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On Summer Writing Workshops

By: Sophie Clark

In the summer of 2017, I was willing to try anything. During the semester prior, I had become distant to my writing and decided to devote my free time in the summer to attending poetry workshops and traveling. First, I planned to attend the Juniper Summer Writing Institute at UMass Amherst for a week in June. Then, in July, I signed up for a weekend workshop at the University of Iowa in Iowa City for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. I anticipated a summer of inspiration and dreamed of meeting and learning from well-known writers as well as finding the path to becoming one myself.

At UMass Amherst, I was placed in a poetry workshop with Timothy Donnelly (Author of The Cloud Corporation). For a week, I would attend a craft talk in the morning, a workshop in the afternoon, and enjoy a reading by a contemporary writer in the evening. I found the writers involved in the program to be wonderful and the attending students encouraging. However, while I was there, I noticed I had done very little writing. Although I attempted to write in my free time, I felt too intimidated to write amongst the attending writers and decided to settle for taking a lot of notes instead. At the end of the week, I was glad to have gained a lot of books and information but was ultimately disappointed that I didn’t write more.

After my experience at Juniper, I had not given up hope on my Iowa Summer Writing workshop experience. I planned to do nothing but write for an entire weekend. Although I ended up writing a bit more because my group was writing from prompts in our workshop, I still wasn’t writing from that great source of inspiration I had hoped to find there. Again, I settled for mostly taking notes and exploring the city.

At the end of the summer, I was left with a good amount of books and a good amount of advice written in my notebook. In the coming semester, I would learn my inspiration was just around the corner and that I would soon find my voice in writing once again. Since that summer, I’ve not only learned that you cannot force inspiration but also that you cannot simply expect it. I was waiting for something to happen to me while, in truth, I had to make it happen myself. While I would recommend attending these workshops if you have the time and money, I would also advise you to truly make it worth your resources. Work hard while you’re there and try to get into good writing habits you can stick with afterward. And if you are unable to attend these workshops (which many of us college students are), know that if you work hard, you can gain the same knowledge on your own. Your greatest inspiration is waiting for you, but you ultimately have to find it for yourself.

National Novel Writing Month, it’s Happening Now!

By: Iona Newman

November is in full swing, and for writers across the country this means one thing: National Novel Writing Month.

If you are a writer or are friends with a writer, chances are that you have heard about National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo, through panicked social media posts or a friend’s sudden radio silence. For those who have not heard of it, NaNoWriMo is a writing marathon during the month of November in which participants challenge themselves to write a complete 50,000 word draft of a novel. This means writing about 1,667 words every day in November.

The purpose of the challenge is to give writers permission to finish a first draft and help propel them further into the novel writing process. This can help writers at any level of experience, and can be particularly useful for students who may or may not have completed their first longer manuscript.

But students also know that November is the time of looming final projects and preparing for final exams. Whether or not you choose to participate in NaNoWriMo, below are three reminders for student writers going into November and the pressure this month brings.

1. Health is the top priority.

Mental and physical health should be the top priority regardless, but this is also a practical reminder for writers. Writing is a much harder task when you feel ready to collapse. Scheduling enough time to sleep is as important as scheduling time to study or write the day’s word count goal. Make sure to stay hydrated by drinking water, not just cup after cup of coffee, and to eat real food.

For college students, November is full of stressful school projects and preparing for the spring semester. Taking on a writing marathon at the same time will be hard work, but it should be enjoyable hard work. Make sure to take breaks when you need them. Putting a self-challenge writing project to the side is better than letting yourself burn out, believe me.

2. Take advantage of the opportunities and resources that are available.

The purpose of NaNoWriMo is to make time for your writing. Whether or not you participate, writers can use this spirit of dedication at any time of the year. Give yourself permission to skip the occasional social event to write 1,000 words instead. Use Netflix as a reward for when you finish something, not for procrastination. Carry a small notebook with you or write on your phone while on the bus or waiting in line. Schedule twenty minutes between study sessions or class periods to sketch out the day’s mini creative project. Developing these habits allows us to take ourselves seriously as writers. NaNoWriMo gives us permission to carve out time for our passion and let our first draft be imperfect.

What makes NaNoWriMo attractive is that there is a community of writers out in the world who are also visibly making time for creativity. Through the event’s official website, you can find local write-ins, online forums, social media posts, and pep-talks from established writers to support you. This support does not have to be limited to NaNoWriMo. Instead, NaNoWriMo can serve as a way to practice developing a support system for the rest of the year. Get in contact with local writing communities through social media or your university, follow writing blogs you find inspiring, and create a list of author role models. Store those writing relationships and resources for the long winter ahead.

3. Success is in the eye of the beholder.

As a NaNoWriMo participant, I have only won the 50,000 word challenge once. As a student, I am a great believer in personal successes. My goal for November may be very different from the goals of other NaNoWriMo participants in my area. Maybe I will write 15,000 words by November 30th . Maybe I will finish one short story during this month. For me, completing these goals will still be an accomplishment. 50,000 words is a worthy goal, but any extra words I write this month will be words I might not have written otherwise.

The world needs flash fiction, short stories, narrative essays, blog posts, and prose poems just as much as it needs 50,000 word novels. Get out there and try writing something new this November! Word count doesn’t have to hold you back.

And remember: there is always the camp session of NaNoWriMo in the summer.

Poetry: Abstracts versus Concretes

I remember the day in my very first college-level poetry class when my instructor (a wonderful poet and teacher by the name of Neal Kirchner) asked us the difference between concrete and abstract language. When we had given up on our half-hearted attempts to articulate our understanding of the concept, he showed us the distinction in a way that has stuck with me.

First, he put up a slide with the word “WAR” typed in black on a white background. Next, he showed another slide, this time with an image of the painting “Guernica” by Pablo Picasso. We started talking about the difference between the two slides, and the impact they each had on us. Looking at “Guernica” produced an almost visceral reaction. The woman screaming over the body of her baby, the terror on the face of the horse – these images produced a deep effect in the viewer. The word “War,” however, required so much interpretation, had so many possibilities, that we couldn’t agree what it represented – it became our vision of war, rather than the author’s. Though the medium was an image, rather than words, I felt a glimmer of understanding beginning to kindle in my mind.

  

WAR

guernica

 

 

 

 

 

That class is where I first came to understand that abstract language (with which my poems to that point had been positively riddled) may have an unintended effect: it can garble and even dissolve its own meaning. I swore then and there to make sure my own poems would be full of concrete language, that they would aspire to the same impact that “Guernica” had achieved.

This was a lofty goal, particularly because I, like many others in my class, still wasn’t completely sure how the distinction worked, and how it produced the effect that it did. Today, we’ll dig in and try to show the difference in another way. By rewriting a passage from a famous poem without any of the concrete language that it uses, we can see how much concrete language affects a poem’s meaning and its power.

Let’s use a few lines from Sylvia Plath’s well-known poem, “Daddy.” In lines 57-63, the speaker talks about her difficulty in dealing with her father’s death, and her subsequent mental illness:

“I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.”

 

Now imagine that same section told in more abstract language:

“I was ten when you died.
At twenty I tried to kill myself
Because I missed you.
I wanted to share something, even death, with you.

But I got professional help,
Though I don’t feel like I’m really healed.”

The second (and I admit, poorly translated) version feels flat and lifeless compared to the emotive power of Plath’s words. It’s difficult to even say that the same sentiment is conveyed, because we can’t really feel any emotion behind the second version. There’s no concrete language to ground us, to give a sense of reality and physicality. We don’t connect with the speaker in the second version the same way we do with the speaker in the first version. We understand the words on an intellectual level, but they don’t have the power to move us in the same way. The physicality of the words “bones,” “glue,” and “sack” all provide sensory detail that gives us textile and visual imagery, as well as bringing their own connotative weight to bear on the poem.

The phrase “I was ten when they buried you” has more power than the translation of “I was ten when you died,” because “died” is an abstract term, whereas “buried” is a concrete one – it provides an image of a funeral, of a burial, and, in context, of a ten-year-old girl standing at her father’s graveside. There is too much room in the concept of “died” for us to form those images with any confidence. The concept described in the lines “But they pulled me out of the sack / And they stuck me together with glue” demonstrates so clearly the way that the speaker felt about her treatment for illness. She felt it was a patch-job, that it was a mere cosmetic fix. She’s merely “stuck” in her form, not truly healed. This isn’t conveyed so clearly in the abstract version, for all that it says essentially the same thing. In this brief analysis of only a few lines, it’s clear how powerful a tool concrete language can be in a poem.

To be fair, abstract language isn’t something you can’t or shouldn’t employ. Nor is concrete language a magical key that will make your poem or story automatically great. However, understanding the difference can help you to make conscious choices about how you want to convey meaning in your poem. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to write, and many famous and talented poets have and do use abstract language wonderfully in their work. The power of concrete language is that it can make your poem’s meaning more clear, more beautiful, more surprising, and more effective. Also, concrete language has become something of a gold standard in contemporary poetry – you will hear about it again and again in workshops and from instructors. Don’t be afraid of the discussion, or of using either abstract or concrete language, but rather use your understanding of the differences to push each poem to its most powerful incarnation: a rich, sensory ride from which the reader will never really recover.

 

Want to understand more about concrete versus abstract language? Try these sites and pages:

http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/nouns-concrete-abstract-collective-and-compound

http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/composition/abstract.htm

http://www2.isu.edu/success/writing/handouts/concrete.pdf

Poetry: Using Poetic Devices

poet_package_by_eirian_stock

“Ah, shall I metonymy or synecdoche?”

If you’re just breaking into the world of poetry writing, or if you, like me, wrote for years without much instruction or guidance, you may be wondering about some of the poetic terms that you see/hear tossed around in literary journals, classrooms, and conversations. What’s the difference between a metonymy and a synecdoche? What on earth is a kenning? An iamb? A trochee? More importantly, however, is understanding what these things can do for your poem. One easy way to explore their power is to experiment. With that in mind, here are three prompts that incorporate poetic devices:

 

 

 

 

  1. Write a poem that incorporates either a metonymy or a synecdoche. Metonymy is a device where something is signified by something closely linked to itself. For example, one of the most common is the representation of the American government by the term “the White House,” or the representation of police officers by the term “badge.” Synecdoche, on the other hand, is a specific form of metonymy where the signifier is an actual part of the signified, such as the synecdoche of “hand” to represent a person: “all hands on deck,” or “wheels” to represent a whole car, or “sails” to represent a ship. Metonymy and synecdoche can be valuable in a poem in a few ways. It can improve your poem’s imagery by using a smaller, more concrete stand-in for a complex idea. This also makes it a powerful tool for cutting unnecessary words. When used well, metonymy and synecdoche also forge new pathways in the reader’s mind, making them think about your subject in new ways. For your poem, try to be inventive – think of new ways to relate things, new parts that can stand in for wholes.

 

  1. Write a poem that uses a refrain. A refrain, or repeating section of a poem, can be a very useful literary device. A refrain can be as short as a few words, like Poe’s famous phrase: “Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore,” it can be a full line, like the final two lines in Robert Frost’s famous poem, “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”: “And miles to go before I sleep / And miles to go before I sleep.” Or, a refrain can be a whole stanza, the term for which is a burden. Refrains can be used to heighten the focus of the word/phrase/line/stanza, but it’s important to remember that this comes with great expectations. The refrain should be strong enough to bear repetition. Try for a refrain where the repetition not only strengthens the impact of the word(s), but also deepens the meaning, presenting alternate or further interpretation.

 

  1. Last but not least, for this prompt, put a kenning into a poem. A kenning is a compound noun that is used in place of a third noun. It’s a literary device that traces roots back to Old Norse and Old English poetry. There are lots of examples to be found in poems like Beowulf: “wound-sea” for blood, “sea-farer” for sailor. Kennings are a powerful because they make the reader (and the poet!) think about things in new ways, often expressing emotive associations. In “wound-sea,” for example, the simple noun, blood, is given weight (a sea, something unstoppable and vast) and cause (a wound, representing combat and war). In order to find a kenning, think about your object from new angles (as you’ve probably noticed, this is sort of a theme among these devices). Compare it to things, make new connections and most of all, stretch your imagination.

 

If you were already familiar with these devices, pick a new one you didn’t know already (there’s a good online reference here). If not a new device, then a new form you’ve never encountered (here’s a good list to start with). The key to this prompt is to push your understanding of the craft.

Want more poetic devices and terms? Check out the list of sources:

The Poetry Foundation. An excellent online source for everything poetry. Read craft essays, poems, explore the searchable learning lab.

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/

Project Gutenberg’s online annotated version of Beowulf.

Mary Kinzie’s A Poet’s Guide to Poetry. An in-depth look at the mechanics and craft of poetry. http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/P/bo15586305.html

 

 

Foreign Fame and Finals

vintageworldAn exciting announcement: After a recent meeting, our Business Manager, Kristen Pothast, informed the rest of the staff that some of our issues have been downloaded in six other countries.  If you’ve been published by 13th Floor Magazine, there have been people in Germany and Canada and the United Kingdom that have read your work.  So, that’s extremely cool.  It was one thing to want to bring literary and artistic talent to the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s campus, but to have gone so far beyond our city limits is something our staff members are proud of.

December has begun, and right now that only means one thing to most of you: finals.  They’re right around the corner, so be sure to keep pushing yourself to stay on top of your studying, project preparations, rewrites, and for some, senior capstone presentations.  The excitement of upcoming holidays and a three week break can easily be distracting when you have that “I just want to be done already” feeling.  Here are some helpful tips for those of you who are about to take your first college finals or those who need a reminder:

  • Get good sleep, eat right, and implement some exercise to help declutter your mind.
  • Make daily or weekly study schedules.
  • If you’re struggling with a particular unit or chapter, form a study group.
  • The Criss Library is a wonderful place.  Give it a look around.
  • Rewards are necessary.  Take well-deserved breaks after you’ve put in ample time studying.
  • Most importantly, have confidence in yourself and your ability to do well.

From all of us at 13th Floor, we’re rooting for you to get those grades.  And if you really feel stuck and just can’t seem to look at one more note card, during that study break you could give yourself a writing prompt or sketch an image that has been in your brain for a few days.  Those might just turn into pieces you’re fond of, and who knows, they might be submission worthy next semester.