A Writer’s Gift: Community

The Christmas season is upon us, and while I recommend checking out my gift guide for the writerly types (and dog lovers) in your life, I want to take a moment to acknowledge one of the most meaningful gifts we writers can give to each other: the gift of community. I think we can all agree that a certain amount of solitude is necessary to craft an effective, satisfying piece of writing, but just as important as the gift of quiet time to write, is the gift of time spent with our fellow writers.

Gifts from Fellow Writers

I owe a lot to some of my fellow writers. Below is a list of just a few of the many gifts they have given me.

Mind the Dog Writing Blog

Believe it or not, this blog would not exist at all if it weren’t for Charlene Jimenez, a fellow blogger, writer, and writing instructor. Several years ago, Charlene and I were enrolled in a few graduate level writing courses together, and after we finished our degree programs, kept in touch. If she hadn’t suggested the idea of a blogging network, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. My gift to her: I invite you to pay her (excellent!) blog a visit.

Life in 10 Minutes Workshops and 9 Lives: A Life in 10 Minutes Anthology

Without my friend Lauren Brown, who you’ve read about in this blog before, I wouldn’t have participated in the three or four Life in 10 Minutes Workshops I have loved. These workshops are not only therapeutic and encouraging, but also productive, supportive, enjoyable, and inspiring.

Participation in this workshop has resulted not only in a sense of accomplishment and an exercise of creativity for me, but has also fostered a sense of community and resulted in a few of my works being published.

Vitality Float Spa

Like Life in 10 Minutes, Lauren told me about the Writing Program at Vitality Float Spa in Richmond. In addition to a program for writers, the spa offers programs for chefs and artists. I don’t know much about the programs for chefs and artists, but the program for writers entails two free, 90-minute float sessions in exchange for one original piece of writing. The idea is that the float is so inspiring and freeing, the experience enables you to create a brand new piece of writing, work of art, or recipe (respectively). In my case, the gift of the spa experience resulted in another gift: the satisfaction of composing a poem inspired by the experience. Ultimately, Vitality plans to compile all the writing they receive into a book.

Freelance Work

My sister, Anne, a freelance writer and blogger, has provided me with numerous opportunities to turn my talent and passion into lucrative projects. Without her, much of my published work would not exist at all, much less be published.

Contently

As with freelance work, it was my younger sister who introduced me to Contently, a platform that allows writers to create and maintain an online portfolio, as well as to look for freelance opportunities.

Feedback

Many kindhearted writers have invited me to be part of their critique groups, which have provided me with helpful feedback and the ability to better accept constructive criticism. In fact, the idea to restructure my novel-in-the-works was the result of a critique group discussion.

Gifts for Fellow Writers

While getting the gift of community is rewarding, giving it to others is just as heart-warming. I love the feeling I experience when I know I have helped another writer succeed.

Publication in The Richmond Times-Dispatch

Lauren has given me much in the way of both friendship and writing, but I have also returned the gift, telling her about the My Life and In My Shoes columns of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and encouraging her to submit work. She did, and her work often appears in the newspaper. Similarly, I encouraged a man with whom I attend church, Frank Wentzel, to submit work. He met with similar success, his work having appeared at least twice already.

Writing Jobs

Shortly after I began regularly writing articles for ScoutKnows.com, a website tailored to pet parents (like me!), the then-editor asked me if I knew anyone else who might be a good fit for the site. I immediately sent her the names of three or four of my best writer friends, some of whom now also write for the site.

An Outlet for Stories

Recently, my sister sent me information about an anthology looking for stories about women’s ability to rise above challenges and obstacles in their lives. Her initial thought was that I might want to submit; instead, I passed the information along to three of my friends, two of whom told me it was perfect timing; they had been looking for either a reason to tell their story, or an audience for it. The latter two, I know, were accepted for publication in the anthology.

James River Writers Annual Conference

For the last several years, I have enjoyed attending the James River Writers Annual Conference. When I learned a colleague new to my school also loved writing, I encouraged him to attend. He attended every year until moving out of state, and each year, we both looked forward to the event.

While writing can sometimes feel a solitary activity, we writers are our greatest resources. This holiday season, make a point to give the gift of community to the writers you know.

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The Risk in Writing: Rejections Galore

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This past weekend, another couple helped my husband and me paint the foyer in our nearly century-old vacation home, leading to a discussion about various art forms, from writing to painting.

Recently, one of my free-spirited, creative friends and her equally creative husband spent the weekend with my husband and me at an old house we purchased and are working to rejuvenate. My friend is a talented and passionate teacher with a penchant for languages and writing. Her husband, though he works in the technology field, is a gifted painter. My own husband builds lamps from

Writing foyer paint
While I don’t have the patience to actually paint the detailed woodwork featured in the foyer, and while the work in the above photo is unfinished, I’m proud of my vision, albeit executed by a more detail-oriented friend.

re-purposed materials and has recently begun creating beautiful stained glass pieces. And I? Well, I identify mainly as a writer, though I dabble in painting and amateur photography from time to time.

As the four of us painted the front foyer of our 1919 farmhouse, my friend gave me candid feedback on my novel, which I recently asked her to read, giving her free rein to rip it apart if necessary. She gave me some really insightful advice, and admitted she felt relieved that I had taken her constructive criticism so well (granted, she did an excellent job tempering her criticisms with compliments, but I digress).

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One of my husband’s latest artistic endeavors includes making stained glass pieces. This one hangs in a friend’s kitchen.

She followed her critique of my novel with the admission that she had decided she was no longer going to identify as a writer, in part because she needed more validation than she felt writing could offer her, and in part because writing simply offers less tangible and fewer results. When you paint a wall, for example, you can see the effect of your efforts almost immediately–as proven by the way our foyer brightened up with every coat of  paint. When you write a story or a novel, the progress is often much slower, and much less noticeable. In addition, while a newly-painted room is sure to get oos and ahhs, a story or novel is likely going to face dozens and dozens of rejections before it ever sees an acceptance (if it ever sees an acceptance).

You can show people a painting, a sculpture, a photograph–and they need only seconds to get at least a cursory appreciation of your work. But someone has to invest a lot of time and energy to read your poem, story, essay, or novel. And lots of activities vie for our time and attention. Writers compete for an audience with TV shows, movies, sports broadcasts, sleeping, errands, etc. We must not only write our story, but then convince people to commit their limited time and energy to reading it. After all, more energy and time are required to read a book  than to look at a piece of artwork or watch a film or play.

 

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Plus, producing a tangible product, like a painting or a sculpture, can be satisfying. You can display it. You can sell it. You can hold it, gaze at it, touch it. All of these things are much more difficult, if not impossible, to do with a poem or novel–not to mention the fact that a written work never feels finished. We feel always like we could find a more perfect word, more effectively structure our chapters, more expertly develop our characters or write our dialog or set our scene or or or…. At a certain point, we just have to decide it’s done, whereas other artistic endeavors we can more definitively finish, and that completion is satisfying and fulfilling.

 

I understand what my friend is saying. I have often questioned my drive to identify as a writer. Is it really necessary? Why do I care so much? Why do I write? It’s really hard, and I enjoy many other forms of creative expression–painting, singing (though I can’t say I’m any good anymore), sketching, design, photography, and even theater at one point in my life–and these open me up to far less criticism and rejection.

 

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As a writer actively seeking publication, rejections have become routine for me. Getting published is like winning the lottery–just as rare, but just as thrilling. I think maybe that’s one reason I keep writing: It’s hard (really, really hard sometimes), but the sense of accomplishment and elation I experience when a publication accepts my pitch, when I see my work in print or on-line, or when I get that long-awaited paycheck for an idea hatched a year before, far outshines the sense of disappointment that accompanies (yet another) rejection. Maybe I have come to accept that rejections are part of writing–at least for someone who seeks publication. I am no less a writer for having become more familiar with a sense of resignation at another thanks-but-no-thanks than with a sense of validation and accomplishment. In fact, another rejection at the very least means I’m producing enough work–enough writing–to send out into the world. The real fear sets in when I haven’t written anything new in a while–when my list of rejection e-mails shrinks because of a dearth of ideas, a sort of writing drought. My fear of having nothing to write far outweighs my fear of rejection. So, really, maybe that’s how I know I’m a writer.

Writing Rejections
Above, you can see the many rejections my desire to write has recently survived. With persistence and resilience, I have manged to find homes for some of these pieces.

My fear of having nothing to write far outweighs my fear of rejection. So, really, maybe that’s how I know I’m a writer.

National Day on Writing: #WhyIWrite

Today is already a good day. It’s Friday. The sun is shining. My honors students are going to write their own Gothic stories, modeled after Poe, Faulkner, or Gilman, later on this morning. In addition to all this–it’s also National Day on Writing, sponsored by the Why I write IIINational Council of Teachers of English. All week long on my Instagram account, I’ve participated in their #whyIwrite campaign, posting one reason each day for, well, why I write. This blog post is the culmination of my daily musings on why I write.

Reason 1: I love to write.

This one is probably pretty obvious, but I figured I’d elaborate, anyway. I have been compelled to write since the day I was physically able. Boxes and boxes of journals, begun when I was in just third grade, occupy a significant amount of the storage space in the eaves of my attic. I love to write articles, diary entries, poems, stories, narrative Why I Writeessays, novels, blog posts. There isn’t much I don’t like to write. The feeling I experience when I know I have written something just the way it needed to be expressed is the same satisfaction produced by the sound of a softball smacking a glove in a perfect catch. That sense of achievement and precision is priceless.

In addition to the simple satisfaction writing provides for me, I find the act of writing therapeutic. Writing provides a physical, mental, and emotional means to let go. It allows me to process my emotions and thoughts, and offers a form of catharsis.

It also reaffirms for me my place in the world, and my identity as “writer.”

Finally, I find flow through writing. There is nothing quite like the sense that the piece I am writing–the very words pouring from my pen or fingertips–stems from some secret source I have magically tapped into. I am just the conduit. It is effortless. Finding myself in this state is truly a spiritual experience, one I have not achieved through any other activity.

The feeling I experience when I know I have written something just the way it needed to be expressed is the same satisfaction produced by the sound of a softball smacking a glove in a perfect catch.

Reason 2: I write to remember.

One of my favorite things about writing is going back, sometimes years later, to read things I have written. Many times, I find I wrote about things that, had I never written about them, I would have forgotten them. They never would have resurfaced in my mind. I love rediscovering scraps of experience that, without writing, would have been lost to my consciousness.

Reason 3: I write to be remembered.

Writing offers a form of immortality. It helps me preserve something of myself for future generations–for my nieces, for my nephews, maybe even for their children and their children’s children. Often, when I write something, particularly diary entries or personal narratives, I wonder who might read them decades down the road, and think about me–and know a little more about me, about herself, about the world as it was when I was here, for having read it.

Writing is a handshake, a hug, an invitation to empathy and understanding. It is one way to strengthen the bond of the human family.

Reason 4: I write to get perspective.

Writing helps me get my thoughts in order, helps me sort myself out.

Reason 5: I write to connect.

One of the most rewarding aspects of writing is when people tell me a piece I wrote resonated with them. People’s reactions to what I write about my family and marriage, the lessons I have learned through my mistakes or misconceptions, or the effect nature seems always to have on me are so touching–and encouraging. Writing is a way to reach out to humanity as whole, across oceans and mountains, to cry out into the abyss, “I am here! You are here! And we are not alone!” Writing is a handshake, a hug, an invitation to empathy and understanding. It is one way to strengthen the bond of the human family.

Why I Write II

 

 

 

The Deeper Difference between Metaphor and Simile

Most people have no trouble understanding the simple, surface difference between a simile and a metaphor. They both serve to make comparisons, but similes use comparison words such as “like” or “as,” whereas metaphors do not. Two examples of simile from my second novel-in-progress, The Experiment, are:

Maybe he could make more of the next 23 hours … if he weren’t so aware of the minutes peeling away like sheets on a desk calendar.

Her pen moved slowly, like her morning thoughts.

To help express the character’s sense of time passing too quickly, the first example draws a comparison between minutes passing and the sheets on a desk calendar being ripped away and discarded. The second example compares the pace of the writer’s pen to the pace of her thoughts–both slow in the early morning hours.

Pages-Flying-Off-Calendar-shutterstock_111683282

An example of a metaphor from the same work is:

 …the sky had exchanged its vibrant afternoon blue for a pale lavender nightgown.

In the above example, dusk is compared to (almost equated with) a “pale lavender nightgown” the personified sky dons before nightfall.

When a writer employs a simile, she allows for a degree of separation between the items she compares. They are similar, alike–but not the same. By contrast, a metaphor essentially equates the items it compares. When a writer uses a metaphor, she is implying a much closer comparison than if she uses a simile. As a reader, paying attention to this subtle difference can help you ascertain author’s purpose and better comprehend a character, scene, and so forth. As a writer, be aware of the fact that making comparisons through a simile or a metaphor can produce different effects. A metaphor creates a more direct comparison than does a simile. The choice you make as a writer depends on how close a comparison you intend to draw, or how close a relationship you want to create between the two subjects.

When a writer employs a simile, she allows for a degree of separation between the items she compares. They are similar, alike–but not the same. By contrast, a metaphor essentially equates the items it compares. When a writer uses a metaphor, she is implying a much closer comparison than if she uses a simile.

To see a visual representation of the subtle differences between simile and metaphor, please see this Venn Diagram.

 

Reading, Writing, Dog Food, and Validating Emotions

Lauren and I sit in her Jeep in an alley across the street from the building where we take a writing workshop together. It’s dark, almost 9:30 at night, Lauren’s face illuminated by the glow of her car’s dashboard, street sounds filtering through our open windows. The

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One of my favorite writing activities is participating in the Life in 10 Minutes writing workshops. This blog post was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend and fellow Life in 10 Minutes writer after our workshop last night.

night air is warm and still–and electric with the nightlife of nearby VCU, the students energized from their summer hiatus, enlivened by reunions with sorority sisters and roommates and classmates.

 

“One thing I struggle with,” Lauren tells me, “is feeling like my emotions aren’t valid. Like, I have it so good compared to other people. What do I have to complain about–to feel sad or angry or upset about?”

I get what she’s saying. I mean, how do I dare say I’m overworked or overwhelmed or stressed out when, somewhere in the world, someone else spends 12 hours a day toiling in a sweatshop for pennies–and feels grateful, maybe, just to have a job? How could I dare complain about missing my sister, who lives 10 hours away, when somewhere in the world, someone else’s sister lives even farther way–or maybe isn’t even alive anymore at all? How dare I feel sad or stressed when my biggest problems are wishing I didn’t have to get up for work Monday morning; not getting enough sleep; and trying to figure out how to cram a full work day, a trip to the grocery store, a run, and a family dinner into one day? Especially when I compare those worries to the much more burdensome concerns of people around me? How ungrateful am I? If my problems were more extreme, wouldn’t I find myself saying, “I wish my biggest problem were finding time for the grocery store. If only my biggest concern were having to work Monday morning.” Wouldn’t I see my old troubles as trivial, silly? Yeah. Probably. In all honesty, yes.

If my problems were more extreme, wouldn’t I find myself saying, “I wish my biggest problem were finding time for the grocery store. If only my biggest concern were having to work Monday morning.” Wouldn’t I see my old troubles as trivial, silly? Yeah. Probably. In all honesty, yes. But that doesn’t necessarily make my stress or sorrow or dread any less valid.

But that doesn’t necessarily make my stress or sorrow or dread–or Lauren’s, or anyone’s–any less valid. (And, on a side note, how interesting that we beat ourselves up over the validity of only negative emotions. I’ve never heard anyone say, “How dare I be happy when someone else has it so much better?” but I’ve heard time and time again, “How dare I be sad when someone else has it so much worse?”) Your sorrow might result from X; mine, from Y. But we both experience sorrow, regardless of the cause. My anxiety might come from this; yours, from that. But we both experience anxiety. The experience of the emotion makes it valid, not the cause of the emotion. It’s the emotion that counts, not always its cause–not all the time.

Think about it like this: I’m currently working on an article about the ingredients and “superingredients” (think: super foods) you should look for in your dog’s food, and one thing I’ve learned in my research is that more important than the individual ingredients, are the nutrients found in those ingredients. So, while you might want salmon or chicken to be included on the ingredients list, what you’re really after–and what your dog’s system is really after–is the protein (or the omega-3 fatty acids or the omega-6 fatty acids–but you’ll have to read the article for more on that) the salmon or chicken (or dried egg product or oatmeal or lamb…) provides. Just as the nutrient is more important than the ingredient that provides it, so the emotion is more important than the experience that causes it.

When we read, we feel familiar emotions in unfamiliar circumstances. It is the emotion we recognize, not necessarily the situation, not the emotion’s cause. We understand the emotional experience, even though the circumstance prompting it is foreign.

Our conversation put me in mind of two things, the first, something I read recently: Reading makes us more empathetic people. If we know what grief feels like–even if the only cause of it in our own lives is the impending fade of summer vacation into another school year–we can understand what grief feels like when it’s caused by a situation we have never experienced–a divorce, the loss of a beloved friend. When we read, we feel familiar emotions in unfamiliar circumstances. It is the emotion we recognize, not necessarily the situation, not the emotion’s cause. Perhaps you’re reading Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. You’ve likely (SPOILER ALERT!) never had to kill your best friend to spare him a worse fate–that has probably never been the cause of your sorrow, grief, or loneliness (I hope!). But you likely have lost a best friend, to one situation or another, and thus are capable of empathizing with the character’s sense of sorrow, grief, and loneliness. You understand the emotional experience, even though the circumstance prompting it is foreign.

The second is this: a fellow writer’s assertion that writers feel more deeply than, well, non-writers. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but if it is, than we creative writer types, well–our sorrow over the death of yet another glorious summer might feel akin to the sorrow someone else feels over something others might deem much more worthy of sorrow. And, as a writer, having known sorrow, you can now transfer that sense of sorrow, however trivial its cause, to your characters, who might be likely to experience it as a result of whatever circumstance they’re in.

In any case, reading, writing, and emotional experience are intimately and inexplicably intertwined. Whether your emotion is triggered by something even you yourself deem trivial, or something almost anyone would deem worthy of the resulting emotional reaction, pain is pain, love is love, anger is anger, joy is joy. Emotions are part of the human experience. We do not all share the same lives, the same experiences, the same situations. What we do share, though, are the human feelings these lives, experiences, and circumstances cause. We all know love. We all know vengeance. We all know fear. We all know gratitude. We all feel, no matter the source of the feelings.

 

 

S-Town from an English Teacher’s Perspective

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As my husband selflessly and singlehandedly drove us to Florida Wednesday, we listened to the podcast “S-Town” and I submitted several pieces of my writing to various contests and publications, as well as worked on some freelance projects.

Wednesday, my husband and I hit the road to visit family in Florida, and to help keep us awake and alert during our ten-hour stint on 95 South, we listened to the seven-chapter podcast, S-Town, by Serial and This American Life. It was thought-provoking, emotional, entertaining, and worthwhile. I laughed, cried, and marveled. It’s the kind of podcast that stays on your mind for days–probably weeks–popping up in your day-to-day when something seemingly inocuous inspires a memory of an emotion, thought, person, or question brought up in S-Town. It brings up big questions, like: What is fulfillment? How do different people achieve it? What does it mean to live a meaningful life? How can people achieve meaning in their lives? Do familial relationships trump relationships with friends, though in some cases, the friends are closer than family? Should familial relationships be given legal priority in every case? I could compose an entire post consisting solely of questions S-Town makes me ask myself, but I’ll spare you (listen to it yourself, if you haven’t already, and find out what questions it brings up for you). Besides, this post isn’t actually about the effect S-Town had on me personally; it’s about the connections I can make between it and my career as a writer and English teacher (though to be honest, the personal musings are far deeper than the professional ones).

The Mad Hatter

As a child, I enjoyed the cartoon version of the story Alice in Wonderland. As an adult, in a children’s literature class for my graduate degree, I had to read the full-length book–and I enjoyed that, too. Like me, you’re probably familiar with the story and its characters, including the Mad Hatter. You might also have heard the term, “mad as a hatter.” In listening to S-Town, I learned where that phrase comes from: In the 1800s, hat-makers (hatters) used a dangerous chemical compound to turn fur into felt for hats. Inhaling these chemicals on a regular basis caused many of them to go crazy, and even die prematurely.

“A Rose for Emily” and “The Masque of the Red Death”

One of the short stories I read with my students during our Gothic literature unit is William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” one of John B. Mclemore‘s (only click that link if you don’t mind a spoiler alert) favorites. The theme song of the podcast, “A Rose for Emily” by the Zombies, which I’d never heard before, alludes to the story and helps elucidate the meaning of the title, and the story, to a degree. I’m currently working on the best way to use it to A) enhance my teaching of the story and B) boost my students’ understanding of the literary device, allusion. In addition, my honors students complete a Literature Portfolio project throughout the course of the semester, requiring them to write short essays (Connections Essays) connecting a work of art, a piece of music, a work of literature, or a current event to the work of literature we are reading in class. Connecting the song “A Rose for Emily” to the story by the same name would perfectly exemplify the expectations for this assignment, as would connecting the short story to S-Town itself.

On a similar note, another Gothic author mentioned in the podcast is Edgar Allan Poe. One of his stories my students and I read is “The Masque of the Red Death,” in which the hourly striking of a large, black clock in a room of crimson and ebony provides a constant reminder to a group of revelers that their time is running out, and their hours are numbered. John B. Mclemore was an antiquarian horologist who built sun dials and restored old clocks. Herein lies more potential for a stellar Connections Essay.

Paradox

At the risk of spoiling everything for you, I will just say that S-Town also provides an excellent example of paradox: time as both a punishment and a gift. (In addition to spoiling things for you, I risk going way too far into my musings on the concept of a lifetime and time if I continue!)

New Words

At least three new words jumped out at me as we listened:

  1. proleptic
  2. mellifluous
  3. peregrinate.

Zora Neale Hurston

Although some might see the sometimes racist characters in S-Town as the farthest possible thing from anything relating to Zora Neale Hurston, two similarities stood out to me. First, Hurston lived part of her life in Eatonville, Florida, which the earliest residents helped build from the ground up. Janie, the protagonist in Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (which I read each year with my students), also lives in Eatonville, and is there for its incorporation, her husband having become the mayor and working hard to incorporate the town. John B. Mclemore played an integral role in the project of

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During our visit, I spent lots of time building Florida snowmen (sandmen) on the beach with my niece, who has taught me many valuable lessons and inspired many of my personal narratives, availabe at richmond.com.

putting Woodstock, Alabama (originally North Bibb), on the map as an actual town. Second, Hurston had a deep appreciation for folklore, and for spoken language and culture. While many African-American writers were attempting to create characters and narrators that sounded like, well, white characters, narrators, or writers, Hurston’s characters spoke in the vernacular of the people she knew, to the chagrin of many of her contemporaries, who perhaps saw her as proliferating negative racial stereotypes. Hurston, though, seemed to see herself as advocating for the beauty of these speech patterns, rhythms, and nuances. To learn more about this (and then some!), check out this audio guide by the National Endowment for the Arts. Like Hurston’s characters, the people in S-Town often speak in artful and unique phrases–without even realizing it; it seems to come naturally. They speak in clever metaphors without consciously crafting the comparisons, and use figurative language without even trying or, perhaps, realizing. Consider these two examples:

  1. “He may have had a little sugar in his tank” as a way of saying someone might be gay.
  2. “He’d drank enough Wild Turkey to make anyone gobble” as a way of saying he’d had enough alcohol to make absolutely anyone drunk.

These aren’t direct quotes, but they’re pretty close, and good examples of phrases that stood out me as particularly unique, amusing, or clever. Hurston’s characters, too, often express themselves in equally eloquent and creative terms.

Making Connections

One of the surest ways to support retention and critical thinking is helping students make connections between what they learn in the classroom, and the outside world. I found that as I listened to S-Town, I was experiencing what I hope my students experience when we read, discuss, and write: direct parallels between my own experience and education, and the real world.

 

Expand your Vocabulary: Read

Recently, I got to spend some time with my niece from Florida, who, just having reached the age of five, will begin kindergarten in about two weeks. She knows my husband and I collect sea glass, and as we were walking down a sidewalk in town, she picked up a broken glass bottle and held it up, exuberant.

“Look! I found some glass for you!” she exclaimed, impressed with her find.

My sister, her mother, quickly told her to put it down.

“But she gathers glass,” my niece said, clearly confused about the difference between sea glass and any old glass you might find in the street. After we cleared up the confusion, and her protest echoed in my head, I thought, “‘Gathers?’ What five-year-old uses a word like ‘gathers?'”

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Because sunset and twilight are two of my favorite times of day, one of my favorite recently-acquired words is “crepuscular,” a word I came across in my reading, and that could be used to describe the scene in the above photograph, which I took in the Outer Banks of North Carolina earlier this week.

Other words I heard her use over the course of the next day or so included “scurry,” “scuttle,” “scamper,” and “scepter,” all of which she would casually and correctly use–just as if she were using the word “run” or “walk.” I started keeping a list. My niece knew about this list, and a few days after she returned home, I got a call from her.

“Hi, Aunt Amanda,” she said. “I have another word for you to add to your list.”

“Oh, you do?” I said, amused–and touched that my list had made such an impression on her.

“‘Glimpse,'” said my niece.

“‘Glimpse,'” I repeated. “Can you use it in a sentence?” My niece knew that in order for one of her words to qualify for the list, she had to use it correctly in a sentence. A few days prior, I had denied the inclusion of “humiliated” on the list, because although she had used it in a sentence, it hadn’t made any sense. (Though I must admit, I was impressed at her attempt, and told her as much.)

“I could barely see the bunny–I only caught a glimpse of him,” she said.

“Very good! You’re right–another one for the list.”

My sister’s voice came over the phone.

“Where does she get all these words?” I asked her.

“Well, we read to her all the time,” my sister said, matter-of-factly. And of course she’s right–the regular reading sessions every night and at various points throughout the day, as requested, no doubt play a significant role in my niece’s impressive and ever expanding vocabulary.

Read. If you want to learn, read. If you want to escape, read. If you want to relax, read. But, most especially, if you want to write, read. Words are the most powerful tools we writers wield–and we can acquire more of them simply by opening a book.

My niece’s enthusiasm for her growing vocabulary reminds me of my own experience with words. I can remember in third grade learning to use and spell the word “conservatory.” I felt so important, possessing such a large, polysyllabic word. Later, I can remember encountering the word “alabaster,” specifically in the phrase “her alabaster brow” (I think it was in an Anne of Green Gables book), and using it in my own writing every chance I got. It was exhaustive, really. The number of times you’ll find that phrase in my early writing is laughable.

When I first started this blog, I was rather good about composing a weekly Word of the Week post, and though I haven’t been very consistent with that recently, I still keep my eye out for new words, many of which I find in my reading. Currently, I’m (still) reading Roberto Bolano’s 2666, and in my last sitting alone, I became acquainted with the following new words:

  • epigones–inferior imitators
  • impecunious–habitually poor (a word I can, unfortunately, employ regarding my own circumstances!)
  • philatelic–having to do with the study of postage stamps
  • crepuscular–relating to or resembling twilight (which might be my favorite of these newly acquired words),

just to name a few.

And, as it past my bedtime (my niece might say I should have scurried to bed long ago; I might say I should have started my crepuscular routine before allowing myself to grow this tired and the night to grow this old), I’ll wrap this up simply by saying: Read. If you want to learn, read. If you want to escape, read. If you want to relax, read. But, most especially, if you want to write, read. Words are the most powerful tools we writers wield–and we can acquire more of them simply by opening a book. The stronger our individual words are, the stronger our overall writing, and the more striking our impact, will be.

 

The True Value of Continued Education

Few will deny the many values of continuing education for all professionals–especially for educators. After all, how can we prepare our students for the world and the workforce of tomorrow if we as teachers don’t continue to learn, grow, and adapt? Technology is constantly changing. New teaching techniques are constantly surfacing. New information is constantly becoming available. It’s imperative for us to keep up with, if not ahead of, these changes. Naturally, attending workshops and conferences and enrolling in graduate level classes can help us learn about the latest technologies, techniques, and tools–but that is only the most obvious reason to continue our education.

Recently, my Instagram buddy and fellow teacher and writer, Kathryn Fletcher (check out her blog, Quill and Books), posted about a class she is taking, and the fact that being a student again helps her to be a better teacher. I, too, have noticed this phenomenon. From 2009-2013, I was enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Denver, and last month, I completed an accelerated graduate course on gifted and talented students through the University of Richmond. While my classes provided me with the traditional benefits of education–knowledge, information, skills–they also made me a better teacher simply because I was reminded of what being a student is like–of what being a student is.

Providing Examples to Clarify Expectations

I’ve heard two schools of thought regarding providing students with examples of projects, papers, or assignments.

The first school of thought seems to be that providing examples can be helpful to our students’ understanding of our expectations for their work, and is in fact integral to their ability to meet our expectations. Those who ascribe to this school of thought might feel that to not provide an example would be unfair, withholding information necessary for the students’ success.

The second school of thought seems to be that providing examples limits students’ creativity, imposing upon them a sort of template. In short, providing examples at best encourages students to think inside the box and at worst, fosters plagiarism.

Having recently been a student myself, I find I fall somewhere in the middle. As a student, I find access to examples at the very least a source of peace of mind. They help me understand my instructor’s expectations, and put me at ease. They also give me a basis of comparison. Is what I have completed so far up to par, or do I need to up the ante? They eliminate a lot of the stress associated with a weighty project or paper, and can make concrete what might otherwise feel like an abstract task. They do, indeed, provide a sort of template.

As a teacher, however, I understand the fear of boxing my students in, of limiting them to the standards set by the example–when perhaps they are capable of more. To help satisfy both teacher me and student me, I recommend providing several, different examples, all exemplifying different strengths and suggesting different ways a student could successfully complete the assignment. In this way, I hope the examples will inspire my students, acting as a jumping-off point instead of as a single route to successful completion.

Clear Directions

This seems obvious, but really, having been simultaneously a student and a teacher for four years, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of clear directions. List them in bullet points; create numbered, step-by-step lists; draw one of those concept map things that visually explains the steps students need to take to complete the assignment. Make yourself clear to your students in any way they need.

That said, it’s impossible for us as teachers to anticipate what every single one of our students will need for clarity–so be approachable. Encourage students to ask questions if they don’t understand, and when they do ask questions, make sure to answer with patience and understanding. Teacher me knows that can be very challenging, especially when you feel like you’ve already answered the same questions five times in the last five minutes. Sometimes, though, teacher me has to remember that if I have had to answer the same questions five times, maybe my directions weren’t clear enough the first time. In teacher me’s defense, maybe the students didn’t read the directions carefully enough the first time (or at all!), or maybe they weren’t listening carefully enough the first time (or at all!)–but student me always feels warm and fuzzy when an instructor answers my question as if I am not, actually, an idiot.

Empathetic Feedback

This is perhaps the most important lesson I learn (again and again) when I take a class. I teach writing, so I am constantly picking apart students’ written work. My intent is always to help my students become stronger, more effective writers, but I must admit that after reading dozens of research papers, my comments grow a bit more terse and a bit less forgiving. It’s completely unintentional, but I’m sure that’s no consolation to the student who wrote the twentieth research paper I read.

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The picture on the left shows me during the fall of my senior year in high school (student me!). The picture on the right shows me during the spring of my eleventh year as a high school English teacher (teacher me!). One of the values of taking classes as a teacher is remembering what it feels like to be a student, an experience that, in and of itself, can improve our teaching.

But guess what? Student me had to write three papers for the most recent graduate course I completed. And they weren’t perfect. But my instructor’s feedback was gentle and helpful.

And freelance writer me just got a rejection notice from Crowd Content–so clearly, my work wasn’t up to their standards (their feedback, which was less than constructive, wasn’t up to mine).

And novelist me found out a few days ago that Goodbye For Now did not win the James River Writers Best Unpublished Novel Contest.

And blogger me knows this blog post, too, will have its flaws (especially since I’m writing it way past my bedtime). And I won’t particularly like it if someone points them out (though, depending on how it’s delivered, I may feel grateful for the advice after my ego recovers).

And what does teacher me take away from all of this? Teacher me is reminded to bear in mind that when students turn in their writing to me, be it a journal entry, a research paper, a short story, or an essay, they are turning in a little piece of themselves–and it’s personal, however academic it may be. And so, whether a paper is the first I’ve read tonight or the thirty-first, I must treat it with the utmost respect and tenderness. I am indeed responsible for helping to improve it–or rather, for helping its author improve it–but I am also in a position to either build up or tear down another writer. I am partly responsible for the way a student writer will feel when he gets his paper back from me. Will he feel empowered, or downtrodden? Part of that depends on how I deliver my suggestions for revisions, as well as how helpful and specific my feedback is.

Rubrics

One of the most helpful tools for student me when I am writing a paper, completing a project, or working on any academic task is a clear understanding of how the instructor will evaluate the final product. What criteria will be used? How much weight does each element of the assignment carry? Where should my priorities rest? Student me likes a good, straight-forward rubric. I use it as a checklist and a guide.

Overall Lesson

Really, though, what is the most important lesson I have taken away from all the classes I have completed? A reminder of what it feels like to wear the students’ shoes. I’ve been wearing primarily teacher shoes for the last eleven years. It’s good, every now and again, to step back into the classroom as a student. As a teacher, it can be so easy to get bogged down in the to-do list of the teaching day, which often extends long after school hours: take attendance, run copies, grade papers, input grades, print progress reports, set up the bell ringer, update the curriculum map, fix the typo you just found on next block’s quiz, update the bulletin board, turn in the lesson plans, change the seating chart (because clearly Sarah and Jimmy can’t handle sitting so close to each other), and, for heaven’s sake, please find a few seconds for a potty break somewhere in there. Taking a class helps me remember that my students need me more than my to-do list does. This year, when school starts again, I hope teacher me can remember what it feels like to be student me–and teach accordingly.

 

 

 

The Value of Rereading

Just a few minutes ago, I finished reading my friend and fellow writer Charlene Jiminez’s blog post, “Finding the Universal Truth in your Work.” I found it so thought-provoking that I was inspired to share my thoughts (before I lose them).

Emotional Experiences and Life Experiences

As the title of her blog post makes plain, Charlene writes about universal truths in our own writing. When I was in AP English Literature as a high school senior, my teacher refused to use the word “theme,” instead demanding that we discuss universal truths. I embraced this idea. To me, it made the literature more relevant–more real. I wasn’t searching for some obscure (to teenage me) author’s message, which, I was sure, wasn’t really his message, anyway, but some critic-imposed theme originating in academia; I was looking for truth, a pursuit that seemed much more noble.

Our ability to discern the universal truth in the writing of others directly correlates to the value we will or will not place on that writing. It directly affects our ability to understand a work of literature beyond its surface elements (characters, plot, setting–that sort of thing), and to instead see those elements as tools used to communicate a truth about the human condition. At the same time, as Charlene explains, while our ability to discern that universal truth does not depend on our having had the same life experiences as the writer or characters, it does depend on our having had the same emotional experiences.

Life experiences equip us with the emotional capacity to better understand universal truths expressed in literature.

For example, the first time I read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, I was unimpressed. Really. It was, as they say, “meh.” I was unmoved. It was my fourth year teaching. I had just been assigned the honors classes, and the book was to be the students’ summer reading assignment. I read the book from cover to cover–all the introductory material, all the acknowledgments, everything. I took notes in the margins. I read carefully. But I didn’t like it. It was a chore. A year or two later, we changed the summer reading book, and Their Eyes Were Watching God collected dust on the shelves of the English department work room for several years. Two years ago, though, we reintroduced it as part of the core curriculum for both the honors and academic level classes. Since several years had gone by since I’d read the book, I decided I’d better read it again. Sigh…

The second time around, I loved it. What had changed? It was the same book with the same introduction, the same acknowledgments, the same notes in my same handwriting. Certainly, the story hadn’t changed. The writing hadn’t changed. Even the universal truths hadn’t changed.

But I had.

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Yesterday, my husband and I celebrated ten years of marriage. Developments in our relationship over the years have affected my ability to better understand universal truths in books like Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

While I had not been married off by my grandmother to a man three times my age; while I had not run away with a man who swept me off my feet only to find myself stuck in a loveless marriage; while I had not nearly died in a hurricane or (spoiler alert!) shot my one true love in self-defense, I had a deeper capacity to understand the emotions these situations elicit because I had had my own life experiences that had deepened my understanding of what it means to be human–of love, loss, friendship, and self-actualization.

Yesterday, my husband and I celebrated a decade of marriage. The experiences we have shared  helped open me up to the truths expressed in Hurston’s novel. Our marriage, and the sense of love and commitment I feel for my husband, expanded my emotional capacity, and helped me feel what Janie feels, though our situations are very different.

I had a similar experience with one of my all-time favorite books, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. The first time I read it, I was an undergraduate at Michigan State. I. Loved. It. The complexity of the characters’ relationships, and of the characters themselves, fascinated me. It all seemed to so novel, so shocking, so eye-opening.

Several years later, having graduated and been in the working world for at least as much time as I’d spent in college, I reread it. I still loved it–I still refer to it as one of my favorite books–but my love wasn’t as enthusiastic the second time around. I was older. Maybe a little wiser. Maybe a little jaded. Whatever it was, somehow, the book’s impact wasn’t as powerful.

A book is never the same book twice, because you are never the same reader.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has also affected me very differently at various points in my (emotional) life. When I read it as a junior in high school, despite my teacher’s assertions that Daisy was shallow and flighty, I really admired her. I wanted to be like her, or, more accurately, I wanted to be loved like her. Now, 15 years later, I’m far more fascinated with Nick and Gatsby’s characters, and with ideas like personal responsibility (or lack thereof), the American dream and how far one is prepared to go-should go–to achieve it, what it means to be American and how this book fits with our national identity, among others.

What changed?

Only me.

Life experiences equip us with the emotional capacity to better understand universal truths expressed in literature. We don’t need to have had the exact same life experiences as the writer or characters, as long as we have had life experiences that allow us to have the same emotional experiences. You may never have lost your spouse to a car wreck, but you may have lost him to another woman, and thus experienced loss and grief (among other feelings, no doubt!). A book you may have genuinely related to as a teenager may seem trite when you reread it as an adult. Something you may not have grasped in a book when you were a bachelor may be crystal clear when you read the same book after you’ve been married for fifteen years and have two children. For these reasons, and others, rereading is valuable. A book is never the same book twice, because you’re never the same reader.

But I Already Know What Happens

I’ll admit it. Sometimes I dread rereading a book I’ve already read multiple times. Even if I’ve actually read it only once. Even if I really liked it. Even if it’s been years since I read it. I mean, I already know what happens.

But the fact is, I’m an English teacher, so sometimes (lots of times), I have to read the same book more than once. Besides the fact that reading the same book twice (or more than twice) can prove a different experience every time, every time I reread a book (and as an English teacher, I reread many books, many times), I find something new. Students sometimes marvel at the way I can read aloud and write notes in my book at the same time, without missing a word. Here’s the trick: When you know the story line and characters and setting–the basic stuff–your mind is free to notice deeper elements like motifs, author’s purpose, writing strategies–or even universal truths. The more times I have read a book, the more familiar I am with its fundamental parts. The more familiar I am with the fundamental parts, the more literary elements I am free to notice and attend to.

While you may know the plot like the back of your hand, and have certain sections of dialog memorized, rereading a book can still prove an enlightening and surprising experience. Instead of waiting for just what happens next, you’re waiting for what revelation dawns on you next. What will you notice about the author’s word choice or rhythm? What epiphany will you experience regarding theme or the use of setting? What literary devices have you somehow missed the first (and second) time you read the book? What cunning turn of phrase has escaped your notice–until the fifth reading of Huck Finn?

 

Are you gonna be famous one day?

“Oh! Look at this!” I said upon receiving an unexpected e-mail from Turtle Island Quarterly this evening. “One of my pieces is going to be published–again!”

“Are you gonna be famous or something someday?” my husband responded. His question probably sounds a little extreme–delusional even, and I’m sure my response sounds equally so:

“Well, it would be kind of lovely, wouldn’t it?”

For a moment, I let myself bask in a little limelight at the kitchen table while I ate my ice cream sundae, imaging all my literary dreams coming true someday.

“I mean, it’s kind of insane,” my husband continued. “It’s never been like this before.”

I don’t really advertise the rejections–not because I am ashamed or embarrassed or disappointed (though I am always disappointed)–but because they are so frequent that telling you–or anyone else–about them would get old. Fast.

By “it’s” he meant my writing. By “like this,” he meant the sudden and recent success of my writing. Over the course of the spring and early summer, I’ve experienced:

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Nine Lives: A Life in Ten Minutes Anthology is available at Chop Suey Books in Richmond, Virginia, or online.

“Well,” I said, “I wasn’t really trying before.” Which is basically true. I was writing. Or not. I was submitting my writing. Or not. Whatevs. There was no concerted effort on my part. I was sporadic, unfocused. It’s only been in the last year or so, inspired by a desire to ultimately see my novel (and novel-in-progress) published and for sale (and selling!), that I really began to put myself and my writing “out there.” I haven’t met with all the success I would have liked, at least not yet–my novel remains unrepresented, my novel-in-progress is still in progress, my submissions spreadsheet was near-decimated when the file somehow got corrupted–but I’m making strides, and that feels really, really good.

Rejections are part of the writer’s life. They just are.

What I haven’t told you yet? I get far more rejection e-mails than acceptance e-mails. But I don’t really advertise the rejections–not because I am ashamed or embarrassed or disappointed (though I am always disappointed)–but because they are so frequent that telling you–or anyone else–about them would get old. Fast. Saying, “Oh, such-and-such agent doesn’t want my manuscript” or “Oh, such-and-such magazine isn’t interested in my poetry” would be kind of like walking around every Monday saying, “Hey, it’s Monday again.” You already know and it’s not fun to hear about. It’s just a fact of life. Like Monday is a fact of the 9-5, five-day workweek life, rejections are part of the writer’s life. They just are. I quickly reached a point at which I read them, and disappointed but unsurprised and more or less unfazed, file them away.

One insult could knock someone’s self-esteem down so far, that that person would need seven different compliments to build her confidence back up. The same is not true of rejection e-mails and acceptance e-mails. It doesn’t matter how many rejection letters I’ve gotten–it only takes one acceptance letter to pick me back up again.

When I was a sixth grader going through the D.A.R.E program at school, the police officer who visited our classroom each week told us it took seven (or some number I can’t exactly recall) compliments to outweigh one insult–that one insult could knock someone’s self-esteem down so far, that that person would need seven different compliments to build her confidence back up. The same is not true of rejection e-mails and acceptance e-mails. It doesn’t matter how many rejection letters I’ve gotten–it only takes one acceptance letter to pick me back up again.

I hope one day to hold in my hands books I have written with them.

So, am I gonna be famous one day? Who knows. It would be kind of lovely, wouldn’t it? In the meantime, I plan to enjoy writing–and seeing my writing published, whenever and wherever it is. And even if I’m never famous, I hope one day at least, writing will provide my main source of income, and I will hold in my hand books I have written with them. Because that would be truly lovely (even lovelier than fame).