Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Guest Blog Post: Dylan Cecchini on the Philip Levine Symposium at Drew University

Today’s guest blog, by Dylan Cecchini, is about the recent Philip Levine symposium at Drew University. I was happy to meet him this January in a poetry writing workshop led by Jane Hirshfield in Key West

Dylan Cecchini is a student in the School of Arts and Sciences undergraduate program at Rutgers University. A lover of bad Classic Rock and the Jersey Shore he calls home, Dylan maintains a love for the worlds within literature, especially poetry, in the words of Jane Hirshfield, his "one love devoid of hands, feet, and head." 
            Last Saturday night poet Edward Hirsch read with his long-time friend, Philip Levine in the chapel at Drew University. Before Hirsch read, in a moving introduction to his own work, he shared with the crowded devotees of Levine's work his desire to return to a sort of innocence towards poetry, his first-love. Indeed, the first poem Hirsch read from in his most recent collection, The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems, was, in his own words, a prayer to poetry itself. In the poem, while Hirsch described his own inevitable clumsiness in his "life in poetry," (a life, which, Hirsch chiefly credits friends Philip Levine and Gerald Stern for helping to create) towards the end of the poem Hirsch returned to a familiar memory of being an adolescent boy engrossed in his stacks of poems, moving between two tables to write or read.
            I couldn't help smiling throughout Hirsch's reading. I felt a kinship with the great poet and poetry critic, a kinship based solely on my own feelings associated with my accidental discovery of poetry; more than any other emotion, the liberation I felt in finding what seemed to be a fundamentally human way of expression I had somehow passed over through childhood and adolescence.
            I was first introduced to Philip Levine's work in an introductory creative writing class at Rutgers University with Marcus Jackson, a forthcoming young poet who had been Levine's student at the NYU M.F.A. program. Jackson was also a nearly sold-out evangelist of everything Levine. In the first weeks of class, as we poured over Levine's narrative poems, breaking down literally every line, I regret to admit while I understood the value of reading Levine's poetry— a meticulously crafted, controlled free verse with damn near perfect line breaks— beyond our close-knit of the aspiring I never bought one book by the Elder, great Shaman. (Coleman Barks, from his poem, "Winter Skies")
            In a symposium dedicated to Levine's life and work, Drew University's M.F.A. director and poet-in-residence Anne Marie Macari read briefly from "The Simple Truth," a Levine poem and the title of the collection, which won the 1995 Pulitzer. Up until this point, the talk had been good, centering on Levine's ability to take concepts like the imagination down to terrifying depths which are usually not associated with the elevation most poets will give to this uniquely human faculty. Then Macari read. One line. One line, and the inexplicable turned my right ear, and I heard. "I bought a dollar and half's worth of small red potatoes…" Macari continued, with Levine's gentle, but definitive invitation, "Can you taste/what I'm saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch/of simple salt, /the wealth of melting butter…"
            Yes. I had known these lines. I had known the wealth of melting butter, the simple graces, which in my own life were becoming powerful truths to hold fast unto. Levine had me now. Then Macari lowered the axe.
            "It is obvious, /it stays in the back of your throat like a truth/you never uttered because the time was always wrong, /it stays there for the rest of your life, /unspoken, /made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt, /in a form we have words for, and you live on it."
            I walked away from the symposium with a cache of notes on Levine's relation to the Filipino-American poetic tradition in the 20th century, Levine's creation of a voice for his truth, and Levine's move from rage in his early career into celebration. I haven't looked back on these notes. I'm wondering, instead, about the obvious truth at the back of my throat, formless— about how I, too, will live on it.  

Click for a complete listing of the MFA readings at Drew University.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Gotham Writers' One Day Intensive Workshop: Character Development

Back in March, I took a one day Gotham Writers’ Workshop, Character Development, with screenwriter Michael Eldridge. I loved it and it continues to continues to influence my writing. 

Admittedly, I took the class on a bit of a whim. (The incentive was a Groupon Coupon, which made the course quite inexpensive.) I’ve heard Gotham Writers’ Workshops described, by folks who haven’t attended their courses, as “commercial” and “not for the serious writer.” However, after seeing their listings in yellow boxes all over New York City, I’d always been curious about them.

And I’m glad I was. The instructor was energetic, honest, and organized. Our small group was literally together all day, which is a challenge for any instructor. Everyone stayed focused, asked questions and participated. We dedicated some time to writing during the class. Not everything I wrote will become a final piece, but I definitely generated some useful first drafts for longer pieces.

As a poet, this was my first course taught by a screenwriter. I always tell my students to take chances with their writing; this course was a great way to consider the characters in my (often) narrative poetry and my creative nonfiction essays. I tend to shy away from reading plays or scripts and it makes sense to vary my reading more.

We were given an information packet which the instructor swiftly and knowledgeably worked through. There is clearly a syllabus and system provided by Gotham, but Michael offered his own spin and personal experiences. The small group of students had a variety of writing experience, but the instructor kept us all on the same page with clear explanation and focused feedback on our work.

Have you taken a writing class with Gotham Writers’? How did you like it?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Tips on Taking the AP English Language Exam

After scoring 1,190 AP English Language essays this month, I thought I’d share a few tips for students.

To start, familiarize yourself with the types of questions the exam asks and the scoring guide, just like you would for a class assignment (that is, when you would re-read the question and look at the teacher’s rubric to see what she expects.) Here you can read some past sample essays and the scoring guides.

The main lesson I learned after scoring over 1,000 essays? Good writing is good writing, for an AP exam, college course or professional assignment. If you have strong reading and analytical skills and then share them in a strong essay, you’ll do fine.

I imagine this approach sounds simplistic. You really can do well: If you practice throughout the year – in every class, not just your AP Language class – and keep a few hints in mind. It will serve you well, academically, professionally and personally, to be a strong, analytical reader. Who doesn’t want to communicate well?

Hints for taking the AP English Language Exam:

It sounds obvious, but write neatly. As a college writing professor who primarily grades online, I was not used to reading student handwriting. I should be focusing on your ideas, not trying to discern the words you wrote. You don’t want the reader to have to guess… and guess wrong.

Read the passage carefully. The students who did the best responded intelligently to the prompt and understood the overall meaning, as well as how it was constructed. We read it carefully and you can’t fool us by writing about something else.

Even though these are timed exams, follow the suggestion and take some time to plan out your response. Yes, we are reading the exams with the knowledge that you didn’t have time to revise (or a word processing program to help you to re-order your ideas or return to them), but a few minutes planning will help to ensure that you jump right into your answer.

Since it is a timed response, don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on an extended introduction or background. Jump directly into your thesis and your analysis of the passage.

Organize your work. It is a sign of a strong writer to include a thesis and clear topic sentences. This makes it easier for us to read and shows that you know what you’re doing. Don’t forget: A topic sentence supports the thesis while stating that paragraph’s main argument. Therefore, it makes sense that a quote will probably have a hard time working as a topic sentence.

Speaking of quotes, don’t over quote in your paper. Yes, do ground your arguments in the text, but if you spend your entire time re-writing the prompt that you have in front of you, there’s no evidence of how smart you really are.

Don’t make things up.

You can write us notes (or draw us pictures), but, we won’t consider them in the grade. We are scoring your essay, not your ability to write a note.

Of course, including cash in your exam booklet doesn’t work. Neither does a threat. 

You are welcome to cross things out (a simple line will do – no need to spend a lot of time making sure we can’t read your errors. We skip right over the crossed out sections.) You are also welcome to use arrows and re-direct us to other places in the booklet. It is a timed test with a surprise question; we understand.

We know what the rhetorical tools are and we want to know that you do, too. If you simply list them, we won’t know that you understand the meaning. Show what you see in the essay and then analyze it. Explain how the tool works, where and why. Here’s a great list of rhetorical devices and their definitions.

To push your writing to the next level, work to avoid clichés. If you do use a cliché, like “pulling on the heartstrings,” do more than just changing the verb (like “tugging” or “plucking.”) What could you do to come up with something more original?

Are you looking for extra help? As a private writing coach, I would be happy to help you to start preparing early over the summer or over the year. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Scoring AP English Language Exams

I am back home after scoring 1,190 AP English Language exams over seven days in Louisville, Kentucky. There were about two thousand high school and college instructors gathered together to score the AP English Language and Literature exams. We worked everyday from 8 AM until 5 PM to score the papers. It seemed that many folks scored many more exams than I did.

Yes, I’m still a bit bleary eyed.

How the scoring works: Each reader scores one question. I was placed on question number two, which asks students to analyze the rhetoric devices used to craft a passage. The question was very similar to what I teach in college composition writing courses.

I’m sure that students who will be taking AP Exam next year are interested in what they can do to receive the highest grade possible. Stay tuned for Friday’s post for some tips.

If you are a college or high school instructor interested in scoring ETS exams onsite or in-person, click here.

If you are a high school teacher who prepares students for the AP exams, you might be interested in these teaching guides.

Here are some tips for your first time scoring AP exams in Louisville, KY:

When ETS suggests that you bring a sweater, they are serious. It is cold in that room.

Arrive well rested. It takes a lot of energy to grade and focus for eight hours a day.

You are given a schedule that includes grading from 8 AM until 5 PM, a morning and afternoon break (with snacks) and in-between stretch breaks. Be sure to move around in your chair, walk during the breaks and even stand up to grade for a while. If not, you might start feeling older than you are. There was a yoga teacher/AP scorer who regularly offers classes, so you might want to bring a mat. There are also gyms in the hotels.

There’s food everywhere. That sounds silly, but I wasn’t prepared to see so many mounds of candy and snacks. (It reminded me of my first on-campus job at Smith College in a cafeteria kitchen. That year, I wasn’t hungry after seeing food in such quantities.) The meals that were provided (all but dinner two "dine-out nights") were not spectacular (I ate out a lot), but I heard that it had been better in the past.

I was a bit intimidated to face so many hours of grading. It helped that I knew a few folks who I knew would be there, including my roommate. I found that everyone was quite friendly and made some new friends.

As you’d imagine for such a large group, readers were placed at a number of hotels. I was at the Galt House which had a lovely skyway between two towers that overlooked the Ohio River. I heard good things about the restaurant on the top floor with even better views and a rotating dining section. I didn’t go to the pool, but it was nice to have that as an option. They advertise free wireless throughout the hotel, but the signal was very weak. (This proved to be difficult for many, including me.)

There’s a lot to see in Louisville after scoring. I spent some time after I arrived walking around and admiring the facades of some older buildings. Other highlights: a poetry and short story reading at Carmichael’s bookstore, walking along the Ohio River, eating food from the smokehouse at Doc Crows, and seeing a minor league baseball game.

There are chances to see some art while you’re in town. Apparently ETS always organizes for the museums, which usually close at 5 pm, to stay open late one night. It seems that the grading often finish a little earlier on Friday, too.

I did see Glassworks, which was smaller than I’d expected. I tried to go to the Museum of Art and Craft, but, contrary to announcements, it was closed.  The gift shop had some locally made artisan gifts. I’d intended to go to the Muhammed Ali Center, but I was frankly simply too sleepy on Friday. (Perhaps if my US Airways flight hadn’t been cancelled, and then poorly rebooked, on the way there, I’d have had more time to see things.)

What other tips would seasoned AP scorers suggest?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Summer Reading

What’s on your list this summer? I hope you’ll share in the Comments section below.

I’m looking forward to catching up on literary journals and reading some books about China to prepare for our trip next winter.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Writing Prompt: Ekphrastic Poetry

Ekphrastic poetry is about or in response to art. You can read more about it and some examples here on

For today’s prompt, go to a museum (or an artist's website, a museum website, a library, etc.) and choose an image that moves you. It can be any kind of art – a painting, photograph, sculpture, etc. Look at closely for at least five full minutes. (If you need to, set a timer.) Notice the colors, the characters, setting, tone, texture, etc. Just look at it and take in the details.

Then, write. Write for five to ten minutes. You might find that you write directly about the piece or perhaps, if you chose a painting, imagine the scene before or after the painting. You might consider the other visitors looking at the piece now or when it was first created. You might find that something in the piece provides an image or metaphor or sensory memory that brings you to a completely different idea. Whatever happens is fine.

After you brainstorm for a period, re-read what you wrote. Underline the main ideas and perhaps use them as the basis for a more polished piece that you will continue working on.

Would you share your writing or process below?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Facebook Group: Conversation, Giveaways, Sales & More

Are you a fan of my Chloe Yelena Miller, Writing Coach Facebook page yet?

If you are, then you know that I post writing-related links, host conversations about writing, announce sales, and more on the Facebook group page.

Every time we reach a multiple of 100 fans, I promise to give away one free hour of writing coaching to a randomly selected fan.

I hope to see you there!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Writing Prompt: Handwrite on Paper

Most of us are used to typing on the computer. We write (type) with both hands and look up at the screen to see what we’ve typed. Our relationship to the word is different than if we used one hand to hold a pen and perhaps one to hold the paper or notebook in place. That is, if we heard the scratching of our pen and had to physically move across the paper and back again.

If we return to writing by hand, at least now and again, we will see our words differently. We might even cross something out instead of deleting something forever in a word processing document.

For today's writing prompt, handwrite something. You might write a letter to a loved one or you might continue to work on a section of that draft that you’ve been editing. Whatever it is, spend at least ten minutes looking down at your work in natural (or electric) light. Don’t look at your computer screen or phone screen to research anything. (Certainly don’t glance at your email, FB, or anything else.) Don’t worry about spelling or grammar. Just write and see what happens.

After ten minutes or so have passed, read over what you wrote. You might underline key ideas. You might re-write what you wrote by hand to edit or return to old habits and type your work into the computer. That’s fine. I’m not against using the computer (clearly), but I do believe in changing up the creative process now and again. You never know what might happen.

Or maybe, now that you’ve done the prompt, you do know what happened. Will you share your results or process below?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Party Decides: Winner Announced!

Thanks to everyone who participated in the contest to win a copy of The Party Decides. What great answers about the book's argument and the upcoming Republican nomination in the Comments section!

And the winner is the owner of this email address: marchonmil(at)hotmail(dot)com. To the winner: Please email me (chloemiller(at)gmail(dot)com) your address at your earliest convenience and I'll send you a copy of the book.

If you didn't win or have a chance to participate, I hope you'll consider buying a copy

Monday, June 6, 2011

Enter to Win a Signed Copy of The Party Decides

The infamous “they” say it is better to give than to receive. Today, my birthday, I’d like to give away a signed copy of The Party Decides.

The book is about how U.S. political parties choose their presidential nominees. It argues that party leaders winnow the choices that are presented to voters. In particular, they weed out anyone who is too extreme or factional to win, as well as anyone who is not loyal enough to the party to be worth electing.

To enter to win the book, answer one of the questions below in the Comments section by Wednesday, June 8th at noon. The winner will be announced later that day.

1. What do you think of the book’s argument?

2. Who do you think is going to win the 2012 Republican nomination, and if you like, why?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Guest Interview with Hans Noel: Collaborating on a Writing Project

I recently started to collaborate on writing an article with a colleague. Never having co-written an academic article before, I asked my husband, Hans Noel, for some tips. He is a political scientist who co-authored the book, The Party Decides. While the disciplines are different, the approaches are similar.  

Thanks, Hans!

Your recent book, The Party Decides, is a co-authored book. Co-authoring isn't easy. How did you and the other three authors share the research, writing and revisions?

The book began as a paper. For the paper, most of the division of labor was in the research. We had to collect data, analyze it, and so forth. So we divided the labor over those tasks. The writing fell mostly to just two of us on the initial paper, but that doesn't reflect the division of labor on the project as a whole.

As we moved forward, the paper grew into the book, and something similar happened there. Starting with the outline, we sent around a series of group e-mails with how we wanted to organize the book. That become more and more detailed, and then we shifted to drafts. Again, we had one lead writer, but there were contributions by everyone. For example, I drafted the technical appendices, since I was closest to the statistical work. I also wrote several other sections, including one chapter that I rewrote extensively from the initial draft, again because I was closest to the material. That's generally the rule in these things: Whoever knows it best does it. But we also shared responsibility for a lot. In that way, we were essentially doing peer review (though not blind) from the beginning.

The main thing for the writing itself was in revisions. We sent the manuscript around by e-mail. This was before Google Docs had really taken off. It still didn't have a good "track changes" feature, and we weren't all familiar with it. Instead, we sent it in sequence, from one person to the next. Each of us could make changes, using Microsoft Word's "track changes" feature. We could then discuss the changes by e-mail as it went around. The main thing about writing is revisions anyway, so we just did the revisions as a collective.

Someone had to lay down the initial framework, but by the end, it might be hard to tell where a particular phrase came from. At the same time, we wanted the piece to have a clear voice. So one person continued to take the lead on most drafts.

Since then, I have collaborated using Google Docs, and similar sites. It works pretty well, in that more than one person can be working on it at the same time. Google has only recently developed a revision history interface that makes it easier to track that, if it's important to a project. For only two authors, this might be less important. I've worked on some co-authored work where we've actually both been writing on the same file at the same time.

In some cases, one person does almost all the initial drafting. Co-authoring academic papers often doesn't mean each author _wrote_ the piece. The research itself might involve many people, and the write-up, while important, is not the most important part. Usually I have been pretty involved in the writing, but that doesn't have to be the case for the co-author to be central to the project.

What went particularly well in the writing of the book?

We worked on the project for longer than I think any of us wanted to. But in the end, I think it really evolved to a very good place. We ended up with a system of "internal" peer review.

Social science is subject to peer review, and so most work usually is the result of a back-and-forth with reviewers and writers. This is also time-consuming, but important to make the final product better. And yet, sometimes peer review can take a project in an odd direction, because the reviewer isn't involved enough to know what's possible and what's not. Getting an outside perspective is important, and getting outside approval is critical for research integrity. But sometimes satisfying reviewers can make the project worse.

The "internal" peer review was different. It couldn't take the place of external review, of course, but when one of us offered an idea or interpretation that didn't satisfy someone else, it would get challenged. Unlike with real peer review, we could argue it out. There were a lot of e-mails back and forth on this, and it was time consuming. In the end, what we wrote had been honed by that process. I can imagine situations in which this wouldn't work, where you had one dominant personality or, worse, two dominant but stubborn personalities. For this mix, that wasn't a problem.

There is some research that suggests that co-authored work is better than single-authored work, and I think this is part of it. There is, of course, the division of labor and the joining of different skill-sets. There is also just the instant feedback and collaboration. Two heads are not only better than one, if you put them together, they are better than two working separately.

What advice would you offer to writers considering embarking on a co-authored project?

Obviously, you don't want to collaborate with someone you don't get along with. You will have to make compromises about some things, but the more you have to sacrifice, the harder it is to agree on a final product. I've been lucky, in that generally I'm on the same page with my co-authors, but we have had serious disagreements. Of course, you need to respect each other and all want to work toward the end.

Similarly, you have to be committed to the same basic message. With research, sometimes you don't know what you are going to find out until you've done the analysis, but you do go into it with certain understandings of what different results will mean. In the end, everyone's name is on a single product, and no one will really know who was responsible for which part. So you have to be able to agree. If you don't all accept the basic argument you are making, then you can't make the argument. You might not be able to make any argument. If you come from too divergent of different perspectives, that may not happen.

Check-in on Monday for details on how to win a copy of The Party Decides.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Flashback: Working on the High School Newspaper

As a 30-something adult, it seems a little odd to blog about high school. Earlier this year, I was asked by Outreach, Newark Academy’s alumni magazine, about my experience as editor-in-chief of the high school newspaper, The Minuteman. (The article starts on page 17.)

Childhood experiences often seem simultaneously near and far. The email request, from a current editor of the newspaper, made those days seem near again. I was asked about how the experience shaped who I am today. What a doozy of a question! (Would I have said “doozy” in high school?)

I’m not sure what motivated me to start working on the newspaper. I knew I should be “involved” in order to have something to list on my college application (such a weak-hearted reason, no?) I also knew that I did not want to play sports in college. There weren’t any college-application-list-worthy positions in the art room, and so I signed up for the newspaper.

At that point, I had been writing poems and keeping a journal for a few years. I was an avid reader of young adult and adult novels – on my own. So the newspaper seemed like a reasonable choice. I imagined spending time alone drafting articles and playing with words.

I was a shy kid, though, so once as the years passed and I found myself applying to be an editor and then the editor-in-chief, even I was surprised. I was in the role of organizing meetings, making announcements at the daily, school-wide Morning Meeting (what terror!), and interviewing people for articles which would be published. I was definitely out of my comfort zone.

It was exhilarating, terrifying and stressful at times. Sometimes it was even boring. I made friends with other students who I probably wouldn’t have gotten to know otherwise, which was generally great. There was some “drama,” as they say now, but what group of people, let alone high schoolers, can get away without it? Mostly, it was just something I did and part of my maturing identity.

The startling thing, besides my having to be more social and public than came naturally to this only child, was that I was one of the few female editors. By senior year, I was the editor-in-chief and almost all of the editors were male. Apparently earlier (all-male) staffs would have sleep-overs to work on the newspaper. There was a certain friendship and rhythm that I was left out of and, because of my gender, caused other people to change.

I learned a lot about myself, leadership, teamwork and writing. I also learned that I wanted to go to Smith College and work closely with female leaders. Most of all, I knew that I wanted to write.

Deadlines, fact checking and writing style became considerations for my work and the work I edited. This was a big change from the random lines of sentimental poetry I jotted down in my journal. I also started to understand the importance of audience. Readers – a group we weren’t hand-picking – were picking up the newspaper and reacting. There was a certain power rush with that knowledge, but also moral and ethical responsibilities.

Writing is a craft that requires practice, like speaking a second language or playing an instrument. Thinking back on my beginnings reminds me of the importance of these basic skills and considerations that require attention everyday. As I publish more widely, the moral and ethical responsibilities loom large.

I’m proud of the work I did, even if also cringe at some embarrassing memories. The entire experience encourages me to keep working diligently on my writing. If nothing else, I’d like to make that little girl inside of me proud. I didn’t really think I’d be a newspaper reporter. I had short, unpaid internships at TIME Magazine and the New Yorker, and they didn’t seem quite right for me. But I dedicated myself to writing early and it has served me well.

My message to those of you starting high school and thinking ahead to college: Choose a variety of activities and see what fits. When something does fit, as surprising as it might be, meet the challenge and throw your heart into it. Enjoy what you learn and who you become.  You will appreciate being sincerely interested in something, rather than doing it just “to get into college.” You’ll excel and that honesty, to yourself and the application, will show.

Are you applying to college, graduate school or a certificate program? I am available to help you work on your personal essay.