Major Stuff About Our Major

This week we’re in an in-between week of major events and so I’m taking the reins of this weekly post by letting you know of some exciting stuff that’s happening with our majors and with our major.

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First off, some Major Student Awesomeness you might have missed:

* If you see Major Katie Farris, congratulate her, pat her back, get her to give you an autograph, snap a picture and remember to write down somewhere “I knew her when…”  Katie Farris was one of the nominees for the Harbuck Scholarship this 2013, so we already knew she was cool, but her essay “Batman And Robin,” which she read at the Harbuck Reading, was published in the magazine Synchronized Chaos and was just nominated for the 2013 Best of the Net Anthology.  Whoot! Whoot!

*Double Major George Brannen had his first flash prose published in Flashes in The Dark

Brannen Memoir

George Brannen has also given much love to this Department in ways that makes us blush and say, “Awww, thank you.”

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Since we all know that you all contribute to A Day for Southern, you might have noticed the happy addition of not one, but two new ways to contribute to Writing & Linguistics with the George K. Brannen Award and the David Starnes/George K. Brannen Endowed Scholarship.  Details to come soon.

In the meantime, meet our MAJOR BENEFACTOR (you see the light coming out from his head? I’m not sure, but I think that might qualify him for sainthood in some countries). If you see George in the hallways, say, “Hey! Thanks!” (And read his story!)

George Brannen

George Brannen

* And if you’re in the Major already, I’m sure you’ve already had a chance to meet Taylor Tyson (yes, the kind of kid who has to go through life with two first names, not unlike yours truly — I feel your pain, Taylor!) Taylor is a MAJOR personality around campus: just tend your ear and you might catch his contagious laugh or the punchline to one of his many well timed repartee.  Taylor already took us by storm when he turned down Milledgeville for us, and quickly proved our recruiting fawning more than justified when he placed first in our annual Powell Awards nonfiction contest in 2012 and first place winner in the Harbuck Scholarship in 2013 with a poem, a piece of flash fiction, and a short story, earning these prizes as an underclassman.  Taylor, you scare us.  You really scare us.

Which leads me to tell you something about our up and coming Major Events that some of us (uh humh) worked very hard to put together for yours’all’s enjoyment:

Reading in IT 1004 at 7pm on Thursday October 10

Brock Clarke

October 9 2012:  Brock Clarke and Kevin Wilson will give an author’s talk at the Statesboro public library. A reception will follow — (Yesss! Free food!)

The same day stay tuned to Georgia Southern’s favorite radio station, The BUZZ, for a broadcast of an interview with these acclaimed authors.  Tend your ear for the buzz word: Nicole Kidman. Can you say movie deal?

Kevin Wilson

October 10: TWO WRITERS WORKSHOP: YES!

If you belong to Sigma Tau Delta, the Creative Writing Club, or The Guild, you are one lucky duck because Brock Clarke, author of Exley and An Arsonist’s Guide is going to lead a special private workshop for members of these clubs. If you’re in any one of these clubs do not miss an opportunity to attend a workshop with someone who is not only an acclaimed writer, but also a well-seasoned professor. Schmoozing is not a bad idea, either: you’ll never know when you need a favorable vote to win a fellowship, or gain entry into an MFA program, but don’t tell him I said so (wink wink).

And if you’re not into one of these student clubs and have no desire to join one, then Kevin Wilson, author of Tunneling To The Center of The Earth and of The Family Fang will be giving a workshop for my WRIT 4530 fiction class.  If you think you might want to attend, we may have a few extra seats. My class meets at 12:30pm.  Email me at lvaleri@georgiasouthern.edu to reserve a seat ahead of time. No walk-ins, please. Space is limited. I will disclose the location if I still have room.  And if enough people are interested, I may have enough time to rent an even bigger room.  Just shoot me a line or two, this week or early the next.

Finally, we have a reading and q&a on October 10, at 7pm in the large auditorium in the IT building: IT 1004.  

Bring a friend. Shout to the winds. Wave a blanket over a smoking fire. This is a major event, and free to the public.

And that’s our Major News this week.  If you’re one of ours and you just had a short story, poem or story published, be sure to let us know. We are always psyched to spread the good news and get you readers.

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Truth in Fiction: Or, Should We Write What We Know?

Write what you know.  This seems a clichéd bit of advice, no?

Students often ask me if I write what I know or if what I write is “true.”  Goodness, I hope not.  I frequently write about dissatisfied, questioning narrators who seek meaning in an otherwise chaotic or uncertain world.  Beyond that, I often borrowed from magical realism, and so, uh, no, I did not, as in one of my stories, have a son who drowned in a river only to come back to life as a fish.  In fact, I don’t even have a son.

But still—I don’t think this answer—this “no, no my fiction is not true”—ever seems quite accurate.  And so I often return to this question about truth in fiction.  Is fiction true?  Is it truer than nonfiction?  Is it truer, somehow, than real life?

These are some lofty questions.

I can’t help but return to Marianne Moore’s famous dictum that poetry is the “art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads.”  Of course, we can easily see how this applies to the craft of writing fiction. We have to create a world so well-drawn that it feels real, that to the reader it is real.  The toads must become real, tangible things, croaking and jumping and doing whatever it is toads do.  (Wart-growing? Seeking out Princesses to kiss?) If it looks like a toad and jumps like a toad and is a toad, is it a real toad?  Isn’t this toad just as real as a toad you’d find in your back yard?

If the bookshelves of Barnes and Noble tell us anything, no, fictional toads are not real.  Real toads can be found in the nonfiction section, aisle 12, thank you very much.

Next week is “Banned Books Week.”  The history of banned novels tells us something about the levels of “truthiness” in fiction and how very threatened some people feel by the presence of fiction.  Yet, if fiction isn’t true—if it doesn’t convey some sort of truth—why would they matter in the first place?  Are some books banned because of what they would lead readers to believe?  That sometimes different people have different understandings of the truth?

Fiction does lie, it fabricates, it invents, it distorts, it exaggerates, but it also does more than that.  Perhaps because fiction is not bound to the rules of truth it is able to more closely approximate the human experience.  We all know that fiction’s greatest strength is its internal nature. In the greatest works of fiction we’re able to get inside the heads of characters, to see as they see, feel as they feel, and think as they think.  Fiction, certainly good fiction, allows the reader to experience a life different from her own and to understand this life more fully.  Isn’t this understanding a form of truth?

Yes, fiction is untrue–contains inventions, imaginary worlds, make believe, and, yes, a little bit of lying.  But fiction is “untrue” only if we take “truth” to mean the “literal truth” or “fact.”  However, I believe the best fiction takes life and deepens the experience for the reader.  We know, for example, that Jay Gatsby isn’t just a man with a big house and lavish parties.  He’s a man with deep longings, heavy burdens, insecurities, and big dreams.

The success of a piece of fiction, to me, seems to revolve around how capable it is of expressing some sort of common truth and the number of readers who can relate to that truth.  Is The Great Gatsby so great because we all want to know what it feels like to wear fancy party shirts and live in a posh neighborhood?  No. But we can relate to the feeling that we’re not good enough or that we can’t measure up.  Do we like Hunger Games because we can relate to allowing our children to be sacrificed in a reality-show showdown till death?  No.  But we can relate to the kinds of frustrations Hunger Games inspires in us, or the desire to keep our dignity and humanity in the face of a world that seems to be crumbling around us.

The common myth of fiction writers is that we simply have good imaginations, that we live in our own minds fabricating new worlds.  On the contrary, I think fiction writers share the unique ability of observation. We don’t always invent worlds, we observe them. We observe “toads” twice, once in the real world and another time again in our imaginary ponds. And the toad we see in the real world might not have three warts and an injured leg, as it does in our story—but it’s the same toad.

Fiction writers remake reality.  That’s that magic: taking a world apart and putting it back together again in a way that doesn’t resemble the first world, but contains the same truth.  There’s actually a lot of order and method to this.  Fictional worlds aren’t born out of creative chaos; they’re born out of truth. And the world we put back together again doesn’t always resemble, exactly, the original copy.  There may not be a one to one correlation between our experiences and our fiction.  So back to my story—and the question I get about whether or not my fiction is “true”: maybe I didn’t have a son who came back as a fish.  But maybe I had a fish.

A lot of authors have spoken to this idea of truth in fiction:

Anne Lamott: “Good writing is about telling the truth.”

Stephen King: ”Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.”

Ralph Ellison:Good fiction is made of what is real, and reality is difficult to come by.”

Mark Twain :Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.”

Tom Wolfe:The problem with fiction, it has to be plausible. That’s not true with non-fiction.”

In fiction, readers can experience things in a way they can’t do in real life.  Fiction resolves uncertainties, it follows an ordered path, it provides meaning. Real life can be inconsistent, chaotic, messy. Sometimes bad things happen in real life, and we don’t know why. You can’t say in a novel:  You just had to be there.  Fiction distills truth for us.  And for this reason, I believe most fiction is “true.”

So maybe the advice to “write what you know” isn’t just another cliché taught by yet another writing teacher.  Maybe when I tell my students the same thing, I’m not just spewing empty air.  Grace Paley once said “We write out what we don’t know about what we know.”  Maybe this is why even when we’re writing fantasy, we’re writing truth.  We’re writing something that feels familiar to us, even if we’ve never experienced it.

Maybe this is what I was writing about my story about the boy and about the fish. Maybe I don’t have a son. Or a fish. Maybe I’ve never even been to a river. But I do know what it feels to suffer loss, and I know no specific, singular journalistic accounting of these losses will make it any truer, no description of the way I’ve cried, or didn’t cry, or the people who I’ll never see again will bring them back, like that fictional son who came back from the dead as a fish.

I borrow experiences from my real life, but I rarely write about my real life.  But I don’t think my fiction is any less true because of it.  And because of this I’ll probably always write what I know.

Saul Bellow once said, “A novel is a balance between a few true impressions and the multitude of false ones that make up most of what we call life. It tells us that for every human being there is a diversity of existences, that the single existence is itself an illusion in part.  It promises us meaning, harmony, and even justice.”

As writers, I urge you to think about what kind of truth your writing conveys.  What is it that you wish to say about our world? Creating a new existence—a reflection of our lived one—that’s the greatest aspiration of any fiction writer, even if it takes a few lies to get there.

Punt Your Writer’s Block This Season

With the summer days slowly dwindling into cool nights and breezy mornings, I have been overrun with thoughts of leaves bursting with color, marsh mellows roasting in a night fire and days without sweating on the way to class. The cool air has giving me an itch for the fall, a hope that the warm Statesboro humidity will soon be on its way out of town. As I sat down last night to put the final touches on a poem due for class, I realized that my itch for fall had taken over my writing and captured what I love most about my favorite time of year. My words were passionate for the moments of fall. They were full of delight and longing for the moments to last forever. The words fell together perfectly, unlike the days filled with writers block and for a writer, it was a moment of unrushed, bleak clarity.

The question is was this moment of writing bliss just a coincident or can a change of season bring a new life perspective?

To me, the later is true. A new season is a fresh start. It’s a time where pool parties change into Saturday game days and when burning temperature turn into flames of the night. Our moods change, our plans change, our clothes change and, ding ding ding, our writing changes.

The spurt of a new season is a writers dream. There is a part of nature changing, leaves morphing into the colors of the rainbows and, eventually, falling to give us a place to land as we jump into the mountains they make. The deer begin moving and give some the chance to hunt, while others admire the timid beauty and bold character of the animals that skip through the streets and fields. There is a new magic in the air, a thrilling sense of what could be, of what will be. It is the present and a bit the future rolled into one. A peak of our imagination and passion, the punt of writers block into another land.

Yes, a new season can give writers a whole new world of ideas. Take advantage of them. Kick your writer’s block to the curb.

By: Christine Lengel

Why Creative Writers Are Necessary To Our Collective Future

Hangman TarotjpegWe’re at the start of the semester.  Class bells ring merrily, the halls are filled with purposeful chatter and with the shuffling of feet. This is the time when we look to the new faces on campus and think, Could you be the one?

For professors, that question is not one of romantic entanglement.  We want you to major in Writing & Linguistics, and on this side of the camp, we actually want you to concentrate on creative writing.

But why major in Creative Writing, you say?  Your parents are tapping their foot and checking their account balances on their smart phones, whispering a sing-songy Juniooooor? hoping you don’t get lured in by those strange bohemian types, the creative writers, who surely will lead you to economic perdition making you major in telling stories and teaching you to chant poetry at dark gatherings, where only people with poor fashion sense understand the real meaning of your words.

Mostly, they’re just worried that a degree in creative writing won’t get you a job — and why shouldn’t they worry?  Poverty gets old really fast.  And they (and you) are probably already re-mortgaging a house to fund your ride through higher education.  It wouldn’t be wise for you to come out of college without a crushing debt and no opportunities to pay it off.

True, that.

That’s why our colleagues teamed together with our other colleagues, and that’s why at Georgia Southern we offer a Writing & Linguistics major and not a Creative Writing major. We know how it looks to some people, that word, Creative.  It’s like saying Laziness or Procrastination — or worse: Welfare Check and Unemployment.

We understand what it’s like being young and full of debt, and so we designed our curriculum with plenty of “practical” courses that will open doors to a number of financial opportunities. Our friends in technical writing take a special front seat to this goal: technical writing skills are very much in demand, and considering where our technology is going, that job growth is only going to get better.  But our friends in Linguistics and in Writing Studies offer a number of good opportunities as well.

So, ok, now that we’ve taken care of that, what, you ask, is so special about creative writing? Why not just focus all my courses in Technical Writing or Linguistics, or — even better — Accounting!

Well, I say, it’s precisely because you want a career with a future, not just a job, that you should be taking a walk on the wild side.

It might surprise you to learn that in this technology-run, result-driven economy the highest commodity is not productivity, but creativity.  That’s right, that terribly frightening word.  Many of the more promising corporate entities understand that quite well, thus articles like “The MFA Is The New MBA” and “Let Computers Compute: It’s The Age of The Right Brain” telling the world what creative writers have always known, that learning to look at the world upside down is the most valuable of skills for any ambitious boy or girl. (You were wondering about that Tarot card image, weren’t you?)

Let me give you some specific examples of why the creative life has practical resonance with the type of creative skills that employers are looking for.

Here is a list of the most common terms found in job ads for almost any position:

1. Effective Communication Skills: it’s a no-brainer that creative writing teaches you to communicate.  “But not THAT kind of communication” says you.  “We’re talking about memos, and reports, journal articles, blogs, and slide shows, not stories, not poems.” And I say, “Everything is a story, my dear.” And to quote my good friend Holmes of the UK telly show: “You see, but you don’t observe.”  To make my point let me just refer you to the most successful and charismatic CEO of all history, with more than 2 billion followers in this present day society, Jesus taught and won audiences over almost exclusively through stories.  So did pretty much any other prophet from any of the greatest world religions of all time.  That’s because all of them knew the power of story to tell a truth that is larger than the mere facts.  Reducing communication to a succinct assemblage of facts is to “see but not observe,” Watson. Even Aristotle taught about the power of mythos to rally and unite a people.  We don’t give presidential acceptance speeches because we want to inform: next time you’re in the vicinity of a speech transcript, observe the stories.  I suspect you will find more than one.

It’s not easy to tell a good story, nor to express a complex, esoteric idea in simple terms that everyone can understand and relate to: and this is exactly what creative writing teaches you to do.  That’s why the works of poets and writers survive over centuries, sometimes millennia: because those works are the most informative about a culture, about its philosophy, its social dynamics and economic challenges.  We do it best. And once you learn that challenging-but-ostensibly-simple type of writing, any other type of writing will feel like a walk in the park.

2. Problem Solving Skills: creative writers don’t just solve problems all the time, they also routinely construct “worse case scenarios” as a matter of course.  The CIA and FBI and Department of Defense really should hire writers to tell them just what could happen — and for all I know, they already do. Let the analysts to the number crunching.  We have exactly those types of minds that defense entities desire: we look past the obvious and hone in on the intriguingly subtle.  Poets are code makers and code breakers; prose writers construct and deconstruct narratives. That’s why so many lawyers and detectives write best selling novels.  They are creative, and therefore they have the minds to think in unusual ways, considering and analyzing what others see but don’t observe.

3. Attention To Detail: this is an easy one. Just ask any poet.  What difference does a comma make to the interpretation of a line? What about the right choice of diction? Practice makes perfect and creative writers train themselves every day, every hour of their labor, to look at the details, and to consider how these work together to transform the whole.

4. People Skills: many of my best writing teachers said “to be a better writer be a better person.” Poets and writers are doctors of the human heart.  We understand how people act in any circumstance and situation, and we are able to articulate better than anyone what are most secret motivations and desires are, and how they trigger our emotions.

5. Analytical Skills: would you be surprised to know that writing resides in the left brain, the analytical side of our thinking machine?  While writers of any kind will exercise your abilities to organize and deconstruct, (just think grammar), creative writers make use of both sides of the brain, delving into the wild and unexpected while also organizing and structuring the chaotic subconscious. You can’t get any better training than that.

There is more that I could say, but this is turning into a long post, and I can practically see you twitching my dear Watson, urging to move on to another blog post or to some snappy FB status.

But as you ponder the purpose of your college days, remember that college isn’t a place where you learn skills for jobs that already exist. It’s a place that, when navigated properly, will teach you skills for jobs that will exist in the future, and even jobs that you can create yourself.  All you need is a pinch of right brain and a pinch of left brain that together form that dreaded phrase: Creative Writing.

Could you be the one?