Thursday, June 28, 2012

"I Remember" in Memoir Writing

A student asked about her repeated use of the phrase, “I remember,” in her memoir. I suggested that she could eliminate the phrase instead of using it as an introduction to an experience or thought.

"I remember" is a lot like using “I believe” or “I feel that” in formal, academic essays. As you write, trust the reader to understand that you are presenting your own memories. After all, that’s an important part of what a memoir is: a collection of memories unified by a theme or event and written using literary techniques.

If you are contrasting your remembrance with someone else’s, then you might want to qualify your thoughts with the phrase, “I remember.” For example, “I remember that we all went to the wedding, but my sister remembers staying home.”

What do you think? Is "I remember" a helpful, clarifying phrase or a repetitive introduction to an obvious memory?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

October 2012: Dodge Poetry Festival

Dodge Poetry Festival Main Stage Evening Readings

Eek! I am already excited about this autumn’s Dodge Poetry Festival.

The largest poetry event in North America, the festival will run Thursday October 11 through Sunday October 14th, 2012 in Newark, New Jersey. Tickets are on sale

I'm planning on being there Friday - Sunday. I look forward to seeing you there!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Nouns: Aim for precision, clarity & specificity

Instead of having your character eat "dessert," name the dessert 
to offer cultural, geographical or other details to the reader. 

Your writing needs these three characteristics:

While your verbs lend muscle to actions, and the narrative arc slides the plot along, your nouns should offer crisp description.

Yes, I said nouns, not adjectives or adverbs. You can use adjectives and adverbs, but these words should be useful accessories to already informative nouns. For example, if you were to mention the lunch that a narrator was eating, you could add on an adjective (big, small, light, etc.) but if you start with a better word than the generic lunch, you could describe the exact dish: pesto pasta, BBQ ribs, supermarket sushi, etc. Each draws a very different picture. (Yes, I love food.)

Your goal is to name objects in order to give the reader as many details as possible. Of course, you don’t want to go overboard and have pages and pages of unnecessary description.  (See how every rule has some flexibility?) Instead, if you are going to mention something, why not use that space for a description that gives the reader as much information as possible?

Choose your nouns wisely. We’ve all read papers whose vocabulary choices show that the reader has used big words, but doesn’t understand what they mean. The thesaurus can be a helpful tool, but not if you simply drop in random, big words into sentences.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Muse: External inspiration or your own mind?

Constantin Brancusi’s marble Sleeping Muse I, 1909-10

While I don’t believe in the idea of a muse, I could believe in Constantin Brancusi’s sculpted Sleeping Muse. The perfect ovals repeated in the overall shape and the face are so beautifully rhythmic and quieting at once. Seeing – and walking around – artwork like this inspires me to write and make new connections between ideas.

Waiting for a muse, an offering from beyond yourself, isn't the best approach to creating. Our art, in my case writing, is born from knowledge, creativity, environment, and everything else that we’ve experienced or hope to experience in our lives. It is amazing that our mind can hold so much information, draw new connections and create something new.

And so, I offer you Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse today as inspiration. Be open to experiences, ideas and emotions in order to be your own muse.  

Monday, June 18, 2012

Strong Verbs: Hefty, Hefty, Hefty!

Remember the old Hefty commercials?
Don't let your verbs be wimpy, wimpy, wimpy

Do you need more muscle in your writing? Weak - wimpy, wimpy, wimpy - verbs can't sustain your ideas.

A good editing technique is to read through your writing and underline each verb, including helping verbs. The strongest verbs are those that offer the most information; the weakest verbs offer the least. A new verb or a shift in tense might be the edit you need to tighten your writing. Often, any form of the verb to be can be strengthened.

For example, if I write, "She is in the store," there's very little the reader learns about this woman in the store, except her location. This is an example of the verb to be doing very little. What can a stronger verb offer? What happens if you swap out "is" with "romps" or "searches" or "hides" or ... something else? Suddenly the character is animated and the reader has learned more in short sentence. And that's your goal as a writer: to offer as much information in concise sentences. That's not to say that you can't vary the rhythm of your writing and use longer sentences. Prose should borrow a lesson from poetry and the writing should be as concise and precise as possible, even in longer sentences. Each word should offer the reader something new.

Save to be for those times when you declare something about the state of being. If you do, then the verb will stand out.

Friday, June 15, 2012

MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses

I'm very curious about MOOCs (massive open online courses,) and not just because their acronym still cracks me up. MOOCs allow Internet users to study a subject asynchronously (like an independent study) through lectures, exercises and, the sites tout, a community of learners. Websites offering these courses are growing, as are their course lists. There have been countless articles written about MOOCs' merits, possibilities and relationships to costly, for-credit programs. Just this morning, Inside Higher Ed explored how for-credit, Prior Learning assessment courses might rely on non-credit MOOCs.

Have you ever taken one of these courses? I'm hoping to try one when (if?) my schedule opens up a bit. Here are a few of the programs getting the most hype since they are connected to prestigious universities:

Coursera (Princeton, Stanford, Michigan and Penn)

edX (MIT, Harvard)

OLI (Carnegie Mellon)

As an online instructor, I'd like to learn more about these courses. As an author writing a book about how to be an online student, I'm interested in seeing what kinds of technology these courses use and what the interactive expectations, if any, there are/can be.

I am often asked if I think these courses will put the accredited universities out of business. My answer is always, "no." There have always been books, videos, podcasts and other resources available for students to study, more or less, independently. I remember a professor in graduate school saying that you can learn everything you need to know from books and independent research, but it is more efficient to go through a recognized program with dedicated instructors and a community of learners dedicated to the same subject. I agree.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Narrative Arc

Even if you have the most beautiful description and sentiment in your writing, it will be hard to keep your reader's attention without conflict and resolution (externally or internally.)

Like novelists and short story authors, memoirists and essayists need to keep the narrative arc in mind. Your character(s), which might include yourself, must face opposition and then come to some kind of resolution. This can happen in one short piece or a full-length memoir. If you are writing a book-length manuscript, there is probably one over-arching conflict and a number of smaller ones throughout.

Scott Francis defines narrative arc in Writer’s Digest:

The idea here is that you will narrate how the goals of characters and real-life people are met with opposition, either situational or from others, raising the stakes for the subject of the piece or the protagonist. This is the upward climbing incline of the arc. The struggle builds to the high point—the top of the hill/arc/bell curve—which goes on for a not insignificant duration. The high point at which the opposing forces meet in the greatest intensity results in a resolution. This resolution allows the tension to begin to subside. The relaxation of the struggle then permits the downward slope of the arc to start.

You can see a very clear plot diagram here with each writing marked: exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. Here's an even simpler one.  

How do you plan for the narrative arc as you are writing? 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Advice For Every Age: Graduation Speeches

Jane Lynch's graduation speech at Smith College

Spring is the season of graduation and graduation speeches. And how things have changed since I graduated from Smith College in 1998 and sweated under a black robe through Elizabeth Dole's speech. She not only didn’t represent the majority of the study body, but her speech was quite unremarkable. In fact, all we seem to remember is the fact that she spoke. Perhaps Dole was chosen (over Jodie Foster, rumor has it) because she was a safe choice.

We can still live vicariously through this year’s graduates.

Actress Jane Lynch was this year's inspiring and thoughtful Smith College graduation speaker. Whenever you need a burst of energy, confidence or encouragement to do – or not do – something, this is the speech to turn to. Lynch uses the improv technique of asking, “yes, and?” as the overriding metaphor throughout her speech. Accept what is given to you and add to it. Excellent life – and writing – advice.

Meanwhile, author Michael Lewis spoke at Princeton University’s graduation and reminds listeners about the role of luck in success:

“Life's outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with  luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.”

Lewis continues, “In a general sort of way you have been appointed the leader of the group. Your appointment may not be entirely arbitrary. But you must sense its arbitrary aspect: you are the lucky few. Lucky in your parents, lucky in your country, lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increase their chances of becoming even luckier. Lucky that you live in the richest society the world has ever seen, in a time when no one actually expects you to sacrifice your interests to anything.

All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you'll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don't.

Never forget: In the nation's service. In the service of all nations.”

Congratulations to the 2012 graduates, at every level and at every school. Aim to do your best in every aspect of life while treating yourself and others kindly and ethically. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

Writing: Scheduled or wait for the muse?

It is easy to avoid writing because of {insert choice problem}:
          writer’s block
          no time

In the memoir writing workshop I’m leading at Politics and Prose (which will run again in Sept. and October), we discussed when we sit down to write. Not when we think about it or talk about it, but when we really sit down and write.

While it isn't always practical or possible to make a daily, firm writing schedule, it is necessary to block off regular time to write. Writing is a practice and requires attention. You wouldn't expect to be able to run or play an instrument well if you didn't practice regularly, would you? Writing requires the same practice. 

Waiting to write until the muse swings by your desk is risky business. She may or may not arrive and you may or may not be ready to accept her words. If you haven't been practicing, you might not be in good enough form to take advantage of the inspiration when it does come.

What about writer’s block? Writer's block is a very useful excuse not to write. Of course sometimes we all feel less creative, but luckily the art of writing has many components: drafting, revising, organizing, reading and submitting. You can use your various energies on these different aspects of writing instead of succumbing to the writer's block excuse. 

Poet Dean Young writes in The Art of Recklessness: Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction, "I don’t believe in writer’s block, writing well is very easy; it’s writing horribly, the horrible work necessary to do to get to writing well, that is so difficult one may just not be willing to do it."

What's your writing practice like?

Friday, June 8, 2012

Writing Advice from Aunt Dora: Take Every Opportunity

Aunt Dora giving a speech at her 100th birthday party 
(which she planned herself)

A student said she wrote a personal story in a particularly safe manner because, she said, “I thought that’s what the class would want.” I quickly shook my head and told her not to do that. She should write the way she wants to write for her intended audience. She smiled.

Today would have been Aunt Dora’s 104th birthday. In remembrance, I’d like to offer some Aunt Dora style writing advice for you in the form of a question:

Did you take every opportunity?

Aunt Dora regularly told me – and everyone – to take every opportunity.

Remember: You are free to write what you want and how you want. How can you create something new and breathtaking if you are trying to conform to everyone’s wishes? Imagine yourself to be free; write that way. And then stay that way in life.

On April 1st, the anniversary of Aunt Dora’s passing, I posted a found epistolary poem composed of things she used to say to me. It wouldn’t have fit into the poem, but I’ll leave you with this quote: When I called Aunt Dora after spending a few weeks in Greece on my honeymoon, she exclaimed, “Chloe? Is that you? I’ll be a swinging pig’s tail. Welcome back!”

And then she asked me all about the opportunities we took while we traveled. We had plenty to discuss. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Birthday: Writing Recap

Sunrise over the lake in Madison, Wisconsin (winter, 2011)

I like an excuse for a fresh start. (Here’s a related writing prompt.)  I similarly find self-evaluations useful. Do you?

Since Wednesday is my 36th birthday, this week is time to take stock of the past writing year. Wait, how am I turning 36? Forget it. Let’s try to ignore that and focus on writing:

Drum roll, please! My poetry chapbook, Unrest, was accepted to be published by Finishing Line Press (more details to come when I have them). Some of the poems are older; there are even a few from my creative thesis at Sarah Lawrence College. The manuscript’s theme is health and illness.

January 2011, I decided to start a new poetry manuscript. While some older poems snuck into the collection, I succeeded in molding a new collection entitled Elsewhere. I’ve started to submit it to first book publishing contests and book publishers’ open  reading periods. Of course, I’m sure I won’t stop tweaking the poems and the order of poems.

The potential good news is that I’ve received some nibbles on my book-in-progress about how to be an online student from academic publishers. Hopefully, there will be more to come about that in the
near future.

Being a writer takes a strong stomach, even when the year has been peppered with good news. I submit individual poems and manuscripts regularly, which means that I receive rejections regularly. Just the other day, while D.C. was under a tornado watch, the mail was delivered (really?), and I received two rejections from literary journals and one acceptance. Even though I’ve been seriously submitting poetry since I started graduate school in 2003, it is hard to get used to the regular rejections.

Here’s to a good year of taking the necessary time to write. That is to say, quiet time to think, time to draft and revise, time to read, time to submit, and time to do other things that feed my writing. And of course, time to celebrate the good news (and forget the bad news.) 

When do you step back and evaluate your writing progress? 

Friday, June 1, 2012


from Observe

Thank you to Rachel Eliza Griffiths and Maya Pindyck for sharing insight into their collaboration OBSERVE.

Here is their Artist Statement about the project:
As two Jewish artists, we are interested in the ways gender is linked with ritual in Judaism. Using black and white photography—pointing to the dichotomous aspects of religion—we invite Jewish subjects to transform into an observant Jew of the opposite sex. Through cross-dressing, makeup, and the option to enact a religious observance, both artists and subjects consider what it means to access a gender-bound tradition and to blur what seems so clearly defined. The process and resulting photographs play with outward appearances, posing a simple question to the viewer: What do you observe?


Rather than retell the same narrative about this project from our own perspectives, we asked three poets that we admire to observe OBSERVE and generate questions about the project, so that we might consider it from unexpected angles.  Thank you, Chloe Yelena Miller, Kaveh Bassiri, and Elana Bell   for your fresh and thought-provoking questions.  Here are our responses.

Why so much sadness behind the eyes?


Whose eyes? Isn’t it strange – I felt that way so often and so immediately during this project. They’re my eyes, all of them, in a way.  But I didn’t have too much control. You know, I didn’t ever give them direction or ‘pose’ them, so to speak, in a way to achieve a certain mood. I’m not an admirer of those sorts of images. I wanted integrity. It surfaced on its own and that was amazing. It was there beyond gender, beyond questions, beyond art. It came out of my eyes and met theirs. Silent and sad and strong. There is more ‘strong’ than ‘sad’ for me when I look at the eyes. But also of sincere interest to me – what were each of them thinking about faith, about tradition, about gender, about ‘undressing/dressing’ that presented a mood we consider ‘sad’? 


I hadn’t really noticed... is there sadness?  Yes, strangely, most of the photographs do read as sad, or at least serious.  What is it about becoming a man, or a woman-- a sense of sex or gender that one may not before have performed-- that brings sadness?  What it is about performing Hasidic Judaism that connects to a visible sadness?  Several participants spoke about ancestral connections, childhood memories, personal challenges with Judaism, and questions about belonging. Maybe the sadness connects to those associations.  Also, of all religions, I think Judaism may be the winner when it comes to guilt and neurosis; it seems hard to escape the perpetual oy vey.

Is it our clothes that make us lonely?


This question is so lovely. Like a stanza! I think our ‘clothing’ can trap or ambush us when it renders us silent or unrecognizable to ourselves and/or to others. But mostly, clothing is often something that I find exciting when it complements the body as the body is or the body wants. This sort of desire can have little to do with the actual clothing sometimes. And yet when you think of clothing, of costumes and the politics of the materials that distance us, however thinly, from how vulnerable our skin actually is without language or materials, there is so much to consider! For some the words “clothing” and “lonely” and “us” are such vast and glazed metaphors: to clothe or unclothe oneself can often be connected to interior conditions and mirrors. Who is us or not-us?  There as many kinds of lonely as there are eyes and rain shaped like eyes. And that brings me to the suggestion of our work: observe. 


What we choose to wear is so much an expression of our beliefs, personalities, eccentricities, desires to conform and/or rebel.  It is a public act for anyone to see.  Maybe there is something lonely in needing to present the self as belonging to one group of people.  I think about the uniformity and tradition of dress in Hasidic communities as a sign of insular belonging that points directly to religion, to a level of being observant, and to a community of people.  And, of course, where there is belonging there is also not-belonging.  Perhaps the act of wearing clothes that does not belong to you-- that points so clearly to a sense of Judaism that is not yours, even though you are Jewish-- evokes a sense of loneliness.

If all faces are the faces of an other, what do you see? How do you read them? Are they all the same or all different? How do you translate? What is the same? What is the difference? What does it tell you about your face that you can’t see except in a mirror?


As a photographer who is particularly devoted to the nuance of the human face I feel that I am always in a way searching for my own face or that I recognize my own face within and as “Other” to where I exist, interiorly.  The bristle of eyebrows, the palette of skin and its narrative, the ways chin look depending on what word is being said or born by the tongue, how eyes change in the dark, the way a nose can move, the multitude of pores, all of it, all of it, always changing, but always human. Always human even in the sight and the power of the most inhuman moments, which is how I remain surprised. And devoted. The more different the faces are, the more they are the same to me. And like a painter’s sensibility, I see a basic wheel of angles, planes, and features and then another wheel that counters those easy symmetries. Besides I have had so many experiences where I am sensitive to ‘reading’ a face in the identical way I would a text. Too easy, too reckless. And other times you must look at whatever eyes are staring back at you, including your own. Sometimes translatable and sometimes not or not easily. Kaveh, you’ve always asked the best and the deepest questions! You know, my face is sort of bewildering and surprises me more than anything. Its lines and shadows reflect my curiosity and my joy and my hope and my despair and my sadness and how I got born and how I will know the opposite of that one day too. It shows me and doesn’t tell me much because I don’t always like mirrors unless they’re slanted or very smoked, I think the word they sometimes use is ‘a distressed mirror’. That’s rich for translating, isn’t it?


Are they the faces of the other?  Many female participants spoke about seeing themselves, suddenly, as their own brothers and fathers.  But your questions push notions of sameness and difference further.  Yes-- how do we tell? 

This project asked participants to play a role.  At the same time, since all the participants were Jewish, there were, in most cases, personal connections to this role, even for participants who identify as Jewish in a strictly non-religious (rather secular or cultural) way. For most participants, the Hasidic community was an "other" to explore on the project's terms.  I am curious about the ways in which each viewer translates this moment and synthesizes a relationship to Hasidic Judaism in conversation with the photographs. Does the viewer see a recognizable face?  Make assumptions?  Feel tricked? 

Maybe we (varied, unpredictable viewers) can read something in the face that the mirror (by virtue of its projecting the same reflection each time) cannot show.  Also, the photographs reveal to me ways of holding unfamiliar, unpracticed performances of gender and religious identity.  These enactments transgress notions of being "authentic" Hasidic men and women and the gender roles linked to that identity.  The moments of sameness that emerged in this realm of perceived otherness shaped the project and, I think, stirred an unforeseen sensitivity.

Q: How did the project intersect with and feed your writing?


I’m not absolutely conscious about how the project may have intersected with my writing (not yet anyway). I know that we were both in agreement that our participants include a written experience after their portrait. We thought it was important that each person speak in this way.  The conversation is more nuanced and collaborative when that happens and one is asked to use eyes and absorb language and enter or extend a dialogue. While I’ll sometimes become aware that my visual and literature work bleed into one another, it’s usually different when I’m collaborating with another artist and I often actually have more of a sense of boundary while working. And I’m more interested in writing about the actual process of merging ideas and imagination about how a work will be get made and then the final results of that synthesis. In this experience I was much more interested and focused on the writing generated from the participants as a way to more deeply enter the original thoughts and ideas we shared. And, it was a moment, as a photographer, where the face opened up a little differently with words structured beneath whatever I had seen or looked for topically.


So much of my work (written and visual) explores binaries, identities, and issues connected to concepts of culture and gender. I often find myself extracting moments of intensity from my experiences as a Jew and as a woman. So, I think the project intersects with my writing thematically. But more than my own writing, the concept I initially had for the project intersected with Rachel’s own concepts, photography, and sense of Judaism in surprising ways that shifted and moved. I feel like the project ended up being its own act of collaborative writing—between Rachel and myself, us two and the participants, OBSERVE and Judaism, men turned women and women turned men…

OBSERVE is now featured in Storyscape Literary Journal