Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Guest-blogger Karen Benke: 5 Writers on What It Takes to be a Creative Writer

This "guest-blogger Wednesday" it is a very special delight to host poet, Poet in the Schools, and writing guide Karen Benke (who, by the way, sends out one of best newsletters I've seen-- click here to sign up). Years ago, on my book tour for Sky Over El Nido in 1996, we met at a Barnes & Noble in California. She had that "vibe"-- somehow, I just knew she'd do fabulous and creative things, and she has. The author of a poetry collection, Sister (Conflu:X Press, 2004), Benke is also editor of a hot-off-the-presses book for kids, Rip the Page! Adventures of Creative Writing (Shambhala, 2010), which she describes as "an everything-you-need guide to spark new poems and un-stick old stories, including adventurous and zany prompts to leap from; dares and double-dares to help you mash up truths and lies into outrageous paragraphs; and letters of encouragement written directly to you from famous authors, including: Annie Barrows, Naomi Shihab Nye, Lemony Snicket, C.M. Mayo, Elizabeth Singer Hunt, Moira Egan, Gary Soto, Lucille Clifton, Avi, Betsy Franco, Carol Edgarian, Karen Cushman, Patricia Polacco, Prartho Sereno, Lewis Buzbee, and C.B. Follett." (Hey, y'all, did you catch that Yours Truly is listed there, shoulder-to-shoulder, with Lemony Snicket? Lemony Snickett!! Seriously, Lemony is the bomb.)

Over to you, Karen.

Five Writers Offer Advice to Kids on What it Takes to be a Creative Writer

Last year, I decided it was finally time to write the book I wished I’d had on my nightstand when I was in fourth grade. So I created Rip the Page!, a guide to offer the 8 to 12 year old set inspiration and encouragement. Since I didn’t want all the you-can-do-it cheers to come from me—- as a 44 year-young writer, I needed encouragement too—- I contacted some of my favorite poets and authors who speak kid.

Here are the tips from 5 of the writers who so generously took time away from their own projects to contribute to mine.

1. Carol Edgarian, author of Rise the Euphrates (Random House, 1994) and the forthcoming Three Stages of Amazement (Scribner, 2011) is a gifted and generous teacher of literary fiction and non-fiction. She, along with her husband, Tom Jenks, are cofounders and editors of Narrative Magazine, which publishes stories, poems, cartoons, and art aimed at readers young and old. Carol flat-out tells kids that there’s a lot of advice in the world, so she isn’t going to bother with all that. Just practice story telling on the page and out loud, and then watch for the engagement of your listener. This can often be the best practice. She considers kids some of the best storytellers she knows, calling them “deadly good,” since they know how “to take the audience by the hand and never let go.”

2. I fell in love with Avi one rainy afternoon at my local library. My then seven year-old son and I curled up for hours and entered his series set in Dimwood Forest. Ereth’s Birthday, (Harper Collins, 2000) about a grouchy and tough-talking porcupine is our favorite. Among Avi’s advice to kids who want to write are some definite Don’ts: “Don’t be satisfied with answers others give you.” “Don’t assume that because everyone believes something, it is right or wrong,” (to which my son now frequently and annoyingly uses to his advantage). Avi strongly suggests that kids understand why they believe things, write what they honestly feel, then “learn from the criticism that will always come your way.”

3. Prartho Sereno is a muse, painter, storyteller, and poet who encourages kids—big and small—to be the kings and queens of their poems. She believes there is great power to be found living among questions and inside of mysteries and shares with kids that she “loves the pictures words paint inside us,” and is “amazed that sounds from her mouth, throat, and lungs can send a story to you.” One evening, sitting in her kitchen, she started to imagine the stories the utensils drying in the dish rack and resting in their drawers would tell if they could talk. And this is how she ended up writing and illustrating Causing A Stir: The Secret Lives and Loves of Kitchen Utensils (Mansarovar Press, 2007).

4. Moira Egan lives a discus throw from the Coliseum in Rome, Italy and is a master of the sonnet. Though 8-12 year olds can be taught to write a sonnet, Egan just reminds them that “every single person on the face of the earth is different.” She quickly asserts to kids that, “You are YOU, and there has never been a you like you before. So write YOU. Let the world see you. Let the world see the world the way you see the world, and you’ll never run into the idea that you don’t have anything new or interesting to say.” Amen.

5. Two months before poet, Lucille Clifton, (author of Blessing the Boats, New and Collected Poems, which won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2000) passed away, she answered my e-mail request for a note of advice. If I’d known she was so ill at the time, I never would have bothered her. But Ms. Clifton said nothing about being ill and simply wished me good luck with my project. Tell the children: “Ignore the answers, follow the questions, they will take you where you need to go.”

--- Karen Benke

Madam Mayo comments: This is superb advice, and not just for kids. Every poet and every writer, of any age, would benefit from reading and trying the exercises in this book. So what do Lemony Snicket and Yours Truly advise? Go read the book, my dears!

P.S. Check out Karen Benke's guest-blog for Huffington Post.

---> For the archive of Madam Mayo guest-blog posts, click here.