Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Writing Prompt & Word Choice: Importance of avoiding clichés

I cannot tell you how many students use the word “priceless” in their papers. I like to be accepting and patient, but this is a word that I can’t stand. Can’t. Stand.

Before the infamous Mastercard credit card commercial, perhaps calling something “priceless” was unique and interesting. In our commercial, money-driven society, Americans like the idea of having something that is so expensive that a price-tag can’t be put on it.

At this point, however, we are used to the term “priceless.” Metaphors or similes that begin as fresh and surprising often become overused clichés. This is what has happened to the tiresome term “priceless.”

While I believe deeply that there should be few rules in the arts (if we all followed the same rules, how could we create something new?) I’d like to propose a rule: Never use the word “priceless” to describe a person, place or event. If you did in the past, fine. I know you can do better in the future.

To help clarify any rule, it is important to give alternatives. For today’s writing prompt, think about another way to describe something that indeed seems to be “priceless.” For example, a baby’s smile, sunset or love at first sight. It can be a particular challenge to describe something both so universal and so individual.

I hope you’ll share your writing below in the Comments section.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Three Major Questions to Ask When You Read

Reading can seem daunting, but with a focused eye, readers can make sense and untangle even the longest and seemingly complicated text. There are three major questions to ask when reading a text:

  1. What happened (the plot)?
  2. How was the piece constructed (craft)?
  3. How does the piece relate to worlds outside the book (relevance)?

First, it is important to figure out the plot. If the plot is a mystery, it will be difficult to move onto the second two questions. Determine who the main characters are, what they want/work towards, where the characters go, what they do and even why do certain events take place. Careful readers will even notice what takes place outside of the story (what is purposely missing.) If you are stuck, you could ask the questions that a journalist would ask for a story: who, what, where, when, why and how.

Then, look at the elements of writing that compose the piece. Start with the vocabulary, then the sentences, paragraphs, chapters and book as a whole. These craft tools, like tone and point of view, will help you to understand how the piece was constructed. Used properly, these are the tools that allow the writing to be literary. If the piece is well-written, these aspects won't be immediately obvious. 

Finally, a piece of literature will only last through time if it relates to the world outside of the book. This might be a personal, emotional world or a larger world, such as an entire culture or nation in a particular era. If there are human truths that cross beyond the plot, through the use of craft issues, then it is likely that readers outside of the immediate world of the book will be able to access the plot.

There are many other things to look for when reading literature, but these basic questions will get you started. 

Friday, March 25, 2011

Facebook Group: Chloe Yelena Miller, Writing Coach

Did you know that I regularly update a Writing Coach Facebook group? On this page, I share related announcements, links to interesting articles, information about submission opportunities and readings, and more.

I hope you'll join our group and Facebook conversation. See you there!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Guest Blog Post @ First Person Plural

Thanks to First Person Plural, The Writer's Center's blog, for publishing my guest blog post, "Why I Write. And Then Revise" today.

The post begins:

A therapist once said I “catastrophize.” As in, I see the world in terms of catastrophes and behave accordingly. Without this search for safety, would I be able to write? It motivates me and allows me to organize chaos before crafting something new.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Interview with Abbie Reese, Interdisciplinary Artist

It was a joy to meet Abbie Reese in New Mexico a few summers ago when we were both attending A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Retreat. She is a creative, independent thinking and kind artist who brings her audience original stories.

She recently finished Erased from the Landscape: The Hidden Lives of Cloistered Nuns. This beautiful, traveling multi-media gallery exhibition, which will open July 1, 2011, can be partially accessed through videos and photographs online.  You can also see some more images and read about Abbie’s additional projects on her website. I hope you will consider supporting this project by donating.

Please read below for more on Abbie’s creative process and her current project.

Can you describe the relationship between your oral history work and your creative non-fiction writing?

The stories that people tell reveal emotional truths, as well as recurrent themes. This tracks with my work. I am interested in subjective memories and how they relate to the narrative construct. I am also interested in internal journeys and the ways in which individuals make sense of their world. All of this can be accessed through oral history.

Having worked as a journalist, I appreciate that the field of oral history recognizes memory as faulty and acknowledges that we, as humans, create stories. This helps shape my intentions and define the parameters of a project.

In my work with the cloistered monastic nuns, their entire subculture and experiences are absent from popular culture; the nuns subjugate their own voices within their culture. Conducting oral history interviews with the nuns supported my intention of placing precedence on their words, to focus on the nuns’ impressions of their experiences.

The oral history interviews laid the groundwork and informed my nonfiction writing, assisting with character development and highlighting such universal themes as belief and sacrifice and community and the effects of a woman’s choices on her own course and her loved ones.

It’s probably worth mentioning that my approach to oral history – as a tool toward writing and creating art – might be different than the approach of those who conduct oral history interviews as an academic exercise for the archives.

Your current project is really fascinating. How did it move from an idea and become an actual project?

I’ve been interested in the concept of religious life since I was a child. I find this type of embodied conviction compelling.

The germ for this project probably began with a magazine article I read in the ‘90s that outlined a trend of young Italian women from high society joining convents. A question gripped me: Why would someone my age make such a drastic countercultural decision for her life?

This question propelled the project into existence, and then the complex revelations and seeming paradoxes kept me interested. I stayed engaged for more than five years because the subjects merited this attention. They were surprising and funny and deliberate.

I was cognizant of the fact that I was a part of a world that they had left for the cloistered realm, which enables them to carry out a mission of serving others and praying for humanity. In a sense, I was on sacred ground that the public generally doesn’t touch. My priority was to respect their cultural mores. Their subculture operates under a very different set of codes and rules than the American popular culture that I exist within, and so I needed to learn their structure and value systems, and then engage to an extent that would limit infringement on their vow of enclosure.

I didn’t realize the significance of this project to the field of oral history until several years into the work when I was a Fellow at Columbia University’s Oral History Research Office Summer Institute; I learned then that an oral history project about cloistered monastic nuns had not been done before.

From the outset, I was protective of the subjects because of the nature of the nuns’ mission – they separate themselves from the world in order to pray for the world – and their value of anonymity. My style of work became very tight in the sense that I discussed it with a few, trusted people I knew to be both intelligent and open-minded, meaning I knew they wouldn’t judge what they didn’t fully know or understand; their input helped me define and strike a balance in approach.

I found it constructive to talk with several individuals that I respect, particularly Steve Rowland, a documentary producer, and Peter Maguire, an oral historian and author. I kept a few other friends and colleagues – all creative and perceptive and empathetic – in the loop throughout the project and they asked practical and insightful questions.

Why did you want to focus on nuns?

In a broad sense, I am interested in subcultures and outsider entities, and individual and cultural identity. Lately, because of an American popular culture trending toward overexposure, I have become fascinated with communities that operate in isolation, with self-selected members hidden from public view by volition.

Cloistered monastic nuns are not only indifferent to outside attention, they make vows that are a rebuttal to exposure. I am not Catholic, which for me meant permission to enter into this carefully guarded realm that much more precious, and I wanted to understand the motivations of individuals who live what they believe.

As I engaged with the religious community, I was influenced by own experiences in an attempt to understand the communal aspect of their lives. I spent a year onboard the world’s largest non-governmental hospital ship, a 522-foot converted cruise liner, as one of the 350 individuals from about 40 countries embracing an extreme lifestyle. Living aboard a floating village lent interest in unraveling a unique dimension of the nuns’ world – community life.

What oral history websites/resources would you recommend to someone who is considering getting involved with the field? Any advice? And what advice would you give to other writers who are relying on oral history as a way to research or gather source material?

The field of oral history endorses a methodology for conducting interviews that differs from other fields; oral history subscribes to “co-authorship” and “shared authority”. In this vein, the individual conducting the interview should respect what a person is ready to share and wants to share, and adapt to this pace. The Oral History Association’s website has a helpful link to a document, “Oral History Principles and Best Practices,” that is a useful reference.

I think it’s important to acknowledge the realities of the field and to accept the constraints. For example, one should not expect oral history interviews to offer what other primary source material supersedes at delivering.

The oral historian Alessandro Portelli pioneered work in the field by analyzing oral histories as a narrative structure, and he has written tomes that dissect collective “failures” of memory, including “The Death of Luigi Trastulli” – an entire town’s incorrect placement of a citizen’s death years from the fact in order to make sense of their history and experiences. I recommend reading his work.

In my experience, an interesting discovery from oral history has been hearing people say things that surprise themselves. I think that when given an opportunity to express their experiences and interpretations of those events verbally in what can be an intense and concentrated manner, they speak truth they may not have processed fully until they hear themselves say it.
With writing, there’s a common adage: Write what you know. If someone is just starting in the field of oral history, I think it would be helpful to take an inventory of one’s interests and areas where one would like to learn more.

I would emphasize, though, that conducting oral history interviews is a huge investment; for every hour of recorded interview, the rule of thumb is that it takes three to four times that to make transcriptions.

As an interdisciplinary artist, Abbie Reese is a writer, photographer and oral historian. She attended a four-week Artist Residency in Photography at the Vermont Studio Center, and her portfolio of the cloistered monastic nuns was selected for Review Santa Fe. Abbie is a member of the Chicago Literary Club and she was a Fellow at Columbia University’s Oral History Research Office Summer Institute, “Oral History, Advocacy and the Law,” in 2008.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Writing Prompt: Go Outside and Look

It is finally and truly spring. There are buds on the trees and new sprouts on the ground. You can start planting your garden, inside or out. Here in Washington, D.C., we've had a few beautiful, sunny days.

For today's writing prompt, go outside. Leave your computer behind and take an old fashioned notebook and pen. Sit somewhere, quiet or not, and write. Describe what you see and how your surroundings change with the seasons.

I took the above picture in our Ann Arbor, Michigan, neighborhood on the west side last year. I remember being struck by the single flower in a garden of lush green tones. Today, you might take a picture, but also work to describe the image and your response in words.

I welcome you to share your writing below in the Comments Section.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Submission Opportunity: Calling All Poets for National Poetry Month!

April is, of course, National Poetry Month. I look forward to celebrating on this blog by sharing your voices. If you write or read poetry and would like to guest blog during the month of April, please let me know by emailing me your idea for a piece {chloemiller(at)gmail(dot)com.}

I'll consider any post related to poetry. Surprise me! Here are some ideas to get you started:

Original poem
Review of a poet, poetry book, literary journal, reading or poem
Recommended poetry resources (writing, reading series, bookstore, submissions, travel, writing prompts, etc.)
Interview with a poet, reader or editor
Craft discussion
Writing Prompt
Why you write
Where you find inspiration
Editing and revision techniques
Suggestions on how to teach poetry reading and writing
When you "came out" to your family as a poet
Favorite quotes

Email me your idea by Monday, March 28 and I will respond to you by Thursday, March 31. The short piece (1 - 5 paragraphs) would be due to me at least three days before the publication date. I will be posting Monday, Wednesday and Thursday throughout the month. Please include a brief bio in the third person, links to any relevant sites and, if possible, a related image.

I look forward to reading your words and sharing them with our readers. 

Friday, March 11, 2011

Poetry Reading at the Cornelia Street Cafe on Wed., March 23, 2011

I am looking forward to reading with an amazing group of poets at The Cornelia Street Cafe on Wednesday, March 23, at 6:00 PM. Thank you to Alissa Heyman and Hila Ratzabi from the Perfect Sense Reading Series for organizing the evening.


is proud to invite you to a poetry reading with



Where: Cornelia Street Café

When: Wednesday, March 23, 2011, 6pm



TIMOTHY DONNELLY is the author of Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit (Grove, 2003) and The Cloud Corporation (Wave, 2010). His poems have appeared in Harper's, The Iowa Review, The Nation, The New Republic, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. He teaches in Writing Program of Columbia University's School of the Arts and is a poetry editor for Boston Review. He lives in Brooklyn.

SHIRA DENTZ is the author of a book of poems, black seeds on a white dish (Shearsman Books), a chapbook, Leaf Weather (Tilt Press), and another full-length collection, door of thin skins (CavanKerry Press), that is forthcoming. Her poems have appeared widely in journals such as The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, Western Humanities Review, jubilat, and New American Writing, and have been featured on NPR, Poetry Daily, and Verse Daily. She is a recipient of an Academy of American Poets’ Prize, The Poetry Society of America’s Lyric Poem and Cecil Hemley Memorial Awards, Electronic Poetry Review’s Discovery Award, and Painted Bride Quarterly’s Poetry Prize. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she is currently Poetry Co-Editor of Quarterly West, finishing a PhD at the University of Utah, and a Fellow at the Tanner Center for the Humanities in Salt Lake City.

ELY SHIPLEY’s first book, Boy with Flowers, won the 2007 Barrow Street Press book prize judged by Carl Phillips, the 2009 Thom Gunn Award, and was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. His writing appears in the Western Humanities Review, Prairie Schooner, Diagram, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. He holds a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Baruch College, CUNY.

CHLOE YELENA MILLER’s poetry and essays have been published in Alimentum, The Cortland Review, Narrative, and other literary journals. Her poetry was a finalist for the Philip Levine Prize in Poetry and in Narrative’s First Annual Poetry Contest. Miller received an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College and was a resident at the Vermont Studio Center. Miller lives in Washington, D.C., teaches writing at George Mason University, Fairleigh Dickinson University, and privately.

You are welcome to RVSP for this reading on the Facebook Event page

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Online Grammar Exercises

I know, you think grammar is boring. When your teachers brought it up in class you wanted to snooze (or text?) Those commas are pesky and what are semi-colons, anyway?

It isn't terribly easy to correct your grammar if you make systematic errors. You can "read like an editor" and pay attention to the mechanics and punctuation of each sentence that you read. That gets old fast, though, right?

I often refer students to the website for Diana Hacker's book A Writer's Reference. There, you can not only learn about how to use words and punctuation properly, but also complete exercises that explain why your answers were correct (or not.) It is friendly and easy to use. (The site might ask you to log in. You can simply click "cancel" and continue on.)

What are your favorite sites to help with these issues?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Researching an Author Online: Junot Diaz

I recently took over teaching a literature class at George Mason University when a faculty member was no longer able to continue with the class. While I inherited a syllabus with a great list of books, I was generally unfamiliar with them. It didn’t seem fair to the students to change the syllabus a few weeks into the semester. This means that I must do extra research and preparation on the books and authors throughout the semester.

What more could a writer, reader and academic ask for in a job? It is the kind of task that we do on our own when we read. Over the next semester, I’ll share some of my favorite author and book internet resources with you as I research them.

The first book the class read is Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. This text, with many comic book, Dungeons and Dragons, gamer, Dominican slang and other references that I didn’t immediately recognize, was a bit of a challenge for me at the beginning. However, some aspects of the book were familiar: It was very New Jersey-specific (some jokes about the stink, but not only) and the tale was mainly about loss, relationships and the life of an immigrant family teetering between two cultures.

The more that I read the book and about it, my interest piqued in it’s construction of the narrative and character. Diaz uses many voices and references to create both an individual and community voice. While in the end it isn’t my favorite book or a book that I wish I had written myself, I do have great respect for it.

If you’re read the book or plan to read the book, you might find these web resources interesting:

Friday, March 4, 2011

(Upcoming D.C. Event) JHU's Conversations and Connections: Practical Advice on Writing

Will you be in Washington, D.C., on April 16th? Johns Hopkins University will be hosting Conversations and Connections: Practical Advice on Writing. The conference will include workshops, speed dating with editors and a keynote speech. Looks fantastic and I'm very sorry that I will have to miss it. I did want to share it with you, local readers. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Written Word, Yoga & Grief

I am preparing to travel to the second of three funerals in just three weeks.  There is only so much that the body and mind can handle. I am exhausted, grieving and overwhelmed with the work that piles up.

I look to words, written and spoken, for comfort. Today I am thinking about what the yoga instructor said to us in class yesterday: While your positions today might not be ideal, the body is rarely ideal. Listen to the body and respect it. Stay in the present.

Yes, I thought as my legs were tangled on the yoga mat, that sounds right. It is important to listen to the body. To be here. Today.

We communicate through our actions, touch and words. To me, the words are the most important part of the equation. We learn and clarify thoughts through the process of translating them into writing. We participate in a conversation beyond ourselves by writing, reading, learning and sharing, all the while being challenged by ourselves and others. 

Never is this writing process more clear than when we are grieving. Writing allows understanding and preservation. After a loss, we have a heightened desire to save and collect memories, voices, and other moments that might otherwise vanish. We do that through words.

Many of us turn towards literature when we need answers. It has the possibility of illuminating the humanity and truth within us. In the closing lines of an untitled poem by Gregory Orr, I recognize the sentiment and am comforted by the precision of the message:
     That, and the beloved’s clear instructions:
     Turn me into song; sing me awake.

The ending of this poem is affirming. In fact, it is exactly what I meant to say. Orr offers the best words with which to express my emotion. I want to take the memories of those lost and turn them into song. The song that emerges will not only birth from a rhythm, perhaps starting with the heart beat and breath, but also the words themselves. Especially in these periods of deep grief, we cannot stay silent or stop communicating with others.  

     (...) It's evident
     the art of losing's not too hard to master
     though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Those who were lost to us do not need to stay lost. We have the choice to keep them here, in the present, with our words. Other artists might find the same comfort and possibility in other art forms. Nothing may not be ideal, or physical, but we can hold on. Together.  

Let’s be present and together.

- Thinking of my great uncle, my grandmother-in-law and my dear friend’s mother

Inside Higher Ed: Should You Teach Online?

If you are considering teaching online, you might enjoy reading my article Should You Teach Online?, recently published by Inside Higher Ed. I've been primarily teaching online for the last three years and quite enjoy many aspects of it.

I'll let you know when the next article, about finding an online teaching position, is published.