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Art and Literature in the Raw

Essay by Urszula Humienik, a member of the Congress of Rough Writers.

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Kurt Vonnegut once told The Paris Review, “I think it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.” Which is something I must have thought or heard or read somewhere sometime in high school, because instead of writing and literature, I decided to pursue a degree in my other passion.

I didn’t decide to go into some useful and prestigious field like law or medicine, like many other writers such as Harper Lee, John Grisham, Anton Chekhov, Khaled Hosseini, or even Gertrude Stein. No. I decided to go into art, a field even more useless than being an English major. Of course, I don’t believe that. I believe both art and literature to be essential. These two fields make us truly human while simultaneously showing us the human condition in the raw.

As a smart English teacher once said, “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” (John Keating, Dead Poets Society)

There seems to be an interwoven connection in my mind between art and literature, and it’s possible I’m not the only one. Lots of writers and poets made art, including: Sylvia Plath, Kurt Vonnegut, Lewis Carroll, Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs, Herman Hesse, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, William Blake, e.e. cummings, and many others. Some artists also wrote. The surrealist painter Leonora Carrington wrote stories. Salvador Dali wrote screenplays. Even such brand names as Warhol and Picasso wrote. Gertrude Stein straddled the fence between these two worlds as a writer, art collector and muse. Her home was filled with artists of all types, including writers – so many of whom we know and love (or love to hate).

Then there are people like Patti Smith and Audrey Niffenegger, most known for The Time Traveler’s Wife, who make a living working in several artistic fields. I admire them both, and hate them just a little out of jealousy for being able to do what they love without staying within the boundaries of a neat label. We so love to label and put things in their place. I remember a friend once yelling at me in the stairway in high school, “Are you an artist or a writer? You can’t be both.” My answer throughout my life has always been why not.

There are several things I believe to be unarguable truths. One, our passions make us more interesting. Two, writers without passion for writing and the subject cannot write well. Three, any activity done without passion cannot be sustained for very long.

Somehow, in my life, I was fortunate to develop several passions. Two of them – art and writing – developed almost simultaneously, interwoven, interconnected to the point of being inseparable, one needing the other. I do not know if one can exist in this mind without the other. The way I see it, writing and visual art are just modes of expression, of connecting to another human being, of creating a space for an idea.

Visual art and literature begin in the same place in the psyche of their creator. I’m not sure if the spark to create them are the same, but maybe it is. Sometimes I feel that something that has come to me must be in the written and sometimes in the visual form, but I cannot explain the why or how I know that. The most interesting is when these two intersect. I have characters in my stories that are artists, for example, and I am drawn to create their art.

My art background also provides material for stories. An example is the following flash I came up with in response to one of Charli’s prompts, where I imagined what it would be like growing up in a house with a stolen painting hidden in plain sight.

Father’s Poppy Painting

A painting hanging in my father’s study figured large in my childhood. I remember its exotic golden yellow and crimson poppies on a background of burnt sienna and ochre. I remember days spent studying and copying it. I remember my mother constantly practicing Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in D minor. I remember father always gone on business. I remember the scent of Arfaj flowers wafting through the windows. Father’s poppy painting was the reason I decided to study art history at university.

One day when taking a class on famous stolen paintings, I discovered father’s poppy painting in my book.

There are several similarities between art making and writing. For starters, they often begin with a concept. Sometimes it’s just a word or a color or a vague idea. Once you have a concept, art and writing both have different phases of creation and exploration before achieving the final product:

  • play and experimentation – I’d argue that this may be one of the most important stages for both;
  • sketching, what would be akin to raw writing;
  • planning or outlining – depending on how a writer/artist works, this may happen earlier or later in the process;
  • and application of several layers.

This last phase may be thought of in different ways, but over time it has become how I think of the formation of a piece (of artwork or story). In a painting, this phase is obvious. The painter begins with a sketch or several, then the canvas is prepared with a base paint, next several background layers are applied, details are added, and added, and added, and added until the painting has achieved the painter’s intentions.

This is an oversimplification, of course, but a similar process occurs when writing. We begin with an outline or maybe just a rough story idea, which is then written and refined over layers. Some parts of the original raw writing become hidden under the layers of “improved” writing, but they are still there. And in my experience, the raw writing is necessary and enriches the final piece in ways others may not fully comprehend.

I spend much of my time thinking how I would describe a piece of art. It’s an exercise that’s more difficult than it seems (try it). There are many ways to talk about color and qualities of a line. It’s possible I could write essays on just those two characteristics alone. I also spend a great deal of time visualizing things I am writing, and I hope that improves my writing, deepens it, making it more tactile. I hope this means my writing is refreshing in the way Vonnegut said.

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Urszula Humienik is a freelance writer and editor from Chicago, currently living in Bialystok, Poland. When she’s not working on her first novel, she’s doing yoga, meditating, or making delicious vegan food. You can find her on her blog or her latest obsession, Instagram.

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Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at wordsforpeople@gmail.com.

Raw Weather

Wind howls across the high mountain desert of Gallup and rocks my RV with a steady wave-like rhythm. I’ve heard the joke several times already from locals: spring arrives, depositing Arizona in New Mexico. With the airborne sand, I do believe it’s from across the state-line to the west. It’s so gusty here, highways post windsocks to warn of cross-winds that can tumble a semi or RV. For now, we’re rocking while stationary.

It’s more than windy today at the ranch. I thought I scheduled a guest for the series Raw Literature, checked the calendar and see that I scheduled next week! In the midst of a move and a break-down, it’s just another hiccup. I’m fond of lemonade so today’s scheduling lemons gave me opportunity to participate in Irene Water’s fascinating memoir prompt, Weather: Times Past. What’s unique about her prompt is the collection of data based on memory, generation, region and urban or rural proximity. Participants and readers get to compare experiences. It’s open to anyone, and as is the case with most responses to prompts, this is a piece of raw writing.

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Memory of a Gen X Buckaroo, Weather in Rural North California

The old Californios Ranchos sat inland from the coast where fog creeps in by night and burns off by mid-morning. This region is home to cattle ranching, centuries old. Before there was California, there were the Land Grant holdings of Mexico and the original Missions of Spain. Weather didn’t change ownership; gold did. When Sutter discovered a gold nugget at his lumber mill, the (18)49ers poured into the region, and the US claimed it as a state: California.

To the ranchos, a change of hands didn’t mean a change in work. The miners needed to eat, and the ranches provided beef.

Some men came to mine, others to set up businesses. My family came to ranch, raising cattle, apricots, turkeys, hay or managing ranches. One grandfather was the foreman for an original rancho and another bought it after making his wealth by turning his ranch into a golf course. For generations, both the men and women in my family rode in the San Benito Horse Show & Rodeo. I even won several trophies for horse showing and one for goat tying, all before I was of an age to go to school.

This is buckaroo country — a culture unique to the Californios influence of the Ranchos style of ranching and horsemanship. And like any agricultural community, it’s always focused on the weather. In rural California, dry spells could turn into years long droughts, and rain could flood the dry river beds. It was a deluge-fueled flood that first caught my attention in regards to weather, and it was so severe, it cut off ranches from communities. One of my earliest recollections is standing with my parents on one side of a raging torrent of water as my grandparents stood on the other side. That memory has transfixed a fascination and horror of floods.

Many more times I would stand over flooded rivers in other states, drawn to relive the earliest memory of how water could swell so vast and swift, muddy and full of churning debris. Such has been the weather cycle in California and I wonder how the earliest ranchos managed. And that is how I begin raw thoughts for historical fiction. The confluence of memory and history and curiosity.

So I will end with a trio of flash fiction (at this rancho, its always 99 words, no more, no less) based on where my thoughts led me.

The Bad Dream of a Californios Girl

Maria shouted across the arroyo swelled with frothing mud. “Papa! Vaya con Dios! Papa! Mama!”

“Maria! Maria! Wake up. You’re dreaming the bad dream.”

Maria gasped in the dark, feeling her Aunt Tessa’s hands. “I’m awake, Tia.” Outside, she heard rain splatter against the hacienda’s shutters. She shivered.

“Maria, I’ve fixed of a cup of cocoa.” Her aunt lit the hurricane lamp and Maria saw the steaming cup sitting on the small table by the window. Her aunt had fixed her cocoa five years ago when she escaped across the flooded arroyo. The flood that swept away her parents.

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The Only Path Left

Father Sean Kincaid, nudged the mare to press forward in the rain and sopping ground. He’d experienced thunderstorms back in Missouri, but this was different. God Almighty had forged a sky river the first 12 days of 1851. Hadn’t scripture promised an end to God’s flooding wrath?

The bridge he’d crossed earlier was gone. Not a splinter remained. Sean’s chest tightened. On the other side was his parish church. Behind him was Rancho Santa Ana he had failed to reach because of a landslide. He looked up. Not to God, but to the steep incline he’d have to traverse.

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Good Horse-Sense

Capitan reared and snorted. The stallion charged his herd, pushing mares back, away from the river overflowing its banks on both sides. A deadly lake, pooling in the moonlight, eroding pasture. Capitan whinnied, turning on any horse who tried to bolt in fear.

“Damn stud save them mares,” Joe said, over coffee. The old ranch-hands gathered after mass at Kincaid’s Cantina.

“Unlikely, Joe.” Corey Fairfield expressed the skepticism of a vineyard owner. Educated.

Patty poured toppers. “Unlikely? As unlikely as your sons serving in the Pacific?”

Corey flushed at the chuckles. Their sons were Marines. Good horse-sense meant survival.

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Raw Literature: Spring Review #3

The table is set for writers at Carrot Ranch. It’s like an old-fashioned ranch BBQ where the host supplies the roast meat and the guest bring sides. The main course is flash fiction, and each writer who responds to a weekly challenge provides their own dish based on voice, genre and technical approach. Each “side” is a raw dish of sorts– a beginning, discovered nugget or condensed serving. Together we create a meal at the table.

A literary community is an environment for writers to create — to write, read and discuss. It’s a dynamic shared meal. Like in science, art thrives with diversity. The idea for a shared meal at the ranch comes from one of our writers who wrote and narrated a video explaining the importance of scientists working across disciplines. It made me think, why not apply that idea to writers? We may create our first works alone, but as described in this video, we can have a broader impact sharing our different creative approaches, genres and inspirations.

What we are exploring in this guest series called “Raw Literature” is the creative side of writing. As literary artists, our medium is words. But how do we create with words? What processes do we choose and why? Where do we go to get inspired? Different writers from the table at Carrot Ranch share their views in essays flavored as differently as each writer. This is our third review of essays from our first quarter.

Ann Edall-Robson rides to the ranch from her own Canadian frontier where she captures and conveys her region’s pioneer heritage. In “Raw From the Soul” Ann describes how she writes from the heart and why she’s inspired by her western heritage: “Now, more than ever, is the time we need to be the keeper of the old ways, traditions and stories. The raw life, regardless of the culture, needs a home. In both my writing and photography, I am passionate about recording and sharing the old days and ways.”

Kerry E. B. Black refreshes us with a water analogy that resonates with writers. In her essay, “Writing is Water,” Kerry offers sound advice: “Yet words, like water, need containers, structures designed to hold them. Otherwise, they slip away as quickly as we grasp. Thus, a good writer hones craft and sharpens skills. Through such pursuits, writers progress from journeymen to masters, but the pursuit of perfection never ends.”

Norah Colvin teaches us about the very first efforts by taking us to the classroom in “A Class of Raw Literature“. As an early childhood educator and writer of teaching materials, Norah explains: “As an early childhood educator, I was immediately excited about how the concept of “raw literature” might apply to the writings of children. Surely nothing can be more raw than those first steps into the world of writing; nothing more authentic, more real, or more valuable in their own right.”

Allison Mills dances across the page and gives us a different look at choreography of words. She’s a dancer, scientist and writer (and also the creator of the trans-disciplinary video shared earlier in this post). In her essay, “Choreography in the Rough” she describes her process: “I get too excited listening to Tchaikovsky to get much rough drafting done, but headphones and music are an important part of my writing process. No lyrics—words don’t beget words for me. I have to tap into a mental and emotional space where I feel the shape and rhythm of words as movement before my conscious mind taps them out on the keyboard.”

Enjoy this opportunity to catch up at the meal offered at Carrot Ranch. Like a chuckwagon, it follows all we do here and we continue to have plenty to eat.

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Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at wordsforpeople@gmail.com.

Raw Literature: Spring Review #2

One of my favorite analogies for writing and revising a book is to look at editing in three layers: bones, flesh and skin. At any layer, your writing can be raw — newly knit bones (structure); exposed flesh (details); and tender skin (polish). It depends upon a writer’s process, unique voice and set of strengths as to what one’s first efforts unfold to be. This is what we are talking about in essays by guest writers at Carrot Ranch. This is raw literature.

Today, I was reminded of the importance of structure at the beginning of a writing journey. I’m beginning a different journey, my first ever pulling my home/office on wheels. We had a dinky (and leaky) camp-trailer last summer that pulled behind our farm truck after our rental went on the market and we had no other rental available in our rural north Idaho community. We became among the shadow homeless, meeting other rural homeless in RV parks and veterans living out of their vehicles. This is different from what you see in urban centers where those experiencing homeless are on the streets.

It’s been a raw experience in the sense that it was unexpected and not intended.

But like raw literature, it holds surprises. We’ve learned that with the right RV, it can be enjoyable. I’ve even met a few other uprooted writers and we’ve become part of a sub-culture in America. However, with the right RV, we needed the right truck — a bigger truck. We landed on Mars and have been stranded in lot 70 for all of winter. With the return of tourists to Zion National Park, we knew our home needed to get moving. Through several moments of synchronicity, the Hub’s sister found us a truck. And appropriate to Carrot Ranch, it’s a ranch truck.

The Hub drove 2,400 miles to swap the farm truck for the ranch truck in Kansas. We had a tight schedule, having been given a date by the RV park that we needed to move out of lot 70. On the way back, the Hub encountered the Dodge Death Wobble on an 8,500 foot mountain pass in Colorado. It scared all three of us, the Hub, the Sis and me. He got back on the road after talking to us both, and the Sis and I stayed on the phone together, helping each other not to worry. The ranch truck did fine after that. The Hub met a group of cowboys at a cafe the next morning, and he asked them if they experienced such a vibration in their Dodges. They all laughed and welcomed him to Dodge ownership.

In a way, it’s like writing. We often encounter death wobbles in our first efforts — stale details, flat characters, cliche-pox. It scares us into thinking our writing isn’t sound. But it is all fixable. Like the cowboys told the Hub, slow down on the corners downhill. Dodge is a good truck; it has good bones. In your first efforts, focus on your story, the bones of what you want to do and slow down and pay attention to the details and leave the polish for last. Write strong bones.

In this review, we are looking back at three essayists who explore raw literature. The purpose of the reviews is to give writers and readers time to catch up and reflect on the previously posted essays in the Raw Literature series. This is meant to be an ongoing discussion. One essay may spark an idea for another.

  1. Anne Goodwin considers what it means to develop first works and take your work From Raw to Ready. She reflects on the industry standards that don’t come with a rule book: “Of course, you might be thinking, if you want people to read your stuff, it’s got to be right! I’m not disputing this at all. Publication implies a certain standard; what’s not clear is how to set about achieving it, or even what that standard might look like.” Anne compares raw writing to raw walking and the importance of acquiring skills or tools. She also applies a model that takes the writer from raw to ready and asks for your ideas, too.
  2. Jules Paige takes us directly to the page and explains her pen name in Jewels on the Page. She shares her first process as a child that has led to the writer and poet she is today. Jules says, “I write for amusement. Perhaps guided by a muse. Though some may argue that muses do not exist. Maybe my muse is my own intuition, which often unconsciously picks up even the most subtle of cues.” She explores the process, the impact of prompts and interweaves her poetic verse.
  3. C. Jai Ferry takes us to an unsettling incident in a rural community to give us the experience of what it’s like to seek stories for Writing Grit. She talks about how her stories explore human nature between black and white norms. C. Jai says, “My stories will never be made into after-school specials. They are gritty and raw, tackling difficult issues that we all face at some point in our lives.” She explains how her goal is not to normalize these raw lives of her characters but to shed light on the evil lurking in our own communities.

As you can see from this set, the idea of raw literature is as varied as the writers who step up to create. Enjoy this week’s review!

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Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at wordsforpeople@gmail.com.

Raw Literature: Spring Review #1

January 4, 2017 we kicked off the new year at Carrot Ranch with an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers. What marks us as literary artists is not poetry or prose, it’s not genre or length of writing. What marks us as literary artists is creativity with the written word. After three years of writing with diverse writers from around the globe and across genres, I was curious about how we create in our chose medium.

It’s interesting to explore the whirring behind such inventive minds, and understand that the term raw literature applies broadly to what we do as much as what we first write. So far, we’ve had ten writers talk about what raw literature means, why writing is a creative process and how literature impacts other areas of life. It’s a dialog that could continue indefinitely and the conversation grows as we ponder what another has said.

That is why I’ll periodically pause for reviews of previous essays in the series. There’s good pondering and inspiration you don’t want to miss. This week we’ll catch up with the first three essays from guest writers.

  1. Sherri Matthews introduced the guest series with Memoir and What Lies Beneath, and reflects on her initial idea for a memoir. It’s a deep and introspective path to recreate life moments with words on a page. She writes, “But I am not writing a memoir for personal catharsis, nor to air the family’s dirty laundry, wreak revenge or set the record straight.  It’s an itch I can’t scratch, the baring of my soul in a gut-ripping, blood-letting, snot-flinging exercise in pursuit of the real story.”
  2. Sarah Unsicker has temporarily hung up her writing hat to serve constituents as State Representative of Missouri’s 91st District. What an historic time for a woman to be elected to office in the US. While she might not be writing creatively in her new role, it’s influence remains. She tells us in an interview for Rough Writer for Congress, “Literature helps people consider different situations in life with more empathy and understanding.”
  3. Geoff Le Pard jumped into the conversation with a lawyer’s regard for definitions. In Natural or Explicit, he explores the meaning of raw and goes beyond definitions to what it means to feel exposed, writing, “For any work, if we truly want to get that rawness, newness, freshness, we should be prepared for some hurt and not be scared to expose our vulnerabilities.”

Be sure to join catch up with us some more the next two Tuesdays. Join the conversation or consider adding to the continuing dialog. What does raw literature mean to you? How do you view yourself as a literary artist and what do you do with your first efforts? If you are launching a new book, consider writing an essay in this series as part of any blog tours you might be doing. You can share how your published work began as a literary artist’s first raw attempt.

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Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at wordsforpeople@gmail.com.

Raw Literature: Choreography in the Rough

Essay by Allison Mills, a member of the Congress of Rough Writers, and the Darling Daughter of the Lead Buckaroo

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Deep down—way deep down where words melt into heartbeats and cation exchanges—I know I am a dancer. In that regard, I consider myself a writer second. Or perhaps I’m an editor second because I play the role of choreographer as I craft the words of a first draft. In my mother’s words, these stories in the rough are raw literature.

Yes, Carrot Ranch blog extraordinaire Charli Mills is my Mumsy Darling; it’s a nickname my sister and I gave her in high school and the one I still use in my mobile contacts. No surprise, my earliest memories are of her, living room leaps, and Shakespeare. I can appreciate Norah Colvin’s recent post on teaching children the process of writing and the value of a portfolio as Mumsy Darling was my first instructor in storytelling.

The specific memory I can recall is filtered through a home video. Her long auburn hair swaying, Mumsy leads us three children in a wild, dance-run circle to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. We spin, leap, throw our arms as only children and their mother can. The suite transitions, we fall to the floor, and ever the writer, Mumsy hears her musical cue for words, “Romeo, oh, Romeo! Where art thou, oh, Romeo?”

Before she can finish the monologue, my logger of father—wearing a cowboy hat and Elmer Fudd t-shirt—walks through the door, swinging his arms as only a man with bull shoulders and cantaloupe biceps can. “Right here, babe!”

The whole scene is improvised. There is an ease to the phrases and pirouettes. It’s raw. It’s a feeling I now chase as an adult writer working in science communication for a university. It’s a memory I use to spark choreography as a dance instructor and performer. To embrace raw literature, I approach my writing as a dance piece.

I get too excited listening to Tchaikovsky to get much rough drafting done, but headphones and music are an important part of my writing process. No lyrics—words don’t beget words for me. I have to tap into a mental and emotional space where I feel the shape and rhythm of words as movement before my conscious mind taps them out on the keyboard. Caught up in the steps, my hands will rise and flick out; at times, deep in concentration and imagination, my whole body steps away from the screen and I’m snapped back to reality by my headphones. Many of my coworkers have walked in on this desk dance; lit happens, people.

For all the touchy-feeling sound of this process, I’m terribly precise. Before my writing flows, I have to soak up so much information—just imagine all the facts a top-tier researcher with new paper can lay out in an hour-long interview—and I sort it first into messy notes and recordings, then weave the highlights into a tight and detailed outline. I work best with templates and a plan, even a rough one, helps me breathe life into a raw story. Sometimes I jump into the petit allegro of the body copy; often I bend the beginning into place and follow through like a traditional barre from plies to grand battements, kickers are endings after all.

Dance improvisation is the closest thing to writing for me. Improv appears extraneous; non-dancers may be surprised to learn how much structure is needed, much as non-writers may not realize how much research and thought goes into raw literature. A dancer builds up muscle memory, so that as she choreographs on the fly, her moves come smoothly and with practiced grace. Sometimes the steps are repetitive or off-beat, but you can’t rework what you don’t practice. A writer pens words every day and sometimes coughs up a phlegmy first draft for the same reason.

Practice does not make perfect; practice just opens up more opportunity and makes it easier to clear out the crud. Cutting and polishing are the precise tools of editing; raw literature is the material, crafted from intuition.

While rawness comes with some roughness, genuine expressions beat rote and memorized masks. I channeled this recently in a fusion improv I dedicated to my family and where we’ve all come since our living room ballets. I planned out the structure and agonized for months on what story to tell. On the night of the show, though, I realized it’s only a dance. It’s only a rough draft. Let go.

(See Allison’s solo at 4:55 and you’ll understand what comes of her raw choreography in a piece she dedicated to her family.)

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2F47NorthBellyDance%2Fvideos%2Fvb.140461969751378%2F227246991072875%2F%3Ftype%3D3&show_text=0&width=560

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Allison Mills is a Science and Technology Writer at Michigan Tech. A through and through geek, Allison writes university research stories. She studied geoscience as an undergrad at Northland College before getting a master’s in environmental science and natural resource journalism at the University of Montana. She moonlights as a dance instructor, radio fiend, and occasional rock licker. She writes features from fruit flies to sulfurous volcanic emissions. Read her published articles at Michigan Tech, and for all you sci-fi geeks and writers, follow her at Unscripted where science rolls off the tongue in discussions about campus research. Allison wrote, Welcome to Superfund, a multi-media masters project, including podcast journalism, environmental writing and map-making. She dances with the troupe, 47 North Belly Dance, and tweets at @aw_mills.

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Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at wordsforpeople@gmail.com.

A Class of Raw Literature

Raw Literature by Norah Colvon @Norah Colvin @readilearnEssay by Norah Colvin, a member of the Congress of Rough Writers.

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I was quite fascinated with Charli’s introduction to this conversation about raw literature  right here on her blog at Carrot Ranch Communications.  I was unfamiliar with the term but her explanation made it clear.

 “Raw literature is first-works. It’s the original material a writer produces in response to an idea, challenge or aspiration. It’s the novelist’s first draft; the poet’s scribbling of a sonnet; a screenwriter’s initial storyboard. It’s a memoirist’s recognition of a relevant story to share. It’s that ah-ha moment when the imagination outpaces the fingers across a keyboard or a tongue giving diction. It’s the writer’s eye on the blank page like a sculptor’s gaze through a block of marble.”

Her description makes these works feel authentic, real, and valuable in their own right, without a requirement to be measured against anything else. They are first works; not drafted, revised, and edited; not polished for publication; but works that deserve recognition for their contribution to the process that is writing.

As an early childhood educator, I was immediately excited about how the concept of “raw literature” might apply to the writings of children. Surely nothing can be more raw than those first steps into the world of writing; nothing more authentic, more real, or more valuable in their own right. Surely these first works need to encouraged, nurtured, and respected as are those of any writer.

Unfortunately, all too often, writing done in school is seen as an opportunity to bring out a red pen and have all its failings highlighted. If that were to happen to one of our first works immediately we downed our pen, or removed our fingers from the keyboard, how would we respond? Would it encourage us, or would we feel crushed, never to try again?

Too often school writing requires children to write a single draft, about a given topic, in a particular genre, in a set and limited amount of time, with little opportunity for planning or discussion, or for editing and revision.

Then they are assessed on it.

They are required to be pantsers whether they like it or not. Some do, relishing the challenge. These are often the children with advanced language and literacy skills; able to use book language, having an understanding of story and other literary structures, and an above average ability to use conventional spellings. A red mark on their work is rare. They are more likely to receive words of encouragement, if one could consider “Good work” to be encouragement.

Many more children dread the challenging experience, knowing that whatever they produce, their pages will soon be more red than black. As with much else at school, they accept their lack of choice and do what they can to meet task requirements.

Far better than this approach is that of “process” or “portfolio” writing. In some ways, it does for writing what DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) does for reading. It values writing, and the process of writing. Everyone, including the teacher, writes. Every. Day.

Children keep all their pieces of writing, their first works, their raw literature in a folder or portfolio. Teachers conference with them about their writing, and children choose the pieces to work on, the pieces to polish for publication.

In a conference, children talk about their writing; including their purpose for writing, what it is about, what they like about it, and where they think it needs improvement. The child might read it to the teacher, and the teacher responds as a listener, requesting more information if required for meaning, asking questions to prompt ideas for revision. A teacher’s pen never touches the paper, but children are taught and provided with guides which they use for editing their own work. Only when a piece is near ready for publication might a teacher, in the child’s presence and with the child’s permission, edit the work. For early childhood writers, perfection is never a requirement anyway. Their invented spellings and implied complications and solutions are always a treasure.

Conference responses are also modelled for, and taught to, the children to enable them to share with and respond to each other in ways that help progress their writing process. Responses from peers are always appreciated and valuable.

Children’s raw writing is just one facet of a classroom program identified by an immersion in literacy and literature. Without exposure to literature it is impossible for children’s writing to develop. Children must be read to daily from a wide range of rich literature. They must have many opportunities for independent reading, and be involved in group reading such as readers’ theatre.

When I first became involved with process writing in the 1980s, we called ourselves “A Class of Writers”. We wrote daily. In addition to their independent “process writing” time, children wrote a diary, which was really about communication between each child and me. They wrote to me first thing in the morning. I wrote back to each in the afternoon after school, and so it went, every day of the school year.

The children were always bubbling with ideas, begging for writing time. Ideas came from what we had read together, or they had read independently. Sometimes they wrote about real experiences, sometimes from their imagination.

Alongside all of this, there was instruction, guidance, encouragement, and support, often referred to as “scaffolding”.

We cannot simply give the children pencils and paper and expect them to write. We must model the skills for them, and make them privy to techniques that writers use, through an appreciation for, not an analysis of, literature.

We need to extend children’s repertoire by sometimes providing a stimulus, a suggestion, a structure; by modelling a genre; and writing collaboratively to teach particular aspects of the writing process.  And more than that. Every teacher must be a writer. I don’t mean a published writer; but every teacher needs to write, with and alongside their children. How else can they understand the process and what they are expecting of children?

If we view children’s writing as raw literature, giving it the same respect as we give our own, how differently may we view them as writers? How differently may they view themselves?

If you are interested in reading more of my thoughts about children’s writing, check out Writing to order – done in a flash! and Writing woes – Flash fiction on my NorahColvin blog, or my early childhood teaching resources for writing on readilearn.

Charli, thank you very much for this opportunity to share (some of) my thoughts about children’s raw literature.

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readilearn @NorahColvin @readilearn

Norah Colvin is an educational writer, an educator, and a writer. She is passionate about education and driven to write in almost equal measure. She writes for the joy of combining both passions in one pleasure.  Responding to flash fiction prompts at the Carrot Ranch provides an opportunity to hone her fictional writing skills in a supportive community while sharing her thoughts about education and learning. Exposition and fiction: the twin joys of reading and writing.

Norah has contributed to numerous educational publications over the years. She currently shares teaching ideas and resources for early childhood educators on her website readilearn.

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Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at wordsforpeople@gmail.com.