Workshops focus on personal voice, narrative



Imagine your life story from the point of view of a spoon. The ethical question to ask might be what an actual spoon might think of this. The honest question to ask might be whether or not anyone would find your life story interesting enough to read.

The Week Nine Chautauqua Writers’ Center workshops will address both of these concerns. “Two Truths and a Lie: Using Point of View in Poetry” is the poetry workshop led by poet-in-residence Nicole Cooley. David Valdes Greenwood, the prose writer in residence, will lead “Song of Yourself: Transforming Life into Memoir.”

Cooley and Greenwood are veteran workshop leaders at Chautauqua — “love” was both of their immediate and emphatic response to their prior experiences, Cooley in 2010, Greenwood in 2008 and 2011. They were quick to praise the attitude, eagerness and diversity of experience in their students.

During the academic year, Cooley directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College, City University of New York. She has written four collections of poetry and a novel. Greenwood has written three nonfiction books, a number of plays that have been produced in the United States and the United Kingdom and writes regularly for The Huffington Post. He teaches writing at Tufts University.

For Cooley, writing exercises are tricks that writers use to relax enough to put words on the page. If a teacher asks a student to write about a deeply personal experience, the student’s first response is to freeze up. If a teacher asks a student to write using a broken sheet of glass, a tube of blue paint and a postcard, the student might open up to the challenge.

“I think it’s much better to get to it in a roundabout way, in other words, than to feel the pressure of ‘I’ve got to write a poem with a capital P, and I’ve got to tell the truth with a capital T,’ ” Cooley said. “I try to get back to the idea, in fact, of childhood play, the way we’re all taught to write when we’re 10 and then we somehow lose it.”



When talking about voice, one such trick to play on one’s writing is to take on another point of view — for instance, that of a spoon. The idea that a voice pours out of a writer effortlessly and transforms into truth, Cooley said, must be struck down in a workshop.

When a poet adopts a point of view other than his or her own, a serious question might be whether or not that perspective is fair. Cooley cited a hypothetical example of a poet writing about a tsunami in Japan who is neither Japanese nor was present at the time of the disaster. There is no ruling on whether this is right or wrong for a poet to do. However, Cooley argues that there is a warp in the assumption that a reader accepts lies in fiction but expects purely subjective truth in poetry.

Cooley encourages her students to play with their writing and to avoid writer’s block by not always examining their writing in a gravely serious light.

“If the worst thing you do all day is write a bad poem, you’re having a very good day,” Cooley said. “You throw it in the recycling or the trash on your way out, and everything is OK. No one dies. No regimes are toppled. So I think the more we can experiment and try new things, the better writers all of us will be.”

In Greenwood’s workshop, students will craft material from their lives into original pieces of creative nonfiction or memoir.

“You want people to see with new eyes,” Greenwood said. “There are only so many ways to tell some stories … but do you have a fresh angle or a fresh take that would make a familiar story worth reading? Or is your experience so unusual or so different that it will be a new way of seeing for people?”

It is crucial that a writer finds a universal concept in his or her personal story, or at least a point of entry for a reader, Greenwood said. He plans to use strategies from other genres of writing to help students gain a new perspective on their stories.

“Often I have to think about it in terms of the tools that you would use in fiction to help [remove writers] … from their own lives,” he said, “and by that I don’t mean making stuff up, but I mean thinking about themselves as a character. You can find a way to convey to the reader a lot by really putting them in the moment and getting them outside of just the box of your head.”