Last summer I stepped away from labor and academia to visit my girlfriend in the German town where she lives. Not everyone is lucky enough to cross the pond and get the European experience, but I spent two and a half months busting my tail on demolition sites to save up the money. (Living under my under the roof provided by my parents helped too, I guess. Thanks Mom and Dad…) After four weeks, four countries, and a few thousand dollars, I had what can easily be classified as the best month of my young life. And while I didn’t have time to develop as a writer while abroad, I did notice that it changed my writing after I came back.
How Travel Helps
1) New Things to Write About
Face it: As college students, it’s difficult to think up original and invigorating content for our next-best, would-be stories when we’re confined in our dorms and barricaded behind our books. Exploring foreign places and experiencing new cultures can lead your mind to thoughts that you never could dreamed up. What better way to explore those new ideas than through the wonderful process of discovery that is writing?
On the way home from Berlin, as an example, our six hour drive actually took ten when traffic stopped, due to the discovery of an old, defunct firebomb from WWII near the Autobahn. This in particular got the creative juices pumping through my neural pathways, and I spent that extended ride reflecting on this new plot device that may yet become my first true masterpiece of short fiction. Only time will tell.
2) New Places to Imagine
If you’re at all like me, developing a setting for your fiction can be difficult. I ask myself, “How many more times can someone write the suburbs with a fresh perspective?” Whether it be through supplying a romantic backdrop for a story, or by providing inspiration for the creation of your own world, touring any of the historic cities that are so plentiful across the Atlantic will be the perfect panacea to this creative obstruction.
(My Personal favorite was Amsterdam—those canals made the city streets twinkle in the most beautiful light. John Green did no wrong using that place as the setting for his YA classic, The Fault in Our Stars. I couldn’t help but fill the space with half-baked characters with stories that were begging to be realized.)
3) Time to Reflect (and Relax!)
Ask George R.R. Martin: You can’t rush art. Every artist needs time to think about what they’ve written before it can be any better. And unless you’re Stephen King, the odds suggest that you won’t be publishing bestsellers annually. Being out in the world and away from your work will give you the perspective and the temporal distance required to see your work objectively.
Besides, if your semesters are as hectic as mine are, you’ll be screaming for the time off. The stresses of the university require a strong mind and an unbreakable will. Which brings me to the next part of this list…
How Travel Hurts
1) Back to Reality
“Yeah Connor,” you’re probably saying, “we get it. You had an amazing month in Europe. Good for you.” Well, it isn’t all good. Because I spent so much time in paradise with the beautiful girl I love, coming back to Hamline was a difficult transition. After spending nearly all of my summer earnings on memories that only traumatic brain injury could manage to take away, returning to the white space of a blank page is more intimidating than I remembered. And all that effort I put into making economic use of my time last Spring? Yep, that’s all gone.
2) Duller than Fiction
It’s a common mistake of young writers to rely on the actual events that inspired them while fictionalizing a real-life story. When I was in Europe, I was overwhelmed by my experiences, and in those moments I felt they all might looked good on paper. But what makes fiction fun is its ability to transcend reality and still unveil an astounding human truth. Don’t make the mistake of sacrificing what could make your story great in order to stay true to the memory in your head.
Hopefully the knowledge I gained during my travels in Europe can help you realize some of the pros and cons that tourism can have on your life as an artist. For those of you that have been out of the country, help me make this list longer by sharing how your travels have affected you as a writer.
Meet the blogger:
Connor Rystedt recently graduated from Hamline University with majors in English and creative writing. He received his AFA in creative writing from Anoka-Ramsey Community College, where he had several publications in The Rapids Review and The Campus Eye. In October of 2014, he received the Norman Mailer Nonfiction Writing Award for two-year college students. When he’s not worrying about what to write, he likes to watch football and fight with his parents’ mini-labradoodle.
I was struggling with my writing, frustrated that none of my images were accurate or vivid enough. I asked my poetry professor, Gretchen Marquette, if she had advice on how to practice my images in poetry. She gave me a copy of Jim Moore’s Invisible Strings and told me to write two poems a day only from observation.
In visual art, image is what grounds any piece to the audience. Fine art classes begin with still life: set up objects to practice drawing strictly from the eye and noticing every detail of the set up. In my first drawing class, way back when I was thirteen, I drew assorted bones with charcoal for a month straight.
Image is what grounds poems to readers. By writing from observation I trained my eye to truly notice the world, the tiny details in everyday objects. The brain automatically glazes over these details in order to make shortcuts in object recognition. Undoing these shortcuts takes time, but it’s worth it.
Eventually I began to pick apart single objects in images to find what pieces of the image are really important to the poem. Instead of seeing three tints of brown in a wooden table, I notice the small black lines that look like ants top of the patchwork of milk and dark chocolate browns. Which part of that image is important to me depends on how much I can see.
Here is an example of an observation I made as part of an exercise, that eventually made its way into a poem. I wrote this after watching a dog play in a yard for about 20 minutes, picking apart what I was looking at until I found what I was really interested in.
I purposely didn’t draw out the details of the fence or the sky in order to keep the focus of on the dog playing. In a way I blurred the details of the fence and the sky into the background to put the dog playing into the “foreground” of the poem.
When I first started doing observation exercises I sat outside the coffeeshop I go to and described people: what they were wearing, who they were with, what they were drinking or eating. I find people to be a good starting point because there are less clichés associated with people than, say, trees or weather. I specifically wrote in very short lines, loose emulation of haiku, which really helped keep me from going on tangents of inferring things about people. But, once I started getting the hang of descriptions the tangent came, filling the gaps between images in poems.
Image is the cornerstone of poetry and the cornerstone of image is observing the details. I still practice every day.
Meet the blogger:
CORVA LEÓN is a poet and visual artist living in Saint Paul with their cat, Roman.
Seasoned writer or a newcomer, workshops are great places helping you see needs improvement from fresh perspectives. However, there are a few things you need to be aware of before you get into one.
- Don’t Share a Piece Without a Middle
In my final year of undergrad, one of my classmates turned in a piece with a beginning and a conclusion. No middle. It’s like structuring an argument without supporting details. The best kind of critique you’ll get is what I gave my classmate: “I’m sorry, but you need the rising action.” This has strengthened my resolve to have a beginning and middle by the time I’m up for workshop. Sure, it’s better to have a fully complete short story or chapter, but at least be sure to stick with having that middle.
- Don’t Hand Back A Bag of Vague Compliments
A comment like this: “I like this. Good job,” doesn’t tell an author anything. I’ve gotten these comments on my fanfiction stories. I’ve told this to other writers. They’re nice. Just, really damn nice. But they don’t improve anyone’s work. Instead, as my friend Christina Marie of the blog, Dragons, Zombies, and Aliens says, “Put it into a sandwich critique.” How this works is that you first state what you liked about the piece. Then, follow it up with what needs improvement, followed by another round of what worked well. Be sure to cite examples from the draft for both praise and critique. I’ve been following this idea for a few years, and it’s helped me become more detailed and effective when workshopping.
- Listen in Workshop
Getting advice or hearing people misinterpret a work can be difficult to take in, but there are things you need to hear. Sometimes, there are just ways to make a piece stronger. Just in a recent workshop, I was told the stakes weren’t clear enough in my opening chapter. At the time, I thought the stakes were pretty clear–there was a “clear” suggestion that something was after the character. In the next draft, I realized my readers were right. Instead of having danger hanging in the background, I moved them forward. Even weirder, a character in that draft came in earlier and provided so much more tension. It came out stronger than the original draft, so be sure to never discount a piece of advice.
- Take Some of the Advice
To be clear, not all advice will work for a draft. In an extreme case, someone might suggest a piece of advice that’s more fit for a work of fantasy than a piece of literary fiction. Other times, you’ll just have too many voices saying contradictory things. Having been in these large workshop situations, it really helped me to learn where to let advice go—such as when many a few voices say one thing—and when to accept—when many people agree on something. It does take some time to figure out what to take and what to leave in critiques. The more you practice, the better you get. Trust me.
So, what now? Find a workshop group. Really. There might be other Dear God Please, Do Not Do These Kinds of Things Ever moments you learn from. Be sure to be open, be kind, and not afraid to wrangle that NaNo behemoth.
Meet the blogger:
MORGAN MILLER is a recent graduate of the Hamline University Creative Writing BFA program. A fiction writer by impulse, Miller explores any and all genre of fiction she can, but her focus is in the fantasy genre itself. She is never seen without a notebook and pen. Her favorite thing in the world is a skirt with pockets.
Reviewed by DEBBIE JOHNSON-HILL
In the brief space of two stanzas, readers are introduced to the paradigm of Kathleen Jesme’s poetry collection, Meridian. “It snowed for four days in the middle of January, during which my mother lay dying.” Jesme is not one to mince words or sidestep difficult emotions; instead she circles the subject of her mother’s death like a hawk over a barren field, landing only when words ring true.
Meridian is the latest collection from Jesme, an MFA creative writing graduate from Warren Wilson College. Her second book, Motherhouse, won the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Prize from LSU in 2005, while Meridian claimed the Tupelo Press Snowbound Series Chapbook Award.
Jesme chronicles her mother’s slow decline by juxtaposing blocks of prose with hauntingly beautiful poetics, leaving the reader to contemplate the writer’s impending loss in the void in between. The use of white space and variations in form, as well as metaphors of winter and earthly excavation, only further emphasize the irrevocable nature of the grieving process and death itself:
Meridian challenges the notion of life and death as a strictly linear narrative. Jesme is at once in the present moment, then traveling back in her memory to find a semblance of the mother she once knew:
Perhaps a book of this nature might appear too private, too emotional for readers to find their way into the depths of another’s grief, yet Jesme writes as someone trudging through the harshness of winter—with purpose and an eye for beauty, despite the circumstance.
Meridian is divided into six sections, but reads as an exegesis on a child’s grief, a deliberate chronicling of devotion and detachment, holding on and letting go. Jesme’s words crisscross the pages as tracks in freshly fallen snow; each word carefully chosen, each form an opportunity to cradle the final moments of earthly existence, offering readers the choice of walking with her, or wandering off into the hush of wintry woods to deliberate on their own truth:
Ernest Hemingway once said, “Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.” Meridian is a candid account of a mother’s death and a daughter’s journey, one which leaves the reader to ponder their own mortality, and that of those they love.
Meet the blogger:
DEBBIE JOHNSON-HILL is a poet, freelance writer, and photographer. Her work has appeared in The Atrium, Century Times, Fulcrum, Red Flag Poetry, andThe View from Here: Poetry to Help You Soar, as well as Maple Grove, Southwest Metro, St. Croix Valley, and White Bear Lake Magazines.
Throughout my college career as a creative writing major, I’ve been taught to read as a writer. Instead of simply enjoying a story for what it is, I look at it with a magnifying glass in hand, trying to decipher what the author has done and how. Once you can identify the elements of craft within a short story, you can begin to emulate it in your own writing. This is why reading short stories is imperative to your growth as a writer. Below, I’ve come up with a list that every writer should read, not only because they are great stories, but because they will help you become a better writer by seeing the elements of craft in a successful way.
- Saint Marie, by Louise Erdrich
There is so much that Erdrich’s Saint Marie can teach us, but the one thing that this story does so well is finding the perfect balance between scene and summary. It’s so important for fiction to include both, and if the balance of scene or summary is off, the pacing of the story falters.
Scenes should be used as a tool to get up close and personal with the characters, while also allowing readers to fully grasp the many details that would have been glossed over, or completely skipped in summary. Scenes slow down the pace, and give a moment by moment play of the action. Scenes are also important because readers get a chance to witness the characters in action instead of just relying on the narrator to inform us.
The way in which Saint Marie goes back and forth seamlessly between scene and summary is so fluid, and every writer should see it in action.
- St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell
Setting in a short story is the stage. It’s where readers will take a step into your fictional world, and begin to immerse themselves in it. The setting helps set up a tone, mood, and atmosphere—a rural town, a dark and ominous forest, or a home for girls raised by wolves.
In Russell’s story St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, the setting is not only unique for this specific fictional world, but is also used to show the development of the characters. Living deep within the wilderness, a pack of uncivilized children with wolves for parents had strange mannerisms and the instinct to wag nonexistent tails. Once these children moved to St. Lucy’s, a change in the setting, the children begin to develop into civilized beings.
Russell’s story and characterization of the children depend on the setting, and without it, the story wouldn’t have been such a success.
- Italy, written by Antonio Elefano
The second-person point of view is hard to pull off, which is why many writers never take on the challenge. But Antonio Elefano did in his short story Italy, and I am so glad that he did. Not only is this a successful second-person point of view, but it’s also my favorite short story of all time.
The story depicts the relationship between a husband and wife within a few short pages, showcasing the emotions involved—love and regret. The story reads as though the protagonist is speaking to his wife, whom he loved very much, but couldn’t express it to her enough. The second-person point of view was the perfect choice for this very emotional and powerful piece because the way it reads feels much more intimate.
You can learn a lot from this one if you’re interested in experimenting in the second-person. Oh, and before you read, don’t forget the tissues!
- Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates
Tension plays a vital role in fiction, especially when the happiness of the protagonist, or even their life, depends on the outcome. It’s the stakes of the story that build the tension, and if the stakes aren’t high enough, the tension suffers.
Joyce Carol Oates’s short story Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? has stakes that are high enough that builds up the tension in a successful way. When the protagonist, Connie, meets a stranger outside her home, her life and well-being are put in jeopardy. This stranger knows things about her, and she has no idea who he is or what his intentions are. The build-up of tension is steady all the way to the climax, where the tension comes to a tipping point and explodes.
Reading this short story will give you ways to think about how to raise the stakes for a character and how to build up tension in a way that leaves readers flipping the pages to find out what happens next.
After I learned how to read as a writer, a whole new world opened up to me. And it will for you, too! Once you see the elements of craft done well in these short stories, you can begin to use them in your own writing. Read as much as you can get your hands on, because you can learn something from everything that you read. Your own writing will only get better, stronger, and more effective, and your craft will thank you for it.
Meet the blogger:
CAITLIN O’BRIEN is a senior at Hamline University majoring in Creative Writing. Dabbling in all genres of writing, fiction will always remain her favorite. She is passionate about literature, writing, and drinking too many vanilla lattes.