Kerry Madden-Lunsford, MFA
Affiliate Faculty, MFA in Creative Writing Program
MFA, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Up Close Harper Lee
“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
I find myself thinking about Mark Twain’s quote and what it means as I encourage students to discover their voices as writers. In all of my workshops whether in a group or in a one-on-one editing session, I try to establish a tone that is both rigorous and supportive. People have asked me more than once if voice can be taught? It’s assumed that a writer either has a voice or doesn’t and one can’t “teach” voice. I don’t believe that’s true. Of course, it’s exciting when the voice of a writer practically jumps off the page and the reader is swept up into the narrative because of the energy in the prose, but in working with writers, it’s both challenging and rewarding to help them discover their voices in both fiction and creative nonfiction.
Through a series of writing sparks, I encourage my students to delve into their own lives to mine for material. I use a wide range of texts from Dinty Moore’s The Truth of the Matter to Heather Sellers’ Introduction to Creative Writing to Brenda Euland’s If You Want to Write to Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees to Naked Playwriting by William Missouri Downs and Robin U. Russins. Honestly, this is just the tip of the iceberg for all the resources I draw from in helping students shape their stories.
I am also a firm believer in having students read their words out loud to see how they sound. I call this the “Grace Paley Method” of workshopping as I want them to listen to the way words sound and react to how a story is working on a visceral level on that first read. My philosophy is to allow the writing to be lively, messy and full of risks in the first drafts and then together, we look hard at the revision process and how to shape and craft a story in rewrites by asking a series of questions to get to the heart of the narrative. I try to help my students see the joy and possibility in the revision process, because they have the literary map in front of them filled with possibility. My goal is for the students to leave the workshop with a stronger sense of voice and commitment to the narrative and a greater understanding of the discipline needed to embrace the writing life.
I also remind them of E.L. Doctorow’s words: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
As their teacher and mentor, I try to help them make that trip with joy, curiosity, and hope. Dread and that harsh inner editor will no doubt try to hitch a ride, too, but I encourage my students to believe in themselves as writers and I remind them of Laurie Halse Anderson’s words too:
1. Find the stories hiding in your heart and write them down.
2. Polish your stories with the tools of our craft.
3. Submit your work intelligently and professionally.