Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Creative writers: Are your story or poetry themes fresh, or worn to the nub?

What I hear from editors of journals is that they are inundated with stories of coming of age, sexual awakening, family trauma, and the grieving process; and poems that deal with love and/or loss. These are universal themes, of course, and ones that inspire writers to write. So are you supposed to avoid them? No. But, look at them with more scrutiny. Are you relying on the poignancy of the situation to be enough?

The decision to publish is based on many things, but in creative writing, it is less often based on WHAT you have to tell, and more on HOW you tell it. Do you have a fresh take, a unique voice, evocative imagery and words that sing? Or are you in such a rush to tell your tale that you are skimping on the art of great storytelling? Cultivating your own fresh voice is a long process, but a potentially joyful one. Especially if you find a community of writers to support you on your journey.

What I hear from my clients is that it is challenging to find a group with good critiquing skills. Two of my clients have found real value in an ongoing adult education class at College of Marin called Poetic Pilgrimage led by Prartho Sereno, poet laureate of Marin County. I’m told there is no critiquing or commenting whatsoever. Not a word of encouragement even! One client says, "We just read whatever we've just written and move on to the next person. And I have observed people really grow in their skills. I think just being exposed to good writing really helps, as we read quality published poetry that she chooses to suit her theme. Being able to hear yourself read your poem to a group lets you to really hear your work in a way that reading it to yourself just doesn’t allow."

I have also heard mixed reviews on writing critique groups. It’s important to find one that reaches the right balance between everyone being "too nice" to say anything useful, and a group that leaves you feeling overwhelmed with other writers’ ideas of how they would have written it, so you lose the heart of your piece. If you aren’t in a group and would like to try one, ask friends, check on Meetup, inquire in bookstores (Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA has many classes, for example), read reviews, and try them out. Then see if you feel invigorated or enervated. 

Perhaps the best thing is to get to know other writers (through classes, groups and conferences) whose work you like and after a while form a very small group of maybe three or four people that meets regularly for support and encouragement. This is enough to keep you on track writing, and if you take turns introducing the group to writers you admire, and discuss why, then your ear is being tuned to recognize when your own writing a bit trite and uninspired, and of course this is what you’re going for: fresh and on point!

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