Concerning Craft: Mary Jo LoBello Jerome

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Mary Jo LoBello Jerome

Mary Jo LoBello Jerome

Please meet Mary LoBello Jerome. Mary Jo’s fiction has appeared in Short Story and Center magazines. She currently teaches college writing in New Jersey and is working on new poetry and short fiction. She lives in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

We published her short story “Dermis” in our Winter 2014 Science issue. She read her story at our launch event, so be on the lookout for a video when they become available. (The video is now available. Please find it below.)

Mary Jo shared these insights about her approach to the work with the title “Thinking On Skin”:

I’d been working on the story “Dermis” for a while because I was intrigued with the idea of skin as a metaphor. I knew a chemist who worked in a lab on skin samples, and she was frustrated with her job for reasons related to her career such as salary and advancement, not the emotional or harassment issues, real or imagined, that disturbed my character Mary Ann. And once I had that weirdly pleasing image – of a young troubled woman in a lab coat looking at skin – well, that’s a fertile Petri dish of narrative possibilities.

Skin. We mostly don’t think of it until it gets irritated, the same way we don’t think of our hearts pumping or the neurons firing in our brains when we taste a piece of cake. But once we slow down enough to observe anything closely, so many beautiful and frightening and perplexing questions arise. Scientists know this. So do poets and writers. For a while, I was obsessively thinking about and looking at skin. Two early discoveries: One of the fastest ways to isolate yourself at a cocktail party is to move in close during conversations to study pores or beauty marks. And, if you’re squeamish, don’t ever Google images of skin diseases.

But the role of skin as a permeable shield was the most powerful aspect of questions that kept popping up for me. I allowed the character Mary Ann to voice those thoughts from a scientist’s perspective full of awe about the miraculous biological organ we’ve evolved. Skin breathes and absorbs nutrients while protecting us from the most dastardly, pervasive and invasive little microbes on the planet. But a shield that is so permeable or easily damaged? There’s an oxymoron for you.

Further questions fell in line pretty readily as I was discovering the story while writing. What are the other shields we put up to protect us emotionally? What if one of those emotional shields isn’t as strong as we would like it to be? How does someone protect herself or create barriers between her inner world and the “real” world? In the story, I purposely left ambiguous the motives of the secondary character, Dev, the supervisor who is infatuated with Mary Ann. The serious problem of sexual harassment in the workplace is a question most women must grabble with. As a writer and a feminist, I challenged myself to set the story as fully as possible in the workplace, where our private selves – for both men and women – are necessarily concealed and protected while we get on with the practical duties we are assigned. Later, the story moves to a short scene in a mundane, public mall — another edifice that seems a natural spot these modern days to protect or lose our selves among the crowds. Sadly, we know how easily assailed these places really are. (Tragically, there was a mall shooting just one mile away from the LPR reading on the day of the issue’s launch.)

This is not to suggest that these narrative steps occurred with purpose at first. Writing is a messy process. I wrote scenes, which I revised out, that followed Mary Ann to her apartment and explored her love and family life. To paraphrase Gardner, I cut those scenes that distracted from the dream world I was conjuring. It didn’t matter in the end what her relationship was with her mother or that she did or did not have a serious love relationship in her past. The reader didn’t need to get that far under the character’s skin to believe and feel the conflict. Focusing on setting gave the story structure, and when I revised, I tried to develop the details of place to support the emotional pull without, I hope, overdoing the metaphor.

When LPR announced its science issue, this story seemed a good fit. I’m a little disappointed, however, that I didn’t have access to the recently publicized research about skin microbes. A recent story in the NY Times detailed the micro-biome of helpful ammonia-eating bacteria that live on our skin and feast on some of the odor-causing bugs that populate our extraordinary – and in my case increasingly wrinkled – natural wrapping. What interesting narrative turns could have evolved if either of the main characters in my story were just a little bit smelly? Would there have been face licking? These new scientific findings may yet cause a narrative itch that needs scratching.

Note: If you enjoyed Mary Jo’s story and want to read more poetry and prose from our Science issue, you can purchase copies of that issue and others online.

Citing the Coelacanth: How Research Feeds the Poetic Process

Whitney Gratton

Whitney Gratton

At some point or another, most writers have heard the phrase “write what you know.” Lately, I’ve found another inspiring mantra to be “know what you write.” In other words, look at the act of writing as an investigation, whether its into a topic, idea, event, person, or worldview. The end result may not be certainty—to me, the unknown and uncertain have an important place in both the reading and writing of poetry. But the act of immersing myself in a subject has become a useful and delightful part of my writing process.

My sestina “Mother,” which relates a story of an octopus’ reproductive cycle, is the first in what would become a series of poems focused on sea creatures. One of my motivations in writing this poem was that I had recently come across a science article describing the surprising reproductive habits of the female octopus, and I felt compelled to share what I felt was a rather remarkable story of how the mother cares for and ultimately dies for her offspring.

Because communicating this fact-based story was a main goal of the poem, I prepared for writing by gathering all the information I could about the octopus’s life cycle from online journals and articles, podcasts, and videos. In doing so, I realized to my delight that not only was doing all this background research personally fascinating but researching a subject provided a useful framework within which to find inspiration and enter the state of wonder and continued contemplation that helps propel poems into being.

I once heard Margaret Atwood describe the process of writing poetry in a way that has stuck with me. She said that poets spend a lot of time doing what looks like absolutely nothing. But what they’re actually doing is creating a space inside themselves into which the poem can come. I’ve started looking at research as a way to intentionally contribute to this incubation process and invite the poem to come, like leaving out a trail of breadcrumbs to coax a shy animal closer. For instance, for my poem “Coelacanth,” I was initially captivated by the idea that this species of fish could live for millions of years unbeknownst to scientists and decided to try to write a poem about it. I began reading what I could find about it—its discovery, habitat, and behavior—in an attempt to simulate the often-haphazard process of incubating various facts and ideas in the back of the mind.

article-1097925-02D95531000005DC-989_468x463

The coelacanth.

Incubation aside, this background research serves a few more straightforward purposes. One happy result is that it tends to turn up new or unexpected language that might not find its way into my work otherwise. The term “Lazarus taxon,” used to describe a species like the coelacanth that is rediscovered or reappears in the fossil record after seeming to have died out, ended up being an important element in the resulting poem.

Perhaps the word I spent the longest trying to find was in the line “If he sees me at all, I’ll be the lantern fish’s / last sight.” I knew I wanted to highlight the coelacanth’s seeming invisibility and the idea of seen vs. unseen using an organism that it would prey on.  Originally I had chosen “amphipod,” an order of small crustaceans, as a general and scientific-sounding example of the unfortunate prey. Eventually, I thought perhaps it distracted from the language of the rest of the poem, and I looked for alternate options. Fortunately for me, the coelacanth is an opportunistic eater, feeding on whatever it can find as it drifts, including the more linguistically approachable lantern fish, which ultimately won the place of honor.

Though the envisioning of the coelacanth’s perspective is imaginative, I wanted the details of the poem to be accurate and serve the subject by being true to the reality of the species and the events of its discovery. In this way, background research served both as a source of inspiration for the poem’s content and as a sort of fact checking at various points along the way in the poem’s evolution. I admit I feel a little uneasy even calling what I do “research,” as it’s a somewhat informal and unofficial process. The main rule I have for myself is that each important fact I include needs to be verifiable by at least two different sources – preferably, ones with established credibility like news outlets, museums, and science journals or magazines.

rsa7632

Stamp commemorating the coelacanth’s 1938 discovery by Western scientists.

In some cases my initial knowledge gathering has taken the form of library books—from a popular science book on the biology and social history of eels to an image-rich coffee table tome showcasing little-known creatures of the deep. A more immediate method—and admittedly the most common for me—is meandering through the Internet, always evaluating the sources as I go. Although I lean most heavily on sites by well-recognized authorities, I enjoy the occasions on which I end up on a site with no apparent attachment to an organization that appears to have been created and maintained solely out of an individual’s passion for a sometimes very specific and obscure subject. One such page that I came across while delving into the coelacanth was part of an entire site dedicated to postage stamps from around the globe featuring this particular fish.  Another I kept coming back to contained a wealth of information on all aspects of the coelacanth, but I was unable to track down much about the site owner aside from his first and last name.  Expertise aside, the thoroughness and diligent passion he displayed for the fish only compelled me to read on with increased fascination.

I was thinking again about research as I read about photographer John Yoder’s experience capturing the night sky at the world’s largest astronomical project in the Atacama Desert. He says, “Do we photographers go witness such things to take pictures, or do we take pictures in order to experience such things?” I’m beginning to think that as important as research can be in informing a poem, there may be even more value in the poem’s potential to give my ongoing explorations meaning and serve as a way in which they can be shared.  I can only hope that one of my poems will move the reader to continue—or begin—his or her own exploration.

Concerning Craft: Daniel Hudon

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

daniel_(1_of_2)

Daniel Hudon (Photo: Miranda Loud)

Please meet Daniel Hudon. Daniel has published a broad body of work including poetry inspired by Magritte, humor and fiction inspired by science, and essays about his travels in Asia and Central America (one of which won him the 2011 Tiferet Nonfiction prize). His teaching also spans fields, covering astronomy, physics, math, and writing at various colleges in Boston.

We published his short story “Possibly Playing Tonight at the Quantum Theater” in our Winter 2014 Science issue. He read his story at our launch event, so be on the lookout for a video when they become available. (Note: The video is now available. Please find below.)

Here are the insights he had to share about the writing and refinement of the piece:

Ultimately, “Possibly Playing Tonight at the Quantum Theater,” was inspired by an undergraduate science course that I was a co-instructor for. Our goal was to give the students – non-science freshmen – our best stuff, and that was our pet name for the course, “The Story of Stuff.” So after introducing the Newtonian worldview, we’d spend two weeks effectively blowing students’ minds with the highlights of quantum mechanics. Beyond being a highly successful theory to describe the structure of the atom and atomic interactions, it’s great material for a fiction writer both for the strange world we’re forced to consider, and for the challenges we’ve had in interpreting its results. I wanted to convey some of this strangeness in a story.

According to Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman, the conceptual crux of understanding quantum mechanics is the double-slit experiment. If you fire an electron through a pair of narrow and narrowly separated slits, it turns out that you cannot predict where the electron will land on an observing screen. At best, you can quote a probability. This is a bizarre idea coming after the determinism of Newtonian mechanics – given the properties of a baseball, of course we can predict where it will land! Even better, until the electron hits the screen, it exists in a superposition of possible states, and its final end state on the screen is determined from the probabilities that can be calculated. I love that idea of the electron’s final position having all these possibilities and then being reduced to the one that is observed. In quantum-speak, that’s the collapse of the electron’s wavefunction, part of the mysterious particle-wave duality, and I took that and ran with it.

In fact, I’ve made a few attempts to write a story about quantum mechanics and this one came together best. Most of these attempts circled around a pun on mechanics – what would a quantum mechanic do differently from an auto mechanic? – but I couldn’t really get beyond the pun. When I hit upon the idea of the theater, I knew I could get a story out of it.

I wanted a character that goes on a good date and has a good time. One of the things that makes dating fun are the possibilities of what might happen. You don’t know what the other person is going to say or do as you interact with them and try to get to know them. If there’s chemistry, then the conversation can be heady and tantalizing. That’s what I wanted my main character to enjoy. But as the evening carries on, one is always checking in and wondering if it’s going as well as it could – is the other person into you? Many possible threads of conversation are explored, from the mundane to the feisty, and this was what made writing the story fun.

One of the hardest things was choosing how much possible dialogue the characters should have and an early draft has our main character going a little overboard there. I also spent some time revising the scene where the couple enters the theater because, in the quantum world, consecutive electrons fired through the apparatus will not wind up side by side on the screen, so it took me a few tries to convey some of that confusion as they go through the doors. Some readers may recognize the more recent quantum experiments in that scene where scientists fire electrons through both slits and then close one slit or the other, or put a detector behind one of the slits, all to test the whole notion of particle-wave duality and when the wave function actually collapses. The first draft also had the story ending badly for the narrator – she didn’t get him at all, though she had invited him over. I realized it would be much more satisfying for all involved if she did get him, as that’s one of the things we hope for when we’re on a date.

The drafts had the same boring title, either Quantum Dating or Quantum Dramatics or Quantum Dramatics, and my final edit was to change the title to the present one, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the right title for the story. Possibly.

Note: If you enjoyed Daniel’s story and want to read more poetry and prose from our Science issue, you can purchase copies of that issue and others online. More of Daniel’s work can be found at his webpage.

A Collaboration With The Audience: Gerry LaFemina on Music and Poetry

One of the intersections of music and literature that we have explored is the parallels and distinctions between songwriting and crafting both prose and poetry. While Don Biggar drew our attention to the parallels in structure between his songs and his wife Lisa’s stories, Truth Thomas brought our attention to the contrasts between a poet’s solitary efforts and the collaborative musical ensemble. This week Gerry LaFemina, poet and punk rocker whose “Sunday Girl” appeared in our Music issue and whose music can be found in the media player on the sidebar of this site, extends the ongoing discussion to the collaboration between performer and audience. Without further obstruction, Gerry LaFemina:

Gerry LaFemina. (Photo: gerrylafemina.net)

Gerry LaFemina. (Photo: gerrylafemina.net)

First and foremost, I’m a writer, primarily a poet. I spend many hours trying to decide which word is the best word, which order is the best order. And in that space it’s up to me to make those choices. I read the poems aloud, usually at home but sometimes when I’m out, too, which prompts looks from strangers at nearby tables. I tweak words all the time. In all the poems I read regularly at public events, there are changes penned into the books.

And even though there are people whose opinion I trust about what’s going on in my work, even writers I admire and like, people who have the best interest of my poems and fictions in their minds when they approach my work, even then, it’s still up to me to make the decisions. I can agree or disagree with any opinion.

That said, when I’m in the band basement, with the Fender Jaguar hanging from my shoulder and working on a new song with The Downstrokes it’s a completely different process. There, with my fellow song writer Mike Holland as well as our drummer William Poorbaugh and bassist Jamie Lockard, I’m not just writing something that represents me to the audience (as a poem does) but trying to come up with something that represents us–the vision we have for this band. Whether lyrically or musically, it’s a collaboration, and as such I’m focused on who we are: four guys in our forties playing (punk) rock & roll.

And then there are all the strictures of writing what is essentially pop music: a hook, a chorus, a melody, something that can be sung along to.

It’s not unusual for Mike and me to struggle for the right chord or for me to ask him to play a riff over and over until I have a melody, a set of words–invoked in part by the chords and notes and tempo he’s playing. Nor is it unusual for Bill to suggest a tempo change, Jamie to suggest a variation on the progression, or me to suggest we go high instead of low. I find it refreshing, this give and take.

Perhaps this has to do with the fact that, ultimately, the song writing process is not just collaborative with the other band members; it’s also a collaboration with the audience. When we’re on stage and I’m singing and playing, the audience is there–they’re real, they’re listening to us, and (I hope) they’re responding. Which is to say that, when people in the audience left our first gig singing the chorus of “Punk Rock Lolita,” I had the verification of success that I rarely have as a poet: someone remembered the combined efforts of the songwriters and it was lodged in their heads.

Rarely has this happened at a poetry reading, and when it does, when someone comes up to me and says “When you read those lines . . .” and they can quote a few lines of a poem, I feel a kind of success that far trumps most acceptance letters. I feel the same way when someone takes the time to write me an email about a poem of mine they read.

Poetry writing, fiction writing, they are different from song writing in ways both obvious and subtle. I like to think the relationship between the artists and their audiences in songwriting (at least when the song writer is also the performer) is the key difference. I know when a song is working almost immediately because the audience lets me know ASAP. As a literary writer, it may take years of rejection letters about a particular piece before I give it up. That’s the real challenge of the artist going it alone as a writer. You have to decide yourself when to give a piece up. The band, they’ll let me know something isn’t working almost right away.

A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, LaFemina holds an MFA in poetry from Western Michigan University as well as an MA in literature with an emphasis on twentieth-century literature from WMU. He has taught at Nazareth College, Kirtland Community College, West Virginia University, Wheeling Jesuit University, and Sarah Lawrence College. He directs the Frostburg Center for Creative Writing at Frostburg State University, where he is an associate professor of English.

UpBeat, The Baltimore Book Festival

Two weeks ago, the Baltimore Book Festival once again brought thousands of people together to celebrate literature in many forms. Virginia Crawford attended not only as visitor, but was at the helm of a panel exploring the place of music in poetry. Here’s what Virginia had to say about the panel and the festival:

This weekend [Sept. 27th-29th] at the Baltimore Book Festival, I had the pleasure of moderating Upbeat: The Music of Poetry in Performance, a panel discussion with three remarkable poet-teachers. The event was in celebration of Little Patuxent Review’s Music issue and to mark the now annual 100 Thousand Poets for Change international celebration. Gregg Wilhelm of CityLit Project kindly hosted myself; Laura Shovan, editor of Little Patuxent Review; Clarinda Harriss, professor emeritus of Towson University and founder and editor-in-chief of BrickHouse Books; LPR contributing editor Linda Joy Burke, a poet and performance artist; and poet Slangston Hughes, one of the slam coaches for the Baltimore City Youth Poetry Team. A great big thanks to CityLit for giving us the time and space for this energizing conversation.

(Photo: Laura Shovan)

(Photo: Laura Shovan)

Linda Joy Burke began with a musical session that she often uses to introduce students to rhythm. She distributed instruments to the audience and showed everyone how to play them. The audience investigated their shakers and cow bells and lovely percussive things I can’t actually name. It was an auditory mess. But then Linda Joy stopped everyone and had each person begin playing one at a time, instrument by instrument, filling the spaces or beats created between each other.

Linda Joy Burke conducting the audience/musicians. (Photo: Laura Shovan)

Linda Joy Burke conducting the audience/musicians. (Photo: Laura Shovan)

This built a quilt of sounds—each instrument or voice holding its own place. She helped create order out of the chaos. Individual voices or sounds could be heard and appreciated. Linda Joy likes to begin this way with students because it can bypass so many things that often get in the way of writing. It connects people to the direct physical experience of rhythm out of which great writing can emerge.

Clarinda Harriss encourages everyone to listen to the rhythms in everyday life—the cadence of a bus, the rhythms inside our own bodies—and invites them to share their own self-made sounds. They might resemble wolf-calls or other beastly noises—they can be anything that has meaning for the students. Then she invites them to write from that voice. They can incorporate the sound into the poem or simply use it as an access point. Either way, the sound takes the writer into another consciousness she might not otherwise have the opportunity to write from.

From left to right, moderator Ginny Crawford and panelists Clarinda Harriss, Slangston Hughes, and Linda Joy Burke.

From left to right, moderator Ginny Crawford and panelists Clarinda Harriss, Slangston Hughes, and Linda Joy Burke. (Photo: Laura Shovan)

When asked how he helps his students create music in their poems, Slangston Hughes said that it was more important to say something rather than something that sounds good. He pointed out that young writers sometimes get caught in the trap of wanting to do it “right” but what they really need to consider is doing it the way it feels right. Strong writing can only come from careful listening to our internal voice—that foundation, if you will. You can have all the ornamental awnings and architectural details in the world (or in this case complex rhyme schemes and a dramatic theatrical performance), but without a strong foundation—something to say—audiences will not be moved.

Slangston Hughes performs

Slangston Hughes performs. (Photo: Laura Shovan)

What listeners really want is to hear your own voice, that thing that only you can produce and fit into the great quilt of life. Linda Joy reminded us that even after a piece is written and revised, when it’s being performed, there should be a sense of listening to the audience. The performance should be a kind of shared breathing between the performer and the audience. Clarinda pointed out the need to speak clearly and slowly so the audience has the chance to hear your music, the song that only you could sing. And Slangston urged us not to just light a torch, not to just say something that sounds good, but to say what we know to be true in ourselves, to set ourselves on fire, to be light.

Virginia Crawford, poet-in-residence with the Maryland State Arts Council, teaches through the Artists-in-Education program. Her book Touch (2011, Finishing Line Press) was featured on WYPR’s Maryland Morning. A graduate of Emerson College, Boston, and the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, Ms. Crawford is co-editor of Poetry Baltimore, poems about a city, and an anthology of student poetry, Voices Fly, with Laura Shovan (2012, CityLit Press).

Editor’s Note: Both Linda Joy Burke and Clarinda Harriss have written about their approach to sound and writing in the past for the LPR blog. Be sure to check out their pieces for still more insights about evoking the music of your own voice.

LPR’s Exciting New Program for Young Writers

LPR is gearing up for our first-ever Middle School Writers Festival. It’s a project that will be driven by and generate enthusiasm for writing, but we also need some help from you to make it happen. To tell us more about the Festival, I give you Emily Rich:

Emily Rich

Emily Rich

Last February at an LPR reading and fundraiser in Ellicott City, I first heard Editor Laura Shovan talk about plans for a Middle School Writers Festival. I knew immediately this was a project I wanted to support. I had only recently gotten to know members of the LPR staff, but already I was impressed with the energy those involved with the magazine put into getting out into the larger community. When I heard Laura describe the middle school festival as something particularly dear to her heart, I felt an instant connection.

As a writer, parent, and former educator, I have often been concerned that creative writing is an area overlooked in today’s school curricula. When my daughter was in high school in Arlington Virginia, she was fortunate to participate in the county’s Fine Arts Apprenticeship, an extracurricular program for visual and performing artists. But to my knowledge, no equivalent instruction is offered for students with a gift for the written word.

So even though I knew LPR’s pilot project would take place in far away Howard County, I enthusiastically signed on as assistant director.

The Middle School Writers Festival (MSWF) was initially conceived and designed by a trio of literary enthusiasts: Laura, LPR’s grant writer Nancy Berla, and Beth Singleton, a Gifted and Talented (G/T) resource teacher at Murray Hill Middle School and the literary advisor to Our Voice, the Howard County middle school literary and art magazine.

In fact, it was Beth who initially approached LPR seeking some type of collaboration. Beth has been a tireless promoter of writing in Howard County schools. She works with the Writers’ Guild, a county-wide curriculum extension opportunity for 7th and 8th grade students with a passion for writing. Students involved in the Writers’ Guild receive special instruction and maintain a portfolio of work, which they are encouraged to submit to the annual publication of Our Voice.

According to Beth, the upcoming MSWF will build on the foundation established with the Writers’ Guild, providing students with access to published, professional writers. Participating middle school G/T teachers will also benefit, picking up new strategies, resources, and models that they can take back to the classroom.

While LPR has a stated mission to do outreach with local schools, a key impetus for a middle school festival came out of Laura, Nancy, and Beth’s shared desire to align the county’s creative writing program with the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)-sponsored National Day on Writing.

The MSWF, planned for October 21, 2013, coincides with the National Day of Writing; however, preparation for the event will begin up to a month in advance.

In September, authors chosen for this project will visit a writing class in each of the participating middle schools, to become acquainted with the students.  Authors Derrick Weston Brown, Linda Joy Burke, Lalita Noronha, and Patricia VanAmburg will discuss with the students the format and purposes of the National Day of Writing and will help them prepare written work for the festival.  Teachers will be encouraged to guide students in the editing and revision of their pieces prior to the festival. Altogether about sixty students from four middle schools—Ellicott Mills, Clarksville, Lime Kiln, and Wilde Lake—will participate.

The festival itself will be held offsite, at the Howard County Center for the Arts.

The sustained attention that participating students will receive from published writers and poets is one of the things that inspires me about the project. I think about myself as an introverted middle schooler who was “good” at writing. My teachers praised me, but they didn’t have the time and resources to commit to fostering the talents of individual kids. A program such as the one Beth, Nancy, and Laura have designed would definitely have helped me to develop my skills and gain confidence as a young writer.

Another aspect of the MSWF I admire is that it caters to the interests of a broad selection of writers. The festival will include three sessions: two small workshops and one session with the whole group, with lunch in between.  For Session 1, students will have the option to select one workshop from the following areas: Writing in Response to Art and Music, Culture and Mythology, Science and Fantasy, and Personal Experiences/Memory. They will be provided with a list of resources related to the various subjects so they can explore possible opportunities in the many fields.  Through the process of writing about an area, students will develop deeper insights into and understanding of that field. This is a terrific way of encouraging kids to think about writing not just as an art form but as an integral part of daily life.

Session 2 is entitled Workshopping your Writing. During this session school-based groups will have a second meeting with the professional writer, to review and improve their written work.

Following lunch, all attending the festival will meet together for Session 3, “Open Mic.” In this session, participating authors will model what it is like to read before an audience. Students will then have the opportunity to share their own work. Many kids of middle-school age might feel anxious about participating in an activity such as an open mic, but I believe the atmosphere at the festival, with kids collaborating with a community of writers, will allow even they shy to open up and share their creations.

A great deal of hard work and inspiration has gone into developing the Middle School Writers Festival, but like anything else, some funding is required to turn a vision into reality. A generous grant from the Maryland Humanities Council allowed the program to get off the ground.

More funding is needed, however, in order to provide meals and to compensate participating authors for their time. If you would like to participate to this exciting undertaking, LPR is accepting donations both monetary and in-kind.

Festival Sponsorships are available for donations of $100 or more. All sponsors will be listed in the MSWF program and will receive a one-year subscription to the Little Patuxent Review. In-kind donations of notebooks, pens, and other writing-related giveaways for the students are also greatly appreciated.

I am so thrilled to be able to be a part of this exciting LPR initiative, and I have great hopes for its success this year and on into the future.

Emily Rich is a former federal employee and community college instructor who, after being diagnosed with both cancer and autoimmune arthritis, decided to take some time off to write. Her work has been published in a number of journals including Little Patuxent Review, Greenbrier Review, River Poet’s Journal, and Welter. She has also previously contributed to LPR’s Concerning Craft series. She is thrilled to be working with LPR both as assistant director for the MSFW and as a non-fiction reader for the upcoming Science issue. She lives in Arlington, VA.

Creativity, Science, and Writing

Last week’s post about the DC Science Café‘s endeavor to foster meaningful discussion between scientists and non-experts explored the challenges in finding a common language between two populations with differing relationships with the same words and phrases. This week’s post, brought to you by Ned Prutzer, builds off this theme by examining the substantial gains that some writers and researchers have found in trying to inhabit these junctures, and extrapolating what the language that heals the false rift between the sciences and arts might look like.

Ned Prutzer

Ned Prutzer

I met Ned at the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House at the University of Maryland. Ned is now a Communications and Media PhD student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where serves as a Seeing Systems Fellow in a pilot fellowship program supported by the INTERSECT initiative. His research focuses on new media and cultural memory in relation to conceptualizations of knowledge, art and resistance.

When I attended a Q&A session featuring renowned poet Arthur Sze, he asked us, as a writing exercise, to generate a list of five of our favorite words. His next step was to conjure up another five-word list – this time, comprised of words associated with a hobby or skill of ours. Once the lists were finalized, he asked us to write a poem containing all of the words we included.

The beauty of the exercise lies in how it engages divergent thinking. It confronts us with the challenge of finding ties between different images and practices. As writers, we accept this challenge constantly. We cherish the capability to make meaning out of the happenstance, to elevate the power of a simple image into a telling artifact, and to create realities from fragments, worlds out of words. This makes creativity an alluring and mysterious process.

To ruminate on creativity and writing successfully, both scientific and artistic perspectives are helpful. I find myself doing this often in my own writing, whether I borrow from the language of coding to discuss world-making in a broad sense, from the language of network science to decipher our relations with others and our surroundings, or from the language of neuroscience to analyze the cerebral action of writing.

I have been especially ruminating on this stance in re-reading Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. The narrator, whose gender and name are concealed, recounts an affair with a married woman, Louise. Louise is later revealed to have cancer and the narrator leaves her, hoping Louise will return to her husband, a renowned cancer researcher. Following the affair, the narrator enters a reclusive phase studying anatomy to learn about the cancerous body in an unconventional attempt to remain close to Louise. The narrator assumes a clinical language to deconstruct the body and create what s/he describes as a love poem to Louise.

The undertaking critiques the notion that a body can be described solely through the interaction of its components yet incorporates that very mechanical language to create a more accommodating descriptive vocabulary. The narrator deconstructs the human anatomy in order to deconstruct the operations of an abstraction, an ideology – love. Thus, the narrator seizes the poetry of the scientific to achieve a creative mode of representation.

Similarly, two of my favorite books, Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind and Alice W. Flaherty’s The Midnight Disease, show why fusing the scientific with the poetic is productive and aesthetic. Both are eloquent, autobiographical explorations into creativity through psychological case studies. While the former focuses on bipolar disorder, the latter, among other afflictions, investigates hypergraphia, a disorder compelling the afflicted to write compulsively. In these explorations, Jamison and Flaherty borrow from the language of their clinical expertise to analyze creativity.

In dissecting the creative mind, one learns that creativity is in part a complex neural network. Flaherty traces the interaction of such neural regions as the limbic system (the seat of emotion); the temporal lobe (the seat of processing sensory input); the hippocampus (the seat of memories); and the basal ganglia (the seat of motivation). Several neurotransmitters (notably, norepinephrine, dopamine, and endogenous opiates) also provide a sense of motivation and the creative rush with which we are all familiar.

Creativity scholar Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes about this sense of rush, which he refers to as “flow.” As Howard Gardner defines Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of flow in Creating Minds, “[i]n one sense, those ‘in flow’ . . . feel that they have been fully alive, totally realized, and involved in a ‘peak experience.’ Individuals who regularly engage in creative activities often report that they seek such states” (pp. 25-26).

Here is where we return to the realm of abstraction in detailing the anatomy of creativity. Creativity and flow cannot be defined solely as the product of an intricate configuration of stimulated neural regions. There is an undeniable poetry and spirituality involved that requires a more holistic sense of the individual and the social networks in which he or she is embedded. Creativity, after all, is a networked enterprise, whether one is looking at its neurological underpinnings or the environments and social groups through which an artist’s work is fully realized.

Investigating creativity requires a fusion of perspectives that may seem disparate to some, but such fusions can supply powerful hybrid vocabularies encouraging new insights. However, inhabiting these junctions of deeply developed languages and cultures of thought remains precarious. C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures is infamous for playing into a popular misconception surrounding the humanities and sciences in purporting an inherent and impassable chasm between the two. We can and must respond to this false dichotomy, but it will require our most creative and carefully crafted language. It could even begin as a playful exercise with two lists of words; a poet making a small contribution to demystify creativity through a simple intervention and innovation of language, inviting us to re-imagine the scientific.

More of Ned’s writing about the intersection of technology, cultural values, and social networks (on- and off-line) have been published by gnovis, an online academic journal at Georgetown University, available at http://gnovisjournal.org/author/esp34/.