Teaching


I’m going to give up on trying to “catch up” with months of lost blogging, and try to get back into the practice of daily (or almost daily) blogging, even in very small amounts.
So what’s going on right now is a lot of CHANGE.  Big girl just returned from an ecstatic summer of being on adult staff at her idea of heaven on earth, aka Camp Winnarainbow.

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I’m going to give up on trying to “catch up” with months of lost blogging, and try to get back into the practice of daily (or almost daily) blogging, even in very small amounts.

So what’s going on right now is a lot of CHANGE.  Big girl just returned from an ecstatic summer of being on adult staff at her idea of heaven on earth, aka Camp Winnarainbow. She leaves at the crack of dawn to go back to college but in a completely different capacity. She’s trying out new paths, and it’s wide open right now.

I’m dusting off (and I mean REALLLLLLLY dusting off) my physical therapy license, renewing it and getting it all polished up, and taking it on the road again. I’m thinking about going back to home health care, on a part time basis. This is both a scary and exciting idea. It is going to take a while but we’ll see how it goes.

I’m not in my forties anymore. It’s only been a few weeks, but it’s not as terrifying as I thought it would be. In fact, so far, I kinda like it.

I’m teaching two classes this fall: an online “Literature of Parenthood” class that I’ve taught before and have loved. There are a bunch of great people signed up already, and it’s on the verge of being full. Then I’m teaching an in-person, hands-on blogging workshop out of my house. I think this one is also going to be huge fun, and I’m including a Twitter bonus! Yay! I’m really eager and excited to get back to teaching.

That’s my mini-update for today.

burka_bookAs if my friend Masha Hamilton did not have enough to do in addition to writing amazing novels, being an inspiring teacher, supporting a mobile camel library in Africa, she has also recently started the incredible Afghan Women’s Writing Project.

The Afghan Women’s Writing Project began as an idea during novelist Masha Hamilton’s last trip to Afghanistan in November 2008. Her interest in Afghanistan was sparked in the late 1990s during the Taliban period, when she understood it was one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. Masha first visited the country in 2004, and was awed and inspired by the resolute courage of the women she met. When she returned, she saw doors were closing and life was again becoming more difficult, especially for women. She began to fear we could lose access to the voices of Afghan women if we didn’t act soon. The Afghan Women’s Writing Project is aimed at allowing Afghan women to have a direct voice in the world, not filtered through male relatives or members of the media. Many of these Afghan women have to make extreme efforts to gain computer access in order to submit their writings, in English, to the project.

I’m excited to be one of the online teachers for this project in the late fall or winter of this year, when things settle down a bit. From what I’ve heard, it has been a transformative experience for the teacher-writers who have participated so far. And the women are sharing their incredibly brave, honest, powerful stories.

“Look, my dear daughter,” my mother told me. “Our country has had lots of war and those women who are educated suffered a lot, so now if you want to be a literate woman like your mom and other Afghan women, then you should struggle a lot and not take care over these small issues. Instead, try to learn knowledge. Otherwise you will be like a blind person who can never see.”

It is so critical that these womens’ stories are shared beyond their world. It is incredibly moving to them that readers across the globe are reading their words. Please, please, read them, and COMMENT - they mean the world to them!

One of the project’s supporters has organized a fantastic raffle to purchase computers, flash drives and other items that will support these women writers.  There are great literary and other prizes – so please donate and please, spread the word! My own mother has donated a handmade quilt (pictured here) and it will go to one of the lucky raffle winners – so buy lots of tickets!!

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As soon as I got my copy of Mama, Ph.D., I knocked my forehead and said, “Why didn’t I write something for this?” And then immediately, I knew. When I first read the title for the call for submissions way back when, I sent it to all my mama friends who HAD Ph.Ds. I didn’t really consider my lowly MFA to be worthy of consideration.

But as I thumbed through the poignant, intelligent essays in this collection, I soon understood that a lot of the women in this anthology didn’t have Ph.D.s either. They were abandoned or veered away from when children raised their siren calls.

I gave birth to my second child a week after waddling across a hot stage to receive my master’s degree in writing. Many of my classmates were on to doctoral programs, but I felt I was at the end of my particular line.
So it was with a mixture of envy, regret and relief that I read this collection; reading of the intense sacrifices of mixing a life of academy + family.

It seemed that most of the women in this anthology were pursuing Ph.D.s while pregnant or with very young babies or children. I would have been very interested in reading about women who pursued graduate or doctoral degrees when their children were older, in high school or college or beyond; maybe, coincidentally because now that my elder child is heading to college, it is the first time the notion of a Ph.D. is wiggling its seductive little finger at me. I don’t think I’ll probably go down that path, but for so many years it was “No, no, no WAY” and now again it’s “Hmmm… could I do that? Do I want to?”

The writing in this book is alive, often very humorous, often fraught. The quality of these narratives is uniformly excellent. It’s creative nonfiction at its best: true stories that often read like fiction, with compelling narratives, and characters for whom much is at stake. I was pulled in immediately by the funny-but-extremely-thoughtful first essay, Jamie Warner’s “The Conversation.”

Jamie: Do you think you want to have kids?
George: I don’t know. Do you think you want to have kids?
Jamie: I don’t know either… and why don’t you know? What else needs to happen? Is this a question of timing, or is more of an existential question?
George: I don’t know. I just don’t know.

I also loved Sonya Huber’s exquisite “In Media Res,” an ode to her unborn “Goat-baby.” I want to see you; I am hungry for the plot, for the tiny details of your story contained in the pads of your fingers, and your plans for rebellion and creation.

Loved Jennifer Eyre White’s “Engineering Motherhood,” about a “troubled youth” turned electrical engineer/mother/grad student. Susan O’Doherty’s “The Wire Mother” masterfully examines motherhood and psychology, and Elisabeth Rose Gruner’s “I Am Not A Head On A Stick.” My daughter, still in utero, used to kick books off my belly when I’d rest them there to read. My husband and I joked that she knew they were competition. Maybe it wasn’t a joke.

I have to admit that in reading this, I was biased. I was biased towards the mothers who hung in there, who used their Ph.D.s, who walked around their universities with people calling them “Doctor.” How could someone go through so much and then… not use it? Are there people who battle their way through medical school and then decide not to become doctors? Maybe it’s because of my own road-not-traveled regrets and longings. I have to say that I felt a twinge when I read editor Caroline Grant’s “The Bags I Carried,” which described her leaving academia and really not looking back. She ultimately found Literary Mama (for which I am personally grateful!), which gave her another powerful venue for the world of words and ideas, of sharing them with other thinking, writing mothers. But I couldn’t help hoping that when her children are older that she might turn back to her Ph.D.

Only after reading the entire book did I feel like maybe it was a bit … TOO uniform. I would have loved to have heard more from older women, lesbians, more women of color. Hmm, is that why they call it the Ivory Tower?

This is one reason why I particularly loved Angelica Duran’s essay, “One Mamá’s Dispensable Myths and Indispensable Machines.” She brings in the many layers of race, culture, gender, and grapples with them beautifully.

While my mother would have been patient with me if I had used her as a babysitter from my Anglo-American contextual culture rather than appreciated her as an abuelita from my Latino root culture, I managed to be a mamá so that she in turn could be an abuelita.

Truly, every piece in this collection is strong, provocative and gives much food for thought. I’ve been turning these womens’ stories over and over in my head for weeks, having silent debates with them and myself, and I suspect the conversation is going to go on for a long time.

images1.jpgI just did a Google search for “writing prompts” and when I came upon this, I laughed so hard my eyes leaked. Anyone who is a writing teacher, or who has ever taken any kind of writing class with writing prompts, cannot fail to be amused.

Here they are, the world’s funniest writing prompts.

And if anybody takes any of these prompts and actually WRITES something based on one of these prompts, and posts it here, I will send you a prize. Promise.

paperwork.gifnot to publish a short story. I found this link over at Jade Park’s blog (I seem to find a lot of great stuff over there!). I had not heard of the Willesden Herald Short Story contest, but apparently it sparked quite a controversy when they refused to award a prize because they didn’t find any of the stories up to the standard they were seeking.

Apparently a lot of people are angry at the folks at the Willesden Herald, but as I read the list, I found myself (as an editor and teacher) nodding, nodding, nodding. In fact, I think I could print this out and use it as shorthand to correspond with my co-editors over at Literary Mama. “This is definitely a #11.”

I can see how this list might totally paralyze or overwhelm a writer. But we are all prone to some or many of these things. It happens to me in my own writing.

As an editor, though, I’d say that these are my pet peeves.

1. Failure to observe the rules. Let’s get this most boring reason for rejection of entries out of the way. In this year’s Willesden competition, the rule most breached was the one that specifies no author’s name on the manuscript. Not double-spaced or single-sided also featured, as well as missing or incomplete entry forms. Last, in both senses, were entries received after the closing date. Something approaching one in ten was eliminated for not complying with the rules. It is likely that some people took incomplete information from third party sites, so I recommend that you get the official rules and entry form from the competition website. Then follow the rules exactly, not approximately. Any entry that is not in compliance with the rules will be binned, unread.

It astounds me how much stuff we receive that is not in compliance with our submission guidelines.

16. Full of errors. Slapdash spelling and grammatical errors are like bum notes in a musical audition. Even if you are a shining genius (as you all think you are) it is unlikely you will get away even with one. More than one and you’re stone dead. A lot of people who do not speak English seem to think they can find success in a short story competition with texts that contain errors in every sentence. Very rarely, there may be a story that is otherwise compelling but frustratingly riddled with errors.

I’ve had several of these. They drive me insane. People seem to think, “The copyeditor (or spellcheck) can take care of this!” I fear that this is where the god-awful practice of Estimated Spelling for kindergarteners has taken us. Well, okay, they can Estimate until they are in first grade, but then let’s show them how it’s really done, please? And let’s not even go into punctuation. Aghhh.

20. Summation. “All in the past” syndrome. This is a problem sometimes characterised as “undepicted action” or “telling instead of showing.” Most writers seem to have a grasp of the need to get attention at the beginning, but an astonishing number by the middle of page two have started to tell us all about some ancient family history. All sense of immediacy and story is lost and instead we’re having summaries of complex events that happened, one sentence each, like a dry and tedious history book.

Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

I have to agree with the conclusion though:

we are looking for something technically perfect, original, vivid and compelling in serious or humorous non-generic stories. How or why these come into existence may always remain a mystery but – like life itself – they do.

AND:

P.S. I should add that every single entry was a valiant effort. It’s a labour of love to read them as it must have been to write them, when most of us have full working days and only the tired few hours remaining to devote to our art. I only wrote the list of points above to be helpful and to open my own thoughts and prejudices to constructive criticism. Speaking only for myself, I think and always think every year, that all of the writers who entered showed talent and potential, and that among the stories there were many “near misses”.

I agree. I so totally agree. Writing IS valiant. It IS a labor of love. It is difficult and painful to write rejection letters. I have received as many as I have written, probably. But I thought, overall, that this list was helpful. I think writers often feel that they can “get away” with certain small things, but the truth is that this just isn’t possible. Don’t think about this list WHILE you are writing, but when you are revising, it’s a helpful checklist. And in the end, it’s really subjective, but I do think that these points are useful guidelines.

P.S. I hope this didn’t sound mean.

lrg_mitten_handcuffs.jpgAnd it almost killed me. Anyone who knows me at all knows how hard it is for me to say no to Anything that seems interesting, good or worthwhile, which has gotten me into a great state of overwhelm and not really being able to get anything done, ever. Each night when I go to bed, I have a mental to-do list a mile long for the next day, in multiple categories. It never ever ends, and yet I still keep piling things on.

But today I made the (sigh) decision to not offer my online Parent-Lit writing class this spring. I was going to do just one advanced class, but I kept putting off announcing it. They asked me over at Literary Mama if I wanted to list it under their class announcements, and I missed the deadline, chewing my nails to the quick and pacing around. I couldn’t decide.

I love teaching. And I particularly love teaching this class, which has the most passionate, wonderful students ever. But this feeling of never, ever being On Top Of Things has really been getting to me. I still have unfinished business from my last spring’s class, and if they are reading this, they will know what I mean. I swore that I would not start a new class until I finished this last responsibility to the prior group. It is still not finished. It is killing me.

So I said no. I took it off the top of my blog. I don’t know when I will put it back. I am fortunate enough that I do not need to offer this class for the income (and truly it is not enough income to make THAT much of a difference); I was doing it for community, and for love of writing and teaching. But I hate doing things badly; it stresses me more than I can say.

My camp-organizing job at Pact has really taken off in the last two weeks, after months of feeling totally stalled out. Now we are really going. (July 13-18th, everyone!) It is really happening, it is going to be AMAZING this year, but it is also going to take a lot of work. I have to prepare for my presentation at AWP later this month. I am the travel coordinator for my daughter’s crew team, and am in charge of shuttling over a hundred young people all over the state this spring. I am now co-editor of Creative Nonfiction over at Literary Mama. I have a lot of miscellaneous writing assignments, including my ongoing column, various essays, and the spectre of all my unfinished books looming over everything. My older daughter is counting the months to college, and time just seems to be evaporating in front of my eyes.

So I did it. I said no to one thing. It broke my heart a little, but for now I will just have to say, “Later.”

(so what’s with the bizarro picture, you ask? I was looking for an image of handcuffs, to illustrate the fact that I need to be handcuffed in order to keep typing “yes I’ll do that!” to anything that comes along. And I could not resist this woman’s delight at her metal, mitten handcuffs.)

images4.jpgAnybody out there wanting to write a novel? Well, I can enthusiastically endorse the online novel writing workshops of Masha Hamilton. She’s a brilliant, insightful and inspiring teacher as well as an awesome writer herself.  I took her fall novel writing workshop and I have to say, it pushed me to levels I really didn’t think I was capable of. It turned me around and upside down. I met some other truly incredible writers whose work I learned so much from.

She teaches two levels of workshop, one for beginning, aspiring novelists as well as one for those who are well into a manuscript.  I can’t say enough for her teaching techniques and amazing, generous, thoughtful feedback.

You can take this class in your pajamas, lying in bed, even, from any part of the globe. I highly recommend this method – it’s very relaxing, you don’t have to pay parking fees or scrape your windshield or leave your house when it’s feeling all cozy.

Is it on your New  Year’s list? Is 2008 the year you will write your novel?

Do it for yourself, or ask someone you love to do it for you. You’re worth it, and we all want to read your story.  Or, if you have a would-be novelist in your life, do it for them.  There is no sweeter or more affirming gift.

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