Archive for September, 2014


Videos or Books?

September 27, 2014

Each semester, I take a poll and ask my students, “Who reads?” Maybe one will raise their hand. Although I know college kids are busy, this saddens me. It’s difficult to improve writing, if reading’s not involved. So, I assign plenty of essays, hopefully interesting ones, and we write about them.

But I also show short clips from movies, videos, and many YouTube recording.

Although not every writing teacher would approve of the tactic, I think video plays an important role in the classroom. Not only does film capture the attention of the twenty-something set, but clips can be analyzed like a book.

How does a setting affect the mood of a movie? What’s the purpose? The inciting incident? How has the character grown? What are the details that remain with you once the film is over? Watching Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men or the Shining is an excellent example of voice and character.

Books are great. In my opinion, they can’t be beat. But movies and film can be useful tools when teaching students to write. Next time you hit the big screen, watch for the climax. See if you can plot the film like you would a book. The exercise will improve your own writing.


Summer Workshops: Lighthouse meets Djerassi

September 8, 2014

Last spring I applied to two juried writing workshops, hoping I’d get into one of them. I did—to both. Fortunately, I received a grant from Colorado Mountain College to pay for them, and like that, I had three weeks of workshops to attend, writers’ works to read, and my own pieces to polish. Nervous? Yep. Excited? Most definitely. I set my intention and began the work.

The first workshop was run by the Lighthouse Writers in Denver, Colorado and lasted two full weeks, the longest writing workshop I’d ever taken. I signed up for individual sessions, concentrating on emotional plot, character development, and exciting stuff like sentence structure. By the end of the first week, my brain was saturated, and I’d not yet begun my sessions with Mat Johnson, a professor from the University of Houston’s MFA program.

I didn’t know Mat so ordered his books and did my research. Five minutes into the first class I was convinced that I’d applied for the right workshop. For the next five days, Mat guided ten of us through a mini-MFA in creative writing. His energy high; he taught through practical application and pounded his message into every lecture—find the heart of your story. See it reflected in every scene. Make sure something happens that changes your character forever and mirror it back into the heart of your story.


Two days after finishing two weeks of workshops, I was on a plane to Northern California to study with the enchanting and gifted author, Nova Ren Suma, as well as nine other writers at the Djerassi Institute. There could have been no better place, no better teacher, and no better co-writers. Exhausted and yet oddly energized, I settled into my corner room; a room with a view of a tree covered in moss and inhabited by squirrels, chipmunks, and a few squawking birds with plenty of rabbits below. Djerassi has a tragic history and beautiful mission, offering the perfect environment for creative types. Given free reign of the kitchen, we made our own meals—except for dinner when we gathered for an organic feast prepared by Dan, a terrific chef. Three staff members joined us, and the conversations were always full of humor, insight, and plenty of wine.

When we weren’t eating, writing or in class, we roamed the property: a beautiful ranch with the Pacific Ocean in sight. Artists had littered the trails with amazing sculptures, and the enormous redwoods presented their unique inspiration. Mist rolled in, bats flew by, and snakes slithered across our paths, all offering their energy for our creative process. When I was stuck, not sure what to write or where to turn, I walked in the woods and talked to the trees, making me sound a bit like a lunatic, but it worked.

It was a gift.

Perhaps the best part of the workshop was studying with Nova and nine inspiring women. Nova’s style of teaching was exactly what I needed: soft, inquisitive, and heart-felt. Without knowing it, she piggybacked on Mat’s class perfectly, providing each of us with exactly what we needed and directing us to write the book of our heart. Together we learned, laughed, and felt what it was like to be surrounded by others who understood who we were as writers; a little crazy, a lot creative, and always challenged.

For me, the week was about community inspired by people, nature, and the work. It was the perfect place to find the heart of my new story and refine the veins of my finished manuscript.

I will be forever grateful to Nova, Mat, Djerassi, Lighthouse, and to the writers who joined me. I’d found my answer to my question: when is it done and good enough for others to read? When the heart of the scene is found on every page. When characters have changed, and so have you. It’s done when you know. And then, as Nova says, you’ve found the story of your heart.

My summer workshops were exactly what I needed; time to explore, go inside, and confidently find my voice to answer my own questions.


No onward and into fall.