Just so you know: Naomi Jackson is totally worth 40 Hrs on a Megabus

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Royalty with her constituents.

I recently completed my four in-house Master Fiction classes with Naomi Jackson at Catapult in NYC (with two more to go remotely). This required that I board a Megabus in my small central Pennsylvania town on Thursday morning, careen across the pasture lands for 5 hours, plus at least an hour of stop-and-go New Jersey traffic and Lincoln Tunnel nausea, rush down Fashion Ave. to our class at 7pm, eat dinner with friends, sleep, and then board another Megabus Friday morning for the reverse journey back home.

All in all, I spent 40 hours (at least) in travel time for only 8 hours of actual class.

And you know what? It was totally worth it.

Why? Because of Naomi. Because of my classmates. Because of Catapult.

As a writer whose professional training is in another field (in my case, development psychology), I find that professional writers whose training encompasses years of building their craft in intensive programs (Naomi went to Iowa) simply view words, language, and narrative differently. Taking a class with Naomi allowed me to benefit from her capacity to take a piece and distill it down to its essential components. I work-shopped two short stories that I knew were strong, but just not fully realized yet. Naomi’s feedback revealed to me what was missing–elements that I would not have discovered on my own.

The best way I can describe this process is that Naomi’s perspective is like an x-ray of an entire work–she sees not just the flesh, but the bones of a story or novel, and that also means she can see what doesn’t belong, what has ruptured in the narrative, which characters or themes are too porous or weak. It’s a skill built from years of training and careful observation of the written word, and there is absolutely no shortcut to this endpoint. She has earned this skill, and her students can only benefit from it. I certainly did.

Notes and notes and notes…
Another important tool was the way Naomi constructed the feedback portions of the course. We each read the submitted pieces, brought detailed notes and a written letter for our fellow classmate, and then discussed the piece in our group class, but the discussions followed their own important narrative arc.

Naomi insisted we begin with Aboutness–What did we feel the piece was about? This allowed the author to see whether the themes they  thought they’d captured were actually realized in the reader’s experience with the work.
Secondly, we provided Warm feedback. What is working in the piece? What are its strengths.

Only then did we head into Cool feedback, describing to the author what we felt could be improved upon.

I know many writers, myself included, have felt gutted by workshops, where classmates take critique opportunities as a venue to attack another writer in order to make themselves appear more intelligent or talented to the instructor. Naomi does not allow this to happen, partly through the structure she institutes and partly through the atmosphere of respect and constructive discourse she embodies in her own feedback.

 

In other words, taking a workshop with Naomi will make you a better writer, but it also won’t make you cry, question your existence, or imagine writing angry e-mails to each of your fellow students.

Which brings me to my fellow classmates, who are all incredibly talented, generous, and people I now call my friends. A group is only as strong as its components, and alongside Naomi’s skillful leadership I am certain the time and attention each of my classmates gave to my work has helped me grow further as a writer. I also thoroughly enjoyed reading their work, and cannot wait to hold published books and stories in my hand, as I am sure I will have a chance to do for each of them in the near future.

I cannot recommend Naomi’s class enough–and I hope you get the chance I did to work with her. You’ll be a better writer for it, and isn’t that what we all want to become?

What I’m Reading: The Home That Was Our Country by Alia Malek

The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria by [Malek, Alia]

 

I Capture the Castle by [Smith, Dodie]

This summer I’ve been doing a great deal of simultaneous reading. Some of it has been straight-up pleasure reading, including I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, which I came by as a recommendation from Nancy Pearl.

Similarly, I read Naomi Jackson’s debut, The Star Side of Bird Hill, which offered a literary experience so intimate and emotionally deft that I finished the last line, closed the book, and let out a sigh of satisfaction. It is a brilliant work examining the powers and faults rooted in celebrating a family’s matrilineal ties. I feel incredibly lucky to be working with Naomi in her Catapult Master Fiction class for the next several weeks (Catapult offers a variety of in-house and online courses for all matters of The Star Side of Bird Hill: A Novel by [Jackson, Naomi]writing–I highly encourage aspiring and experienced writers to check out their offerings). With that in mind, I am also reading submissions from my fellow classmates for each weekly class, which provides an enjoyable departure from focusing solely on novel-length works.

Finally, this summer has also been devoted to reading for research purposes, which brings me to The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria by Alia Malek. I started reading Malek’s memoir as part of the research I’m conducting for my next novel, which is partially set in Syria. It is a gorgeous memoir, made even more striking by Malek’s own unique history. Born in America to Syrian immigrants, she spent many of her childhood summers in Syria and went on to live in Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria as a young professional. Her own experiences with the Syrian diaspora allow her to swivel between offering readers an inside look at her family’s country and recognizing her feeling as an outsider looking in on her cultural heritage. As a result, readers are able to experience Malek’s own grief as she watches her family’s beloved homeland descend into civil war, an outcome that does not surprise her but that she is nonetheless powerless to prevent. Although I began reading this book for educational purposes, Malek’s writing is so emotionally evocative that it transcends that fine line between memoir and non-fiction: She manages to inform her audience while also immersing them in her own personal journey. I highly recommend this exquisite memoir to all readers, and especially those wanting to understand the beauty and devastation that embodies Syria in today’s political landscape.