Sophfronia Scott, Author Writing, laughing, and loving

Writing to Reach a Broader Audience

February 17, 2015 | Publishing, Writing | Permalink

If you’re on Twitter and a lover of books you’ve probably come across #LitChat, the popular discussion about books and their authors that takes place twice a week. Recently LitChat’s founder, Carolyn Burns Bass, asked me to be a guest host on the chat discussing what I feel are some of the important issues facing writers of color today. I wrote a blog post for her on the topic, “Writing to Reach a Broader Audience.” You can read it on the LitChat website by clicking here and then join us for the discussion on Wednesday, February 18, 4-5pm ET. Just follow the hashtag ‪#‎LitChat‬ on Twitter or use #LitChat’s dedicated Twitter feed channel at www.nurph.com/litchat. Feel free to chime in with comments and questions, I’d love to hear your thoughts. The excellent David Hicks, co-director of Regis University’s Mile-High MFA will be in the stream as well. I hope you can be there, I’m looking forward to it!

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Can Creative Writing Be Taught to You?

February 6, 2015 | Writing | Permalink

I allowed the little black arrow to hover over the big blue SEND button a moment or two longer before I finally clicked on it. I’d read my critique of the essay multiple times to ensure my points were clear and the overall tone was convivial and encouraging. I’d met the writer, a college student studying creative nonfiction, last summer and she recently reconnected with to me to ask if I would read an essay for her. Still, I hesitated to press down on the mouse. I knew my words would instigate one of two responses and I’m not casual about either of them. She would either “get it” and get to work, or she would run away aggrieved, crying indignant tears, and I would never hear from her again. It sounds melodramatic, to be sure, but trust me. One or the other does happen in some form—with guys too.

Some would say this is inevitable. Writers are sensitive souls and as such are more prone to take criticism personally and with great difficulty. True, many writers are emotionally engaged on a level beyond the normal populace, but I’m inclined to wonder—does a critique really have to hurt so much?

Regis University MFA
This is on my mind now as I join the faculty of Regis University’s Mile-High MFA, a new low-residency writing program based in Denver. Specifically, I’m pondering the question explored in the literary journal Boulevard in its Symposium, published in 2011, on “Can ‘Creative Writing’ Really Be Taught?” Obviously I think it can otherwise I wouldn’t be a teacher of writing, but I admit I also agree writing can’t be taught in the way we usually think about teaching—as a transfer of knowledge and skills. Here I’ll quote Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post albeit reluctantly—this is from a 2005 book review in which he trashes beyond belief Before We Get Started, an essay collection on writing by one of the best teachers I’ve ever worked with, Bret Lott. But this part, which has nothing really to do with Bret’s book, rang true for me:

“Yes, people who aspire to be writers are like people who aspire to anything else: They need help. Over the years some exceptionally good books have been written about the art and craft of fiction — I think in particular of Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners and Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings — but they deal with large issues rather than niggling details. They don’t say, implicitly or explicitly: Do as I advise and you can be just like me. They understand that serious writing done in the hopes of making literature is a mysterious process the precise nature of which is hidden within the individual writer’s heart and mind, and that this process cannot be transferred — least of all in a classroom or a writers’ colony — from one person to another.”

The key here is that process “hidden within the individual writer’s heart and mind.” This does exist, but I believe the problem is too many aspiring writers (and I mean beyond the undergraduate level) show up in the classroom with mounds of sensitivity and little or no awareness of his or her own process. Instead they look for someone to give it to them, which, really, can’t be done and sets them up for a bewildering experience. Which leads me to wonder: Are we asking the right question? Instead of having the MFA programs, workshops and writing conferences of the world work so hard to put forward a plausible response to “Can creative writing be taught?” perhaps more of the onus should be on the student to ask his or herself, “Can creative writing be taught to me?”

image by Chanell Marshall (4/17/10)

image by Chanell Marshall (4/17/10)

And this doesn’t mean you can sit through a critique without shedding a tear. This is about understanding your own creative process, and why you felt you needed to be in a room getting critiqued in the first place. Do you know your strengths and weaknesses as a writer? Are you in that place where you know you’ve taken the work as far as you can and now you need guidance to move beyond, to help you dare more on the page?

When you come to the classroom with all this in mind, you are ready to explore and what’s more, you’ll know when you’ve heard the critique that feels right because you know it will help. If you haven’t done any serious thinking about where you are with your writing, it will be like coming to the room with an empty heart and expecting your teacher to fill it. Of course such expectation would only lead to disappointment.

So what happened with the writer I mentioned above? She responded with excellent questions. For example, I’d pointed out how her essay had two narrative arcs, both disjointed and neither fulfilled for the reader. I also said if she wanted to, she could choose one and have the essay be only about that. She said she really wanted to keep both and asked me questions about structure and length that could help her accomplish it. I wrote back in full support of her choices and provided ideas to help her follow through. I also applauded her openness to allowing me into her process.

Everyone’s process is different. For many years I thought I wouldn’t get an MFA but there came a time when my writing and my life as an artist demanded this level of engagement. Perhaps I needed to come to this place where I was ready to learn. What about you? Where are you on this journey? Can creative writing be taught to you? If you ask the question and discover the answer is “Yes” then come find me at Regis. I would be honored to join you in your process, and eager to learn where you want to go with your writing.

Enjoy your work,

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Creativity Playdate: City Island, New York City

December 18, 2014 | Creativity Playdates | Permalink

This week: an unexpected creativity playdate. I drove a friend and her family to JFK International Airport and as we passed through the Bronx, I pointed out the signs to City Island, a tiny island neighborhood, 1.5 miles long, jutting out into the westernmost point of Long Island Sound. I said, “Have you ever been there? It’s really beautiful, like a New England fishing village hidden away in New York City.” On my way home when I came upon the signs again I realized I haven’t been to City Island in many years. When I lived in Manhattan I used to be a member of a cycling group that biked there on summer weekends. That’s why I knew of its beauty.

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City Island panorama

I also realized I had the rest of my morning free. So I took the City Island exit and spent an hour walking around and taking pictures. I’m glad I did. It felt like a snippet of summer vacation. I could smell the salt in the air and a bit of winter sun shone through enough to feel the warmth on my skin. I don’t know where, I don’t know when, but I know something of this experience will find its way into my writing. I’m glad I took the time. Here are some of the photos—I especially loved the homes with patches of beach in their backyards. I hope you enjoy the pics and that you’ll have many impromptu creativity playdates in the new year.

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A Grateful Writing Life

December 5, 2014 | Loving Life, Writing | Permalink

I am waiting. It’s a common activity for writers. You work on a piece of writing. You finish it. You send it somewhere. You send it to a reader for feedback, you send it to a literary journal for possible publication, or you send it to a literary agent for possible representation. And then you wait. Ideally you work on more writing while you wait.

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photo by Melissa Fisher

But I’m learning my brain likes to use this waiting time to roll around in a lot of unhelpful, distracting thoughts. These thoughts mainly focus on what I haven’t done yet—goals still unattained, essays not written or revised, a short story not progressing quickly enough. I also think about what I’m missing. This week the “missing” thoughts center on missing my Vermont College of Fine Arts community and how, because of my graduation in July, this will be the first time in three years I won’t be traveling to snowy Montpelier for a 10-day residency. The same kind of thinking makes me downplay or give short shrift to my accomplishments. “Yes, getting that publication is great but I don’t know what’s happening with my novel.”

However a specific realization about VCFA and then an image I saw posted on Facebook coincided to disperse these thoughts by giving me a pretty good knock upside the head. First the realization: three years ago this month I began my pursuit of an MFA. Here’s where I was before I went to VCFA. My sister Theodora had passed away just four months before and in my shock and grief I’d made the decision that I wouldn’t waste any more time not practicing my art. I was writing, yes, but it was all writing connected to my business and none of it furthered my creative work. I was trying to write my second novel but had no time to get beyond the first two chapters. The literary community I craved seemed to be on another planet. I wanted to have a different life, a writing life, where I showed up in the world as an author and a literary writer.

This week Ruminate Magazine announced the publication of its winter issue and posted on Facebook an image revealing the cover that included the names of the writers featured in the issue. And there it was: my name on the cover of Ruminate. I knew my essay, “Why I Must Dance Like Tony Manero,” a finalist for Ruminate’s 2014 VanderMey Nonfiction Prize, would be in the issue but I didn’t know it would be highlighted on the cover.

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This picture totally rang my bell. It seemed to say, “Silly girl! Look at how far you’ve come! See what you have and not what you lack!” When I did look I was so humbled I fell to my knees. It is three years later and I have:
• My MFA, and it’s even a dual-genre one (fiction and creative nonfiction)
• Completed my second novel including extensive revisions. It’s now with my literary agent.
• A new gig where I’ll teach fiction and creative nonfiction in a low-residency creative writing program, the Mile-High MFA, at Regis University in Denver.
• Had a number of essays and short stories published—and now I have my name on the cover of a gorgeously awesome literary journal.
• The joy of being surrounded by writers, truly great writers, and I’m inspired and supported by their examples and the feeling that we’re all in this together.
• The focus and drive to work on my own writing and reading every single day while still handling some client projects.

In other words, I have the writing life I sought three years ago. I don’t have to wait for my novel to sell or for some other huge validation that I’ve arrived. My writing life is here, it’s now, and I’m living it. This doesn’t mean I think I’m supposed to be woo-woo happy all the time. Writing is hard and the writing life is no cruise ship vacation. (Side note: One of my essays was just rejected by an editor I know well personally. None of this comes easily!) But it’s what I wanted and I have it. I will try to maintain this awareness as much as I can. Hopefully from now on, or at least every time I sit down to write, I’ll better appreciate how much I am truly in my gratitude.

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Toni Morrison and Me

November 21, 2014 | Writing | Permalink

tonimorrisononcolbertI tend to talk about Toni Morrison with a cautious blitheness. I mention how we share the same hometown, Lorain, Ohio, but even that’s a scary thing to do. Why would I want to invite comparisons to a Nobel and Pulitzer prizewinning author? Such a thought would send most writers under their desks, possibly holding a thick reference book over their heads, like we used to do for tornado drills in my old elementary school, as protection from the debris surely to fly around them. However when I saw the video of Ms. Morrison’s interview with Stephen Colbert, I realized it’s time for me to talk seriously about what binds me to this important author and how she taught me something about myself that makes me confident, not fearful, in my work.

When Colbert asked how Ms. Morrison wanted to be “pigeon-holed” if not as an African-American writer, she said she wanted to be known “as an American writer.” She went on to say, “There is no such thing as race. None. There’s just the human race. Racism is a construct, a social construct…” I agreed and knew what she meant from the fiber of my being. I too think of myself as simply “a writer” working from the imagination and experience of being a human who happens to be named Sophfronia Scott. I have always felt this way but up until about ten years ago I couldn’t “own” it because I didn’t understand it. I only knew from a very young age I didn’t see the world along racial lines and thought this was an awareness I somehow missed out on. When I was in high school I often heard whispers that I wasn’t “black enough” or that I didn’t “sound black.” This led me to wonder if I was lacking in a way I could never figure out how to fix.

daddyBut then I happened upon Hinton Als’s 2003 profile of Toni Morrison in The New Yorker. I discovered she and I, despite our age difference, have a lot more in common than I knew, and these similarities were most likely what had shaped my worldview. It began with the most basic of shared characteristics—our fathers both worked at U.S. Steel, and she and I both grew up hanging clothes to dry outside, doing it very badly at times, and coming to a realization early on that we would not have the same existence as our mothers and aunts.

“I developed a kind of individualism—apart from the family—that was very much involved in my own daydreaming, my own creativity, and my own reading. But primarily—and this has been true all my life—not really minding what other people said, just not minding.”

But the big thing she pointed out to me in this article was how our community in Lorain was so integrated. Morrison always lived, she said, “below or next to white people,” and the schools were integrated—stratification in Lorain was more economic than racial. The piece also noted the work at U.S. Steel attracted not only American blacks from the south (my father was from Mississippi) but also displaced Europeans: Poles, Greeks, and Italians. The city has a large Hispanic population as well. This made me think of my father’s Polish friends we used to visit and of Lorain’s annual International Day Festival. To me this was just the way I grew up—I didn’t know I was living an integrated existence, or even what it meant .

charlotte_bigThen, to match our outer experience, it seems Morrison and I fed our minds a creative diet that turned out to be just as integrated. As a child, Morrison read virtually everything, from drawing-room comedies to Theodore Dreiser, from Jane Austen to Richard Wright. I had done the same, thoroughly steeping myself in the work of Bronte (Charlotte and Emily), Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Wright, Ellison, and, yes, Morrison. My influences cover the globe.

I realized I come by honestly my inclination to write from views and voices not my own. The characters in my fiction are white and black, gay and straight, of various religions and nationalities. I used to worry about being taken to task for this and that I wouldn’t have the confidence to back up this tendency because I didn’t understand it myself. But Morrison helped me to see this inclination is truly my own. I have been nurtured by my inner and outer environments to write this way and once I knew this I could write with confidence and without apology. And in all this writing I know I am seeking to tell one humanistic story and it is and will always be, I think, a love story. Morrison’s stories also seek such basic humanistic elements: love, mercy, forgiveness.

MorrisonLoveCoverSo if you ask me whether I aspire to be like Toni Morrison, I would say this: I don’t aspire to her lyricism or style, which are very much her own, but I do have this simple ambition—to tell a good story and tell it well. This aspect, I think, is where she and I both come from, the true hometown we share.

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