Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Day of Silence: Relearning the lesson

Place your writing front and center

Sunday was a very productive writing day, even if it wasn’t 100% silent. I relearned lesson that bears regular relearning: Carve out time to write.

Of course, writing time isn’t just sitting with a drink poured for the muse. It means drafting, revising, submitting, reading and keeping everything organized (sober, of course. Or maybe with strong coffee.)

On Sunday, I woke up early, did some online teaching work, attended a nearby yoga class and then settled down to attend to the business of writing. By the early evening, I was so excited that my husband was returning home from China later that night that I couldn’t focus anymore. I had worked for about six hours, which is a good chunk of time immersed in my writing.  

We all have too much to do 24 hours a day. Many of us have jobs that stretch past the regular 9 – 5 schedule. My adult online students are most active before and after work, and on the weekends. Especially on the weekends and holidays. Knowing that, I can’t ignore it.

This teaching schedule offers me some flexibility during regular work hours. And with that flexibility requires focus to continue with the creative projects. Sometimes it is hard to remember that it is possible to make time because of all the other household duties and, of course, sometimes taking a rest. The good news is that all of these aspects – from resting to interacting with new people and challenging ourselves – feeds writing.

I learned this lesson about dedicating time for writing when I applied to graduate school, then in graduate school and later in every program or residency that I’ve attended since then. Working and social lives do get in the way, as the cliché goes, and we need to actively keep our writing lives active and prioritized. If I’m not attending a program, then I need to do what I can to remind myself periodically.

So while we don’t have to completely just shut up for a day (as the Black Eyed Peas sing), we must work to relearn this lesson. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Shhh: Quiet

It is possible to be quiet in our nation's capital.

I talk a lot. I'd like to break this habit by spending one full day being quiet to see what happens to my concentration and writing. 

Everyday, I talk to my husband and on the phone with my parents and friends. I talk to myself while I'm working on the computer. I talk to students from online and in-person classes, as well as private clients. 

Email might be considered a form of talking. If it is, then I'm a really chatterbox. Like all writing, email is a form of communication, but I don't think it "counts" the same way that speaking aloud to someone would "count" as talking since the response is (usually) delayed.

Does Facebook count? Since posts appear right after they are written, if someone responds, a live conversation can emerge since each speaker is at a computer/mobile device.

I'm giving myself a silent challenge this Sunday. I'm going stay silent for the entire day:
no phone calls
no Facebook
no talking to anyone

I think that also means not leaving the house, in order to truly stay not only silent, but also quiet. I will allow myself to answer emails (I'm sure there will be student emails to attend to) and occasionally singing along with my Pandora station. My hope is that I will be able to focus on some poetry writing and revision while also resting a bit.

My husband will be out of town and I let him know (warned him?) about this short-term experiment.

You have now been warned as well. I'll check back in on Wednesday, after the holiday weekend, to let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Social Networking: Pinterest

To avoid being left behind, I joined Pinterest. I’m also on Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and SheWrites.

I’m a little sea-sick from all of this scrolling. Am I keeping up with the times or scrambling to play with the cool kids?

About two years ago, I blogged about how Facebook could be useful (or not) for writers. I still think that Facebook is both a great way to connect professionally with other writers and that some really interesting conversations and information sharing happens there. Sure, there's lots of gossip and crap, but I’ve learned some useful things on Facebook and (mostly) enjoyed myself at the same time. Facebook provides an interactive space for users.

I haven’t found Pinterest to be as interactive. I’ve “pinned” some sites and articles and started to follow some friends, but, I’m not sure I really get it. 

The board categories, where users can organize the board topics, are pretty broad. So I suppose I shouldn’t have been disappointed not to see “writing” (to be fair, there is one called “Film, Music & Books”). The categories are a little light. Is this related to the gender trouble described recently in Salon?

While Pinterest could be good for artists, there have been copyright concerns. Mostly, though, I’ve found the site boring.

If you are enjoying Pinterest professionally or personally, I’d love to hear why. After all, I'd like to play, too. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Summer Writing Program or Residency? Share your thoughts about it here!

Ghost Ranch in New Mexico: 
Home to A Room of Her Own's Writing Retreat

Are you attending a summer writing program, festival or residency? I'd love for you to share your thoughts about your experience. Email me (chloemiller(at)gmail(dot)com) if you are interested in guest blogging this summer. Click for more details

Friday, May 18, 2012

Guest Blog Post @ Clear Sky Writing

Thank you to my friend and colleague Amy Bucklin at Clear Sky Writing for the invitation to guest blog. My post, What Poetry Can Teach You About Business Writing, starts:

     When I ask my college writing students about their best and worst writing experience, poetry is described like a villain.
     That is not what a teaching poet wants to hear, although a simile is always nice.

Continue reading the post here

There are connections across the writing genres, even non-literary ones. Most creative writers have day (or night) jobs that fund their creative writing time. Many business-oriented folks enjoy reading novels and other published genres, even if they don't write books themselves (and sometimes they do.) I recommend using these opportunities to improve skills across seemingly separate activities.

Clear Sky Writing can help you edit and proofread your business and creative writing projects. Click here for a full list of services they offer. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Summer Reading

Library of Congress

I have strict rules about my bookshelves. I won’t put books on the “regular” bookshelves unless I’ve read them (reference books don’t count.) I have a separate shelf (and piles) for books I haven’t read yet.

In an attempt to clean up (and make more room for new books), my husband and I recently put together three boxes (!) of boxes to bring to a used bookstore to sell. They were mostly books we’d read and knew we’d never read again or couldn’t bear to read.

I’m giving myself an ultimatum (rude, right?): I have to read the books on the “not-ready-yet-bookshelf” or sell/give them away. I haven’t given myself a deadline yet, though, which is probably a mistake.

War and Peace, a classic I’m ashamed to have never read, is on that shelf, as is the anthology Writing Ann Arbor, which I purchased at AWP before we moved to Ann Arbor in 2008. And there are others, none of which could be classified as “light beach reading.”

And still, I always want to buy more books. And take others out of the library.

Aside from the (re)reading for my summer classes, I’m hoping to make a dent on this shelf this summer. I’ve started with Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped in Eboli, a book I picked up in Florence before I left in 2003 for graduate school.

What will you be reading this summer?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Q: When is it ok to use the first person (“I”) in a formal, academic essay?

Hong Kong: When you write "I", who do you mean, exactly?

A: I've written about why to write in the third person and why to avoid using less confident, first-person phrases (for example: “I believe that”) to introduce your research and ideas.

With that in mind, if you are using your own personal experience as evidence for your thesis statement, you may describe that experience in the first person (it would be super awkward in the third person, right?)

However, the resulting analysis of how your experience supports the thesis should be in the third person. You can remember this because the analysis applies to more situations than just your own. Your situation was one of many examples, therefore the analysis should be in the third person.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Good Advice: Make A Plan

"If they don't have an answer for you, that means they don't have a plan and need one. Just do what you think is best. They'll be happy that you took care of it."

Here's to a confident, problem-solving-oriented summer!

I spend too much time worrying about what someone means/wants/suggests/doesn't say directly. I complained to a friend that I didn't know how to do something, in part because of a lack of direction. She offered, more or less, the advice above.

Her simple, to-the-point advice, drawn from her experience working in a fast-paced government position, is confident and energizing. There's no head-hanging worry involved. And so simple!

My spring semester online, for-credit classes have ended and phase two of the calendar year has begun: summer semester classes and summer writing projects. It is definitely the time of year for a tweaked plan and optimistic outlook in order to not only get everything done, but to enjoy the projects while completing them successfully.

Can you turn complaints about your writing (not enough time, too many rejection letters, comma trouble, etc.) in a problem-solving oriented direction?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Write in the Third Person (instead of "I," "we," "us," or "you")

It is the end of the academic semester and there is a rush of final papers to write and submit. You should be highlighting your hard work in your papers instead of distracting the reader with less precise writing.

One way to show your confidence and knowledge is to write your formal, academic papers in the third person. Instead of addressing the reader in a second person (“you”) or first person singular (“I”) or plural (“we” or “us”) address, write in the third person. This gives you the opportunity to be as specific as possible when you are writing.

For example, instead of writing, “We don’t agree with X,” write something that better describes who “we” are and why that group does not agree with something. You might start with “readers,” but then work to better define a particular group of readers. What kinds of readers? Does their gender, age, nationality, ethnicity, religion, etc., matter? Work to be as specific as possible.

When I read a formal, academic paper that addresses me directly through the use of second person (“you”), I become a defensive reader. I immediately start to think about reasons why I do not agree with what the author states that I do or think. As I wrote above, it is more specific to say exactly who you mean, instead of relying on only a certain group of people to read your essay and agree with you. Ideally, your work should stand on its own outside of class.

Yes, I address my blog readers in the second person and use “you.” Why? Because my readership, in this context, is limited because of the subject matter. Readers are interested in strengthening their writing skills and therefore I am addressing them (that is to say, you) directly. If I were writing something more formal, say for a class or a peer reviewed journal, I would be more specific in my address.

For more, you might be interested a recent post about how to construct a strong thesis statement and why to avoid using less confident, first-person phrases such as “I believe that” to introduce your research and ideas. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Stop Writing Formal Academic Essays as your Personal Feelings (or beliefs or thoughts or opinions)

I would like to ban these, and similar, phrases from formal academic essays:

I feel like ... 
I believe that …
I think that …
It is my personal opinion that …

If you are a student, you are asked to write an essay with a persuasive argument (that is to say, a thesis). When you write an academic paper, you aren’t exactly presenting your "feelings" (or your “beliefs” or “thoughts” or "opinions"), are you? Instead, you are doing much more that that in your carefully researched, drafted and redrafted essay: You are presenting supported analysis based on outside evidence. You’ve worked hard and should be proud of that. Your language should reflect your knowledge and confidence.

The reader will be more convinced of your ideas if they are presented as supported claims instead of personal opinions. If you are only writing about your personal opinion, how do readers know that the same ideas pertain to them, too? Ultimately, they might respond to your less-confident language with a harsh, “so what?”

You should use strong, convincing language to show that you have supported your analysis. Then, the reader will believe you and take you more seriously. The best way to do is is by writing in the third person.

Sure, if you are writing something difficult to a friend, you might mediate the challenging advice by writing, “I think that perhaps you should call your friend and apologize. I believe this is what you are already suggesting you should do.” You don’t want to say directly, “Call your friend and apologize because you what you did was wrong.” You know your audience (in this case, your friend) and want to be as friendly, caring and gentle as possible in your vocabulary choices, tone and presentation.

In both cases – talking to a friend and writing an academic essay – how you present your ideas to a particular audience will impact how it is received.

In a formal, academic essay, you are not writing about something personal. You are using your hard-earned analysis skills to offer insightful perspective on something you’ve read. (Yes, I'm repeating myself, but this is important and bears repeating.) Be confident in your work and stand behind it. The readers will stand behind you when you do. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Writing a Strong Thesis Statement

If you are writing a paper for a class (any class), your instructor has probably said that your paper should be organized around a central idea. That means you need a thesis.

Your thesis states what your paper is trying to prove. What do you want the reader to know, change or do based on the information that you’ve researched and analyzed? What conclusion have you thoughtfully drawn from the knowledge you’ve gained?

Writing a strong thesis can be daunting, but it doesn't have to be. Remember these elements of a strong thesis statement:

Your thesis is the argument that focuses your paper.

It should be a single sentence for a shorter paper (up to 15 pages or so.)

It should be written in the third person. (For example, instead of writing, “It is my opinion that” or “I feel that”, jump directly into the argument. Since you are supporting your claim with outside evidence, it is more than simply a personal opinion. Avoid addressing the reader in the first (we/us) person or second (you) person and state exactly who you mean.)

The thesis statement should not be a question. A research question might lead you to a thesis, but the thesis is not the same as the research question.

Ways to improve your thesis:

You might test that you've written an argument, instead of a statement, by writing the opposing thesis (if you can't argue against it, you haven't formed an argument yet.)

To push your thesis further, ask yourself, "so what?" I know, that sounds rude, but trust me, it works. Remember that your thesis does more than state a problem. You are, instead, posing an argument; therefore, ask yourself what should be changed or done based on the problem you've identified.

What thesis writing tips do you have?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Guest Blog:Your Family Stories by Ellen Cassedy

Thank you to Ellen Cassedy who reminds us to use fiction craft elements to write successful creative non-fiction.

Ellen Cassedy is the author of  We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (University of Nebraska Press), in which her personal journey to connect with her Jewish forebears expands into a larger quest, into how people in Lithuania – Jews and non-Jews alike – are engaging with their Nazi and Soviet past in order to move forward into the future. Ellen’s award-winning play, Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn, celebrates the spare beauty of a small but important life. Based on the diary of an actual elderly woman, it was adapted into a short film that qualified for an Academy Award nomination. Ellen’s Yiddish translations appear in Pakn Treger, the magazine of the National Yiddish Book Center and in Beautiful as the Moon, Radiant as the Stars: Jewish Women in Yiddish Stories (Warner Books). She is currently at work translating fiction by Blume Lempel.

Your Family Stories

This year’s Associated Writing Programs conference in Chicago was jammed with more than 10,000 participants.  The panel I was on, called “Your Family Stories,” drew an overflow crowd.  

In my presentation, I said that although memoirs and works of fiction are two different animals, we memoir writers need to make use of fiction techniques – including these three:

1) Scenes

Just like a work of fiction or a play, a memoir needs vivid scenes – places where the narrative slows down and draws the reader in close – close enough to see, hear, smell, and taste whatever there is to soak up.

When I was gathering material for We Are Here, I kept a diary – nine spiral notebooks – and took pictures with my camera.  Later, at my desk, when I was conjuring up, say, the old Lithuanian man who wanted to speak to a Jew before he died, I could recall his green cap, his aluminum cane, and the blood-red gladioli that framing the door of his cottage in the town of my ancestors.  

2) Characters

A memoir needs characters, too.  And in the case of a first-person narrative, that means creating yourself as a character.  Ellen Cassedy, the reader’s trusty guide, has to be as vivid as Uncle Will with his grizzled chin and his secret past, or Ruta, the passionate young woman driving a Holocaust exhibit around Lithuania in her pickup truck.

3) Suspense  

In my first draft, I revealed Uncle Will’s fearsome secret on page 3.  Now I make the reader wait till page 51 for even the first clues.

What makes you care about someone else’s family story?