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A writers writer encourages youth to explore creativity


Submitted Howard Shirley

Local author Howard Shirley refers frequently to two literary forces: the power of poetry and the power of young people writing it. That’s why Shirley returned to the Williamson County Public Library recently to host a teen poetry workshop, something he did last year as well. He will also serve as a judge for Williamson County’s teen poetry contest in celebration of National Poetry month in April.

“He works well with young writers,” said Phillip McAndrew, young adult librarian at the Williamson County Public. “When he looks at a work, he takes it on its own merit. He doesn’t have preconceived notions about it. He looks at each as a separate entity and tries to see where the writer is coming from, and if the writer’s successful in getting their idea across in their poem.”

Shirley approaches poetry in such a manner, because he was a young writer himself. He established his career through a variety of writing types, from Christian ghostwriting and novels, to commercial writing and journalism. However, Shirley’s passions were always always fiction and poetry. And, like most writers, Shirley started out as an avid reader.

“I grew up reading books like ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ where poetry was incorporated into the story,” Shirley said. “I think that was one of my first introductions to seeing poetry in that setting.”

Shirley grew up with parents who had collections of poems for children nearby. Poems about Robin Hood, poems by Robert Louis Stevenson, silly poems, and poems by Edward Lear.

“I just enjoyed those and hearing the sound of the language, the way it changed from poem to poem and the way it was used in meter and rhyme,” he said. “One of the powers of poetry is you’re choosing exactly the right word to carry a point across, and any difference in words changes the meaning of the poem throughout. It pains the mind and touches the soul when the phrase is right.”

The author knew he wanted to create that particular sensation himself by the time he was 9 years old, and he remembers there were adults around to stoke the flames. Shirley said that teachers and the occasional visiting writers throughout middle and high school were the ones who first convinced him that writing professionally was an option. He said he wants to convey the same message to young writers today.

“When kids start writing, I can watch them and see the light go on in their eyes when they think of a unique way to say something,” he said. “It’s a silent room, but they’re all looking down and writing, and you can feel the joy of that experience coming from them. I can’t describe what that does to me, seeing that happening.”

McAndrew of the Williamson County Library said holding a workshop prior to the poetry contest encourages kids who are hesitant to submit their work to enter the contest.

“Williamson County has a lot of writers and a lot of creative talent,” he said. “And we try to get young people who think about that to realize there are outlets for them, and the sooner you get started on something like that, the better.”

The upcoming workshop will be much like last year’s, including approximately four writing exercises. In one such exercise, participants write a poem about an object, and then write another about the same object without using any words from the first poem, encouraging writers to look at something in a new way and consider the expanse of words at their fingertips. 

Shirley’s own inspiration comes from large themes, including death and birthdays, faith, patriotism and honor, even current events – he once wrote a limerick about the Sojourner rover landing on Mars.

“But I've also been inspired by little things,” he said. “Like unexpected moments, or the sight of something beautiful amid the mundane like daffodils under a streetlamp at night or the moon seen through a telescope.”

Or sometimes a phrase just presents itself to him.

“I once wrote a short adventure ballad in the style of Robert Louis Stevenson, simply because the line ‘Out of the darkened woods he rode’ popped into my head. That's the power of poetry. It can be about anything at all or nothing at all. It just has to come from you.”

Unsuccessful writing, on the other hand, stems from an author trying to copy other writing, trying to write what s/he thinks other people want to read, or trying to be important, he said. Successful writing is about what its author knows and loves. Good writing is the product of more than just inspiration, though. Shirley applies several practical writing principles to his work, like “Butt In Chair,” or BIC, a phrase he learned from a colleague, which simply means that if a writer decides to write, he or she needs to sit down and write. And then rewrite – Shirley said returning to a piece of writing can be just as much a source of inspiration.

Most importantly, he said that writers need other writers for support and feedback. Shirley himself meets a few times a month with a critique group that's been together for nearly eight years. He said this group, above all else, has helped him as a writer, and he encourages writers of any age to seek out a group of their own.

“There is nothing that can help you more than friends who are willing to both encourage you and tell you straight when something isn't working,” he said. “If you're going to be a great writer, you need both.”

Individuals between the ages of 13 and 18 may enter the fourth annual Williamson County teen poetry contest, by submitting up to three original poems to Phillip McAndrew at the Williamson County Public Library.

Posted on: 3/25/2013


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