

Other examples of this pattern:

  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery – In this book (well, really, in the series) Anne and Gilbert start out as competitive and argumentative with each other.
  • The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater – In this series, Gansey is rich and entitled, and embodies all that Blue dislikes.
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins - Katniss dislikes Peeta because at first he appears to be playing along with the games, and because he doesn’t seem to have any skills that will help him survive. She questions his motives when he befriends some of the other competitors.

I still have lots to say about the narrative voice of Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice, so there will be a future post about that. It’s just that right now I still have romance on the brain. I’m going to be paying a lot more attention as I read to see which stories fit into or break this “hate first, love second” mold.

DIY MFA: Texts #2 and #3, Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The next two texts in my DIY MFA are Elizabeth Bronte’s 1847 book Wuthering Heights and Jane Austen’s 1813 book Pride and Prejudice. I think of these texts as grandmothers to the modern Young Adult genre, and I wanted to read them through the lens of comparison to contemporary YA texts (especially romance stories).

The shape of these 19th century stories closely resembles contemporary YA narratives. Just as modern YA romances do, the older stories focus on women in their teens and early twenties, their search for love and romance, and the troubles that romance brings into their lives.

In Wuthering Heights, Catherine and Heathcliff are childhood friends, deeply connected souls who are passionately devoted to each other. Because Heathcliff has no property or social standing, Catherine knows she could never marry him, so she marries a kind, caring, though rather boring man named Edgar. Devastated, Heathcliff launches a vendetta against Edgar that brings about the ruin of almost every other character in the book. Catherine’s misery is equally destructive; she has fits and makes herself ill in order to manipulate those around her.

I had never read the story before, but I knew of Catherine and Heathcliff; their names are synonymous with passion. So, I was surprised to find that the book doesn’t show why Catherine and Heathcliff loved each other so strongly, except for the fact that they’d grown up together and knew each other so well. Their love is stated as a fact, rather than developed throughout the book. Not only was their love not explored and shown clearly in the story, the characters weren’t shown either. Readers don’t know much about either character except that they are in love with the other. Romances of this kind aren’t satisfying. It’s not enough for me to simply know that the characters are in love. I don’t care about love as a concept; I care about love as a specific feeling between two human beings. Without the specificity, without the humanity of the characters, my investment in the outcome of their story is very low.

Pride and Prejudice tells the story of Elizabeth Bennett and her sisters, who must secure their futures by marrying as well as they can. Because Austen has created a character in Elizabeth who is warm and intelligent, it is not hard to see why Mr. Darcy becomes fond of her. And, over the course of the book, Darcy’s actions reveal a goodness and generosity of spirit. Though I’d read the book years ago, the language and characters drew me in again, and I was moved by the satisfying conclusion of this beautiful book.

The richness of the romance in Austen’s book makes me think of Rainbow Rowell’s recent novel Eleanor and Park, in which the love and the characters are believable and unique. Other books which do a lovely job of developing authentic romantic connections are Grave Mercy, The Impossible Knife of Memory, The Fault in Our Stars, Divergent, and Graceling. (This is an off-the-top-of-my-head list of recently read YA books, but they could be a good place to start for studying what make for good book romance.)

This is everything: to make sure the reader has reason to believe in the relationship at the core of the romance. It’s not enough simply to state that there is deep passion. There have to be reasons for it, and it’s better if readers see those reasons.

As I read Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice, I noticed a big difference between them and their modern counterparts: the narration itself. I’ll explore the narrative voice more in a future post.

DIY MFA: Text #1, Bluets by Maggie Nelson

Bluets by Maggie Nelson
Several weeks ago, I wrote that I would pursue a DIY MFA degree, awarded to me by me, a quilt of texts that I want to read (or re-read), specifically in order to grow in my work as a writer, or at the very least to keep me warm this winter. The books that I chose were either recommended to me as exemplary examples of fiction writing, or they are well-regarded examples of the genres of fiction that I am currently writing (young adult fiction and short stories for adults).

The first text I read is Bluets by Maggie Nelson. It was an unusual choice for me, as the book is not like anything that I’m attempting to write, or even like anything that I would normally read, but it came with high praise. However, while still reading the first couple of pages, I regretted picking up the book and was grateful that it was short, so I wouldn’t have to suffer for too long.

My feelings about this books are very different now.

The text soon grabbed me, immersed me in the peculiar mind of an author in pursuit of a singular subject: the color blue. Although Maggie Nelson does not write much about herself, each word she writes, each section she chooses, points vividly to the person herself, to the writer, and to the act of writing.

Which leads me to the first question about this book: What is it? I’ve tried to describe it and struggled. For lack of a better word, I call each piece a “section,” but only because it sounds more literary than “chunk.” There are 240 of them. It’s hard to say whether they are poems, vignettes, research items, or simply ephemera. They are a mix of all of these, I suppose, collected with a blue thread stitched throughout, though the blue is more or less visible in these sections, and some feel more or less connected to the sections around them.

Each individual section is beautiful, yet it is the collection of them that is important. The book, though slim, feels like a work many years in the making. To sift through books, movies, life, and the world in search of meaningful tidbits and stories is hard enough, but to search for stories that relate to or evoke the color blue is another thing entirely. The nature of this collection suggests the writer as an obsessive person. And, it also suggests that there is something about the nature of writing that fosters (or requires) obsessiveness.

One type of section that appears throughout the book are sentiments addressed to a “you,” a former lover. In one of my favorite sections, she writes:

177. Perhaps it is becoming clearer why I felt no romance when you told me that you carried my last letter with you, everywhere you went, for months on end, unopened. This may have served some purpose for you, but whatever it was, surely it bore little resemblance to mine. I never aimed to give you a talisman, an empty vessel to flood with whatever longing, dread, or sorrow happened to be the day’s mood. I wrote it because I had something to say to you.

Nelson writes several sections that acknowledge the difficulty of pursuing such a project. She refers to failed attempts to gain interest for her work among scholars and grant committees. And then, at the end, rather than feeling satisfied with her final product, she says she feels surprised about how small the finished project is, “an anemia,” she writes, “that seems to stand in direct proportion to my zeal.”

Nelson’s choice, the specific choice to write about the world through the color blue, reminds me that there is an immense power in the particular. It’s a great paradox in literature, that the more the writer succeeds in expressing the specific, unique details of her experience, of her story, the more universal and affecting her story will be to the reader. That is the true beauty of this text, that Maggie Nelson has managed to depict all the world, not in a grain of sand, but in a color.

Other thoughts and resources:

 

This Extraordinary Life

The poem “I wandered lonely as a cloud” by William Wordsworth is clipped to the bulletin board in my office. I keep it there because the language is elegant, and it makes me happy. It’s about a moment of joyful appreciation for a field of daffodils, and the memory of those flowers that repeatedly delights and inspires the poet.

This is, on one level, a poem about the creative process, about how a writer’s daily experiences make up the material for his or her work. Seeing a field of flowers is something that one might not register as extraordinary. It could be easily missed. And, yet, by happenstance, Wordsworth does see the field and, because it is the poet’s job, he lingers. And, later, in his revery, he makes something of it: a source of personal delight, and the inspiration for a poem.

Moments of quiet revelation are elusive as lightning bugs, and just as hard to capture. Perhaps they have always been so, but they seem particularly so now, in our age of social media, smart phones, highways, and overnight shipping. Everything is on demand. That’s why this poem speaks to me, because it’s a reminder that the job of the artist is, primarily, to notice. And to notice, one must be engaged and present for the stuff of life. The walks, the travels, the conversations, the chores, and the frustrations are all opportunities to pay attention. The daily, ordinary, even mundane moments of life are full of beauty and mystery. It is the artist’s job to notice the extraordinary in the ordinary, and to hold it up for all to see.

Meditations

I’m not good at meditating. The balance between mental focus and emptiness eludes me. My mind races toward distractions with a quickness that is almost eager, as if any escape hatch is preferable to simply being alone and quiet with itself.

And yet, I keep trying. I’ll admit, part of my motivation to meditate has to do with the widely held belief that it is “good for you.” Meditation is the kale of the creative world. But it’s a frustrating endeavor. Sometimes, when I realize that my mind is coming up with new combinations for pizza toppings rather than focusing on my breathing or the space between my eyes, I want to stop the timer, turn it back, and start it over again. But, I don’t. My theory about meditation is that it is precisely this coming back to stillness after wandering away, that makes it so valuable. My goal when I meditate is not to have consecutive minutes of perfection; my goal is to notice when I’ve gone astray, and to keep bringing myself back. Over and over and over again.

And as I was engaged in this practice of self-correction, and trying not feel too bad about it, I realized that it’s not just in meditation that I feel the urge to go back in time. I long for do-overs when I spend twenty minutes browsing celebrity pictures on the computer, or when I feel sick after my second helping of ice cream.

The do-over that I most yearn for has to do with my writing.

When I was younger, at the age when I was told I should decide what I wanted to be, I wanted to be a writer. I had always been a writer, in practice. But when it came time to “go public” with my career choice, I chickened out. I told myself that there was no way that I would ever be published, not with all the aspiring writers out there. I believed myself, too, and laid my dreams aside with hardly a word of protest.

I’m thirty-seven years old, and I’ve finally allowed myself to say these words: I’m a writer. I’ve finally allowed myself to carve out and protect the time and space I need to work. I’ve finally articulated (publicly) my wish to be published.

Writers much younger than I are published many times over. They’re winning awards and gaining readers for their work. And there are so many days that I just want to cry with longing to turn back the clock and start this career when I am just eighteen, or twenty, or twenty-five. I want to go back and convince my younger self to stop insisting that the writing is a hobby, just something I do “for myself.” I would encourage myself to put my writing out into the world as soon as possible. But in life – as in meditation, as in anything – do-overs aren’t possible. We can’t erase what’s come before, no matter how much we regret our actions (or lack thereof). All we can do is gently bring ourselves back to the path, and move on.

Does part of me fear that it’s near impossible to get published? Yes. Does part of me think I don’t deserve to get published, since I didn’t believe in myself enough to pursue my dream? Uh-huh. But, the timer is still going, and each moment rises before me and provides me with an opportunity to do the thing I love. So, I pull myself back, gently, but firmly, to the writer’s path, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the same as saying to the path of my life. And I’ll do the only thing that I can, which is to start now.

Book Notes: Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson


Jacqueline Woodson’s newest book Brown Girl Dreaming tells the narrative of her childhood through a collection of poems. Woodson has won numerous awards for the work of her prolific writing career, and Brown Girl Dreaming is a finalist for the National Book Award. Here, Woodson sketches a thoughtful portrait of a herself as a girl, figuring out the world, becoming a person, and becoming a writer.

The first poems are set in Ohio, where Woodson is born. Just a year or so later, her mother takes her and two older siblings to live with her own parents in Greenville, South Carolina. Woodson’s mother tells her children, “We’re only halfway home.” She knows they won’t stay there; many of her family and friends have already moved to New York City, and that’s where they head, too.

The book deals in large part with the notion of home, a difficult one for Jackie and her siblings. Woodson imagines her mother, standing in the middle of a road, stretching her arms toward both North and South, and this is how Woodson herself is for the majority of the book. During summers in South Carolina, where the Civil Rights movement gains momentum, Woodson’s Northern speech and mannerisms differentiate her and her siblings from the other children. In New York, she longs for the beauty and richness of life with her grandparents down South.

Family is the defining element of Woodson’s childhood.  The love she feels from her mother, grandparents, and extended family tethers her, protects her, and makes her strong. Much of who she is, from physical traits like the gap between her teeth to her love of telling stories, she traces back to her family. They also give Woodson the strength to be different, to find her own path, to pursue her passion for writing. Watching her brother sing in a school concert, young Jackie revels in the realization that each of us has a unique brilliance. Her brilliance, she knows, is words.

As a child, Jackie announces that she’s going to be a writer. She cherishes an empty notebook, learns by mimicking greats like Langston Hughes, writes songs, and binds her own book of poetry. Like home and the love of her family, writing makes her feel powerful. She sees early on that writing is a gift, and a key.

These are the first of Woodson’s poems that I’ve read, and I enjoy them just as much as I enjoy her beautiful prose. Some of these poems are vignettes, some descriptions, and some just ideas, like the poem “how to listen #7:”

Even the silence

has a story to tell you.

Just listen. Listen.

One of my favorite poems tells of the warm nights when Jackie and her siblings sit as quietly as they can, listening to the adults tell stories. They’re careful to be invisible, because as soon as the adults remember their presence, they’ll be sent away from the grown-up talk. In their bed later, Jackie repeats the stories aloud, over and over, until well after her siblings are asleep. Woodson’s writing reminds me of the awe we have as children, the hush and magic in moments as simple as whispering to your best friends in the dark. Through writing Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson recreates that magic, and allows us to go back there with her.

This is a wonderful book for children in upper grades and beyond, particularly those children who love reading and writing stories. They’re likely to be inspired to pick up an empty notebook and start filling it. I know I am.

Continuing Education


I’ve been thinking about an MFA a lot lately, and not just because it’s something that I can’t have. Since moving to Portland, I frequently daydream about creative writing programs because I’m struggling to build my community. In New York, I knew people who would read my work, critique it, and support it. Here in Portland, I barely know any kind of people, much less writerly people. I’m building a local community slowly, brick by brick. But it’d sure be a lot easier with an MFA program.

Another reason that I think about an MFA more often these days is that, as I become more serious about my writing, I become more aware of what I do not know, and hungrier to expand my knowledge of writer’s craft. Always a voracious reader, now I’m reading with heightened attention to the writer’s choices. And, while I consider myself well read, there are major gaps in my reading experience. An MFA would help me fill those gaps, certainly. But, in this, too, I’m going to have to go it alone, at least for now.

So, I’m putting together a syllabus. It’s a work in progress. I call it Shannon’s DIY MFA, the beginner knitting project of the literary world. Despite the dropped stitches, I think it has a certain homemade charm.

My syllabus could use a little rounding out, and I’d like it to have at least twelve books. It could probably use a little male-ness for comparison’s sake (though, with all the syllabi that have suffered a lack of female-ness, I’d much rather have this problem). It’s a hodge-podge of a few books that I’ve always wanted to read, plus a few books I think I should read, plus one book (Austen’s) that I would like to read again, with the writing central in my mind.

Poetry
Poems, by Elizabeth Bishop
Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman

Short Stories
Bluets, by Maggie Nelson
Boysgirls, by Katie Farris
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, by ZZ Packer

Novels
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

 

 

The Quiet Books

I Capture the Castle by Dodie SmithHow delicious it can be to pick up a book without any expectations. No rave reviews or weeks on the bestseller list setting up high expectations. No preview for the upcoming movie playing in my head.

I knew nothing about I Capture the Castle before I read it. I don’t even know why I bought it, except that I liked the title (I’m a sucker for titles). The cover art on my edition of the book, unlike the romantic scene on this book, wasn’t the slightest bit appealing, nor did it reveal anything about the story. But I did pick it up, and within the first pages I was lost in the beautiful ruins of an old English castle with the most wonderful narrator, teenaged optimist Cassandra Mortmain.

Cassandra lives with her family in dire poverty, in the crumbling, cold remains of a castle. Yet Cassandra is far from depressed. Her romantic and rosy view on life stems from her love of her family, her love of the castle, her love of words, and her bright intellect. The book is her journal, which she keeps so that she can improve her writing, and in which she is constantly seeking to capture these fleeting moments of her life, and to set down on the page the exact ways in which they happened. She also sets down her own responses to life, which are sometimes funny or touching, and always interesting.

Cassandra’s older sister Rose does not accept their poverty so lightly and, when two wealthy American brothers move into their town, Rose is determined to marry one of them.  While Cassandra can’t stand the girls who are always talking about finding a man to marry (she mentions her annoyance with the fictional Bennett sisters, which is humorous because she and Rose remind me of Eliza and Jane Bennett), she understands that such a marriage could make her sister happy – and that it could, even, improve the situation for them all – and so she decides to help. As she is pulled deeper into her sister’s plans, Cassandra’s own feelings develop with a power and intensity that surprises even her. She tastes for the first time the sweetness of love, the bitterness of disappointment and heartache. All the while, her voice rings with honesty, and Cassandra continues to take great pleasure in the world around her, particularly in those simple childhood pleasures that are already colored by the knowledge that they are almost at an end for her. This is the start of growing up.

I loved this book, and felt drawn to pick it up anytime I didn’t have it in hand. Granted, there were no scenes of high action. There were only two kisses described throughout, and these very chaste. It was set in a quiet place, narrated by a quiet girl who mostly did quiet things. This was a quiet book, and it made a huge impression on me nonetheless.

A friend of mine wrote a manuscript that we workshopped in our critique group. It was a lovely book about a young girl whose family is broken, a girl who has very few people on whom she can rely. Yet the story is full of light and hopefulness. The main character, through her generosity, her loving acts, and her humor, pulls a makeshift family around her. Even though my friend already had one novel published, her agent wouldn’t send this book around, saying the story was “too quiet.”

We don’t live in a time of quiet books. Many of the most popular YA books take place in a time of post-apocalyptic intensity, feature superhuman heroes, and deal with questions of life and death. And I like those books. But, I also like the quiet ones. As a child, I adored Anne of Green Gables (and all the other books by L. M. Montgomery). I sobbed over Where the Red Fern Grows. I read the Little House books, the Boxcar Children books. Without these books, the landscape of my reading life would have been barren. It makes me sad to think that today’s children might be missing out on some of these quieter stories.

Quiet books whisper in our ears, touching our hearts, suggesting new ways of looking at our own very plain and quiet worlds. Let’s make room for the quiet books on our shelves, and listen closely to what they have to say.

 

Me, Refocusing

When the writing is hard, and nothing is flowing, and I’m tired down to my fingernails, so tired that I can barely make a sensible thought much less translate a thought into a beautiful sentence, it seems so much easier and much more fun to check and see what kind of pictures my friends have posted of their vacations and their babies. Maybe I’ll see if my favorite store is having a sale. Then I will check a few other stores just for good measure. These are also the times that I wonder what that actress from that one show has been in before, or it might drift across my mind that I always meant to buy that album by that band that was hip back when I was pregnant.

It seems kind to give myself those distractions. I encourage myself – “You’ve worked hard, you’re tired,” I say – and forgive any guilt as I turn off my mind and indulge in mindless browsing of materials and information.

But it’s not kind. There are so many challenges to my writing, so many obligations and projects vying for the moments of my day. What business do I have squandering the precious few moments that I have set aside for my work?

I recently heard an interview with Walter Dean Myers, replayed this summer in commemoration of his life, and every syllable he spoke in his rich, deep voice was full of love for his work. Hearing him speak was inspiring, and reminded me of why I want to write.

Laurie Halse Anderson writes on her blog, “If you don’t write, you will one day die. If you write, you’re still going to die, but you will have disturbed the universe in the best possible way. You will have explored your heart more fully. You will leave behind your stories. The ripples of your creativity will touch countless lives and butterflies will sing your praises.” I’ve had that quote on my desktop for a long, long time.

I say it to myself something like this: Do you want them to say of you that you could find a really great bargain? Do you want your legacy to be that you always knew the latest gossip, could recognize celebrities with accuracy?

Because, I continue, I think you want it to be about the work. I think you want it to be about the words on the page and the magic of making the fiction so true that it becomes real. And, if you want that, which I think you do, there is only one answer when the work is hard, and turning away would be the easier option. You must breathe and go on.

I mean, duh.

Also, anyone seeking inspiration for a creative life, have you seen Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk about creativity? Watch. Be inspired.