Tag Archives: kristin latour

Writer’s Block

Writer’s Block

A Craft Essay by Kristin LaTour

Writer’s block is like constipation. Writers know they have ideas and thoughts up in their brains, but they won’t come out onto the page. A search on the Walgreen’s website for a cure gave me no help. CVS was a little better but only because it changed “writers” to “whiten” and suggested a deodorant pen. Writers do use pens, and sometimes their writing stinks, but I don’t think this tool would help. I’m not sure it would even help stinky armpits. I wouldn’t want a pen tip going across the sensitive skin of my armpit. And how effective can something so thin and defined be? Anyway, I usually don’t have issues with writer’s block, as one can tell from my copious thoughts on deodorant pens. However, my students do, and I know other writers do too. Luckily, I have the brain laxative, or solution, to help.

I should start with some things not to try. Like being constipated, any health care professional will tell someone not to sit on the toilet and try to force the situation. In the case of writer’s block, the toilet is a blank computer screen or journal page. While the brain won’t get hemorrhoids, it’s as frustrating and unproductive as sitting on the pot for over an hour. Waiting for something to happen by ignoring the problem and doing other tasks will also not help. Again, the repercussions in the health arena are much more serious. Please do not wait days or weeks to poop. This will lead to a hospital visit and very unpleasant treatments. In the writer’s world, it just leads to nothing being written, which wasn’t the goal. One who is not trying to write doesn’t get writer’s block, the same way people who don’t eat don’t get constipated. But the latter will die. The writer will just be a sad sack who is a bore at parties full of other writers.

Now for some concrete solutions. Read. Reading is the laxative of the writer’s brain. Read work that is inspiring. Read work that is frustrating. In the case of the former, you might be inspired by the writer’s style, word choice, or tone. In the case of the latter, you will likely be frustrated and think you can do better. Then do it. Make that person’s ideas even better. Don’t publish this, and don’t share it with that writer. It’s best left in the journal on computer file unless you’ve made it uniquely your own or unless you’re into making other writers sad.

Mimic and steal. If you’re claiming you have no ideas (which isn’t true if you’ve been reading or you are a thinking human being), then take someone’s writing and mimic it. Write a poem using the same theme, line length, and rhyme scheme. Take a short story’s first line and, use it as your own first sentence.

Get a prompt. I know some writers poo-poo prompts. “Real creative writers don’t use prompts,” I’ve heard at least one fellow writer say. Fuck that. Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein after being prompted by Lord Byron that she and he, along with Percy Shelly, should each write gothic ghost stories. Also, creative writers use current events all the time in their writing. I Googled books on Hurricane Katrina, and the first five results are “best book” lists. On a side note, I can’t say “fuck that” to my students. Also, all my students are assigned prompts. This is mainly because if I let them write about anything they wanted, I’d be inundated with essays on legalizing pot and students so overwhelmed with their choices they’d have writer’s block.

Remember two important things: you are writing a draft, and you can’t revise what you haven’t written. I tell my students this all the time. “I can’t write my ideas well,” they say, or, “I’m afraid what I write will be awful.” Therefore, they write nothing. I had a student once who had this problem through the whole semester and ended up failing because he never wrote a word. This is a psychological problem. I am not a therapist, but I can tell writers that you have to write the shit down to make it no longer shit. I can’t say “shit” to my students, so I call it the “crappy draft.” This aptly fits my metaphor of constipation and writer’s block.

Banish the thought that you have nothing to add to what is being written. I just went to GoogleScholar and searched for Shakespeare. Over 1.4 million entries came up. You can add to what is being written about anything. You can also assume that a lot of what is written isn’t good, in your opinion or someone else’s. Then you get a chance to write it better. You get to write it in your style, in your words. Someone will love it. Someone will hate it. Who cares? You got it out of you. That’s what’s important.

With all that said, banish the thought that no one will ever read it anyway. Poets, with the exception of Maya Angelou and Billy Collins, all know that hardly anyone in the large scheme of things will ever read our work. Most novelists will never reach the sales of Stephen King. Still not convinced? According to Wikipedia, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone sold 107,000,000 copies. It seems like EVERYONE read that book, right? Not even close. The world population had grown by about 2 billion people from 1995 (Harry was published in 1997) to 2017.* So roughly, 5% of the whole world has read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Write for yourself. If you decide to share it, that’s great, but unless you are doing it for a living, it’s not what’s important.

Don’t label yourself. Here is a list of things I’ve heard writers say about themselves that keeps them from writing:

  • I don’t write poetry/essays/stories.
  • I only write in _______ style/genre.
  • I’m a reader, not a writer.
  • I’m an ideas person, not a writer.
  • I stink at writing.
  • I am not smart enough to write.

I have been through many years of cognitive behavioral therapy for my depression and anxiety. When a therapist told me to practice “positive self-talk,” I laughed. I didn’t believe I could just say things to myself and overcome years of believing I was unattractive, unworthy, and unintelligent. My therapist asked me what I would tell a friend who said things like that about herself. She asked me to imagine my best friend sitting next to me, saying those things about herself. What would I say to her? Of course, I’d say none of those things were true! What would she say to me if I were saying those things about myself to her? She’d say the same. So I started, slowly, telling myself nice things about myself or correcting my negative thoughts. When I thought I wasn’t looking my best, I’d picture my friend in my head saying I looked great. When I felt dumb about something, I’d remind myself I am educated and have experience but I’m still learning new things all the time. It started working.

If you tell yourself you’re not a novelist/poet/writer, then you won’t be. If you tell yourself you can’t write because all your teachers said so, you had awful teachers. Terrible human beings. And they don’t know you now. People change. I used to be pretty weak in math skills, but as I’ve aged and my brain has changed, I’m pretty good at it now. I used to say, “I can’t do math.” Now I say, “I can do a lot of math.”

If you think you stink at writing, that doesn’t mean you can’t improve. It’s the same as playing an instrument. Pretty much everyone stinks at it when they first start, but with practice, and learning, they get better. Not everyone gets to be a professional bassoonist, but adults who played bassoon in high school band can pick it up again with practice and enjoy it. They are going to have a hard time getting back into the swing of breathing and fingering, and reading music, but they will get better. You will too. Also, revisit paragraph 6.

Finally, I am reminded of the small bottle of stool softener in my medicine cabinet. I don’t use it often, but when I need it, I’m glad I have it. I’m also glad for Pepto-Bismol, but that’s a different problem and a different metaphor for another essay. Writers need to remember there are so many tools available through Google searches, books on writing, and online and in-person writing groups. My favorite website for help when I’m writing is called The Sunday Whirl, which gives a set of words every Sunday that writers can use to jump-start their writing. When I’m feeling dried up, I read a favorite poet. There’s never a reason not to write. There are so many reasons it’s good to write. Write your words. You need to let them out.

 

*data from Population Reference Bureau

____________________________________________________________________________________________

IMG_1195 (1)

Kristin LaTour is a poet and professor living in Aurora, IL. Her book, What Will Keep Us Alive, and forthcoming chapbook, Mend, are both published by Sundress. Readers can find her in journals all over the web and in print. This is her only published essay. She wrote it in a few weeks. She didn’t procrastinate in writing it, but she did forget she had it done and to send the damn thing in.

 

 

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , ,

Lyric Essentials: Kristin LaTour reads “Teaching Experience” by Marge Piercy

Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Kristin LaTour, whose full-length collection What Keeps Us Alive was released from Sundress this fall, reads “Teaching Experience” by Marge Piercy.

Kristin, before we dive into “Teaching Experience,” can you tell us a little about Marge Piercy? Where did you first come across her work?

Kristin LaTour: I first read a couple of Marge Piercy’s novels in a contemporary lit class in college in the early 1990s. Then I found her poetry when I was browsing a bookstore. I loved it. It was lyrical free-verse, something I hadn’t encountered in much of my reading or education up to that point. It spoke to me, my values of feminism, religion (even though we are not of the same religion) and finding meaning in daily life. I went to the local bookstore and bought every book of hers that was out at the time, and then every book after that.

Sundress: Are religion and feminism prominent themes in Piercy’s work? And, I’m assuming she taught at some point, is education also a reoccurring theme?

Kristin LaTour: Religion and feminism are pervasive in Piercy’s work. Her Judaism and concerns for women also come into her novels, although the feminism more so. She also writes about the environment, science and the intersection of politics with all of these. Her writing reminds me of Margaret Atwood, another feminist/environmentalist/humanist writer.

Education does come up now and again in her poems. It is usually brutally honest. She has a poem about how awful it is to go to colleges to give readings and stay in dismal dorms and have few people attend her readings. I can’t recall the title of that poem. She has another about the pointlessness of MFA programs, and that was long before the explosion of low-res programs. It’s titled “For the Young Who Want To” and includes the line: “The real writer is the one who really writes.” I thought a lot about that poem before applying to an MFA program, and it made me remember that a degree wasn’t going to turn me into a poet, and really, I’d have to be aware to stay true to my own voice and not become just like my mentors there. Piercy isn’t a formal academic, but she has lectured and given workshops at hundreds of colleges and conferences. She teaches in the best way, without all the trappings of a bureaucracy. I envy that.

Sundress: Being able to teach without the trappings of bureaucracy is certainly a privilege, or at the very least, extremely lucky. How do you feel about “Teaching Experience” as an educator?

Kristin LaTour: From the teacher side of me, especially when I teach developmental writing classes, the first part of this poem makes so much sense. The students don’t want to be there. I do everything I can to engage them, but usually all is for naught with the majority. And the second half, yes, that too makes me nod my head. When I have a student one-on-one we get more done, and the energy levels off in both directions. I can relax, and the student opens up. Also, teaching something like roasting a goose is much more fun than teaching writing, at least the fundamentals. Plus, we get to eat the goose. Commas, not so much.

From the student side of me, I get it too. Sometimes the things we are supposed to learn aren’t exciting. We go in with bad attitudes and shut down our receptors. I listen better in small groups than in large ones, like classrooms. Being a student who taken many poetry classes and workshops, there’s also the point that you can’t write poems from nothing. One has to have lived life to get all the nuances of it. We can’t expect high schoolers to write the same poems as people in their 50s. Both can be great poets, but they are different based on their experiences.

From me as a fan of Marge Piercy, I want to shake the students who wouldn’t give her every ounce of their attention. And I want to go on a nature hike with her. I also know I have students who have loved taking class with me and would say the same thing to students who get bored in my classes. “Pay attention! Open up!” And those few who gotten to know me outside of class know that teaching goes on outside of my classroom. So does laughter. And sometimes tears. Hopefully for good reason.

Sundress: I remember helping out in secondary classrooms during my undergrad, it made me laugh to hear her list her students, especially the one“pricing my clothing piece by piece”—I’ve met that student, the one staring intently at you but obviously not listening to a word you’re saying. And yet, the poem overall, is moving and inspirational; while listening to this, I picture this speech being given to poetry grad students. Stylistically, how does “Teaching Experience” compare to Piercy’s other work?

Kristin LaTour: This poem is much like her other poems as far as style and form go. Like I said, her work showed me how free verse narrative poems could work.

I like how this poem starts out with a command a metaphor. This is what teachers are told to do, and how a lot of teachers feel, at least once in a while. After the first two stanzas of metaphor and imagery, the poem gets more narrative, but by the third stanza, I trust that this is a poem, not just a story. I also like the line breaks in the 6th stanza. “I could show you how,” sets up a little mystery, makes me curious to know what she can teach me. The break that ends with “bones” is creepy. Then the last image brings in an element of environmentalism, another passion of mine as well.

The last three lines inspire me as a poet. Since Piercy’s poems were my first big inspiration for writing, having her teach me about poetry. And there’s the irony, that she can be in a classroom and not get through to students, face-to-face, but little me in Ashland, Wisconsin, is learning from her.

Sundress: If you could tell her students to read Piercy, to take that time to sit and read and learn from her, other than this poem, which ones would you recommend?

Kristin LaTour: I’m going to stick to Piercy’s older work since we’ve been focusing on that. In her 1992 book, Mars and Her Children, I’d like to look at “Softly During the Night” for a lesson on the environment. The poem is a simple one about an overnight rain that gives way to a cloudless morning, but the last two lines strike me. The leaves on roadside bushes hold drops of water that “bear witness to what came and left/ furtive as if it took instead of giving.” Our relationship with the natural world is complex. We take from it, and it gives to us, but there’s something more here. There’s a symbiosis that we don’t always understand. And Piercy leaves us wondering with her just what it takes from us.

Going back even further to her 1977 book The Moon is Always Female, which was the second of her books I read, there are two poems I think teach lessons. For a protest poem with some lessons on grassroots action, I like “The Low Road.” The poem starts with how “they” can take a person and torture her, and how there’s nothing the solitary person can do to stop “them.” But the rest of the poem grows to a couple fighting their way out of a mob, three people forming a “wedge,” a “dozen make a demonstration,” and finally ten million can make a nation. Together, as a group, we can make a lot of progress in the world.

The last poem is “For Strong Women.” Obviously this is a feminist poem, but it’s message is rousing and moving. The first five stanzas start with the phrase “A strong woman” and then develops what she does. She works, takes abuse and keeps going, doesn’t let others tell her she can’t accomplish a task. She deals with physical pain. The last stanza starts with the idea that a strong woman is comforted by those who love her for her strength and her weakness. The last three lines are a raising of fists and a kick to the chest at the same time. “Strong is what we make/ each other. Until we are strong together,/ a strong woman is strongly afraid.” I don’t know if Piercy meant the “we” to be just women, or both women and men. I like to think of it as both. Pierce was writing in the time when Roe vs Wade was new, and here, almost 40 years later, we are dealing with women’s health clinics closing, being attacked by men with guns, rape culture, and a continuing struggle for equality in many aspects of society. We all need to learn to come together and be strong for women and other marginalized groups.

Sundress: How do Piercy’s novels compare to her poetry? Which novel would you first recommend to those who like her poetry?

Kristin LaTour: Piercy’s novels are also very feminist, environmentalist, and she also varies from historical fiction to sci-fi/speculative fiction. The first novel I read was Braided Lives. While I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s when abortions were legal, I felt deeply moved by her writing about young women’s sexual lives and the freedom and danger that came with having relationships with men. I had never read anything so explicit and honest about young women’s sexual lives and it resonated with me like someone had turned on a light in a dark room. I loved He, She, and It a sci-fi novel that blends feminism, the pros and cons of artificial intelligence and religion. She’s never a one or two-dimensional writer. Everything comes to a full life. While I haven’t read either of the novels in years, I can bring the characters and settings up in mind easily.

Comparing the two based more on content isn’t as easy. Her imagery in both is vivid. Her wit and opinions come through in both. She’s honest, not holding anything back. I really admire that quality. I hope in my own poems I do the same. I can’t even say what novels I’d recommend based on her poetry. All of them, really. If you are a fiction reader and want to get into her poetry, I’d start with Mars and Her Children. It’s a good overall starting point. If someone wants to explore a more linear set of poems, Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing moves through the seasons, but also has a foot in Judaism, the image in the title coming from the story of Ezekiel. Her newest book, Made in Detroit, touches on much of Piercy’s life, and readers will find a lot there to enjoy, from friendships between women to gardens to cats. Well, you’ll find cats in all her books of poetry. Lots of cats.


Kristin-LaTour-polka-dot-author-photo-255x300Kristin LaTour’s first full-length collection, What Will Keep Us Alive, is available from Sundress Publications. Her most recent chapbook is Agoraphobia, from Dancing Girl Press (2013). Her poetry has appeared in journals such as Fifth Wednesday, Cider Press Review, Escape into Life, and Massachusetts Review and in the anthology Obsession: Sestinas in the 21st Century. She teaches at Joliet Jr. College and lives in Aurora, IL with her writer husband. Readers can find more information at KristinLaTour.com.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Project Bookshelf: Kristin LaTour

                                                                           photo

I know, I know. It’s a mess. Book aren’t supposed to be kept on their sides. Someday, I’ll have a huge library. For now, Ikea shelves are okay.

My books are pretty organized. At the very top, there’s books on witchcraft and voodoo, my travel journals and books on Greece. I spent a month in Greece when I was in college and loved it. There’s not much better than getting a gyro on the street stuffed with meat and fries with an Amstel (not that light crap either) on the side. That vase is my hubby’s from his trip to Greece before we met. Another sign we were meant for each other. (Stop gagging.) That wooden box holds a Bible I got when my great-grandfather died when I was in 8th grade. I never thought about the fact that it lives next to witchcraft stuff. Hmmmm….

On the second level are all my poetry books. You can tell the Hyacinth Girl Press ones from the ribbons.  I’m obviously running out of room. There’s also a photo of my paternal grandfather as a baby and my mom and aunt.

Third shelf is almost all British and Irish authors, at least the ones that are shelved properly. We keep the Bevington because we need a booster seat for friends’ kids once in a while. “Get the Bevington!” we holler. Piled above my lovely Brits are a handmade journal my sister made me, some poetry books that haven’t made it to the second shelf yet, my Vintage Hairstyling book, and Dream Symbols, which really isn’t helpful and will probably get donated to my local non-profit bookstore. When I had a dream that my husband’s family was all vampires living in a barn, there really wasn’t anything helpful there. It did make a good poem that is published in Adanna this fall.

Fourth shelf… stereo obviously. I think I was magnanimous when we were setting up the shelves, and I offered to house it. My husband’s bookcase is opposite of mine with the cds keeping peace between them. Anyway, this shelf is American authors, mostly dead ones. The antique Kodak Brownie is from my in-laws’ house. The photo is my maternal grandma’s senior picture.

The fifth shelf is where all the excitement is. My city has a non-profit used bookstore, where I also volunteer, so I get lots of books there. The Newberry Library also has an awesome used book sale twice a year. All my finds go on this shelf for future reading. Behind those three stacks are all my novels that I love and can’t part with.

The bottom shelf is 1/3 travel scrapbooks (England twice, Ireland twice, France, a road trip we took in 2002, my collection of children’s books, most from my childhood with the addition of a collection of different illustrated copies of “The Velveteen Rabbit.” The last pile there is more poetry books and journals I haven’t read, and some books that need to get donated.

 latour

Kristin LaTour has three chapbooks: Agoraphobia, from Dancing Girl Press (2013), Blood (Naked Mannequin Press 2009) and Town Limits (Pudding House Press 2007). Her poetry has appeared in journals such as Massachusetts Review, Fifth Wednesday, Cider Press Review, Escape into Life, and Atticus Review. Her work appears in the anthology Obsession: Sestinas in the 21st Century. A graduate of the Stonecoast MFA program, she teaches at Joliet Jr. College and lives in Aurora, IL with her writer husband, a lovebird, and two dogitos. Her first full-length collection is due out from Sundress in 2015.

Tagged , , ,
Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: