“Once you’ve made the decision, just swing the sword” (or bring along your shrimp puppet): Writerly Wit and Wisdom from a Weekend Book Festival

As Jay said in his last post, the spring is full of Snake Men, stealing classroom time we’re desperate for, and, unfortunately for some of us in the midwest, this spring has also been devoid of sunlight, so I’m feeling like a bit of a nocturnal, cold-blooded creature myself. Thus, I was grateful for a new ray of light in my community, the inaugural UntitledTown (I’m from Green Bay, get it?) Book Festival. Saturday sessions with midwestern writers and the keynote addresses by Sherman Alexie (!!) and Margaret Atwood (!!!) on Sunday night yielded some great tips for writers and teachers of writing that I hope will brighten your day!

  • “Writing fiction is about understanding a character for 360 degrees”: Wisconsin-based novelist Nickolas Butler (add his Shotgun Lovesongs and The Hearts of Men to your summer reading list!) shared the first chapter of The Hearts of Men at his Saturday reading. (Consider teaching that chapter as a short story; it’s a heartbreaker!) Later, he explained how a pivotal scene in the novel was inspired by a painful moment in his own life. He told the crowd that fictionalizing that difficult moment gave him an opportunity to re-examine the real people involved in it. The experience reminded him that the best characters are rarely all good or all bad; rather, like real people, good characters are complex and complicated. For Butler, “writing fiction is about understanding a character for 360 degrees”; as teachers, our challenge is to understand our students for 360 degrees. Now is a good time to reflect on how much you’ve learned and come to understand about the amazing young people who enter our classrooms each day.

 

  • “Let them write what they want to write and read what they want to read”: When I asked Butler how Wisconsin had influenced his writing, he said that he wouldn’t have become a writer without the encouragement of his Eau Claire librarians and teachers. Growing up, his mother and the local librarians let him read whatever he wanted, and his teachers recognized that he was a “goofy kid” who could write, so they encouraged his gift, enlisting his help in the school newspaper and other projects. Butler encouraged the teachers in the audience to let students “write what they want to write and read what they want to read”; consider the book talks and independent reading work in your classroom author approved!

 

  • What literary analysis and “Rodeo” have in common: When asked about his craft during a panel on “Thrills, Threats, and Tenderness,” Benjamin Percy–an author of thrillers, comic books, and craft texts–cited the work of American composer Aaron Copland. Percy said that Copland’s essay, “How We Listen,” helped him to understand readers’ and writers’ relationships to text. In the essay, Copland describes three planes of listening to music: the sensuous, the expressive, and the musical. Most listeners experience the sensuous plane, the sheer pleasure of music; some listeners enjoy the expressive plane–the “leaning forward,” as Percy described it–that happens when music evokes emotion; and then composers and musicians can listen in the musical plane, where one recognizes music as the product of notes and musical conventions. If you’re reviewing for AP or IB tests this week, consider using Copland’s essay as a crash course in close reading! Percy explained how his MFA classes helped him think about writing on the musical plane, but returning to his favorite books–his first writing teachers–reminded him that readers need “lean forward” moments, invitations to the expressive plane.

 

  • “Once you’ve made the decision, just swing the sword”: Nickolas Butler joined Benjamin Percy for the panel on “Thrills, Threats, and Tenderness,” and he quoted a favorite book about samurai warriors when sharing advice for writers who are hesitant to place characters in situations of threat or commit to moments they aren’t sure they can write: “‘Once you’ve made the decision, just swing the sword.’ Keep swinging the sword; move confidently.” Butler’s samurai-inspired advice works well for our writers, too. For the past week, I’ve been encouraging my juniors to “swing the sword”–take risks make decisions–as they draft their World Literature Written Assignments for IB English. I’ve been trying to remind them that writing is a means of discovery and we have to keep swinging, keep taking chances and writing into the void, to develop our best work.

 

  • DON’T “lose the word that ends an argument in a moment”: Sherman Alexie, the first keynote speaker of the capstone session of UntitledTown, shared funny and poignant stories from his forthcoming memoir. During his remarks, he talked about Salish, the Spokane language his mother spoke fluently and founded a school to teach, and the space between “living thing” and “sacred thing” where many indigenous languages reside. Alexie seemed to suggest that a language made sacred is revered but risks being lost while a language used for day-to-day living is remembered. Alexie described how his mother and father argued in Salish, but his father could end the argument with a word, one that Alexie never learned and now can’t remember. Think of that, he warned, you lose the word that ends an argument in a moment. Alexie’s yearning for his father’s words makes me wonder what more I can do to inspire awe and appreciation for words in English and other languages.

 

  • “We are art-making beings”: Margaret Atwood, the last speaker of the festival, approached the podium with a plastic hotel laundry bag in hand. With a mischievous, Mary Poppins-like air, she pulled a hat, a plastic folder with her speech, and a shrimp puppet from the bag. The hat was helping her battle our unseasonably cold April weather; the speech would discuss The Handmaid’s Tale’s origins, Gilead’s legacy, and the importance of the humanities; and the shrimp puppet was a stand-in for Handmaid’s scholarly Dr. Peixoto during an imagined Q & A that Atwood performed for the crowd. Near the conclusion of her speech, Atwood declared that the humanities are important because “we are art-making beings”; without art, humans cease to be whole. The puppet show was a clever manifestation of this truth; it offered a completely different glimpse of Atwood, fifteen minutes of creative play that shared more of her personality and skills than the other two parts of her presentation. Atwood’s words inspire me to honor the art-making beings in my classroom, including myself, with more opportunities to do the things that make us whole.

This time of the year leaves many of us feeling like we’re running on empty, so it’s good to remind ourselves of the “lean forward” moments–the wonder and awe–that drew us to our work in the first place. I hope I’ve been able to share some of the wonder of UntitledTown with you, and if you need another helping, remember that great craft talks are often just a YouTube or author website search away. And if those fail to inspire, well, I know where to find a Booker Prize-winner with a shrimp puppet.

Have any favorite author encounters to share? A favorite writing craft podcast or YouTube series? Share your ideas for spring pick-me-ups and ways to celebrate being “art-making beings” on Twitter @MsJochman or in the comments below.

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