Stephen King, the Stephen King, wrote his own craft essay, On Writing: A Memoir. David Morrell has one too—The Successful Novelist: A lifetime of lessons about writing and publishing. Annie Dillard—The Writing Life. Dean Koontz—How to Write Bestselling Fiction. Anne Lamott—Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Sol Stein – Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies.
We (we including myself and my peers in the Creative Writing Seminar course) even read and dissected Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s book, Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer’s Awakening in order to inform writing our own craft essays.
The Clifton Strengths StrengthsFinder test says that one of my greatest strengths is “Competition”. According to Clifton, with this strength, I constantly measure my own progress and performance against others.
I think this competitive spirit is one of my greatest weaknesses. I can become my own worst enemy and defeat myself in this competition that no one else is even really running.
I’ll crumple a page, delete everything I wrote in a writing session, or stare at my writing with disgust not seeing anything good—because in my head so-and-so would have said it better or so-and-so is done and you can’t even get done with this one section; why continue?
Write. Delete. Write. Delete. Write. Delete. Write. Delete. Write. Delete. Write.
I was and continue to be my own worst enemy. However, I am trying to be better and more loving with not only how I talk about my writing but also myself as a writer. In writing this project as a whole but also even in simply writing this craft essay, I find myself asking myself: who am I to be discussing this topic? how am I qualified to do this project? Aren’t there other people better suited who should be writing this?
But, I have begun to quiet those demons by remembering that my confidence and my value lie in and how He, Jesus, sees me. These stories were placed on my heart for a reason and I would and could get them out and onto a page (and revise them to be something that I could be proud of).
For I do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. Philippians 4: 13 NLT
Birthing the Project
In Fiction Workshop, I began to reflect on who I was as a writer in terms of my voice. I realized that I was mostly writing pieces that were about teenage drama and that were superficial. I was writing these surface level pieces in an era where fake news, family separations, and so many other issues were becoming more and more common. I wanted to start saying something in pieces—kind of like Taraji in my first piece—and so, for my last piece in my Fiction Workshop, I wrote a piece that mixed excerpts from news stories with a fictional story about a Colombian American teen whose mother was deported after being stopped by the police.
I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow. 1 Corinthians 3: 6-7 NLT
While I was writing this piece and dipping my toe into talking back at more serious sociopolitical issues, I went to New York. And at the Schomburg museum and the Whitney there were exhibits showcasing news articles, flyers, and archives; sometimes the art was the news articles themselves; other times the news and flyers set the tone for the art; either way the art and the news/the writing were doing a sort of dance with one another. I feel like this is when I started thinking about how art and the media intersect, and I began to consider how the art was being used to make a statement about the content of the news articles that were showcased. Some kind of way these two ideas converged in my mind, and I wanted to write something where the art spoke back at major issues within America and criticized the news, and thus was the beginnings of my project.
Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern. Philippians 3:17 NKJV
During the beginnings of my project, before any writing was really happening, I was an audience member at two separate events; at both events, I was really inspired in terms of content.
This summer, at the Mortar Board National Conference, I was afforded the honor and opportunity to hear the keynote speaker, Bryan Stevenson. This speech focused on his novel, Just Mercy, as well as on his life and what he believes are problems we have in the law system now. Prior to this keynote address, we had been engaging in workshops that would help us smoothly run our Mortar Board chapters on our campuses, and these meetings were professional and serious, however in between these meetings, we would have more laid back and laughable sessions where we were meant to bond and get to know one another. One of these bonding activities included gaining a “family” where you all had a secret dance that went along with everyone’s name. And, in between meetings and lunch and bonding, we had section meetings where we would gather with the representatives from other colleges that were in our regional sections along with our section leader. Everything prior to this keynote address didn’t make me or my peers uncomfortable.
The speech and its contents were heart-breaking and served as a harsh interruption to the lighthearted tone of the rest of the conference. Yet everything he said was necessary to hear. People constantly bring up the “sometimes we just want to laugh” concept in terms of constantly writing about and forcing audiences to address difficult and sensitive topics as it relates to race, gender, and all in America. However, as I sat there and discreetly wiped away tears as Mr. Stevenson spoke, I believe that this heavy-hitting topic is what the audience, myself included, needed to hear. In terms of inspiring my writing, the address gave me the go ahead to write about topics that would make the reader and/or the characters a little uncomfortable—especially if it would be to point out an important issue like the one Stevenson discussed – prison laws and reform. The speech also gave me the green light in feeling uncomfortable myself—just because I would be exploring a more serious content than I usually did.
The other event, that served as a form of inspiration for my work, was the Decatur Book Festival, and on Saturday at the YA Stage, I saw The Writeous Poets Presentation/Performance. The panel discussion, “Teens Talk Activism”, focused on ways in which youth today can become activists specifically through artistic expressions—film, poetry, and spoken word primarily. Even though none of them used painting, sculpting, or drawing, the content of some of their spoken word pieces also, similarly, poked at the nature of social media and how it can detract from us actually being constructively active; we have a swipe-through, mindlessly repost, “Do it for the gram” but not for any real purpose type of culture nowadays that can hinder rather than help us create and affect change. This performance was done by teens and done on the teen stage, but there was one older gentleman who was, I believe, their mentor and the leader of The Writeous Poets program; this older and younger dynamic was brought up by the older gentleman and he talked about how the ways that you are active socially and politically can change. I started to think about how older and younger generations could possibly clash in terms of being active and in terms of how they think you can bring about change. (This also made me think a little bit about the commercial that called out millennials in a way to incite them enough to vote.) This clash on how to be active found its way into Hope in the Darkness in how Taraji (the daughter) and Onyx (the mother) want to go about making sociopolitical statements with their sculptures.
In terms of novels that inspired my writing, I read John Edgar Wideman’s Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File. In the beginning of my thinking about what my Senior project would be, I was going to do the exact same thing I had done before with my Fiction Workshop final piece: I would excerpt news articles and interweave the excerpts with a fictional story. In his text, John Edgar Wideman has excerpts from the news that help to tell the overall story and paint the overall picture. He simply excerpts a section and then adds the news source in parentheses after the quote. Looking back, this work has influenced my current piece more than I realized. In Writing to Save a Life, Wideman doesn’t only insert new articles but the novel has sections that are from notes left in files, notes written on barrack doors, poems written on the windows of his barbershop, Q & A’s from court transcripts, and more. In my own work, I also played with having more than just prose; in the second piece, Proximity, I mix prose and play; in the third piece, I mix prose and Q & A interview style writing.
William Landay wrote Defending Jacob, which tells the story of Andy Barber, a former ADA, is faced with having to defend his son in a murder trial involving one of the son’s schoolmates. This novel, like Writing to Save a Life, served as inspiration and as an example for how to mix regular prose with another form of writing. Court transcript excerpts are mixed in with the prose. Also mixed in with the prose were various Facebook posts and messages. The mixture of a social media element was also helpful in that I got to see how the era of social media affected the characters and how they acted; in this story, it wasn’t so much about activism but about how the digital era influences how well we really know each other as well as how it influences court proceedings (in terms of evidence). Just like Writing to Save a Life, Landay’s work was served an exemplary purpose in inspiring my writing.
During the semester I was writing this project, I was also in a Children’s and Young Adult Literature course; in the class, I read Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You Sun. This book was a phenomenal read, and I definitely recommend it—even if you just need a recreational read; Nelson deserved that Printz award—okay? So good! But getting back on track, in terms of my project, this book really made me consider how little I actually knew about art and the creation of art. In Nelson’s text, sculpting is a key part of the narrative. While there is a lot about what goes into sculpting in Nelson’s novel, I did turn to another text to better my understanding of the process and the materials as a whole. In trying to understand more about sculpting as a craft and as a much more complex process than I realized, I read Karen Hessenburg’s Sculpting Basics: Everything You Need to Know to Create- Three Dimensional Artworks. This novel was very helpful in that it explained literally everything—from the tools, to the different necessary tools for different mediums, to the way to make beginning shapes with those mediums to how to paint the clay with acrylics, to what new tool you would need to for moving to sculpting wood versus clay, and more. Even though a lot of these specific details did not make it into my writing, I think learning the process behind sculpting was important for how I approached writing “Hope in the Darkness”.
Gene Sharp’s “Appendix One: The Methods of Nonviolent Action” (that was in his novel, From Dictatorship to Democracy) really informed how I saw How to Honor the Dead, specifically the project that Taraji and her mom are undertaking. Since Taraji was the original planner and creator of the project vision, the project is based around these methods of nonviolence, and Taraji, even in working to discover her identity as an activist, believes in nonviolence and in Gene Sharp’s way of thinking. This work was in contrast with the ideals of Emma Goldman’s Anarchism and Other Essays and is more representative of Onyx, Taraji’s mom. Even though the story is unavailable to provide Onyx’s interiority, through the dialogue between the two as well as through their scultptures, I wished to convey the ideas of each of these pieces in each of the characters (in Hope in the Darkness).
Whilst writing this project, a really tough week was the week that the Jewish synagogue was bombed; an elderly black man and woman in Jeffersontown, Kentucky were shot; and a black man was lynched in his own mother’s backyard. This, to me, served as fuel/inspiration (even if it was initially crushing news) for me. These tragedies just reiterated the fact that the topic of my writing was not only relevant but needed. This isn’t necessarily a book or speech that incited me, but it was the news itself or the lack thereof. Specifically, it was the lack of news and outrage surrounding the lynching, that pushed me to want to get out the news about the issues that I was writing about even more. (I do call it a lynching even though it is debated about whether it was lynching or suicide). I wanted the people who keep getting added to that sea of bodies at the Post to be heard; I wanted people to do something about gun violence rather than keep talking about how much of an issue it is; I wanted people to have to face women’s rights issues, even more, head on; I wanted change and I wanted my writing to get out there and point at the issues even more.
My Writing Process
At first, I had a lot of issues getting words down onto the page. It started with anxiety with typing words onto a black screen; staring at the empty page and thinking that I had to somehow come up with 30 pages. Then I moved to writing in a notebook. That helped at first, and I was able to start churning out words.
Then, once I had work to edit and a lot more on the page, I felt more comfortable working in Word and on a computer. Even though I graduated to writing on my computer eventually, I still brainstormed in the Composition notebook and on whiteboards. I did a lot of my revising and overall outlining on the whiteboards.
Like I said earlier, in writing anything, I felt like the work wasn’t even good. The problems and the negative are what stood out, and I am working on looking for the golden nuggets—those small things that are actually beautiful parts of my writing.
In writing all of these pieces, I had to write about and research difficult topics—police shootings, gun violence, and violence and crimes against women. I was sucked into information and websites like the Washington Post database that put these issues into hard statistics for me, but I was also sucked into individual stories.
The Washington Post was especially hard to constantly examine because it is a live database; it is a living and breathing thing that is evolving and changing; as I logged on to see the 2018 database, I was forced to consistently confront the growing number. When I started only around 760 people had been killed, the last I checked it was already up to 830; it grew that much from August to November. I also ended up researching news stories about individuals that I found in the database and individual stories in regards to stories about maternal mortality and gun violence in schools and with toddlers. These stories forced me to look at individual stories more than the database did. Constantly reading about how so many people are dying because of these issues and about real people did take a toll on me, and honestly, in the beginning, I had a really poor self-care regimen. And by poor, I mean I didn’t really have one. I really struggled with feeling down quite often and with feeling angry and defeated, and I felt so alone in these feelings; to me, everyone was complacent and was okay with or blind to these issues; they didn’t care as much. I also got angry and had to fight feelings of resentment and disgust towards the perpetrators of these crimes.
I’m challenging you that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of our true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best– the sun to warm and the rain to nourish– to everyone, regardless: the good and the bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that. Matthew 5: 43-47 MSG
I do really enjoy research, though, and I found myself going on research binges often, and I struggled to stop researching and to get writing. Then, even once I started writing, especially the first piece, the research took over even the writing and the stories. At times, when I stopped researching, other bits of research would still find me. With all of the constant shootings and constant killings in America, the daily news and trending Instagram and Twitter stories still provided more fuel for my project.
The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord, And He delights in his way. Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down; for the Lord upholds him with His hand. Psalms 37: 23-24
Despite the struggles that I had during the actual writing process, I am very structured and organized in how I work. I have either my instrumental playlist or my motivational gospel playlist going over speakers or in my headphones (This is dependent on whether or not I need to block people out or am by myself.) I also have images or printouts of my brainstorming maps or brainstorming notes that are relevant to the story, and I either have my Composition book and Pilot G-2 or Pv7 pen or my laptop (depending on my mood towards writing).
Writing Hope in the Darkness
Initially, this piece was going to be graffiti/street art, but when I first started exploring the databases, like I said earlier, I also got sucked into researching individuals. I tried to find these victims not only in news stories but also on social media. I wanted to have a face to put to the name and information that the database gave, and in considering this, I realized that I wanted something more tangible and accessible than just the stats and cold information provided by the posts. Even though paintings would force you to see the images of these victims and of the police brutality, I felt like sculptures made it 3-D and made it more life-like.
For this piece, I feel like I did a lot of research on sculpting that didn’t get showcased, despite the fact that the sculptures and the project that Taraji and her mom created were meant to be the stars. The research that did show up in the writing a lot was the Washington Post database. In revising and coming back to this piece, I had to really grapple with making sure the fiction and plot got to shine as much as the research.
This was the hardest piece for me to write. I struggled with the play part and making the second person seem worth it. Despite having two example texts, when it came time to mix prose and another form myself, I hit a sort of block until I started trying to write the two separately and then mix them together. To be more clear, I would write the prose and the play sections as if they were independent of one another; then, once I had an idea of what the two parts were apart, I felt more comfortable mixing the two pieces to together to make, Proximity.
A controversial choice, to my peers who workshopped this piece, was the use of the second person narrator. To me, the second person/choice to have the main character be ‘You’ was a way to connect the reader to the gallery and to issue and complicity with gun violence. However, I struggled with getting the audience and You into the piece. Another concern with the piece, that my adviser brought to my attention, was how long I would allow the play to go on. I played with having the play be one big section or smaller vignettes; and I went back and forth on which idea was best. In being realistic about how long people would interact with performance art that they thought would be a simple gallery visit. I landed on vignettes and I think that this choice was ultimately the right one in terms of time.
In writing this piece, I utilized the CWS whiteboard and erasable tables a lot to create brain maps and diagrams about the gallery and the paintings as well as about the characters and their stories. These diagrams really helped me understand and see the space a lot more and enabled me to describe the space more in-depth. The diagrams also helped in terms of seeing how the pieces all flowed and would fit together. As you can see in the photo to the left, I would draw out how I was envisioning the gallery.
For this project, the art and what it would speak back at was the clearest to me throughout my entire project, and I had the most fun creating this art. I knew the issue that I would focus on would be women’s rights and social justice, and I kept seeing the image of a woman or girl drowning while others watched on passively. However, the art did end up being interpreted as being propaganda-like by most or as close to propaganda but also possibly like a magazine cartoon-like image (in workshop and by my advisers). The art, to my readers (to viewers), wasn’t like the art in the other two where it was able to be more interpreted. However, I didn’t mind the art not feeling like the art in the other two pieces; I did mind the art being interpreted as propaganda, though. When it came time to revise the art, though, I am not sure that I entirely made the art less proaganda-ish. In revising the art, I wanted the to mimic the work of cartoonist, Mike Luckovich.
The idea to make the art’s platform social media came a bit later, and it was harder for me to consider how the art would manifest itself on social media. I played around with it being simply an artist who posted paintings that they’d done on Instagram to sell, but I began to want them to solely draw live videos and draw for posting rather than posting art to sell. The who and what’s happening of this story became most problematic. Originally, my draft was simply an interview that was happening that gave no context for who the artists really was, why the interview was happening, who the interviewer is, and basically had no plot. The plot still needs work, but because of the greatest resource on campus, the CWS, and my work with tutors as well as my workshop buddy, Levy Wang, I was able to flesh out the idea of having the interview responses be scenes rather than solely having the story be a back and forth.
Reading My Work Aloud
In my Fiction Workshop syllabus, Professor Grostephan included a quote by Clarice Lispector: “When I reread what I’ve written, I feel like I’m swallowing my own vomit.” And I immediately connected with this on so many levels—I didn’t like rereading my work to myself, and this semester, I was confronted with the idea of reading my work to other people.
In preparation for the reading, I met with multiple tutors, and even though people kept saying that it was going well, listening to myself as I read, I felt like the words were foreign; my voice sounded boring and monotonous; the reading was going to be a failure in my mind. I also felt completely inexperienced. Before this reading, I had never done a reading of my own work, and I had never really shared my work with anyone publicly outside of workshops. And I mean in a large context not just for this work but for everything that I had ever written—I had never really shared it to a public audience.
The reading ended up going pretty successfully, and I should have trusted more. [Watch it here.]
And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Philippians 4:8 NLT
In reading the work aloud to myself, as I was practicing and trying to figure out what parts exactly I would read, I was able to hear some of the more clunky, some of the wordier, some of the excess, unnecessary language that was in my writing. Reading aloud is a great tool to employ in order to revise your work, and that revision-ary element, for me, was the saving grace/ the sole good part of the reading experience.
As an English Creative Writing major, we are required to take 10-14 courses in the major; two of which have to be about pre-1800 material and two of which have to be about post-1800 material. These courses could be any of the courses that meet the requirement; the only two specific courses that we must take are: ENG 280, the Foundations in Literature course, and ENG 481, The Senior Seminar. The Senior Seminar project, the project that I spent so much time ruminating about above, serves as one of the pillars for the major and is meant to allow students to put the skills that they learned for the previous three years to task. As such, in reflecting, I did utilize all of the major outcomes in completing this project.
In completing this project, I had to attend the weekly seminar meetings. In these meetings, we would workshop one another’s pieces. This semester, writers created pieces that were poems, non-fiction essays, fictional pieces, and non-fiction memoirs. In workshop (and also within my own project), I had to “analyze and interpret works from 2(+) creative genres” in order to properly workshop and review each piece of writing. After forming an interpretation and anlyzing the workshop pieces, I had to “respond to peer’s work with thoughtful criticism” in that I had to provide substantive comments on what was working and what was not working within specific pieces (and why). As made evident by the craft essay above, I did “engage in a creative process that incorporates research, revision, and attention to form, audience, language, and context”. Literally, every step of the creative process above was a part of my writing process in terms of creating my entire Senior project. In writing my project, I did write in prose and in play format, which meets the requirement of “writing with insight, proficiency, and originality in two genres”. Though this project was in creative writing, I did “apply knowledge gained from major to other disciplines of study” in that I merged what I learned from Creative Writing with my global studies and my trip to New York to inspire the idea for this project.
Another key part of the curriculum at Agnes Scott is the Summit program. In completing this project, I also met a lot of the Summit Learning Outcomes. Clearly, I effectively communicated through writing in that this entire project was about how to best utilize language and writing to tell a cohesive narrative. Through this craft essay, I am self-reflecting on my own writing process but also on myself as a writer and what I actually created this semester. The entirety of my Senior project involves me practicing and interpreting creative expression, and this craft essay documents, analyzes, and probes my interpretation of my own creative expression. In selecting the topics that I did (police shootings, gun violence, violence and crimes against women), I aimed to effect change and draw even more attention to the issues and the lack of change that currently surrounds them (as discussed above in the inspiration section). In revising the work and in reflecting on the work even now, I am meeting the outcome of continual growth in that I am utilizing the feedback from peers, from advisers, and from myself to think of ways to better my writing. Finally, this project demonstrates my ability to meet the outcome of living honorably in that I am “engaging in a social challenge of our time” and am exercising my right to civically engage with “the world around me”.