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proffered myself up to the rock, paper,
scissors nonfiction board for the past two years and took that experience
as seriously as any other within the program. It was fun, but it was also an
opportunity outside of the classroom to foster a conversation about what makes
pieces work and ask, “why am I affected by this?”
reactions of Book Fair-goers to rock,
paper, scissors at the AWP Conference in Chicago this year were effusive
and immediate—“What is that?' Steampunk and DIY endeavors are
popular, and last year's journal was bound with rivets and looked spectacular.
I think everyone associated with the journal is as excited about it as I am,
about what it can be and where it can go. I'm thrilled we have a large
staff this year—over 25! I think the more voices we have, the better the
publication will be.
it going? Hard to know. One idea we've toyed with is hearing each piece in the
author’s own voice. After the
selections are made, we'll record each writer reading his or her piece, hearing
each writer’s inflections, nuances, and tones. We can make those recordings
available on the RPS website and the Facebook page, and spread
them around via Twitter and other social media.
the summer I'd like RPS to host an open mic reading, or
something Daniel Handler revealed works well for shy readers—an open mic +
karaoke. Can't do one without the other. Reading and sharing your own work is
always an exposure. Might as well supplement such naked, thoughtful, and
serious revealing of character and consciousness with heartfelt renditions of
"If I Could Turn Back Time" and "China Girl."
seriousness, though, the Twin Cities is bursting with opportunities for writers
to see and be seen, hear and be heard. I want to encourage people to seek out
these opportunities and create some of their own. The Cracked Walnut and
Barbaric Yawp reading series are fantastic, and there's so much
more out there. There's the Hazel & Wren online writing community,
Literary Darts magazine, Andy Sturdevant's
Salon Saloon live literary magazine happy hour extravaganza at the Bryant Lake
Bowl, chances to volunteer or work at The Loft. There's the Walker Art Center's
Open Field program for any and all artists. It's incredible. I want RPS to
form connections out there and make a statement. "Art," in the eyes
of creative crowds, is encouraged, discussed, and built upon in any medium, and
we live in a beautiful community for that.
the more we see RPS as a bridge to other opportunities in
real-world and online formats, the more others will see RPS as
a serious-literary literary journal. That may seem redundant, but how many
small journals out there suffer from 'oh, another avant-garde zine crafted
than anything, I wanted the opportunity to read more of my classmates' work.
I'm working through the program slowly—two classes per year—and the more I'm
exposed to good writing at Hamline, the happier I am. I want to learn from
everyone. I want to hear from everyone. I want RPS to be a
conduit into parallel lives and universes that look mysteriously like our own.
Story by CWP Communications Assistant Benjamin KowalskyIn the artistic community, it often generates more
conversation when one draws a line than when one erases a line. This was
evident when Jessy Nelson presented her critical thesis, “Victimization of
Women and Girls in Young Adult Literature,” at the January 2012 residency for
the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. I was so interested in her presentation that I decided to
pull her aside and continue the conversation begun earlier in the classroom.
- - - - - - - - - -
where did you get the idea for a topic like “Victimization in Young Adult
Jessy: This idea started with my sense of the political
dichotomy in this country right now, how we are completely divided into this
liberal/conservative mode. I read this New
York Times opinion piece by Michelle Abbot about children’s literature,
about how she thought The Outsiders
was too liberal of a novel. And it upset me because The Outsiders is a book written by a teen for teens, and it was
based on her own experience in the 60s.
It also stemmed from a presentation by another MFA student a
couple of residencies ago on a topic called “teens can handle it.” It was about
dealing with tough material. I asked her if she’d ever come across a novel that
she didn’t think was appropriate for teens, and she said ‘no.’ And I thought,
‘well, there’s got to be stuff out there that isn’t appropriate. The world just
isn’t 100% good. ‘
So I started looking at message boards and what people in
the New York Times meant when they
talked about ‘controversial books.’ Then I started to really study these
books. For example, I looked on
Amazon to see what other readers were buying, because people tend to buy the
same kind of books. That’s when I came across Living Dead Girl. And
interestingly enough, we had an agent last residency, Sara Davies, who
mentioned Living Dead Girl when I asked if there was a book she
thought was too much.
So I studied these novels to find out ‘Is it the material
itself that is controversial?’ or ‘Is it the way that it’s written that makes
Ben: Why did
you think the presentation at the MFAC residency was the right place to start
exposing people to your idea?
Jessy: In our
third semester we have to do a critical thesis. Actually it was not my intention to do this topic for my
thesis. I was going to do something on revision, because I thought it would
help me in my creative writing.
However, I feel like we don’t talk enough about controversial novels and
what they mean to a reader. We talk about it in terms of our own craft and our
own writing processes, but I really thought we ought to be talking about the
reader as well, because we do write for young adults.
You can write anything for adults because they are old
enough to put things down. I think that teen readers don’t necessarily do that.
Ben: But couldn’t I make the argument that
this is just a case of marketing gone awry in a publishing world that
recognizes teen and young adult literature as more profitable than books that
are explicitly for adults?
are some books, like Tender Morsels,
which are marketed toward teens because teen books are selling better than
adult books. That’s just the way it is. If you look at the New York Times bestseller list, a great number of them are actually
teen books. There’s this crossover audience, and so marketing people are
saying, “OK, we want to draw from that appeal.’
- - - - - - - - - - -
A painting doesn’t begin until the artist first makes a
line, and that’s also when artists open themselves up to controversy. “Why put
the line there?” some might ask.
In Jessy Nelson’s case, her presentation seeks to
draw a sensible line and create a ripple effect that stimulates discussion
throughout the children’s and young adult literary community.
In the artistic community, it often generates more conversation when one draws a line than when one erases a line. This was evident when Jessy Nelson presented her MFAC Low Residency thesis on “Victimization of Women and Girls in Young Adult Literature”. I was so interested in her presentation that I decided to pull her aside and continue the conversation begun in the classroom at the Low Residency MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Hamline University.
Jessy, where did you get the idea for a topic like “Victimization of Women and Girls in Young Adult Literature”?
This idea started with the political dichotomy of this country right now and how we are completely divided into this liberal/conservative mode and I read this article by Michelle Abbot about children’s literature and it was a New York Times opinion piece, and it was just her talking about how she thought “The Outsiders” was too liberal of a novel. And it upset me because “The Outsiders” is a book written by a teen for teens, and it was this experience that she had experienced in the 60’s. It also stemmed from a couple Residencies ago, another student did a topic called “teens can handle it” and it was about dealing with tough material. And I asked her if she’d ever come across a novel that she didn’t think was appropriate for teens. And she said “no”. And I thought, ‘well there’s got to be stuff out there that isn’t appropriate. The world just isn’t 100% good. ‘So I started looking at message boards and what people in the New York Times were talking about when they talked about ‘controversial books.’ Then I started to pull these books out and I started to really look and I actually started on Amazon, where I looked at these books and then I looked at what other readers were buying, because they tend to be the same kind of books. And I started to look at topics and discuss it. That’s when I came across “Living Dead Girl”. And interestingly enough we had an agent come last Residency, Sara Davies, and I asked her about books, if there was anything she thought was too much, and she said “Living Dead Girl” as well. So I got these novels and I want to look at “is it the material itself that is controversial?” or “is it some way that it’s written that it becomes controversial?"
Why is this the right time to release your findings?
I’m going into my fourth semester, in my third semester I had to do something called a “critical thesis” and actually it was not my intention to do this. I was going to do something on revision, because I thought it would help me in my creative writing. Last Residency, when we were talking about going into this critical paper, I was actually going to do revision, but I had all this stuff thinking about my own writing and just I feel like we don’t talk enough about controversial things. We don’t talk about these novels and what this means to a reader. And a lot of times we talk about it in terms of our own craft and our own writing processes, and I really thought we ought to be talking about the reader as well, because we do write for young adults. Adults, you can write anything, because they are of that moral age group where they can put things down. I think that teen readers don’t necessarily do that.
But couldn’t I make the argument that this is just a case of marketing gone awry in a publishing world that recognizes teen and Young Adult literature as more profitable than books that are explicitly for adults?
Well, there are some books, like Tender Morsels, which is marketed towards teens because of how publishing is going. And both fortunately and unfortunately the publishing world for teen books is selling—they are selling better than adult books. That’s just the way it is. If you look at the New York Times Bestseller List a great number of them are actually teen books. There’s this crossover audience, and so there’s these marketing people who are saying “OK, we want to draw that appeal.” You’ve got that. I don’t think any author goes out to write a book that is damaging to children. I’d hate to think that’s the case. But what I think is that some don’t think about the craft enough…If you don’t actually look at your craft, you’re not going to be thinking “well, how is this being portrayed?” and that’s what I think it comes down to: a breakdown of remembering who you are writing for.
As is the case in so many things with artists, you create more controversy when you draw a line than when you break down a wall. What can you say to artists who bristle at the thought that they’ve got to practice some kind of restraint?
There’s this notion that we as artists don’t have to justify our art. And as a Young Adult author I don’t believe that’s true. I believe that you do owe more to your reader than you owe to your own self.
So, you would say that the point is artistic choice. In fiction there are possibilities of portrayal that aren’t available in CNF, and thus can be called into question as to their suitability?
Yes, it’s fiction, and yes you can go with that hopelessness. But is it portraying the real event? If it’s not portraying it close enough to reality then you’re sending a false message…You need to allow your readers to have that wall. Jane Rush Thomas once told me that we don’t have the right to fix our own childhood on the backs of the children of today. We’ve all had damage happen to us, but we don’t have the right to fix it on our own children. I think some authors do that. They forget that what is inside of them comes out.
What is it that you’re hoping to accomplish with this, and how far do you think this idea of yours is going to go?
Half an hour is not even close to enough time to present this. But I was going to give what I could. It’s like the ripple effect: when you toss the pebble into the ponds the ripples go out and they get bigger, and they get bigger. To me, as long as you can spread this ripple effect, it will get out into the community and we will have this discussion, and we will look at it like that idea. We are going into the world of writing thinking about the tough stuff. Because if we don’t do it, who out there is going to do it?
"A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as someone who has found a process that will bring about the new things we would not have thought of if he had not started to say them. That is, he does not draw on a reservoir, he engages in an activity."
-William Stafford, "A Way of Writing" (found on the syllabus of "The Creative Process," Spring 2011)
As any MALS or MFA student can attest, the course of study in a graduate degree program is marked by rigorous examination of craft and ample opportunities to practice putting the techniques to use. But even after all the critical reading and workshopping and revision, the writer is still the sole agent responsible for finding—and employing—a process that allows the writing to actually happen. Wouldn't it be great if there was a course that formally examined process, included reflections on creativity by working artists, and offered guidance to developing writers on how to find their "best practice"? There is such a course. Developed by faculty member Patricia Weaver Francisco, "The Creative Process" is a required course for the MALS degree and is also popular among MFA students. "The Creative Process" began as "Mind and Its Processes," a course that Francisco taught with College of Liberal Arts psychology professor Matt Olson. The themes in the course spoke to Francisco's growing interests as a scholar and her experiences as a writer."I had a new-found enthusiasm for the fascinating coherence of testimonies about creativity that I'd discovered in my own reading," Francisco says, regarding her motivations for teaching a course like "Mind and Its Processes." "I'd recently become a mother and was struggling with the fact that the methods I'd used to write my first book, a novel published four months after my son was born, were no longer going to work. How do people DO this over time? It was a question I desperately wanted answered."Although "The Creative Process" is a requirement for completion of the MALS degree, most students come to the course willingly and with a mission in mind. Current MALS student Satish Jayaraj enrolled in the course this spring with the hopes that it would alleviate the "severe writing slump" he was in and would reinvigorate his creativity. Current MFA student Kelly Hansen Maher took the course to explore the variety of approaches writers use to get their work done. Additionally, she felt it was the right time to study her own habits and strategies as a writer. According to Francisco, these are excellent reasons for investing in the course, and she hopes that students do feel an urgency in figuring out how to be their creative best. "The class is designed to create an emergency," Francisco says, "If not now, when?! Our intense focus on what accomplished creators in all disciplines have discovered about their processes, paired with non-stop individual experimenting, creates a foundation on which to build, repair, and re-design a creative life."In Spring 2011, students in "The Creative Process" studied texts by Rollo May, Brewster Ghiselin, the father of "flow" psychology, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, and others. Course assignments asked students to do much deep analysis and reflection based on the texts they read and the ways they experimented with their own creative processes. "It's a demanding course," Francisco says. "It requires deep thinking about one's dreams, goals, habits, resistance, perfectionism, passion, commitment. It's also academically rigorous, so every semester is a challenge. Will we all get to the place where the breakthrough occurs and coalesces into change? How? When? I see thinkers and writers at their best in this class, and it reinvigorates me."Like all well-developed and time-tested courses, "The Creative Process" invites students to take from the course what they most need as scholars and writers. Both Jayaraj and Hansen Maher were up to the challenge, and they benefited from the course on many levels.Says Hansen Maher: "The course—as promised—has helped me see my own habits and methods of working in the context of all creative processes, across disciplines and cultures. ... I see how my work (be it my poetry, prose, or 'other') is comprised of a series of steps that overlap and conjoin but do have distinct characteristics and pitfalls. From this, I have been able to shape a really responsive habit."Jayaraj felt the course not only helped him access his creativity again, but it made him "respect creativity as a force." He says, " I am now not only more prepared to continue being creative in my own writing life, but I am determined to push creative endeavors as a teacher and as a member of the community."The course surpassed Hansen Maher's expectations, too: "What has surprised me about the course has been how profoundly it has touched on my sense of vocation as a writer. I have a 40-hour per week job and a small daughter, so in addition to school, I keep a very active schedule. It has been my constant lament that I do not have enough writing time. Patricia [Francisco] is so smart about all this; she has such a researched and personal outlook and presents the convincing perspective that, regardless of constraints, writing is a joy, and habit is unique to the writer. I have come to take a 'tender approach with myself,' to borrow from Michelle Cliff's phrase, and have stopped seeing my writing as anything but my great fortune."Since its first iteration twenty years ago, Francisco has taught many variations of "The Creative Process," including a course offered by Hamline that was open to the community. Based on what students have gained from the course over the years, it is no surprise that now, ten years after the community course was offered, its members are still meeting.Jayaraj echoes the wider benefits of "The Creative Process" and the important themes it addresses. He emphasizes the crucial importance of acknowledging and cultivating creativity: "[The course] showed me that despite the economic downturn that has people turning away from creativity and the liberal arts, it is a must for our world to go forward, and there is a community out there that knows it."
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