Be My Guest, Marilyn Brandt Smith
I invite each guest to share an article, photos and whatever else is on their mind that they want to share.
Each guests is a talented professional.
My QUESTION is:
Marilyn Brandt Smith, what is on YOUR mind?
My Favorite Mentor
Workshop Wisdom from Margo La Ganta.
by Marilyn Brandt Smith
She’s just home from teaching her college class. Chinese young people are learning to make creative writing part of their linguistic switch to – in English. Margo’s dreaming of her upcoming weekend “up north,” as Michiganders say, hours up the road from Detroit, up close and personal with the woods and the water.
She kicks back, feet up, two cat companions scramble for space—her lap, her shoulder, her keyboard, papers on the desk, and of course, on the phone she’s using to call the conference line. Every other week she met with nine disabled people from the Behind Our Eyes writers with disabilities group in 2008.
We first met Margo through Mary-Jo Lord, who’d attended her workshops and been published in one of her anthologies. Mary-Jo knew we needed a speaker and evaluator for poetry, essays, and memoir submitted to be part of our group’s first literary anthology published in 2007.
In our Summer workshop, Margo’s prompts and critiques led us away from humdrum patterns and presentations toward imaginative, “outside the box” possibilities:
1. The Fine Art of…your choice.
2. Personification of a clothing tag; cooking instructions on a box or bag; an unrelated list of nouns I.E., city, continent, song, food, clothing, pet, etc.
We quizzed her on some of the puzzles we as writers face:
“How can I turn a plot in a book I love into a narrative poem without getting sued for plagiarism?”
“How many flashbacks can I use in a memoir without confusing the reader?”
“For quotes within quotes, should I use apostrophes? Can I put quotes around talking/thinking to myself?”
“In memoir, how can I protect the good guys associated with the bad guys in my story?”
Most of her answers began with, “It depends,” followed by scenarios from her experience or imagination. She was helpful without being dictatorial.
Some of us took notes with Braille devices, some in large print writing, but many replayed the recorded call, soaking up more information from the second hearing. Most of us had at least two pieces published which originated from that conference workshop by phone.
I listened to those calls again recently to choose a few nuggets for presentation in our group’s tenth anniversary celebration of writing together. I laughed and teared-up time and time again. The cats disconnected her phone and she had to call back. Her basement flooded, she was waiting for the plumbers, and had to reschedule for the next week.
Margo told us she always introduced herself as a writer, although her awards—and often her major focus—came from poetry. She said claiming to be a poet sometimes put people off. She couldn’t interact as easily, but as a writer, somehow she was seen as quite normal. We kept in touch from time to time after the workshop. She visited our Sunday night group conference when we were planning our online magazine, Magnets and Ladders. We tried not to miss her regular column in a local newspaper, “A Word in Edgewise.”
In august of 2011, Mary-Jo brought me the terrible news. “We’ve lost Margo. I didn’t get to see her before she died.” Most of us didn’t know there was anything wrong. Two months before, I’d invited her to speak to another group of writers who are blind. How much of her time would I have tried to steal had I known?
The book will never be closed on her influence on my writing. I listen to the recordings of those six workshop sessions and want to say, “But Margo, now I have a new issue! Come back and walk me through your take on it.” I think sometimes she does.
She can’t know I published a book in 2012, and that Mary-Jo now edits the online magazine I was editing when I knew Margo. I know she’s smiling. Here’s the take-home message. If you have a mentor whose ideas work for you—she gets what you’re trying to do, you share easily together—don’t take that for granted. Be a sponge. Put yourself in her audience every chance you get. Margo was only sixty-nine. I was older, but she’d done so much more with her talent. I wanted to be her shadow. I still try to echo her ideas when I write and when I help others write.
Margo introduced us to the dream circle. Here’s how it works. Tell your writing or critique group to have a dream, or bring a dream, old or new, to the next meeting. She says it’s a self-fulfilling wish if you’re looking for new material. Next, have the participants tell their dreams one at a time. Go around the room, not analyzing. Use the key phrase, “If this were my dream, here’s what it would mean for me.” When you finish, you’ll come up with lots of new ideas for yourself, and you’ll grab new trails to follow from the dreams of others. We let her guide us through that process that Summer, and had lots of fun.
Margo had some helpful suggestions for critique groups. When you hear your work critiqued and you don’t believe the reviewer was on target, instead of being defensive, let it lie for a while. When you’ve almost forgotten your anger or disagreement, look at the review again with a new perspective. You may still feel like throwing it in the trash, but every now and then with more open eyes you’ll think, “Oh dear! She was right. It would be stronger if I would…. Yes, that last paragraph is not necessary. It’s really too long. The reader can’t stay focused. Take it out.” You don’t have to accept everything that’s offered at a workshop, you only have to hear it then. You may do well to process it later. Some ideas seem outside your understanding or acceptance because of the way they’re presented. If your reviewers don’t get what you’re about, what you’re trying to do; if they’re not on the same page with you, they can’t help you with their suggestions. Look for someone who wants your way to work; is not just there to prove how many negatives can be lined up.
Margo believed in the power of creativity, and in its gradual disappearance because of the way media and classroom strategies fly through the highlights without looking between the lines for subtle nuances and veiled nuggets.
When I was putting my book, “Chasing the Green Sun,” together in 2012, I faced lots of choices about how to intermingle my fiction, poetry, and memoir pieces, “What would Margo do?” I dreamed some solutions one night, and guess who was helping me? I’d like to take that dream to one of her dream circles. Better yet, I wish it could come true.
Margo was a faculty member at the University of Michigan, Oakland Community College, and other schools. During her career she won the Midwest Poetry award and in 2005, the Mark Twain award. She wrote various newspaper columns, hosted a radio show on writing, and conducted countless workshops and seminars. I never had access to her four books and the many anthologies she edited featuring the work of her students and other fellow writers. The Behind Our Eyes group of writers with disabilities continues to honor her contributions as an important part of our successful journey.
You can purchase a copy of Mrilyn’s book, Chasing the Green Sun at this link: