Thursday, December 1, 2011

Happy Holidays! See you in 2012!

The academic schedule seems cushy: We generally teach in 14 week increments and seem to have a lot of vacation. Work can sometimes look like we are just staring into space…

No matter how much I love living as an academic (and being married to one), it is far from being “cushy.” We teach, in part, to be immersed in our field, contribute to it and share it with students. That means that we use much of our vacation time (and nights and weekends and meal “breaks”) to prepare to teach, teach short term classes and do our own research or creative work while reading and attending conferences in order to keep current and continue our own education. Sometimes we take on side jobs for extra cash since, well, being an academic isn’t exactly a top “1%” job.

Phew! It can be exhausting. And exhilarating. All at once. I love it. Like many creative folks, I’ve had many jobs in many fields (from aerospace to marketing to student life) and this one is, hands down, my favorite. I love it.

With all of this in mind, I’ve decided to run this three-day-a-week blog on an academic schedule. This holiday season, once I finish grading and submitting those grades, there will be some travel, some family time and lots of writing, reading and, hopefully, a bit of recouping.

I’ll see you again in 2012! Have a happy and healthy holiday season.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Memoir: You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know

In 2010, I was moved when reading Oliver Sacks’ A Neurologist’s Notebook: Face-Blind; Why are some of us terrible at recognizing faces?  (Since the full article isn’t available for free, try listening to a related interview with Oliver Sacks here.)

Since then, I’ve been personally interested in prosopagnosia (the inability to recognize faces and places.) The symptoms that I have are substantially less pronounced than those described by Sacks, but they are present. I was able to determine that I wasn’t simply a hypochondriac after speaking with a researcher who I found through this organization.

Heather Seller’s memoir, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, continues to clarify the experience of someone with prosopagnosia in a well-written book. I quite literally finished the book in two days because I couldn’t put it down. There are two chronological narratives throughout the book: the past and a more recent present. Sellers presents events as they happened and offers the reader a chance to experience the same, “aha!’ moments that she did. And there are many of these moments.

For more on the book, watch this video trailer for the book or visit the author’s site.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Memoir Writing Workshops @ Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., this February

I am looking forward to teaching two memoir writing workshops in February at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., on Thursdays in February. Memoir Writing I will run in the mornings (10:00 AM – 11:30 AM) and Memoir Writing II will run in the afternoons (1:00PM – 2:30 PM). For both classes, we will be looking closely at selections from The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present edited by Phillip Lopate.

I taught my first class at the bookstore in November, Memoir Writing I, and it filled up quickly. Register through the bookstore today to reserve your space.

In these classes, we sit in a circle, write in response to given prompts, discuss student writing and essays assigned from the text. What’s better than spending an hour and a half weekly with like-minded adults writing and discussing writing in a lovely independent bookstore?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Writing Prompt: Parent / Caregiver Memory

Describe a memory you have with a parent or caregiver. It could be your earliest memory or even a recent memory. Rely on  your five senses to describe the scene.

Write non-stop for five to ten minutes and then go back and underline the key lines/ideas/images that emerge.

I'd love to read your piece or responses to the exercise below in the Comments section.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Show Me the Money: Grants and fellowships for writers

Florence, Italy: Where I would go if I won a writing grant... 

It isn’t easy to support yourself as a writer and searching for financial opportunities can cut into your writing time. Here are a few great sites to help make that job easier for you. Do you have others to recommend?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Etsy Shop: Postcard Poetry

Photograph by Melabee M. Miller

Did you know that I have two sets of postcard poetry available in my Etsy shop?

One set, the first one I created, is based on memories of my great Aunt Dora. The poems have titles in the present tense, defining a contemporary action that led me to a memory. The poems themselves are written in the past tense.

The second set is a series of love poems paired with photography of sea, land and sky taken by my mother, photographer Melabee M. Miller. The image above is one of them.

While early drafts of the poems from both sets were firmly grounded in my own experiences, further revision moves the emotional heart and human truth of each into a more universal realm. They are not meant to be historical documents, but rather artist interpretations of our lives together as humans.

I hope you'll visit my Etsy shop for more details. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Writing Prompt: Turning Point in your Life

Write about a turning point in your life’s apparent direction.

Suggestions: You may consider a moment of happiness or a challenge. It might be something as definitive as a decision to go to college, a death, a marriage or something as small as a thought you had in your car while waiting for the light to change. Maybe a shred of fabric from your grandmother’s wedding dress put you on a certain course. Or perhaps you heard the Dalai Lama speak and were encouraged to change your life. I’ve been working on a series of poems based on being called the name of a late friend by a stranger who confused me with another stranger. This event prompted a larger meditation. You never know what will prompt a change in thinking that leads to a change in your journey.

Write non-stop for five to ten minutes and then go back and underline the key lines/ideas/images that emerge.

I'd love to read your piece or responses to the exercise below in the Comments section.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Poem’s Origin: You

I'm confused when writers announce that someone else – a muse or higher power of some sort – gave them a poem.

How is that possible? You – the writer – sat down and wrote something. Who else would have written it for you?

Your writing is a combination of your experiences. That is to say, a combination of things you’ve done, read, heard, felt, dreamed and thought about.

Take a risk and allow yourself to own your writing. You are allowed to admit control over the writing process – from drafting to revising to editing to publishing.

Of course I’ve had experiences where I seem to wake up from a sort of trance and find myself surprised by what I’ve written. Our brains are powerful muscles that transform input, input that perhaps started before we were born, into something new that we create. And that trance? It was probably concentration that is hard to find when we constantly multitask in our crazy worlds.

Are there inspirations that move you to write? Maybe a certain action (like running or cooking) or a place (like standing by the sea) helps you to concentrate and allow your mind to think of words, phrases or entire pieces. If so, good for you for knowing what works and allowing yourself to experience those things.

Good work writing! You did it.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Expensive or Hard to Find Textbooks: Some tricks to find cheap textbooks

When I teach writing or literature courses, I try to assign books that aren’t terribly costly. I understand the financial challenges that being a student can present. This semester, one literature anthology that I’ve used a number of times was no longer easily found and the prices skyrocketed. I looked online, asked around and found a few good spots to look for books in general. Let me know if you have any additional suggestions.

Your school or local library might have the books available

Rent your books on Chegg

Your school bookstore might sell used copies of the books

Indiebound, which brings together independent bookstores, might help you to be able to find your book while supporting a local bookseller

Try the book publisher’s website which might list a number of places that sell the book

Ebay’s Half.Com has a great selection

Amazon has used and new textbooks

Friday, November 4, 2011

Writing Prompt: Something that has been asked of you

Write in response to a question that has been asked of you. Did someone once pose a question that left you speechless? It might have been a simple or complicated question. Maybe someone called you by the wrong name. Maybe you were asked to explain something that had seemed simple and then no longer did.

Write non-stop for five to ten minutes and then go back and underline the key lines/ideas/images that emerge.

I'd love to read your piece or responses to the exercise below in the Comments section.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Martha's Vineyard Writers Residency: Overview & Review

Sunrise in Edgartown, Martha's Vineyard, the town where the residency was held.

I returned home on Halloween after spending three weeks at The Point Way Inn for the Martha’s Vineyard Writers Residency. Writing students often ask me to describe not only what a residency is, but also how to approach one and details about my experiences. I strongly recommend preparing for writing residencies, even if you still have paid work to do, by setting specific goals and using the time to take stock of your writing. With extra time and a new place to alert your senses, you can both look closely at your writing and step back to take an overview of your larger projects and progress.

In today's post, I describe my goals and accomplishments, as well as my experiences at this particular residency. 

Goals & Accomplishments
I am teaching writing and literature classes online this semester, so I couldn't give myself a true residency. While I would love to take time off from work and write full-time, that’s not economically feasible for me. My husband and I might be able to squeeze our budget to make it possible, but then I couldn’t do things like this residency (which is fairly inexpensive, but not free like some.) The good news is that I quite like teaching. Teaching online, instead of in-person, gives me the flexibility to do things, like this residency. In the end, it all works out.

I often find myself juggling a number of projects at once. This month was no different. My goals are in bold below, followed by what I accomplished at the residency:

Revise book proposal A (Not started.)
Write book proposal B and two sample chapters (I drafted the proposal and two chapters. It all needs more work. The ideas did turn into an article proposal; I haven’t heard back from the editor yet.)
Write new poems for Elsewhere, a poetry manuscript (I wrote and revised ten new definition poems which I had been thinking about and vaguely drafting in my mind for a few weeks. I’m very excited about them. For now, at least. These things take time.)
Revise earlier poems from Elsewhere and reorganize them into a manuscript (Done. Again, for now, at least. We’ll see how the manuscript fares after I give it some time to settle. As I wrote above…)
Submit individual poems from Elsewhere (I submitted a handful of poems and the entire manuscript to a first book publishing contest. Fingers crossed and air-kisses for the manuscript.)
Review and organize earlier work (poems, essays, articles and proposals) to see what can be re-submitted after earlier rejections (I’ve started to do this, but not as much as I’d like. While I try to keep drafts organized on my computer and in paper files, it gets messy at times. I have an earlier manuscript and two chapbooks that I’d like to continue to submit for publication.)
Write an assigned book review for The Literary Review (After carefully reading through a number of book reviews from published issues, re-reading the poetry anthology to be reviewed, writing a number of drafts and discussing about it with two other poet-residents, I submitted it.)
Read literature and keep up with the news. Of course, it is impossible to write without reading. (I brought a pile of literary magazines, New Yorker magazines and a book of Chinese poetry to read here. I try to keep up with a variety of news sites online. Frankly, I barely made a dent. I did read some work written by other residents, which was great.)
Work on spring Smith College Alumnae reading in D.C. (I coordinated some of the details, from “save the date” publicity to asking for help from other alums.)
Organize and submit panel proposal for a spring conference. (Done.)

So, while teaching online, blogging (x3) regularly and working on these writing and reading projects, I was busy with many projects. 

Martha's Vineyard Writers Residency
On top of this regular work, there was the residency itself, which took some time to settle into, as these things do. We were a group of nine (mostly female) writers – poets, fiction writers, creative non-fiction writers and a playwright. Some people stayed for the entire six weeks and others for two or more weeks, so there was some rotation in the group. I made some new friends with whom I look forward to sharing work and friendship for years to come. Of course there were also moments of strange interpersonal drama, but that's hard to avoid with a group of this size. The program included weekly resident readings at a local library and organized (sometimes potluck) dinners with invited local writers.

At times we discussed our writing, experiences and details about our projects, which is always helpful. I look forward to keeping in touch with these new friends and sharing ideas into the future. One resident, Lisa Blackwell recently guest blogged.

We were assigned individual rooms, intended to be both bedrooms and writing studios. The rooms varied greatly. Some of the larger rooms upstairs included private balconies and sitting rooms. My room was on the ground floor and didn't have an extra sitting space or balcony overlooking the meditation garden. It was a bedroom with a small folding desk. It wasn't a quiet room, since it was close to the front door, front porch and faced a main street close to a major intersection. The house itself isn't far from a church whose bells ring on the hour, every hour, throughout the night. Finally, the room, strangely, didn't have heat. The electric heater was busy most of the residency. Let's just say I'm exhausted from sleeping so poorly for three weeks. 

I never settled into a good writing space. I couldn't work in my room since the internet connection was very weak. I rely on the internet to teach online and I am in the habit of regularly looking up ideas as I write. Maybe it would be healthy to unplug, as they say, but it just isn’t how I work. There was a writing room upstairs, but, again, the internet connection was weak. Incidentally, that room was poorly lit, too. I usually sat in the dining room, which was filled with light during the day, but it was more of a social place (and wasn't available during dinner time), so it was hard to concentrate. It was also unfortunate to have to relocate regularly. I tried sitting in the coffee shop nearby, Espresso Love, but that became distracting, too (and meant I had to spend more money after having paid for a residency and a place to write.)

While I did do a lot in three weeks, I know I get more work done at home. I have a dedicated (and quiet) work space with light, internet and heat. 

All in all, there are some long-term advantages to doing something like this. I am a city person at heart, without doubt, but spending some time on an island was rejuvenating. There is revived sea-related imagery in my work.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of doing a residency is to reminded of what I learned  in graduate school: The importance of integrating and valuing regular writing and reading every day. It is easy to get distracted, rush through life, and do only the paid work and chores during the week. There can be a balance between the artistic, working (paid and household), social and physically active life. No one can be Superwoman, but we can each craft a schedule that works for us.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Mind Your Business...

They Might Be Giants performing in Richmond, Virginia, in September

The awesome, rhythmic, refrain of the They Might Be Giants’ song Cloisonné is “Mind your business.” Who hasn’t wanted to say that someone? For writers, really all creative types, it can be particularly difficult to receive unsolicited advice in response to our work. Haven’t you wanted to tell someone to “Mind your business”?

My husband and I saw the band They Might Be Giants perform in Richmond, Virginia, last month, and they sang this song. I’m still humming it. You can read the lyrics here. No, I don’t really understand what the song means, but it is a catchy tune none-the-less. Maybe it is their obvious love of rhyme and sound, like a language poem, that moves me when I hear them sing it. You might fall more in love with it if you watch the video here.

So, the next time someone offers you unnecessary advice, you might sing them this song. Or least key parts of it.  

Friday, October 28, 2011

Writing Prompt: Name your home

Georgetown, Washington, D.C. 

Write on the name you would give your home (home can be defined as where you live or somewhere you feel at home.)

Write non-stop for five to ten minutes and then go back and underline the key lines/ideas/images that emerge.

I'd love to read your piece or responses to the exercise below in the Comments section.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

{Guest Blog Post} Mule to Writing Feedback

I was happy to meet Lisa Blackwell, author of Are You a Mule or a Queen?: How to Have Others Honor Your Wishes and Value Your Time, this month at the Martha’s Vineyard Writing Residency. Today she kindly shares advice about receiving feedback on your writing in a group or class. If you are in the D.C. area, you can learn more about this subject at her upcoming class on Constructive Criticism at the Women’s Center in D.C. on December 3.

Lisa Blackwell teaches and writes short stories and non-fiction to highlight the quality-of-life struggles of women in today’s fast paced world. In addition to her recent self-help guide, she has been published in make/shift Magazine, CALYX Literary Journal, and Phati’tude Literary Magazine. Visit her website for more. 

Mule to Writing Feedback

Several years ago, I was working on a novel. Being a new writer at the time, I wanted to get feedback and critiques from anyone who was willing to read my work. I attended writers’ conferences and writers’ groups hoping to get commentary on my work from others who were more experienced. Some of the constructive feedback I got was quite helpful and helped me grow as a writer. However, some of the writers with whom I shared my work didn’t get my genre and couldn’t relate to the characters’ dialect or slang; others were pretty tactless in the way they delivered the feedback. This caused me to do endless rewriting and altered my voice in my own work. I became a “mule” to diverse, and sometimes unqualified, opinions of my writing instead of selectively soliciting feedback from a trusted few.

Sometimes I would put down my work, go back to it a week later, and find that the writing didn’t even sound like me. My characters’ behavior and dialogue didn’t sound familiar to me.  My insecurity as a writer made me addicted to obtaining feedback and validation from others, which caused the characters I had created sound like strangers. Many people will want your writing to conform to the style of writing they have been educated to like. I learned a valuable lesson with my first work. It taught me to put down my voice in a “raw” and “unfiltered” form and then let three people I have come to trust review and provide editing and commentary critique. These folks are of course very experienced in my genre and subject matters, and don’t try to alter my voice, but ask questions that can enhance or fill gaps in the story I’m trying to tell. Most writers write to express themselves without constraints. When providing feedback to other writers it is important to suggest and identify techniques to help clarify something for other readers, but don’t make judgments on what was written, even if you don’t like what is being said. Be kind and thoughtful with your comments so you encourage the writer to go forward; this is especially important for new writers. Writing creates its own synergy, and the more you write, the better you become at it.

As a writer, I have learned that many readers may not get what you are saying. This has proved to be the case with most writers who have received rejections during the course of their careers. However, rejections don’t necessarily mean that what you are saying isn’t worth hearing. Many authors have refused to allow themselves to become “mules” to rejection and negative feedback. They write for themselves and not their audience. Authors who stay loyal to self-expression have often gone on to achieve great sales and success from their work.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Writing Coaching & Recent Article in the New Yorker Magazine

I enjoyed reading Atul Gawande’s article, “Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you?” in the New Yorker earlier this month. While I’m a writing coach and Gawande is a surgeon who employed a coach in his field, the emphasis on a trained professional offering someone individually tailored advice and assistance is crucial to every field.

Here is Gawande’s definition of a coach from the article: The concept of a coach is slippery. Coaches are not teachers, but they teach. They’re not your boss—in professional tennis, golf, and skating, the athlete hires and fires the coach—but they can be bossy. They don’t even have to be good at the sport. The famous Olympic gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi couldn’t do a split if his life depended on it. Mainly, they observe, they judge, and they guide.

Here are a few more definitions throughout the article from different moments in the article: Expertise is thought to be not a static condition but one that doctors must build and sustain for themselves. (…)Good coaches know how to break down performance into its critical individual components. (…)Good coaches (…) speak with credibility, make a personal connection, and focus little on themselves.

I remember having a long conversation with a composition writing teacher at last year’s AWP conference about how I call myself a “coach” when I work privately. He said that he considers himself a coach even when he is working as a professor in the for-credit classroom. Our job, as composition writing instructors to writers (including ESL students and remedial students), is to help lead the students to write better. By practicing the skill, the students can improve. We have to help guide them through the practice while teaching certain craft skills that can help (even if/when the writers decide to break those skill later and create something new.)

To become a writer, is it obligatory to attend an MFA program and then hire a private writing coach while attending workshops for a lifetime? Of course not. But it can be helpful to have attentive outside readers, like some current editors and many earlier editors, who will help our individual voices and writing to be as strong as possible.

I have some openings for private students this winter, if you are interested in working with me as your writing coach. Write to me (chloemiller(at)gmail(dot)com) for more information or read more here

Friday, October 21, 2011

Writing Prompt: Your name

Write about your name. Suggestions: You may consider your name’s origin, how you’ve changed your name (last name, nickname, name change, etc.), how others use your name, your relationship to your name, your name’s relationship to history, your name’s relationship to your family or ethnic history, etc.

Write non-stop for five to ten minutes and then go back and underline the key lines/ideas/images that emerge.

I'd love to read your piece or responses to the exercise below in the Comments section.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

An Unquenchable Thirst by Mary Johnson

A good memoir does more than simply retell someone’s personal story. It illuminates a larger world through an individual experience. In the case of Mary Johnson’s memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life, she offers her own tale of joining, and later leaving, Mother Teresa’s order.

Reading this book, I knew I was reading something important. It is a respectful and thoughtful meditation on one woman’s experiences. Considering the intense privacy of the Catholic Church, this book offers an inside view into the real joys, the possibilities for joy and the many abuses.

Johnson enters the order an intellectually curious and emotionally hungry young woman. She does nothing without considering its implications within the order and church, and its relationship to the outside world. Towards the end, Johnson writes in Chapter 31, “I was angry with the Church for demanding celibacy of her priests, and mad at God for giving me a vocation that demanded I sacrifice intimacy and intellect.” The demands on the women in the order are extreme and hard to imagine. Mary makes it possible to see why the nuns and the church made certain decisions while that very insight makes it clear that changes need to made.

I met Mary Johnson in 2009 at the A Room of her Own Retreat in New Mexico. I remember listening to her read a section from the memoir and not wanting to wait until it was published to hear the rest. After (or before) you read the book, be sure to check out her website. There are interviewsphotos, readers guide and more. While you're waiting for your copy of the book to arrive, you can browse the beginning of the book. 

In the epilogue, Johnson writes, “So much depends on the stories we tell ourselves, and on the questions we ask, or fail to ask.” Such a good lesson for life and writing.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Rest of Your Life

The Rest of Your Life, a movie by Chris Wieland and my husband Hans Noel, is now available on Indieflix. For $4.95, you can stream the movie immediately.

I'm sure you'll enjoy watching it as much as I do.

Here's a summary:

It's Friday afternoon, and Dave McGuiness has a problem. Last night, his longtime girlfriend, Karen, told him that she wants to get married. She'd like an answer by Monday, but Dave's not sure he's ready to propose. Before Dave can figure the pros and cons of getting married, he learns that the rumor mill is two steps ahead of him. Everyone in the South Suburbs of Chicago already thinks he and Karen are already "officially" engaged.

Dave's buddy Marv knows just what will help Dave forget his dilemma for a while. He takes Dave and Dave's brother Ben out to party all weekend long. Marv figures that if this is Dave's last weekend before he's a married man, it had better be one he won't soon forget.

But Dave's got a bigger problem. He figures that if he does marry Karen, he may never get a chance to do something with his life. He's pretty sure there must be more to it than living in the suburbs, working for his brother-in-law and hanging out with the boys, but he's never gotten around to figuring out what that something else is.

Dave's running out of time. What’s he going to do with the rest of his life?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Writing Prompt: First Taste

Describe your first taste of a favorite flavor/dish/item/etc. You can choose something simple like butter, everyday like potato chips or exotic like foie gras. 

Write non-stop for five to ten minutes and then go back and underline the key lines/ideas/images that emerge.

I'd love to read your piece or responses to the exercise below in the Comments section.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Whip Smart: Memoir by Melissa Febos

I sometimes wonder if I should include certain details about my life in poems. When in doubt, I test the detail with this question: Will it serve the truth of the poem? It would be petty to add something simply to shock a reader, decorate an action, confess something or hurt someone through my writing.

Hearing a story about Whip Smart, a memoir by Melissa Febos, on NPR’s Fresh Air last year, my first thought was it couldn’t be anything more than a series of shocking stories. How else could the story of a professional dominatrix enter into literature? The more I listened to the interview, however, the more intriguing and thoughtful the book sounded. Of course, I was also curious about the simple details of a life of a dominatrix. What could be more different from my own life?

I read Whip Smart over the course of two days, since I very truly couldn’t put it down. It was fascinating. Melissa Febos offers insight into her experience from the perspective of a woman searching to find balance and a path through our very human, everyday existences. She poses questions about power, femininity, feminism, gender roles, independence, and other issues that we all grapple with differently in different settings. Febos explores, answers, and then answers the questions again when the situations change. 

If I were 18 again and packing for my first year at Smith College, I know that I would have tucked this book away along with Catcher in the Rye and everything by Sylvia Plath. As an adult, it is exciting to read a mature exploration of not only a loss of innocence, but a regaining of humanity.

For more on Melissa Febos, visit her author website. There are links to her publications, readings and interviews. There’s even an excerpt from Whip Smart. I was happy to learn that she’s not only a graduate of the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College, but also teaches there.

Are you working on a memoir and struggling to decide which details to include? If you are in the D.C. metro area, you might consider registering for my upcoming Memoir Writing Workshop at Politics & Prose.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Marriage, Writers, and Residencies

Photo by Tony Richards

In 2009, my husband and I stood in front of a judge, friends and family to declare our union. (A “union” with a nod towards the efforts to legalize gay marriage, as New York State has finally done.) Two years later we are celebrating on Martha’s Vineyard with a short vacation before I start a writing residency

There are debates in writing circles about who makes the best partner for a writer. Some vote for another writer and others will vote for the opposite (Who would that be? A banker?) in order to eliminate any competition. There are famous writer couples, like Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon, and other writers who keep their love lives private. For me, it was a thrill to find a partner who supports my writing, offers honest feedback, and understands my dedication to a lifelong project because he, too, has his own as a political scientist

When I first mentioned applying to this, and other, residencies, my husband smiled and encouraged me to submit the strongest application possible. He said to stay away as long as I felt was necessary. Instead of fearing that I was abandoning him, he said how much he’d miss me while being proud of me. He also suggested a great holiday before I started. 

I support him and his academic work in the same way. We both travel for conferences and are committed to a job that extends far beyond a regular 9-5 week. I am inspired to work even harder on my creative projects by watching his dedication to his work.

Marriage was once a very traditional partnership. There were duties to be fulfilled by each gender. I am thankful to live in a culture and era when that is no longer required. I am thankful to be married to a person who has helped me to see how expansive our roles can be, no matter how much I might like to cook and do some traditional "female" activities.

I’ve tried to write essays and poems about what it feels like to marry and be immersed in such a partnership. Everything I write fails to convey the deep love, devotion and intimacy we have on so many levels. That is, even when we are apart in order to dedicate ourselves to our work. Perhaps it is even more important in those moments. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Writing Prompt: Recipe

Homemade beer bread

Describe your relationship to a dish that includes preparing it, watching someone preparing it or reading about it being prepared. Focus on listing all of the details (consider natural light, colors, growth, temperature, smell, etc.)

Write non-stop for five to ten minutes and then go back and underline the key lines/ideas/images that emerge.

I'd love to read your piece or responses to the exercise below in the Comments section.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Poetry Readings: A Guide To Giving Them {or Preparing for Them Is Useful to Writers}

Reading Poetry at the Third Thursday Series in Takoma Park, Maryland (9/2011)

Maybe it sounds selfish to say that you should read your creative work to an audience because it benefits you, the writer. Of course, it should be enjoyable to the audience because they have a chance to hear your work the way that you intended for it to be read and heard. In the end, however, giving a reading can help you to improve your craft.

Sound of Poetry
Poetry developed from an oral tradition and the sound of poems remains important. This is true for all poems, from performance work to poems that play with the blank page they are printed on (for example, concrete poems.) In the beginning, poems generally rhymed (it was easier to remember them that way) and were sung. Only later were poems written down and shared in books instead of through song.  Poems no longer need to rhyme, but their origins in our voice, language and even rhythm of our own heartbeats, inform the words on a page.

As you write, revise, edit and even proofread your work, you should read your poems aloud. If, as you are reading, your tongue trips over a phrase, that is a suggestion that your syntax or even word choice needs some work. If the poem quite literally sounds the way you intended for it to sound in your mind and mimics the instructions given by the poem on the page (through punctuation, blank space, line breaks, etc.), then your poem has succeeded.

Reading Time Limit
If you are invited to give a reading, you will be given a time limit. Of course, you don’t want to be the poet who finishes too early or drones on and on, so you must practice reciting your poems before the reading and timing yourself. As you read your poems over and over, you’ll notice what words well and falls flat or simply doesn’t sound right. Be sure to practice reading slowly, enunciating and projecting your voice (unless you know there will be a microphone.) If you read at an optimal pace, you’ll be in the habit of reading that way for the actual reading. It is human nature to get nervous and speed along. During the reading, you might try reading even more slowly than you think sounds right.

Commentary on the Poems?
Should you add commentary between the poems as an introduction or background information? There are different schools of thought on this. On one hand, your poems should be able to stand on their own, away from you and any possible explanations. On the other hand, the audience has come to hear you, the poet, and enjoys learning more about the work than might be available on the page. You decide what you feel most comfortable doing. In general, I recommend some information, but not too much. After all, the audience does want to hear you read your poetry.

Choosing & Ordering your Selection
The last thing to consider is the order of the poems. Please don’t be the poet who asks how much time she has left or make the audience watch you flip through pages as you ponder what you should read. Honor your audience and your own work by preparing before the reading. Group poems by common themes or style. Practicing reading your final drafts for the reading will help you to learn new things about the poems and help you to see which order fits best. This might even inform the order of the poems in your chapbook or book length manuscript.

Should you read that controversial poem that makes you uncomfortable or contains something you don’t want anyone to know? No, of course not. Only read work you wish to have published in literary journals or in a book that anyone – from the adoring public to your best friend to family members to ex-partners – might read. Again, as you prepare the short list of poems for the readings, you’ll recognize which ones truly seem finished and ready for the world to read and hear. Perhaps the others no longer belong in your manuscript or to be sent out for publication. This is useful for you to know.

Poetry Reading as Public Speaking
There are many different ways to read your poetry. I recommend attending many readings and noticing the different kinds of styles. You can also look up poetry readings on Youtube and on author sites. The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival has a great collection of videos on Youtube.

As you organize your talk, remember to thank the audience, the host and the other readers, if there are other readers. Make it clear through pauses when a poem begins and when one ends. Before your final poem (or last short series), let the audience know that you are about to end. You might want to thank them again before noting that you are about to begin on your final poem. These signals to the audience helps them to feel comfortable in your hands and lets them relax while you lead them through your work.

Of course, who isn’t nervous before a reading? If I’m sweating and worried about accidently burping into the mike, how can I give a reading that makes the audience feel comfortable? Frankly, public speaking isn’t easy. Practice will help and so will faking it. That’s right, fake being calm. No one has to know that your palms are sweaty or your heart is beating fast. Work on breathing slowly and controlling your voice. After a poem or two, you’ll relax and even start to enjoy it. After all, people have come to hear you read. You have an entire audience listening and enjoying your work. Feel the energy in the room and enjoy it. You’ve worked hard for this moment. 

What other suggestions would you add?

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke

Two months after my aunt passed, I started to read The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke, a memoir about the loss of her mother. It was so true and sad that I couldn’t bear to read it. While I put it aside, it continued to haunt me. I had to ask my husband to hide it.

A few months later, I felt ready and even eager to read it. My husband told me where the book was (in his underwear drawer) and I finished it in two days. Yes, I cried. Yes, it was hard to read. But in reading it, I recognized my emotions, the same ones resulting from a different situation, and it helped me to heal and better understand myself.

There’s no single answer to the question of how someone should mourn a loved one. The most thrilling part about this memoir is not that O’Rourke relays her individual story, but that she shares what she learned by reading related literature and studies. She integrates revelatory moments from her research into the narrative.

O’Rourke’s prose is honest, self-aware and informed. Here is a thoughtful paragraph from Chapter 7, “I had been sent healing workbooks and the Buddhist texts about how to die. I had been sent On Grief and Grieving and On Death and Dying and the Bible and memoirs about deaths of parents. I read nearly all of them; I was hungry for death scenes. C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, his slim account of the months after this wife’s death from cancer, was the most evocative. Grief is paradoxical: you know you must let go, and yet letting go cannot happen all at once. The literature of mourning enacts that dilemma; its solace lies in the ritual of remembering the dead and then saying, There is no solace, and also, This has been going on a long time.

After my aunt passed, I found some comfort in literature and found O’Rourke’s instinct to look towards writing familiar. At the end of the book, O’Rourke lists the books she read, both those she references in the text and those she read that weren’t mentioned by name. She lists critical studies and nonfiction, books on the psychology of grief, fiction, poetry, drama, and memoir. I look forward to following her lead.

For more, you might be interested in NPR’s review and re-printing of the first chapter.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Writing Prompt: Restaurant or Market Review

Farmstand in South Jersey

Describe a restaurant or market. Write for ten minutes without stopping. Focus on listing all of the details (consider the lighting, floor, cleanliness, activities of people, art, clock, human and mechanical sounds, wall paint, etc.) Do not worry about spelling or grammar.

Write non-stop for five to ten minutes and then go back and underline the key lines/ideas/images that emerge.

I'd love to read your piece or responses to the exercise below in the Comments section.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Fall for the Book and National Book Festival 2011

I enjoyed the problem of figuring out how to choose between various activities at the wonderful book festivals in the D.C. area this past week. Hearing favorite and new writers read their work aloud teaches us, the readers in the audience, about the writers’ voice, background, interests and quite simply how the pieces sound aloud. Poetry was originally an oral traditional and the relationship between the author’s voice and the audience’s reaction is an important one. If it isn’t possible for you to hear authors live, I recommend looking up their video or audio recordings.

I started my literary weekend at the Fall for the Book Festival’s grand finale with Stephen King on George Mason University’s campus.  When I was a young adult, I used to read Steven King constantly. I loved the thrill of his horror novels and still think about the short stories in Four Past Midnight. I try not to think about some of the others, especially after sunset. Or when I’m home alone. Or sometimes even during the day.

As a writing teacher, I’ve always wondered how I would react to a student who writes like Stephen King. After hearing him speak, I’m less concerned. It turns out Stephen King is a funny man. Yes, funny ha-ha (not just strange.) I never would have guessed it.  He told some great stories with strong punch lines. The obvious question – where does he come up with his crazy ideas – came up. He answered, “ I think of the worst possible thing that could happen.” Even if I don’t write horror, my own anxious self understands the instinct. Watch part of his reading from his new book here or his entire talk here

On the National Mall at the National Book Festival on Saturday and Sunday, I heard so many wonderful writers that it is hard to summarize what everyone said in one post. I expect that their voices will come back to me, through my notes, memory and readings, as I continue to write and consider literature. Here were the writers I had the privilege of hearing:

Claudia Emerson
Kimiko Han
Dave Eggers
Dolores Kendrick
Terrance Hayes
Stanley Plumly
Yusef Komunyakaa

I have wanted my husband, a political scientist, to hear Yusef Komunyakaa for years. I am always moved by the poet's attention to detail, integration of history and his personal experiences in Vietnam and as an active citizen of the world and his voice. Very few poets give the riveting live reading as Komunyakaa and he didn’t let us down.  (His voice!) He read from his published books and included some new poems, too.

In fact, most of the poets read some newer, unpublished poems. Reading work aloud is an important editing tool. The writers have a chance to hear how an audience reacts to a work. What a treat to be a part of that process.

I left with two books that I cannot wait to read: Kimiko Hahn’s Toxic Flora and Crossing State Lines: An American Renga edited by Bob Holman and Carol Muske-Dukes.

Thank you to Hans Noel for the photographs. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

Memoir Writing: Role of Universal Truth and Ego?

As I plan my Memoir Writing Workshop at Politics and Prose bookstore this November, I’ve been reading memoirs and thinking about their construction and relevance to readers. I continue to believe that the relevance of a memoir lies in the presence of a universal truth with which the reader can connect and a balancing of the ego.

Combining my interest in food and writing, I read Garlic and Sapphires: The secret life of a critic in disguise by Ruth Reichl. Even if I hadn’t heard the author speak a few times at the Key West Literary Seminar this January, I still would have loved it. The narrative is clear and the writing is mesmerizing. Reichl describes her experience working as the food critic for the New York Times. In order to keep some anonymity, she dresses up as characters that were both inventions and people she knew (including her mother!)

The book includes recipes and actual restaurant reviews mixed into the chronological narrative. As a home chef, I’m interested in trying her recipes. As a writer, I’m interested in seeing how she developed a review out of her actual experience. If a reader didn’t care about the recipes or the reviews, she could easily skip over them and still enjoy her own experiences.

When someone decides to write a memoir, the ego can be quite troublesome. It can be difficult to have enough ego to realize that a personal story has merit to an audience. At the same time, it can be necessary to tone down the ego enough to make the story accessible and interesting to an audience.

Many readers are familiar with Ruth Reichl’s work and would naturally be interested in how she came to her reviews. To keep the readers engaged in the book, however, she has to do more than offer a simple biography of an important person (that would be too much ego.) She has to allow us to join her on her journey of self-discovery which occurs as she works as a food critic. There are universal truths that those of us with less illustrious careers can still connect with, understand and learn from as we consider our own life choices.

What role do you think universal truth and ego play in writing a memoir?

Friday, September 23, 2011

2012 Poet's Market

I was excited to receive a copy of the 2012 Poet’s Market with my article, “Be Creative in your Career: Offer Private Writing Workshops.” If you are a creative writer, working in poetry or another genre, I think you’ll find the practical tips about how (and why) to set up a private writing workshop helpful.

It is wonderful to have my essay article in such great company. Some of my favorite articles from this edition include Nancy Susanna Breen’s “From a Judge’s Perspective,” Taylor Mali’s “10 Tips for the Perfect Reading” and Sage Cohen’s “Why Poets Need Platforms.” I look forward to discovering new presses and literary journals in the Markets section and learning more about related resources, like educational programs.

I have been regularly reading the annual Poet’s Market and Writer’s Market, published by Writer’s Digest Books, for years. The submission listings, helpful articles and more taught me how to better organize my individual and manuscript submissions.

What have you discovered in the Poet’s Market?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Interview Caitlin O'Sullivan from The Postcard Press

Thank you to Caitlin O’Sullivan, founder and managing editor of The Postcard Press for discussing her press with us. She is a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing candidate at Minnesota State University, Mankato, where she is writing a historical novel about bank robbers hiding out in a small town. Look for The Postcard Press at the Twin Cities Book Festival in Minneapolis on October 15.

For more on Postcard Poetry, you might be interested in recent posts. 

I've always loved postcards and think this is a great way to combine poetry and postcards. I read on your site a bit about how you got started with this idea. How has the original idea shifted or grown as you've published poems and postcards?

Well, originally, I envisioned the postcard designs I’d be doing as very simple, very minimally designed, because I’m a pretty terrible artist. But I’ve been lucky to work with several artists who’ve leant a hand to creating some beautiful postcard designs: Jorge Evans, who did “How to Make a Bullet,” Emily J. Eisenhauer, who did “Angelique,” and David Johnson, who did Michael Martone’s postcards and “Paper Chain.” So instead of having, say, a green postcard for July and a blue postcard for August, I’ve been able to send out postcards that I consider little works of art. I think it’s a unique opportunity for writers, to have a work of art designed around your words.

Postcard poems seem closely related to the broadside. Can you discuss how these two art forms might be both similar and different?

They’re very similar. Originally, broadsides were sheets of paper which varied in size, and which were printed with news accounts, poems, and fables. Peddlers would sell them on the street for a few pennies. Now, broadsides are often beautifully typeset and designed poetry that’s intended to be displayed. Postcard poems are a kind of hybrid of the old and new broadsides: they’re intended to be displayed, but they’re also inexpensive and intended for a popular audience. They’re broadsides for your refrigerator or your cubicle, rather than the wall of your study.

As a writer, has your work been influenced by this project?

I think the greatest impact has been on my understanding of literary magazines and the submissions process. There are many, many good writers out there, and very small details—two or three weak lines, or a poorly-chosen title—can be the kinds of things that editors seize on when they have to make the difficult choice between two pieces they like. So I’m definitely paying more attention to the details in my work.

Your postcards vary greatly in tone and style. What are you looking for when you consider your submissions? Who does your printing and who designs the art?

I’m looking for a connection, the sense that I’m reading about or through the eyes of a human being. (Sometimes that connection comes through strongest in contributor bios—I’ve had one or two bios that I’d like to publish as flash nonfiction.) I like concrete details and strong images—in part because that’s a preference of mine, but also because it’s easier to design postcards which already have some visual cues in the text.

Right now, I’m working with David Johnson, a friend of mine, to do the designs; he’s a sculptor and a designer, but his real artistic love is painting. My printers are a local father-and-son team, Gayle and Tyler, who take care of me when I bring in files and say “I don’t know if you can work with this but . . .”. They can always make it work.

Be sure to visit The Postcard Press website for more!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Interview with Novelist Chris Huntington

Pop quiz: What has Mike Tyson, poetry and China in common?

Answer: Novelist Chris Huntington’s award winning novel, Mike Tyson Slept Here.

For some more answers, read my recent interview with the author published on The Literary Review’s blog.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Writing Prompt: Indoor Description

Inn on Ferry Street, Detroit, Michigan

Describe a room that is not yours. You can choose a clothing store, take out restaurant, movie theater, catering hall, public bathroom, bagel store, bookstore, dentist’s office, auto body shop, etc.

Write non-stop for five to ten minutes and then go back and underline the key lines/ideas/images that emerge.

I'd love to read your piece or responses to the exercise below in the Comments section.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

August Postcard Poem Project Summary

I really enjoyed participating in Concrete Wolf’s Postcard Poetry Project this August. In fact, as you might remember, it helped to spur on my own Postcard Poetry Project.

While I received 17 postcards (instead of the 31 for each day in August), I thought the whole program was fantastic. It made my day to receive poems in the mail. Two of the postcards were international (England and Canada) and the rest were from the United States. Most were handwritten and some were typed and then glued onto a postcard. It was interesting to consider the images and their relationship to the written words.

I look forward to doing it again next year. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

September Brings Major Book Festivals in the Washington, D.C., Metro Area

It is a great time of year to attend readings and discuss literature. Will you be attending one of these major festivals this month? I hope to see you there!

September 18 – 23 at George Mason University and various locations in the area

September 23 – 25 in Baltimore

September 24 – 25 on the National Mall

Friday, September 9, 2011

Ten Years After 9/11

View of the new tower, One World Trade Center, 
as it is being built from Hudson River Park (July 2011)

It is hard to believe that the 9/11 terrorism attacks happened ten years ago.

I remember running a fire drill in New York University’s dormitory in Florence, Italy, around 3 PM on September 11, 2001. The students took over ten minutes to exit the building and I was frustrated. Yes, I was partly frustrated because there was a bit of a contest between the villas to see who could run the fastest fire drill and apparently I couldn't.

I think I might have said something to the students lazily walking down the stairs about how dangerous it would be if there had really been a fire. That people could have died. That is, if something had happened. I know, the villa was mostly made of stone and the structure burning was unlikely, but we had to follow American protocol with these "pretend fires," as one local called them.

After the drill, I went back into the office and received a phone call from a professor living on campus. He was the first to tell me what happened. He liked to joke and I thought he must have been telling a bad joke. When someone came running into the office with tears running down her face, I knew he wasn't.

We quickly got to work. In the midst of helping the students, I tried to check-in with family and friends back home. Of course, as we all remember, phones were down. I was able to get through my Aunt Dora, who was 93 at the time and almost always at home in a New Jersey suburb. She passed messages between me and my parents. I thought of all of my friends, those I still talked to regularly and those I had lost touch with, who lived or worked in New York City. Throughout the next few days, I managed to find everyone I imagined was missing.

Today, I might hear plane pass low and suddenly feel afraid. It doesn’t seem as though ten years have really passed. But they have. The world that existed that morning, or afternoon for those of us in Italy, before the first plane struck and the world today is quite different.

Writers have been doing their job of writing about that day and the world as we know it now. Facts have been cataloged and analyzed. Human truths have come to the surface. We’ve all been changed and writers can be thanked for helping us to understand what happened, from the dangers, like increased discrimination and hatred, and the joy, like the re-connections and community.

Here are some places to find poems and art that help to illuminate what happened and our changed world:

Poems After the Attack, An Poetry anthology

What else would you recommend?