"Telling Stories" Seminar Reflective Essay
All photos courtesy of Annie Segan
A Poem of 4-Word Sentences about the Seminar
by Ellen Grabiner (pictured below reading poem)
It went by quickly.
Each day we wrote.
It was so hot!.
Courage was in abundance.
Now it is over.
We're all going home.
Katie will hold Galen.
Leslie waits for news.
Abigail shoots her marsh.
Wayne throws a stick.
Cindy awes with words.
Chris helps her daughter.
Vicki visits her friend.
Kathy writes under palms.
Clare tells her truths.
Francie rejoins the desert.
Rick stays in Vermont.
Patricia teaches women's studies.
Annie hits the city.
Dave moves towards tenure.
Judith, free at last!
Christal stays at Union.
We are all writers.
Soon, we'll be doctors.
Written Analysis of Seminar Portion of DSRE 721
Complete Title of Seminar: Telling Stories: A Creative Writing Workshop (Part of Storytelling Methodologies: Postmodern Perspectives and Traditional Roots: DSRE 721; transcripted as Storytelling Perspectives)
Learner: Katharine (Kathy) Hansen #200192 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Conveners: Dr. Judith Arcana and Dr. Chris Hables Gray
Dates: June 10 to June 14, 2005
Site: Vermont College, Montpelier, VT
Summary of Breadth and Depth of Knowledge the Learner Developed During the Seminar
I would like to summarize my learning from this seminar by incorporating seminar premises established before we ever arrived in Vermont with my own objectives for the piece of learning of which the seminar is the centerpiece:
Low-key personal investment in creative writing
We were given many one-word prompts at the seminar as writing exercises, resulting in what Dr. Arcana called "spew." The following spew, prompted by the word "epiphany," sets the scene for my seminar experience:
My epiphany that I am not a creative writer came not only a result of the Peer Day I convened online earlier this year in which all the other learners, I felt, were creative writers. The epiphany also came, I'm embarrassed to admit, from a TV show, in which one of the characters is taking a writing class, and the teacher tells her she is not a creative writer because all her writing springs from her own experience. If that truly is the definition of a creative writer, then I am not one, as most of my writing comes from my own experience.
I remember seeing a sign on the classroom door when I arrived at the seminar and being caught off guard by the words "Creative Writing Workshop." I felt pangs of guilt and fear. I'm not a creative writer, I thought, and perhaps I've taken a slot away from someone who is a creative writer and really needs to be at the workshop. Sure, I'd like to write a novel someday, but it's not a high priority. I felt humbled and guilty in the presence of perhaps half or more of the learners in the seminar who are quite intense about creative writing, for whom the creative process of the seminar was extremely important, and for whom creative writing comprises a major portion of their doctoral programs. For me, not being extremely invested in creative writing was very freeing. I was free to have fun at the seminar, and I did. I came away with some bits of writing that might become something. I came away with a great deal of self-actualization. I did a bit of therapy with my writing, even though the pre-seminar literature said that wasn't what the seminar was about. (After all, as someone at the seminar said or quoted, "storytelling is a way to purge ourselves of the toxicity of secrecy"). But perhaps the most valuable "take-away" for me has to do with the next point:
The value of creative writing in one's academic discipline and dissertation work
I truly appreciate the efforts of the seminar's conveners in consistently reminding us that creative writing and storytelling are applicable to our academic work. I've been fortunate that my academic writing, particularly in my Learning Agreement/Comprehensive Degree Plan, has been positively received. But I have done some editing for other learners and seen the struggles they have with trying to tell a story while meeting scholarly requirements. One literature review in particular was so long and poorly organized; yet it contained a couple of interludes of just beautiful personal storytelling. If only that kind of engaging narrative could have been applied to the rest of the lit review. I was dying to jump in and rewrite it in a compelling way, but even if it were appropriate for me to do so, I couldn't have because I didn't know the learner's field. Another document I edited contained a wonderful fantasy sequence related to the learner's personal-development project. It's a superb example of using storytelling effectively in academic writing. Some of us came to the seminar, in part, because we will be gathering the stories of others as part of our PDE research, and I appreciated the conveners' understanding of that need.
Questions of "self" vs. "I" as a character, as well as truth and reality
One of the most significant things that Dr. Arcana said at the seminar was: "'I' is not necessarily the writer, but a character in the story," which followed the pre-seminar questions: "What does it mean to write in the first person, to write as 'I'? And: What are we doing when we choose to tell the story of someone who is not 'I' - how can we tell the difference between respectful empathy and appropriation?" As mentioned, I find it difficult to write creatively outside my own experience. But when "I" became a character in my writing, instead of me, I felt I was in fact a creative writer. It was also liberating not to think of the writings of other learners as autobiographical essays, but to listen to them in a way that acknowledged what one learner shared with us: "The poem knows more than the poet. The story knows more than the storyteller." Interestingly, when I got home from the seminar, I began reading a book of autobiographical essays by women. I like knowing they are autobiographical and not wondering the way I might if they were short stories, but with the learning I gained at the seminar, the wondering is no longer as important as it once was.
I must also say that my favorite writing exercise of the seminar was the one in which we wrote based on inspiration from a cover of The New Yorker. That visual inspiration took me outside myself and enabled me to creatively write about something that had nothing to do with me or my experience. I believe it was Dr. Arcana who said something about "having a conversation with a visual, with the person who created the visual or the story behind the visual."
Learning to critique and be critiqued
We were told beforehand that we would use creative-writing workshop techniques "developed by many individuals and groups, giving critical feedback and offering support, writer to writer," and the critiquing techniques or "rules" we learned were among the highlights of the seminar. For me, it was liberating to be forbidden from explaining or setting the scene or making excuses or dismissing or apologizing for any given piece of my writing that I was about to read to the group. Similarly, the work of others had so much more power when it was simply read. Again, "the story knows more than the storyteller," so we let the stories speak for themselves. Dr. Arcana was wonderfully stringent about enforcing these "rules." Artistic intent is, in the end, in the eye/ear of the beholder. Most writers write for an audience, so what the audience reads or hears arguably carries greater weight than what the writer intended. I used to work in an art gallery, where it was always a struggle to get artists to write an artist's statement about their work. Perhaps the reason was, in part, that they were visual artists and had difficulty expressing themselves with words. But they may have also realized that what the viewer perceives is what's really important.
Hearing about the writing process from professional writers
I have covered this point in the content section that follows.
Statement Describing Content of the Seminar
I very much enjoyed the readings we did before the seminar, especially Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies and Molly Gloss's Wild Life. All the books embodied the seminar's premise that "writing is a source of pleasure for both the writer and the audience."
We were asked at several junctures to analyze the "writing craft." At these points, I wished that one or more of the seminar's recommended how-to books had been required because I felt I didn't really possess the tools to analyze the writing craft.
A great gift of the seminar was the opportunity to listen to writers -- the two conveners, plus author Ellen Lesser - read their work and discuss their writing process. Dr. Arcana's work especially spoke to me about the female experience. I had not previously heard the term "prose monologue," but I very much enjoyed hers. I appreciated Dr. Hables-Gray's work as a nonfiction writer, since my own published works have been nonfiction. One of my purposes in taking the seminar was to explore "what is story?" and "how is story used?" Dr. Hables-Gray noted that "there are stories in everything. We think in story ... Life writes stories just by our living it." Immediately after the seminar, I recalled his words as I read a piece in an e-mail by Rob Kall, organizer of StoryCon, "the world's first summit meeting of the art, science, and application of story:"
I gave a talk this year at StoryCon on how language was originally derived, before there were even words, from stories, and how, as communication media have evolved, the basic grammars of language are built upon the story memes that the brain literally evolved its grammatical structure to support. There's a reason we think in story, but also a reason why written, then printed communication, then radio, TV, movies and moving pictures have all radically changed the way we process information.
Although I found Ellen Lesser's work overly adorned with description, I enjoyed it, as well as her lengthy discussion about her process. I had a sense that I had already gained a modicum of maturity as a writer from the seminar in terms of separating writers from characters. It was thus almost disappointing to me when Lesser told us she really had really gone to Morocco, and much of her current novel is drawn from her own experience. I felt as though I didn't want - or perhaps didn't need - to know that, despite Lesser's remark about "giving yourself permission to draw directly from the truth of your life." I also benefited from her advice that "you must be in touch with other writers."
It was also a great gift and quite humbling to be in the company of other learners who wrote so beautifully. It's exciting to think I was in the same room with writers like Cindy Lou Daniels who will likely achieve great heights of writing acclaim.
One interesting content issue that came up for me was when I was asked to critique the work of another learner. She presented disturbing subject matter in the form of a rhyming poem, and I noted the incongruity of rhyming poetry with serious subject matter. When she announced that the piece would be a rhyming poem, I was excited because I enjoy rhyming poetry, and I expected the piece to be light or even funny. I mentioned this expectation in my critique, and the writer was concerned enough to ask me at the end of the seminar about my perception. The incongruity took nothing away from the power of her poem. Dr. Arcana also reminded us that there's lots of rhyming poetry that deals with serious subject matter.
Another interesting content area involved references to 9/11. Last year, I heard an art-history lecturer speculate about what comes next after postmodernism. She wondered if future art and literature would be characterized by a "post-9/11" sensibility. I've been fascinated with that idea since then. In the New Yorker exercise we did, several learners referenced 9/11. And Ellen Lesser noted that a number of people have speculated that the marketability of her novel-in-progress, Henna, would improve in a post-9/11 world because it involves Islamic characters.
Statement Describing Process of the Seminar
Despite my less-than-intense investment in creative writing, the quality and intensity of my involvement with this seminar were strong. I completed all assignments; I did all readings. I participated almost fully in the process of the seminar. I was one of only two learners who did not have a piece of work critiqued during the seminar. Perhaps my lack of desire to be critiqued dates back to a statement on my kindergarten report card, "Does not take criticism well." Perhaps I was afraid of what I might hear. Perhaps I just didn't feel a need. Perhaps I preferred the group's energies to be directed at critiquing the work of those who really wanted to be critiqued.
One interesting personal aspect of "process" was the fact that I wrote most of the seminar pieces by hand instead of on a keyboard. I had brought a laptop to Vermont, but it was important for my work that the computer stay in my hotel room retrieving e-mail. I write daily in my everyday life, and I absolutely never write by hand; it is always on a keyboard. Only a couple of times when we met in the computer lab, and I knew we were working on longer pieces, did I keystroke my writing. I can't say I arrived at any great revelation through writing by hand, but it was comforting to know that I could at least do it after so many years of not doing it.
Group ProcessThe group process of the seminar was at its best when the full group shared works of writing and sometimes critiqued each other.
Group process was at its weakest, in my opinion, when we broke into small groups to discuss the pre-seminar readings. The reading questions were rather complex, and they would have benefited from the greater vitality of the full group. Maybe the heat sapped the energy of the smaller groups. We discussed the last of these questions as a full group, and I felt that discussion was far richer than those in the small groups that had preceded it.
I also would like to address an incident that arose out of one of the small-group discussions in which I reported back as spokesperson. At the end of my reporting, I deferred to Patricia to talk about the relevance to our discussion of her experience as an immigrant. While not specifically singling me out, Dr. Arcana then cautioned the full group against the "assumption" that Patricia was the only one who could speak to relating to the idea of being a stranger in a strange land. I want to clarify why Patricia spoke to this experience. It was not as though I sought Patricia out and asked her to speak about the immigrant experience. In the course of our small-group discussion, Patricia brought up this perspective herself. Since I felt her perspective helped address the question we were asked to discuss, I felt it would be appropriate for her to personally express her viewpoint on the subject.
The group projects/presentations were interesting. I was curious whether we were placed into groups completely randomly or if there was some method to the group placements. I do know that I was in a group in which all three of us detested group projects. I felt our presentation ended up looking perfectly OK on the surface. I commented to Dr. Arcana that at the doctoral level, we really ought to be able to get past dysfunction. I certainly enjoyed the presentations that the other groups put on.
It was very hot and humid in Vermont, and we were inexplicably assigned a classroom with no air conditioning. The classroom had a fan, but the fan made it difficult to hear learners speak. As a Floridian, I was relatively unfazed by the heat and humidity yet surprised at the unsuitability of the classroom assignment. Considerable convener time and effort went into locating more suitable meeting spots, and we moved around a number of times. While air-conditioned classroom space seems to be at a premium at Vermont College, it does not seem like a wise decision to assign learners and conveners to energy-sapping, uncomfortable spaces that are not conducive to discussion. I also felt the pain of my peer learners who stayed in the hot dorms. I stayed in an air-conditioned hotel an exit away from the seminar site because I require high-speed Internet for my work. Other than the classroom situation, the seminar logistics were excellent. Dr. Arcana in particular was a stickler for ensuring that we started and stopped on time.