Guest Post: Key Steps in Advertising Your Book Digitally

So you finished your book. But nobody seems to be reading it. It’s not that your book isn’t good enough; it’s that your book isn’t visible enough. You have the writing skills, but may not have the marketing know-how. It’s okay, though. These days, online promotion can help get your book in front of readers. It can be a lot more convenient and more cost-effective than traditional advertising. If you’re not familiar with the modern, digital method of promoting a book, you can carry out the key steps detailed below to increase your book’s visibility (and sales!).

Keyword Research

Keywords are vital in any online marketing campaign. If you’re not using the right words to talk about your book, you won’t get it in front of the right eyes. This can be useful if you run any advertising for your book on Google, Amazon, on Facebook. Knowing what keywords to use can even be useful for any blog posts or press you do. If you use the right keywords, you might rank on Google for the word and generate extra sales.

Start by making a list of all the words you can think of that someone else might use when looking for your book. These should be terms that generally describe your work. Leave out the very specific search terms you’re wishing for. Aside from the list of potential keywords, you should also take note of the search volume, competition level, and ad costs for every word.

A great place to go fishing for keywords is keywordtool.io. Another method is to ask your friends and acquaintances who read in the genre you write what keywords they would use to search for a book like yours. 

Keep the list of keywords you’ve created handy. Any time you’re doing any marketing, especially marketing related to search or search ads, utilize the keywords. For example, if you found the phrase “young adult story with wizards” is a keyword that is popularly searched, but not competitive, you could test Google Ads on that keyword. You might mention the phrase in your interviews. Some of those press quotes just might rank on Google! You might write a blog post about why your book is such a great young adult story with wizards, and target the keyword for SEO.

Social Media and Email

Post about your book on your social media accounts to help make sure your contacts know about your work. Send emails to every address on your list, as well. You never know who among them might be interested in buying, reviewing, or recommending your book.

Composing and sending an email newsletter is also an effective way to market. The challenge with books is that once somebody puts down your book, you have no way to reach them again. With a newsletter, you have their email address. This means you can build your relationship with your readers and can market to them in the future, every time you have a new book released, or information you want to share.

Try offering a free chapter or a teaser story for newsletter subscribers to incentivize people to subscribe and update them on your journey regularly.

Your Blog

Writing several blog posts about your book will not cost you anything except your time. Aside from your book, you can also tell stories about how you deal with writer’s block and other challenges

If you’re not keen on doing those things, or if you don’t have the time, you can pay someone else to do that for you. For a few hundred dollars, you can hire ghostwriters through sites like Upwork and Fiverr

Guest Posts on Someone Else’s Blog

Guest-posting is another way of promoting your book and yourself as a writer. Thankfully, there are many online publishers and blogs with a subscriber base that accept guest post submissions. 

You can write a post and pitch it to the said publishers and blogs. Another option is to go over your own blog, look for your most popular content, and then see if it can fit niche websites. If your submission is accepted, you can fill your author bio with a link to your website and your book’s sales page. 

Book Reviews

Nowadays, readers value book reviews more than an author’s star rating. These reviews may come from bloggers, Goodreads group members, and anyone who reads, for that matter.

You can first ask your family and friends to provide feedback about your book. You can also get paid reviewers to help create hype for your work. If you have an email list and several social media pages, you can announce giveaways in exchange for reviews. Be a little careful with this as some sites like Amazon prohibit “incentivized” reviews.

Giveaways and Discounts

Never discount the power of promoting free and inexpensive products. For many readers, it’s exciting to bump into books offered for free. You can set up your giveaway on Goodreads, on your social media pages, and on writing sites that allow such.

You can also offer discounts. Use a coupon site like RetailMeNot. Then, encourage your prospects to tap those coupons to purchase your book on your website. 

Helping Other Writers

Be active in online communities for writers and readers, especially those pertinent to the same genre as your book. Wattpad and Commaful are some options to explore. 

Then, buy your fellow writers’ books. Give positive comments about their works. Connect and communicate with them through social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr

Basically, show them that you care. Sooner or later, they may also return the gestures.

Tracking Your Successes and Failures

The best way to learn how to market a book online is to get out there and do it. Map out different promotion tactics. These could include working with bloggers, utilizing social media, setting up a landing page, or putting together a website that promotes your book.

Sure, there are some things you can only do when you have a larger budget. However, you can start small to get a feel for how running a campaign goes. Eventually, you can increase your budget as you get better and better at advertising and marketing. 

Evaluate how your efforts went. Was there anything you wish you had done differently? Was there anything that worked particularly well? Spend some time analyzing the results of each strategy to determine what worked best for you.

Personally, I like to track my results in a spreadsheet. I make notes on every campaign or idea I try. I note the difficulty and ease of the campaign. I also note any costs associated with it. As numbers come through, I update a “sales” column to track how well the campaign is doing. Sometimes it’s impossible to attribute exactly where a sale comes from, so I use my best guess and round as needed. Pause campaigns that are not working, and invest more effort in ones that are.

Marketing is hard. There is no way around it, but there are many opportunities. It’s a critically important part of the process of being an author. With a little luck, creativity, and hard work, we’ll see you on the bestsellers list!

Author Bio

Hayley Zelda is a writer and marketer at heart. She’s worked with a number of self-published authors on marketing books to the YA audience, and has written on Wattpad, Commaful, Archive of Our Own, and Fanfiction.net.

First Semester: Preconception and Reflection

“Does anyone know what this word means?” I ask, as I scrawl “preconception” across the Promethean Board at the front of my classroom, reflecting on how much better my digital handwriting has gotten over the course of the last year. I am not sure how this lesson will go. It is 8:15 on a Monday morning. I made the last-minute decision to revamp my lesson plans last night as I fell asleep, when, from the safety of my comfortable, warm bed, the idea of trying something brand new first thing on a Monday morning seemed less foolhardy.

Now, standing in front of 11 masked teenagers staring blankly back at me, I question last night’s half-awake judgment. It seemed like such a good idea just nine hours ago.

“Well,” I say, “let’s break it down a little then.” I underline one part of the word: concept. “What’s a concept? Anybody know?”

“Like, an idea?” someone offers.

“A thought,” someone else says.

“Yes!” I say, drawing an arrow from my underlined “concept” down to where I add the words “idea” and “thought.” “And what does the prefix ‘pre’ mean?”

“Before,” a student says.

“Right! So, see? You did know what ‘preconception’ means.” I draw an arrow reaching from “pre” down to where I write “before” beside “thought” and “idea.” “A preconception is an idea or a thought you have about something before you have actually done it or experienced it. It’s like an expectation. So, let’s think back to the beginning of the semester–the night before the first day of school. What were some of your preconceptions?”

I write the students’ ideas on the Promethean Board: It’s going to be boring; I’m going to be tired; I don’t want to get up early for school; I’m excited to see my friends; it’s going to be hard; I’m going to have too much homework.

Once we have a substantial list, I point out to them that most of their preconceptions (all but one) about the current semester were negative. I think back to my own preconceptions going into this school year in particular–the pandemic forcing all kinds of unfamiliar precautions, processes, and protocols upon us. I had been terrified. My stress levels were through the roof. I wished desperately that I had reached retirement age. I fully expected this year to be at least as stressful as my first year teaching, when I regularly found myself contemplating driving my car into a tree or guardrail instead of to school. I didn’t have a death wish. I wasn’t suicidal. (I was, however, miserable.) It was just that back then, going to the hospital simply sounded more appealing than going to work.

I fully expected this year to be at least as stressful as my first year teaching, when I regularly found myself contemplating driving my car into a tree or guardrail instead of to school.

“Now,” I say, “next week we start second semester. What are your preconceptions when you think about your new classes, your new teachers, your new schedule?”

Again, most of them are negative–it’s going to be stressful, their classes are going to be more difficult, their teachers might be mean. I ask them how they are feeling now that we are looking ahead to next week.

Stressed.

Worried.

Overwhelmed.

Curious.

Excited.

I can relate. I feel all those emotions, too. Will I click with my new students the way I have clicked with my current group? Will my new bunch of students be as motivated, fun, thoughtful, well-behaved, and enjoyable as the ones looking back at me now have been? Will I remember all the little things I need to do to open a new semester, essentially preparing for a brand new school year? Will my virtual classes go okay? How am I going to juggle my virtual honors class with my hybrid honors class, a mix of both virtual and in-person students? The uncertainty is unsettling.

“Now, think about this current semester. Raise your hand if this semester was as stressful, boring, annoying, or bad as your preconceptions said it would be.”

No hands go up.

“Raise your hand if the semester went better than you expected.”

Most of the students raise their hands. I raise my hand, too. I have, for the most part, genuinely enjoyed this semester–the content, the students, the schedule, the flexibility, the increased concern for my and my colleagues’ well-being. Sure, there have been moments I wanted to cry (and moments I did). There have been moments I questioned if I could really get everything done well–or at all. Moments I had to ask for help. But, despite the pandemic and the challenges, I have to admit–this semester has been more fulfilling and rewarding and successful–and somehow, less burdensome–than any of my pessimistic preconceptions imagined. None of my fears came to fruition. Not. One.

“You see,” I say, remembering what Alexandria Peary said during the mindful writing webinar I attended over the weekend. “That’s what preconceptions usually do: burden the moment. Right now, in this moment, you could be having a perfectly pleasant time in English class, but now you’re dreading next semester’s algebra class instead. You’re not present in this moment; you’re worrying about next week. Now–what are your preconceptions when I tell you: We are going to write a poem?”

Groans arise around the classroom. We have learned nothing–so we make a list of our preconceptions about writing a poem:

No no no no

This is going to be annoying

I am not good at this

My poem is going to suck

I’m excited

I like poetry

I don’t like poetry

Ugh

Poetry is shady (meaning, I think, it’s too ambiguous and includes too many hidden meanings).

Then, we proceed to write a poem, using a step-by-step process I stole from the weekend’s Nation Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) webinar.

“Imagine,” I tell my students, “you are in a room. Describe the room.” I give them about a minute to write before saying, “There is an object in the center of the room. What is it? Describe it.” I give them another minute. “The object has a shadow, but it’s not of the object. What is the shadow of?” A minute to write. “In the shadow sits an object from your childhood. What is it?” A minute. “The room has one window. What do you see out the window? What is your view?” A minute. “Imagine that in your view, you can see a person you would give anything to be able to see again. Who is it, and what are they doing?”

“I take it back,” a boy suddenly says. “I take back my preconceptions; this is fun.”

The girl behind him echoes his sentiments. “Yeah–I like this.”

I smile. “You get to talk to this person. What do you say?” I give them a minute to write. “Now, you can sense a change in the room. How can you tell something is about to change? Describe how you know, but don’t finish your thought; don’t include what the change will be.”

The room is full of sunshine
or candlelight, whether day or night--
rainbows dance across the wall.
There is a golden birdcage, big enough for me,
in the center.
Its shadow, long across the floor and creeping
up the wall--solid--not barred--
shades a rocking horse.

Buildings outside are brick or sided--
rooftops capping cozy homes.
Jack sits in a window across 
town,
wagging his tail, looking at me expectantly.

Are you happy? I say. Are you safe? Do you know that we still 
love you?

The room is sleepy and warm and lonely and quiet.

The door begins to open and--

I give them a minute or two to wrap up their writing before asking if anyone wants to share. I am pleasantly surprised to find about half the class willing to share their poems, albeit anonymously. I read them aloud, pointing out all the little things that impress me in each of their poems. At the end of class, the boy who predicted his poem “was going to suck” admits he “kind of liked it.” Then he clarifies, “Well, I still thought it sucked when I read it to myself–but I liked it a lot when I heard you read it.”

“That’s interesting,” I say. “Do you think maybe that’s because you still had the preconception that it was bad, but when I read it, I expected it to be good–and read it like it was good?”

He thinks for a second. “Yeah, maybe.”

“Do you think it’s good now?”

He smiles a little. “Yeah.”

“So do I.”

I watch them all file out through my classroom door. I feel a little sad as I realize they’ll walk in and out of that doorway only once more this year before disappearing into a new schedule, different classrooms, different classes, leaving me to build rapport with a brand new, unfamiliar bunch of students with their own preconceptions about English, school, themselves, and me. I remember how worried I was at the beginning of this semester–how skeptical and scared. I reflect on how well it all turned out, and I hush my preconceptions–Stop burdening my moment–allowing myself to savor this small success: Students wrote poetry–and liked it.

My classroom has cleared and the first few students of my next block have entered. One of my students reads the daily agenda on the board.

“Poetry?!” she groans. “Ugh!”

I smile to myself. Buckle up. Here we go again. And everything is going to be just fine.

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

A Piece of Cake: Foreshadowing in my Own, Real Life

Today is my birthday. In the world as we know it, birthdays and cake are synonymous. In the world of An Expected End, my novel manuscript, deathdays and cake are also synonymous. In fact, cake features pretty prominently throughout the story. Marshall learns his deathday at Shyndigz, a real bakery in Richmond, Virginia. And although he is eating their signature oatmeal cream pies, as opposed to cake, while he dials into the Hotline to get his official Date of Departure (DoD), Shyndigz is also known for one of my favorite menu items, their salted chocolate caramel cake.

Cake also features in the story when Marshall’s colleagues, much to his chagrin, surprise him with an office deathday party, complete with deathday cake.

Marshall is eating the last piece of his birthday cake when he realizes how knowing his deathday has changed his perspective on life and the way he lives it: Life is like a piece of cake; he savors each bite, but knows each bite moves him closer to the last bite, and ultimately, to no more cake.

Perhaps one of the most important roles cake plays in the manuscript is that of being the reason Marshall meets Penelope. He goes to her bakery, The Cakery, a fictional bakery in Richmond, to pick up a deathday cake for a colleague’s office deathday party. Later, on his thirtieth birthday, he revisits The Cakery to purchase himself a birthday cake, which is really just an excuse to see Penelope again. He is eating the last piece of that birthday cake when he realizes how knowing his deathday has changed his perspective on life and the way he lives it: Life is like a piece of cake; he savors each bite, but knows each bite moves him closer to the last bite, and ultimately, to no more cake.

In its final role in the manuscript, cake features again when (**spoiler alert**), after Penelope has died, Marshall bakes a birthday cake from one of her recipes for their daughter, Evergreen’s, birthday.

Recently, cake has also featured prominently in my own, actual life.

Sunday, my husband came home from mountain biking in Richmond with our nephew. “I stopped at Shyndigz on my way home,” he told me.

“What did you get?” I asked.

“Oatmeal cream pies.”

“What else did you get?” I asked, taking for granted that he also brought back a piece of salted chocolate caramel cake for me.

“Nothing.”

Surely, he was pulling my leg.

“No, seriously. What else?”

“No, seriously. Nothing.”

I waited for him to break down, and admit, cackling, that a piece of cake waited for me on the kitchen counter. When he didn’t, “What?” I said.

“I didn’t get anything else.”

On New Year’s Eve, the fifth day after The Day I Did Not Get Cake, the doorbell rang just as it was getting dark outside. When I answered it, my husband was standing on the front porch, holding out a plastic container in which rested the perfect piece of Shyndigz salted chocolate caramel cake.

“You didn’t get me any chocolate cake?” I was incredulous, still sure he must be kidding, dragging the joke out as long as he could.

“No. Really. I’m not lying to you. I was in a hurry and I just didn’t think to get any cake.”

“Are you serious? You went to Shyndigz and didn’t get me any cake?”

He laughed at the utter shock that must’ve been on my face. “Sorry?” He was still laughing.

For the course of the the week, I lost no opportunity to remind him of the fact that he had gone to one of my favorite bakeries where they make one of my favorite cakes, and neglected to bring a piece home to me. I must’ve found a way to work his negligence into every single day at least twice.

On New Year’s Eve, the fifth day after The Day I Did Not Get Cake, the doorbell rang just as it was getting dark outside. When I answered it, my husband was standing on the front porch, holding out a plastic container in which rested the perfect piece of Shyndigz salted chocolate caramel cake, complete with a to-go cup of extra salted caramel spread. During his lunch break, he had driven downtown to get me my long-awaited piece of cake. He has been forgiven.

I let him in and set the cake down on the counter, every intention of savoring it after the Chinese takeout we’d ordered for dinner with a couple friends. As we finished our lo mein and rice and pot stickers and egg drop soup, I eyed the piece of cake on the counter. But before I could eat that: New Year’s Eve fortune cookies. We each cracked open our fortune cookie and shared the fortune within with the rest of the table. Mine? “A piece of cake is awaiting for you.” Forgiving the misuse of “awaiting,” never has there been a truer fortune. Just a moment later, I was sinking my fork into the moist chocolate cake, savoring the thick chocolate icing and salty caramel goodness of the slice.

Today, being my birthday, is also likely to involve cake in some capacity, at some point.

And I’m hoping my New Year’s Eve fortune holds a longer-range, figurative meaning in addition to its immediate, literal one. I’m hoping it’s prophetic, foreshadowing that my manuscript, rife with pieces of cake, will achieve publication this year–will become a real book, one I can hold in my hands, flipping through its pages, savoring its existence the way I do a piece of chocolate cake.

Never has there been a truer fortune than the one I got on New Year’s Eve. (Sidenote: The above is only a third of the actual slice of cake, which will likely last me three to four sittings.)

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

Thank You, 2020: My Writing Year in Review

I know, I know. Everyone is waving an enthusiastic sayonara to 2020 and never looking back, the expectations high for 2021. I don’t know whether to wish the new year good luck meeting everyone’s extreme expectations for improvement, or congratulate it on the fact that it won’t have to work very hard to seem better than its predecessor. Either way, as I sit here on December 31 reflecting on my year in writing, it was a pretty good one. (And yes, 2021, my writing and I have high expectations for you, too.)

January

The first week of the year, I entered three different writing contests. I didn’t win any of them, but putting my work out there is a huge accomplishment in and of itself (and one of the photos I entered in one of the writing/photography contests did earn second place).

Before the month was over, I taught two, single-session writing classes for the dog handlers of Canine Adventure, Richmond. This experience was a lot of fun because it combined two of my favorites: writing and dogs. In addition, I got to meet some fellow dog-loving writers, and give them some resources to further their own writing endeavors.

I also wrote two pieces for The Village News and one for the AKC.

I pose with some of my “students,” dog handlers for Canine Adventure, after a writing class in January 2020.

February

In February, I wrote a piece for Everyday Dog Magazine, which ran March 1. I also wrote another piece for The Village News, in addition to submitting work to two small presses.

March

Things got a little crazy in March, as we are all aware, but I did compose a blog post to help parents navigate the whole, then-brand new school-at-home thing. I also wrote an article for The Village News about a local, self-published author, especially fun because I love when I can use my own writing to support other writers in theirs.

April

In April I managed to write 30 poems in 30 days as part of the Poetry Society of Virginia National Poetry Month Challenge. I also attended two virtual Master Classes on self-publishing, both organized by James River Writers. One was taught by Tee Garner, the other by Ran Walker.

This month, I also wrote my first Covid-related article, a piece about a local emergency nurse deployed to what was then ground-zero of the virus: New York City.

May

May was particularly exciting, as I learned a piece I wrote about Jack and Sadie was selected to appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Magic of Dogs. The story, an unabridged version of which appears on this blog, is one extremely close to my heart.

I wrote my second and third Covid-related pieces, both of which focused on local businesses. The first was an article about a how a local barbecue restaurant was serving the community and surviving the pandemic. The second focused on how a local hair salon planned to reopen under the Governor’s Phase I Guidelines in Virginia.

Near the end of the month, I learned my essay “My Return to Mountain Biking” earned first place in the Bike Walk RVA essay contest.

Finally, for the first time ever, I opened the blog up to guest posts, and enjoyed reading submissions from writers about their beloved dogs.

June

In June, I participated in a virtual event honoring the winners of the Bike Walk RVA essay contest, and collaborated with QueryLetter.com on a blog post about query letters.

July

I again found myself working with the folks at QueryLetter.com to share a blog post, this time about book blurbs.

This was also the month The Magic of Dogs was released (on the same day as our wedding anniversary), and the month I received my copies of the book.

Soda (left) and Nacho (right) with a few copies of the book

August

In August, things were kind of quiet in my writing world, but I did compose a blog post for teachers about back-to-school amid the pandemic. I was also hired as the Outdoor Writer for Cooperative Living Magazine, a role I am still extremely excited about.

September

In September, I partnered up with Cool Canines to host a virtual book signing, reading, and fundraiser for the Richmond SPCA. Dog treats and signed copies of The Magic of Dogs raised $178 for the shelter.

I also read and reviewed Mary Oliver’s collection of poems, Dog Songs.

October

After an editor at a small press provided me with very thorough and valuable feedback on my manuscript for An Expected End, I began earnestly to revise. I also wrote a blog post and a few poems, as well as an essay entitled “Pandemic Picture Day,” which was published on the United States Department of Education blog.

Before the month’s end, I finally figured out how to share “Sadie’s Song” online. The song is a collaboration between my uncle and me. It began as a poem I wrote back in April, which he then set to original music.

November

In November, I interviewed a Covid-19 survivor and told his harrowing survival story in an article in The Village News. I also continued working on revisions of An Expected End.

December

As the year winds down, I have heard from the small press I have been in contact with that my piece isn’t for them, but I am still grateful for the communication with them, and for the guidance they provided me, as well as for the resulting revisions, which I believe make my manuscript that much stronger.

Following that news, I entered my manuscript in the Inkshares All-Genre Manuscript Contest. Please feel free to support my endeavor there! 😉

I also embarked on my first adventure for Cooperative Living Magazine, a weekend at Twin Lakes State Park, and I eagerly await the publication of the piece next month (next year!).

I learned about another small press, TCK Publishing, when they reached out to me about writing a book review for them. I read the book, wrote the review, and submitted my own manuscript for consideration.

Currently, I am also holding my first-ever giveaway on Instagram–signed copies of Chicken Soup for the the Soul: The Magic of Dogs and Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Positive, Live Happy. The winner will be announced on Instagram tomorrow (next year!).

This year held both disappointments and rewards for my writing life. The rewards were validating and exhilarating; the disappointments yielded progress and growth. Here’s to a successful 2021!

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

Book Review: Peter Yang’s The Art of Writing, Four Principles for Great Writing that Everyone Needs to Know

The operative word in Peter Yang’s book The Art of Writing: Four Principles for Great Writing that Everyone Needs to Know is “everyone.” As he writes in his introduction, “Everyone can be a writer, if they so choose” (XII). Indeed, the book expresses the idea that, regardless of profession or position, we all need to write, and write well, and is a book for everyone. The seasoned writer might gain insights from the way Yang breaks down and analyzes the practice of writing, but the book would likely prove more useful to those desiring to improve their writing for the workplace, pleasure, or posterity, as well as to beginning writers. With the exception of the fact that an experienced writer or writing instructor is likely to understand concepts in the book that Yang merely glosses over as opposed to deeply explaining, a feature of the book that might prove a disadvantage to its intended audience, it would serve as a helpful handbook to the aspiring writer, regardless of field.

Yang sees “writing as a fundamental life skill” (X), a very valid position, though I would also add “process”–writing is a process and a fundamental life skill. Given the way Yang’s book progresses, it seems he would agree with that addition. He examines what he believes are the four fundamental principles for effective writing: economy, transparency, variety, and harmony. A writer, he posits, who masters these four areas can, as a result, write artistically, making writing “a joyous activity” that leads to “personal fulfillment” (XIII). This type of writing does not endeavor to impress, Yang explains, but to communicate.

He goes on to list five distinguishing attributes of artistic writers: meticulousness, awareness of audience, sincerity, realistic expectations, and flexibility with the four aforementioned principles. While his list of attributes is certainly valid, and he provides short explanations of what these attributes are, the list lacks examples of artistic writers to illustrate how they employ these traits.

A lack of examples and in-depth explanations does plague the book, making it perhaps more useful as a supplemental text in a writing course than a thorough examination of the written word and how to best communicate through it. If employed as a supplemental text with a competent writing instructor to provide examples, explanations, and exercises to accompany the book itself, it would prove incredibly useful.

Economy

The first principle Yang examines is economy. According to Yang, “The composition of your writing should imitate the anatomy of a flower–every part should be necessary and contribute to the whole” (3). This is sound advice. Yang goes on to provide a short explanation of how to simplify a sentence, an explanation that makes sense to a seasoned writer, but might be lost on a beginner.

Following the paragraph, Yang provides several examples to illustrate his thoughts, but the examples, while accurate, lack explanations that might be helpful to a novice writer. The first several sections of the chapter on economy are rife with examples, but lack clear explanations of what they illustrate. In addition, exercises with a key would prove practical and useful–another reason this book would work well as a text in a classroom with an instructor to facilitate practice.

Transparency

According to Yang, “A writer’s work can hew to the other three principles but fail to be artistic if it does not conform to the principle of transparency” (23). Transparency he defines essentially as clarity. “Transparent writing is writing that is lucid and explicit. It leaves no room for doubt and assures the intelligibility of your ideas” (23). Given the assertion that writing cannot be artistic if not transparent, even if it complies with the other three principles, I did wonder why transparency appears second in the book, as opposed to first or last.

Despite their questionable placement in the book, Yang’s ideas regarding transparency are spot-on. Particularly relevant areas include the use of figurative language (which Yang himself employs very well throughout the book), the use of shifts in tense, and the avoidance of flowery language.

One thing this chapter does better than the others is provide explanations of the examples included.

In a nutshell…

Peter Yang’s The Art of Writing is likely to prove interesting to a veteran writer, who would appreciate his breakdown of writing into four fundamental principles. It is an ideal text for the student of writing, provided the student has an instructor to elaborate on the concepts Yang touches on. The book is a good introduction to writing, and with the right elaboration, would prove an excellent text for anyone looking to hone their writing skills.

Variety

Yang’s chapter on variety is accurate, but ironically enough, the three section titles are:

Vary Your Sentence Structure

Vary Your Paragraph Structure

and

Vary Your Word Choice.

While all the above advice is sound, I found the lack of variety in the headings amusing, though not inapproriate (here I violate Yang’s advice to “Write in the Positive,” as explained on page 12). The headings are indeed transparent, and the explanations that follow are legitimate.

Harmony

The fourth and final principle Yang examines is harmony. The explanations in this chapter are clear, concise, and understandable, but do lack concrete examples to illustrate the ideas. While a lack of examples is not likely to matter to a veteran writer, it could matter to a new writer.

Coda

After explaining the four basic principles, Yang includes a final chapter that expresses his “Meditations on Writing.” In this chapter Yang writes, “Writing is not for the impatient. Mastery of writing is a lifelong endeavor” (75). Yang could not be more correct. In my experience, Yang is also correct about the value of taking breaks from one’s writing to increase motivation, as well as about the value of taking risks in one’s writing.

Overall, Peter Yang’s The Art of Writing: Four Principles for Great Writing that Everyone Needs to Know expertly distills writing down into four basic principles. It is an incredibly accessible and digestible read, but perhaps too broad and generalizing. That said, it is a book for the general population, so perhaps that is all fitting.

While veteran writers would be most likely to understand and agree with the concepts expressed in this book, they do not necessarily need this book. Instead, the book would be most enlightening to novice writers or people who do not necessarily consider themselves writers, but do write, whether in their professional or personal lives; however, they would be perhaps the least likely to fully grasp the concepts as they are explained in this book–somewhat skeletally. For that reason, this book is best suited for a fairly experienced writer interested in analyzing the written word, or as a guiding or supplemental text in a writing course wherein an instructor could provide further examples, deeper explanations, and practical exercises.

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

Inkshares All-Genre Manuscript Contest

I’ve been a little absent from the blog lately, but it hasn’t been without good reason. After receiving favorable feedback from a small press back in August, I’ve been working diligently on revisions of my manuscript, formerly titled The Experiment, recently retitled An Expected End. It’s no secret I would love to see this manuscript morph into a real book, one that is “absolutely real,” with “pages and everything,” to quote Owl Eyes in Fitzgerald’s famed The Great Gatsby. To that end, in addition to continuing to look into agents and small presses, I have entered the piece in the Inkshares All-Genre Manuscript Contest.

Nacho and Soda keep me company while I work on revisions one day before work (also before 5:00 AM).

As part of the contest, I will be posting a new chapter of my manuscript every Tuesday and Friday (with the exception of Christmas day; I will post Tuesday and Wednesday that week). To read them, just visit An Expected End on Inkshares, and click “Read” just under the cover (which is not the actual cover yet).

If you like what you read, a cross between Adam Silvera’s novel They Both Die at the End and the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and want to help my manuscript move forward in the contest for its chance at publication, I invite you to follow the project on Inkshares, leave comments in the Discussion, and write a review in the Reviews tab. One element of the contest involves reader engagement, so if you follow the manuscript, any time you read, discuss, or review it, you’ll be helping it find its way to bookstore shelves!

Nacho and Soda sit with me during an early-morning revising session.

If you really like what you read, I hope you’ll pre-order your own copy of the book. After 750 pre-orders are placed, Inkshares will commit to publication, regardless of the manuscript’s performance in the contest. If the manuscript doesn’t reach 750 pre-orders, everyone who pre-ordered a copy will receive a refund.

So, let me send you off with a book blurb, in the hopes that it will whet your appetite to head on over to Inkshares and follow An Expected End (the first chapter is already up!).

Book Blurb

The year is 2045 and science has made a breathtaking discovery: People can predict, with incredible accuracy, the day that any man, woman, or child will die. But Penelope Hope won’t accept that. She wants to live her life without the overwhelming knowledge of her death, no matter how many people in society choose to learn their deathday (officially known as one’s Date of Departure, or DoD). That is until her self-centered fiancé, Sebastian Flach, and her spunky best friend, Bea Adams, convince her to enroll in the Experiment and learn her deathday for the sake of her future family. What she learns turns her world upside down, breaks up her engagement, brings new love into her life, and forces her to make a stark choice: Does she tell her new love, Marshall Mitner, whose child she now carries, that she will die very soon, or force him to live in the ignorant bliss she wanted all along–and break his heart?

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

I Write Best When I’m Asleep

I write best when I’m asleep.

Well, not really–but sort of.

There is something particularly fertile about the thoughts that float between the waking life and the sleeping, that swim in the twilight of consciousness. I have known for years now that I am most creative and most open when my self is out of the way, in a state where only mind and imagination exist, independent of any self, any ego, any personal effort. Even when I feel fully awake and aware, when I have found what is known as “flow,” it seems I am merely a conduit for my creation, not its personal author.

In this way, praying and writing are not unlike. I write best from my proverbial closet, my mind closed to all the minutiae of daily existence, and open to everything–anything–else.

I had two experience with this phenomenon this week alone. The first was mid-week. Nacho woke me up for a quick potty break around 2:30 in the morning. For whatever reason, as I pulled the fleece sheets back over my shoulders and settled into bed again, a concrete thought, born no doubt of some unconscious musings still lingering in my mind, so recently asleep, presented itself to me in isolation: “We think our plans are set in stone.” And after that, another thought, and another–until it became clear to me that I was writing a poem, a poem about planning–and its futility (perhaps or perhaps not inspired by what it’s like to be a teacher right now. Read: near daily unexpected and inconvenient if not debilitating technology glitches, students with quarantine dates that continually change, the absolute necessity for patience and flexibility).

I stayed awake for maybe 30 minutes, reciting the stanzas over and over again in my head to cement them there for when I could write them down. (On my to-do list: a bedside writing station). Plagued by a slight fear of losing them (as often happens) before fully awake, I awoke several times between 3:00 and 5:15, each time reciting–and slightly revising–the poem in my head. As I finished breakfast a little before 6:00, after I had fed the Littles and let them out to potty, I finally wrote it down in my journal:

The Insanity of Humanity

"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
--Not Albert Einstein

We think our plans are set in stone,
this life, this time--all our own,
entitled to our every plan--
Oh! the arrogance of man!

Until catastrophe takes shape,
putting us back in our place,
reminding us we're not as great
as destiny or cruel fate.

So we retreat to lick our wounds, 
gather comfort from the gloom,
then emerge renewed, refreshed,
having learned we don't know best.

But then we lament what might've been,
and the cycle starts again.

The second experience was early this morning, long before sunrise.

I am currently working on revisions of a manuscript for a novel I submitted to a small press under the working title The Experiment. Among the many revisions suggested to me was to come up with a better–a more apt–title (fair enough, as the working title applied to the very earliest conception of the piece, but really isn’t very relevant to its current form). I received this feedback in August, and have been struggling to divine the perfect title ever since. Over the course of the last couple days, several have materialized out of my half-awake mind, four of them in succession this morning. I now have a list of fifteen potential titles. Maybe I’ll use one; maybe the perfect one has yet to arrive. Either way, I have begun to have fun–and usually (as in when I am awake), titling a work proves a struggle for me. (And let’s not even get into the (albeit beautiful and fulfilling) struggle that is revising an entire manuscript!) Here are the now fifteen working titles:

  1. Feel the Chill of Each Yearly Encounter (thematic; allusion; partial quote from Tess of the d’Urbervilles)
  2. The Chill of Each Yearly Encounter (thematic; allusion; partial quote from Tess of the d’Urbervilles)
  3. Everything Precious is Scarce (thematic; pulled from a conversation in the manuscript)
  4. I Have Measured Out My Life with Coffee Spoons (a motif; a line from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” referenced throughout the manuscript)
  5. This One Thing I Know (thematic)
  6. One Thing I Know to be True (thematic)
  7. One Thing I Know For Sure (thematic)
  8. One Thing Certain in an Uncertain World (thematic; also a phrase that pops up here and there in the manuscript)
  9. Every Plan is a Tiny Prayer to Father Time (thematic; lyric from Death Cab for Cutie‘s “What Sarah Said”)
  10. An Hourglass Glued to the Table (thematic; partial lyric from Anna Nalick‘s “Breathe (2 AM)”)
  11. T-Minus (thematic; plot-inspired; suggested to me by one of my readers)
  12. In So Many Sunsets (thematic)
  13. All the Water in the River (thematic; symbolic; related to the symbolic motif of the James River in the manuscript)
  14. Time is But a Stream I Go A-Fishing In (thematic; symbolic; a quote from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden)
  15. The Water in the River Flows Only One Way (thematic; symbolic; related to the symbolic motif of the James River in the manuscript)

And now, perhaps because I am fully awake, I am having trouble writing a conclusion for this post. Maybe I should try later tonight–from the quiet confines of my bedroom and the soft desk that is my pillow; after all, I write best when I’m asleep.

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

Book Review: Dog Songs, by Mary Oliver

The first time I saw Mary Oliver’s book of poems, Dog Songs, it was sitting on a short stack of books on my mother-in-law’s coffee table in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I wondered how it was possible I didn’t know such a book–one seemingly written for me, if I took it at its cover–existed without my knowing about it. I thumbed through it, but between walks on the sound, visits to Seagreen Gallery, naps, and various other weekend endeavors, I kept too busy to give it a good reading.

I left with the intention of buying my own copy to explore.

That was in January or February.

In March, the pandemic made its entrance into mainstream American experience, and we didn’t return to the Outer Banks to visit my mother-in-law until July. I read a few of the collection’s poems, but the TV was on and the family room conversation was interesting, and I couldn’t properly focus.

I left with the intention of buying my own copy to explore.

“There is not a dog that romps and runs but we learn from him…Only unleashed dogs can do that.” — Mary Oliver

In August, I sat cross-legged on the floor, my knees under my mother-in-law’s coffee table. Dog Songs still sat on top of the short stack, where I’d left it the month before. The family room was quiet. Nacho and Soda were gnawing on antlers near my feet. I picked up the book and read it, almost in its entirety. Compelled to write in it, I got on Amazon right away–and finally bought my own copy to explore.

It arrived on my front porch three days later. Between now and then, I have dog-eared most of the pages in the book (which seems appropriate for a book named Dog Songs), and written notes, memories, ideas, and inspirations on just as many.

This morning, while my husband ate his pancakes, he nodded at the book where it sat beside my elbow on the kitchen table.

“Look at all the pages you’ve dog-eared in Dog Songs,” he said. “You must’ve really loved that book.”

And I did. In addition to making me feel like Mary Oliver and I are kindred spirits in terms of how we perceive and relate to dogs, her book made me think, laugh, cry, and remember. Here is someone who feels about dogs the same way I do.

Top: My dog-eared copy of Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir; Middle: My dog-eared copy of Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs; Bottom: my current journal

On a more literary level, I was deeply impressed with the book’s depth, and the deceptive simplicity with which it digs. Oliver’s poem, “For I Will Consider My Dog Percy,” which appears on page 69 of the book, provides a perfect example. She describes Percy as “a mixture of gravity and waggery” (71)–and so is the book itself, filled with poems of sorrow, philosophy, joy, grief, pleasure. Poems like “The Wicked Smile” and “A Bad Day” bring humor to the collection, while others, such as “Dog Talk,” are more sobering.

Through her poems, Oliver seems to express the disconnect that sometimes exists between our human expectations of dogs, and a dog’s true nature. The poem that begins the book is aptly called “How It Begins” (though, of course, “it” is not just the book). This poem begins with the assertion that “A puppy is a puppy is a puppy” (1). Many subsequent poems in the book seem to echo the message that a dog is a dog is a dog, no matter our efforts to change him, whether through breeding or training. “Her Grave” advises readers, “A dog comes to you and lives with you in your own house,/but you/do not therefore own her, as you do not own the rain, or the/trees or the laws which pertain to them” (25). In “Dog Talk,” she reminds readers, “Dog promises and then forgets, blame him not. He understands what is wanted; and tries, and tries again, and is good for a long time, and then forgets” (115).

But then one day after I have left this world of particulars, you will look at the face of a little, brown dog and her brother, and you will know– I didn’t take up all the room in your heart; I just made it bigger. –from “This is Love Eternal”

In her poem “A Bad Day,” Oliver imagines a conversation with her dog Ricky, during which he says, “‘Honestly, what do you expect? Like/you, I’m not perfect, I’m only human'” (93). The book as a whole seems to remind us that dogs–and people–should be left free to live according to their own nature, embracing their imperfectness. Her poem “School” describes a dog many people might label a “bad dog” or a “dumb dog.” The first several lines of the poem describe the speaker’s inability to get the dog to listen or obey. It defies, ignores, or misunderstands every command it is issued, “like a little wild thing/that was never sent to school” (49). The last four lines of the poem, however, reveal that this “dumb” dog is perhaps wiser than the speaker. “It is summer,” the speaker says as the epiphany breaks. “How many summers does a little dog have?/Run, run, Percy. This is our school” (49). In “Dog Talk,” Oliver asserts that a dog “that all its life walks leashed and obedient down the sidewalk–is what a chair is to a tree. It is a possession only, the ornament of a human life,” but “There is not a dog that romps and runs but we learn from him…Only unleashed dogs can do that” (119).

As the dozens of dog-eared pages in my book can testify, many of the poems in Dog Songs speak to me, but the one that touched me the most deeply–the one that makes me cry and smile and ache and sigh– is “The First Time Percy Came Back,” on page 77. This poem echoes my own experience with Jack, and all the times he has come back–one as recent as yesterday, when Matty, the Littles, and I found a sock on the trail to Fossil Beach in Westmoreland State Park.

Finally, a note on the layout of the book: The left page of every spread is blank. My first instinct was to dismiss this choice as a waste of paper–imagine all the trees that could have been spared had the backs of pages been utilized for text. But as I read, I found myself penning my own poems onto those empty pages, pressed between Oliver’s verse. Those blank backs-of-pages weren’t a waste of paper at all; they were there waiting for me to fill them with my own inspiration from Oliver’s work. And I have, and will likely continue to for a long, long time.

Below are some works-in-progress that resulted from my reading of Dog Songs, which, I am sure you realize by now, I recommend (and to be honest, I could go on and on about the symbolism of the unleashed dog, the metaphors Oliver uses to convey the lessons dogs have taught her and the lessons they can teach humanity, the theme that dogs connect us to our origins–but this is a blog post, not a book–so I’ll just let you read the book for yourself).

The Adoption

One day,
you were hungry and alone--
only you did not 
know what hunger
was,
or what aloneness
was--
only that you
needed.

Until

one day--!

And you never
went hungry again,
nor were you alone.


This is Love Eternal

No matter how many years we share,
it will not seem like enough.

And no matter how aware you are that some day will be our last day,
you will not be ready.

You will not be ready

to say goodbye
when I am ready to go.

And yet this does not stop us from starting.

And this is love eternal, though time is limited.

But it was never about how you would feel losing me--
only about you what you could give me.

I know that.

You will feel like you let me down
and wonder why you didn't do better;
you will feel like there's a hole in your heart,
an emptiness in your day.

It is an end you know will bring sorrow,
but it is unselfish and glorious and beautiful,
and no sorrow is deep enough to 
steal this love.

For this is love eternal, though time is limited.

And sometimes you will look at me
and, thinking it impossible, you will wonder
how you will ever love
another dog
this much or
this way 
again.

But then
one day
after I have
left this world of particulars,
you will look at
the face of a little, 
brown dog
and her brother,
and you will know--
I didn't take up all the room in your heart;
I just made it bigger.


Roommates with God

My husband said
living with Jack
was like
being
roommates with God.

And in the way
that God is
unconditional, ever-present
love--
that is true.

Sumo Says Goodbye

There’s not a clear cell signal here, but there’s a clear view of the milky way.

And here it is that Saturday morning, we laid Sumo to rest beside Smokey and Baxter, under trees, where crickets chirp all day long in the perpetual twilight of the shade.

He died Friday afternoon, outside in front of the house on Goddin Street.

That very day I’d been thinking Sumo probably had several more years left, just plugging along like he had been.

On Wednesday, Matty’s birthday, we saw him for the last time. He’d become so low-maintenance, he was almost a non-entity. He would greet us and was then happy just to sleep on the floor in the room where everyone was, sometimes staying there long after we’d switched locations, maybe not knowing we’d moved, maybe his near-blindness and near-deafness hiding our departure from him.

And now he has departed from us, as quietly and invisibly as we had from him a hundred times before, not saying goodbye, not wanting to stir him from his slumber.

And now we are as surprised at his departure–taken so as not to disturb us–as he, waking up to find himself alone, must’ve been at ours a hundred times before.

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

For My Fellow Teachers

Imagine it is still July. The height of summer. Yes, you have already invested hours in learning how to use Canvas (or trying to). Yes, you have already spent hours making sure your classroom furniture is set up for social distancing. No, this does not feel like a normal summer break. Because it hasn’t been. And the upcoming school year won’t be normal, either. But we’re not there yet. It’s still July, remember? At least, that’s what we’re pretending.

On this particular July day, I am at the beach. The water is wavier than it was the day before. For several minutes, I hesitate to get in. I watch as my husband takes a running leap into the water. I stand in the surf, just up to my knees, the crashing waves pelting my calves with bullets of sand and pebbles. After several stinging waves, I tentatively wade in to my hips, waves sending splashes against my stomach, up to my face. In a little lull, I finally join my husband, in water up to my shoulders. Waves roll in, relentlessly. I jump them or bob over them. After a few gentler waves, a big, menacing wave blocks my view of the horizon. I kick towards it to beat its break, get into deeper water, counterintuitively safer. Each big wave, I swim into instead of away from, until, despite my efforts, in a trough between waves, a roiling monster comes cresting towards me faster than I can beat its break.

“Gotta go under this one,” I hear my husband say.

Just as its frothing crest barrels toward me, I duck beneath its wrath, below its white water, into relative calm, resurfacing to hear the wave crashing behind me with its roil of sand and foam, sparkling water and blue sky in front of me, the water around me momentarily calm, swimmable, cool, clear, and aquamarine.

School Year
Matty, Soda, and Nacho on the beach in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in July

Like swimming toward a wave, we teachers are swimming (or perhaps being pushed or pulled or dragged by an undeniable undertow) toward a challenge we have never faced before. I have been tempted to swim away from the waves–run for the shore. But whenever I do that at the beach, I usually end up clobbered from behind, sputtering salt water, gritting sand between my teeth. In swimming toward the wave, meeting the challenge head-on in the best ways we know how, we can let it crash behind us while we continue looking ahead. And so I have spent much of my summer trying to learn how to use Canvas (I still have work to do) and Planbook and Virtual Virginia. I have spent even more time worrying about the energy, effort, and time I will need to convert all of my materials to digital versions of themselves; about how to preserve the rigor of my honors class in a purely virtual environment; about the fact that even in my in-person classes, some of the most effective activities I do are unsafe in the current situation, and will have to be modified or abandoned.

At the beach, I am good at reading, writing, sleeping, walking, playing paddle ball, and swimming in calm water. I am not good at surfing or swimming in rough waters.

At work I am good at connecting with students, helping students improve their writing, creating and facilitating lessons that involve movement and socializing, helping students make connections between literature and the outside world. I am not good at technology.

I like the analog, the physical. I am not going to have a cute, Bitmoji online classroom–or any bells and whistles at all. I simply don’t have the bandwidth. And overachiever that I am, I am not sure I’m okay with that. It’s difficult for me to accept that my mind and time are going to be too occupied converting all my old-school analog activities to digital formats for me to think as creatively or innovatively as I want to. I will have to save that for another year, one where the basics are under control again.

I don’t want to do my first year again–not for myself and not for my students. I can’t survive first-year-teacher me again (and my husband probably can’t either).

I liken the experience to driving: When I drive a route I know well, I don’t have to think much about where to turn or when to slow down. I don’t have to read the street signs or pay attention to the street names. The familiarity allows my mind to wander. I can drive and focus on the podcast I am listening to. I can drive and think about the ways I want to improve my unit on The Great Gatsby. I can drive and brainstorm how to rearrange the chapters of the novel manuscript I’m writing.

When I drive a new route, though, I don’t have the luxury of letting my mind wander. I have to listen to every direction Waze offers, pay attention to how far it is before the next turn, read all the street signs. I can’t afford to think about my writing, my teaching, my podcast, or anything else. I have to think about the fundamental act of getting to my destination.

That is what this year will be like: driving a brand new, unfamiliar route that demands all of my attention. Usually, I make all my lesson plans over the summer, so during the school year I can drive on autopilot–I know the route. I planned it out months in advance, and, because I have been teaching for 14 years, I have likely rehearsed most of it at some point in some form or fashion during my career. I don’t have to think about how to make that quiz or when to give it–I figured that out back in June. Instead, I can focus on giving my students timely and thorough feedback on their papers. I can focus on helping students I don’t even teach this year improve their college essays. I can focus on writing college recommendation letters for students I taught the year before. I can focus on how to improve the project I have planned for November, how to increase the rigor of my honors class, how to help students understand the historical context of a certain work of literature. The fundamentals are under control. They’re not taking up any of my mental bandwidth.

Recently, I heard about a rock musician, Mike Scott of the Waterboys, whose newly-released song, “Beauty in Repetition,” relates William James‘s meticulously following the exact same routine every single day. Scott himself follows a tight routine, right down to eating the exact same dinner every night. Not having to think about the mundane tasks of life (what time to get up, what to wear, what to eat) frees his mind up, he said, to ponder higher thoughts–to access his more creative mind. When his brain is not bogged down with questions like “What’s for dinner?”, it is free to soar to new heights of cognition and creativity.

That is how my school year usually goes. I create a very strict routine for my students and for myself. My lesson plans are flexible, but set enough that I don’t have to worry about what we are doing in class tomorrow–or this week or next week or all the way through the end of the year. I have laid the groundwork for daily survival in my classroom: an established routine.

This year, there is no groundwork. Despite the time I have spent in professional development this summer, I am almost as unprepared for this coming year as I was for my first year teaching back in 2006. The only advantage I have this year is that I am aware of my shortcomings. I have no delusions about my situation.

School Year II
Sadie, Matty, and me days before my first day teaching

I entered the profession naive and idealistic. I was 22 years old. My wakeup call was swift and violent. I devoted all of my mental energy to simply making lessons plans for the next day. Occasionally, I was able to get maybe a week ahead, and that was something. Just to achieve a day or two worth of lesson plans, I regularly arrived to work between 6:00 and 6:30 AM, often bringing with me a microwaveable dinner so that, if I stayed at school later than dinnertime (which I often did), I wouldn’t go hungry.

It was traumatizing.

When students began to arrive for the day around 7:15, I felt like they were interrupting my much-needed quiet time to plan. When I had to bring home their journals to read or their essays to evaluate, I felt like they were taking away from time I needed to plan for their next class period, not to mention recharge personally. Basically, so much of my focus was directed at the daily logistics of teaching, that I didn’t even have the energy left for the reason I started teaching: my students.

I don’t want to do my first year again–not for myself and not for my students. I can’t survive first-year-teacher me again (and my husband probably can’t either). I have to accept the fact that my plans and activities and projects and instruction might not be up to my own high standards, but it won’t be at the cost of how I treat my students or how I feel about them, and it won’t be at the cost of my own mental or emotional well-being.

When I start to feel overwhelmed this year by waves of I-don’t-have-a-clue-how-to-use-Canvas, I-don’t-have-time-to-convert-this-quiz-to-a-digital-format, I-can’t-adjust-to-this-every-other-day-schedule, and so on and so on (it’s a long list), I will try to remind myself of that day in July, diving underneath the roaring waves. I will take a deep breath and I will dive right in, but I will also try to remember: I do have to come up for air. And when I do, the foaming, angry wave will be behind me, and I will be able to look ahead for calmer waters.

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

The Book of Joy: A Response to the Final Pages

My greatest and broadest takeaway from pages 228-348 of The Book of Joy by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams, was that everything is practical. So many teachings on how to live a more joyful life can seem abstract and theoretical, things I find myself saying, “Well, that sounds great in theory, but in practice, not so much” about. But in this book, almost everything was applicable to real life, in practice. 

Practical forgiveness is defined on page 234, when readers are advised by the Archbishop to see forgiveness as a means to freedom. “When we forgive,” he says, “we take back control of our own fate and our feelings. We become our own liberator.” A few pages later, on page 239, he explains a practical way to forgive: separate the person we perceived to have wronged us from his or her actions.

Practical gratitude is discussed on page 248, when the book describes how we can practice gratitude by writing gratitude lists or keeping gratitude journals. Engaging in these exercises helps us focus on what we have as opposed to what we don’t. “Gratitude,” Abrams writes, “means embracing reality. It means moving from counting your burdens to counting your blessings” (243). Now, doesn’t that have a nice ring to it? (Must be the alliteration.)

“Gratitude means embracing reality. It means moving from counting your burdens to counting your blessings.”

–Douglas Abrams

Practical compassion is also discussed, which is no surprise, considering “There is probably no word that the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop use more when describing the qualities worth cultivating than compassion” (337). The Dalai Lama tells readers that “when we think of alleviating other people’s suffering, our own suffering is reduced. This is the true secret to happiness. So this is a very practical thing. In fact, it is common sense” (254). The way to practice compassion in our daily lives, then, is to do our best to both understand and alleviate the suffering of others. As the Archbishop says, “It’s something that you have to work out in actual life” (255)–it is something practical, and reminds me a little of the command in the Bible that we all “work out your own salvation.”

On page 272, the book talks about educating youth to be compassionate. As an English teacher, I feel I have a real opportunity to engage in compassion education through the literature I read with my students. Books let us live other lives and walk in other shoes. They allow readers to experience situations and places and emotions and people they might not in their own real lives. Teaching literature is one way I can help educate students in compassion. 

The section on compassion also reminded me of the message conveyed in the required #EdEquityVA PD. Like the Dalai Lama says, “the only way to truly change our world is through teaching compassion” (296).

“The only way to truly change our world is through teaching compassion.

–His Holiness the Dalai Lama

These pages also focus on acceptance, an area in which I often struggle. I suffer from a dangerous idealism that drives my husband (and me, sometimes) crazy. Abrams writes about the Dalai Lama’s ability to “accept the reality of his circumstances but also to see the opportunity in every experience. Acceptance means not fighting reality” (243). When I was a junior in high school and my family was moving from Pennsylvania to Virginia, I overheard Art, a man who attended our church in Pennsylvania, say to my dad after the last service we would attend there, “Well, change is the only constant.” I was, at the time, appalled–and still today, I sometimes wish that awful truth weren’t true. But it is, and I was reminded of it when the Dalai Lama says, “Impermanence … is the nature of life” (unfortunately, I have no idea what page this is on). The fact behind that statement is difficult for me to accept, something I fight against a lot. I do not like change. Acceptance is a pillar I will need to cultivate. A lot.

Lately, I have been pondering the idea of “unselfed love,” and what those two words actually mean together. In my religious faith, our text, Science and Health with Key to the Joy coverScriptures by Mary Baker Eddy, includes the line: “The prayer that reforms the sinner and heals the sick is an absolute faith that all things are possible to God, — a spiritual understanding of Him, an unselfed love” (1:1-4). The Book of Joy has helped shed a little light on the subject of unselfed love for me. The Archbishop says, “So, our book says that it is in giving that we receive. So I would hope that people would recognize in themselves that it is when we are closed in ourselves that we tend to be miserable. It is when we grow in a self-forgetfulness–in a remarkable way I mean we discover that we are filled with joy” (263). I think the concept of unselfed love relates directly to the idea that when we forget ourselves and instead tend to the joy and lessen the suffering of others, we experience pure joy. There is a letting go of the self, the ego, involved. 

Lastly, I want to talk a little more about how these pages relate to my teaching practice and the English 11 curriculum. Lots of what I read reminds me of the Transcendentalists, which is maybe a little bit ironic, because they emphasized individualism so much, while the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama advocate for looking outside of oneself and to others, using the idea (and I paraphrase) “we are people through people.” Still, the idea that people must realize that “the source of happiness and satisfaction … is within themselves” (297) rings true with the Thoreau and Emerson’s advice that people must look within to find their true selves, and self-fulfillment. I also think excerpts of this book, particularly the death mediations, could pair really well with William Cullen Bryant’s poem, “Thanatopsis,” which translates to “a meditation on death” or “a view on death.”

“Joy is the happiness that does not depend on what happens. It is the grateful response to the opportunity that life offers you at this moment.”

–Brother Steindl-Rast

In the vein of education and curricula, I found it stunning that at the Tibetan Children’s Village, students “had been studying how to find joy and happiness in the face of adversity” (277). This was not an implied lesson or a byproduct of a larger unit geared towards passing a standardized test or earning a specific grade; they were studying joy for the sake of joy. Joy was the lesson. I would like to find a way to incorporate the teaching of joy, compassion, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, etc. more overtly in my current curriculum. I am hoping the lesson and unit plans from Positive Action, Inc., touched on in one of our required PD sessions for the summer, might help with this.

Along those lines, in English 11 Honors, we work throughout the semester to answer an essential question. Because the class is American Literature, the essential question we explore is: What does it mean to be American? I think this book has a place in helping answer this question. For the last two years and up until this year, when the pandemic canceled summer reading (which I really, truly hope is not a permanent change!), students enrolled in English 11 Honors for the upcoming school year read two books over the summer, Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck and Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas. Provided summer reading is reinstated in the future (please, please, please!), I would like to add The Book of Joy as the third book, as it provides a perspective different from the other two books (which are very different in their own right), and offers a very different idea about national (and human!) identity.

Now, I want to close with one of my favorite quotes from these pages, which comes from Brother Steindl-Rast: “Joy is the happiness that does not depend on what happens. It is the grateful response to the opportunity that life offers you at this moment” (245). Now, doesn’t that have a nice ring to it? (Must be the alliteration, assonance, and consonance.)

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/