Tag Archives: teaching

Slippery Details

Cool Pool

Details. Description. This week, prepping for my Teen Writing Class on Wednesday, I’ve been inhaling writing-craft books one after the other, trying to get a handle on this most slippery subject. Why slippery? Because just when you step onto what you think is the firm footing of “add sensory details to make the story more vivid,” the slickness of “but don’t overdo it; don’t let the description get in the way of the story” causes you to slide right into a pool of cold, deep panic.

Okay, so I’m exaggerating, but I’m beginning to see why I’m not a critically-acclaimed literary writer. I have trouble concentrating on the nuances of the craft. I’m in awe of Monica Wood, a Maine author, who happened to write a book, DESCRIPTION, as part of the Elements of Fiction Writing Series put out by WRITER’S DIGEST magazine. I’m tempted to just tell my students to purchase a copy of this book and study it. There is everything here they will need to know about using detail and description to create vivid stories, to move the story forward, to develop character and setting.

But I’ve made a commitment to teach this class. I can at least share what I know and give some encouragement. Gasping, I hold my breath and swim for shore, one stroke at a time. “You don’t have to grasp every single concept all at once,” I tell myself. “You don’t have to teach all the material in a 170-page book. Start simply. One stroke at a time.”

This is good advice for any craft. When you are learning to knit, you don’t try to create a multi-colored sweater with intricate cables the first day you pick up the needles. Instead, you learn to cast-on a row of stitches. You learn how to slip the loop in a knit stitch and then in a purl stitch. You make a scarf, row after row, serviceable and simple. You focus on not dropping or adding stitches. You bind off.

In my class this week, I will focus on adding sensory details. Sight, yes, but also touch and smell and sound and taste. I will caution against overuse, but will tell the students to err this week on the side of overabundance. I will talk about simile and metaphor. We will practice. We will talk about looking at their now vivid description with an eye to the “telling” details–which details resonate with the theme of their piece (Is the story about despair? Which details reinforce that theme?) or the development of the character (Is she confident? Which details “fit” a confident character? Or maybe a shy character will discover confidence. Is there a telling detail that hints at such an inner strength?)

What I realize most about this process of preparing to teach is how much I’ve relied on “instinct” in my own writing; this is the reason why “read alot” is one of the cornerstones of all writing instruction (the other being “write alot). When you read good writing, you pick up the techniques almost by osmosis, but I’m beginning to suspect that a more rigorous and systematic program of study would be beneficial to my own writing if I am going to continue to develop my craft.

The old truth bears out, I guess. If you want to learn how to do something, teach it.

Writing With The Teen

The Teen artwork

Inspired by writers Bill Roorbach and Dave Gessner who publish a writerly blog called Bill & Dave’s Cocktail Hour, I’ve decided to “give something back” as they suggested in a post entitled Bad Advice Wednesdays: Do Something For Someone Else (30 Ideas for Writers).

From the post, which I highly recommend you read, is the following:

What I’m proposing today is forgetting about our own careers (or lack) and thinking about what we can do for others, what we can do to make the world a more hospitable place for art, and for artists, which is to say for writing and writers. Doing for others may be your key to success, and is certainly the key to happiness. Herewith, 30 suggestions for writers. Karma, anyone?

This past fall, I drove the Teen and three friends once a week to Portland, Maine to attend a teen writing workshop at The Telling Room. This place is awesome! A non-profit organization dedicated to mentoring young people as they learn to express themselves through story–oral storytelling, cartooning, poetry, fiction, personal narrative, new media, film, etc., The Telling Room provides a cozy space on Portland’s waterfront, guest teachers, and a wonderful staff both paid and volunteer.

The girls were attending a writing/cartooning class once a week. Driving to Portland and back after school, on a weeknight, was tiring for all of us, though. I kept thinking, “I wish we had writing workshops offered close to home.”

Well, when you want something to happen, often the solution is to do it yourself. I dredged up all my old high-school English teacher training and created a syllabus for a five-week teen writing workshop. I’m calling it Dreaming On Paper. Retro, perhaps, since most of us writers use computers now. However, I decided the focus of the class will be the keeping of a daily writing journal . . . paper and pen. Basic. Portable. Inexpensive. Not intimidating. The idea is to take a set amount of time, start your timer, and write until the alarm goes off. Writing with intention but freedom to let your mind stray, hopping from topic to topic, recording even the strangest images and connections that pop up from who-knows-where in the subconscious.

Natalie Goldberg in WRITING DOWN THE BONES describes the process in detail, and my hope is that teenage writers will find timed journal entries both fun and productive–a treasure trove of ideas for future writing projects.

The Dreaming On Paper writing workshop syllabus can be viewed by clicking here. Feel free to use it. Offer a writing workshop in your hometown. Follow the instructions to start your own writing journal/journey. Use your imagination.

When the workshop actually starts in March, I will be posting about it here, sharing tips and stories and maybe some segments from our notebooks (with permission of the authors, of course). My hope is that teens in my community will be inspired to put their dreams, observations, and ideas onto paper, discover the joy that writing brings (along with some frustration, because, let’s face it, writing isn’t always easy!), and find a micro-community of other young writers with whom they can share their interest, craft, and passion for the written word. While my Reiki instructor friend, Laura, explains that there is a difference between “expression” and “communication” (more on this topic at a later date, plus a link to her new blog!), here we can combine the concepts. . . expressing on paper in a private journal, rewriting for clarity and meaning, and then communicating to others. This is how it works. This is writing.

It’s so fabulous!