THE WRITER'S SPOTLIGHT
The Online Creative Writing Program is nearing the end of its first decade, running more than fifteen courses each quarter, including our two-year Novel Writing Certificate Program. This space will aim the spotlight on the talented alumni and faculty of our courses, featuring news of recent successes, opportunities for networking and publishing, short personal essays and interviews relevant to all aspects of the writing life. If you have a piece of news or know of an opportunity you'd like to share with our community, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In this month’s “Writer’s Spotlight, Malena Watrous, Continuing Studies’ Online Writing Lead Instructor, answers the most frequently asked questions from potential students about her course, “The Creative Habit: Cultivating a Daily Writing Practice.” This online writing course encourages students to foster a daily writing practice. Through different daily prompts, students learn to write without inhibition and, most importantly, to have fun.
The Creative Habit FAQ with Malena Watrous
Q: Why did you design “The Creative Habit?”
A: I believe that we all have active imaginations. Not only that, but our imaginations want to be exercised as much as our bodies do. If you deprive a child of the time to play, he gets cranky. Left to his own devices, (which is to say, having electronic devices taken away), he will turn anything into a plaything. My nine-year-old son recently converted a brass bolt (part of some Ikea lamp that was improperly assembled) into a UFO. I could hear him, all by himself in his room, staging elaborate (and hilarious) conversations between aliens and earthlings who happened, for some reason, to have southern accents. This is not so different from what a creative writer does: imagining and bringing to the page scenes of dialogue between invented characters. It’s a shame that as we grow up, “real life” takes over (for most of us at least) and our imaginations grow dormant (though they are still there!). Many of us feel that something is missing. We want to be creative again, but we don’t know how to get started—or sustain that creativity—within the parameters of our lives and responsibilities. That’s what this class is for.
Q: How is this course different from the other creative writing classes offered by Stanford Continuing Studies?
A: Most of our writing classes are workshops, where students learn about the craft of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, and submit a short story, novel or memoir chapter, or series of poems for their peers and instructor to critique. The classes are fairly small (around 15 - 17 students) and extremely useful for students who enter with some idea of what they want to write. These classes are also more expensive, as students are receiving a lot of personalized attention and detailed feedback on their work. But what if you’re someone who hasn’t taken a writing class before, or it’s been decades since you’ve done anything creative? You probably don’t feel ready to produce a complete story or chapter. You might even feel confused about the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction. This course takes the emphasis off improving as a writer and places it instead on simply forming a creative habit, which means learning to be more observant, heightening your perceptions, and training yourself to use the written word as the tool to get everything down. It’s a large format course, meaning there are a lot of students enrolled, and there’s less one-on-one time with the instructor because the goal isn’t really to get feedback with which to revise. The goal is to get inspired and keep writing.
Q: How does the course work exactly?
It’s loosely based on the idea that it takes 21 days to form a habit. The 21 part has been debunked as arbitrary, but I do believe that regularity helps us to access and enjoy creative writing rather than finding it scary or hard. You don’t need to write a ton of words, or for a terribly long time, but writing daily (ideally at the same time each day) tricks your subconscious into returning more readily to the creative zone. Every morning, students receive an email that’s about a page long, which takes the shape of that day’s lesson. It might include a very brief short story, essay, or poem, as well as my thoughts on the piece (why I selected it) and a prompt generated by something in the lesson. Students are then to write for 30 - 60 minutes. They can follow the prompt closely or deviate from it completely. As I repeat over and over, there is no way to do an assignment “wrong” in this class. If you’re writing, you’re meeting the goal of the class. The five weeks are broken into creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, but I invite and encourage students to go back and forth, however their imaginations take them, blurring the lines whenever they see fit. Also, they are welcome to use the daily writing to keep going with something that they start and don’t finish on any given day. They submit their writing in a public thread (for accountability only) and can also join small groups if they want feedback, and select one piece each week to share with me.
Q: What kind of writing have students in this class produced?
One of the most fun things about this course is seeing the incredible range of responses to the same prompts. I have had students use this course to do what is essentially structured journaling—writing personal narrative but using the prompts to guide them. I’ve had students who said that they were totally daunted by the mere notion of poetry, who then tried out the form and got completely hooked on it. I’ve had students who used the five weeks to work on one short story, building it in bits and pieces day by day. The ones who like it the most tend to stay open to trying new things as they encounter new assignments. For instance, one has them writing a story backward, starting from the end. One asks them to eavesdrop and then write a piece entirely in dialogue, like a play. Many of the prompts bring in other art forms—video art, photography, etc.—to use imagery to trigger the imagination. I must say that I have been blown away by the quality of the writing I get to read in this class. I think paradoxically that removing the pressure to produce good work often leads people to produce great work. They’re not worried about being critiqued, or getting it “right,” and there’s a naturalness to a lot of the writing I read in this class that is just lovely.
Q: So, who should take this class?
Anyone who wants to commit to writing daily as a way of seeing whether their life might be enhanced, in a low-risk environment. You don’t need to have written a single page of creative writing before, although more advanced students are also welcome to use the class to restart a habit or launch a new project. For those of you who are uncertain whether you’ll like creative writing, I would say that if you like to read, chances are good that you’ll enjoy writing too. Not only does it give you a form in which to exercise your imagination, it also allows (requires!) your brain to monotask. It’s a condition of modern life that our attention is constantly fragmented, and yet we crave contemplative activity. Contemplation is key to accessing the “flow state” that all artists know and enjoy—the same “flow state” that kids get into when they’re playing—where you lose track of time, and the real world (and its boring concerns) seems to vanish. The course that I created was made to help students access that flow state on a daily basis. As for the “habit” part, it can be addictive. I hope it will be!
This month, Stanford Continuing Studies Online Writing Lead Instructor Malena Watrous conducted an interview with previous student and magazine writer Natasha Kirker. Here, Malena shares a few words about Natasha:
Natasha Kirker was a student in my Magazine Writing course in 2013, and while our paths didn’t cross for three years, I never forgot her writing, which was remarkable both piece by piece and for its range. One week, Natasha turned in a fun lipstick review that made me want to rush to my nearest makeup counter. The next, she submitted a remarkable piece that she wrote as a Modern Love submission, in the form of a love letter to the two donors whose lungs she had received, after her own lungs failed as a result of cystic fibrosis. It was my great pleasure to find Natasha enrolled in my Creative Habit course last quarter, and then to learn that she'd placed an article in Glamour after winning their essay contest. After reading the piece—about how her mother helped to give her strength her whole life, never letting her give up even when she could barely breathe, and how she had to learn to find this strength from within after her mother died—I was moved to tears, and compelled to share this beautiful and poignant article with you.
Breathing Lessons, by Natasha Kirker
Because we are featuring Natasha this month, I took the opportunity to ask her a few questions about how she brought what she learned in class to her new magazine writing career.
An Interview with Magazine Writer Natasha Kirker
Malena: “Tell me a little bit about the writing you've been doing since you "graduated" from Magazine Writing. Did that course help to jumpstart your freelance career? What did you learn in that class or since then that you might pass on to students hoping to break into print as you have done?”
Natasha: “The course got me to start writing for the world and not just myself. I had never submitted anything before, and I learned that I had to tailor what I was writing to who I was submitting to. Yes, in the grand scheme, I want to keep writing about my life story—my health, my mom—but there are ways to write those things differently to fit the particular needs of different people. I really understood from class that I can’t just write one essay and think it is right for several different publications. I have been lucky to get pieces published in The Mighty, The Scientific Parent, and XO Jane. I tend to tinker with the same pieces for long periods of time, so I do not submit things very often.”
Malena: “Can you talk a little bit about what it feels like to write personal essays about your mom or your health and then have them get published and read by strangers? Have you received any feedback from your readers?”
Natasha: “It actually feels good. It might seem like it’s scary, but because I am more reserved in life and barely ever talk about these things it feels great to get my story out into the world—to have a big platform for people to read about my life and understand how I feel, and the feedback I get has been very positive. I am more anxious about submitting and getting rejected from an editor, which happened with the first important piece that I submitted to Modern Love—than hearing from readers, who are generally supportive and kind.”
Malena: “What are your future writing plans or goals?”
Natasha: “My ultimate goal is to publish a thought-provoking, well-written, consciously inspiring memoir (that sells!) In the meantime while I slowly work on my manuscript I have a few other essays I am working on and would like to get published. I am still intent on going back to Modern Love with something new! Persistence is certainly another great writing and life lesson.”
Here are some links to Natasha’s published essays:
This month, Online Writing Lead Instructor Malena Watrous conducts an interview with our beloved core instructor, Josh Mohr to get his take on writing, teaching, and his new (hopefully temporary) home in Seattle.
Josh is one of those rare people who seems to bring equal amounts of inspiration and passion (in spades) to both his fiction writing and his teaching of writing. We know that his students concur. We wanted to celebrate with Josh, who recently received the Northern California Book Award for his latest novel, All This Life. He has written four previous novels, including Damascus, which The New York Times called “Beat-poet cool.” He’s also written Fight Song and Some Things That Meant the World to Me, one of O, The Oprah Magazine’s “Top 10 reads of 2009” and a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller, as well as Termite Parade, an Editors’ Choice on The New York Times Bestseller List.
An Interview with Continuing Studies Core Instructor Josh Mohr
MW: Can you talk a little bit about the influences behind the story of All This Life—where the idea for the novel came from?
JM: I’m an image-based writer, so the project stemmed from its opening sequence: a brass band, walking on the Golden Gate Bridge during morning rush hour. They’re playing their instruments and when they reach the bridge’s middle, they start jumping over the edge, one by one.
I had no idea what the image meant, of course, but I never do. I’m not a planner. From there, I started figuring out what the novel might evolve into, a difficult task seeing as how I’d just murdered all my characters!
MW: What is your process for novel writing? Is it the same for every book?
JM: No, this one was written way differently. I’d just become a father for the first time, and when Ava was just born, I always volunteered to do the laundry (we live above a laundromat). So I’d go down there, knowing I had 25 minutes while the clothes were in the washing machine and 40 in the dryer. I wrote a whole draft of this crazy novel in that laundromat. It’s not as sexy as a writers’ colony, but it worked.
MW: How does teaching inform your novel writing (or not)? Do you have enough time for both and how do you manage that split?
JM: I absolutely adore teaching and my classroom life is all over my books. Students constantly make me confront my own notions of what's "good" writing—and that reevaluation (hopefully) brings out the best in the work. I'm lucky to feel passionate about both planes, teaching, and writing.
MW: Is California a big influence on your fiction, and how is it now that you're not living in California—are you getting inspired by Washington?
JM: The Mission was a principal character in almost all of my books. I’ve only been in Seattle for a few months, and we’re not staying long. But someone up here just said to me, “Did you know that Seattle is the San Francisco of the Pacific Northwest?” and I shook my head, bit my tongue, knowing nobody, in the history of SF has ever called it the “Seattle of California.” I’ll be ready to come home soon.
MW: What are 2-3 key pieces of advice that you have for the aspiring authors in your classes?
JM: Honor your imagination. No one else on earth has an imagination quite like yours. It’s the ultimate currency we have on the page. And besides that, I love this quote from Picasso: “The chief enemy of creativity is good taste.” That’s so wise I tattooed it on my arm.
This month, we are excited to share the success of two Writing Certificate Program students. The first article is the publication of a memoir and the other an online story.
Isabelle’s debut book was written through the Stanford Continuing Studies Creative Nonfiction Certificate program in 2014. Leaving Shangrila: The True Story of a Girl, Her Transformation and Her Eventual Escape, is the captivating memoir of Gecils’ upbringing in Brazil, where her parents raised her in a restrictive cult. Leaving Shangrila tells the poignant life story of her restrictive past and ultimate escape, as she grew up to embrace an independent future. Gecils’ resonant chronicle explores themes of belonging, family allegiance, and starting over. As it does so, it effectively tells the story of the liberation of a young girl who had her eye on a bright horizon. Kirkus calls this, “A well-paced memoir steeped in strife, struggle, sorrow, and, eventually, freedom.”
We are also pleased to share that Janice Billingsley, one of our current students in the Novel Writing Certificate program, has a story online at Podium, the literary magazine for the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Read her story, Janie, here.
This month, “The Writer’s Spotlight” narrows its focus to magazine and travel writing. In addition to offering a wide variety of creative writing courses, Stanford Continuing Studies regularly offers specialized courses in travel writing, magazine writing, and food writing. These courses are designed specifically for students who want to strengthen their craft and break into print. Many students finished these courses with print-ready pieces; some going on to publish stories they’ve written in the classroom and beyond.
Stanford Continuing Studies Lead Instructor Malena Watrous recently chatted with Magazine/Travel Writing Instructor and Freelance Writer Justin Bergman. The brief interview is followed with links to recently published articles by students who’ve completed writing courses with Justin or Malena. Congratulations to these students!
An Interview with Continuing Studies Instructor Justin Bergman
MW: Can you tell us briefly about your background as a magazine writer and editor?
JB: I started out in news writing and editing for the Associated Press before making the move to magazines, becoming the senior editor for Budget Travel and then an editor at Time in London. For the past five years, I’ve been living in China and freelancing full-time for a number of publications, including Monocle, the New York Times and Modern Farmer. I focus mostly on culture, business, sports and travel—anything but breaking news. Done with those days.
MW: Since you started teaching magazine and travel writing, how has the market changed and how has the advice you give your students changed?
JB: In the past five years, I’d say the market has rebounded nicely from the financial downturn when magazines were laying off staff and nobody was traveling for stories. Suddenly, magazines have money again! (Not much, but some.) And online, there’s been a huge boom in interesting publications like Roads & Kingdoms and Atlas Obscura, among others. My advice for students remains largely the same—try and start small and local, or go the online route. This is the best way to break in.
MW: What are the traits that make for a good freelance magazine or travel writer?
JB: First, it’s all about having the right idea and approach that a magazine would be interested in—the story needs to feel topical, somewhat newsy (even for travel). Then, you need to be persistent and have the confidence to keep sending your pitches out, no matter how many rejections you get. Flexibility helps, too, especially when editors suddenly want a story written by tomorrow and they’re calling you at 6pm.
MW: Are there particular markets or types of magazines that provide a good outlet for writers who are not yet published elsewhere?
JB: I’m always surprised by how many niche publications there are these days—name a hobby, there’s a magazine for it. (Ceramics Monthly comes to mind..) These publications are generally smaller and more open to taking a risk on a new writer. I also tell people to think local: look for magazines in your city or state, or a particular industry. Trade magazines, hotel magazines, airline magazines—they’re all great for novice writers.
MW: What advice do you have for students who want to get articles published?
JB: Starting a blog is always a good thing—I once had a student who was contacted by an editor to write a travel story because she had read her blog. Writing what you know at the start can also help if you don’t have clips—if you are a bankruptcy attorney, for instance, pitching stories on personal finance is a great way to make use of your specific expertise. And the pitch must be perfect—editors don’t have time to figure out the angle for you.
Recently published articles by Stanford Continuing Studies students:
Ellen Ann Fentress in New York Times
Jon Goodman in Big Sky Journal
David Kiefer in Runner’s World—a cover story
Kitzi Tanner in The Expeditioner
Radhika Rathinasabapathy in Time Out
Jeannie Whitlock in Roads and Kingdoms
This month The Writer’s Spotlight goes back in time and features two historical fiction writers. Find out more about the different genres they chose to pursue in their writing, and click on the links if you would like to read their published books.
The Silver Sweetheart, by Claire Byrnes, is set mostly in 1930s and 1990s Los Angeles. In 1933, Jane Hart was ushered into a life of fame and fortune by Hollywood film producer, Phil Loveridge, under the watchful eye of her calculating stage mother. Embroiled in a scandal, Jane disappeared from public life and transformed herself into a Southern housewife. As an elderly widow, Jane returned to Los Angeles content to take her secrets to the grave. This is until her granddaughter, Sarah, arrives on her doorstep with stars in her eyes and Jane must confront the past she has avoided for so long.
Claire completed Stanford's Creative Writing Certificate Program in late 2013. During the program, she worked on many different parts of her literary mystery novel, The Silver Sweetheart. She currently lives in Brisbane, Australia with her partner and their bruiser of a tabby cat.
Read The Silver Sweetheart on Amazon.
The Improbable Wonders of Moojie Littleman, by Robin Gregory, is set at the turn of the nineteenth century, and is the story of a disabled boy who loses two sets of parents and seeks to find a family of his own. After his adoptive mother dies in a freak accident, eight-year-old, disabled, bi-racial Moojie is sent by his disapproving father to live at St. Isidore's Fainting Goat Dairy, where he befriends a clan of outcasts from an alternate universe. Six years later, this forbidden friendship and subsequent events reveal a boy’s tale of loss and connection, first love, and self-discovery. Kirkus gave The Improbable Wonders of Moojie Littleman a starred review, featured it in the Best Indie Books of December, and put it in the running for the Best Indie Books of the Year this Spring. It won the 2015 Gelett Burgess Children’s Book Award, has been nominated a finalist in the UK’s international Wishing Shelf Book Award, and won “President’s Pick” in the Rave Reviews Book Club. Presently, the audio book is under production and will be released this Spring.
When asked to tell us about her writing experience, Robin had this to say:
“Reality is not always probable, or likely,” said Jorge Borges. This quote comes to mind because the hero’s experiences in my book can’t be explained away or interpreted by logic. Initially, the book was going to be a memoir, relating my life experiences of raising a boy with special needs to a trajectory of deepening spiritual practice. Four years into the story, I realized it wasn’t working. It felt too humanistic, too prosaic. Form and expectation were supplanting magic. I needed more freedom to play with time and space, the mind, and dreams—I needed poetry. Not being a poet, I looked to other literary forms for ways to deal with spirituality without getting religious. Magical realism allowed me to reverse the natural order of things, to encompass the ambiguities, absurdities, humor, and wit of a (fictional) disabled boy’s life, and to discover surprising yet inevitable conclusions.
Read Robin’s wonderful book on Amazon and on her website.
"Why I Need to Write This Novel" by Jane Gilmore
With an introduction by Malena Watrous, Online Writing Certificate Lead Instructor
Jane Gilmore is currently a student in Novel 1, the first of four sequential novel writing courses in the Online Writing Certificate Program. She started in the Fall with the introductory course "The Writer's Life," in which students brainstorm, plan, and workshop ideas for the novels they're planning to write. Over winter break, before Novel 1 started, Jane received some medical news that confirmed her desire to switch subjects for her novel, which is the subject of this essay. When I read this piece in our class discussion form, in response to our first week's prompt, "Why do you want to write this particular book?" I had no idea about her current situation. I found this essay remarkable in its honesty, clarity and beauty. Although this is an essay that she has graciously allowed us to share, Jane is at heart a fiction writer, using her imagination to develop characters in lives quite different from her own. She also has a rare gift for using her emotional insights and experiences to enrich her fiction and make it feel lifelike, inhabited by real people, specific and yet universal, as all great writing must be.
You can read Jane's essay "Why I Need to Write This Novel" here. (Note Adobe Reader is needed to view the pdf)