Friday, December 25, 2009

All Snuggied In

Well, we're having quite a fine blizzard here in Nebrasky. My sister's boyfriend claims he's coming to get me for brunch. We'll see.

Update: Rash picked me up and delivered me home in one piece. Had a great time and am home again, more than ready to be snowbound for the next few days.

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Spelling Shmelling

It's the last day before winter break and the now traditional English department last-day-of-the-year egg casserole is baking. You know the one: eggs, bread, half-and-half, jalapenos, chorizo, cheese. Mine is never as good as my mother's was, nor is it as good as my sister's, and I do not care for it, but my co-workers insist it's divine. I have donned my semi-ironic sequined sweater and am braced for the sublime madness of finals and holiday sugar bombs showing up everywhere.

With a little time to kill, checked out my Twitter feed (yes I'm a Twit, aren't you?) and as usual, Charles Blow had an interesting link to wake my brain with.

A British education blog, School Gate, posts this: Should Spelling Be Inventive?

The first paragraph is a proud summary of all the British schools gearing up for a big spelling bee. "Some things in life are either right or wrong and spelling is one of those." I agree with that sentiment, and instantly think of color vs colour, then grey vs gray, and shake my head, try to focus. Where are we going?

The author of the article quotes a principal from a Georgia (USA) elementary school regarding spelling:

“However, for written expression activities students are allowed to use inventive spelling (spelling words by how they sound)," the principal writes, "to help get their thoughts on paper and avoid spending too much time on asking how to spell words.”

Oh dear. As all those Spelling Bee entrants know, you can't go through life spelling "inventively". I am not a fan of homework for primary school aged children, but I am fine with spelling tests because children simply need to learn the correct ways to write words.

And don't think that attitudes like this are limited to the States. The guidelines in this country are usually interpreted (at least in state schools) to suggest that teachers don't correct all the wrong spellings in a child's work, so as not to make them feel too downhearted. This of course means that many children don't realise that they have spelt a word incorrectly - and then don't learn how to spell it right in the future.

(My Yankee spellchecker tells me that she has misspelled "realize" and "spelled" up above but I'll defer for now.)

Let me just address what I believe the principal was getting at (or what I would have been getting at.) First, the use of the word "inventive" might have been an unfortunate choice. I think he was trying to say that for first drafts, the young writer's attention should be given to ideas, not technicalities.

I urge my students to set aside concerns about spelling, grammar, even logic, when taking a first stab at a topic. This is not because I'm afraid they'll become downhearted. It's because these important aspects of revision, introduced too early in the writing process, cause them to become fainthearted. The writing is flaccid and careful-- no going down blind alleys where wonder may lurk, no risky plunges into damp jungles of thought, no, they're too busy looking up believe.

Later they're expected to pull out the dictionary and take the red pen to their own work. Too often young writers toil under the misapprehension that if they are very careful on a first draft, it will be perfect and no more work will be required of them. They don't want to waste a jot of ink or effort, so they grip their little pens and clench their little brains and what comes out is stiff and possibly proper and usually dull. I want them to go wild.

Full disclosure: I am a terrible speller, and I admit this to my students. I tell them adults who claim to have all the answers, all the time, are liars or fools, and they'd better get used to looking up answers and checking with experts now or they'll grow up to be liars and fools themselves. Thank heavens we don't have closed-circuit cameras in the classroom (yet).

p.s. Despite the silly Christmas sweater picture in my previous post, my dogs are usually naked all the time.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Lost Snow Days

You've seen The Lost Weekend, right? That's the one where Ray Milland goes off on a bender and breaks your heart. I'm grateful to say I haven't had one of those weekends in a couple of decades, but that in no way means that I've healed all up. My addictions have simply taken other forms. It's the old game of whack-a-mole.

I am currently wallowing in the pure benevolence of the Universe. Snow Day Number Three. I don't remember the last time we had three snow days in a row-- it may have been when I was a kid, the glorious blizzard of I want to say '75. I was a teenager and old enough to get up to no good, that much is certain. But this is not about that.

First, yes, I had plenty to occupy me, important things that needed doing. I needed to replace my toilet seat (and have needed to for some time, purchased the replacement parts and the necessary tool some weeks ago) and I did it. I needed to get started on a bajillion batches of peanut brittle, and am now seven batches in (or eight, if you count the one ruined when the phone rang, thanks Cathy, but it was worth it!) Water the plants, feed the birds, print my free Annual Credit Report, shovel out the driveway to facilitate commiserating with my neighbors' exasperation when the plows go by and fill it up again, done, done, done, and done.

But the really important stuff, all having to do with this keyboard, with quieting my mind and overcoming the shlump (not schlump, that's something else, and not "w#&*!r's b*%#k", do not use those words around me please) I've sunk into since my ill-fated stab at NaNoWriMo (NoNoWriMe), these things I have not done. That sentence stands as proof that I'm having a little trouble with my writing.

It's just another addiction, see. Not booze, not vicodin, nothing I couldn't drive after doing. It's this damn glorious Internet. But wait, let me explain. It's not what you think.

It started with a little housekeeping. I says to myself, Let's once and for all catch up on that dang Google Reader feed. I love the Google Reader feed, a handy tool that enables me to keep track of all the blogs and news sites that at some point seemed so important or interesting that I never wanted to miss a single post. Read or deleted all 455 posts, even unsubscribed to a few feeds that no longer seemed so interesting or important.

Problem: as I'm whacking them off the front end, they keep stacking up on the back end. Became obsessed with getting them down to zero. Did so. then there's four new ones. Knock 'em down. Two more. Bam, bam. Six more. That's where my keyboard time went.

I started this post Thursday evening. It's Saturday morning and don't ask what Friday back at school was like. I'd tell you, but there are 48 things I need to read right now.

ps One other dubious accomplishment--made my dogs put on the sweaters from Aunt Mary and pose for Xmas pics. Alice is resigned, Gert is Not Amused.

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Sunday, November 8, 2009

In answer to a question: Balancing work and art

I just plagiarized an email to a full-time teacher who is contemplating taking the plunge into an MFA. In my defense, I told the recipient I was doing it. Here's the meat of it:

So, balance? Well, I'll be honest and say I think I did a rather poor job of it, but everything that needed to be done got done. I didn't try too many new things on the job, and I got lucky my last semester a had a wonderful, capable student teacher. But basically, I made the MFA my life. Went to bed ridiculously early so I could get up at 4am and write before work (found that after work, I was too spent to do anything but read.) Weekends were totally dedicated. I am fortunate that I have nobody to take care of or cater to except my dogs, but if you have a family, and they support you in this, it can still be done. I can hook you up with a couple of married high school English teachers, both with children, who also got through the program.

The bottom line: most of the time, the sacrifices stopped feeling like sacrifices. I finally had what felt like the perfect excuse to decline invitations-- I didn't just want to write, I had to write. It got me into a practice that I now no longer feel I have to make excuses for. It felt like an amazing gift I'd been waiting all my life to give myself. Bad sentence, but you get my meaning. I wouldn't trade the experience for anything.

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Wednesday, November 4, 2009


I am not fit for company, and apologize for my long delinquency. Overwhelmed, etc, and I feel bad bitching about needing a day off when I know far too many people who have too many days off. I'm sort of sick and tired of waking up worrying about other people's kids, but it's somehow not triggering my compassionate nature. No, quite the opposite. I'm feeling particularly Melvillian and want to knock hats off heads (and suckers out of mouths and smirks off faces and you get the drift. Danger to others.) I'd really like to take to the sea today. Or the desert, forest, prairie, recliner, anywhere else really.

OK, to cheer us on our way, Neil Gaiman has linked to his Nano peptalk from 2 years ago. Thank you, Mr Gaiman, and I hope it's going well for all. I am not as far as I hoped to be by today, but still ahead of what I could be.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

More Linkage: NaNoWriMo

Here's a great post from Editor Unleashed on why to do it, comparing NaNo to running with the bulls. Makes me feel all brave and wild.

Also, Dr. Wicked is going to be rolling out a new version next week, promising even more helpful evil. (Who's hoping that Electric Shock Mode finally gets enabled?) Hit me with your best shot.

Finally, I uploaded or downloaded (which is it?) the free trial of Liquid Writer just to see what all the fuss is about, and I'll tell you one thing: she's hot. I don't know if it's something I'll use, but it's fun to play with in my very limited playtime.

I'm heading in early to get a jump on grading. Today my kiddies take their first semester final. English 2 begins Monday with Romeo and Juliet, for which I am stoked. Loves me some Romeo and Juliet.

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

My First Fling With Dr. Wicked

Go! Goal set--200 words, 15 minutes. I am taking my first real stab at using Dr. Wicked's Write or Die site, and because I have no idea how fast I can or should write (or type, for that matter,) I thought that would be a valid first outing.

I first heard about Dr. Wicked on the NaNoWriMo site (yes, I'm obsessed, aren't you?) and thought I'd give him a go. The site allows you to set a timer and a writing goal, which my inner Luddite snottily smirks at. Did Isak Dinesen require a website with a timer? NO! And the only outside help Balzac had was the copious consumption of coffee, which I understand he drank all day and into the night, up to and past the point of madness. I can no longer avail myself of such chemical extremes, preferring to pop an extra vitamin B and swig some fish oil from the bottle instead. I like to sleep when I'm in bed, thank you very much. But anyway, I'm jabbering now not only to avoid punishment (I'll tell you about that in a minute) but also to drown out the annoying anti-nerd nerd in my head. No, Dinesen and Balzac and Asimov--

ooh, the celebratory horns just blew with 7 minutes, 47 seconds left to go. The horns are good, they mean to say I hit my word count. So that means I am capable of writing 100 words in 7 minutes. So that means if I can, wait, let me hit the calculator. So, if I'm doing my math right, that means I SHOULD be able to write that 50,000 word "novel" in 3500 minutes. which works out to be 58.33333333333333 hours. In a month. Piece of cake.

All of these calculations assume I can keep up the pace. My plan is just to freewrite for 58.33 hours spread carefully over a month. 1000 words every weekday morning before school. 3000 on Saturdays and 5000 on Sundays, taking off Thanksgiving and the day before.

But back to Dr. Wicked. If I had paused to think for a bit too long, the background on my screen would have turned pink (which it did at one point,) then red, and then a presumably obnoxious song would have started playing and continued until I began typing again. My setting right now is 'average', but if I went with the kamikaze setting, the punishment is much more severe-- the words would begin unwriting themselves until I resumed. How evil is that?

So, after one roll with Dr Wicked, I think I love him. And I'm sorry DH Lawrence didn't have a spell check, and Henry James could not avail himself of word count, but I live now and if I have to breath modern air, and be a weak ol' modern woman who will never know the joy of trimming her own quills or killing her own goose, I might as well enjoy my gadgets.

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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

October Anxiety

So much for posting twice a week. Time has really gotten away from me-- papers to grade have piled up and up while I prepare to teach new content, read the new material not much ahead of my students and try to prepare meaningful instruction that is actually meaningful while also staying true to the "spirit" (really wrong word) of Standards Based Instruction or whatever the hell we're calling it these days.

I'm behind on every kind of correspondence I have, behind on every kind of reading, my home looks like a hobbit's version of Grey Gardens, and if I keep up this catalog I'll have an anxiety attack so let's just drop it.

All this to say I just can't wait for November. Which pretty much confirms insanity. I am afraid of looking at the NaNoWriMo website because the last time I was involved with so many people (15,363 worldwide participants have signed up as of yesterday) it was working on Obama's campaign. The site has so many message boards that I can't begin to know which might be helpful, inspiring, etc, and which will just be another way for me to lose time. So I'm avoiding.

What I'm caught up on: TV. There, I said it. I won't apologize for loving Mad Men, and am blissfully enraptured with both Glee and Bored to Death. So, while I shouldn't be too smug about deciding to cancel Netflix for the month of November, I will not be quitting my telly shows. I say I'm studying dramatic structure and don't care to hear any argument about that, thanks.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

National Novel Writing Month

I worried for a long time about what I’d do once my MFA was done. Gone is the structure of regular deadlines—writing quotas, specifically. One of the strategies I’m using is writing groups. I belong to three, each one very different from the others. One is a small poetry group that has let me join them for the past few years, though I’m not a poet. We meet only seasonally, but it’s always good. Another meets weekly, and my newest group meets monthly. What I forgot to worry about was what I’d write.

Since I finished my book and started on the Seeking of Representation, I’ve had the nagging feeling that I’ve become purposeless as well as projectless. I’d told myself when I finally finished the book I spent a decade on, I’d leave memoir behind and move on to a less personal genre, try my hand at some fiction again. But it’s like I’m working with wet wood and can’t buy a spark. And look at all those ‘I’s—maybe I’m too self-obsessed to write about anything but myself, yet oh how bored I am with that topic.

So, with no nonfiction topic setting me on fire, and really very few ideas about anything else, I decided to try something completely insane. NaNoWriMo is going to force me to write 50,000 words in a month. I’m sure I can’t do it, can’t wait to get started, and feel a little sick whenever I think about it.

It will be a month long freewrite. The good thing about such a task is that I won’t have time to think about how bad an idea is—the goal is not quality, it’s quantity. I know from experience that when I quit judging the quality of my output and just write, that sometimes good stuff sneaks itself in. I’m counting on that being true again.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Protect Insurance Companies PSA

Protect Insurance Companies PSA

Shared via AddThis
If you haven't seen this yet, guess what? You're living on Mars.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Comment, Said, Statement, Statement

This sentence has been bugging me since yesterday:

"Wade M. Smith, a Raleigh lawyer who represents Mr. Edwards, declined to comment on the paternity issue directly, but said in a statement that “there may be a statement on that subject at some point, but there is no timetable and we will see how we feel about it as events unfold.”

declined to comment
but said in a statement
"there may be a statement"
(we don't know when, we don't
know how we feel
or how you feel, we'll say more
when we know more about
what you know and feel.)

meanwhile children, elbow deep
claw at the bottom of the barrel
digging for Daddy at the bottom of the cereal box
come up with crumbs as
events unfold.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Into Temptation

Took Saturday off and had pleasures. One of those decadences involved going to a movie in the middle of the day, indie hit Into Temptation, written and directed by my old grade school classmate Pat Coyle.

Wonderful performances by Kristin Chenoweth (West Wing,) Jeremy Sisto (Six Feet Under,) and Brian Baumgartner (that's Kevin From The Office to you, and who knew he could play eloquent and urbane? I sure didn't.) I recommend this film--go get your temptation on.

Thanks, Pat!

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Hump Day Inspiration

Parent-teacher conferences tonight make for a long day ahead, but as long as I'm home in time for Glee I'll be ok.

Catching up on some reading this morning, I came upon an inspiring quote from 1st Books: Stories of How Writers Get Started.

“It was one thing — not a difficult thing — to want to be a writer; another to become one… Looking back on it, I think the truth was that I was scared of my ambition, scared of discovering that I didn’t have what it took to fulfill it. . .And this was perhaps the nub of my fear about my ambition: I knew I wasn’t a natural writer. If I were, I’d already be a writer; there’d be no question of becoming one. The only way I could be a writer would be by making myself one, by squeezing the writer out of me. By work.” Graham Swift

I get a little worried, caught up as I am in the day-to-day of my job and spending weekends so focused on the business of "seeking representation." I miss the writing, the work. This weekend, I'll let the unrejected (so far) queries do their work (out in the world, all alone,) and I'll try to get back to mine.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Got a Nibble!

Re: yesterday's whinging (yes, whinging, look it up) about queries, I finally received a communication that's NOT a form rejection-- an actual request for a few chapters. And, yes, I know, that can (and usually does) still lead to "Thank you very much, but in today's climate, and not right for us, etc, but good luck."

The letter that got the reaction was NOT one of the Big Bad Book Comparisons, either. So. Learning.

Now, if you need a little leather-free discipline, check out this succinct bit on Stephanie Austin's process.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Quer I for the Fine Line

If you'd spent a weekend writing agent queries, that title might make sense. I'm to the point where I can't tell if they (the queries) are getting better or worse, but whichever it is, they are getting way more that.

And that last sentence makes me think worse.

It's all those fine lines-- between confidence and hubris, brevity and too scanty to matter. Is it thorough or blabby, moving or schmaltzy? Am I ambitious or desperate?

And in the last few queries, because I'm tired, and because I have to finish up and get dressed up for the True Blood finale wherein I hope to be ravished-in-proxie by one Eric Northman, and because one of those agents had blogged about The Big Bad Book Comparison, I went ahead and threw in a wildly flattering (to me) comparison one of my mentors had made. And because for months I've been dying to tell someone about that flattering comparison but never had the chance because, you know, I'm so modest and all, well, I put that line in my next query, too. To an agent who, for all I know, might just hate Big Bad Book Comparisons, and who may lack the sense of humor required to see that of course I know it's outrageous, that's why I put it in my query letter, right? Cause I'm funny, right?

So, form reject, right?

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009


It has only been a couple weeks since I made a (secret) vow to post something here at least twice a week. So last week: fail. I'm blaming allergies, insomnia (can't blame any one thing for that, just a slide show of anxieties,) and my slow slow process. Also I'm behind on my Querying, which is getting better but is still too slow; I thought I'd have some sort of template by now, but I find myself hyper-customixing each agent query and I'm still not satisfied. Nor are they, apparently.

Also feeling knotted up over politics. Still having trouble accepting what poor losers the losers are.

Anyway, here is a great blog post by The Intern regarding scientific proof that publishing a book won't make you happier. Enjoy that, my friends.

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Femfest 2009, Part 2-The I Am Poems

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Femfest has been going on for over twenty years. It has evolved from a spontaneous campout into a highly organized and anticipated half week at a State Park, with a fine river nearby. The air-conditioned cabins are fully equipped with kitchens and tiny but complete bathrooms. We bring enough food to stay for a week and enough magazines for a month.

For several years, we cabin-hopped, trying various locations around the park, including the Big Red Barn, a fly-ridden bunkhouse with an unfortunate proximity to the horse stables. My sisters and I finally settled on the two hilltop cabins with adjoining fire pit, and for a few years we also rented one of the “primitives” across the road (no ac, kitchen, or plumbing, just a couple of bunk beds and a fridge.) I slept there. A few of us would go behind this little cabin to hide from the kids and smoke. Furtive ironic flashbacks.

Now the kids are growing up, boys moving towards manhood, girls getting jobs, and several sisters have made it a habit to sleep outside, so we’ve given up the primitive cabin rather than pay for empty beds.

One constant through the years has been Chief’s craft project. (Chief was her name or her rank back at Christ Child Camp, circa 1969, and it’s her Fest name, too. I’m Granny by virtue of being older than everyone by at least 4 months. We also have a Pee-Pee—yep—and a Pinkie, a Scary, and a Crazy-Eye.)

Chief has a stash of paints, glue guns, glitter, sequins, beads, seeds, feathers, rocks, sea shells, bark, interesting bits of flotsam from her farm, and a wood-burner. One year she brought birdhouse gourds; birds have never come to live in mine, perhaps they’re put off its ostentatious fabulousness, but I still think it looks cool hanging on my porch. Another year we made mobiles, and I still have mine hanging in my bedroom—when I’m just waking, it looks like the ocean, drifting in the corner of my room. The projects always turn out to be cooler than I think they will.

This year Grasshopper, the Chief’s daughter, (who was not yet born when we had our first Femfest on the beach at Fremont Lakes) is twenty-three. She took it upon herself to have t-shirts made. She sent out about a dozen goddess images for us to vote on. We agreed to a Greek image of Diana, with stag and quiver, which she had printed on lavender t-shirts. This theme was the inspiration for our first writing craft project.

Initially, we were supposed to write our own goddess myths, but nobody could get started. Then I remembered the “I Am” poem. This is a project familiar to teachers everywhere, something even the most reluctant writer can do, as easy as filling in a survey. I couldn’t remember the form exactly, so Scary Googled it on her i-phone and we went to it. The brave among us wrote these I Ams from the persona of whatever goddess we perceived ourselves to be.

And that’s how I spent my summer vacation.

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Reading for Pleasure for Kids?

Yesterday's New York Times online has an interesting article on giving students more choice in what they read, an idea I can really get behind. I teach freshmen, but a few years ago I stole a unit plan from a senior teacher, tweaked it very little, and started using it. Now almost every teacher I know does some variation on the Independent Book Project.

It starts with a visit to the library. The students are given the parameters: they must choose either a novel or work of literary nonfiction (for example, the memoir of a race car driver is ok, but a picture book about cars is not.) It must be at least 150 pages long, though I tell them if they find a shorter book they really want to read, come talk to me. This gives some leeway to "differentiate" instruction for special needs students.

For the next three weeks, approximately 33% of class time (classes are 88 minutes long) is devoted to this project. As they read, they are writing study guides for their books. They are creating vocabulary lists and forming opinions. Their goal is to imagine that they will be the teacher, leading a class of their peers through this book. They write quizzes and a review, make recommendations as to why or why not this book is worth reading. Who would enjoy it and why, why, why? etc.

Finally, they select three items from a list of enrichment activities such as: Interview a character from the book, draw a map of the book's setting, create a soundtrack for the book and write a brief explanation for each choice, draw a chapter in your favorite graphic novel/manga/comic book style, write a new chapter or rewrite the ending. . . you get the idea. Guided choices offering the opportunity for each student to show off her skills and tastes. Empowerment.

I love doing this project with my students. With the new district-imposed timing, however, I'm not sure where I can fit it in, but I'll find a way.

Not everyone agrees that this is a good idea. For example, a Bush Education Expert:

“What child is going to pick up ‘Moby-Dick’?” said Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University who was assistant education secretary under President George H. W. Bush. “Kids will pick things that are trendy and popular. But that’s what you should do in your free time.”

Right, you should. But will you, if reading has been a dull, punishing experience? I read Moby Dick, voluntarily, when I was thirty--a transcendent experience--but I'm so grateful no one tried to force me to read that in high school.

From Students Get New Assignment: Pick Books You Like:
But literacy specialists also say that instilling a habit is as important as creating a shared canon. “If what we’re trying to get to is, everybody has read ‘Ethan Frome’ and Henry James and Shakespeare, then the challenge for the teacher is how do you make that stuff accessible and interesting enough that kids will stick with it,” said Catherine E. Snow, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. “But if the goal is, how do you make kids lifelong readers, then it seems to me that there’s a lot to be said for the choice approach. As adults, as good readers, we don’t all read the same thing, and we revel in our idiosyncrasies as adult readers, so kids should have some of the same freedom.”

My goal has always been to instill a love of reading in my students. I tell them that no matter what path in life they choose, Art will enrich their lives, and I believe it. I'm still going to teach Shakespeare until they pry it from my cold dead fingers, but if it takes Twilight to build a bridge to Romeo and Juliet, I'm good with that.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Found: First Person

All I could think about this morning was the noise, but another cicada rant, nobody needs. So I'll spare you that and share this instead. Interesting article at Poems Out Loud about the use of the first person, specifically in poetry. A good read.

Notes on the First Person by April Bernard

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

In Defense of the MFA (and Praise for Low-Residency)

So over at the Rejectionist the other day, a guest post by one Cherie L'Ecrivain (clever!) gave me a little bit of brain rash, and always in search of a topic, I decided to take it on.

First, a confession. I used to harbor my own prejudices about MFAs in writing. I assumed (and unlike the author of this post, had no actual experience to base this on) that most MFA programs were groovy, rich-kid playgrounds, factories churning out pasteurized products every year, each bearing the stamp of the latest trend in literature. I wanted none of it. I would be a unique voice, raw and untamed. It had nothing to do with how those grapes were dangling so high above my head or that I couldn't jump that high and was afraid to climb. There were bugs on those grapes, yuck, phooey.

I dibbled and dabbled and dribbled for years, feeling always the lack of the community that M. L'Ecrivian skewers in her post. I wanted writers in my life. I wanted feedback. Having found a project that inspired passion in me, I toiled and spun in a vacuum for almost a decade.

At the tender age of 48, I finally admitted I needed help. Despite my debtanoia, I applied for student loans. Following the advice of a poet friend, (yes, I had some poets in my life, but I am not a poet, really, and knew no prosers, so) I applied to the University of Nebraska's Low-Residency MFA in Writing. It fit my lifestyle. Five nine-day residencies at Nebraska City's beautiful Lied Lodge, one in the middle of the summer and one during winter break, each followed by four intense months of reading, writing, and regular correspondence with a mentor.

I worked closely with four amazing (yeah, an adjective; I debated, but I'm sticking with it, and if you knew them you'd understand) mentors over the two years, and each of them contributed immeasurably to my growth as a writer. Sometimes I disagreed with their suggestions, but usually I went ahead and tried them anyway. Sometimes I decided I was right (can't think of an example right now so this may be a big lie) but usually these suggestions led to me breaking through a fear.

During the residencies, the days and nights were full of lectures, readings, and workshops. Nine days of hard work and camaraderie, then you go home for more hard work.

The blog post I'm responding to said, in part:

Beyond actually acquiring the physical diploma, it’s difficult to gauge the success of your tenure as an MFA student. It’s not like the degree is meant to help you land a well-paying job.
This I agree with. Sure, we all want to be published, but anybody seeking a fine arts degree because they want to make money is dangerously naive. That's what jobs are for, silly.

Then Cherie swerves off into less informed territory:
Most of the workshops are heavily focused on short stories and then once a semester an agent visits the class and tells you that story collections are completely unmarketable and no one will even consider publishing yours until you have a novel to back it up. At least this way when you graduate without a book deal or salable manuscript it is only partially your fault. However, your time in an MFA program can be considered a triumph if you clock more hours actually writing than you do vomiting up your student loan money in the bathroom of every bar in Park Slope.
I think she's writing memoir here. Speaking of memoir, in my workshops (of eight or nine people, and each residency I was with a slightly different group; the Boss Lady threw our names in a bowl and let her cats fish us out) there were almost as many essays and excerpts from longer works as there were short stories. And let's face it, short stories are a wonderful form and efficient for learning craft. Unless, yeah, you're in it for the money.

Cherie also had trouble with her playmates, and I can see how that could happen in a traditional MFA program, where you workshop weekly with the same people. Especially if you are young and have not yet spent decades paying off that first round of student loans you squandered in saloons all over Montana or wherever.

With low-residency, this is more easily avoidable:
You will also know how well you have done based on who you are still speaking to when school is over. All MFAs are composed of people who are used to being the standout writer in any workshop they’ve ever attended. So, take twelve to forty people who are equally good at something but accustomed to being the best and put them in a situation where they are required to critique one another and compete for praise and prizes. Have fun navigating that obstacle course of loyalties and animosities, particularly when the participants are perpetually steeped in sleep deprivation and alcohol. In any workshop you'll be lucky to find one or two people who are good readers for your “work”—yes, you will call it that, eventually—and that's nice and all.
I do feel lucky. I graduated three weeks ago. I am proud of the work I did, and I'm grateful I had to keep my day job and write when I used to be sleeping. I'm grateful for the discipline I learned and the tools I've acquired. Most of all, I'm grateful for the relationships, both online and face to face, with writers of every genre-- poetry and prose, literary fiction and nonfiction and fantasy, multi-media-melange and memoir. These are people I've watched grow over the last few years, and they've watched me. I have a community now, and I guess that's what I'm defending.

I'm sorry that some people have had such bad, expensive experiences with higher education, but in this brutal business, all I can say, Cherie, is better you than me.

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Look at This While I Stall

A few days ago, in the wee small hours of the morning, when I should have been doing a number of other things, (like trying to shower, dress, and get to work on time at least once in the first week of school) I read SOMEWHERE, (where? I can't rebut until I find out) a bitter diatribe against MFAs.

Yeah, yeah, I get it. There were some valid points. Yet, as I so often do myself, the writer went over the top and tipped a metaphorical hand full of sour-grape-stained small-digit cards. So, I am working on a modest defense of the MFA, specifically the low-res variety of which I am a recent and grateful graduate. But while I get my thoughts together, please to enjoy these useful McGyver tips from Lifehacker.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Friday Zombie Love

Made it to Friday, first week done. As usual, having the kids back energized me this week, and though I know I'll never be the Super Teacher that some of my smart, organized, creative colleagues are, today I'm liking my job.

Took my classes to the library yesterday. Their assignment was to check out a book. Since they're ninth graders, our wonderful librarian and her assistants gave them the intro spiel and cut them loose.

In each class,as usual, there were the boys insisting they didn't read. There was nothing they were interested in that would be in a book. I love the look on their faces, when we steer them to the horror section, or find books on graffiti or skateboarding or gangs. I love to be right. When I tell them that the librarian can get them a book on almost anything they could want, but then it turns out she already has it, I try hard not to be too smug about it.

This book trailer, via Prairie Schooner's blog, made my morning complete. Avoid if you are sickened by or scared of haiku.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

For Book Lovers

Via moonrat at Editorial Ass.

Pretty cool art:

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The Kids Are Alright

Well, every year I think this is the year I've lost it, and every year the kids come back and I find myself loving my job again.

Things are still a little crazy with the schedules due to the district's rapido reassigning of administrators this summer (the assistant principal in charge of student schedules was given like five minutes to move to a new school.) Some of our students were floating around like lost tribes during 2nd and 3rd block today, but hopefully we'll find somewhere to put them tomorrow.

Meanwhile, our new principal is a ROCKSTAR. During the assembly he was sitting with the kids up in the bleachers, and he is so visible in the halls and dropping into classes that they definitely know who's boss. I heard he was using zip ties to hold up the pants of certain individuals who didn't believe him when he said he'd have no sagging. Wow-- a principal who means what he says. It's a whole new ballgame.

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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Bloody Sunday

Just spent 3 hours in the emergency room with my dad, watching arterial blood* spurt out of his head whenever they tried to take the pressure off. Not sure if it's from the skin graft they gave him when they whacked off a chunk of cancer a few weeks ago or if it's from the haircut he tried to give himself, but I'm proud I kept my mouth shut. Trying to get up the gumption to watch my favorite Sunday night show, but my stomach tells me I've had enough True Blood for one day. Must muscle through somehow.

*arterial blood--and I did not really know this until today--is a very bright, pretty red, and pumps out in tune with the heartbeat.

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Femfest 2009- Heat Lightning

August 4, 2009, 4:19 a.m.

About a half hour ago I woke up thinking there was a fire in the corner of the room, and knew at the same moment that the fire was not hot. The light of the fire was white and cool as it flickered in the corner at the foot of my bed. I remembered that my sister had left her phone charger plugged in on the floor, sans phone, (and why hadn’t I unplugged it two days ago, when I arrived at the cabin? I’m usually pretty good about being obnoxious about stuff like that.) (FACT CHECK: K says she would NEVER leave her phone charger plugged in-- it was her booklight charger, my bad.)

I sat up. Sure enough, the corner was flashing with light, but it was coming from under the thick brown curtain. It was coming from the sky.

It looked like aurora borealis on meth. Nebraska heat lightning sparked and flashed across the horizon, and from my window the view is full-throttle horizon. I stumbled out to the living room for my camera and tried to take some shots on every setting, including video, but the light show wasn’t making much of an impression on—well, not film, whatever it is in a digital camera that takes impressions. This is one of those things you just have to see for yourself.


Yesterday we were trying to figure out how long we’ve been coming here. Sheila M, who is 23 years old and who took it upon herself to design and print goddess t-shirts (purple on lavender, Artemis with bow, a phallic quiver slung over her shoulder and a mellow deer beside her) for the Femfest this year, says it’s been going on since before she was born. All we can remember, those of us who were alive at the start, is that back then it was more of a “grab your sleeping bag, I’ve got some good bacon” kind of thing. Those mid-eighties getaways were much closer to actual camping, with all activities—cooking, eating, sleeping, etc— happening outside, or in a tent, and we felt a little lame even then, a little ashamed that we hadn’t had to schlep our gear over hills and bogs to get to our campsite. Still, it was grand, and whenever it was that first one occurred, we decided that it should be a tradition, a sister campout every summer for the rest of our livelong days.

And we did it, every summer after. Except for Michelle (Sheila M's mom,) we were all single back then, and bosses were the only people in our lives who might hinder us. If someone couldn’t get off work for the full couple of days, we were still close enough to town to commute. I saw this proximity to town as a plus, enabling the hard-working and over-employed among us (insert modest throat clearing here) to enjoy a summer getaway. My sister K, though, believed leaving for any reason other than more ice, more wood, more s’more stuff, was a spell-breaking, bliss-busting violation of the rules that she had not and would not write down.

When the sisters started to breed, we began to desire amenities. With children came the perceived need for plumbing, shelter, refrigeration, and climate control. We changed venues, from the charming sub-roughing it of Fremont Lakes to the poor-woman’s “summer place” at (redacted) State Park. Our annual summer getaway has evolved from the spontaneous summer campouts of our late youth (I was in my mid or late twenties, and the oldest) to a highly organized and civilized outing.

After trying several settings here at (redacted) River over the years—some low-lying, primitive cabins, and two years at the Big Red Barn—just what it sounds like, dormitory style, with bunk beds and an unfortunate proximity to the horse corral and its attendant fly population— we have settled on our summer homes: (redacted). Reservations are made a year in advance.( Sorry about all the redacting-- I've been informed by a secret person who does not and will not make rules that these are secret locations.)

“Our” two cabins here atop the hill share both a fire pit and a grill. I’m in the nice cabin, the one with an actual living room and fireplace. The dogs and I have a room to ourselves, and Cary is in the other bedroom with her two dogs. In the other cabin are three bedrooms, and one has two bunk beds. This is deemed the boy room, and it holds the male children until they’re twelvish and their testosterone levels get too high to hang at the Femfest, whereupon they are harshly banished to the care of their fathers.

We set up our lounge area beneath the shade trees in a breezy spot with a view down into the meadow. From this fine location we watch wild turkeys and deer in the morning, and horses sometimes, and turkey vultures up above; this is also where we read our magazines, and where we take our breakfasts and our lunches, which can occur at any time. These meals are made up of Michelle’s homemade salsa on chips or her zucchini bread, Sheila’s tuna salad or fruit salad, the artisanal cheeses and chocolates that by tradition must be provided by Cary, Kathleen’s pesto pasta (if Grace hasn’t finished it,) and her everything cookies that have everything, really, that you could want in them, you need only think “pecans” or “oats” or “coconut” or “chocolate covered dried cherries” and that very flavor will dominate your next nibble. There will be peaches that cover you in juice, and watermelon, and smoky leftovers like roasted corn or eggplant, all washed down with coffee, hot or iced. It’s all the abundance we can muster.

Dinner, a more organized affair, is taken at the picnic tables, and occurs in the evenings. There is usually a steak night and a BLT night. Other than that, and the unwritten prohibition against leaving, there are no rules.


There is much to say about the evolution of our sleeping arrangements, but it is after 7 a.m. and I feel a nap coming on. (We nap whenever we want, for as long as we are able.) Let’s just say Kathleen, Sheila, and Michelle sleep outside most nights now. The heat lightening that woke me a few hours ago eventually led to rain around 5:30 and they had to drag their air mattresses inside. The sisters are spread out in the living room now, and if they can sleep, they will sleep for as long as they can.

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Saturday, May 2, 2009

It's getting down to the wire. I told myself I'd get serious about this blogging business as soon as my thesis was done. I thought it was done 3 weeks ago, formatted (with help, thanks Jenna) and ready to print. Yet I couldn't print it. Or didn't. Then a week ago I thought I'd have another comb-through, and lo, what a mess. Thank G for procrastination. So, I am finally hours away from really finishing the final comb-through, ridding myself of piles of justs and typos.

So why am I not finishing? Why this reluctance? Well, after so long, I'm afraid I won't have anything else to say. Right now, this typing is proof enough of that.

Ok, back to work.

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