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Sharpen your Quills! An Interview With the Creative Writing Workshop Team

Image of quill and inkpot and text that reads JASP 2022 Creative Writing

We are so excited to have writers Sarah Rose Kearns and Lesley Peterson lead our creative writing workshops this year. Their sessions will focus on two different aspects of writing: adaptations (Kearns), and writing rants and raves (Peterson). We caught up with both of them to find out what’s in store for workshop participants. (Seating is limited; cost is $25 per session. REGISTER HERE.)

Rose, last year’s virtual JASP saw a performance of your play “Manydown.” What was it like to put on a digital show versus an actual stage performance?

Photo of playwright Sarah Rose Kearns
Playwright Sarah Rose Kearns

Kearns: You know, I had a fantastic time preparing “Manydown” for the virtual symposium last year, and I ultimately felt very proud of what we created. I'm the author of the piece, and I also often play Cassandra Austen; I have been lucky enough to work with my dear friend Laura Rocklyn, as Jane, through a number of different iterations of “Manydown” within the last four or five years. Laura and I read the play on Zoom for another group early in the pandemic, but when the online JASP came around, we wanted to make something a bit more elaborate: a fully-realized radio drama. We collaborated with another friend, Mia Moravis, who helped me to adapt the stage directions into narration, as well as doing sound design and directing us.

Speaking dialogue while glued to a microphone and worrying about every extraneous noise is, of course, quite a different thing from stomping around in front of a roomful of people! I don't have a lot of experience with voice-over either; it was all pretty new to me. But Laura is a wonderful scene partner, and I believe that we were able to draw on the relationship we'd built up between these characters over time. I imagine that it might have been more difficult to find that chemistry in a recording studio, if it had been our first time with the project.

In case you're interested, the audio theater version of “Manydown” that debuted at JASP in 2021 is available for purchase through Audible. We'll also be performing it in person for the JASNA Central and Western New York region on May 21.

You also adapted “Persuasion” for the stage. What was the most challenging aspect of that project?

Kearns: “Persuasion” is my favorite Austen novel — and therefore, I suppose, my favorite ever! — so in adapting it for the stage, I was of course concerned about doing justice to the characters and themes. There are many approaches to adaptation; I don't think of mine as being a particularly radical departure from the book, yet translation into a different medium still requires creativity. With “Persuasion” in particular, so much of the interest comes from Austen's use of free indirect discourse — the reader's pleasure in being inside Anne Elliot's mind. I didn't want to use a narrator in my play; so I had to figure out how to help the audience identify with Anne and track her progress as a protagonist, despite the fact that she's a person who doesn't voice her feelings very often (especially in the first half of the story, when there's no one she can really talk to, sob emoji, sob emoji!).

While much of the play is realistic, I ended up including some nonliteral elements — music, sound, movement, jumps back and forth in time — that I hope will help convey Anne's experience and conflicts. Last fall, I discussed this process at length with “Plain Jane” on the fabulous Austen Connection podcast.

Lesley, what exactly is the art of the rant?

Photo of Lesley Peterson
Lesley Peterson

Peterson: We often hear the expression “rant and rave,” and the two kinds of talk do overlap considerably. However, in texts familiar to Jane Austen, “raving” is typically associated with women, usually (like Ophelia) driven mad by grief. Both on stage and in the novel, by the end of the 18th-century the conventions of the literary rave were well established, so anyone who wanted to write a recognizably grief-stricken heroine needed to understand the art of the rave (and needed to understand how it differed from the more masculine art of the rant). The chief aim of this workshop is to break the conventional “rave” down into its constituent elements, brainstorm our own creative versions of each, and then assemble them into authentic, lighthearted, and completely original versions of the late-18th-century rave. I'm not going to give away all seven steps to an authentic rave here, but the first rule is to use lots of interjections: “Ah! O! Ah me!”

Our primary model will be the ravings of Laura, Austen's parody of the sentimental heroine in her teenage writing “Love and Freindship,” which begins, “Talk not to me of Phaetons (said I raving in a frantic, incoherent manner)—Give me a violin.” But we will also find inspiration in some of the texts that Austen knew well and invokes in “Love and Freindship”: these include Ophelia’s mad scenes in “Hamlet,” raves featured in two obscure sentimental novels by Eliza Nugent Bromley (both significant targets of “Love and Freindship's” satire), and Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s own expert parody of the distracted sentimental heroine in “The Critic” (1779). Along the way I will also provide tips for writers interested in combining the rave with elements of the rant, as Shakespeare does with King Lear's mad scene on the heath.

You have taught various ages. What tricks have you learned in teaching Shakespeare to children?

LP: Well, let me say first that I'm still learning. But the most important lesson I have learned so far is that I need to make everything as physical as possible, so the students are responding to and engaging with the language with their bodies. If you hand a child a plastic sword and teach her to say, “Have at thee, coward!” then you've got a Shakespearean actor on your hands. I work hard to make the stories and the characters accessible to the children; I do a lot of storytelling, and I don't ask them to read (or expect them to understand) every single word in a play. I often edit scenes drastically. But I also never, ever, paraphrase. Whatever language they do speak when they're performing is all Shakespeare's. The reason I say that the work is challenging for me is that it's not simply a case of simplifying the story or “dumbing it down.” Pre-adolescents have different interests from teenagers and young adults, and I see it as my job to find the way into a play or a character that will engage them. When I taught grade 9, it was easy to teach Romeo and Juliet as a love story. Ten-year-olds aren't interested in love stories. I need to be able to say, “It's OK to think Romeo and Juliet are silly; Shakespeare kind of thought so too.” But I also need to find other issues that they can identify with. The problem of dealing with a bully, for instance, really speaks to 10-year-olds, so the characters they find most interesting might well be Tybalt and Benvolio. Juliet's need for agency and her frustration at not being listened to by her parents really speak to them as well. These are aspects of the play that I might not have had time to really get into with that grade 9 class, so even to a long-time teacher of Shakespeare (mostly at the high school and college level) it's quite satisfying.

Where could we go to experience your work?

Kearns: Laura Rocklyn and I are scheduled to perform Manydown for the JASNA Central and Western New York region in Rochester on May 21st.

There's also another airing of “Persuasion” coming up later this summer. Emilee Dupre will produce a two-week workshop of the script at the Warwick Institute of Culture in Warwick, New York. It's sort of an experiment — we'll gather a group of actors and designers to play around with the material and see what kinds of new ideas for staging etc. we can come up with during the allotted time. Towards the end of the workshop, over Labor Day weekend, there will be some kind of informal work-in-progress presentation for a small audience; I don't know precisely what form that will take yet, but if any of your readers are nearby and want to attend, they would be most welcome to email me! My friend Ran Xia is directing this one, and I'll be acting in it, as well as being the playwright.

Peterson: I'm afraid I can't share any videos of my Shakespeare students, as this would require obtaining permission from all the parents. For my scholarship on the art of the rave, see “Faints, Frenzies, and Fulminations: Young Jane Austen's Mastery of the ‘Frantic, Incoherent Manner’ ” in Persuasions 42 (Winter 2020), pp. 83-98. I also have a piece on Jane Austen's juvenilia available online at no charge here.

Tell us a little bit about your writing processes.

Kearns: I don't know that I really have one; it varies. I like to do a lot of research and I often listen to music, creating a playlist for a project that I'll play on loop while I'm working. I take notes with an app on my phone and write down ideas and bits of dialogue as they come.

Peterson: I'm a big believer in exploratory writing, in the early stages. If I worry too much about writing well when I'm just starting out, I may not write anything! And of course writing is discovery. One sentence leads to the next. When I get anxious about my writing (and that happens a lot), I tell myself, “If you can't write something good, then write something bad – just write something. You can always fix it later.” It's important to follow the writing where it wants to go. I tend to find my outline in what I've already written rather than the other way around--but there are exceptions to that, and in any case the work is always informed by what I know of the conventions of the genre. When I'm doing research, I may have to put the writing on pause in order to go back to the archives, back to the primary texts, back to the scholarship, for another look. You can think of writing as moving in stages, but the reality is a very messy, recursive process in which you revisit some stages more than once. I also find it very helpful to have feedback from a friendly reader before I call a piece done. I have published poetry and fiction; that kind of writing, for me, usually feels very different from writing academic scholarship. Once in a while I feel like I've engaged both modes at once, and that's magic. You can't make the magic happen, but you can try to create the conditions in which it might.

What are your current writing projects?

Kearns: The writing project that I have in hand right now is actually another biographical play about the Austen family, something that lives in the same world as “Manydown,” but explores a different moment in Jane's life. In 2020, I was awarded the JASNA International Visitor Program fellowship; it was postponed for two years due to the pandemic, but later this summer I'll finally be making the trip to Chawton, volunteering and conducting research at the Austen sites there. I hope that the ghosts will talk to me!

Peterson: I'm working on an edition of Jane Austen's play, Sir Charles Grandison, and I'm trying to figure out how to finish a poetry manuscript called Love Poems from Procrustes that's been in the works for more years than I care to mention!

What can we expect from your respective workshops? Will they be very different?

Kearns: My workshop will be pretty hands-on and will even include an optional performance component. I want participants to experience what I have found to be one of the most interesting elements of writing an adaptation: inventing scenes — figuring out how to use dialogue to convey plot information that isn't told through dialogue in the source material. Students will try their hand at writing such a scene for a future adaptation of their own personal favorite Austen novel, then have a chance to rehearse with others and present to the group. I hope that it will be a sort of microcosm of my journey with “Persuasion” in the last few years; only the fun parts, however!

Peterson: Because we only have two hours, and everyone wants to finish with a successful, complete draft, my workshop is quite structured; I've broken the art of the rave down into 7 steps. At each step, I provide writing models (from texts by, or familiar to, Austen) and guide participants in brainstorming their own versions. I'm a big believer in brainstorming. There's a story (I forget who told it first) of a person who asked a writer, "How do you come up with good ideas?" The writer replied, "I just come up with a whole lot of ideas, and then I throw away the bad ones!" Brainstorming is a ton of fun. It's energizing and productive. Writers can work by themselves or in pairs, but we'll share our brainstorming with one another at every step of the way. For the dramatically inclined, I will bring along a few props in case anyone wants to get up and perform their rave at the end of the session. But nobody will be pressured to do so. Introverts can rave too.

Read more about Kearns and Peterson on our Speakers page. And sign up for their workshops below.


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