As promised from last entry, I plan on using this entry to go through some of the things I learned at this year’s Aspen Summer Words Festival workshop, and how those learnins’ have shone through in my recent edits. First, though, a quick brain dump on gifted stuff.
My article, “A Gifted Education,” was published last week by the Harvard Educational Review. That’s been a long, long process and I am so thankful for the person who suggested I send it to Harvard, as I never would’ve considered that venue without them. I have to say, the oddest part of the process (beyond the several rounds of serious edits) was reading this abstract written for an article database:
“A personal narrative is presented about the author’s experience in gifted education programs, focusing on his self-destructive behavior while in school, including substance abuse, and his psychological healing at summer camps run through Western Kentucky University’s Center for Gifted Students.”
No idea who wrote it, no idea if it’s someone I communicated with in the process. I know it’s not the first time, but it feels like the first time someone has read my writing for a reason other than being obliged to due to personal or educational connections. It’s fantastic.
THAT SAID – Rereading the piece and talking to people about it has of course gotten me to go through recent news articles for gifted education, which includes the usual handful of articles about identification (New York, Miami), the laments over lack of funding/resources and cutbacks (Chicago, and separately Illinois). However, hidden among these are a few crumbs of good news, and one especially stood out – the Center for Gifted Studies, the organization which made my childhood orders of magnitude better through their programs, has a nice article about their hosting of the World Conference for the World Council of Gifted and Talented Children. Very exciting!
No seriously, this entry was going to be about revising. I made the title “Post-Process” for a reason!
So I’ve been involved in several writing workshops. For the uninitiated, there’s a few flavors of this type of gathering, with significant overlap between. Critique groups are groups of writers who meet together on a regular basis for an extended amount of time, and generally don’t have a leader. Some workshops (usually referred to as retreats or classes) are oriented toward inspiration, and do a variety of brainstorming exercises to start writing, and are less heavy on reviewing each others’ works. College workshops generally have a good amount of teaching between reviewing the students’ pieces. Most workshops, though, have a significant segment where the goal is to read one of the participants’ piece and go around the room talking about what it did well and what it didn’t do well. A common problem with more informal gatherings is that no one wants to give or receive negative opinions on pieces, but a good workshop leader will keep people focused on the writing and limit the interjections of the writer.
In the past year, I’ve been a part of three significantly different workshops. Two five-day sessions in Aspen, the 2012 one led by author William Loizeaux and the 2013 one led by David Lipsky. The third was a semester-long class at Texas State led by Tom Grimes. All three were focused on narrative/creative/memoir nonfiction.
Loizeaux is the teacher I want to be when I lead creative writing workshops. He obviously reads and rereads the pieces multiple times, and does a great job of having students show off their own writing by inviting them to open the session with their reading out loud. He differed from the other two workshop leaders in that he very, very rarely referred to outside sources–if he wanted to point to an example of something being done right, he used someone’s piece in the class. Most of his edits and suggestions were focused on taking the best parts of the piece and making them shine even stronger.
Grimes had a lot more time to work with, and he used it by having us read a wide selection of short nonfiction pieces, most culled from the Best American Essays collections. He referred to the essays often while leading the workshop of the students’ works. Most of his edits revolved around removing segments of the workshopped pieces that weren’t working or were tangential to the story – and he removed a lot. He was often concerned with the tension of the piece, with the motivating of readers to continue on. One of my favorite mini-lessons from him (which was also featured in his memoir Mentor) was the idea of setting a clock so your reader has a sense of where the story is going, when the story is going to end. He gave the examples of The Great Gatsby (early on we know it takes place over a summer), The Catcher in the Rye (Holden has ~3 days after being kicked out of school until the winter break begins and he has to go home), and Stop-Time (the opening scene is set in the same day that the book ends).
Lipsky was much much different than the other two in that he cared very little about big picture stuff. A common suggestion in workshops is to “go into scene more” meaning to show something happening instead of summarizing the event. Another very common suggestion is to do more dialogue, or less, or to move an event around to make the story have more tension. Lipsky did little to none of this, instead he was almost entirely concerned with the individual sentence-level stuff going on. He showed us the minute edits from a galley of David Foster Wallace’s essay “Shipping Out” which makes changes as small as flipping a noun from plural to singular in order to reduce the repetition of a sound. The majority of Lipsky’s technique involved reading sentences out loud multiple times and to trust the tongue to trip up (the alliteration I just wrote might be guilty of this problem, or might be an example of something working right) where there’s a problem. We had extended discussions on how different a dash, semi-colon, or parentheses can feel.
In the end, I feel very grateful to have been involved in these three very different experiences. I feel like I have a peanut gallery of voices to listen to in doing my own edits, and it’s obvious that each contributes to my changes.
Question for you: What workshop style experiences have worked best, in your experience?
Outside content: I just discovered how to access my highlighted text from my Kindle on my PC, so some quotes from The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne.
“—Go—says he, one day at dinner, to an over-grown one which had buzzed about his nose, and tormented him cruelly all dinner-time,—and which after infinite attempts, he had caught at last, as it flew by him;—I’ll not hurt thee, says my uncle Toby, rising from his chair, and going across the room, with the fly in his hand,—I’ll not hurt a hair of thy head:—Go, says he, lifting up the sash, and opening his hand as he spoke, to let it escape;—go, poor devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee?—This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me.”
“Shall we for ever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into another?”
“It is a great inconvenience to a man in a haste, that there are three distinct roads between Calais and Paris, in behalf of which there is so much to be said by the several deputies from the towns which lie along them, that half a day is easily lost in settling which you’ll take. First, the road by Lisle and Arras, which is the most about—but most interesting, and instructing. The second, that by Amiens, which you may go, if you would see Chantilly— And that by Beauvais, which you may go, if you will. For this reason a great many chuse to go by Beauvais.”
“—Every thing is good for something, quoth I.”
“That of all the several ways of beginning a book which are now in practice throughout the known world, I am confident my own way of doing it is the best—I’m sure it is the most religious—for I begin with writing the first sentence—and trusting to Almighty God for the second.”
“It would so; said my uncle Toby. Why then, an’ please your honour, is a black wench to be used worse than a white one? I can give no reason, said my uncle Toby— —Only, cried the corporal, shaking his head, because she has no one to stand up for her— —’Tis that very thing, Trim, quoth my uncle Toby,—which recommends her to protection—and her brethren with her; ’tis the fortune of war which has put the whip into our hands now—where it may be hereafter, heaven knows!—but be it where it will, the brave, Trim! will not use it unkindly.”
“Rub your hands thrice across your foreheads—blow your noses—cleanse your emunctories—sneeze, my good people!—God bless you—”
Yes, you should read the rest.
Let me open with a quick news round-up from Gifted Education:
2013 doesn’t look good for the return of federal funding for Gifted Education. Refunding the Javits Act is not included in Obama’s new budget, and the TALENT act is still in limbo in Congress. Please consider calling your representative in the House of Representatives and asking them to support the TALENT act. For more information on these and other legislative issues related to Gifted Education, check out the NAGC page on the topic.
January 12, the New York Times published another in a long line of articles about race disparity in gifted classrooms. I liked this article because it dug in really deep and tried to identify some of the reasons why the identification process is flawed, but I wish it hadn’t stopped short of saying that a lot of the identification measures are skewed toward not just the class/race majority, but also toward achievers and teacher pleasers, not academically gifted fast learners.
January 22, CNET writes that Jim Parsons of “The Big Bang Theory” is set to produce a TV show entitled “Prodigies”, which would look at young geniuses (the initial list in the article is STEM oriented, but the associated Youtube channel includes creative/athletic prodigies as well). I’m curious to see how this turns out, as it could lead to a heightened awareness of the needs of the academically gifted and the difficulty for a lot of people to fulfill those needs, or it could emphasize stereotypes and lead to a “child beauty pageant”-like side-show effect. Given the current state of reality television, I don’t have high hopes.
Finally, the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children has announced its 2013 conference will be held in Louisville, KY August 10-14. I’m especially excited about it, as Dr. Julia Roberts is one of my personal heroes and I’m glad to see her heavily involved with this. If you’re interested in applying to present, the deadline is May 25. Bonus – the keynote speaker is Dr. Joseph Renzulli, and if you’ve done any research at all in Gifted Education, I’m sure you’re familiar with his name.
In my world, a new year also begins a new semester of graduate school. This spring I’m spending an entire class looking at creative nonfiction, both memoirs and essays, taught by author Tom Grimes. In one of the first pieces we read this semester, Adam Gopnik’s introduction to The Best American Essays of 2008, he describes the three types of essays: the review essay, the memoir essay, and the odd-object essay. The first two are simple, a review of a book, an event, a place, or something else; and a personal experience with broader meaning. The last one, however, struck my interest the most. Gopnik describes odd-object essays as using small objects to talk about large subjects, the same way that Atul Gawande uses dental health to segue into our current societal attitudes to end-of-life finances and medical care in one of the first essays of the book, “The Way We Age Now”. The more I think about this idea, of zooming in on something and then panning out to gain meaning and relation, the more I think this applies to every essay, even if the odd-object is instead an event, a person, or a completely normal object. After all, aren’t many reviews of creative works used to comment on the genre or medium as a whole? I’m thinking specifically of the recent reviews of The Hobbit which became a critique of the–apparently–too realistic quality of 48 FPS and 3D on a huge screen. And, are personal essays meaningful/valuable if they don’t connect on a more global level with people’s experiences that are not the same? Another example from this book, Bernard Cooper’s essay “The Constant Gardener”, describes caring for his HIV infected partner, an experience that I haven’t come anywhere close to. Yet the questions this essay addresses: What will we do for those we love? How will we measure up in the face of overwhelming life events? What qualities do we bring to a relationship, and what qualities do we need in a successful one? all pertain to my life, and are all questions I’ve pondered in some form before.
“The essay begins with an ordinary object–a goldfish dies–and ends, the essayist hopes, with an unexpected subject: what is death?” -Gopnik, xviii
Likewise, in my writing that I’ve discussed in this blog, I seek to draw a line in the reader’s mind between my grade school experiences and gifted education as a whole. It is also possible to look at gifted education specifically and use it as a perspective on our culture’s attitudes toward education and academic achievement on a broader scale. What Gopnik describes in naming the odd-object essay isn’t reserved for good essays, but for good writing in general.