Friday, September 17, 2010

Author J.T. Dutton's Writing Tip of the Week

You'll notice it's been two weeks and I have writing tips lined up from several wonderful writers. I've been busy finishing a partial manuscript for my agent to submit and trying to catch up on yard and maintainance work before I head to Kansas City and Junction City, Kansas for the Kansas Association of School Librarians Conference and a writer's workshop with the Kansas Region of Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. I'll also be visiting Eisenhauer Middle School in Manhattan and maybe another middle school or two. The trip should be really fun. So, here it is - another writing tip - this one from J.T. Dutton, my Class of 2k9 compatriot, author of Freaked and Stranded. Jen is an English teacher so this one should be good. Suzy

Last year, I was invited to teach a three week arts immersion course at Hiram College (in Ohio) to unsuspecting business, nursing, and biological science majors. They chose my writing section instead of dance, fine arts, and theater because they thought writing would be less weird than standing on a stage singing, acting, or painting..
On the first day, I asked the group to draft original poems about an emotional state.
A woman in the front row of the class raised her hand.
"Does it have to rhyme?" she asked.
"Please, no." I said.
"I'm not that creative," a guy in back complained.
I'd heard this kind of thing before..
I suggested they all start the poem with a microwave oven. It was the first appliance that came to mind.
Generally speaking, new writers fall back on tried and true patterns of comparison and overly fixate on what they think is expected of them. They write about rainbows when they are feeling happy and clouds when they are feeling sad. I told the group that experienced writers venture out of the safety of cliche and make something more of their feelings and perceptions.
The process of inventing similes and metaphors is entertaining, like playing 'pretend' as a kid. It can crack into a whole level of thinking that some people aren't used to enjoying. Best of all, there is no way to be wrong when you search for authenticity.
So we made a list of ways in which a microwave oven was a metaphor for frustration. In my opinion, it's a very creative list for baffled students: Microwaves reheat food and turn it soggy. Their molecules bounce around but stay trapped inside. They only come in a few decorator colors, mostly black, they only do what you tell them to do.
The consensus when we finished brainstorming was that microwaves truly were oppressed appliances. We discovered the truth at the heart of the beast.
For extra credit, I suggested everyone consider happy microwaves. Here are the ways my students think a microwave can be joyful--they channel power from electrons, they bleep when you turn them on, they make life better for college students and give them something to eat besides institutional food.
"This class is strange," the guy in back stated when we finished.
"True enough," I agreed.
"But", I added, "A good life is more than rainbows. It can be household appliances too."
Somehow, given the kidding around the followed and the original poems they turned in, I think they got the point.

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