[cue in MTT conducting your favorite symphony]
Thank you, Tom Newkirk, for being with us at chez Lovell’s for the reunion of the Advanced Institute [AI 2015] — a week last summer that featured writing Elbowesque responses to chapters in your book, Minds Made for Stories.
Thank you, Jonathan Lovell, [affectionately known as ther cap’n] for leading the advanced institute and directing San Jose Area Writing Project, and for hosting this reunion.
Participants and guests arrive in eager anticipation.
We introduce ourselves with realia and wonder, “Where will this go?”
Some of us told longer stories or revealed little known bits from our lives. We settled into a friendly listening mode.
Some brought rocks and spoke of climbing to breath taking views, a cowgirl brought a horse painted on china, ther cap’n showed his model boat, the gym rat a PowerBar. There was a cup from the best cafe making us all ask where?? [NYC], an ape calendar, paint brushes, a signed copy of Ringer…
We reenacted another of our opening rituals, the Name Game and got snacks with tea or coffee, arranged by Ellen Lovell for our enjoyment.
AI 2015 moved into discussing reactions to chapters in Minds Made for Stories and each had a question for Tom and the group.
The first chapter raised the “hamburger essay”issue. [See Ch 1 Sustained Reading, subtitle pg 16, No More Hamburgers.] We pondered the mysterious persistence of the formulaic approach to writing instruction. Some said it is caused by assessment – the need to make mass grading easier. Newkirk shared thinking about coherence in writing that moves the reader along as a better view than starting with strict organization.
We talked about novel ways that some teachers are asking students to respond to literature or informational texts, from Ch. 5, All Writing is Narrated, to Ch 7, Can an Argument Be a Story?
Several side steps, or tangents, included Tom Newkirk talking about writing. Steven Pinker’s Sense of Style – our brains are visual. Successful writing is visual. It’s to help someone visualize what your reader should get.
Yet, we regard description like a low level skill.
And how the writing needs to be artful. If there’s no aesthetic experience, there won’t be interest enough.
True Confessions style, our talk turned to the things we forget when we read. Jerry took the position that we don’t really forget…but most of us admitteed that we could not give a decent plot summary of our last Good Read. Kate read aloud Billy Collins’ “Forgetfulness.”
We made inquiry into the Elbowesque responses – and the surprising new pieces they engendered as IA 2015 writers responded to Minds Made for Stories. Jonathan sees the Elbowesque responses as a powerful motivator: to make a new thought, to shape something that hasn’t been in the world.
This kind of prompt works as metaphor. One teacher tried, “Write a chapter to go into this book” after his freshman read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. The writing that resulted was some of the best he’s seen so far.
Some questions led Tom to talk on writing. One best piece of advice he offers,
“Be generous with yourself!!
It seems all writers have to deal with the inner self critic. He said, ” I take side trips – I don’t have to stay on track…”
Tom explained that fluency in writing is the ability to self-prompt yourself…critical thinking is self prompting. “What would someone who disagrees with me say?”
You’re writing and you pause, come to a stop. “What else happened?” Fluent writers have moves they can make…moves that are crucial for fluency. Tom said, “It’s like I have a beam searching in my head –What else could I say?”
He explained there’s always something that’s going to come. “I don’t get writer’s block. Something always connects with something else. What do I mean by that? The writing conversations get into your own head.”
Like Don Murray said, “Listen to the text” and the writing itself will suggest the next piece.
There were many other teaching examples and layers of the discussions, but this documentarian was playing with her new camera, not being scribe.
Tom wrapped up his talk on writing with one guideline:
“Every year, every grade every kid would get to write one fictional story…”
We asked a few more questions, and one elicited Tom’s educational leadership as Chairman of the Board in his local district. He makes it a priority to prevent top down programs that interfere with what teachers are doing in their classrooms.
We tidied up the Lovell living room and made our way to The Caspian, some to meet up with spouses and continue our camaraderie.
With gratitude for the San Jose Area Writing Project and Director Dr. Jonathan Lovell, and to Thomas Newkirk for flying to California to discuss his book and tell stories.
It seems good to close with another poem by Billy Collins.
SearchingI recall someone admitting that all he remembered of Anna Karenina was something about a picnic basket. and now, after consuming a book devoted to the subject of Barcelona-- its people, its history, its complex architecture-- all I remember is the mention of an albino gorilla, the inhabitant of a park where the Citadel of the Bourbons once stood. The sheer paleness of her looms over all the notable names and dates as the evening strollers stop before her and point to show their children. These locals called her Snowflake, and here she has been mentioned again in print in the hope of keeping her pallid flame alive and helping her, despite her name, to endure in this poem where she has found another cage. Oh, Snowflake, I had no interest in the capital of Catalonia-- its people, its history, its complex architecture-- no, you were the reason I kept my light on until late at night turning all those pages, searching for you everywhere.