Category: The Writing Life

Jack Collom, Force of Nature

Jack Collom, poet, teacher, friend and lover of nature, died last month. His memorial is held at Naropa today, and I’m sorry not to be there in person. I am sure many will be in attendance, and also there in spirit. Jack was a much loved and profoundly good teacher, one of the best I ever had, and his influence is felt far and wide and with great affection.

My first experience of teaching in fact came when I took Jack’s Project Outreach class at Naropa in the fall of 2002. I volunteered one morning a week in a Language Arts class at Fairview High School (which was every bit the archetype of the American school that I hoped it would be). Then every Friday at 4p.m. our Outreach class would reconvene in one of the Upaya classrooms and compare notes from the week, listen to Jack’s guidance, and do some writing exercises of our own. And with Jack, there were always tons of writing exercises: acrostics, sestinas, recipe poems, odes, Q&A poems, I Remembers, pass-arounds – lots of pass-arounds.

One form I was introduced to was the haiku-like lune. The variant the Collom lune is even named for Jack. Counting words rather than syllables suits makes this poetic form more robust and suitable than the haiku itself for the English language, I reckon. Like many good things, it was an accidental (but naturally arising) invention; Jack had no embarrassment in describing how he had misremembered the form as a verse of 3-5-3 words rather than syllables.

Over two weekends I also took the weekend practicum Designing A Writing Workshop that Jack co-taught with Lee Christopher. It offered tons of practical advice as well as some of the most fun I ever had in a classroom. We did lots more writing exercises too. The lack of self-consciousness that Jack fostered among writers was shown in his classes when, in response to the prompt ‘How I Write’, I penned a day-in-the-life poem about my tendency towards procrastination, which included rather Too Much Information about certain activities other than writing. And it must have been a classroom wholly lacking in self-consciousness that Jack fostered, because I then read this TMI piece out loud. And then, once I’d read it, I blushed, and laughed a lot with everyone else. I laugh again as I remember this, and think that doing what comes naturally and what feels like fun is so often (always?) a requisite of the best writing.

It is ironic that we often need to learn how to do what comes naturally, though. Fostering an instinctive approach to writing (and learning in general) was at the heart of Jack’s teachings. He worked a great deal in the school system, especially with the Poets in the Schools programme, and he often shared his particular joy at writing poetry with elementary schoolchildren.

Poetry Everywhere, the book on teaching poetry Jack co-wrote with Sheryl Noethe, is one of the richest resources a teacher might have. Among the hundreds of poems it uses as examples, poems by William Carlos Williams and Pablo Neruda sit beside poems by first grader Lacy Wiley and twelfth grader Ann Jankowski and many of the thousands of other students whose work Jack published in class anthologies at the end of every semester.

Such an honouring of children’s voices is not only an exercise in democracy in the classroom, but a reminder that writers often need to rediscover things we have lost: our true natures. In On Sound and Rhthym, an essay that shines brilliantly not only on the teaching of poetry but on the whole idea of learning, Jack describes how children:

have the potential for art right on the tips of their tongues. It is important that we recognize this “little genius” for poetry that children have—and not try to “muscle” them into adult standards of poetic discourse. Yes, they should develop mature language skills—but gradually, organically, while as much as possible maintaining (and developing and transforming) their own fresh poetic talents.

Good writing comes naturally. Second Nature is the title of the book of poems and essays of Jack’s that won the Colorado Book Award in 2013.

Jack taught us that an important way to develop this instinct for writing was in having fun. He sometimes taught summer workshops on comedy and writing. And his good-humoured and graceful presence in any classroom was the ultimate lesson in how to be a teacher: funny, inquiring, big-hearted, listening, patient, unafraid to challenge, praising occasionally, sharing always. And Jack always (always) joined in the writing exercises himself, scribing away at a yellow notepad with a ballpoint pen. Theories of education seem dry when set against such an example.

Keeping with that theme of nature, Jack also taught Eco-Lit, a pioneering Naropa course that was one of the first (if not the first) to focus at college level on writing about the environment and nature in such a way. The reading list amounts to an artfully curated anthology of poetry, science writing, oral history, essays, creative prose, and other forms, ranging from Stephen Jay Gould to Rachel Carson to Elizabeth Bishop to Herman Melville to Aztec poetry. I hope someone is carrying on that lineage at the Kerouac School.

Another memory: during readings of his work, Jack would indicate quoted matter by drawing bunny ears in the air with his index and middle fingers.

I don’t think Jack was a Buddhist, and (other than birdwatching?) I am not sure if he had an obvious contemplative practice. Yet he was one of the few I encountered at this Buddhist-inspired school who genuinely seemed able to put his ego to one side to get down to the work in hand. He was serious about the Big Issues in writing, but he never took himself too seriously.

Beyond his work as a union organiser, Jack did not strike me as overtly political either. Unlike many activist writers, Jack was never patronising or carping in his writing. But his poems often possess careful acts of observation, and when you are observing the truths of nature and everyday life there is little that is more political.

And how many other poets have had their hometown honour them with a specially named day, as Boulder did with Jack Collom Day in 2001?

Poet, birder, veteran, yodeller, environmentalist, father, husband, teacher: Jack Collom was a force of nature. No, is a force of nature. Because the best teachers never die. We ‘watch them grow from was to will be and will be to was’: like the Old Woods of Jack’s poem, their teachings will last.

 

Poetry Everywhere by Jack Collom and Sheryl Noethe

From Nature to Nurture: Ecology and Pegagogy Inform Two Long-Running Writing & Poetics Courses from Naropa University

An Ecosystem of Writing Ideas by Jack Collom (every writing teacher should read this)

On Sound and Rhthym, by Jack Collom

Jack Collom (1931-2017) from the Allen Ginsberg Project  (includes video links)

Jack Collom, Boulder Poet and Educator, remembered in the Daily Camera

I Wouldn’t Be Here If It Weren’t For Jack Collom by Jonathan Montgomery

Interview with Jack Collom by Elizabeth Robinson

And my favourite poem of Jack’s (one of my favourite poems): The Old Woods

Editorial critique for #authorsforgrenfell

I’m offering an editorial critique via the online auction Authors For Grenfell Tower. The money raised will be paid to the British Red Cross and will be going to residents affected by the Grenfell Tower fire.

I’ll read and report on up to 15,000 words plus a synopsis or proposal for your novel or work of narrative nonfiction.

More details on this specific offer here, and more info on how to bid here. Bidding is open until Tuesday 27 June, and this particular offer is available to writers worldwide.

And there are many other offers too – critiques from editors, lunches with agents, signed copies from authors, and many bookish giveaways. If you are a writer, these could be excellent opportunities. If you are a reader, you can never have enough books on your shelves, right?! And you might have chance to meet your favourite author in person too.

Bid, and bid generously – on as many bids and as much as you can afford! I can’t think of a better cause than helping people rebuild their lives. And if you’re unable to bid, perhaps circulate on social media to people who can.

Friday Writing Experiment No. 62: Receiving, and Giving

img_0037

A subject that comes up frequently in the world of writing is that of cultural appropriation: using other people’s voices, or taking stories that peoples claim as their own. People can be sensitive about cultural tourism, and rightly so, given the uneven balance of power through history.

But neither am I comfortable with limits on what we can or cannot write. Writers often bear witness to things they have observed, rather than things they have experienced directly, and the outsider account often has great value. And writers should be free to go beyond their immediate selves, anyway; the imagination is the greatest tool and purpose of writing – and reading.

There are no easy answers to some of the dilemmas that come up, and some of the views expressed can feel righteous and needlessly divisive. Among many pieces on the matter, the following are thought-provoking:

* Lionel Shriver’s speech on cultural appropriation at the Brisbane Writers Festival

* Whose Life Is It Anyway? – other writers responding to Shriver

* Who Gets To Write What? by Kaitlyn Greenidge

* Marlon James on why he’s done talking about diversity

* Marlon James on pandering (this needs to be said)

A few tips I gathered here: the need for humility (Hari Kunzru). ‘Don’t write what you know, write what you want to understand’ (Aminatta Forna). And, especially: ‘Fiction doesn’t appropriate, it creates’ (A.L. Kennedy).

I usually come down in favour of freedom of speech, but most of all I favour the freedom to do what your mother always told you: think before you speak. We live in times of quick reactions in the echo chambers and mirror pools of social media, and it’s good to make time for reflection. One of a writer’s primary duties is to listen.

For writers have to earn the right to write about something beyond their obvious reach. They have to do their homework: research, sounding out expert opinion, trying out work on readers, slowing down to hear the world they’re writing about.

Writers sometimes also have to accept that they don’t get things quite right first time, and take criticism on the chin, and try to do better next time (this applies in many instances). Good writing often asks that we are robust (as writers, as readers), and don’t make hasty responses.

It’s also worth thinking through the meaning of appropriation. Appropriating refers to the act of taking, and the idea of taking has unpleasant connotations – about colonialism, or theft, or stealing someone else’s identity. But most if not all writing is about taking. As Linda Grant says in the Guardian piece linked above: ‘In practical terms we are mostly appropriating, ruthlessly, the lives of our families and our friends, but that’s not the same as cultural appropriation because it has no political freight.’

Why not reconfigure this idea of taking, though, and think of writing as receiving something; it’s a subtly different gesture, a less aggressive exchange that has a greater sense of sharing.

Plus, perhaps anything that is taken can also be balanced out by the act of giving something back in return?

For this week’s writing experimentTake – or rather receive – something from the outside world that’s very different from your own experience, and write about it in a way that not only makes it your own but also gives something back to the world in the process.

Write with authority during this exchange: listen, do the research, test the work on readers, and all the time scrutinise your intention and be sure you are proceeding respectfully with the purpose of being authentic. Maybe even write yourself a memo first, addressing with honesty some of the ethics of taking (receiving) content from the world and getting down some ideas about giving something back. 

Many of these matters boil down to aspects of craft that help turn your writing into the best possible gift to the world: using a well-drawn point of view that (eventually) comes naturally, taking time really to think about a character’s yearnings, choosing the best verbs to power a sentence, pruning excessive adjectives wrapped around a noun.

‘A good novelist is a good observer – everything else is just style,’ says Chris Cleave in that Guardian piece. Be a good receiver, too, and then be a good giver: pay attention to what you observe and receive, and then how you present it and give it back. It’s good to share. 

 

Tomorrow Belongs To You

If you really care about things, practise what you preach.

If you are a writer or an agent or a publishing professional, are you working with people whose ethics align with yours at every stage of the chain of ownership, production and distribution?

Take time today to do what we have to do in the echo chambers of social media.

But if we really care about things, we have to practise what we preach out there in the world too.

Tomorrow belongs to us.

York Festival of Writing 2016

img_0030

Yesterday I returned from my fifth Festival of Writing. I’m tired, and overstimulated, and typing on three devices; I have email, Twitter, two Scrivener projects, three Word documents, and an infinity of Safari tabs on this very screen right now. (No Facebook, though. I’ve deactivated that. For now, for good?)

But I have to say I really love that buzz I get when I come back from York. Here is a quick wrap-up including links to various things I mentioned (perhaps to be updated as my monkey mind remembers bits and pieces).

DIY MA IN CREATIVE WRITING
Here is the post that inspired this workshop: Learning And Studying And Writing: A DIY MA In Creative Writing.

I hope I didn’t sound too biased in my advocacy of the self-help model over educracy (or crookademia, as we called it on a train heading home). But looking at the cost of an MA should really give anyone pause, and in this class I wanted to give practical suggestions and resources for writers who wanted to build their own programme of studies.

We all agreed that doing the necessary studying then drafting and completing a book is probably going to take longer than the usual year of an MA. We thought three to five years was reasonable, maybe seven or eight.

I brought into our discussion a couple of case studies where I had asked two writer friends (one published, one about to be published) how they would put to good use a budget of about half the cost of an MA.

Both said they would spread the learning and writing across three to five years (which seems pretty accurate), and they included things such as: courses, writing retreats, the services of a freelance editor who can also give some market advice, a writing conference where they could pitch to agents, and membership of genre organisations and attending their conventions. Both writers also stressed the importance of networking and building community through such activities – and especially the joy of making like-minded and lifelong friends. Childcare is an additional expense that can be worth the investment at key times.

One came to £4,200, and the other to £3,600. (Gym memberships can cost more!) This is significantly cheaper than most MA courses, which anyway would probably need to be supplemented with other courses or input as the writer extends what is usually a 15,000-word dissertation, give or take, into a book.

And while we are talking about costs, here is a clip that might give further thought on a subject that came up in the class: ‘Fame costs, and right here’s where you start paying’. What is writing going to cost you? How are you going to pay for wherever you want to get in terms of making time, and making space? Time and space are going to be more important than money. (One of my case studies also built a very lovely writing shed, but this is shared with writer’s partner and would blow any MA budget. At least visitors can be slept there at Christmas.)

I mentioned the highly practical and very brilliant self-editing course run for the Writers’ Workshop by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin as a sensible investment too; I always feel a bit sheepish touting the house wares, but I did point out that, among people who have taken it, this course seems to be more highly rated than any other I know, and it turned out that several of its graduates were in the room to back me up.

When signing up for any course, check out the tutors (and note not all the best are famous writers either … or have even published books – at least in that sense). Personal recommendations are always good.

I also suggested an exercise based on the Lynda Barry diary. Here she is in action: Creativity & Learning: A Conversation With Lynda Barry.

I also recommend highly David Gaughran for his wisdom and fire about self-publishing, and his generosity with resources for the writer. His book Let’s Get Digital is free to download right now (and perhaps you can buy one of his novels in exchange).

Back to the course: we did a few brainstormy exercises on the fly, and I used one to challenge writers to produce a short story, and offered to read and comment on any sent my way by Monday morning. And I got one story first thing this morning, and it’s really good! The constraint within that exercise worked really well.

Many other resources, including stuff from the handouts and plenty more, can be found in the Resources pages on my site.

The better you are, the more sweat I’m gonna demand.
Lydia Grant
of the New York City High School for the Performing Arts

TRUSTING YOUR VOICE
This workshop focused on trusting your natural speaking voice as the foundation of your writing. It’s natural, it’s easy, it’s how we’ve been telling stories all our lives. My friend and teacher Bobbie Louise Hawkins from Boulder has been a great influence on my sense of using the speaking voice.

We discussed how different types of writing have different purposes (informing, selling, arguing a case, telling a story, creating an atmosphere). And this creates different needs in the syntax. Fiction needs mood, as do many forms of narrative nonfiction, and sometimes, if we’ve grown used to writing in other forms (academic writing, journalism, business writing) we need to adapt and perhaps return to the simplicity of getting the natural speaking voice on to the page.

We discussed how fronted adverbials can be bad for the health of your fiction, and enjoyed the delightful right-branching syntax of Joe Brainard’s ‘I Remember’. Here is my I Remember from York a few years ago (I remember getting affirmation that we needed a whippet of our own …), and here is an exercise: Variations On The Theme Of I Remember.

Related to voice, I also gave a mention to narration, the narrator, and the persona. We also looked at ways to adapt and extend your natural speaking voice and using dialect in writing. How much can we get away with? Not much is needed, probably. As in many things, sufficiency is a useful principle in writing.

Here is a useful piece by Annabel Pitcher: Me, Myself And I: The Secrets Of Writing In The First Person.

Here are some more exercises on voice from this blog:

Voice 1: Listening
Voice 2: Tone
Voice 3: Passion and Purpose
Voice 4: Other Voices

I’ll end on a quote about a voice’s distinctive qualities from Stephen King:

A novel’s voice is something like a singer’s — think of singers like Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, who have no musical training but are instantly recognizable. When people pick up a Rolling Stones record, it’s because they want access to that distinctive quality. They know that voice, they love that voice, and something in them connects profoundly with it.

Something to aim for.

RAISING THE TONE
Here are a few examples of logos, ethos and pathos in action.

Here is the Garrison Keillor essay that shows a certain ironic take towards its subject: When This Is Over, You Will Have Nothing That You Want.

And here is a profile of Kit De Waal, whose most sincere My Name Is Leon we listened to.

Can’t go without mentioning George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’.

And here are a couple of older posts on related matters: Ding. Dong! Right Speech and What Words Can You Use?

BOOK DOCTORING
The manuscripts I read were a good bunch. One was outstanding, and made me wish I was a publisher again, or even (scary) an agent. A couple of others showed a lot of potential. Actually, quite a lot of them did.

In fact, is it too pollyanna of me to think everyone has potential? I had a meeting with someone I’d first met at the Getting Published day in the spring, and he’d gone away and studied the books I recommended and taken Debi and Emma’s course and (most importantly) done lots of writing, and his prose style had truly come on leaps and bounds. Improvement comes through application.

In general, tweaks for mood and pacing are often the things I was paying attention to – things that bring a distinctive style out in the voice and help build an emotional connection. With content, there was sometimes a need for a clearer narrative focus: what’s at stake in the story as a whole? And by extension: on every page? I told one writer I chatted to in passing that every page should offer a gift to the reader. It is helpful to think of writing as an act of giving.

I had to see a few people at short notice – if any of those good folk are reading this and need any points clarifying, drop me a line via my contact form.

Further to that, though, I want to recommend this post for anyone who’s figuring out what to do after meeting with agents and editors: Working With Feedback On Your Writing.

(To come: a post on choosing an agent or publisher.)

TILL THE NEXT TIME
As ever, the Festival of Writing was great fun. A real meeting of minds and especially hearts – there are a lot of good-hearted people at the festival, and that is because writing is fundamentally a good-hearted practice. Group hugs all round! (Man hugs especially.)

Thanks to everyone at the Writers’ Workshop for having me along, and to everyone I spoke with: it made for a very enjoyable weekend.

And a special thanks to those left behind …

lying-charlie

PS for anyone in or near London: I’m joining Kellie Jackson and Emma Darwin at the Words Away Salon at the Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall next week. We’re going to be talking about editing your writing. And networking and building community (see above).