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Poetry: Don’t Sweat the Technique

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Many poets feeling their way around free verse find themselves trapped by its relative lack of constraint. That is to say, they find themselves using formal elements that the form lends itself to very well, and even perfecting them, while remaining somewhat dissatisfied with the musicality in the work. The result can often be frustrating, as these kinds of poems are gems in many ways, and often sound fantastic when read aloud while being elegantly pruned constellations of detail on the page.

Establishment and Improvisation

The key to making the musicality pop out of free verse is to establish expectations or ground rules in the opening stanza, and then to embellish and ornament them as you go. This can be by building up linguistic structures that follow familiar rhythmic patterns, such as an iambic flow or a meter that you can fold and manipulate as you go. Once the pattern is constructed, it can be imported into different techniques and rotated to provide opportunities for change. For instance, if you are running an iambic flow and you are looking to move into a new pattern, breaking your last foot of a middle line in the stanza where you make the change can allow you to pivot to the resulting accent pattern in the next paragraph.

Numeric progressions can also be a big help. Working in sets of three or four and passing patterns at points of change is a popular move in many kinds of performance poetry. For example, repeating a rhyme scheme four times before using four of the same accented vowels in a row to gloss over the fact that the rhyme scheme has been dropped, and then landing back into a new rhyme on the other side of the feat. By rotating these techniques in conjunction with each other, a polyrhythmic structure free of entanglement with absolute rules or form can rise out of the relative emptiness of a free structure.

Notation and Cadence

If you are looking to make a free style pop, one way is to commit to a line length that is measured in something other than simple syllables. Since musicality is the main organizing principle in this particular exercise, mine it for more ways to use the language. Constructing lines around length of delivery time, using punctuation consistently to notate measured lengths of pauses, and spacing the poem so that the distance between words reflects their relative lengths are all organizing principles that can replace the standard rhythmic and metric constraints found in traditional poetic styles with a more open-ended approach to structure, one that allows the poet to use the organizing principle itself as a way of establishing their skills to the audience.

Notebook Exercises: Character Sketch

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As you develop your story, whether it’s a short-short or a novel, there are a few basic pieces of prep work you need to do. For shorter works, many writers find themselves making this preparation mental instead of writing out every step, but sometimes it’s helpful to write things out, even if you’re only going to be with a character or setting for a short time. This character sketch exercise can be used for book length projects or flash fiction, it’s just a matter of the length you give yourself and your commitment to detail.

Build a Dossier

To give yourself a good character sketch, you need to lay out some background information first. Set aside some time, and let yourself just get information out in bullet-point. You’ll worry about organizing your creative writing later. To make sure you have a lot to work with, consider all of the following:

  • Family members and their relationship to the character
  • Occupation, primary goal, and/or societal role
  • Past experience and skill set, including education
  • Current major objective or goal
  • Possible secondary/tertiary goals (if needed)
  • Recognizable physical features or characteristics

Once you have a bunch of character information bullet-pointed, you’ll want to move on to organizing it into a narrative. Whether this is the protagonist of your story or not, you will want to get yourself organized around a story starring this character, one that helps you map out the ways that the six items above interact on a day-to-day basis.

Origin Stories and Other Indulgences

There are a few ways you can organize the information, and since this sketch is for you, let yourself explore. If you can build drama and tension into this exercise, great. It will transfer to your main story. If not? OK. This is just for you. Consider how the following scenarios can help you understand this character from the right angle:

  1. How did your character get to be in their current job or role? Why do they owe loyalty to the people they do? Give us the place it started.
  2. Consider the same kind of origin story, but for a code of ethics, honor, or other worldview. Where and how did that begin?
  3. Write a memoir where the character shows us their most powerful family memory.
  4. Become Facebook friends with your character. What kind of private gossip do they share about the other people in your story?

No matter what genre you’re working in, these kinds of formative exercises help to build the world your creative writing takes place in. Even when these extra stories live and die their entire lives in your notebook, the extra information they bring to your judgment in your main projects is irreplaceable.

Study Abroad: What to Pack

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For a lot of students, getting ready for a study abroad program can be just as challenging as finding the right one in the first place. Between travel arrangements, academic preparation, and planning for in-country events, finding time to figure out just what supplies to bring can be a challenge. No matter what kind of study abroad program you’ve entered, you’ll want to make sure you pack a basic, balanced round of supplies. You will also want to make sure that you don’t over- or under-pack, because adding extra luggage is expensive and most students will want to have room to pick up a few things while they are in-country. Here’s how to find the balance:

  • Pack with a plan to do laundry, but remember your environment. You’ll need enough clothes to have several days of any kind of climate that might occur during your program. For Prague in summer, this can range from shorts and shortsleeves to jackets and light sweaters. If you’re headed elsewhere, keep it in mind.
  • If you know you want to shop abroad, bring less–chances are that you’ll find weather-appropriate clothes at your destination.
  • Keep in mind the electric grid wherever you are going may be different from home. Research and purchase the power converters you’ll need.
  • Check on your cell phone. Many newer smartphones come with a global compatibility package that you can enable, but sometimes you might need to purchase an inexpensive prepaid phone for use in-country.
  • Remember, there are toiletries everywhere. Focus instead on the personal items, books, and devices you will need to keep yourself on-track academically.

It’s also important to keep in mind the length of your program. It might be worthwhile to check an extra bag if you are going out of the country for a whole semester, but for shorter programs, you will probably want to keep things down to one checked bag and your carry-on, just to keep your costs in check. See you next week!

But What Do I Write Next?

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Wrapping up a project can be difficult for any writer, not just the ones who focus on creative genres. What most working writers have that creative writers often miss out on, though, is a prompt from outside. When your goal is to connect a client to an audience, to make recommendations to your management, or to communicate policy clearly to employees, your knowledge about the people who depend on your communications helps shape your choices. Your goals do the same thing. When you tackle creative work, though, finding that way to latch onto the next project can be difficult.

This blog has previously provided some strategies that are useful during the brainstorming process, but they don’t always work if the goal is to generate enough material to give you traction on a major work like a novel. For that, it can often be worthwhile to have a large-scale goal or theme that you need to play out, and to find numerous ways into those through smaller artistic acts. It can also be worthwhile to begin writing from the point of view of multiple protagonists, to generate thoughts about a series of events from conflicting viewpoints.

But what about the core of the idea itself? How do you latch on to something big enough that it takes tens of thousands of words to map its insides? How do you find the conflict that is just that difficult to resolve?

The answer is that you don’t find that conflict, you just realize it’s time to write about it. The broad themes and complex social maps that novels explore are mirrors of the writer’s understanding and experience. Yes, they are invented, but they are invented to explore the boundaries of experience allegorically, to hold a space where a point-of-view (or several) can be explored without repercussions on the physical plane. To find your next topic, you need to look at the things in your life that you wish you were talking about, and then you need to make a choice: Are you going to invent someone who can talk about them? Or are you going to put someone through them?

That moment of choice makes all the difference.

Studies in Prague: Franz Kafka

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Chances are, if you’re looking into the PSP, you already know a bit about Kafka’s career and history as a writer. One of the reasons we use his quote on the front page of our site is to highlight the fact that so much of the mood and matter of his writing is entrenched in the time and place that gave birth to it, the city of Prague. In 1883 Prague was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and as a result of social and economic pressures, his family encouraged their children to become proficient in High German, the language Kafka would later choose to write in.

Kafka’s personality was such that he constantly feared being found repulsive, as well as being considered a sexual failure. When these social fears and anxieties are combined with his cultural location as a middle-class, educated Jewish worker in a cosmopolitan city that was, nevertheless, prone to the prejudices and pressures of the age, it is easy to understand how the surreal and alienating elements in his more famous stories came to be. It’s also easy to understand how their application to byzantine bureaucracies and the inscrutable judgment of power came from a member of a minority population in a city that was being ruled by an outside power.

The influence of the focal lenses of culture, history, and social attitudes is clear at every point in Kafka’s work, making him an ideal writer to study if you are working to understand how literature interacts with the other elements of culture in its time. For writers, he also provides a unique example of the ways identity can be brought to bear in the craft, and by growing closer to the history that shaped his experience, students have the opportunity to find new layers of depth and richness when they return to their study of the words themselves.

3 Ideas to Get You Writing on a Slow Day

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One of the toughest parts of managing a creative writing process is transitioning into new projects. Whether you know what your next project is or you’re letting yourself find it through exploration, there are just some times when the obvious connections between ideas or events don’t pop out at you. During those times, it’s important not to let yourself take too much break time. Walking away from your desk when you are frustrated can clear your mind, but staying away can keep you from having the concentrated time you need to really tease an idea to completion. When you are having one of those days where your next story, poem, or essay idea is just over the horizon, try one of these approaches to see if you can get things back on track.

1. Keep Things Relative

Exploring relationships can be a great way to loosen yourself up. For new projects, it can be as simple as asking yourself about the relationship between two events that stand out strongly in your past. Other explorations might include two emotional themes that intertwine and interact, such as loss and renewal. If you are working on a larger project and you need to help yourself realize the world your characters move in, this can also be your chance to create some family background for your characters so that you know who they are. For poetry, the relationships might be a little more abstract, such as an exercise in exploring the relationship between how words sound and what they mean, or between different words that share a linguistic root.

2. Write What You See

Sometimes, you have plenty of ideas, but making them into words just isn’t happening. That’s okay. Most people think in multiple ways, and finding yourself with a series of images or even a mental movie can be a great place to create from. You do eventually have to find ways to word things out, though, and one way to do that is to just get yourself typing so that your brain starts to play with language more. Starting yourself off with a short exercise where you just write whatever happens to be in front of you can be a great way to unstop your process, converting that imaginary action into narrative. It can also be an excellent way to work on word choice, diction, rhythm, or to just find a new topic for your next idea.

3. Interrogate Yourself

Have you ever played truth or dare against yourself in a public place? Not everyone is capable of it, but trying out the truth part can be liberating. Give yourself five minutes to write out all the questions on your mind right now, and then take an additional twenty to answer them as bluntly, honestly, and personally as possible. The insights you give yourself when no one is looking can reveal contradictions and juxtapositions in your thoughts hat can be used as the basis for characterization, for longer meditations and explorations, or to confront yourself when you are holding back from unleashing the full potential in your vocabulary. Use this exercise to think about the emotional shades of your word choices when you answer, and ask yourself what parts of you are answering each of your questions.

Maintaining your connection to the medium of language is the key when it comes to unsticking your writing process, no matter what genre you find yourself working in. The next time you have a project that’s giving you a hard time, try one of these process starters out to see where it takes you.

What to Look for in a Study Abroad Program

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Prague WikimediaWhether you are looking to join us for a month in Prague next summer or you are just looking for the right advice to help you
pick a study abroad program in
another subject area, there are a few core characteristics that you want to look for to make your experience abroad is as memorable as possible. For many students, these programs are a cornerstone of their artistic, academic, and professional development, and finding the right fit is important. That means not only finding a program that is accessible in terms of price and programming, but also finding one in a location that will allow you to gain new insight into your chosen discipline.

Part of the reason our program brings students to Prague is because of the rich artistic history of the place, and the way its writers stood at the crossroads of craft and culture, creating works that put forth philosophical ideas and then test them, like Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. The location is also rich in literary figures that interact in profound ways with their political systems, such as Vaclav Havel. For other disciplines, we recommend finding a program built around a place with similar significance for you, a place where the combination of focused study and local history will allow you to immerse yourself in your work.

Once you’ve found programs that work like this, the next step is to look at the combination of price and features. Pay attention to items like housing arrangements, food, and both local and international travel. At this step, it is important to consider a balance of comfort and cost. Going with a bare bones approach might seem rugged, but sometimes that means taking responsibility for language translation services and other communication tasks on your own. On the other hand, programs that include everything, even international travel, tend to be very costly. Their travel arrangements can also reduce your flexibility as you plan your journey in both directions. A balance of good in-country services, bundled room and board, and solid knowledge of the area is what is essential. Taking care of your own travel also gives you the opportunity to use discounts or find other savings.

Once you have a checklist in mind for the features you need and the locations you are interested in visiting for your study abroad experience, evaluating potential programs is much easier. As with most other travel planning situations, preparation is key!

Prague in the Age of Terror

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An Open Letter to the Prospective 2016 Prague Summer Program Community

There are roughly ten thousand—primarily Sunni—Muslims in the Czech Republic. Most of them are early 90s refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina, and from countries of the former Soviet Union. They arrived in the Czech Republic as native speakers of Slavic languages, and so learned Czech relatively quickly and assimilated likewise. They are Slavic Muslims. Most are middle-class.

I’m unqualified to speak to the demographic and social complexities of Muslims’ presence in Europe or in North America. However, I know, really know, that prejudice is always morally wrong and strategically debilitating. What happened in Paris, what happened in San Bernardino  and whatever follows in the wake of these atrocities over the coming months, must be considered within as broad a perspective as possible.

I hold with those who insist upon a clear delineation between radical jihadists and Muslims in general, though I also eschew politically-correct commentaries that refuse to recognize that religious belief systems are ideologies, and that an ascendant interpretation of the Muslim faith is in fact an ideology centered on murder and subjugation of the “other”: us (“us” including Muslims who oppose radical jihadists).

Last July, one of the students in the PSP was a young woman from a Muslim country I’ll not name here. In social settings, outside the classroom and the other official program venues, she spoke of the nonviolent opposition that she and other young people in her country mount, when they can and almost exclusively online, against conservative powers that be. She expressed deep and abiding religious faith, but also a marvelous hardheadedness, a delightfully youthful opposition to authority. I can’t speak in any detail for fear of compromising her, but I can say that when I asked her if she ever thought of seeking asylum in the West, her answer was an unequivocal “no.” She loves her country, loves her culture, and wants to contribute to improving her society, making it freer, especially for women.

We, in America, should not be smug. Our kids are gunned down by cops; some cops too often find themselves in untenably dangerous circumstances. The Second Amendment is an anachronism causing, directly and indirectly, thousands of deaths each year. Our prisons are packed with nonviolent offenders who are themselves victims of antiquated drug laws. The concentration of wealth in the hands of a few makes a mockery of our democracy. The commoditization of information, the dovetailing of news and entertainment, in the context of the twenty-four-hour news cycle, gins up fear and plays into the hands of terrorists. There is a very odd symbiotic relationship indeed between CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and all terrorist organizations. The news organizations are not altogether at fault. We are at fault for not better understanding that “news” is vital information, but that it is also breakfast cereal, roll-on deodorant, car insurance, Viagra, and dishwashing  detergent. As long as information is tied to a profit motive, there will be terrorists manipulating news coverage, and there will be trolls like Donald Trump lurking beneath the body politic.

The Prague Summer Program for Writers is going into its twenty-third year. In our first years, the carnage in what was then Yugoslavia raged. In 2002, nine months after 9/11, we conducted a somber yet joyous four weeks of celebrating literature and literary ambition. This coming July, 2016, we shall celebrate the victory of unfettered imagination over mere ideology. We’ll celebrate life over death. We’ll take ourselves just seriously enough, and we’ll know ourselves to be as safe as anyone deserves to be. We’ll celebrate the beauty of an ancient city, and know that the odds of danger are, if not minute, nearly so.

We’ll be safe in Prague. We’ll take good care of one another, and make sure that we have ample opportunity to experience deep edification as well as serious fun.

Richard Katrovas