Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What Can School Teach You About Writing? (07/15/03)



Featured writer: Christine Falcone



Contributors this month:
Betty Winslow
Brian Kaufman
Christine Falcone
Claudia Larson
Elizabeth Hannon
Jordan Rosenfel
Pat Rea
Susan Bono


What can school teach you about writing?

by Christine Falcone

What can't school teach you about writing? We learn our alphabet and how to write cursive; all the parts of grammar and how to construct a well-written paragraph with a topic sentence; the best way to take notes on large white index cards. But where do we learn about the meat, the blood of the thing? I would give you my skin if I could, like the rind of an orange, let you inspect it inside and out. I would offer the long corridors of my memory, so many openings into who I am. Where am I going with this?

What I really want to say is school can be a place of great learning and discovery. I embraced my education, surrounded myself in the dim corner of the library at my college with thick textbooks of Old English Literature and the Romantic Poets. I spent time with Keats and Yeats and Shelley and gleaned from them the recognition that in life, there is so much that requires further attention. And Dante, well Dante and his Inferno - why did Beatrice have to look back anyway? Why couldn't she have climbed on gallantly, chin held high, shoulders squared in a stance of triumph? Oh Beatrice, were you meant to tell me that my past is important? That all my experiences thus far must be acknowledged, no matter what the cost? In A.A. they promise that if you work the 12 steps, you will come to a place where you no longer wish to shut the door on the past, that you will learn the things of that old familiar haunt cannot hurt you now. Why is my heart pounding as I write these words? Perhaps I know that this all applies - yes, even to me. I must be fearless about cleaning house, gutting what remains of that last dark room where even now, so much of the meat, the blood, the guts of my life lies waiting, gathering dust perhaps, but not disintegrating, not diminishing, no matter how much I might like to wish them away. So here I go again. I roll up my sleeves, push back my hair and prepare to dig in.

Christine Falcone resides in Novato, California, with her husband and their six-month-old daughter. She picks up her pen whenever she can put her baby down, and sometimes holds both simultaneously.

Betty Winslow



School can teach you the mechanics of writing - how to use the physical tools (paper & pen, keyboard, etc.), what words mean, how to spell them, make them plural, how to punctuate them. School can expose you to excellent writers and writings of the past and to genres such as poetry that you might not tackle otherwise. School can teach you the importance of meeting deadlines. School can teach you how to do research.

What school can't teach you - how to make words sing, dance, and leap off the page. Everything that is known about everything (that's what research is for...) What to write about. How to write in a voice that is your very own. Why you should write at all.

Betty Winslow, Bowling Green, Ohio, freelance writer, high school graduate, eternal student of life

What can school teach you about writing?

  by Brian Kaufman

Despite forty rejections, I thought I'd finally found a home for my historical novel, "The Breach." A major publisher wanted three chapters, then the entire manuscript. But after weeks of correspondence with the editor, the book was rejected. I was devastated. I'd viewed the submission process as a "numbers game." If I put the book in the mail enough times, someone would buy it. But no one was buying. I'd spent years writing and rewriting, and the novel was as good as it was going to get, unless I tried something different.

So I left a thirty-year career in restaurant management and enrolled at Colorado State University to study English Literature and Creative Writing. I'd failed miserably at undergrad work in the sixties, but I knew what I wanted this time. I was on a quest.

I cooked at night in my old restaurant to keep the rent paid. Each day, I went to class and tried not to panic. I had a lot of catching up to do. The entire field of Literature had changed. But I kept my focus, and discovered that a lot of the kids in class were no more certain of why they were there than I had been, three decades earlier.

The creative writing classes were helpful, but I didn't stop there. I took every Literature class I could, trying to fill the gaps in my reading, particularly the classics. I took philosophy, and classes on myth and religion, anything to discover new thoughts, new roads to a single destination, the publication of my book.

I took careful notes, learning the material, but on the borders of every page, I wrote story ideas, notes for scenes, and ways to apply the material to my writing. (I still use the notebooks. I have more ideas on those pages than I could finish in a lifetime.)

It occurred to me that if I could "argue" the class material, and if I could "play" with it, I could be sure that I knew it. I took lines from Shakespeare and wrote mock interviews for Wrestling Cable shows. I used post-Marxist literary criticism to show that John Wayne was a liberal.

Then I graduated. Three years ended with a short walk in a cap and gown, followed by dinner with the folks. I stayed on at the same old restaurant as a cook. At night, I rewrote the novel (again). The rejections piled up, more than a hundred all told, but I didn't quit. I knew the book was good.

Last Knight Publishing, a small press in Colorado, agreed with me. In June of 2002, I had a finished copy of "The Breach" in hand. I don't recommend the path I chose to everyone. (I suspect I'll be paying off the last of my student loans from the grave.) But I'm fairly certain that tilting at academic windmills paid off in a published novel, and I'm grateful to have done it.

Brian Kaufman of Laporet, CO, is the author of "The Breach." www.briankaufman.net

What can school teach you about writing?

  by Christine Falcone

What can't school teach you about writing? We learn our alphabet and how to write cursive; all the parts of grammar and how to construct a well-written paragraph with a topic sentence; the best way to take notes on large white index cards. But where do we learn about the meat, the blood of the thing? I would give you my skin if I could, like the rind of an orange, let you inspect it inside and out. I would offer the long corridors of my memory, so many openings into who I am. Where am I going with this?

What I really want to say is school can be a place of great learning and discovery. I embraced my education, surrounded myself in the dim corner of the library at my college with thick textbooks of Old English Literature and the Romantic Poets. I spent time with Keats and Yeats and Shelley and gleaned from them the recognition that in life, there is so much that requires further attention. And Dante, well Dante and his Inferno - why did Beatrice have to look back anyway? Why couldn't she have climbed on gallantly, chin held high, shoulders squared in a stance of triumph? Oh Beatrice, were you meant to tell me that my past is important? That all my experiences thus far must be acknowledged, no matter what the cost? In A.A. they promise that if you work the 12 steps, you will come to a place where you no longer wish to shut the door on the past, that you will learn the things of that old familiar haunt cannot hurt you now. Why is my heart pounding as I write these words? Perhaps I know that this all applies - yes, even to me. I must be fearless about cleaning house, gutting what remains of that last dark room where even now, so much of the meat, the blood, the guts of my life lies waiting, gathering dust perhaps, but not disintegrating, not diminishing, no matter how much I might like to wish them away. So here I go again. I roll up my sleeves, push back my hair and prepare to dig in.

Christine Falcone resides in Novato, California, with her husband and their six-month-old daughter. She picks up her pen whenever she can put her baby down, and sometimes holds both simultaneously.

What can school teach you about writing?

  by Claudia Larson

Hmmmm..in the past school taught me penmanship, to make those long culverts of continuous ohs, those choppy waves of iiiiiiis. It taught me to love spelling and phonics. It taught me to adore grammar and punctuation. Like my mom, I abhor those errant apostrophes that pop up to make a single cd a possessive cd with apostrophe ess.

What would it teach me now? A better question is: what do I want school to teach me?

I want it to teach me to tunnel my way into the center of my earth without a headlamp. I want to learn to write what I tastesmellhearfellseesmellsense. I want to learn to find, to create new pigments to color my writing. I was fascinated reading The Girl with a Pearl Earring. The pigments. She ground lapis for blue. She went to the apothecary for ocher. How did painters discover that? I'm guessing it was the sheer drive to create, the mouth-watering desire to express.

I want to learn to let words drip and slip and run and jump off my fingers onto the page. I want them to slide from my tongue to my hand. I want them to rise from my ovaries to my fingers. I want my toes to dictate sentences to the pen in my hand.

I want to learn to listen with all my senses, translating the communications from the far corners, curves of my universe.

School would tame my writing into wildness, channel my being into a flood of words. There would be no seam, no front nor back, no inside nor outside.

I'd learn the nutrition of writing, the elements of a creative diet. The famine would end.

Claudia Larson, Rohnert Park, CA

What can school teach you about writing?

  by Elizabeth Hannon

With Walt Whitman as Head Master, school can teach the grass has ears, leaves fall in a bow to everyone. When I write walls tumble, leaving one brick remaining. It's the brick the revolutionary sailed through the window in '67; students tee-peed on the lawn, administrators looking out the windows, holding their diplomas singing, "We're the teachers. It says right here: 'Doctor of Letters,' 'Doctor of Science.'" And the leaves bowed first to the east, and then south and Walt let it all go, down the river with Huck and friends, river rats, stories told in song along the battlefront, along the Bayou.

School of Hard Knocks teaches me Buddha is the leaf and the bow. But how to write what is held in the mind of a squirrel in chase after the wind? What to take down from Sister Michael's bulletin board? A "W" for wind, a "C" for chase but what of the mind of Buddha? I see the "B" his belly, "H" our hunger but to write Buddha, to call him down in word, to write the song of squirrel, the calamity of leaves? Call in Huck Finn, call in Walt or Marie Curie, her hands, burned by her passion, her mind Buddha in its reach, the isotopes, the answer, the key to freedom. Mighty Mississippi, spell it, Buddha, sing it like we did in Sister Michael's class, "M-I-ss-I-ss-I-pp-I." It's a wave, a river, a bow, the blowhole, my mouth with a word my hand has hooked but what have I learned about writing?

It is an odyssey, the grand journey. the story of Buddha under his tree, the Age of Enlightenment. Call it down. Ask thunder and squirrel to say what they see, a leaf, a kite, the death of one small thing, an isotope. No grander. No smaller. No better. No word for it!

School, the daze of it, as Spike Lee says, dazed by life by how many alphabets I must write before learning to spell freedom. Ask Jim that one. Ask him about that night on the river, he and Huck safe with the stars, they knew something then, learned a lot in one night with the Big Dipper and a river and the black night and a white face. Mark Twain he schooled us, he said, "You need to know a little of this story." whether it's you and a leaf or Buddha with a student, counting her breaths, teaching the Master.

Teach me how to call it down, like Mahalia Jackson. Her voice imprisoned on a 78. My father loved you, Mahalia, like Huck loved Jim, the power of you. I don't know how to write it. Sister Michael, I still button vowels and consonants one to the other. But I have never learned, despite your best efforts, despite the certainty of the orange-red brick walls of St. Joseph Grade School, really how to write.

Elizabeth Hannon, Santa Rosa, CA.

School

  by Jordan Rosenfel

When I was twelve years old, I wrote a short story about a lovesick dog. It was published in my junior high school newsletter. I was very proud. The following year, I wrote a story about Johnny Appleseed and won a prize, a stereo hi-fi. Inspiration can come from unexpected sources. The Johnny Appleseed story came from a contest sponsored by an encyclopedia company. The lovesick dog story, well, that probably came from being in love myself. The older generation called it puppy love.

Several years have gone by since those two stories were written. Meanwhile, I've taken several writing classes and have found that school, instructors and classmates can be instrumental in supplying ideas, instruction, and encouragement. Through school and instructors, I have discovered resources such as magazines (The Writer, Writer's Digest, etc.), websites, and venues (Zebulon's, Book Fairs). And, of course, instructors and classmates are valuable resources for critiquing and feedback.

Conversely, sometimes school can be stifling and can kill the creative urge, especially for young children or classes with incompetent instructors. School can teach you to be discerning as you learn when to ignore bad critiques and when to avoid inept teachers.

Good teachers such as Terry Ehret, Clara Rosemarda and Susan Bono encourage students to stick with it and try new styles of writing. Good teachers bring out the best in their pupils, even when the students doubt their abilities.

Marlene Cullen is transitioning from student to teacher, having learned from both the worst and the best and knowing when to gently push and when to allow breathing space.

Nursing school can't teach you about writing. Welding school, Beauty School and Mechanics' training won't likely teach you about writing either. Writing programs at least suggest they can, and I, in my very first semester at Bennington College as a graduate student, am about to find out. The truth is, you might be better off in nursing or welding school if you want to write, since it's the blood, guts and structure that make a piece of writing work.

Sure, maybe you can learn about plot arcs and character development, about raising the stakes and unreliable narrators...but have you been anywhere? Done anything? Do you have anything to say? What I feel thus far about my MFA program is that it acts as a very sturdy container around this crazy life-long impulse of mine to write. It holds out its fat collegiate hand and says "give me THIS, and give it me on this DATE." In other words, school=discipline. If you already meditate daily and make a habit of never forgetting to water your garden or do your exercise or wash your car...you might just not need school for writing after all. But if you want someone to keep a steady eye on your work, pull out the squiggly little worms of your verbosity, scrape away the fat of your grandiosity...yeah, school for writing=good idea...

Jordan Rosenfeld writes and procrastinates in Petaluma. If you can receive KRCB radio on your dial (90.9/91.1), listen to her twice monthly literary radio show Word by Word (1st and 3rd weds). Find out about some of her other doings, including editing at www.thewritelife.com

What Can School Teach You About Writing?

  by Pat Rea

It never occurred to me to take a writing course at Ohio State. It couldn't have occurred to me. Hadn't I grown up with reading and grammar and spelling? More important, wouldn't my writing be more like Thomas Wolfe's, just pouring out. I imagined myself placing a trunkful of writing into the hands of a new Maxwell Perkins, Master Editor, who would love the stuff and boil it down into a thousand pages or so. Other times I might write like Hemingway and edit it down, down and down myself into another Clean Well-Lighted Place, or write like Virginia Woolf and dream along the page or, find myself among the clever, witty ones, Gide, Cocteau, or the cat-like Colette. In any event, I hoped I would be more Dickens in language while Dostoevskian in content, and yet escape the latter's awkwardness in translation as a French friend told me who had struggled back and forth between two versions, French and English.

With such expectations of myself I did not write until Grace Stein called me and said "GO!" to Ari Raysor's JC extension class for seniors writing autobiography. Somehow I had put off writing until I was nearly three-score-and-ten - though writing was always my subtext.

The greatest things of Ari's class were that there was no what the English call "side," and I could read them anything I wrote. Second, also psychological, was that I entered knowing that no one could tell me what to write. The third blessing: people seemed to like my writing. Ari left for other parts and was replaced by Steve Boga, also nifty.

I became serious and expanded, adding on courses at Sonoma State with Robin Beeman and Jonah Raskin and private with Susan Bono and Robin. Later I joined a class with the inestimable Richard Speaks at the JC. I had so much to learn.

From the beginning I wrote humbly and hesitantly, and then found myself one foot and one hand at a time, beginning to pass through the mirror, even the walls around me - my ego, likely.

Whatever I was learning, I do not know, for I tend more to absorb. Progress feels good, though I cannot describe it.

I thank you and salute you, my schools and teachers and fellow travelers for whatever I may have learned.

Pat Rea's award-winning work has appeared in The Dickens, Tiny Lights and The Gettysburg Review. She lives with Pierre in Cotati, CA.

The Writing Group School

  by Susan Bono

I'm listening to a Leon Russell album-I started to say "old" Leon Russell album, but if you even know who this guy is, you'll know why I dropped the adjective.

Yeah, yeah, songs of my youth, and all that. I'm hard pressed to get my ears into new grooves. Same can go for my writing.

Anyway, I'm listening to Leon's honkytonk piano-a white trash bluesy ruckus with a chorus of gospel beauties wailing in the background and I am remembering how I bought the sheet music for "Stranger in a Strange Land" and "The Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen" back when I was playing the piano, and of course I could never "read" the loose abandon with which he played into what was printed on the page. Alone in my living room, I never came close.

But I am in writing groups with the literary equivalents of Leon Russell all the time. Sometimes, I get to call these melodic geniuses my students, but every week they teach me something new about language just by listening to them. I show up, they show up, we jam, I listen. I am lucky that way, because when I am writing on my own, I can listen to Leon howling, "Roll away the stone," and the whisper of other writers' lush voices trailing through my thoughts. I am caught up and carried by their gorgeous ironies, wicked jabs, blood-freezing agonies and gleeful puns as I am searching for my own. Writing with others I learn about what is possible with words, and remember I am not alone.

Susan Bono is still learning to listen in Petaluma, CA.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono

Columnists:

Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. From 2000ó2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devilís-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so heíd know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. Davidís dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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