Thursday, September 18, 2014

Alumni Voices with Quinette Cook: Growing Your Circle of Friends

To paraphrase Marsha Qualey, “the good thing about the Hamline MFAC program is the variety of places called home by the students and faculty and the resulting mix of people. The crummy thing is the post-residency (and after graduation) far-flungedness of friends.”

The last time I sat down to work on my novel, writing was still (for the most part) a solitary act. The good news is that your circle of friends and supportive community may be a lot larger than you know.

You’re probably already doing all the right things right. Right? You’re taking classes, writing with consistency (butt in chair) and you’re a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI). You’re NOT a member! Why not?

Did you know SCBWI is the only professional organization specifically for writers and illustrators of children’s books? SCBWI can connect you to editors, publishers, agents, librarians, educators, booksellers and others involved with literature for young people, from Board Books to Young Adult novels.

From my very first conference (where I was greeted by Marsha Qualey!) to my current role as Minnesota’s Regional Advisor, I have grown personally and professionally. Thanks to the Hamline faculty, and in particular Ron Koertge, I was prepared to submit my verse novel, GILT, which subsequently won the 2012 Work of Outstanding Promise Honor Award and the attention of my agent. (I won’t lie; I’m still on cloud nine.) Of course it’s great to find an agent or an editor, but there’s so much more!

Your membership to SCBWI gives you access to great events scheduled around the world or in your backyard. In addition, you have access to all kinds of information on the website including a resource library, an illustrator gallery, a member bookstore and a section for awards and grants. But the best thing you will find is other like-minded people. SCBWI is a great way to continue to learn, network and have fun!

Take it from me. Even when you’re sitting in front of your computer working on the final revision to your final-final-final draft, you can bet someone else is too–someone you met in your growing circle of friends.

For more information go to,

Quinette Cook is a January 2012 graduate of the MFAC program. She lives and writes near Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Alumni Voices with Ellen Kazimer: The Evolution of Literature from Monkeys to Artificial Intelligence

Even with a Hamline MFAC degree in hand, a writer can find validation to be elusive. Published or not, everyone is a critic, and well-intentioned friends or relatives can say something that intensifies our insecurity. They might even repeat that tired old theory that if you put monkeys in a room with typewriters, those monkeys would eventually write Shakespeare.  

Hopefully you’ve read Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human and learned that the monkey theory is simply not true. Someone actually tested the hypothesis in 2003. They locked macaw monkeys in a room with typewriters and discovered the monkeys did not produce any literary works. Monkeys did demonstrate a predilection for the letter “s”. I’ve always thought this theory insulted both writers and monkeys. Isn’t it presumptuous to assume monkeys would write Hamlet? Wouldn’t they have their own unique viewpoint and story to tell?

It appears, however, that writers have evolved from monkeys to computers. The Washington Post recently featured the following blurb above a book review:

‘Computers will be making interesting and meaningful contributions to literature within the decade’Artificial-intelligence expert Malcolm Ryan, describing progress being made designing computer programs that can create original stories. Ryan supervised development of a program that writes moral-laden fables with characters expressing a variety of emotions.

Could artificial intelligent computers replace writers? For several days, I scanned the Washington Post to see if anyone had a comment. I found nothing, so I did a little research.

Professor Ryan is from the University of New South Wales’s Computer Science and Engineering Department and the Director of the UNSW Game Design Lab. One of his students, Margaret Sarlej, has devised a computer program called the Moral Storytelling System or MOSS for short. MOSS generates stories based on morals found in Aesop’s fables. The Guardian ran an article on Ryan and Sarlej with two examples of these MOSS fables.

Sarlej believes that morals and messages are one of the key purposes of storytelling throughout the ages. While this maybe true to a certain extent, I couldn’t help thinking that many of our favorite children’s books laced with satire. How would MOSS emulate the work of Jon Sciezka or the late Maurice Sendak?

Both Sarlej and Ryan found that when they considered all the possible events, outcomes and characters reactions storytelling was an “extremely complex business.” Adding plot to the mix of events, characters and outcomes is no monkey business either. In The Guardian article, Dr. Ryan says, “Computers need everything to be defined logically, but it is very difficult to specify hard and fast rules for plot.”

Indeed. Immediately, I thought of Jane Resh Thomas’s double helix of plot and Jackie Briggs Martin assertion that plot is simply what happens, but heart is what your story is about. Where is the heart of the story when the storyteller is a computer? If we are writing about what haunts us, what haunts a computer? Any thoughts, HAL 9000?

What about fictional time and flashbacks? And dialogue? Computer-generated characters in role-playing games can talk, but do they use subtext? Kelly Easton would say that which remains unspoken remains the why of the story.

Truthfully, combining my limited understanding of computer languages and gaming with children’s literature and writing, I am intrigued by Ryan and Sarlej’s work. Dr. Ryan’s blog sometimes expresses ideas similar to our own as writers. He discusses his disappointment in role-playing games that fail to demonstrate motivation for the main quest. In our parlance, the game designer has failed to establish what the protagonist wants and what he is willing to do to get it. Worth reading was Ryan’s entry on The Tale of Peter Rabbit and how difficult it is to teach a children’s story to a computer. Perhaps he should have started with adult genre fiction that has a set format. After all, children’s books appear deceptively simple, but they are extremely complex.

As it turns out, Ryan believes that artificial intelligence programmers must to work with experts in the field—writers and narrative theorists. He envisions MOSS not as a replacement for writers, but as new way of telling stories. Ryan wants a cross section of gamers, writers and artists to create things never envisioned. As he says in his UNSW online resume, he is interested in “code-based art in which the artist is the programmer.” Picture the mischief Mo Williams or Jon Klassen might create if they wrote computer code.

It is gratifying to know our ability to write stories is not inconsequential or easily replicated by macaw monkeys or artificial intelligence-based computers. Writing is hard, but surely we will welcome new ways of telling stories. Just imagine the stories those macaw monkeys will tell someday with artificial intelligence-based computers.
Ellen Kazimer is a January 2014 graduate of the MFAC program. She lives and writes in Virginia.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Faculty Voices with Jackie Briggs Martin: William Stafford Sitting in My Straw Bale Garden

Straw bale garden in June
It's interesting, curious, how these Inkpot blogs seem to be related, though they come from different writers, located all over the world. We want to write about what keeps us from writing. Recently Laura Ruby has written  a wonderful blog about losing heart. Vanessa Harvey has written movingly about the difficulty of finding time. And I want to look at the fear of not being good enough.

straw bale garden in September (note tomatoes)
I have a gardening failure this summer—my straw bale gardens. I wanted to try growing vegetables in straw bales to see if people who did not have good dirt would be able to use straw bales on top of the questionable soil in their yards. 

So I bought some straw bales, set them down in the back of my garden, did the prep steps, and popped in some pepper plants.

What happened was that the tomatoes I planted in front of them grew so tall that my straw bale gardens were in deep shade all summer.  I have, so far, harvested two peppers from these straw bale gardens.

But I did learn some things. Next summer I’ll put the straw bales in a different spot, where I’m sure they’ll get good sun all summer. I won’t plant a tall plant like snap dragons on the sides (what was I thinking?!?) and I’ll probably pay more attention to the straw bales, check in with them once in a while. It wasn’t that easy to get back to those straw bales once the tomatoes took over. 

This failure doesn’t seem to bother me. I see gardening as process. Every failure is a learning opportunity.

Why is that attitude so easy with gardening and so difficult with writing? Why do I want it to be perfect as it comes out of the pen?  And why is it so easy to think what I am writing doesn’t really matter, that it's trivial, not connecting with anything important.

Sometimes the universe gives us what we need. On a whim, I pulled a book of essays off the shelf called Creativity and the Writing Process (eds. Olivia Bertagnolli and Jeff Rackham; 1982) and it fell open to a piece by William Stafford, who begans his writing day by getting up early. And then he got out paper and pen.
To get started I will accept anything that occurs to me. Something always occurs…If I put down something, that thing will help the next thing come and I am off. If I let the process go on, things will occur to me that were not at all in my mind when I started….And if I let them string out things will happen.

If I let them string out. …Along with initial receptivity, then, there must be another readiness: I must be willing to fail. If I am to keep writing I cannot bother to insist on high standards…I am thinking about such matters as social significance, positive values, consistency, etc. I resolutely disregard these….So receptive, careless of failure, I spin out things on the page. And a wonderful freedom comes.

There is the rub. The willingness to fail, the resolve to keep writing in the face of doubt. It sounds easy enough not to worry about significance, values, consistency, worthiness. But in fact those are the questions lurking in our pencil holders, under the notebooks, behind the printer. 

William Stafford is not saying we should accept without revision these first spinnings onto the page, but that we should let them be the beginning, not wait for perfect, or  powerful, just take what comes, trust that something will come and work with it. Stafford also believes that not all of what comes will "amount to much....I launch many expendable efforts."

I recall another saying from William Stafford. When asked what he does when he runs into writers block, he replied, “I lower the bar.”  The trick is to keep writing and something comes. “Something always occurs…and things will happen.” 

The only real failure in gardening might be not to plant the seeds.  On my best days, with the help of William Stafford, I think there are no failures in writing: whatever we do, whatever happens, whatever flops or sloppiness, if we work long enough, hard enough, well enough, we can make a story out of it.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Alumni Voices with Vanessa Harvey: Time

lactic acid structure

I am not afraid.

I have sat on the start line of 2k race knowing lactic acid will rip my limbs from my body within 25 strokes leaving me to dance with the devil to cross the finish line.

I have left friends and family behind in the name of adventure and the unknown.

I have stared down blank canvases and sheets of paper, not blinking once.

I laugh at rejection because I have been rejected so many times.

And failures... well how could I be afraid of that which leaves me wearing proud battle scares?

And that hot stove... It is where I live every moment of every day. My worst memories and skeletons are my constant companions. They are no longer terrifying.

I am not afraid.

Then, why do I not write?

Why do the stories stay lodged beneath my breastbone?


Or a lack thereof.

Finding that quiet time to carefully dislodge my stories. If I rip and force them out, they tear and break into unrecognizable mush.

I have been told I should make time.

I should.

I don't know how.

I have been told if I didn't run so much, I would have time. True. But then my stories wouldn't know what it was like to feel the wind in their hair and the joy of flying down a hill full tilt.

I have been told if I just stayed in one place, I would have time. True. But, then how would my stories be born? My stories are pieces of my adventures.

I have been told that if I didn't want all the pie I would have time. True. But, I am a glutton of life and through my voracious appetite I feed my stories.

I should find time. I should. Really. Honestly. Attempt to find time.


Time to...

To run. To read. To sketch. To paint. To cook. To row. To coach. To volunteer. To travel. To work. To love. To be happy. To be calm. To dance. To build a life-over and over and over again.

To write.

I am not afraid.

I merely quite honestly don't know how to find time. It is an elusive creature.

Vanessa Harvey is a July 2013 graduate of the MFAC program. Her penchant for adventure has currently landed her in New Zealand, where she is a rowing coach at Wellington College.