Book Review: Yellowstone Has Teeth, by Marjane Ambler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Readers vs. Monsters: Read Like a Writer

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

“Are you writing in that book?”

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

“You can’t write in books!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Where to Write: The Best Writing Locations for Every Project

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

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

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

Writing Outside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing in a Coffee Shop

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

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

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

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

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

Writing in a Comfy Couch or Chair

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

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

Writing in a Home Office

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

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

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

Writing on a Porch or Balcony

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

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

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

 

Social Media and the Write Life

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

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

“Comparison is the death of joy.”

–Mark Twain

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

It was thrilling to meet the people behind the profiles.

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

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

 

 

Writing Goals: Reflecting on 2017 and the “Write” Now

At the end of 2016, I composed a post detailing my 2017 Writing Resolutions. Now that 2017 has given way to 2018, and I have had a little time to reflect on the literary accomplishments of the last year, I admit it seems last year’s goals may have been a bit ambitious for me. But, I mean, that’s sort of the point, right? That whole shoot for the moon and land among the stars thing? Anyway… Here they are, the resolutions and the realities, side by side:

2017 Writing Resolutions

2017 Writing Realities

Write a diary entry at least once a week.

I came close here, writing almost every Friday when my students wrote in their journals, and every other Wednesday when Creative Writing Club wrote. I probably averaged once a week.

Compose and publish a blog post at least twice a month (preferably, once a week).

That was clearly too ambitious…

Read at least one book on craft per quarter.

I failed pretty miserably at this. It’s hard for me to find time to read during the school year (unless the material is student papers), and I traveled a lot this summer. I read the first chapter or so of Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, and I’ll finish it eventually.

Submit writing to various publications at least once a month.

I did submit writing to lots of publications—but not once a month; instead, my submission habits were pretty sporadic.

Make a concerted effort to find representation for Goodbye for Now.

I queried about one agent per week from January through March and pitched to someone I thought was an agent, but who turned out to be an editor, at the James River Writers Annual Conference in October.

Research self-publishing.

I didn’t really do this, short of some cursory internet grazing.

Attend conferences, talks, and workshops as schedule allows.

I succeeded here, attending all three days of the James River Writers Annual Conference and two, six-week Life in 10 Minutes workshops.

So, as the chart makes plain, some of my resolutions were very successful, some…not as much–but I wouldn’t call any of them complete failures. Plus, a lot of support for my writing cropped up unexpectedly in 2017, and I was pretty darn good about jumping on those opportunities as they arose. In fact, taking advantage of those unexpected opportunities was sometimes the reason my resolutions went by the wayside.

2017’s Unexpected Writing Adventures and Successes

  1. A deluge of freelance writing jobs, some short-term, some still in effect today.
  2. A surprisingly large amount of work accepted for publication in magazines, newspapers, and anthologies, as well as on websites.
  3. An invitation to become a member of the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA).
  4. An invitation to attend the VOWA summer celebration.
  5. Becoming the new chairperson for the VOWA Collegiate Undergraduate Writing/Photo Competition.
  6. Acceptance into Vitality Float Spa‘s Writing Program.

2018: What I’m Doing “Write” Now

The last week or so, I’ve been a little disappointed in myself for not having set any writing goals for 2018, but it occurs to me now that, without necessarily planning on it, I’ve already begun to nurture my writing for this year. Earlier this week, I submitted three short stories to two different literary magazines, wrote a diary entry, and renewed my James River Writers membership. Today, I entered six pieces of my writing in three different categories of the VOWA Excellence-in-Craft Contest and composed this blog post. Next week, I start a year-long novel-writing class at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. That’s right–every Wednesday for an entire year, I will stay up way past my bedtime, all in the name of writing. Now, if that’s not dedication (you don’t know me after 9:00 pm…), I don’t know what is. In addition, I’m currently judging student writing for the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, an experience I enjoy every year. I’ve even already spent some time looking for some fresh freelance projects.

Looking Ahead

While I don’t have any specific, measurable goals laid out for my writing in 2018, I do know my novel-writing class begins next week. And I do know I will continue to write at least four articles per month for ScoutKnows.com. I also plan to continue–dare I say finish?–revising Goodbye For Now; write in my diary somewhat regularly; submit my writing to various publications; and attend the 2018 James River Writers Annual Conference. Oh, and I’ll take advantage of any unexpected opportunities that come my way, too!

Happy New Year!

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.

The Risk in Writing: Rejections Galore

Writing foyer paint I
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).

writing stained glass
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.

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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.

 

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.