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My latest book Creative Writing – a Classroom Guide has just been released by Natur och Kultur publishers, Sweden.  The goal of this book is to improve society through helping students understand stories and how to structure them, by applying theory and practise.

In the theory section, I’ve included completely new ways of teaching story writing through conversation theory and the elements of the narrative.  I also include traditional linguistic tools and narrative mechanics, and I reference authors as widespread as Aristotle, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly, Edgar Allen Poe, and Stephen King. The practical section includes detailed suggestions for structuring workshopping sessions, and I also provides guidelines to protect the integrity of student authors (no value judgments or helpful suggestions, etc.).  Instead of traditional writing prompts or exercises, I’ve included eleven writing challenges –– enjoyable tests of skill that you can make as simple or complex as you like, such as the Poetic Language, Character Names, Tempo, Tonic, and Cityscape challenges.

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Creative Writing – a Classroom Guide, by Kevin Frato (Natur och Kultur, 2019). Cover photo: Cecilia Magnusson

The book also offers textual examples from classic works to illustrate each skill or concept, and also includes four sample of student work, to illustrate the rich variety of stories students write.  Along with the text, you’ll also find easy-to-access online materials, including worksheets with clear layouts and more textual examples.

Whether you’re a teacher interested in working with creative writing in the classroom, or looking for new ideas for the work you already do –– or whether you’re a writer looking for a more structured understanding of the process –– this book provides you with a rich variety of practical and theoretical tools of the trade.

Special thanks on this project to my editors Åsa Gustafsson and Desiree Kellerman.

I’m available to lead workshops on this topic (contact me or Natur och Kultur); you can also sign up for one of my classes at Skrivarakademin, Stockholm.

Natur och Kultur Publishers passed out this flyer during the Skolforum conference in Stockholm in October, where I lectured on teaching creative writing in the classroom.

The book is slated to be released spring 2019.

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Don’t be fooled by the fact that Anthony Grooms’s latest novel The Vain Conversation (University of South Carolina press, 2018) is inspired by the 1946 Moore’s Ford Lynchings. Like fantasy and gothic tales, we read historical fiction not just to learn about the past, but also to understand our present lives. The Vain Conversation is especially topical, challenging us on nearly every page to consider just how much progress our society has actually made since then.

Grooms is an immaculately skilful writer. He opens the book with a pastoral scene, portraying the beauty of Georgia with the eye of a naturalist, and employing convincing psychological detail from childhood. Violence quickly shatters the peacefulness, though. Perspectives change, conversations grow more desperate, and the novel winds unrelentingly back upon itself, chasing resolution. This polyphonic work is really a collection of related novellas triangulating around a central question: what does it mean to be human? Is it more human to die for our beliefs, or to stoically suffer inhuman treatment, including death? At what point do those who abet or commit evil themselves become evil, and how far does the responsibility for abhorrent crimes spread throughout society?

The Vain Conversation is social archeology, digging strata by strata below the surface of our modern world, unveiling what we’ve buried in our collective bad consciences. The book is layered with horrific stories: US slavery; the pogrom of black Americans in Rosewood, Florida; the concentration camps of WWII; racial lynchings; post-traunmatic suicide; poverty and prostitution; and towards the end, drugs, crime, workplace-related sickness, and vengeance. Bertrand, one of the main characters, wonders at one point, “What Negro had a happy story to tell?” There is happiness in the book, flashes of friendship and love and true enlightenment –– but thwarted, always. The shorter, final chapter of The Vain Conversation is the most brutally paced for the reader. It shifts genres as the foundations of society itself shift, and brings to mind the urban post-apocalypse of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren.

Reading The Vain Conversation reminds us that the US has in fact been a dystopia for much of its past. I recently read Uncle Tom’s Cabin (why? because it was there, and I couldn’t avoid it any longer); the two books are equally unforgiving in their portrayals of inhumanity, and the folly of believing in providence.  The Vain Conversation is a painfully balanced novel which will hopefully take its rightful place in the ongoing societal discussion of who we think we are.

On Monday the 29th of October, I’ll be lecturing at Skolforum, Älvsjömässan, Stockholm, on creative writing and its connections to reading. I’ve been giving workshops on this and related topics around the country; this lecture will contain new ideas developed in my various classrooms, and included in my upcoming book Creative Writing – A Classroom Guide, to be published by Natur och Kultur (new release date: February 28th, 2019).

Throughout my years of teaching, writing, lecturing, and researching, I’ve developed what I believe is a breakthrough approach to teaching writing of all types, and creative writing in particular. It explains the underlying rules of various formats based on relationships of those engaged in these virtual conversations.

A special thanks to the teachers at Hedbergska gymnasium, Sundsvall, Rudbecksgymnasium, Örebro, Vägga gymnasieskola in Karlshamn, and Blackebergs gymnasium, Stockholm, Sweden, for their recent responses to key sections of my ideas and methods.

PS: I’ll also be speaking at Engelskaläraren 2019, a conference for English teachers arranged by Kompetensteamet at Westmanska Palatset in Stockholm, February 5th, 2019

Besides trying to write better stories for young people, one of my goals here in Sweden is to improve young people’s lives through reading and writing in the classroom.  Literature was one of the main things that made my life bearable as a teenager, and luckily I had teachers who understood and encouraged that.  But I don’t see reading and writing prioritized in Swedish high schools, at least not in English classes –– often the texts are too short, the books too boring, and the teachers afraid to let their students write or share their work. Also teachers don’t understand how much English students already know.  Social media and online gaming put young people into direct contact with the language for hours a day.  They’re quite simply capable of far more than we give them credit for, and their capabilities are going to waste while we drag them through rudimentary exercises.

Over the years I’ve surveyed my students on whether –– and if so, what –– they read outside the classroom.  One trend has remained consistent: fantasy.  While I was boring them with The Great Gatsby, they were busy at home ploughing through The Lord of the Rings.  After writing a master’s thesis on the developmental function of fantasy, I finally realized that we don’t have to beat Fitzgerald into our students –– we can join them in studying Tolkien, both his literature and literary theories.

I’ll be holding a seminar on Tolkien’s literary theories for English teachers at the publishers Natur och Kultur on Karlavägen, Stockholm April 22nd at 5:00 pm. I’ll also be presenting examples of student work which use his theories to analyze other fantasy tales.

Det fiffiga med noveller är just att de är så korta och behändiga; samtidigt är kortheten novellformens nackdel. Vem orkar sätta sig in i nya karaktärer och platser, tidsepoker och idéer, när vi vet att illusionen bara kommer att vara i några få sidor? Om jag ska lägga ner det arbetet som krävs för att komma in i berättelsens värld vill jag gärna få valuta för pengar, berättelse för tankekraft. Läsning är enligt mig teater som vi med textens hjälp spelar upp i fantasin; då ska det löna sig att bygga upp pjäsens scenografi, kostymer, språkmönster, psykologi, m.m.

Därför brottas novellsamlingar med ett alldeles eget problem: att de erbjuder den lata läsaren (eller den hopplöst långsamma, som jag) flera tillfällen att sluta mitt i, och ändå känna att vi fått kläm på boken. För mig, till exempel, krävs det utomordentligt skickliga noveller om jag ska sträckläsa en samling.

Det gör jag just nu med Selene Hellströms Våra händer stickande, kliande från Lejd förlag (2011). Noveller är inte perfekta, fler känns oavslutade eller ofärdiga, andra känns opåbörjade. Som om författaren glömt berätta för sina karaktärer att det är dags att dra igång nu, och i brist på vägledning gör de precis ingenting – förutom det de alltid gjort, vilket allt som oftast räcker. Det som är perfekt är Selene Hellström sätt att leka med och utforskar perspektiv, hon använder novellformen som ett elektronmikroskop för att studerar sina berättare. Nu när jag kommit halvvägs känns det jobbigt att ha fastnat – jag hade kanske hellre läst 157 sidor av en roman i stället för dessa 20 litterära munsbitar.

Men kanske inte. Jag har själv gett ut en hel del kort-korta noveller de senast åren. Kanske just därför uppskattar jag Hellströms fina hantverk.

At the final workshop of Creative Writing and Narrative Theory, I got a few questions about next term.  Here are the links and dates:

Creative Writing and Narrative Theory: February 9th-April 20th (ten Monday evenings, every week).  In this intro course I teach skills for expanding linguistic style, narrative mechanics, and range of subjects.

Novel Workshop: January 29th-May 7th (eight Thursday evenings, every other week).  In the novel workshop we analyze longer texts that tend to be part of extended projects.  We also work on theoretical issues.  This course may be repeated if desired.

The free trial evening will be January 14th; the info hasn’t been posted yet.

The Short Story Workshop weekend course has not been posted yet, either.

Finally, anyone interested in hearing me talk about using fantasy and fairytale theory in the classroom is welcome to sign up for my talk on the 11th of December at Natur och Kultur, Karlvägen, Stockholm.  I’ll also be talking about the books I’ve written for Natur och Kultur, and why I wrote the stories the way I did, etc.  I rarely discuss these projects on this blog, even though I’ve spent the past few years working on them.  So feel free to come and listen.

Yesterday evening in Östersund I met a dozen engaged English teachers.  We discussed literature and young people, course plans, course books, grading criteria, new ways of working, and fantasy and fairy tales.  I promised to post some fantasy and fairy tale ideas on this blog.  Here goes:

 

Three ideas from Tolkien’s On Faerie Stories:

1 Fairy tales are the oldest, most highly evolved form of literature

2 Most old fairy tales are broken or fragmented; therefore we need new ones

3 Eucatastrophe (‘beneficial death’): Tolkien invented this Greek term for characters dying and coming back to life for a good cause (Gandalf, The Little Mermaid).

 

Modern fantasy evolved from modern fairy tales written by E.T.A. Hoffman (‘Sandman’, ‘The Nutcracker’), H.C. Andersen (‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘The Ugly Duckling’), and others. Many people consider the first fantasy novel to be Phantastes (1858) by the Scottish Christian Socialist George MacDonald.

Fantasy means any story in which the laws of physics are broken. There are three main types:

Fantasy –– magic

Science Fiction –– science

Supernatural Fiction –– religion

 

Fantasy worlds:

High fantasy: stories take pace in another world (Middle Earth). Often social or political, using fantasy worlds to comment on our world.

Low fantasy: stories start in our world, move a secondary world, and return to our world. (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). Often psychological, using the journey between worlds as a chance for characters to grow.

Reverse low fantasy: stories start in a secondary world, move to our world, and return to the secondary world. (Monsters Inc,; the book Howl’s Moving Castle, but not the film)

Heterotopia: stories move between multiple worlds. Sometimes we don’t know which is the primary world and which are the secondary worlds. (Harry Potter)

 

Vladimir Propp was a Russian folktale researcher. His ideas were similar to Tolkien’s, but because of the Iron Curtain, Propp’s work was unknown in the West until the 1970s. Propp’s doctoral thesis from the 1920s The Morphology of the Folktale contains several main ideas:

1 It’s what the characters do –– not what a story or its characters are called –– that defines a story. Multiple characters can share the same function, and each character can have multiple functions (The Little Mermaid can be both a hero to the prince, and a villain to herself).

2 There are a limited number of things characters do in folktales.

3 Characters do things in the same order in every story, though not everything happens in every story.

 

Some standard characters in folktales:

  1. Hero (often reluctant)
  2. Helper
  3. Giver/donor
  4. Seeker (the other possible hero, who fails)
  5. Victim
  6. Magician
  7. Villain
  8. Obstructer
  9. Royalty (King, Queen, Prince, Princess)
  10. Family member
  11. Witch
  12. Monster
  13. Princess
  14. Dragon
  15. Horse
  16. Captives

And Propp’s stage props:

  1. Talisman (magical object or idea)
  2. Treasure

The hero and the villain: Propp points out that the hero and the villain usually meet twice: first the villain seeks out the hero; then the hero seeks out the villain.

Brains vs. Brawn:

Another folklore theorist named U.C. Knoepflmacher points out that heroes in African, European, and Asian tales solve problems using their brains; in American tales, heroes use brawn (physical strength).

One of my students recently pointed out that this difference is apparent in the Disney re-write of The Little Mermaid.

I’ll be giving free talks in Linköping, Sweden on the 25th of November, and in Östersund the next evening as part of the publisher Natur och Kultur Echo-series talks.  My subject will be working with fairy tales and fantasy with young readers and writers.

On the 11th of December I’ll be giving the same talk at Natur och Kultur, Karlavägen, Stockholm.  (Last spring there were hors d’oeuvres, books, and cotton tote-bags; I’m hoping for the same this time.)

Giving talks is something I love doing, though it does also makes me nervous.  For me, the feedback I get from the audience is the best part.  Last spring in Umeå, for instance, I got the chance to talk to people dealing with similar questions and problems as the ones I face.

This fall I’ve decided to focus more on integrating novels with textbooks, taking advantage of young peoples’ natural interest in fairy tales and fantasy, and new ways of working with reading and writing.

I’ll be giving workshops in Umeå (May 15th) and Stockholm (May 20th) on new ways of working with reading and writing in high-school classrooms. Sign-up is free, through Natur and Kultur. I’ll be leading exercises, discussing theory, and divulging secrets for working with young people and literature.

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