Trying Again

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Trying Again:

Oh, 4AM Breakthrough, why hast thou forsaken me? So many sleepless nights spent working, writing, caffeinating, counting. Finally done and now do over? Be kind, rewind? Definitely looks that way.

But Val Zane’s no quitter or towel thrower inner! She sticks with it like an overly obsessed addict slash hyper sensitive perfectionist through tears, pain, wind, rain, hurricane, bad hair days… sure, whatever. United States Postal Service has nothing on her!

Right?

Hell yeah!

Smooth Jazz. Yellow Submarines? Crying baby? Sorry, just procrastinating.

Inching ever closer. Progressing painfully. Slow. Steady. Still hanging!

Goal suddenly within reach. Feeling increasingly optimistic.

Skim. Scan. Examine. Snagged four smarmy stowaways!

Continue reading. Thoroughly searching for possible reiterations. Caught one blunder. Oops, two. Delete. Erase. Eradicate mistake after… ha, missed another landmine!

Repeat process. Found somewhat random echo. Die unwelcome redundancy!

Gaining confidence.

Spoke too soon?

Microsoft software should provide adequate assistance. Damn you, Bill Gates! Spellcheck was totally useless here. Find function worth only slightly more. Ugh.

Second verse same as the first? Shit.  Calculating words certainly sucks. Even worse? Math mixed into nouns, verbs, adjectives, conjunctions—grammar arithmetic? God, what a mess.

Brain malfunctioning, shooting stinging synapses from senseless screen staring.

Classmates, (hello, Kevin?), please use your keen editorial eyes! Help! Check my work. Calculate all accidental doubles, triples, quadruples. Inspect, dissect, collect, highlight any potential errors made.

I can beat Kiteley’s game. Want to bet? Vegas odds? Friends, this time, say exercise #43 will not win!

Hopefully.

Maybe.

Who knows?

Word Count = 250

Works in Progress

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When I quit my job as an event planner to pursue my literary dream, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I didn’t realize my life was changing forever.

I banged out a novel in three months. I was proud of it though I knew it needed work. But I’d reached the finish line on something that had been a goal of mine for a very long time. It felt good. The feeling was so good that I decided to submit it to agencies and publishing houses. I received feedback from several, rejections from most. All of this inspired my second draft.

Joyce Carol Oates says: “Any artist who is impatient with revision is probably doomed to be forever an amateur: “promising” through a lifetime.”

How fitting. Each of us shows promise as writers. Whether it’s through talent or drive or a combination of the two, there is a promise for something more.

I’ve now written two whole novels, though neither is finished. Now I’m writing a third and a fourth while revising the first two. Friends say funny things, like “You’ll never be happy. Just self publish already” or “You’re just afraid to be finished.”

No, that’s not it at all. I’m afraid to say something is finished when it’s not. I’m afraid of putting my name on something that hasn’t reached its potential. I’m afraid that finishing it now would be the equivalent of throwing in the towel long before the game is over. I have so much to learn and my writing continues to improve with each new lesson. Self-publishing certainly has its merits but I’m not ready for that either. If I knew my work was “perfect” or even close, maybe I’d consider it. But though I‘ve come so far I know I’m not even close to where I need to be.   

Oates says: “Writing can be revised, living cannot.”

What a great Facebook status! Also, what a fun way to look at this process we have chosen! Writing gives us the opportunity to strive for perfection or at least our idea of perfection. As writers we can continue to improve through our writing and we never have to stop improving—even after we say something is final. I’ve heard of many professional writers who continue to tweak their manuscripts even after they’ve been published. Perhaps that’s the perfectionist spirit or maybe it’s hard to break the habit of consistent improvement? Maybe it’s the promise to be the best we can be or to see the writing reach its purpose. Are we ever really done? 

Oates says: “We don’t know what we’ve written until we read it through as a reader, expelled from the process of the work, and no longer as a writer enthralled by its creation.”

This seems true and yet I wonder if I’ll ever be able to separate myself enough from my work to be able to be a reader and not also the writer? How is it possible to make that distinction? As a mother, I know it’s impossible to see my daughter as a child without also being her mother. I gave birth to her. Whether it’s a child or a creative work being born from another, how can the person giving birth be expected to be objective? Is it possible?

Oates says: “Lady Chatterly’s Lover exists in three quite unique manuscript versions of which the last was the one to be published, and become infamous.” In her lecture this week, my writing professor says: “Those who have been writing for a long time will usually tell you that what they start out with only bears a partial resemblance to what they reach at the end.”

Being on my fourth complete overhaul of my first novel, this gives me hope. This draft will be nothing like the first. Versions two and three were already dramatically different. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever “finish” this novel. I don’t know. But I know I’ll never stop trying.

More Prose, Stuff She Says and How It Relates

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When asked by her students to share one final lesson on writing, Francine Prose replied: “The most important things (are) observations and consciousness. Keep your eyes open, see clearly, think about what you see, ask yourself what it means.” As writers and as writing students we should take this advice to heart. We often hear the words: “Write what you know.” This is basically another way of saying that. Prose is saying write what you know but she is also saying think critically about what you know and what you think you know. In order to write, we need to truly know what we’re writing about. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Octavia Butler makes it a point to know what she’s writing about. Not only does she clearly research the past and incorporate what she has learned about that distant time and place into her novel but she also incorporates her own experience and feelings into it. In Kindred, The Storm (page 191), Butler writes: “Rufus’s time demanded things of me that had never been demanded before, and it could easily kill me if I did not meet its demands. That was a stark, powerful reality that the gentle conveniences and luxuries of this house, of now, could not touch.”

Butler’s working knowledge of the past and the present (1976: Dana’s present and Butler’s) is profound. She shares what she knows about both settings and she incorporates her own raw human emotion so that we can be right there with her, feeling with her.  I believe this is what makes great writers—the ability to emotionally connect the story to its readers.  

Prose also says: “I told my class that we should, ideally, have some notion of whom or what a story is about—in other words, as they say so often in workshops, whose story is it? To offer a reader that simple knowledge, I said, wasn’t really giving much. A little clarity of focus costs the writer nothing and paid off.”

In Kindred, Olivia Butler never loses sight of whom and what her story is about. Dana’s journey, the people and places she encounters, and the lessons she learns along the way are not simply revealed but they are carried throughout the whole novel and interlocked thematically. We can’t lose sight of things which are always there and which stay with us as we turn each page. 

Butler does not write for the sake of writing or give us anything that isn’t critical to the story’s progression. Every element she shares has a purpose. As a student who is studying Butler, I’d love to know if this is something that comes naturally to her or if it’s a product of stringent editing. My gut tells me it’s probably a combination of the two and as I nurture my craft that gives me hope.

When I write I often get lost in the writing and I sometimes lose track of the big picture. Sometimes I don’t even see the big picture until I’m editing. Because of that, I often have a lot to chop. Chopping these days isn’t as painful as it used to be (these days I think of editing like getting a haircut—if the ends are dead, why keep them?). Back when chopping was more painful, I used to keep a growing list of my chopped lines and phrases. I didn’t want to throw them away altogether so instead I saved them so that I could later turn to them if and when I felt stuck in a story. I stopped doing that because I realized it was holding me back. Those words and sentences were cut for a reason. Recycling is great for the environment but I’m not so sure the same can be said about recycling words or relationships. In my opinion, it’s better to say goodbye for good to an old flame (or old words and sentences in this case) instead of holding on and hoping he or she might eventually be right for a friend.  

As with most things in life, my writing is getting better with practice and, of course, reading the work of other writers helps too. By studying novels like Kindred and paying close attention to such masterpieces and deconstructing them with the help of the lectures and lessons, I’m learning the importance of the big picture and how that concept relates back to my own writing. It’s not just about telling a story, manifesting themes and communicating messages. It’s also about creating something—not just a sum of parts, but rather something whole—that delivers on its promise and ties all the pieces together without leaving anything important out or stuffing anything irrelevant in.

Gesture Abuse

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In  the chapter on Gesture in “Reading Like a Writer,” Prose says: “Perhaps I should say that my definition of gesture includes small physical actions, often unconscious or semi-reflexive, including what is called body language and excluding larger, more definite or momentous actions. I would not call picking up a gun and shooting someone a gesture. On the other hand, language—that is, word choice—can function as a gesture: the way certain married refer to their spouses as him or her is a sort of gesture communication passion, intimacy, pride, annoyance, tolerance, or some combination of the above.”

In the story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” Flannery O’Connor is very descriptive. Through his vivid descriptions he makes it so easy to picture settings and characters in our mind. In fact, he describes each character in his story so explicitly that he inevitably uses gestures to continue his descriptions. Throughout the story, he bounces back and forth between description and gesture, peppering in at least one or the other (and often both) into every single sentence.

Flannery begins the story with multiple descriptions and gestures. In the very first line, he says: “All week end the two girls were calling each other Temple One and Temple Two, shaking with laughter and getting so red and hot that they were positively ugly, particularly Joanne who had spots on her face anyway.”

“Temple One” and “Temple Two” are gestures similar to Prose’ example of “him” or “her” being intimacy gestures for a married couple. In addition, “shaking with laughter” and “getting so red and hot” are also gestures. These gestures get O’Connor’s message across more eloquently and pointedly than any description could. We know immediately that these two girls have a close connection since not only do they have pet names for each other but even their pet names are tied together (the names themselves reminded me of Disney’s Thing One and Thing Two). Then in the same sentence “shaking with laughter” and “getting so red and hot” gives the reader images of hilarity and an overall giddy BFF-ness that cannot be misinterpreted. These two are not just friends; they are best friends.

Prose also says: “Even the greatest writers may use stock gestures or employ gesture badly.” When O’Connor writes, on page 462, “…and the child was convulsed afresh, threw herself backward in her chair, fell out of it, rolled on the floor and lay there heaving” is a good example of this. It was just too much. While each phrase is familiar and gets the message across that the child was hysterical, the sum unfortunately breaks the believability of the story. Basically, he went too far with the gestures. 

As I grow as a writer, I’m learning that overusing gestures, putting them where they don’t belong or stuffing them in useless spots where they do nothing for story progression are all easy things to do. Perhaps too easy.

Prose explains:  “Too often gestures are used as markers, to create beats and pauses in a conversation that, we fear, may rush by too quickly.” I do this all the time. In a misguided attempt to find a nice cadence, I often lean on gestures. I wasn’t aware of it until now but I’m guilty. To break up dialogue or to add action where none exists I’ll throw in the unnecessary hair flip or the occasional eye-roll. I shudder to think how many times I’ve made a character glance down at the floor or sigh in disbelief. Not only do I agree with Prose that we employ gestures when we’re seeking a certain rhythm but I think we also lean on them during times when we’re simply at a loss for action.

I want to keep this lesson and some others in the forefront of my mind as I approach my revisions. Reading Prose’ chapter on gestures and realizing that even highly successful writers, at times, lean too heavily on, overuse and downright abuse gestures altogether is helping me come to terms with my own gesture addiction.

Reading Out Loud

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I often read out loud.

In fact, I feel the need to read everything I write out loud, not just because I like to hear my own words (though I’m sure that’s part of it) but more so because I have to hear the words in order to know for sure whether or not they’re right—contextually, rhythmically and, if it’s dialogue, right for the character speaking. No matter what I write, I need to hear the words.

For similar reasons, I recently started purchasing audio books and listening to the narrator read out loud while I visually read along.

I like to read others’ works out loud, too. In workshops, I often read the submissions of other writers, those I’m meant to critique, out loud. Doing so helps me focus entirely on the words and phrases as if my own voice cancels out distracting noises. Just the act of reading aloud helps me better absorb the information and it keeps me connected to it instead of spiraling off into my own head to add bullet points to any number of mental ‘to do’ lists.

I once lost my voice (literally) reading a 300 page manuscript out loud before submitting it for consideration to an agency.

For the past few weeks I’ve been reading Kindred by Octavia Butler to my three-year-old. I’m reading and analyzing it for a class and since I read to my daughter everyday anyway, I guess you could say I’m killing two birds with one stone (you’d probably only say that if you love clichés as much as I do).

Anyway, it’s not your typical toddler story but Lyla doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, she seems to enjoy hearing me read it to her. Maybe she somehow knows how much it’s helping me.

“In the American Society”

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In the story In the American Society, Gish Jen glosses over the family’s backstory and skips to their success. I think this is why, for me, the beginning felt rushed and the narrator’s initial tone seemed braggy. It was like Jen jumped to the successful part without showing the struggle first. Looking back, I needed to see the struggle.

I had trouble relating to the family from the start. Going back to Prose and the chapter on narration I analyzed in my last post, it may be that Jen wasn’t writing this to me. I certainly don’t consider junior high too soon to start saving for college. If anything that feels too late. Things like this made the family’s struggle fall flat for me.

Regarding dialogue, the term “you people” didn’t feel sincere or authentic either. While I get what Jen was trying to show, I just don’t believe that Mrs. Lardner would use it like this: “Why, I’d be honored and delighted to write you people a letter.” I’m just not buying it. It felt contrived and over the top. Then when the family mocks her in private it made me dislike them, not Mrs. Lardner.

But as I read further, I started to think that may have been her intention. Perhaps the narrator wasn’t trying to get me to like or even feel for the father and his family but, rather, maybe she was trying to get me to feel even more sympathy for the workers. If that was indeed her intention, it worked. When Booker enters the story on page 666 was the first time I felt any emotional connection whatsoever. His arrival, for me, also made the father feel real to me but only briefly. But then it all fell apart again with the way he treated his workers and then again later with talk of bribing the judge. In the back and forth between Jeremy and the father in the final pages, I felt like I was being strong-armed into feeling pity. The only thing I felt badly about was the fact that I felt no sympathy whatsoever for this man.

If this was a much longer story, I think I might have been able to grow more with the characters and my feelings would have had the chance to flow organically but, again, it felt rushed from the start.  This is the lesson I’m taking away for my own writing. Don’t rush the important stuff! 

Prose says if you know who you’re speaking to then it’s okay to “skip over slow parts” or even “hurry the narration along.” But I had trouble connecting to this story. In fact, I think it’s a prime example of how as Prose puts it: “The truly problematic question is: Who is listening?”

I tried to “listen” but I just didn’t get it. To use Prose’ words again, Jen “tossed this heartfelt confession out into the ozone” for all to experience but the tone simply wasn’t for everyone.  It didn’t work for me. 

“Reading Like a Writer”

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At the start of chapter five in the book Reading Like a Writer, Prose says, “The truly problematic question is: Who is listening? On what occasion is the story being told, and why? Is the protagonist projecting this heartfelt confession out into the ozone, and, if so, what is the proper tone to assume when the ozone is one’s audience?”

These questions set my brain ablaze. I wondered: How often do I take the time to think about my potential reader when I sit down to write? Or do I just write? I hate to admit it but I’m fairly certain that more often than not I just write. Of course, there’s a point when I think about who might read my work but this revelation rarely comes with the inspiration to write. During that stage, I’m absorbed in the writing and, perhaps more so, in myself.

Then I thought, how often do we write without ever taking our audience into consideration? Do we write for ourselves and leave it to our potential readers to decide whether or not we’re speaking to them and how they feel, or don’t feel, about our words? Then why so we get sensitive or insulted when they don’t feel anything? Why do we take it so personally when we didn’t try to connect?

When I read the work of other writers, I rarely feel like they wrote for me or tried to connect to me specifically but, rather, I just happened to like or dislike whatever was written. Usually it feels more coincidental like, to use Prose airplane analogy, sitting down beside a complete stranger on an airplane and (instead of ignoring them) striking up a conversation and finding a new friend.

Every once in a while, in reading, like in life, a rare moment occurs when I truly feel the words were meant specifically for me as though it was (cliché alert) meant to be. What’s exceptional about those meant-to-be moments is that they feel magical. Don’t they? Whether they happen in life or in art, when we stumble upon that kind of deep connection, we feel satisfied and whole.

It seems to me that we, as writers, should strive to create more of those moments.

Who we are speaking to is at least equally if not more important that what we are saying. But let’s face it we don’t always get to pick our readers. We certainly cannot control what they like or dislike. But, still, when it comes to reading and writing it’s all about the connection. The words hardly matter if the person reading the words isn’t feeling them. Good writers don’t just write. They inspire emotion.

At the end of chapter five, Prose says, “What I hope I’ve managed to show is how much room there is, how much variation exists, how many possibilities there are to consider as we choose how to narrate our stories and novels. Deciding on a narrator’s identity, and personality, is an important step. But it’s only a step. What really matters is what happens after that—the language that the writer uses to interest and engage us in the vision and the version of events that we know as fiction.”

This paragraph not only summarizes Chapter 5 but it also summarizes what I’ve learned, so far, in my experience as a writer. All of the pieces are important but it’s the whole that is most important and even though no one topic will speak to everyone since we are each unique and so are our tastes and experiences, one thing we have in common is that we all feel. That said, writers should strive to provoke feeling and write so that the beauty and depth of our words and the artistry and passion in our sentences connects, engages and touches those who read them. 

That Evening Sun – William Faulkner

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It’s been one of those weeks, and I must confess when I first read this my mind just wasn’t in it. That may be why I fought my way through during my initial read. I had to sometimes read things over again just to figure out what was being said and, to be honest, I found that incredibly annoying. I struggled with what seemed like grammatical flaws and purposeful misspellings. I had trouble with the diction itself and, at times, I found the dialogue almost mockingly horrendous—even flamboyantly racist here and there. There were moments when I found myself scratching my head, like at the seemingly superfluous use of the word “nigger” and asking myself did the author really say that… again?   

That said there was a point where everything just clicked for me. I found the rhythm and a purpose in the redundancies. I started feeling what Faulkner was attempting to accomplish and it began flowing for me somehow. The story started coming together and it gripped me powerfully. Suddenly, I was amazed how my perception could be swayed so quickly and so strongly, and what felt like a poor first impression became a potential lifelong friendship. When I started I couldn’t wait to finish and when I finished I started over and read it again.

I typed this paragraph so I could print it and post in my office:

Nancy whispered something. It was oh or no. I don’t know which. Like nobody had made it, like it came from nowhere and went nowhere, until it was like Nancy was not there at all; that I had looked so hard at her eyes on the stairs that they had got printed on my eyeballs, like the sun does when you have closed your eyes and there is no sun. “Jesus,” Nancy whispered. “Jesus.”

The way this paragraph is bookended with Nancy’s whisper with the narrator’s frightened, confused and innocent thoughts set in the middle really made this work for me.

I wish I could write sentences so awesomely authentic. Maybe I can. Thinking back to Prose and what she says about studying sentences, maybe I need to study these types of sentences more, break them down and figure out what caused my change of heart and inspired this connection. I don’t know. What I do know is that it takes courage to write something that people might not fully understand or even feel comfortable reading.

It took courage to write this and now I get that. 

Writing Short Stories

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Joyce Carol Oates says, “Fairy tales are miniature narratives that typically begin Once upon a time and swiftly, sometimes bluntly summarize entire lives within a few paragraphs.”

Oates also says, “The miniature narrative is often most effective when boundaries between ‘real’ and ‘surreal’ are dissolved.

I’ve never been very good at writing short stories. I think this is mainly because so much needs to be covered in such a short span in a short story that my mind cramps trying to think how I might fit it all into just a few short pages.

It might seem silly but I get nervous thinking about them and tangled up writing them.
But, before now, I’d never thought of fairy tales as miniature narratives. 

Being the mother of a three-year-old girl, I’ve certainly read (and memorized) my fair share of fairy tales. I’ve even composed a few impromptu fairy tales typically at the bedtime request of my very own Princess Lyla (my daughter’s name and her preferred character title). All of which have been met with smiles and gleeful giggles. Of course, she’s not exactly the toughest critic and as long as she lives happily ever after in them, well, then she’s happy (and I am, too).

But using Oates’ thought process, maybe it is simply about dissolving that line between real and surreal. If dissolving the boundaries between real and surreal is what makes fairy tales more effective, then wouldn’t that be true of other types of writing, as well? In a fairy tale, those boundaries dissolve immediately, of course, as we open our minds in a carefree fashion to the magic behind fairies, frogs and princesses. But couldn’t we, as writers, achieve that same effect by working to dissolve that line between real and make believe in non-fairytales, as well?

Isn’t writing fiction about creating something that someone will be willing to believe in whether or not the subject in and of itself is naturally believable? Isn’t our job as writers to make our stories believable? Or perhaps it’s simply (or not-so-simply) to inspire our readers to believe.    

I believe it’s the pressure we put on ourselves that makes one thing seem more or less challenging to accomplish. What is a challenge to one is a piece of cake to another. For example, I’ve never been able to do a cartwheel. Ironically, my brother can. If you asked him, he’d claim he could never write a novel. I think he could if he put his mind to it. He’d say the same about me and that cartwheel. Clearly, we both have our fears.

These pages have inspired me to make a real attempt at a “real” fairy tale. Not just an off-the-cuff version of someone else’s tale with my daughter’s name and favorite past times slotted in but something tangible, written down and that other children might enjoy, as well. Maybe that will be the push that will help me conquer my silly little fear of short stories, too.

I’m still not ready for the cartwheel.

Feeling Silenced

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Every writer, at one point or another, feels silenced. The classroom should be a safe place that promotes the growth of creativity, not work against it.

There have been times when I’ve felt “silenced.” I took one class, for example, where some of the other students were (or seemed to think they were) too advanced for the class. I felt intimidated and mocked by their comments and while this pushed me to toughen up and expand my knowledge, I struggled and even felt afraid to share my “lesser quality” work. In this particular case, the teacher added to the problem by constantly putting those students on pedestals and ignoring others.

In chapter four of “What Our Speech Disrupts,” Haake tells the story of a time when she was silenced by her own insecurities. She says, “Now, under the spell of Melville’s prose and genius, my future, stark as destiny, seemed clear to me. I was neither smart nor talented enough to be, as I had dreamed, a writer.” She gave up writing for four years. Looking at this in a classroom setting, a student could easily feel inferior to other students, the teacher and even famous writers and their works (like Moby Dick in Haake’s case). The feeling of inferiority can silence a student and even halt creativity. Later Haake goes on to say, “For most of us, by the time we lapse into silence, we are past the point of caring.” No matter the size of the dream or aspiration, just as we can be held back by physical issues and threats we, too, can be held back by mental and emotional ones. Creativity is both powerful and delicate in that in can move mountains but something as light as a feather can disrupt or destroy it.

An open, nurturing, non-competitive environment is necessary in preventing this. Much like a mother loves all of her children unconditionally, with all their unique qualities, a teacher must create a similarly supportive, safe environment, where students aren’t afraid to share their deepest thoughts, fears and dreams. Additionally, it’s important to make sure students know there are no “stupid” questions or “bad” writing and that everything they say or share is valuable, valid and good. Validation and grading are, of course, necessary but should be done in an honest, constructive and positive way. No student should be put above or below another student. The class should feel like a team with everyone working toward the same goal.

Since creativity is subjective, who is to say what work is “better” or “worse” than others? For this reason, students should be primarily graded by their own growth and how they express their point of view. A good argument, especially one creatively expressed, is worth more than perfectly regurgitated information. Much like it’s futile to compare apples to oranges it’s also futile to compare creative writing students to each other.

Creativity needs room to grow. It also requires time and inspiration. By providing a time and place where students feel safe, they can be free to be inspired.

I believe failure often lies in generalization. It seems to me that different approaches work for different people, so why not create a model that does, too? Much in the way kitchen cabinets can be “custom” built to meet individual needs, why couldn’t a workshop? I’d propose different classes to target specific qualities, rather than a broad range of “everyone.” Unique class descriptions, for example “workshop for beginner romance novelists” or “workshop for advanced comedic storytellers” or even something as simple as “critical creative boot camp” or “friendly feedback for all” might help people choose where they believe they’d fit, feel most empowered to participate and safest to share.

In chapter nine of “Colors of a Different Horse,” Sarbo and Moxley say, “Our current understanding of creativity shapes and limits the ways in which we can effectively intervene in our students’ creative process and leads inevitably to a clarification of our role as teachers. Familiarity with creative research increases our sensitivity to the negative effects of external evaluation; fortifies our tolerance for each student’s unique personality style, work habits, and writing process; and prepares us to supplement these preferences appropriately.”

If each student is indeed unique, then the fruit is found in unique approaches which would allow students to feel safe and really dive deep into their creativity without concern of being unfairly compared to other writers, by others or by themselves, like apples are to oranges.

Works Cited

Bishop, Wendy and Ostrom, Hans. Colors of a Different Horse. Chapter 9.

Haake, Katherine. What Our Speech Disrupts. National University. Chapters 4 and 6.