Friday, October 19, 2012

When a Student Gets Published

 . . . it’s oddly more satisfying than getting published yourself. It’s the literary equivalent of the parental experience, perhaps: you have not only used your gift, you have passed it on. You have exceeded the limitations of the self, started a ripple effect. Butterfly, you flapped your wings, and sometime later a hurricane swept the coast.

I’ve had this awesome pleasure more than once, and the latest two have come from separate hemispheres: poetry and science. Ruben Aguilar, who graced my creative writing class a couple of years ago, has not one but two poems in the latest issue of Axis. The first, “My Brother’s Gift,” is a moving narrative meditation on the troubled relationship between brothers:

On my eighth birthday,
mom bought me dressy shoes
heavy, brown, one size too large;
said I’ll grow into them.

I wished to wear them then,
my present, my shoes, my birthday.
I felt older with them on,
would impress my brother’s friends,
hang with them after school,
not be sent to my room
Axis 9 2012
while the older boys played.

The secondand if you know anything about me, you’ll know how insanely amazing this isis a sestina, “Underwear for My Feet,” another wonderful childhood recollection of being too young to fully understand the complexities of adult life:

Were you worried about your reputation
when I woke up to find that boyish man
in your bed? Did you think of your mother?
I saw him struggling to find his underwear
under the sheets she had bought, his feet
hanging over the edge, like an overgrown child.

I taught Ruben what a sestina was. That was me! Laura Mullen, thank you for teaching me. The cycle continues.

And then there is the strange phenomenon of how I am also, apparently, teaching science. For years now, I’ve been teaching the required writing courses for the nursing majors at STU, and the last course in the sequence, Scientific Writing, requires students to engage in a semester-long project that includes original empirical research and culminates in the production of a professional research paper. Last year, boy did it ever. My student, Veronica Hernández Menadier, had her paper, “How Personality and Physical Attraction Lead to Possible Dating: A Reflection,” published in the latest issue of the Journal of Multidisciplinary Research. It is a wonderful study on dating psychology, the premise of whichand if you know anything about me, you’ll know how insanely amazing this is—is to challenge stereotypical beliefs about how each gender chooses a potential mate:

Veronica, with Dr. Chan and Dr. Cingel

According to an experiment by Harris (2004), personality is defined as personal qualities and characteristics associated with interpersonal behaviors. Personality is seen as a second choice after physical attractiveness when it comes to being involved in relationships.  Although many experiments (Schmitt, 2002; Harris, 2004; Tsujimura et al., 2010) have been previously conducted in areas of personality and physical attraction, all have various results but just share one in common. None have had an actual reliable and assessable quantitative method to evaluate the correlation between personality and physical attraction and how they lead to dating (Tsujimura et al., 2010). The above observations led my colleagues and I to wonder to what extent personality actually plays a role in the people we choose to date or not.
The key hypothesis of this study is: There will be a relationship in gender in terms of the frequency of choosing to date a person who is PASU (Physical Attraction/Social Unattraction) vs. PASA (Physical Attraction/Social Attraction) vs. PUSA (Physical Unattraction/Social Attraction) vs. PUSU (Physical Unattraction/Social Unattraction). Which will be tested against the alternative: There will be no relationship in gender in terms of the frequency of choosing to date a person who is PASU vs. PASA vs. PUSA vs. PUSU.

One can take only so much responsibility for the success of one’s students. After all, they already come to us with talents , skills, and drives we had no role in forming, especially in the case of college students, who are already adults (well, sort of!) when they come to us. Both Ruben and Veronica are immensely talented and driven individuals, and I had nothing to do with that. But I remember sitting in the office and telling Ruben about sestinas, and I remember all those hours spent with Veronica helping her get her paper ready for publication long after she had passed the class for which she had first written it. I had something to do with that!

Teaching is hard. There are days (many, many days . . .) when one wants to just set oneself on fire rather than teach one more minute. When a student gets published, it’s more than just a balm against those days. It means the boundaries of the classroom have been transcended. That brutal exchange that seems so pointless sometimeswork for gradeshas been transcended. The word teaching, with all its bureaucratic connotations, hardly seems to apply. What’s happened is more like alchemy, somewhere between science and magic. You can’t quite force it to happen, no matter how hard you try to reproduce the conditions of its making. You can only hope that one day, amid the papers and the pens, the beakers and the boiling, it suddenly, spontaneously, miraculously happens again.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

On Eating Greasy Tacos & Washing Your Feet at Sears

Or, what makes great art great?

I’ve been reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna for what seems like forever. It’s a long book, and I’m not really getting into it, so I haven’t done that thing one does when one is really into a book, that devouring that makes even a thousand-pager read like a tweet. However, there is one scene I’ve kept going back to in my mind. It’s one of those famous-people-stories-told-thru-a-not-famous-nobody-who-just-happened-to-be-there type book, and so there’s a scene between the main character, a young aspiring writer, and Frida Kahlo. She says to him:

I think an artist has to tell the truth . . . . You have to use the craft very well and have a lot of discipline for it, but mostly to be a good artist you have to know something that’s true. These kids who come to Diego wanting to learn, I’ll tell you. They can paint a perfect tree, a perfect face, whatever you ask. But they don’t know enough about life to fill a thimble. And that’s what has to go in the painting. Otherwise, why look at it?

There’s nothing here that’s particularly earth-shattering as far as artistic philosophy goes; Kahlo goes on to recommend to the narrator that he go do some hard labor, “eat some terrible greasy tacos,” and “have sex with some Mexican boys.” It’s the old the-artist-must-suffer-to-make-great-art belief, and that’s too pat an idea to give credence to. For one thing, some people can suffer their whole lives and never be the deeper for it. Also, the whole idea that there is something more real or worthy of philosophy in hard labor and anonymous sex is beneath considering, a fiction of the well-to-do who have never spent a day sewing buttons in a shirt factory by necessity rather than choice. Finally, Kahlo here seems to imply that the only art that qualifies as such is that which enlightens or educates, and that’s just not so. What about entertainment? Can pure entertainment without a didactic element never be art?

All these caveats aside, however, I kept thinking about this scene as I plodded onward. I had just had the pleasure of reading “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears” by Mohja Kahf for the first time, which you can read here. My thanks to fellow Duhamelite and poet Dustin Brookshire for introducing me to this poem by posting it on Facebook. What floored me about Kahf’s poem is how familiar it wasit’s a poem from the point of view of the granddaughter, Kahf herself, one assumes, watching her grandmother, a Muslim, perform the title act. It’s prayer time and she just happens to be at Sears, and so she goes through with the ritual despite the outraged stares and finally interference of the “respectable Sears matrons.” Being the daughter of Cuban immigrants, I can so relate, as my students might say. I don’t remember any one particular culture clash as definitive as this, but I do remember having felt just this way many times.

Well, not just this way.

I kept waiting for the poem to favor either the grandmother or the matrons in some way, but it never does, and that surprised me. I was expecting either a condemnation of the matrons for their sheeplike adherence to expected social behaviors, for their inability to see the Muslim woman washing her feet as anything but some kind of barbarian, or, conversely, a condemnation of the grandmother for her refusal to adapt to American expectations of acceptable behavior, possibly fueled by the granddaughter’s embarrassment at being able to see the behavior from both points of view. I thought I knew “this kind” of poemit would probably favor the matrons, and end with regret at not having appreciated the grandmother and her culture more.

Maybe I was projecting, but probably I was just expecting the usual moves in this scenario, and Kahf didn’t make them. Instead, she presents the event almost comically, a perfect balance of two opposing yet equally valid attitudes. She seems to relish the misunderstanding and revel in its inability to be resolved. The poem winds up being a wonderfuland refreshingstatement about our common humanity even despite our sometimes radical differences.

This, I believe, is Truth of the kind that makes great art. A lesser artist would have met my expectationsone culture would be oppressed yet superior, the other appear superior but turn out to be narrow-minded and inferior, and both the poet and the reader would be enlightened by the experience in most predictable ways. How wonderful that I didn’t read that poem, again!

I’m sure Kahf must have suffered in her life, all of us do. But what she did here in this poem is not just rehash some kind of suffering, but process it in a surprising and, yes, an enlightening way. I will never forget this poem, and I’m likely to remember it every time I get involved in a culture clash, which is pretty often.

What Kahlo is most right about in the advice she gives Kingsolver’s protagonist is that mechanical correctness is not enough to produce great art. I suppose this point is most evident in films, which sometimes feature amazing technical feats but yet are not great art. Sometimes a small, low-budget film will amaze you in a way that no blockbuster multi-million dollar special effects extravaganza can. Great art must have both great craft and, for lack of a better term, great truth.

These truths, however, can’t be easy truths. Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus is a gimmick, not a revelation. Don’t confuse fairy-tale type morals or catchy bumper-sticker wisdom with real truth. Do you have to “suffer” to acquire insight such as Kahf’s? I don’t know. But I do know that you have to cultivate thoughtfulness. You have to read good books (of course), those that will challengenot confirm, challengeyour concepts of right and wrong. Watch good films that do the same. Expose yourself to art, and it can help you grow without first-hand suffering. Kahf’s poem “taught” me in a way that decades of cultural snafus I’ve experienced first-hand failed to do. I was so stuck in my us-vs.-them mentality that I was rewriting Kahf’s poem into more familiar territory as I was reading it. She jogged me out of it, made me see an old situation in a new, in a better, way.

So, you want to create great art? It comes to this: cultivate your moral sense as much as your craft. Look for great art in ambiguity, in the messy terrain of real life. Sometimes you might find it in a greasy taco, sometimes it finds you in the bathroom at Sears. What matters most, however, is not how many Mexican boys you sleep with, but how you frame that experience in light of what you believe is true, right, good. The great artists are always questing, questioning, experimenting, revising. Maybe that’s where the cliché about hard living comes from, why so many of them drink and fuck and smoke and die. We tend to glamorize this particular view of the artist because it appeals to everyone’s desire to break the rules, but it’s not in their breaking that art is created. Emily Dickinson is widely revered as one of the greatest poets who ever lived, and apparently she barely left her house. But she thought about everythingthe simplest act acquired enormous significance. She turned the buzzing of a fly into a meditation on life and death.

Maybe you’ve come here, like Kingsolver’s protagonist, to get some words of wisdom from a more experienced artist. Sadly, I can’t be your Frida. About as close to her genius as I may ever come is the ability to grow my eyebrows. But I do know good art when I find it, and all of it has that one thing, and one thing only, in common. Call it truth, call it moral complexity, call it philosophy, call it mojo if you like, but get your hands on it any way you can, or you’ll never be a real artist.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Thinking Inside the Box

Began the semester by teaching my first-year composition students about the five-paragraph essay. Before you get all mad and stuff, stop to consider: why did the five-paragraph essay become the go-to paradigm for every standardized test prep and essay exam situation?

The naysayers will argue that it did so because it’s easy and automatic, two words no professional writer will want associated with the craft. That may be so, but there’s also a more benign reason, which is that it makes sense. In its pre-programmed way, the ubiquitous five-paragraph essay teaches the basic student or that student forced to respond to a topic quickly and under pressure that at the very least, a well-written, organized essay must have a clear purpose and a beginning, middle, and end.

I’m not about to argue, of course, that mastering the five-paragraph essay is “enough.” In fact, when I teach it to my students, I’m careful to clarify that it’s just a good pattern, and no guarantee against bad writing. It is a starting point, and no more.

But it’s a damn fine starting point, and not deserving of all the flak it’s gotten for its misuse. Anyone who thinks a four- or six-paragraph essay is somehow wrong is obviously an idiot, and no amount of maligning this classic paradigm is going to help them.

What’s up with all the animosity against patterns anyway? In most other arts and crafts, patterns are revered and understood to be one of the classic tools of the artist. Take fashion, for example. Before you decide to revolutionize women’s couture by making them wear their bras as hats, you usually go to fashion school, where they teach you to cut shirts, skirts, dresses, and suits from patterns. You may chafe against the standard knee-length pencil skirt pattern you must follow for your midterm, but proving you can make a good pencil skirt shows you know the basics of your craft. You still may have room for creativity in other areasyour choice of fabric, for example, can make your basic pencil skirt stand out. Who knew a skirt made out of plywood could be so comfortable? Later, when you are designing your own pattern, you may choose to deviate from it or not. You might keep the classic form and continue to exert your individuality by making skirts out of tortillas, or you might decide to add feathered ruffles or whatever to the outline.

It’s not ignorance of the pattern that will make you into an artist, but your awareness and mastery of the reasoning behind that pattern.

The prose version of the five-paragraph essay must be the classic conflict-crisis-climax-resolution pattern. Here, as well, we find a certain disdain for the classic setup. Most highbrow short stories and novels seem to self-consciously deviate from this plot. They key words here, of course, are self-consciously. The art of storytelling evolved in natural ways; one doesn’t often find oneself motivated to start a story about “nothing.” It’s only when “something” happens that one is moved to tell about it, and that “something” is a conflict. The natural movement between conflicts and their resolutions is a series of crises and some kind of tipping point or climax. When one encounters a narrative that doesn’t follow that pattern, it’s because the storyteller has found other ways to generate interest, a seemingly different agenda that upon closer inspection often turns out to be that same old pattern in disguise. We read about narratives, for example, that “resist resolution.” That’s a literal impossibility, however. A narrative that resists resolution is one that never ends, like a soap opera. If there’s an ending, there’s some kind of resolution. It may not be one you recognize: not the happy ending or the reward/punishment, but a resolution nonetheless, even if it’s just a giving up, an abandonment of whatever we have been reading fora thematic resolution, for example.

The two stories I use to teach this point to my students are either James Joyce’s “Araby” or John Updike’s “A&P” and Harlan Ellison’s “’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” Both “Araby” and “A&P” are classically plotted stories. “Araby” begins with the classic layout of the setting, whereas Updike gets straight to the conflict in “A&P.”

At first, Ellison’s story appears to be a nonsensical departure. “Now begin in the middle, and later learn the beginning; the end will take care of itself,” he writes, as if in sheer defiance of our narrative expectations. In fact, that’s his point exactly. The story is, after all, a story about the value of rebellion, and he tells it rebelliously to prove his point. If we examine the story carefully, however, we see that the so-called “middle” he begins with may indeed be the chronological middle of the story, but thematically it is nevertheless the beginning, the laying out of the conflict: some crazy harlequin-type guy is upsetting the orderly society in which he lives. We don’t know why yet, but we figure it out soon enough. The crises and climax are as classically plotted as if the story were written in the usual straightforward waythe Harlequin is being chased by the Ticktockman, and when he’s caught we wait to see what happens next, which is both the resolution and the ending of the story.

Poets seem to have a much healthier relationship to patterns. Sure, there was a moment there when the rebels fought the formalists, but eventually everybody made up and we are now (for the most part) coexisting peacefully. Perhaps it’s because, unlike in prose, poetry has never truly preferred a single form to the exclusion of all others. One could say that in Western poetry the sonnet had its moment, for example, but at the same time poets everywhere were writing villanelles and odes and ballads and a bunch of other things with perfect joy. Today the same poet can write in free verse one day and form the next, and put all the poems in the same collection if she pleases. Like the fashion designer, the poet has the freedom to innovate a little or a lot. She can publish the perfect alexandrine or the completely wacky nonce version of a form all to the same acclaim.

One should never be afraid to follow a pattern, or to deviate from it. Forget about thinking inside versus outside the box--as long as you're thinking, you're okay. It's not the box that's evil, it's your relationship to it. If you're afraid to think inside the box, you're just as trapped outside.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Taking Off in Silence

It's been a trying week, what with trying to come up with the syllabi for the new academic year and helping my mother out with her sprained ankle. Today I found myself staring longingly at this picture that's making the rounds on the Internet:

Supposedly, it's a view of the Mars skyline, showing Earth, Jupiter, and Venus. Of course, it's some kind of hoax, and if you care for the full explanation, Phil Plait provides it at Discover Magazine.

My interest in the picture is different. I wondered if Malibu Barbie liked the view, for one thing. In my poem, "Malibu Barbie Moves to Mars," I envisioned a tired Malibu Barbie escaping to the red planet where she can, at least, have some peace. It was kind of a reverse ekphrastic experience, staring at this photo and thinking about a poem I had already written.

The sense of peace I got from staring at Earth, so far away, was welcome. I had just spent an uncomfortable two hours at a simple routine visit to my mother's cardiologist, in which I had to listen to the same twenty-second piece of Muzak over and over. The ubiquitous large-screen was just finishing some abominable David Copperfield DVD when we got there, and when it finished it went to the menu screen and just stayed there. No one bothered to restart it or play something else, or just turn the damned thing off. Of course, there are no buttons to push on the waiting room side--some secret remote from within the inner office was asleep on the job.

I was quietly losing my mind. I had brought a book, but the waiting room is small and so even in the farthest corner from the screen, you can still hear it loudly. Every time the music started over, I lost my concentration. I tried switching to a magazine, but that didn't work. Finally, I went up to the window, rang the bell, and asked the woman in the inner sanctorum to please do something about the DVD. The other patients waiting and I had a good round of jokes about Gitmo during the few blessed minutes of silence after David Copperfield disappeared, and then the Keeper of the Remote started the Cirque du Soleil DVD I had already seen last year.

The whole thing was surreal. Not so much David Copperfield's gargantuan head or the contorting Canadians, but this mad insistence on the need to be staring at a screen at all times. I do understand that some people welcome it; at my mother's GP, he's constantly offering the local Spanish soap operas. Given that something like ninety-five percent of his patients would be watching these at home anyway, I can sort of understand how it helps to pass the time. Other places show the news, or play music. I can even understand that magic and circus acts fall under the "general interest" category. What I can't understand is how this has become so necessary that no one seems to be able to envision the possibility of existing for a few breaths without it.

I wouldn't dream of showing up to a doctor's office without a book. Unlike a television, only I can hear my book. I'm not subjecting anyone else to my efforts at entertainment. Not a big reader? A newspaper or magazine can offer some light, quiet entertainment for a little while. Illiterate? Wrong language? Look at the pictures. Out the window. Lie back and think of England, but don't force me to participate in your loud, obnoxious psychic void.

I don't care if the Mars skyline is fake. Whoever came up with it had the imagination to do so, and I thank her or him for it, for the few minutes of quiet fancy flight it offered me. There are many arguments for reading instead of watching television, and normally I couldn't care less. Whatever you believe the merits of each is, there is one extremely valuable way in which reading trumps watching: it's quiet. I can't reproduce the entirety of Ogden Nash's "Take Off with Books" here because it's apparently somehow still under copyright, but let me remind you of a few lines of advice to be found there: "Take off with books, not with the rocket's roar; take off in silence and in fancy soar . . . . Books reached the moon before real rockets did."

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

An Ekphrastic Gem

Beautiful ekphrastic poem this week at Linebreak based on the Pieter Bruegel painting above, The Hunters in the Snow. Read "Bruegel" by Paul Carroll and listen to the reading by Ty Kessinger here.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Poets & Writers Best Books for Writers List

Before you buy all 79 books, maybe I can help!

Have been out of commission for a while, having some fun with my uncle and then nursing my mother through a sprained ankle. I’m thinking of a “what I did on my summer vacation” type post later, but I thought I’d get the blog rolling again by posting about Poets & Writers intriguing “BestBooks for Writers” list. I saw some old favorites on it, some I’ve not read but would like to, and a couple of glaring omissions. I thought I’d share my reactions with you, dear reader.


Graywolf Press’s “The Art of” Series

There were many selections on this list from Graywolf Press’s excellent “The Art of” series, including my very favoritest, The Art of the Poetic Line  by James Longenbach (2007). I’ve talked about this book many times before, because it changed the way I think about lineation forever. Unlike other treatments of what one might consider an “esoteric” subject, Longenbach’s writing is clear and his logic easy to grasp. The examples are perfect. This is my second-favorite writing book of all time, and my No. 1 favorite book on poetry. You don’t know a thing about lineation until you’ve read this book. Another selection from “The Art of” series is Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot (2007), but I found this one rather hard to get through. Unlike Longenbach, Baxter assumes a very well-read, semi-professional (at least) reader, so at some point one wonders whether such a reader wouldn’t be apt enough already to grasp the subtleties of subplots.

This is indeed a classic, one I first read as an undergraduate. Every poet knows this book, owns a copy, loves it so much that she will go into a burning building to retrieve it. This book is psychology as much as mechanics. Hugo writes about words, but also about the writer’s mind, in beautiful prose of his own. A must-read indeed.

This is another one of my go-to recommendations, and I’ve even used it a couple of times as a textbook. Do not assume that this is a guide for genre writersKing’s advice here is solid for all types of writers. I also love that it’s part writing memoir, part writing instruction. The memoir is of interest even to those who are not King fans (those three sad people), and it’s an eye-opener to the beginning writer who assumes the road to bestsellerdom is paved with sex, drugs, and fancy typewriters. King writes about his early struggles candidly and with humility and humor. I’m not his biggest fan, but I was charmed from page one. The “to-do” section stands alone and has great advice on all the basics: plotting, characterization, even sentence-level editing.

Put this next to The Triggering Town, so you won’t have to scramble during the fire. True, you can find a lot of this info on Wikipedia now, but no one is going to present it to you in a way that makes sense the way Turco does. This is the definitive book on form. You cannot call yourself a poet if you don’t have a well-worn copy of this book.


I’ve been looking for a decent book I could use to teach scene creation for a while, and read some real duds along the away. According to P&W, this book is “straightforward,” which is exactly what I’d like to get.

Despite having spent so much time in school and having read so much all my life, despite all the degrees I’ve accumulated, I still think I’m (gulp!) woefully ignorant. Here is an important writer on important books promising to enlighten me. From P&W: “Originally published in 1934, Pound's book serves as a guide for those interested in honing their critical thinking through reading the classics. The book is based on the premise that to be a good writer one must be a good reader, aware of the traditions out of which the best literature has emerged.” Who can disagree with that?

I’m intrigued by the title of David Orr’s book, Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry (HarperCollins, 2011). From P&W: “Award-winning poetry critic David Orr provides a tour and guide to contemporary poetry and the ways in which to appreciate it. Beautiful & Pointless examines what poets and poetry readers talk about when they discuss poetry, such as why poetry seems especially personal and what it means to write ‘in form.’”

Mark Doty wrote an “Art of” book and I didn’t know about it? About description, which is, like, his unbelievable forté? What is the matter with me? I must read this immediately.

The Poem’s Heartbeat: A Manual of Prosody by Alfred Corn (Copper Canyon, 2008)

This sounds good to me. Pun fully intended. Perhaps a good textbook? I know a little bit about prosody, but this looks like it can fill out the empty spaces. From P&W: “In ten progressive chapters, Corn covers everything from metrical variation and phonic echo to the basics of line and stanza.”


You can’t blame anyone for overlooking one of my favorite little books, Panning for Gold in the Kitchen Sink: Everyday Creative Writing by Michael B. Smith and Suzanne Greenberg (McGraw-Hill, 2000). It’s not a well-known book, much less a classic, and it’s geared toward the beginner more than most of the books on P&W’s list. Nevertheless, I always recommend it, and have used it as a textbook a couple of times. It’s exercise driven, which is not unique, but what is unique is the way it forces writers to mine, if you will, the everyday experiences that make for good writing, i.e., the kitchen sink. One of the greatest obstacles a beginning writer must overcome is the tendency to overdramatize, to succumb to melodrama. Spies. Golden bathtubs. Evil characters with bombs. Nothing that speaks, as Faulkner would say, to the human heart in conflict with itself. The exercises in this book will help you find what all good writers know about already: the gold in the everyday life of everyone.
Another dark horse favorite of mine is Structure and Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns by Michael Theune (Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 2007). I don’t know of any other similar study in poetics. Theune looks at typical poem “patterns,” ways in which successful poems are structured as wholesnot in particular forms, but as objects. For example, many of you may be aware that sonnets have a volta, a turn or shift in the subject that usually occurs after the octave. That’s the sort of analysis Theune provides in this book, only on poems that may or may not have any set form. He discusses relationships of contrast, for example, between beginnings and endings. Full of examples, this book is not only a great read for the poet who is struggling to find ways to guide a poem to the final draft successfully, but also would make a great textbook. I wouldn’t recommend it for an introductory class, but any advanced class that is studying poetry, whether creatively or critically, would find this book eye-opening.

There is one book that didn’t make the list at all that left me clicking for more. How can anyone compile such a list and leave out William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (Harper Perennial, 2006)? Could it be that the rift between journalism and “creative” writing is so exaggerated that they failed to see the enduring wisdom of this book? Me no comprende. This is THE BEST BOOK ABOUT WRITING EVER WRITTEN. Period. It can take a talentless buffoon and polish him into a decent writer. I was about to say “polish him up” and caught myself. Why? Because of Zinsser. Because once he gets into your bones, you will never be able to write badly again without a twinge of guilt. The man is a verb in my classeswe speak of “zinssering” a sentence. I mention this book in almost every post. I have to read it once a year. If you only own one book about writing, it should be this. And . . .

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (Longman, 1999). I can see why they omitted this book, howeverit’s really a reference book, to sit along your dictionaries and your Rodale’s. (Did I mention Rodale’s?) So, I forgive P&W for not putting it on the list. Put it on yours and you’ll be okaydespite being now almost 100 years old, this classic (now updated several times, of course) continues to be the definitive style maker for good writing. This book is to writing what Chanel is to fashion.

Hope that helps you out. There’s a lot of terrible writing about writing out there. You could spend the rest of your life reading how-to manuals and peppy you-go-girl guides, so choose what you put on your reading list wisely. And, at the end of the day, remember: it’s better to write than to read about writing. While it’s important to widen your knowledge of the craft, the best way to do that is still to learn by doing. And doing. And doing . . . .

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Cooking with Celia: Celia's Vegan Potato Salad

Still looking for your Fourth of July side? May not be too late to add my freaking awesome salad to the menu. It's not traditional potato salad--traditional potato salad is loaded with carbs and cholesterol, and not many people like it. This one still has that potato charm, but lots of veggies to make it healthier. The light vegan mayo dressing is virtually guilt-free.

Ingredients for 12 servings

3 1/2 pounds of mixed small potatoes
5 carrots, cut into disks
5 celery sticks, cubed
small package of frozen peas, thawed
one apple, cubed
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
1 cup vegan mayo
1/4 cup spicy brown mustard
1/2 cup apple cider, white wine, or rice vinegar
1 tsp. dill (2 tsp. if fresh)
1 tsp. thyme (2 tsp. if fresh)
salt & pepper to taste
  1. Wash potatoes and cut to bite-size pieces. I prefer to leave the skins on, but you can peel them if you like. Boil until soft (about 15 minutes). Salt the water generously. Drain.
  2. Boil carrots separately to avoid overcooking, about 10 minutes. Salt the water generously, and drain.
  3. In a small bowl, whisk together mayo, mustard, and vinegar.
  4. Combine potatoes and carrots with peas, celery, and apple while still warm in a large bowl. Add the dressing a little at a time to avoid breaking the potatoes too much. Add cilantro and spices at the end.
  5. I like it warm, but you can cover and refrigerate for a couple of hours or overnight.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Feeling the Love at Fringe

As part of the Vintage Fringe feature, the folks over at Fringe are re-featuring my poem, "Blackbirds," and posting an accompanying interview. I can't tell you what a thrill this is! It's one thing to have someone publish your poem--that's already a great seal of approval. But to come back to it? To do it again? Yay.

In the accompanying interview, they've also given me the chance to talk about the poem's composition, as well as how it interacts with one of my favorite forms, the sestina. Fringe's poetry editor, the wonderful Anna Lena Phillips, also asked me questions about this blog, which I (of course!) was very happy to answer.

Please read all about it at the links above, and note that you can leave comments on the interview. I'd love to hear what you think about the poem and about sestinas--how far can you push a form?

My thanks, my thanks and thanks, to Anna Lena Phillips, David Duhr, and all the wonderful people at Fringe.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Why You Should—and Shouldn’t—Go to College

Summer’s here, and I’ve been spending time getting to some much-postponed home improvement projects, which is why this is my first post in over a month. It’s okay; I’ve decided to just let the summer happen, and blog or blog not as the mood strikes me. Tis the season to be lazy, one of the many perks of being a part-time frustrated academic.

Tis also graduation season, and as I see all those pics of proudly smiling grads making the rounds online, I can’t help but wonder, as Carrie Bradshaw might put it, how many of them will still be smiling come fall, when 68.3 of them arrive at college.

A low percentage, you might say, barely over half.  Of these, only about half again will actually complete their degree:
Today, especially among low-income students who attend public community colleges as a gateway to a college or university, 27 percent actually graduate in four years, and 48 percent of those pursuing bachelor’s degrees at private schools do so, according to ACT Inc., an organization that provides college testing exams and other services. Most students take at least six years, and even then only 55 percent get their degrees.
Moreover, graduate or not, the mere pursuit of the college dream is going to cost all of us, cripple many. Most of the students going to college in the fall will be paying for tuition, books, and housing with loans, banking on a future filled with guarantees of higher incomes their degrees will supposedly facilitate.  This dream debt is now at the $1 trillion mark.

What to do? Expert opinions vary. Lowering the cost of higher education is a popular solution. Working to improve the economy to create more jobs for grads is another. I prefer a simpler approach.

Less people need to go to college.

What? Blasphemy! Heartlessness! How dare I!

I dare. You bet I dare. Unlike politicians, economists, and career academics, I’m in the first-year college trenches, I’ve been there for 18 years, and I got nothing to lose by admitting the truth.  About one in every three incoming students has no business being in college, much less signing a loan to be there. A whopping 30% of those students taking out loans will never graduate, yet they will give over not just the money they owe for the one, two, three or more years that they struggle to stay enrolled but also the time and self-esteem it costs them to admit they should have never gone to college in the first place.

The pitch high-school graduates are receivingand have been receiving for yearsis preposterous. No time to attend classes because you have two full-time jobs, seven children, and numerous diseases? No problem! Classes start anytime. You can go at night, on the weekends, or online, in your pajamas! No money? No problem! Just sign on the dotted line.
A must-see on this subject.

These predatory practices make it seem as if college is easy, as if the only thing you need to get that coveted degree is a convenient schedule and a loan. It’s the perfect pitch for a consumer-driven society: convenience + cost = instant gratification.

Sadly, you can’t order up a college degree at a drive-thru as if it were a Big Mac. Getting a college degree is not a matter of just getting through the door; it’s about being able to succeed once you’re in, and that’s something no one’s talking about anymore. It’s not the piece of paper that gets you the fancy job laterit’s the skills and knowledge that paper represents, and the truth is that’s pretty hard to get even the old-fashioned way, when you used to spend four years doing nothing but studying.

Too many people want to go to college for all the wrong reasons. They don’t really want to go to college, actually. What they want is to get through college, which is not the same thing. They want to get through this obstacle course as quickly and painlessly as possible, so they can cash in on the reward, a higher-paying job than the one they would get without the college ordeal.

College is not a test of endurance. It’s not something you’re meant to “survive,” like being trapped on an island with nothing to eat but tarantulas. You can’t just grin and bear it long enough to be released. It just doesn’t work that way. You don’t get rewarded with a better job at the end of your incarceration; you are rewarded with a better jobif you can find itbecause you have learned the skills you need to succeed at it.

Which brings me to my main point. There’s only one reason why you should go to college: Because you are a good student and both desire to learn and are capable of learning more.

It breaks my heart to see people who can barely read try to make it through a college course. If you barely made it through high school, if you had trouble passing your classes and hated being in a classroom, you shouldn’t voluntarily sign up for four more years of torture, especially not if it’s going to cost thousands of dollars. The problem here is that most people don’t feel it’s a voluntary decision at all, and I’m not talking about parents who force their children to go (a most foolish thing). I’m talking about the economic and social imperative, about a society that has come to believe that only doctors and lawyers can be happy and respected citizens, and that everyoneno matter what life and educational messes he or she has lived throughhas not just the right but the obligation to become one.

The cost of a college education is not just a matter of dollars. You must have other forms of currency, skills and values you should have picked up in high school. Apart from basic skills like reading, writing, and math, you need to know how to study, how to be responsible for your own education. Moreover, you need to want to be a doctor or a lawyer for some reason other than the paycheck attached to these careers. Otherwise you wind up being one of those proverbial med students who faints at the sight of blood.

The college experience is intimately tied to the careers it leads to. If you’re cringing in your history class, what makes you think you’re going to be a good lawyer, where every decision that you make must be based on historical precedent? If you’re flunking biology, what makes you think you’re going to be a good doctor? Careers that involve acquiring a college degree aren’t like jobs, where you can whine your way through the day for the sake of the paycheck. Careers that involve higher education employ those very skills you’re taught in class. A lawyer never leaves history class, a doctor never leaves biology class. In fact, most of these careers involve a lifetime of education, revalidating licenses, attending seminars, and publishing papersyes, as in college papersthat keep professionals informed members of their field.

If we’re really going to make good on all those promises of a bright future for high-school graduates, we need to start, among other things, to validate the decision to pursue non-college-track choices, which is where the majority of college dropouts wind up anyway. They lose valuable time they could be gaining real work experience and accrue crippling start-up debt simply because no one is exploring options.

Let me make one point crystal before I give up this dark meditation: I am in no way suggesting that the only problem with higher education in the US is the pursuit of a degree by people who shouldn’t be in college. That’s just one of the problems, albeit a pretty big one. It would take me the rest of my life to go through the multiple and complex issues that have created the current mess. What I have tried to do in this post is to inject some sense into this College or Bust madnessto prepare myself, in a way, for the flipside of the happy June graduations, when I face a class full of students in the fall less than half of whom I’ll be seeing again come spring.
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