UNO’s Creative Writing Workshop hosted a seminar featuring three writers from an array of diverse literary backgrounds to read from their heartfelt and energetic prose and poetry. Afterwards, they answered questions from students and teachers about their process and their influences. This is a part of a series of lectures intended to give students at UNO the opportunity to learn from some of the most exciting minds working in the field of publishing today.
First, Roy Hoffman read two deeply personal short stories from his own life. Roy is an accomplished novelist, having written several novels focusing on Southern identity in different periods in U.S. history. Tonight, in the spirit of variety, he offered these short stories in contrast to the poetry and novel readings that came later.
Hoffman’s first story, “A Reunion With My Younger Hitchhiking Self,” recalls a romantic time from the author’s youth travelling aimlessly around the country in between terms at Tulane. As he read, he pulled out an old and fraying notebook with the words “Tulane University” written in block letters in front of a picture of Tulane. He held it up and thrust it toward the audience, indicating when he was quoting not just from his story but also from this, the original catalogue of his thoughts at the time.
Detailing the adventures of “a failed Lothario” on a quixotic quest to nowhere, his romantic connection to his subject matter is palpable. There is a similar level of high drama and relatability in his second story “Tom’s World,” a story of his adventures with his late friend in the West side of New York City, originally published in The New York Times.
Next, Jeanie Thompson read from her innovative collection of poetry, “The Myth of Water: Poems From the Life of Helen Keller.” Set from the perspective of the famous deafblind advocate and Wobbly-socialist activist and pioneer, these poems are captivating, inspiring and devastating.
During the reading of the collection’s titular poem, Keller’s imagined reaction to the famous play “The Miracle Worker,” Thompson’s voice cracked and a tear formed in the corner of her eye. It is clear that her emotional connection to this material had elevated her style. Members of the audience were visibly affected by the power of her subject matter.
The final reader of the evening was Matthew Griffin, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and winner of the 2017 Crook’s Corner Book Prize. He read from his debut novel “Hide,” an expansive and powerful love story covering the 50-year relationship of two men living in an isolated cabin in North Carolina.
Griffin is able to capture the essence of his characters in a way that can be at once tragic and hilarious, highlighting pivotal scenes in the lives of these characters during his reading. Griffin is able to fully showcase his intense, witty and authentic style, and even the other members of the panel seemed positively charmed by his writing by the end of his reading.
The following question-and-answer session covered an expansive range of issues.
Each author had a great deal of advice to give on the topic of research and revision.
Thompson, the poet of the group, spoke of her process of writing and revision using the analogy of “a hawk circling its prey”: doing research to find a compelling voice and subject, and then “swooping” down to strike at the poem, a rapid process which she described as thrilling.
Hoffman encouraged writers not to be “too uptight” in writing first drafts. He describes his initial approach to writing a story as a process of becoming inundated in voices. Once he becomes comfortable in a certain character’s perspective, he is able to speak in a voice that feels both real and natural. Then, he attempts to write a “freewheeling” first draft that allows the story to find itself, shoring up the truth in his revision.
Griffin offers similar advice, adding that what worked for him in writing “Hide” was to do only so much research as to ensure that he did not pursue a plot tangent that was historically impossible. For the second draft, he did a second, much deeper level of research, bloating it with every possible detail and cutting it down to a much more manageable size in subsequent revisions.
To close the session, event organizer and UNO assistant professor M.O. “Neal” Walsh asks the panel for their feelings on the current paradigm of Literary prizes as they pertain to the state of the publishing industry. A lively discussion breaks out and although no exact consensus can be agreed upon, one thing everyone does seem to think is that it does not make much sense to pay someone money to read your work and that new writers should be wary of pursuing this path to success.
Walsh says he was excited to host this event because of the wide range of backgrounds these writers represented and the depth of knowledge they were able to share.
Alex Tronson, a first-year student in the creative writing M.F.A. program, who helped organize the event, said he was impressed by the variety of speakers and the different perspectives they were able to cover. He also found this variety of backgrounds to be very instructive, as the advice given pertained to the reality of getting work published.
The Creative Writing Workshop will continue to host events throughout the semester. On March 13, novelist Maurice Carlos Ruffin will speak at 6 p.m. in Liberal Arts room 197. On March 19, the Faculty Spotlight Reading Series will feature professors Randy Bates and Richard Goodman.
On March 20, they will host Toi Derricotte and Chioma Stephanie Urama at 8 p.m. in conjunction with the UNO Write-A-Thon. On April 17, poets Stacey Balkun and Alison Pelegrin will visit at 8 p.m. as well.