Submitting Your Writing to Literary Magazines and Contests: Part 1, Getting Started

IMG-3562Back in April, I attended a submissions workshop put on by the James River Writers and led by Dana Isokawa, Associate Editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that being in the same room as Ms. Isokawa was a pretty surreal privilege, but I probably do need to tell you what I learned, which why I’m writing this blog post, as well as a follow-up later this month.

Why Submit

Submitting your writing–particularly your poetry, which can be deeply personal and painstakingly crafted–is scary, to say the least. You’re sending your work (AKA your soul) out into the world for all to see, and it’s probably going to get ignored (best-case rejection scenario) or bludgeoned (worst-case rejection scenario) for years before it ever finds its publication home (if it ever finds its publication home). Despite the vulnerability submitting your writing entails, there are many compelling reasons to put on your big-girl pants and start submitting. Here are a few:

  • Submitting your work helps get your work and your name out there.
  • Submitting your writing helps it–and you–find an audience, and once you find one, you can work to keep it.
  • Sending your writing out into the world, while it may open it up to abuse, is also one of the best ways to support your writing. You’re putting your stamp of approval–your faith–in its merit, and if you don’t believe in it, who will?
  • One of the most effective ways to network and build a writing community is through sending your work off.
  • Submitting your work such as poetry, essays, short stories, or articles can help lead to the accomplishment of larger publishing goals you may set–such as a book deal.
  • Sending your writing to contests, journals, and magazines can help motivate you to write, revise, and keep writing. Contest and submission deadlines, as well as the sense of validation you’ll feel when one of your pieces does get accepted, are excellent motivators.

Knowing When a Piece is Ready

Okay, so maybe I’ve convinced you of the worth of risking not only your ego, but also your sense of identity as a writer, in submitting your writing to publications. But how do you know when a piece is polished enough for potential publication? Here are some signs:

  • It has successfully undergone an editorial review
  • Other people–readers and fellow writers alike–have read it and liked it
  • You have set it aside for a while and you like it when you reread it–you impress yourself
  • Your sure your own skin is thick enough to handle potential rejection
  • You’re ready to share and prepared to have people read and react to it.

Finding the Right Journal or Contest for Your Writing

You can increase your chances of acceptance and decrease your chances of rejection by finding the right home for your writing before you send it off to knock on journal doors. Instead of just sending your writing off blindly, do some research first, and find the publications most likely to welcome your writing inside. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Know the publication. Be familiar with its style, layout/organization, types of work it tends to publish, sections, etc. Read it. Be familiar with its tone, voice, and subject matter. Make sure the work you plan to send aligns with these qualities in the publication.
  • Know your own genre, form, style, voice, and subject matter. Do they align?
  • Think categorically:
    • Consider your background as a writer and a person. Think about factors like your location, your career, or your religion, for example.
    • Look for publications that focus on specific themes or styles. For example, journals that focus on a certain place, on nature, on conservation, on sports or a particular sport, etc.
  • Consider your subject matter.
  • Submit to publications where you find writers you admire.
  • Consider your form (flash fiction, short story, poetry, long-form essay, etc.).
  • Consider your genre (sci-fi, speculative romance, crime, etc.).

Vetting Journals and Contests

While you may be eager for the sense of recognition, validation, and success an acceptance provides, don’t be so over-zealous that you miss important red flags. It’s best to avoid sending your work off if:

  • The contest of publication requires you to pay a high fee to submit your work
  • A high fee is required–and paired with comparatively low-value prize or award
  • The fee is over $10 and the contest of publication offers no payment
  • The contest or publication has no “about page” or masthead.

If the publications you are considering pass the above tests, there are still a few items to consider. Make sure, for example, that the promised prize is actually awarded consistently by checking past winners’ page.

While there are red lights, there are also green lights that should encourage your submission to a given publication. Here are a few:

  • Your read the publication and like it.
  • You admire the work it offers.
  • It promotes its writers.
  • Its entry fees for novels cost more than those for poems.
  • There is not more than a $10-$20 fee for prize of $1000 or more.
  • If you are submitting a book or manuscript, a $40 fee or less for a prize up to $10,000 is appropriate.

Next Steps

If all this talk of publiation has you rearing and ready to submit some writing (and I hope it does), The Avocet, an online literary journal of nature poems, is currently and actively seeking submission. See their guidelines and several opportunities below.

Time to share a Summer-themed poem

 Please read the guidelines before submitting

 Please take a minute to pick a poem of your choice and send it to us.

  Please send only one poem, per poet, per season.

 Let’s do Summer-themed poetry for The Weekly Avocet.

Please send your submission to angeldec24@hotmail.com

Please put (early or late) Summer/your last name in the subject line.

Please do not just send a poem, please write a few lines of hello.

Please do not have all caps in the title of your poem.

Please no more than 45 lines per poem.

Please use single spaced lines.

Please remember, we welcome previously published poems.

Please put your name, City/State, and email address under your poem.  If you do not, only your name will appear.  No Zip codes.

Please send your poem in the body of an email.  Please do not send in an attachment.

 We look forward to reading your Summer submissions…

 Let’s all take this Garden Challenge.

 Send us your 3 best poems of your love of gardening…

 Please no more than three, following the same guidelines as above.

 Please put Garden Challenge/your last name in the subject line of your email and send to angeldec24@hotmail.com 

 Please send Summer haiku

 

 

 

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The High Goal

Writing of her spiritual journey, Mary Baker Eddy explains that she “finds the path less difficult when she has the high goal always before her thoughts, than when she counts her footsteps in endeavoring to reach it. When the destination is desirable, expectation speeds our progress.” Her wise words can be applied not only to a spiritual search for salvation, but also to our writing goals. The guidance supplied in this quote can help us battle writer’s block, discouragement, rejection, and the temptation to quit, born of these ills.

My confidence is a pendulum constantly swinging between two extremes: doubt and delusions of grandeur.

I find Mrs. Eddy’s words helpful whenever I feel myself succombing to the sense that my project isn’t worthwhile–no agent will want to represent it, no publisher will find it marketable, no reader will want to read it. We all face these insecurities. For me, they are as frequent as their opposites: I am writing the next Great Novel. It will become a best seller and a major motion picture. I have something valuable and worthwhile and unique to say. My confidence is a pendulum constantly swinging between two extremes: doubt and delusions of grandeur. While it’s easy to keep writing when the latter thoughts fill my mind, perseverance in the face of such negative self-talk as the former thoughts proves a bit of a struggle.

But keeping Mrs. Eddy’s words in mind helps. For my writing, the “high goal” right now is seeing my novel published. The “high goal” is the satisfaction of knowing something I wrote is making people think and rethink, question and wonder, read and reread. The “high goal” is inspiring new ideas, even long after I’m gone. One current obstacle to this goal: My novel isn’t even finished. But step one is there: I have set the goal (and started writing the novel).

Instead of letting disheartening thoughts of doubt cloud our thinking, instead of wondering why we even bother, instead of letting the footsteps we must take feel arduous and grueling, rejoice in the fact that you are taking the necessary steps towards reaching that glittering goal, whatever it may be.

Of course, setting a goal alone is no guarantee you’ll achieve it. We do have to take “footsteps in endeavoring to reach it.” I like to ask myself periodically what I have done for my writing recently–what have I done to support my high goal? Here are some possible answers:

  • written a chapter outline
  • enrolled in a novel-writing class
  • attended a conference
  • participated in a workshop
  • submitted poetry, stories, or essays to publications
  • written in my diary or journal
  • composed a blog post
  • read a book
  • asked someone to read something I’ve written and provide feedback
  • actually written a chapter of my manuscript
  • people watched
  • eavesdropped
  • taken inspiration from nature
  • listened to Podcasts or read articles relevant to my topic.

It can be easy to get bogged down in counting these steps, as Mrs. Eddy warns against. But when we find ourselves feeling buried by little things, it truly can be helpful to take a step back and remember the bigger picture, the higher goal. Instead of viewing revision as a chore, or dreading working on your project because you’re in the tight-fisted grip of writer’s block, remember that your “destination is desirable,” and the “expectation of good speeds our progress.” Instead of letting disheartening thoughts of doubt cloud our thinking, instead of wondering why we even bother, instead of letting the footsteps we must take feel arduous and grueling, rejoice in the fact that you are taking the necessary steps towards reaching that glittering goal, whatever it may be. Remember that each revision, each belabored chapter rewrite, each late night writing and rewriting–they are all part of the process. Instead of dwelling on each difficulty, take pride in your progress. As long as you don’t lose sight of where you’re going–as long as you keep the high goal always before your thoughts–each footstep takes you a little closer to where you want to be.

The Effect of Recent Success: More Drive

If you’re a writer and you submit your work for publication with any sort of regularity, you’re probably pretty familiar with rejection. In fact, sometimes it feels like being a writer is synonymous with being really, really good at handling rejection. Our resiliency may make us seem like gluttons for punishment, constantly risking our art and our hearts only to be told it’s just not good enough–if not in kinder, more professional words. Fending off discouragement can be daunting, but if we’re lucky, our well-practiced resiliency allows us to persevere with a kind of cultivated optimism–that shoot- for-the-moon-even-if-you-miss-you’ll-land-among-the-stars hope we read on inspirational posters in our high school classrooms.

This spring, my perseverance paid off (as it does, every now and again–though not as often as I’d like). Typically, really exciting successes spread themselves out over rather vast expanses of time, but this spring, I experienced two back-to-back successes, one in March and one in April.

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I accept my award at the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association’s Annual Conference in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In March, I was thrilled when the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA), a professional writing group I recently joined, recognized my piece, “Rescued bird teaches lesson on where to find home,” originally published in The Richmond Times-Dispatch, with second place in the Outstanding Column category of the Excellence in Craft Contest. My parents and husband were able to celebrate with me on March 24, joining me at a lovely awards ceremony held at the DoubleTree Hotel in Charlottesville, Virginia, where we were treated to a delicious lunch and several writing and photography presentations.

On April 28, two of my close friends, my parents, and I (my husband had to work) made the trip to Somerset, Virginia, to savor the beautiful scenery at The Market at Grenlen, the perfect setting for the Poetry Society of Virginia‘s Annual Contest Award Ceremony and Poetry Reading. I was so excited for my poem, “Salem’s Indifferent Ox,” to receive second place in the Nancy Byrd category of the contest. I was honored to be given the opportunity to share my poem with fellow poets, winners, and their families and friends, as well as breathtakingly impressed by the other winners’ poems. It was truly an inspirational, enlightening event, and I will be thrilled if I am ever invited back again, not only because it will mean another of my poems will have been recognized, but also because it will expose me to the stellar work of some of the most talented poets in the state.

Salem’s Indifferent Ox

I’ve stood in my pasture watching for days

as the townsmen with hammers, they pounded,

until from the ground a wooden platform was raised

and the drumroll, through the village sounded.

Then they fetched me—how could I be involved

in this mysterious venture of theirs?

But I plod through the town, no question resolved,

Wondering at their strange mumbled prayers.

The wagon is heavy, my cargo, it weeps

with the people standing by in the crowd.

I watch as they climb the handcrafted steps,

clinging to dignity, proud.

Then they clutch at the ropes—tighter and tighter—

and on my way home, my cargo is lighter.

To view the reading of my poem on April 28, 2018, click here.

So, why am I telling you all this? Well, I’ll admit it’s in part because I’m proud and excited and I wanted to brag. I mean share. But it’s more so because these two consecutive successes with mere weeks between them had an unexpected effect on me. Instead of

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I read my second-place poem at the Poetry Society of Virginia’s Award Luncheon.

stopping at pride and ecstasy and validation, these two experiences made me feel like I can’t just sit back and rest on my laurels;  I have to keep going. Instead of just basking in the warm sunshine of success, I feel the need to pursue more opportunities to achieve it. I think the only achievement that might satiate my hunger for further writing success would be holding my two manuscripts after they have been reborn as books.  Yes, the pressure is on to continue to perform at this level–even though I know what I am really asking for is more rejection with a few successes sprinkled in between.

 

Writing Activities for Your Classroom

One reason I find my job as an English teacher meaningful is because I truly believe that a person’s ability to clearly communicate, both in person and in writing, is key to success in almost every field. Even a math major in college is going to have to write a handful of papers. Even a science major will be required to compose lab reports. My aunt, an interior design major who has successfully worked in that field for decades, wrote more papers than she ever imagined she would during her time studying the field in college.

Similarly, in their careers, most of my students are going to be asked to write at some point, whether it be e-mails, memos, letters, blog posts, social media updates, or newsletters. Very few professional jobs that don’t require a strong ability to communicate exist.  For this reason, my students and I complete what I am sure they feel is an exorbitant amount of writing. Below are some of the activities we (or at least I!) enjoy and find beneficial.

For Journals

Every Friday, my students spend ten minutes at the beginning of the class period composing an informal journal-writing assignment. I provide a prompt, but it is a suggestion; they can write about whatever they want. I read and respond to every student’s entry. While I do correct writing errors I might come across, mostly, my responses are personal in nature, and relate largely to the content. The Friday journal entries are an informal, fun way for my students to practice their writing without the pressure of a grade, and for us to get to know each other. Almost all my students enjoy writing in the Friday journals–and I enjoy reading them. Below are a few of my staple prompts.

Right Now I am…

Over the course of the last two years, I have participated in several Life in 10 Minutes workshops. Each session begins with a “Right now I am.” Essentially, writers/students write the phrase “Right now I am…” and roll with whatever comes next. It proves a good way to get any distractions, stressors, etc. off our minds so we can focus and be productive.

What I Wish My Teacher Knew About Me

I often use this prompt fairly early in the year as a way to learn important information about my students–information that could help me understand them better, teach them better, and motivate them better. I simply ask them to answer the question: “What do you wish your teachers knew about you?” I have learned which students’ parents are suffering from cancer, which students help financially support their families, which students believe they are visual learners, which students struggle with English but love science, etc. I believe this also fosters a sense of trust and openness between each individual student and me, and that helps build rapport in the class as a whole.

20 Questions

This prompt also provides a way for me to learn about my students–but also allows them to learn a bit about me. I instruct them to write 20 (school appropriate) questions for me to answer–but they must also provide their own answer. For example, they might set it up like this:

What’s your favorite color?

Me: Red

Mrs. Creasey:

They can also ask questions to which they would not yet have answers, and simply provide an explanation. For example:

Where did you go to college?

Me: I hope to apply to JMU, UVA, and GMU.

Mrs. Creasey:

In each case, when I read the journal entries, I answer all students’ questions and comment on some of their answers.

Evaluate this Course

Admittedly, this can be a scary one, because ‘ya can’t please ’em all,’ but despite the barrage of complaints and criticisms it can sometimes open you up to, it is more often extremely valuable and helpful. Near the middle of the course and sometimes again at the end of the course, I ask students to evaluate the class. I tell them to consider elements such as amount of homework, rigor, usefulness of various assignments, meaningfulness of various assignments, group work, projects, classroom atmosphere, etc. I also ask them to provide any suggestions they might have. Sometimes, they have really good ideas that I can incorporate for future students.

Advice for Future Students

One of our last journal topics of the year requests that students, having survived the semester, write a letter to future students giving them advice on how to succeed and get the most out of our class. I tell them ahead of time that I plan to anonymously incorporate their advice into a Power Point to show to the following year’s students during their first week of class (which I do). This can be a very enlightening entry to read, as it reveals what was most challenging, difficult, and meaningful to the students. Students also enjoy the authenticity of the assignment.

For Revising/Self-Awareness

Sometimes it seems students think every writer magically wrote the perfect draft the first-time around and never had to proofread, revise, or struggle. They fail to see that writing is often a messy process, and that just because you wrote something, doesn’t mean you’re done writing it. Often, there is a lot of rewriting to be done before a product can be called complete–or at least complete enough. Below are some activities to help students understand the value of the process, as well as how to engage in it.

W.O.W Writing

W.O.W is an acronym for “Watching Our Writing,” and it’s an activity designed to help students become more self-aware writers, as well as more adept revisers. You can tailor it to focus on any area(s) you wish, depending on the needs of your students. For example, maybe you are trying to teach them to replace adverbs with strong, precise verbs. Maybe you are trying to teach them to avoid to-be verbs in favor of more specific verbs. Maybe you want them to make sure they have included enough credible research in a paper, as shown in the sample chart I created and share below.

W.O.W Sheet for Research Paper

Writer’s Memo

A Writer’s Memo is an excellent way to help students identify their own purpose when they write, as well as to write deliberately and thoughtfully. When my honors students write their Gothic short stories (see below), they are instructed to attempt to emulate the works we read by either Poe, Faulkner, or Gilman, and to identify at least three Gothic elements they will incorporate into their story. In conjunction with writing this story, they are required to write a Writer’s Memo. In their memo, they have to explain, with textual support from their original stories, which author and work they emulated and in what ways, as well as what three Gothic elements they included and how. This forces them to thoughtfully engage with their own creative process, and analyze their own writing–not to mention hopefully write with a greater sense of purpose and direction.

Thank-You Letter

One way to teach the proper formatting of a letter, as well as to help students become more aware of the many people in your building who go above and beyond to help, is to assign them a thank-you letter. Each year before Thanksgiving, my students pick a teacher, coach, administrator, or other school employee to whom to write their letter. The day before our Thanksgiving break, they turn the letters in to me, and I deliver them to the designated recipients chosen by my students. The students appreciate the authenticity of this assignment (someone is actually going to read their writing other than me!), and I enjoy delivering the letters. This would also be well timed during Teacher Appreciation Week.

For Comprehension, Connection, and Application

Three purposes writing can serve in the classroom, regardless of discipline, is checking for and supporting comprehension, fostering retention, and applying concepts learned. Below are some assignments that can help achieve those goals.

R.A.F.T writing

R.A.F.T is an acronym for Role Audience Format Type, and the activity can work well for any subject area or discipline. It allows students to engage with class material, exercise creatively, and show understanding (or lack thereof, letting you know what to remediate), as well as provides an outlet for supported peer evaluation. An example is below.

RAFT writing assignment

Gothic Short Stories

This assignment allows students to demonstrate an understanding of Gothic elements and the Gothic genre, an awareness of author’s style and technique, and their purpose as an author. It also allows them to write creatively, which most find enjoyable. After we read and study a poem and story by Poe, a story by Gilman, and a story by Faulkner, students are assigned to pick one of the pieces and authors we read to emulate in their own, original short story. They are to use some of the same Gothic elements, as well as some of the same literary techniques, but to craft their own original setting, plot, characters, and theme. The Writer’s Memo, explained above, works in conjunction with this assignment.

Vocabulary Stories

After assigning new vocabulary terms to study, assign students to write an original short story, mandating that they correctly use each of their new vocabulary words in the story.

Literature Portfolios

This assignment requires students to actively engage with their reading material, as well as to draw connections between assign texts and the world at large.

For the former goal, students must keep a Reader’s Journal that consists of the author’s use of motifs, symbolism, theme, and indirect characterization. They must also choose what they believe is a quintessential passage from the text and explain its literary significance.

For the latter goal, they must write four connection pieces over the course of the semester:

  • Connect to World
  • Connect to Art
  • Connect to Literature
  • Connect to Life.

The Connect to World assignment requires that they connect the assigned text to a current event, and explain the connection. Connect to Art requires students to explain how the assigned text connects to a work of art, which could be a painting, photograph, sculpture, statue, digital artwork, etc. Connect to Literature asks students to elaborate on a parallel they see between the assign text and another novel, or a memoir, autobiography, song, poem, biography, etc. Finally, Connect to Life asks students to relate the assigned reading to their own experiences.

For Creative Writing

In my twelve years of teaching high school English, one resounding request I hear from students is the desire to do more creative writing. Below are some ways to incorporate it (preferably after students are already comfortable with poetic devices).

Recipe Poetry

Recipe poetry is a great way to work on deciphering a nonfiction text, completing math (such as fractions), and thinking creatively. To see the step-by-step plans for teaching a recipe poetry lesson, click on “Recipe Poetry” above.

Ligne Donne and Kasen Renku

Writing ligne donne (shared line) poems and Kasen Renku poems are a great way to foster cooperative learning and get your entire class involved in the writing process. To see lesson plans for these poems, click “Ligne Donne and Kasen Renku” above.

Perspective Poem

For this assignment, students look at a photograph. Instruct them to pick one item in the photograph and write a poem from its perspective. Then, have students read their poems to each other and guess what item in the photograph the poem told from.

Story Circle

This is another great way to get the entire class involved in the writing process. Tell students to put their desks in a circle, and get out a piece of paper and a writing utensil. Instruct them all to write “It was a dark and stormy night” or “It was the first day of summer break” or some other opening line of your choice on the first line. Then, set the timer for five minutes and tell them to write until the timer goes off, when they must drop their pencils–even if they are mid-sentence. Tell them to pass their papers to the left. Give them a minute or two to read what the student before them wrote. Then, set the timer for five minutes, during which they should add to the story.  Continue this process for as many cycles as you left, warning students before the end so they know they need to write the ending. At the end, return the stories to the originator, and allow students to share with the class on a volunteer basis.

 

 

Book Review: Yellowstone Has Teeth, by Marjane Ambler

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My husband, sister, brother-in-law, several friends, and I were fortunate enough to spend an entire day in Yellowstone in February.

I picked up Marjane Ambler‘s memoir Yellowstone Has Teeth at the Yellowstone National Park Store in the Bozeman Airport in Bozeman, Montana, back in February when my husband and I made the trip out west with my sister, her husband, and a few friends. Though my aim was to read it before our day-long winter tour of Yellowstone, I kept so busy hiking, snowshoeing, site-seeing, and socializing, that I didn’t begin the book until my husband and I were back home in Virginia. In at least one way, it worked out for the best: Reading this book after my return home allowed me to seemingly extend the trip. Each time I opened its pages, I found myself transported back to the wintry clime of Yellowstone in the snow.

One mark of a really good book is that upon finishing it, you feel a sort of sorrow. Some irrational part of your being hoped you’d be able to go on reading the book indefinitely, despite the dwindling pages behind your bookmark. This was the way I felt when I finished Yellowstone Has Teeth. Luckily, I have a whole cache of books waiting for me to read them, but that was my only consolation. I felt a nagging sadness when I closed the book for the final time. But this was not just because the book was behind me; it was also because (spoiler alert!), as I was finishing the book, Ambler was finishing the cherished chapter of her life that was living in the park. Ending the book this way of course made logical sense, but it was also artful and purposeful. Reading about the end of her time in Yellowstone as I approached the end of my time reading the book resulted in an emotional impact that could not have been achieved had she ended it some other way. Our feelings ran parallel: She was loathe for that chapter of her life to end, and while I commiserated with that sentiment, I also experienced my own grief about ending the book.

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At the base of a mountain and on the banks of the Madison River, bison use their noses to shove snow out of the way in an attempt to reach the grass underneath.

If the book’s ending made an impact, its pages did as well. The book explores many intriguing and important issues, including man’s relationship to the natural world, women’s changing role in a male-dominated profession, rugged individualism and independence versus the need for community and interdependence, and man’s futile attempts to control nature, to name a few.

Ambler also does a superb job of illustrating the juxtaposition between the “civilized world,” and life in the park, in statements such as this one: “I read the animal tracks in the snow instead of a newspaper to discover the news of the day” (30). A page later, she describes the way her husband, Terry, would listen to the traffic report in Los Angeles as he drove his groomer down the snow-covered and deserted park roadways. As he heard the radio announcer advise LA motorists to find an alternate route because “‘An accident has stopped all westbound traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway,'” her husband “smiled at the contrast on his roadway. His headlights illumined only bison tracks breaking the surface of the newly fallen snow” (31).

The book explores many intriguing and important issues, including man’s relationship to the natural world, women’s changing role in a male-dominated profession, rugged individualism and independence versus the need for community and interdependence, and man’s futile attempts to control nature, to name a few.

In addition, Ambler’s imagery sticks with you. When writing about the historic fires of 1988, she describes the sky in the following way: “…huge cumulous clouds…boiled over Two Ocean Plateau, the clouds stained red from the fires below, like cauliflower boiled in blood” (148).

In short, I am so glad Ambler sat down and wrote this book. It provided so much food for thought, and so many insights. I can only imagine what a gift it must be to so well–so intimately–know a place so well-known and infamous. Ambler helped me imagine it a little bit better. Now, there are so many people to whom I want to recommend this book. This week, it will be in the mail on its way to Rocky Mountain National Park, where I hope one of my best friend’s best friends, a female ranger in the park, will enjoy it.

 

Readers vs. Monsters: Read Like a Writer

When I was working on my capstone project for my graduate degree back in 2013, my husband came home from work one day to find me surrounded by books, index cards, highlighters, and notebook paper. I was scribbling away–in pencil–in one of the books. My potty-mouthed, inked-up, motorcycle-riding husband was horrified.

“Are you writing in that book?”

I looked up from my pile of research materials. “Yeah,” I said matter-of-factly.

“You can’t write in books!”

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The note “animals don’t know they take ppl to hang,” hastily jotted down in my copy of The Crucible as I read with a group of students one day, ultimately inspired my sonnet, “Salem’s Indifferent Ox,” which will be honored with a second place award in the Nancy Byrd category of the Poetry Society of Virginia‘s Annual Awards Luncheon later this month.

At that point in his life, my husband had yet to read a single book all the way through, so I struggled to imagine the reason behind his disgust. That he, of all people, should care whether or not I wrote in my books was a bit perplexing. I shrugged. “I mean, I’ll erase it later–since they’re library books.”

“They’re library books?! You can’t write in library books!”

I don’t see writing in books as delinquent or destructive. I see it as proof of engagement with the text.

But I can, and I do–all the time. I write in almost every book I read. You’ll never find me reading a book without a pen in my hand.

All of my books look like they’ve been through the wars. Their pages are dog-eared (I use bookmarks to mark my spot, but I dog-ear pages to mark spots I want to revisit). Their margins are full of scribbled questions, ideas, inspirations, criticisms, and exclamations. Words are underlined. Typos are corrected in blue or black pen. If they’re paperbacks, their spines are cracked and broken. They are well-loved, if not ratty.

I specifically remember the very cynical notes I read in my used copy of Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative.  It was as if the reader who read the book before me were quipping back at Gornick’s every idea or assertion–a disgruntled child talking back to his mother under his breath.

For years, I figured everyone read like this–pen in hand. How could it be otherwise? How could anyone resist scratching down an idea inspired by a passage, or underlining a particularly delicious turn of phrase? How could anyone not circle an unfamiliar word for later exploration? How could anyone read actively, critically, or analytically without writing in her books? Impossible.

It was only recently I found out I was wrong–and that a group of readers very unlike me exists. My fellow blogger, Charlene Jimenez, of Write. Revise. Repeat., is one of them. These readers refer to readers like me as “monsters.” Readers like me destroy our books as we devour them. We can’t help it; it’s how we read.

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If monsters only dog-ear pages, I am absolutely the most villainous ogre imaginable.

In addition, I actually enjoy reading books fellow monster-readers have written in. I like reading their notes almost as much as the book they pertain to. I feel like I am having a conversation not only with the author, narrator, and characters–but also a like-minded friend, one who writes in her books–just like I do. Sometimes I agree with the previous reader’s assessment; sometimes, I don’t. Oftentimes, I feel like I get a sense of who the person behind the notes is–her outlook on life, her general mood, her beliefs and questions and insecurities. I specifically remember the very cynical notes I read in my used copy of Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative.  It was as if the reader who read the book before me were quipping back at Gornick’s every idea or assertion–a disgruntled child talking back to his mother under his breath. While I agreed with very few of the marginal notes that graced the pages in a fading, gray pencil scrawl, I found them amusing–and they told me a lot about the previous reader.

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My copy of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is peppered with notes regarding things I want to make sure I address with my students–stylistic techniques, literary devices, etc.

Despite the disdain it apparently draws–from bibliophiles and bibliophobes alike–I won’t stop writing in my books. Not out of obstinacy or spite–but out of necessity. I don’t see writing in books as delinquent or destructive. I see it as proof of engagement with the text. I don’t read like a monster; I read like a writer.

Despite the disdain it apparently draws–from bibliophiles and bibliophobes alike–I won’t stop writing in my books. I don’t read like a monster; I read like a writer.

 

My Current To-Read List

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I’ve started to allow myself about 15 minutes of pleasure reading before I close my eyes for the night most nights. Currently, I’m enjoying Yellowstone Has Teeth, by Marjane Ambler.

I don’t get to read much during the school year (unless, of course, you count the nearly never-ending string of my students’ persuasive essays, journal entries, literary analyses, and research papers). But last month, I spent several hours in the Bozeman airport waiting for my travel companions’ plane to land so we could make the trip to Big Sky together. Though I admit to reading several persuasive essays during my wait (yes, during my vacation…), I also perused the little airport shops.

And I found books. Lots and lots of books.

There were at least a dozen I wanted to buy–and probably would have, if my luggage had not already weighed 52.5 pounds when I left home that morning. I always have a long Summer To-Read List, so this year, though I limited my Bozeman book-buy binge to three books, I decided to get started early. Most nights of the week since I’ve been home from Montana, I’ve been allowing myself 15 minutes before bed to read for pleasure. Currently, I’m about 100 pages in to Yellowstone Has Teeth, and in the beginning chapters of Salt to the Sea, which I’m reading as part of the novel-writing class I’m taking (and loving!) at The Visual Arts Center of Richmond.

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Currently Reading

Yellowstone Has Teeth, by Marjane Ambler

One of the planned activities I was most excited about during my trip was a day-long coach tour of Yellowstone National Park. I couldn’t wait to see the park and its feature in the snow. The last time I visited, it was summer and I was in elementary school. I was looking forward to the spectacular juxtaposition of colorful hot springs with white snow. I bought this book thinking I’d have time to start reading it before our visit to the park,  but all I managed to read during the entire trip were persuasive essays. Still, starting the book once I returned home has been a nice way to savor my memories of our snowy day in the park.

I also bought this book because I love books about people’s lives. I am incredibly nosy about everyone’s routine, right down to the most mundane details, so I’m enjoying reading about how Ambler and her fellow winter residents managed to tote groceries home on snowmobiles, the ways they managed to keep warm, and what their day to day job obligations were.

If that weren’t enough, I always love books about nature. Reading about other peoples’ observations in and connection to nature helps me better appreciate my own time in the out of doors, enhances my own ability to be aware and open and in touch. I enjoy the introspective reverie of one alone in nature.

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Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys

IMG-1980A fellow writer in my novel-writing class who happens to work as a librarian recommended our class read this book as an excellent example of writing craft. It’s a Young Adult (YA) novel about four teens during World War II. So far, it’s an incredibly fast read. It’s riveting. The book is impressively thick, but the chapters are incredibly short and it’s not hard to read several in one sitting–not only because of their brevity, but also because of their pace. The chapters alternate between the perspectives of each of the four characters. So far, each chapter is a first-person account of the same experience or moment.

My To-Read List

A Modern Dog’s Life: How to Do the Best for Your Dog, by Paul McGreevy

You can probably tell from this blog and my corresponding Instagram account that my dogs are a huge focal point in my life, so it’s no surprise that the title of this book caught me eye. It seems to promise A) that will learn about how my dogs experience life and B) that I will learn how to make their lives the best lives possible. I actually came across this book while I was conducting research for an article I was writing for ScoutKnows.com, and when my brother asked me a few days later what I wanted for my birthday, I asked for this book and he delivered. I can’t wait to learn more about my dogs and how to make their lives better, and I have a feeling the information in this book will also help with my writing for Scout Knows.

What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, by Jon Young

I want to know the secrets of the natural world–and I like birds–so this book seemed like a no-brainer purchase. It’s another that I bought at the Yellowstone National Park Store in the Bozeman airport. I’m excited to read about what I can learn from my backyard birds.

I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, by Maggie O’Farrell

I haven’t purchase this book yet, but I first heard about it on NPR a few weeks ago, and then read a review of it in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. In both cases, it sounded intriguing and thought-provoking. I have a feeling it will alter my perspective on many things.

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, by Edward Abbey

I think my cousin Katie originally told me about this book, and it’s another my brother bought me for my birthday. As I wrote above, I love introspective writing like I expect to read here.

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Just a small pile of some of the books on my to-read list

Ol Major’s Last Summer: The Story of a Very Special Friend, by Richard Sloan

This is my third Bozeman airport book buy. Each purchase of this book donates money to animal causes, and it’s written by a local writer. Plus–it’s about a dog. How could I resist?

I do expect this book will make me cry, so I have to plan my reading of it wisely.

Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo

One of my best friends bought this book for me for Christmas last year. He hates reading, but this is his favorite book, so it must be good. I’ve actually already read it, but I was a sophomore in high school and remember very little.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

I’m a firm believer in reading the book before seeing the movie (or, in this case, show), but I let my husband talk me into watching Season One of The Handmaid’s Tale before I read the book.

I am also a firm believer that the book is always better than the movie (or the show)–so I have got to read this book. If the show is any indicator, the book must be mind-blowing.

Lastly, the novel I’m currently writing is, according to my instructor, speculative fiction, so I am sure I can also learn something about craft from reading this book.

 

 

Where to Write: The Best Writing Locations for Every Project

If you enter the front door of my house, mount the stairs, and make a left, you will find yourself in the room my husband and I call “the office.” Despite its mundane name, the office serves a myriad of functions: It’s my husband’s video game room, our catch-all room, and my writing room. It even served a short stint as a guest room at one point.

Opposite a massive television that dominates an entire wall of the office, sits my heavy, wooden desk, its broad surface all but covered with magazines, books, candles, a few photographs and business cards, a mug full of pens, and my laptop. I was pretty proud of this little space–this tiny portion of the room that was mine–when we first set it up. For a while, I even started referring to the office solely as “my writing room.” Truth be told, though, my husband plays far more video games in there than I write articles, poems, essays, or stories. And so, gradually, the room has returned to its original name: the office (though maybe “gaming room” would be more appropriate).

I do write there occasionally. It’s a cozy, quiet spot–and it’s nice to have all my writing materials handy (if not 100% organized). I’ve found, though, that despite my loving the idea of a writing room, I’m a fairly migratory writer. I write at the kitchen table. I write at the table outside on our back deck (a lot). I write on the couch. I write perched on the edge of the brick hearth in front of our fireplace. I write sitting in a gravity-free chair beside the fire pit in our backyard. I write on rocks in the middle of the Jame River. I’ve even been known to write during a float session and in an inflatable, backyard pool. Each of these locations offers its own set of benefits and drawbacks. Each environment contributes to–or, in some cases, detracts from–the creative process in some way.

Writing Outside

One of my favorite places to write is outside–anywhere outside. My back deck, my front porch, my hammock, the river, the beach… I find writing outside in the natural world offers a plethora of benefits. My mind is free to wander through the open space of fresh air, tangled tree branches, birds on the wing. Nature seems to help open up my creative pathways and free my imagination.

The advantages I find to writing outside are many. The natural world offers stimulation for all five senses, and often, unexpected inspiration. My essay, “Out Of Touch,” was inspired in large part by an experience just lounging on my hammock in the backyard. “The moon was late to the party” came of an experience I enjoyed on two consecutive nights of evening walks. I wrote a large portion of Goodbye for Now on my back deck.

The outdoors also offers a way out of ourselves–transcendental experiences that seem to allow us a wider sphere of perception and thoughtfulness, and a broader scope of imagination. Being at one with nature puts me in a meditative state that is more open to ideas than my usual, task-oriented mind.

Writing outside offers a way out of ourselves–transcendental experiences that seem to allow us a wider sphere of perception and thoughtfulness, and a broader scope of imagination.

In addition, if you’re falling victim to writer’s block, one way to overcome it is to step outside and observe nature. Focus on each sense individually, and describe, in detail, what you see, hear, feel, taste, and smell.

Some of my most original and pertinent lines, phrases, ideas, metaphors, and similes find me when I’m outside.

There are, however, a few drawbacks (none of which outweigh the benefits, if you ask me). Kris Spisak, author of Get a Grip on Your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confusedsays she writes “outside a lot, but I can’t edit there if I’m in fine-tuning mode. The glare on my screen lets imperfections slip through undetected.” Sun glare on a laptop screen can indeed be pretty brutal sometimes, and outdoor situations are not always the most ergonomic. Plus, writing outside is obviously weather-dependent, so it’s not always a feasible option. Finally, sometimes I myself tend to get caught up in my surroundings, and end up doing more observing and appreciating than writing.

Writing in a Coffee Shop

Somehow, writing in a coffee shop has the effect of just magically making me feel like a bona-fide writer. I’m not sure why, exactly–but I feel legitimate when I write in a coffee shop. (Or itwould, I imagine, if I ever wrote in a coffee shop…) Another plus is the people watching you can manage in a bustling coffee shop can help inspire character ideas, and the conversations you can overhear can help inspire dialog.

A coffee shop sometimes offers fewer distractions than writing at home–or at least fewer opportunities for procrastination. You can’t get up and load your dishwasher, fold your laundry, take a nap, or mop your floors when you’re at the coffee shop. But you can write. And you might as well–because there’s not much else to do. Spisak admits that when she writes at home, “sometimes laundry calls; dishes need to be done; or family voices want to disturb my productivity. Those are the occasions I like to support local small businesses by buying their coffee. (Being a writer is a different type of entrepreneurship, after all. We need to support each other where we can.).”

“If I paid for a coffee and scone, it’s like a miniature investment in my project.”

All that said, I myself rarely, if ever, write at a coffee shop, though a Starbucks sits at the main intersection just two miles from my front door. I once took a conference call there, and nearly a decade ago, I graded a stack of research papers there–but I can’t recall having ever actually written anything there.

The drawbacks to the coffee shop writing scene include the fact that, while you can’t get up and start doing chores or paying bills, other distractions exist–like chatting up the barista, talking with other customers, getting up to purchase another snack or drink, people watching more than writing, and the necessity to spend at least a little money. Spisak, however, sees the latter as something of a motivating benefit. “If I paid for a coffee and scone, it’s like a miniature investment in my project.”

Writing in a Comfy Couch or Chair

Who doesn’t like curling up with a good book (whether you’re reading it or writing it is beside the point) on a comfortable couch or chair? I mean, it’s comfy! So comfy, in fact, that you’re not likely to want to get up soon–so you’re likely to stay there a while and keep writing. Charlene Jimenez, a writing instructor and freelance writer, says she likes writing in a comfortable chair or on a cozy couch because “it’s nice to physically relax when you’re working your creative writing muscles.

The main drawback for me? I sometimes get a little too comfortable and end up giving in to the urge to nap.

Writing in a Home Office

According to Jimenez, “The solitude of a home office is the best. I’m surrounded by all my novel notes. It feels like my own space, so I feel comfortable and productive there.” Spisak agrees that there’s something helpful about being surrounded by all your materials and ideas. “At my own desk, I’m surrounded by inspiration and all of the resources I usually need,” she says. “My desk at home is my usual writing habitat. When I have my own desk at home, there’s no excuse for not getting my writing down. It’s there. It’s waiting. I just need to enter my writing space to make it happen.”

Setting up a certain space designed just to help you write can help condition your mind and writing muscles. You know that when you enter that space, you write. Similarly, people know not to disturb you; you’re working.

One drawback, however, is that while a home office may help you focus, it may not be particularly stimulating or inspirational (or it may make writing feel like, well, work).

Writing on a Porch or Balcony

Jimenez wrote most of her NaNoWriMo novel on her back porch, where her husband had just hung some beautiful lights, making the space peaceful and inspirational. Spisak, too, has a balcony she calls her “warm-weather office,” explaining she enjoys “the fresh air during my work time. Something about a nice breeze and birdsong can be inspirational.” I’m with you there, ladies! I love the different perspective offered by an elevated porch or balcony. I can see more, and see it all differently, lending me new ideas, stimulation, and inspiration.

Potential drawbacks include possible distractions, such as people stopping by to chat, traffic sounds, and my own tendency to eavesdrop on the conversations of neighbors or passersby…

Wherever you do most of your writing, I hope it offers the inspiration and motivation for your best work.

 

Lesson Plans: The Crucible, A Scavenger Hunt through Salem

I’ve been reading Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible with high school English students since I first began my teaching career in 2006. I’ve been teaching Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter for almost as long. A few years into my career, I went on a campaign to convince my family that we should spend part of our summer touring around Salem, Massachusetts. I wanted to experience first-hand the place I had been reading about since I myself sat in a high school English classroom studying these works, and I knew I could gather material that would enhance my teaching of the play, the two fascinating and terrifying time periods it explores (the Salem Witch Trials and the McCarthy Era),  and the novel. For reasons I don’t remember, the trip didn’t happen, and years went by–but this past summer, my aunt and uncle moved to Cape Cod, and when I visited them in June, they were kind enough to help make my years-long dream of visiting Salem a reality (though it meant about as much time in the car as it did on the streets of Salem!).

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The Witch House is one of the many sites my students “visit” on their scavenger hunt of Salem through the halls of our high school.

After visiting, reading about, and photographing The Nathaniel Hawthorne Birthplace, The House of the Seven Gables, The Custom House, The Salem Witch Trials Memorial, The Old Burial Ground, The Witch House, and several other points of interest, I felt exhausted, educated, intrigued–and a little like there was still so much to see, and so little time! Still, I had gathered tons of interesting information to share with my students and satisfy (or pique!) my own curiosity, and I had taken dozens upon dozens of photographs to share with my classes come September.

But what to do with this information and these photographs? Sure, I could throw the photographs up on the screen and give my students the “My Day in Salem” lecture. I could put the photographs and information into a Power Point, Prezi, or Google Slides presentation. I could print them off and pass them around the room.

But none of this was good enough. None of it even approximated the real thing.

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The Witch Trials Memorial in Salem, Massachusetts

 

About a month went by, the photos still on my phone, the information still in my head, before I realized that what I really wanted to do was, well, take my students to Salem…

This, of course, was not as realistic as a “My Day in Salem” Power Point. But it would be  so much more effective!

So what if I mimicked the experience to the best of my ability…by turning the halls of our high school into the sidewalks and streets of Salem, Massachusetts? I typed an e-mail to my principal, and with her approval and support, set about creating my Salem Scavenger Hunt. With the help of my colleagues, the plan went smoothly this fall. So smoothly, in fact, that two of my colleagues created their own subject-specific scavenger hunts for their classes. This spring, with the help of Erin Ford, our school’s resident technology genius, I’m confident it will go even better. Erin has helped me incorporate technology like augmented reality to enhance the experience and further engage my students. Using the app HP Reality, formerly Aurasma, our scavenger hunt is going to come to life–to approximate an actual visit to Salem as closely as possible.

 

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Throughout our reading of the play and the novel, my students were still referring back to things they had learned in the scavenger hunt. It was far more effective than a lecture, worksheet, or presentation would have been. As much as possible, it brought the places, the people, and the time period alive for my students. The plans are below. I hope you and your students will get as much out of this as my students and I do!

Below is the original, more “analog” version of the scavenger hunt, which uses photos I printed and laminated from my trip.

A Visit to Salem Scavenger Hunt.docx

Thanks to Erin, you can find the technology-enhanced version below. It will require you to download the HP Reality app and set up your own augmented reality. You will still use the photos available in the analog version above, but when students use the app and hold their phone over specific photographs at each site, they will see videos, articles, etc. relevant to that site (once you have created your specific Aurasma).

Scavenger Hunt Rules

Following the technology-enhanced scavenger hunt, students are then asked to create a presentation using what they learned. They could also do this in the less technologically involved version, as well. Find a template here:

Travel Log

Regardless of whether you opt for the more analog version or the more technological version, you will need:

  • enough copies of the rules/worksheet packet for each student
  • colleagues willing to chaperone your students in the hallways
  • photographs of the sites, placed ahead of time at various locations around the school
  • enough copies of a map of your school, marked with the locations of the sites, for each student or each group of students.

My execution of this technology-enhanced version is slated for February, and I can hardly wait to see how it goes!

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The kitchen of the Witch House, where the trials initiated.

Social Media and the Write Life

“Comparison is the death of joy,” according to Mark Twain, and there’s something to that. You might be familiar with a more contemporary term for the truth Twain describes: FOMO. The acronym stands for “Fear Of Missing Out,” and refers to the phenomenon caused in part by social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, which occurs when a social media user is exposed to, for example, the seemingly stellar Saturday night plans of his Fill-in-the-Social-Media-Platform friends, and compares those to his own evening plans–which inevitably seem lackluster by–you guessed it–comparison.

Today, more and more people experience FOMO–our own summer vacation at the beach paling in comparison to our colleague’s two-week trip to the Galapagos Islands, the long-stem rose our husband gave us for our birthday seeming somehow inadequate beside the two-dozen roses our neighbor’s husband gave her “just because,” our own career achievements seeming suddenly insignificant compared to our former college roommate’s successful medical practice or quick promotion.

“Comparison is the death of joy.”

–Mark Twain

I agree that comparing our own lives to the lives we see posted on social media–which are only the slices of life people want to display, usually the highlights–is both socially and societally problematic. I also agree that a pervasive use of social media is causing social degradation, as it decreases face-to-face communication and replaces precise, specific language capable of communicating complex emotions with (albeit cute and clever) emojis.

Recently, however, despite my tendency to see the downside of social media, I have come to believe that, if used deliberately, social media can produce positive effects, too, and in fact has yielded immediate positive impacts on my actual life–and this has been particularly true of my writing life.

Social media, used deliberately, has yielded positive impacts on my writing life.

This summer, I was invited to join the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association, and, shortly after I accepted, was asked to chair the VOWA Collegiate Undergraduate Writing and Photography Competition. One of my responsibilities within this role is to secure a new sponsor for the photography portion of the contest, a task on which I have been working since July or August. Recently, it occurred to me to put a call for a sponsor out on Instagram and Facebook–and within an hour, a fledgling photography company responded, interested in pursuing the sponsorship. Whether this pans out remains to be seen, but things are looking up.

 

In addition, several of the authors whose interviews have appeared on this blog, such as Luke P. Narlee, Brandi Kennedy, and Jill Breugem, I met via Instagram. I know that at least in the case of Narlee, the use of social media benefitted him, as well: One reader of this blog purchased and read his book as a direct result of having read our interview.

Some of my writing has even been published as a direct result of social media. My articles in writeHackr Magazine (unfortunately now defunct) were a direct result of social media. I found the magazine and its call for pitches and submissions on Instagram.

The good folks at My Trending Stories also found and contacted me through Instagram, having noticed my account. The same holds true for American Wordsmiths (though in that case, I found them).

My essays on sweatpantsandcoffee.com are also an excellent example. One of my colleagues follows the sweatpantsandcoffee Instagram account, and noticed a post advertising a call for submissions. She immediately shared the post with my account, and I pounced on the opportunity.

 

And, as strongly as I feel social media does anything but foster actual social interaction, my experience with Sweatpants and Coffee led to a real-life meeting with the website’s Operations Director, who happens to live less than hour away from me. We met up at a Starbucks (naturally–Sweatpants and Coffee) in downtown Richmond and spent a lovely couple of hours in the shade on the patio–having a real, face-to-face chat.

I had a similar experience with social media leading to actual socializing last fall at the James River Writers Annual Conference. A few fellow writers I had never met in person recognized me simply because we follow each other on Instagram. I got a little thrill of meeting the people behind the profiles, and our social media accounts gave us a sort of jumping off point as we got acquainted. In one case, I already knew she liked plants and painting; she already knew I was obsessed with my dogs.

It was thrilling to meet the people behind the profiles.

Finally, this blog, in its own right a form of social media, has provided a platform for people who read my work elsewhere, and want to reach out. On several occasions, people who have read my work in the Richmond Times-Dispatch have commented on this blog in response to what they’ve read–and each time, their personal, thoughtful comments have warmed my heart, and encouraged me to keep on keepin’ on. If I did not maintain this blog, these kind readers would have had no means of contacting me.

So, as I celebrate the fact that this weekend, my Instagram account reached over 500 followers (which, compared to the 5k followers some others might have could seem–oh, never mind…), and this post marks the 101st post on this blog, I acknowledge that social media, while it does pose its problems, can also prove a powerful and effective tool.