PEN In The Classroom Community Interview with Joel Miller

Joel Miller has taught English at Fairfax High School for ten years. For the last six years, he has served as a regular PEN In The Classroom host teacher, providing phenomenal structure and support to each visiting PITC instructor, ensuring that every workshop is as successful as possible. This year, Mr. Miller published a book, A Collection of Souls: Tales of Terror, Delight, and Magic, the proceeds of which will be donated to students and children with cancer. Here, Mr. Miller discusses his book and why he thinks creative writing is essential, inside and outside the classroom.


Why do you think it is important to provide your students with a creative writing workshop?

I have found that creative writing experiences are essential in helping students find their voices as writers. These experiences also help them become better writers in general. Oftentimes, persuasive writing tasks and expository essays are frontloaded priorities in the high school classroom, and teachers express concern about how difficult or uncomfortable some students find these tasks, and how much repetition is required to help students become proficient. I feel students more readily accept such tasks after they have had opportunities to develop their own creative voices, while learning the basic conventions of writing. How many times do we hear from teachers scoring persuasive essays, “This kid can’t even write a decent paragraph/can’t spell/can’t punctuate/can’t use parallel structures?”

Creative writing tasks are opportunities to teach the conventions in ways that drive students toward more proficiency, because the writing is directly connected to their personal experiences and needs for expression. They more easily seek help and correction because it helps them drive their personal messages toward more clarity and power. Students are also more driven to work together to shape their creative talents as writers. They love to read each other’s stories and poems, to critique and help one-another. They like each other’s ideas! This builds an atmosphere of collegiality, mutual support and trust in the classroom. And this helps them move more easily forward with challenging essay tasks. I like to think that creative writing, coupled with subtle skill-building is a way of turning stumbles into easy strolls; when students are finally up and running, they more easily accept challenge and enjoy the full distance of the trek.

Lastly, providing students the tools and motivation to become creative thinkers applies to all fields. A student once asked me, “What’s the point of writing a story or a poem? I want a career in science.” I told him the story of Albert Einstein’s ability to construct a metaphor as he stood on a corner in Vienna and watched a passing streetcar. His theory of the relative nature of mass and energy was born as he visualized how the streetcar might appear to him if it accelerated to the speed of light. E=mc2 was born as creative thought and as language before it was demonstrated mathematically.

Why is it important, in the long run, for students to discover their unique voices and learn to exercise their freedom of expression?

If students are not encouraged to express their own ideas and create their own images of the world, they may be less accepting of the ideas and expressions of others. When they are allowed creative latitude and the freedom to speak and write as they choose, they are being encouraged to create dialogue with others and to accept varying points of view and ways of expression. E pluribus unum does not mean “everyone in the same box.” The motto implies that we gain our unity from a deep respect and acceptance of free expression from all participants.

Do you have a favorite memory from a PITC workshop? Have you seen significant changes in the work your students produce?

I find it difficult to pinpoint a single favorite memory. What always astounds me is the variety and depth of thought and imagery that can come from students who are encouraged to write and create in relation to significant reading experiences and discussions. These experiences are essential for creating the kind of trust that is required for students to take risks as thinkers and writers.

You recently published a book, A Collection of Souls: Tales of Terror, Delight, and Magic. Can you tell me what this book is about?

The book is a collection of twenty short stories for adults and young adults. The genre is magical realism and includes stories related to myths, magic, history settings, and scientific possibility. Many of the stories are allegories with messages about life.

One story relates its narrator’s discovery of an Icarus-like figure washed up on the shore in Santa Monica. The narrator is a young drug addict. So begins a story of redemption, as the two go to work together on the pier. Both have fallen. Both rise again (as partly evidenced by the friend growing new wings).

What inspired you to write this book, and who do you hope will read it?

Stories for the book were an offshoot of efforts to generate creative examples for students, as they experimented with concepts such as writing stories with effective foreshadowing, developing irony, or honing techniques to create more vivid descriptions or better character dialogue and behavior. I found that writing for young adults was very satisfying, and so the project grew. I also created illustrations and the design for the book cover.

Where can someone buy your book? Can you tell me about the fundraising effort that is attached to the sale of your book?

The book is available online through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iUniverse. It is available in hardcover, soft cover or as an e-book.

A Barnes and Noble store in Los Angeles sponsored a book signing and fundraiser for Fairfax High School. This was a great way to place the book before an audience of young adults, while generating funds for Student Leadership, which is releasing the funds for purchase of SSR books for classrooms.

I am also using the book in a December fundraising effort for Foundation ThinkAgain, a nonprofit organization that provides rehabilitation therapies for children affected by cancer, brain tumors and the treatments used to treat them. I encourage readers to go to www.ThinkAgain.org and sponsor the efforts of Dr. Kari Miller to raise money for this organization. They provide wonderful recovery supports for deserving young patients.

Did you have a writing mentor growing up?

I suppose one reason I have waited so long to publish is that I did not have early mentors. Only when I entered college did I find a real audience for the poetry and stories I wrote, and some positive encouragement from several writers I met. My favorite authors have included Ray Bradbury, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other South American writers of magical realism, as well as some of the masters of science fiction, Asimov, Heinlein, Pohl, and others.

What advice would you give to a young aspiring writer today?

Value what you do and seek out those who will support and help you with your craft.