Free Writing Conference

I’m not a naturally gifted writer. I like words. I’m an English teacher, so my grammar is decent. But artistry? Can that be taught?

The year was 2013. I landed an opportunity to launch Creative Writing as an elective at my high school. I adopted a philosophy. Writers must be readers. And. Writers must write. Every. Day. I felt like a hypocrite. So, I practiced. I read more. I wrote more. I studied good writing. I learned some tricks. I attended the occasional writing workshop and conference. I learned more tricks.

Speaking of writing conferences, the year was 2019. I opened an e-mail at school for a local writing conference at Houston Baptist University, just down the street from my house. They were offering continuing education credits for teachers on my favorite topic—writing. So, I signed up. There I learned about a new Creative Writing MFA program. Intrigued, I applied. In the year 2020, I found myself back in school. This time as a student.

Flash forward, post-graduation to the year 2022. I opened a text message from one of my professors. “Would you want to do a talk at this year’s writing conference? On Zoom?”

Would I?

That’s how I landed an opportunity to teach at the 2022 HBU Virtual Writers Conference. My session centers on “Modeling the Masters” subtitled “Finding Your Voice.” The conference is free and seriously not too good to be true. April 30. And, besides me, the lineup of guest speakers is impressive. For more information, click here. May I suggest a session with Bret Lott, author of Oprah’s Book Club pick Jewel? I’ve taken classes with him, and the guy can teach writing.

I would love to see you there.

Writing Better

I sat down at my computer to write with nothing particular on my mind. Just an exercise in making the words appear. There was an open Word document, my unpublished memoir titled Help in the Time of Schizophrenia, 248-pages needing revision and a publishing house. Honestly, I’m not sure how to go about that—the publishing. I know about developmental editors. I have a couple of contacts. Have I reached out? No. Publication remains a mystery. Maybe I’ll crack the code on my upcoming summer vacation.

When I finished my MFA last spring, one of my professors advised me to put my manuscript in a drawer and step away and read more and write more. That’s exactly what I’ve done until now. So instead of writing something meaningless today, I sat and reread and tweaked my words for what seems like the millionth time. I stopped on page twelve. 236 pages to go.

But, after twelve pages and a year, I felt better, much better. Through this break, I’m finding my authentic voice. I’m asking myself, “Would I say that?” I’m tightening the language. I’m adding details.

As for blogging, it’s more about writing practice—making myself do it vs. perfection. As for writing better, it’s more about the revision—root word vision—prefix again. Now I’m literally seeing the words and the story in a new light, letting go of what I once thought grand, finding holes in my storytelling. And maybe, just maybe, I’m inching my way to the goal.

The Unspoken Promise vs. The Spoken One

Back in January, as other people made resolutions, I told myself I would write one blog post per week, an unspoken promise of sorts. I never told anyone until now or recorded that thought anywhere. It was just one of the many conversations I have with myself.

Instead, I issued myself a proclamation in a single word—GRACE. Sometimes life comes at you in heavy ways. Not everything must be written or even discussed. Some problems take time. The intensity of other difficulties interferes with the inevitable daily good. And while I’ve shed some recent tears, I remind myself that flowers don’t bloom every day. I remind myself of the ancient wisdom: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). Good, right?

Somehow, I’ve pulled off that weekly post. Sometimes, it’s about sitting at your computer and just doing it. Sometimes, it’s about having enough GRACE for yourself to move forward differently than planned.

Chagall’s The Ukrainian Family, circa WWII, Prayers for Ukraine and Peace.

Persiflage?

It was mid-January. I lay in bed on a Saturday morning, phone scrolling, when a piece of art caught my eye. The irony. I lay in bed contemplating the Spitzweg painting of The Poor Poet, who was also in bed contemplating.

The Poor Poet, by Carl Spitzweg, 1839

My friend from Berlin wrote, “Who Is Carl Spitzweg?” (Click the link if you’re curious.) She proceeded to tell me and juxtaposed Spitzweg’s poet with a contemporary painting of a bear. How great are these two when compared? Zoom in on the painting behind the headboard below.

Picture by Papafox on Pixabay

My friend wanted to know, “At the end of the day, art and kitsch are in the eye of the beholder. What I truly can call kitsch is artwork like this with the bear. Now wait, or is it persiflage?”

Persiflage? I had to look up the word. Light and slightly contemptuous mockery or banter.

I continued reading. “Please ladies and gentlemen help me out! Is this art or kitsch?”

Kitsch? Another word I’ve learned. Art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way.

I responded.

Hmm. Favorite word? “I like juxtapose, rhymes with morose,” I said, scoffing at my bad joke, the eye rhyme, not an ear rhyme.

My Berlin friend and I went back and forth for a couple of days. I don’t think I truly have a favorite word. I reserve the right to change my mind each day. The next day I liked “gaga.”

She liked “mushroomed.”

We decided to collaborate.

A good-words post.

Five words each?

I fear I’ve commandeered the idea. (Commandeered, a nice word, right?)

On my laptop, I found a list started years ago. In a file called Creative Writing, from a class I once taught, is a document called “I Love Words,” untouched since January 2016. I started an ABC list of words I like while watching Wes Anderson’s quirky (good word #1) directorial-debut Bottle Rocket. It’s about three “amigos” (good word #2) planning to pull off a 75-year plan of “helter skelter” (#3) heists. The movie bombed at the box office, not everybody’s “cuppa,” (#4) but, oh, the banter. Now wait, or was it “persiflage” (#5)? Writing is just words, hopefully the best words, in the best order. I’ve added a few to my list along the way.

As for my Berlin friend, German’s have some of the best words. The funniest words. Do you know any Germans? Or their words? If not, click here.

And here she is—my friend who writes at Be Kitschig. From here she takes over this post. Her choice of art and words. Enjoy.

Oh, Wes Anderson has a cornucopia (Be Kitschig lovely word #1) of ideas. Thinking about it, I am not sure if I used that word 100% correct in the past. It’s always a bit awkward (good word #2) when people use words wrong. Like, not every thought you ever had is an epiphany, dude, but I digress (#3). One word I always liked was flabbergasted (#4). Since there are so many amazing words in the English language, five might just not be enough. So, for today, let’s finish the banter.

Cool?

Peachy (#5)!

And you know what would be uber cool and peachy? Add your favorite words in the comments. Better yet, link your own post below.

Tetrameter?

27. “Which of the following lines is written in tetrameter?”

I shook my head. I was reading a test written by a high-stakes test-making conglomerate when I stumbled upon this question. This is the type of test kids taking advanced English classes in the US must pass to receive college credit while in high school. The type of test I would give as a semester exam—as a practice test for the real deal in May. “That’s one of the dumbest questions I’ve ever heard,” I said to myself.

I suppose, if students knew that any poetry term ending in “meter” had to do with rhythms and syllables, they might have a fighting chance at the answer. If they counted the syllables of all five answer choices and realized that four of the choices had ten syllables and one choice had eight syllables, they might realize that one of these things is not like the other. As an English teacher of twenty plus years, I had never used the word tetrameter in my classroom. Pentameter. Yes. Iambic pentameter.

In Shakespeare’s tragedy about Julius Caesar, Mark Antony looks upon Caesar’s fresh corpse and says,

“Oh, par | don me, | thou bleed | ing piece | of earth…”

We could discuss the apostrophe, the personification, the metaphor, and the perfect iambic pentameter. We could divide the line into five feet, each two syllables, also called an iamb. An unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. If I put my hand under my chin and say the words aloud, my chin will drop on the stressed syllable. “Oh” is unstressed. The “par” in pardon is stressed. The rest of the line follows the same pattern. Anything beyond iambic pentameter, I must look up and study.  

And so, in preparation for the semester exam, I gave my students my best iambic pentameter lesson as a quick segue into what the test wanted them to know about tetrameter. We haven’t studied Shakespeare yet. “If penta in Greek means five, what does tetra mean?”

“Four,” they said.

“Good!”  I gestured to the line from Julius Caesar written on my white board, “So, if iambic pentameter is five feet of two syllables, equaling ten syllables total, how many syllables do you think tetrameter would be?”

“Four,” they said.

I slapped my own forehead. “No. Eight,” I said, trying not to sound frustrated over a misunderstood mini-lesson and a stupid test question. “If you see a question on your test asking about tetrameter, count the syllables and look for eight.” I paused to make sure they were listening. “I have no doubt there are exceptions to this rule, and we’ll discuss a few later. On your semester exam, tetrameter means eight syllables.” That was the best I could do aside from saying, “The answer to number 27 is C.”

They nodded their heads up and down, and I tried very hard not to tell my students this question was ridiculous. I might have anyway.

***

Flash forward to exam day. I actively monitored, walking up and down the aisles, when a book on my shelf caught my eye. Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale. I grabbed it. The subtitle—How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose—called my name. The teacher before me had left it behind.

“For the writer or wannabe, Sin and Syntax is an urgently needed, updated, and hip guide to modern language and writing.” —Jon Katz, author of Geeks

I opened the book and thumbed through the pages about words and sentences and stopped at Part 3—Music. “When you get your grammar down, when you simplify your syntax, you are halfway to mastering the craft of writing,” Hale says. “Appreciate music in prose, and develop your ear for it. Devour novels. Cue up recordings of famous speeches. Fall in love with poetry. Go to the video store and check out all those Shakespeare movies. Read your writing aloud.”

“Nice advice,” I thought and flipped further.

In the last chapter on “Rhythm,” Hale says, “Metric feet can have up to five syllables, but the most common have two or three.” And that’s why a question on tetrameter twists my panties. Tetrameter could be any number of syllables. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

I don’t know Richard Lederer, but I think he’s genius.

“As a prose stylist, you don’t really need to memorize the names of metric feet,” Hale says, “but you do need to appreciate their effect….When we listen carefully to our writing and reshape its rhythms to our liking, prose can become music.” She says the verses of the Bible, especially the King James, “are so easily received, remembered, and recited because of their rhythms.”

Hale cites the iambic pentameter of playwright, David Mamet, the rhythms of Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy, the repetitions of Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien, the musicality of Virginia Woolf and Martin Luther King, Jr. She writes about parallelism and a Jell-O commercial, rap and Grandmaster Flash.

And Hale’s last chapter reminded me of my last MFA class, Topics and Genres. A study of mentor texts with a focus on opening lines. Dr. Boyleston said, “Your story is only as good as your command of the language.” And he wrote Isak Denison’s first sentence from Out of Africa on the whiteboard:

“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” 

Our class discussed. I took notes. The first six words of the novel are iambic, and the “had” emphasizes the past tense conflict. The narrator no longer has the farm. The prepositional phrases, “in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills,” reveal a general location—Africa—and a specific location—the Ngong Hills. The repeating anapestic rhythm connects the music of language and beauty of landscape. In this simple sentence, there are only two polysyllabic words. The rest are monosyllabic, which slow you down and lend a sense of gravity. It’s almost Biblical. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” This lesson on rhythms was one of my favorites of my MFA at HBU.

And still, who cares if I can identify a dactyl or trochee by name? Uh, not me. Tetrameter. Shrameter. The technicality makes no difference. But the musicality? Now that’s another story.  

Writing about Writing

Right now, I should be grading. Or writing up my lesson plans, which are due by midnight tonight. I’m reading two books as well for school.  Teachers work after hours. Today is Sunday. These are the things that keep me from doing the things I want—like writing—for pleasure—or reading a book I’ve never read.

I have 180ish students, 140 or so in AP Literature and Composition, about 40 in English IV. Since a week ago Saturday, I’ve graded approximately 92 essays. Not that I’m counting. Okay, I’m counting. And I have approximately 49 to go, give or take. I try to grade 10 a day and complete the task over the course of 2 weeks. Yesterday, I graded none. I brought 27 home for the weekend. This morning I graded 3. Sometimes I obsess over the numbers. I count and recount.

I even took those same 3 essays with me to the coffee shop yesterday for my monthly meetup with my grad school cohort. I met my friends to catch-up and write, but I was at a loss for ideas, so I thought I might grade. If you’ve been reading for a while, you might have noticed my posts shrinking in length since I returned to teaching. I even featured an essay from my grandmother in a guest post recently. I wrote the introduction. 79 words.   

My grandmother has been quite popular on the blog. Her words resonate across years, and people around the globe have embraced her. Grandma would be so incredibly humbled to know. An idea dawned. What if I used the memoirs my grandmother left behind as inspiration for poetry or fiction? I bounced the idea off my friends. They liked it. However, I didn’t have the copies with me, so that idea would wait.

I opened my laptop and the Submittable page that tracks my literary magazine submissions. Last attempt. September 25th. Declined. Eleven submissions since June. Six declined. One in progress. The rest received yet unopened. It was time to try again. On my favorites bar, I clicked the link to Poets & Writers. If I had stayed at home, I would have graded some essays, but now I was on a mission to write.

Poets & Writers has a database of over 1200 alphabetized literary magazines and journals. From June to November, I searched for suitable publication matches, working my way from A to D. Yesterday, I landed on Dead Housekeeping. They accept essays of 250 words or less, “each focused on a task or series of related tasks as executed by people we’ve lost to death but still clearly see living.” I thought of my mother and her love of gardening and the tips she left behind. I said to myself, I can write 250 words.

Coffee Shop Thoughts (on Poe and Friendship)

The clouds hung low in the sky yesterday as I drove toward a little coffee shop to meet my friends from school with the intention of communal writing. I couldn’t help thinking, “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens…” I had been teaching Poe and started drawing parallels. Except yesterday—the clouds weren’t oppressive, and the day wasn’t dull, dark, or soundless. Traffic hummed, and the sky beyond said clouds was clear, bright, and blue.

“…I had been passing alone…” this was true… “on horseback…” and by horseback, I mean in my Mazda CX-5… “through a singularly dreary tract of country…” if you consider downtown Houston the country or deary. Perhaps, it was opposite day… “and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on…” I mean, I found myself as the morning sun shone brighter… “within view of the melancholy House of Usher…” at my destination, anyway, a packed parking lot at 1111 E. 11th street, hardly melancholy.

Just inside the front door, A 2nd Cup teemed with the aroma of good coffee, the sound of Indie music, a vibe of creative energy, and three of my friends. I wondered if Poe had friends. I bet not. His House of Usher was melancholy from the first sentence. Mine included coffee, friends, and writing…a purpose. Is it all a matter of perspective? If you dwell on the melancholy is your house destined to fall?

*This post was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and brought to you by A 2nd Cup, a non-profit coffee shop and café that raises awareness of human trafficking issues in Houston and develops resources that help create a second chance for survivors.

Today I Will Write a Little Reflection

The sun rose east of downtown Houston, the horizon glowed orange, and skyscrapers shone in reflection. A pale, full moon hung in the west. I joined teacher friends on the school rooftop—for the happening, camaraderie, and breakfast tacos. This was the first Thursday of autumn, the end of the first five weeks of the semester. I counted my blessings.

The teacher in me is always functioning in one of two ways: first, survival, then, reflecting to teach better. This year, the first year of my brand-new job after a two-year break, I’m teaching some lessons that have worked well in the past and some that are brand new to me.

A few years ago, I tried out this idea, students would read Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Puedo Escribir los Versos Más Tristes Esta Noche” (1924). First, in Spanish. The Chilean poet’s collection Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair) won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971. This is Poem 20 in his collection.

I have enough Spanish speakers in my classes to pull off the reading as intended. Multiple volunteers raise their hands to read aloud, and the rest of us listen to the beauty of the language. This lesson is more about poetry appreciation than analysis. (Click here to listen in Spanish.)

Puedo Escribir los Versos Más Tristes Esta Noche

Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche.

Escribir, por ejemplo: 'La noche está estrellada, 
y tiritan, azules, los astros, a lo lejos.'

El viento de la noche gira en el cielo y canta.

Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche. 
Yo la quise, y a veces ella también me quiso.

En las noches como ésta la tuve entre mis brazos. 
La besé tantas veces bajo el cielo infinito.

Ella me quiso, a veces yo también la quería. 
Cómo no haber amado sus grandes ojos fijos.

Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche. 
Pensar que no la tengo. Sentir que la he perdido.

Oir la noche inmensa, más inmensa sin ella. 
Y el verso cae al alma como al pasto el rocío.

Qué importa que mi amor no pudiera guadarla. 
La noche está estrellada y ella no está conmigo.

Eso es todo. A lo lejos alguien canta. A lo lejos. 
Mi alma no se contenta con haberla perdido.

Como para acercarla mi mirada la busca. 
Mi corazón la busca, y ella no está conmigo.

La misma noche que hace blanquear los mismos árboles. 
Nosotros, los de entonces, ya no somos los mismos.

Ya no la quiero, es cierto, pero cuánto la quise. 
Mi voz buscaba el viento para tocar su oído.

De otro. Será de otro. Como antes de mis besos. 
Su voz, su cuerpo claro. Sus ojos infinitos.

Ya no la quiero, es cierto, pero tal vez la quiero. 
Es tan corto el amor, y es tan largo el olvido.

Porque en noches como ésta la tuve entre mis brazos, 
mi alma no se contenta con haberla perdido.

Aunque éste sea el último dolor que ella me causa, 
y éstos sean los últimos versos que yo le escribo.

Then, we read and listen to the audio version in English, “Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines.” (Click here.)

Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

Write, for example, 'The night is shattered,
and the blue stars shiver in the distance.'

The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

Through nights like this one I held her in my arms.
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.

She loved me sometimes, and I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.

To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.

What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is shattered and she is not with me.

This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

My sight searches for her as though to go to her.
My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.

The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.

Another's. She will be another's. Like my kisses before.
Her voice. Her bright body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.

I ask the students who understand both versions which one they like more. “It’s so much better in Spanish,” they say. “So much more passionate, more romantic. I mean, Spanish is a Romance language.”

I ask what makes this poem poetic, and they zero in on the purposeful repetition, the images, and the speaker’s internal conflict. “Her infinite eyes. Now that’s a line,” they say. The students gush a bit. They like Neruda, and this is the point.

For homework, I ask them to write lines of their own. Theirs do not have to be their saddest. They can choose whatever they want—their happiest, their angriest, their most musical or most artistic. This year I’m teaching at a high school for the performing and visual arts. I’m throwing out ideas right and left.  

They could borrow some of Neruda’s language, like “Tonight I can write ______” and stick to his format, mostly two-line stanzas, or not.  

They could write poetry or prose. Either way students would include purposeful repetition (I teach them a word—anaphora), imagery, and an internal conflict.

They could write in a language other than English. This was another spur of the moment decision. Why not? During these first weeks of school, I try hard to know my students by name and need.

And when the students returned to class a week later with completed assignments, I asked for volunteers to share. For the first time in over twenty years of teaching, students spoke in Japanese and Russian in our classroom. Other students shared in French and Spanish, Danish and English. And overall, students surprised themselves with a newfound confidence in their self-expression.

Sometimes we make school needlessly hard. I get it. We’re preparing students for college. But many of my students have been learning online for the past year and a half. I want them to leave with some good memories, a newfound love of language, maybe even a respect for humanity.

A Writer’s Block and A Blessing

I’m having a problem, and this is it. Typing one word and then the next. Forming coherent thoughts. Creating meaning out of nothing. Otherwise known as writing.

So, I’ve turned to other writerly activities. Reading books. Revising earlier works. Looking for publication opportunities.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been spending time on Poets & Writers, the nation’s largest nonprofit organization serving creative writers. I’ve only scratched the surface. They have an alphabetized database of over twelve hundred literary magazines and journals. I’m up to the letter C. Christian Science Monitor. However, it’s good necessary to actually read the journals and follow submission guidelines, check submission dates and reading fees. And that takes time. Lucky for me, I have some time, and today I read Christian Science Monitor. They’ve published Sylvia Plath. I’m probably a long shot.

Why publish elsewhere?

Well, I’m building my bio. For now, this is it.

Crystal Byers is an emerging writer and veteran high school English teacher living in Houston, Texas. She  has a memoir-in-progress and an MFA in Creative Writing from Houston Baptist University. Her essays appear at The Porch Magazine, The Houston Flood Museum, and soon with Brevity. Visit her at crystalbyers.com.

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And if you are visiting today, thank you! May your words flow, your thoughts be coherent, and your meaning worthy of contemplation.