On Summer Writing Workshops

By: Sophie Clark

In the summer of 2017, I was willing to try anything. During the semester prior, I had become distant to my writing and decided to devote my free time in the summer to attending poetry workshops and traveling. First, I planned to attend the Juniper Summer Writing Institute at UMass Amherst for a week in June. Then, in July, I signed up for a weekend workshop at the University of Iowa in Iowa City for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. I anticipated a summer of inspiration and dreamed of meeting and learning from well-known writers as well as finding the path to becoming one myself.

At UMass Amherst, I was placed in a poetry workshop with Timothy Donnelly (Author of The Cloud Corporation). For a week, I would attend a craft talk in the morning, a workshop in the afternoon, and enjoy a reading by a contemporary writer in the evening. I found the writers involved in the program to be wonderful and the attending students encouraging. However, while I was there, I noticed I had done very little writing. Although I attempted to write in my free time, I felt too intimidated to write amongst the attending writers and decided to settle for taking a lot of notes instead. At the end of the week, I was glad to have gained a lot of books and information but was ultimately disappointed that I didn’t write more.

After my experience at Juniper, I had not given up hope on my Iowa Summer Writing workshop experience. I planned to do nothing but write for an entire weekend. Although I ended up writing a bit more because my group was writing from prompts in our workshop, I still wasn’t writing from that great source of inspiration I had hoped to find there. Again, I settled for mostly taking notes and exploring the city.

At the end of the summer, I was left with a good amount of books and a good amount of advice written in my notebook. In the coming semester, I would learn my inspiration was just around the corner and that I would soon find my voice in writing once again. Since that summer, I’ve not only learned that you cannot force inspiration but also that you cannot simply expect it. I was waiting for something to happen to me while, in truth, I had to make it happen myself. While I would recommend attending these workshops if you have the time and money, I would also advise you to truly make it worth your resources. Work hard while you’re there and try to get into good writing habits you can stick with afterward. And if you are unable to attend these workshops (which many of us college students are), know that if you work hard, you can gain the same knowledge on your own. Your greatest inspiration is waiting for you, but you ultimately have to find it for yourself.


Songwriting for Everyone

songwriting-2757636_960_720By: Virginia Gallner

When I started coaching for Omaha Girls Rock last summer, I found myself stumbling to find words for the process of songwriting. Standing in the Holland Center, surrounded by campers with so many of their own stories to tell, I struggled to find a way to explain how to unearth those stories and turn them into songs.

We started by being silly. Songs about potatoes, favorite colors, beloved pets. After much laughter and fun, we started to get more comfortable with the idea of digging deeper. Sometimes you have to give voice to the silly things, the jokes and absurdities, just to get comfortable with your voice as a songwriter.

But that’s just for getting started. If you want to write songs, the best advice I can offer is to listen.

Listen to all different kinds of music. Music that you might not normally enjoy. Listen to the way the words roll around each other, the way the melody chooses certain syllables to sustain and others to cut short. Songs are a very different beast compared to poetry, fiction, or nonfiction, because they have the added variable of melody. If you have ever performed slam poetry, you might know some of these techniques already.

Listen to the people around you for a taste of their stories. Songs, just like poems, do not have to be written from your perspective. Some of the greatest songwriters of our time—think of John Prine, for example, or Bob Dylan—wrote many of their songs about other people, sometimes even strangers. I invite you to sit in a coffee shop and listen to the conversations of strangers, and craft them into a ballad or lament spun out of your imagination.

Listen to your instincts. This process is an excavation, perhaps even more so than writing prose or poetry. Music is something primal and deep. But how do you take these very personal things and turn them into something universal, without saying something that hasn’t already been said before?

Everyone experiences the human condition. If you write about your own experiences, chances are, someone will connect with your story. It is all too easy to accuse a songwriter of being unoriginal with their choices of words and metaphor. But the most predictable songs, the ones that are loved and remembered, are the ones that speak to the human condition that we all know.

As we like to say here at 13th Floor Magazine, everyone has a story to tell, and I firmly believe that anyone can tell their story through song.

Process: 2 Nature-Inspired Writing Exercises

Greetings, writers!magnolia-trees-556718_960_720

Springtime —’tis the season of budding trees, green grass, little bouts of rain and thunder. The bees are buzzing back. The sky is blue. This time of regrowth and return is such rich material for writers. Nature is the one place where we can return to the basics and reflect on those processes that shape our world, without the constant noise of clocks, cars, and people. Like music and photography, nature is an avenue we can use to reflect on our lives, which encourages the creation of refreshing writing. Here are two exercises you can use to vivify your next writing project.

1. Take a nature walk. One of the simplest activities is taking a walk in an area with lots of natural features. The great thing? The world is a place full of extraordinary landscapes. There is a feature for everyone’s standard of natural beauty, whether that means the Appalachian Mountains or the small band of trees behind your neighborhood. Using a pen and notebook, write about everything that you see: the way the leaves flutter in the wind, the way the water moves in a stream, maybe even the way that squirrel is looking at you as you walk by. Write down all of the phrases and words that come to your mind. Observe the natural music on your walk, too—rushing water, rustling leaves, chirping birds, etc.

Another cool method is approaching your nature walk like a researcher (something explored in-depth by Keri Smith, author of How to Be an Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum). This method entails collecting all objects that inspire curiosity in you: a busted paper cup, twigs, shiny rocks, a glass bottle. The list can contain anything, really (but be safe!). Place them into a small bag and document them. Focus on the existence of the object. What does it look like? What happened to the object for it to look like it does? If this object could talk, what stories would it tell you?

2. Compile a collection of natural images. Sometimes weather conditions aren’t so conducive for nature walks. Luckily, the Internet allows us to see and hear nature right from home. Similar to our blog post titled “3 Ways Photography Can Assist Your Writing,” you can try browsing the many images and videos stored on search engines like Google. Corral your finds into a word document or a folder. If you use Pinterest, create a board for solely natural imagery. You could also take your own photography, emphasizing nature’s small (or large!) wonders that interest you.

If you prefer something a little more hands on, you could also cut images from magazines and make a collage. Perhaps you cut an image of an evergreen tree, and superimpose that upon a desert scene. The possibilities are endless. Let your imagination take you to new places, especially those based in the question that starts it all: what if?

Here are some links to get you thinking about nature this spring: