WRITING HOME: a recap of the 2015 Storycatcher Workshop

StorycatcherposterOur fourth year of the  Story Catcher Writing Workshop and Festival has just concluded, focusing on the theme of “WRITING HOME: Capturing Your Place in the World.” We tried some new things this year: a weekend format, a beefed-up advanced “pre-session” workshop, and a greater emphasis on the RETREAT element of the workshop. Initial reports are that these innovations worked quite well this year–we had a great group of writers and writing faculty, and–based upon the readings we heard at the “mandatory mic” that capped the Festival on Sunday, some really EXCELLENT work emerged from these sessions. It was very inspiring for all of us to hear the writing that came out of the workshop this year.

Between our workshop faculty and the writers who attended, we covered a lot of geographical territory this year! From the Faculty: Anna Keesey, our writer in residence, hails from Oregon; Sean Prentiss, almost to the other coast, from Vermont; Alison Stine from Ohio; our emerging writer Rori Hoatlin from Michigan–and our local talent Steve Coughlin and Poe Ballantine, from Chadron–but previously from far-flung places across the country. There was a strong Nebraska/South Dakota alliance in our participants this year, with most of the writers coming to us from communities small and large within these two states. We learned that our attendees have lived and written and read in many unique places over the years, however. What an interesting and diverse group this year!

Our workshop continues to grow, and if you follow the blogs and recaps posted here for the past several years, you will see that we have been able to attract some major talent to lead our sessions–and we have been able to provide a wide variety of activities and workshops for participants. And, as so many of our attendees told me this year, it is all offered at an incredible value.

Those of you who participated this or previous years, PLEASE share some of your thoughts and comments at the end of this blog entry. We would love to hear from you!

Come join us next June for our FIFTH workshop (details follow at the end of this post). Follow this blog and website for information and updates.

Meanwhile–here is a recap of the 2015 Workshop:

Day One: Thursday, June 11th

While the General Workshop started on Friday, this year we offered a PRE-SESSION focused on more advanced writers who had completed work ready for critique and revision. They met with our writer in residence, Anna Keesey. Her advanced sessions were capped at eight writers, and were all full. She was impressed with the work that her writers brought to the sessions–and I heard reports from the participants that they were given tough, detailed and extremely helpful advice for further development and revision of their work. You can learn more about Ms. Keesey and viewing her profile from our workshop PROGRAM. Ms. Keesey met with her writers as a group in the morning, and then divided them up for one-on-one meetings throughout the rest of the day (and into the next):

That night, many of the workshop participants gathered for dinner at our favorite local hangout, the Bean Broker Coffee House, and we were then treated to a “sneak preview” of what was to come in the General Workshop when session leaders Sean Prentiss and Steven Coughlin gave an enthusiastic reading from their recently published books to a very receptive Bean Broker Crowd:

— CSC English/Hum (@outsideyourself) June 12, 2015

Day Two: Friday, June 12

The “official” start to the Storycatcher Workshop was Friday morning. All of the workshop participants, advanced and general, gathered in the atrium of the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage center for a wonderful Craft Lecture by our writer in residence, Anna Keesey. Referencing her experiences writing and publishing her recent novel, Little Century, Ms. Keesey encouraged participants to make time for their writing, and make it a priority in their lives.

The title of her presentation was “Lollygagging: Emerson and Me and You.” What wonderful advice to emerging writers looking to complete their projects and to seek ways to share their work with a broader audience:

After a fun lunch break downtown with more mixing and mingling, writers returned to afternoon sessions focusing on Literary Nonfiction (with Sean Prentiss), Poetry (with Steven Coughlin) and Fiction (with Alison Stine). You can learn more about our writing faculty this year, and details about these sessions, by viewing their profiles from our workshop PROGRAM. The afternoon sessions met in a classroom on campus, where all the writers could roll up their sleeves and get to work:

We capped the first night of the workshop with a reception and keynote address from Anna Keesey, where she read from her novel and discussed her writing process. The event was held in the Sandoz Center Atrium, and was open to the public. We had a great turnout from workshop participants and folks in the community interested in hearing about her historical novel which centers around the homesteading experience of characters in turn of the century Oregon:

Day Two: Saturday, June 13, WRITING RETREAT!

Based on the success of our outdoor sessions in previous workshops, we scheduled a FULL DAY RETREAT this year, set in the scenic pine-ridge forests south of campus at Camp Norwesca and Chadron State Park. We met, appropriately, outdoors for the morning session on Environmental Writing with Sean Prentiss:

After the morning session, writers had several hours to commune with nature and write whatever came to mind. Some of the workshop participants even found time to try out some of facilities geared towards the youngsters who attend Camp Norwesca:

After the long break, however, it was all work–as writers sweated it out in the camp lodge and worked on sessions focused on young adult fiction (with Alison Stine) and Creative Nonfiction (with Rori Leigh Hoatlin, winner of the 2015 Mari Sandoz Emerging Writer Instructorship). These were productive sessions for our writers, with lots of work being generated form the activities Ms. Stine and Ms. Hoatlin set up:

After the hard work of the afternoon sessions, all of the workshop participants headed over to nearby Chadron State Park for a cookout in the pines. In addition to some great food, we were all treated to a reading from Alsion Stine from her recently published Young Adult novel Supervision, a ghostly tale that was appropriate for our campfire evening. What a wonderful conclusion to an instructional and inspiring day!

Day Three: Sunday, June 14, FESTIVAL!

Our last (half) day of the workshop was focused on a CELEBRATION of writing and writers. What an appropriate time to have local literary legend Poe Ballantine stop by and share with the workshop participants, and several people on hand from the general public, a retrospective of his prolific and critically-acclaimed work as a writer in both fiction and nonfiction. His talk was entitled “At Home in the World–My Writing Life,” and featured excerpts from several of his works along with commentary on his life and writing experiences:

While we are certainly proud of all the wonderful programming we are able to offer at the Story Catcher Workshop, the focus of all we do will always be on the WRITERS who come from far and wide to develop and share their own stories–this is why we conclude each workshop with a day to celebrate the writing of our participants. This year we had a great turn out for volunteers to read at the open mic that concluded the festival. What impressive work emerged from the workshops in just two or three days–and how inspiring to hear these selections shared with the writing community that gathered this year:


For a PDF version of this flyer: storycatcher16

10 Tips for Bloggers: Finding Topics and Motivation

10 Tips for Bloggers: Finding Topics and Motivation

Many students who start blogging as an assignment in one of my courses tell me they want to keep blogging after the course ends–only they aren’t sure how to find topics to write about or motivation to post regularly once they’re no longer blogging under deadline as part of a graded assignment. Here are 10 tips to help bloggers write and publish.

1. Identify what you have to contribute or share. Think of your writing as offering items of value to your reader. What do you have to contribute? What do you have to share that will be valuable to another reader? Often in blogs, what’s valuable is the thought process of the writer, the invitation your writing offers to others to think more deeply or reflect.

2. Read other blogs. One of the best ways to figure out what kind of blog you want to write is to figure out what kind of blog you like to read. I read blogs to learn more about the subjects I’m passionate about (education, children’s literature, books, cooking), to be inspired, to be entertained, to be pushed to think more deeply about my work and myself. What kinds of blog posts appeal to you? Lists? Long reflective posts? Humorous posts? Try to write the kind of post you want to read.

3. Know your target audience. My target audience is my students, most of whom are pre-service teachers, and other educators. Many of my most popular blog posts have been suggested by my students or written in response to other teachers’ questions or posts.

4. Participate in weekly memes. Book bloggers can find a list of daily book blogging memes at Bookshelf Fantasies. Mama Dweeb collects a variety of blog memes that bloggers can participate in.

5. Post consistently. It doesn’t matter how often you post new content every week: it only matters that you do post consistently. Are you a once a week blogger, a daily blogger, or somewhere in between? Knowing how many days per week you will post new content helps you manage your writing life and helps your readers know what to expect from your blog. Blogging is a habit: once you establish the habit, it’s much easier to follow through and write.

6. Commit to a weekly schedule. Once you identify the types of posts you might write and decide how often you want to publish new content, commit to a schedule. I make sure I finish books every week so that I will have something to write about in my “It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?” posts. I check the Top Ten Tuesday topic so that I can begin brainstorming my list. Throughout the week, I collect small moments that I want to celebrate on Saturday.

7. Prewrite and schedule posts. Once you know your schedule and what types of posts you’ll be writing and publishing, you can identify chunks of time when you can do more writing, draft posts, and schedule them for later publication.

8. Keep an ideas notebook. Once you start looking for ideas for blog posts, they’re everywhere. Since many of my posts are about reading and teaching, I jot down questions, observations, experiences, and topics I might blog about throughout my day at work.

9. Build an audience. It’s so much easier to find the motivation to write when you know you have readers who want to read your writing, who are expecting you to post, who will comment on your work.

10. Perfect is the enemy of done. Blogging requires a special kind of discipline for the perfectionist who wants to revise and polish a piece of writing endlessly before publication. Blogs are meant to capture thoughts about current events. It’s okay if they’re half-baked. It’s okay if they’re unfinished. It’s okay if they represent the best version of thinking you can do on that day–even if you know it’s not the best version of thinking you’ll ever do on that topic. If I were to write a list of top 10 tips for blogger next week, it might be quite different from the list I’ve written today.


 Additional Resources:

At my blog, The Dirigible Plum, I’ve shared my own blogging process, How I Blog: Topics, Structure, Time.

Kelsey Empfield shares her suggestions for overcoming blogging writer’s block in Blogspiration.

Sacha Chua has identified every excuse you might make for avoiding blogging and come up with a solution. Her No-Excuses Guide to Blogging should inspire dozens of posts.

What are you writing?

by B. Lee Miller


I teach writing and the teaching of writing. And one of the things I often talk about with students who will one day teaching writing is the importance of their having their own writing life if they are to ask, or invite, students to do the same. What sense does it make, I will suggest, for someone who doesn’t write to teach writing? And I’m not suggesting that a person has to publish, or even be a very good writer, to teach writing and to teach it well (conversely, just because someone writes well doesn’t mean they can teach it well). But I do wonder how well a person can comment on students’ struggles with writing when they do not themselves know those struggles personally. That I write – a fair amount – and may even someday have a few publications to my name (I’m working on that one…submitting stuff for publication is time-consuming and boring…I’d rather just start writing something else), allows me to talk with my writing students about the processes and road blocks and strategies that are involved in writing. So, with this blog post, I share what I, a writing teacher, am working on, right now (which is to say, I’ll leave off the projects that I’ve just begun, or that have a long way to go, focusing only on those that I am close to sending out for rejection, er, possible publication).

Black Belt. A little under five years ago, I began to study Tang Soo Do, a South Korean martial art. A requirement for the advanced belts (green and brown series), at least in my school, is a series of papers in response to prompts – one for each belt level. As I approached the time when I would test for my black belt (last December) I began to read back through those papers and consider whether I could pull them together (including the paper for my black belt test), shape them into a unified essay, and submit them somewhere for publication. It’s an English-professor-gets-a-black-belt essay entitled “Black Belt” and awaits my taking the time to send it out somewhere.

A Time to Gather Stones. The first time I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I drafted a novel that had been knocking around in my head for several years. I wanted to transplant plot lines from the Abraham-Isaac-Jacob narratives in the biblical book of Genesis to the mid-to-late 20th-Century American South, the narrative infused, or informed, by some ideas found in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, but also in Buddhism. I titled the resulting draft, A Time to Gather Stones. I still have a couple of chapters (the opening and closing) to draft, and a third major round of revisions, but I hope to float some sections for publication soon. An excerpt:

From “Spring, 1946; Habersham, Georgia”

Ka-thunk, pf. Ka-thunk, pf. There was a certain rhythm to the hard thud of the small round ball bouncing off the wall. Isaac threw the ball with his right hand, caught it with his left. The sound echoed through the empty corridor. It would be some time, he knew, before another student showed up for school. Most kids, he figured, were still sitting at the kitchen table eating eggs and bacon and toast with jam. These days, Isaac got to school early. As early as possible. Not that he liked school. He didn’t. Too many people telling him what to do. He got enough of that at home. But at least at school, if he stayed out of the way, he was mostly left alone. He liked that.

So, each morning, as soon as the rooster crowed, Isaac would throw on his jacket and run out to the chicken coop and the barn. By the time he returned with eggs and milk, oatmeal would be on the table. It would be dry and salty, but he wouldn’t say anything about it. He said nothing to his father that he didn’t have to. He just poured warm milk on it and ate. He then grabbed the lunch he had made the night before – always a sandwich and a piece of fruit – and darted out the door, running until he was off his father’s farm. It would not be until he slowed to a walk that he would notice the sun just beginning to emerge from the horizon, just beginning to shed much welcomed warmth across his body.

40. I wrote a lot of really bad poetry in my late teens and early 20s. A comment from an English Professor where I went for my undergraduate convinced me to stop writing poetry. I’ve long told students that I really don’t get poetry. Regardless, as I approached 40, I found all the poetry I had written during that period (and a few poems since) and began to transcribe it for posterity’s sake (why, I don’t know…partly because my daughter was learning to write). I got the idea, at one point, to see if I could find any snippets – lines, phrases, stanzas, perhaps even an occasional poem – that I could revise into a series, or book, of 40 poems in which I would examine my own growth as a human, a writer, and a man, in particular, a man staring 40 in the face. I’m ready to send out several series of poems, and one long poem, for possible publication. Whether anyone will ever want the book I have imagined, I don’t know, but if not, I’ll self-publish. An excerpt:


Stop shouting at me, and

        let’s pour a drink.

Let’s mix up our words until they

                                                     fall to the floor

        and whimper

                       their fear of absence and forgetting,

        and the moon slips away

                       into a thousand still moments.

Let’s feel the waves of molecules

                                                     pushing and pulling,

        demanding, flowing,

                       our drink slipping us into

        the rippling water

                       as it reflects

                                      a watchful moon.

And let us be careful —

        if we dare —

        lest we reach for the moon

        and fall in.

With Woman. My wife and I have for several years involved ourselves in the world of birthing rights and midwifery advocacy. I’ve long wanted to write something about it, so, in addition to one long poem, I am now writing an essay that I have titled “With Woman” that will examine birth, as well as stages in women’s lives, but from the perspective of a husband and father – me – as I continue my long examination of masculinity, or how I understand what it means to be male (as social gender). My hope is to finish a first draft by the end of this semester and then revise and submit it somewhere by next summer.

Something Like Winter. Finally, several years ago, I began drafting what I think will end up being a novella. I began writing this only to have something to offer at our Sigma Tau Delta English Honor Society writing workshops and open-mics. The surface story is of a mixed-race couple, with the woman’s young son (from a previous relationship), who is obsessed with the movie “Snow White,” hitting the road to go visit the man’s parents in a suburb of the Dallas-Fort Worth area for Christmas. Along the way they pick up the man’s best friend, who is studying English literature in grad school, and the woman’s grandmother, who raised her. The provisional title is “Something Like Winter.” It needs another major revision pass and then I’d like to send it out this winter for possible publication in a print or online magazine that accepts long fiction.