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#AWP15–The One Liners

Here’s a snapshot of my experience measured in sound bites, a dozen one-line reminders, recommendations, and definitions I overheard (or synthesized) at AWP last week. Sure, they’re out of context, but isn’t that part of the fun? I’ll commit to making full pieces out of some of these soon.

12. Listicles are a legitimate form of online publication.–@JamieIredell

11. Writing (capital W) about something is actually about creating distance.–@BenTanzer

10. An essay is a unique expression of universal insight.–@AnnaMarch

9. Regardless of medium, the rules still apply.–@MarlonJames5

8. You don’t get to have a mind without a body.–Eula Biss

7. There is no self beyond the constructed self.–Claudia Rankine

6. It’s not a blog, it’s a sandwich.–@MattSailor

5. If you want to be a writer, you must become teachable–if you succeed, the piece will be your teacher.–@ElyssaEast (I think she’s paraphrasing someone else, but didn’t write it down)

4. You do not need a conclusion.–Joe Hoppe

3. “[Writing] is like being in a dark cave…you have to sense the limits of where you are, what you’re doing, and where you’re going.”–Elizabeth Wiley, reading Robert Root, quoting Arthur Miler

2. Once you know the interlocutors, you have to make a party for all of them to talk: this will be the form.–Maggie Nelson

1. We are afraid to write what’s true, but it always seems to be the most relevant.–@CherylStrayed


A March Madness Win

I miss you. I learned SO much working with you and days like today make me realize just exactly how much. Or rather, that I didn’t understand exactly how much. 🙂

I was tired and most likely grumbling about the things I needed to do the next day when I got this message from a former student. I hadn’t had this student in a formal classroom since the spring semester of 2013.

Many teachers need a win at this point (March Madness isn’t all about basketball after all), when the academic year is so close and yet so far from over. I needed a win. So, thanks, former student.

Writing is one of those subjects that creeps up on you. A person can improve by leaps and bounds, but it’s a slow process–compared to many other learn-it-or-don’t subjects college students take. This particular student took an upper level course with me, but one of the thoughts that keeps me energized for freshmen comp classes each semester is the idea that somewhere, down the road, they will use these skills and habits formed in my composition class to help them succeed, and that will have made a difference. Teaching writing is not for those who need instant gratification. And that gratification, when it does arrive, is all the sweeter for it.

Moving the Earth

The essay’s engine is curiosity; it’s territory is the open road.–Cheryl Strayed

I was having a particularly awful set of days last week. Thursday morning was all minor set backs and fits. It took a couple of hours after waking around 5:00AM for a the desolate mood to set in. I had a slew of meetings to attend, to prep, to run, or to observe, as I had had every day for the previous two weeks. And I was nearing the end of my push to observe twenty-two of my student staff hosting review sessions for various classes around campus. The observations themselves weren’t the main factor keeping my mind-heart balance in a funk. Maybe it was the full moon. Maybe seasonal depression was finally catching up to me–since it was March and still below 20 degrees. Maybe it was all the things that I’ve been forced to realize in the last year about my life and relationships–you see, this is how dramatic it felt. Like I was some sci-fi extra waking up from a dream-reality to realize I’m sitting in a pod of primordial ooze. Like I’d been foolish to think life was on track.  And yet, even though I could reasonably see and feel that I was simply focusing on the wrong things and that nothing had really changed in the last two days to warrant this sudden jarring of my positive outlook, I couldn’t unthink the things I was thinking. My mood didn’t lift until sometime Friday night.


And nothing was ever the same again.

Cheryl Strayed guides her students with the idea that this is the “invisible, unwritten last line” of every essay–that as writers the goal is to move our readers by shifting the earth around them. I like to think of reading experiences–the really good ones–as keys that unlock something inside of us. Something that once unlocked, can’t be locked again.


D had been on the side lines of my terrible, horrible, no good very bad day all Thursday, and when Friday morning wasn’t showing signs of being different, she texted: “Seriously. Do something for yourself.” She was trying to get me to take a half day and visit a friend who was enjoying a day off herself in Chicago. I settled for leaving right after my last meeting of the day–which ended at 3:00PM.

I was on the open road by 3:30PM toward Ravenswood and my friend J, armed with my will to be happier and an overnight bag. At some point in the evening, J and I decided to turn the music off and step away from the crackers and port wine cheese. We moved our beers from the couch to the kitchen table and swapped reading material. We were talking about our nonfiction origins and loves–pieces that had awoken something inside of us when we read them, the ones that had stayed with us ever since. I told J that my students had recently read Brian Doyle’s “Joyas Voladoras” in preparation for a sentence workshop. I told her that I couldn’t say anything else about it until she had read it herself. She sat me down with a copy of David Quammen’s “Strawberries on Ice.”


“Joyas Voladoras” was not assigned reading in my graduate studies. I read it only after I’d purchased the Best American Essays 2005, years after graduate school, on a hunt for fantastic nonfiction reading assignments for writing students. I can see myself, in my upstairs office at school, during the last weeks of summer sun pouring in through the broken blinds, books piling up on my desk in preparation for the semester’s syllabi. I was assigning “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog”–a whimsical essay by Kitty Burns Florey remembering a time in American school life when diagramming sentences was king–and there it was. Doyle’s flash essay precedes the Burns Florey piece in the book’s line up. Looking at the table of contents, a mandatory ritual after any Best American purchase, the Latinate title was a flashing sign that said Danger, beware of boredom up ahead! I didn’t recognize Doyle’s name. I was worried that whatever the topic was, it would be out of my realm of interests. I was nervous that the prose would be laborious. I was assuming that I wouldn’t enjoy it. (So, basically, I was thinking like a typical under-motivated student.) And, I was wrong.

Once I had read the first sentence, I couldn’t stop until I devoured the thing whole.


D met up with J and I last Friday at some point and we had a family evening–making food together and enjoying the laughter of people you love. I was amazed that only hours before I had felt the world spinning off into a dark place I’ve been before.  With “Joyas Voladoras” as it is with other pieces close to my heart–pun intended (read the piece)–the element of surprise is the main delight. This piece embodies the way nonfiction can start logically, interestingly, and firmly rooted in verifiable facts and concrete science only to shatter the expectations of itself it had just built to end up somewhere abstract and deep in the emotional world. I knew I wasn’t out of the woods, as they say, but I had to marvel at how human expectations are so easily upturned and how a good piece can move the earth ever so slightly into place.

A [writer]’s dilemma

In the argumentation class I teach at a local university, I love teaching the Post Hoc Ergo Procter Hoc fallacy: after this, therefore because of this. The freshmen composition students and I talk about how humans try to make sense of the world, even when we don’t have all the information, and about how sometimes our logic is faulty because we tend to see chronology as an indicator of cause and effect in places where there are other options to describe how something came to exist or be the way it is.


(Picture taken from the lovely Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments you can find here.)

I observe this fallacy in my students’ papers and in-class discussions. I catch myself doing it too sometimes–looking for a simple answer when I know there are other factors, more complicated, less of my control.


9 January 2015
Mandy Len’s New York Times article–for which she was interviewed on the Diane Rehm show yesterday (10 February 2015).

Not only did this article force me to look at my own relationship and consider what we (humans, not me and my partner–although I guess I mean that too) know about love, but it forced me, once again, as I am so often forced, to rejoice in the knowledge that I know talented folks. That people I went to graduate school with a decade ago are “making it through” and being writers and being published in the the New York Times as well as [insert a lot of other really awesome publications here].

I really wanted to post a response, but I kept putting the three-day student-staff training I was organizing ahead of it.

25 January 2015
Ann Bauer’s Salon piece calling for more honesty in the writing community about How-It’s-All-Possible. The article offers the idea that time and the luxury to focus on writing may not be as handcuffed to motivation or hard work (alone) as many play it up to be.

I saw this first as a tweeted link from a writing student I had four years ago, in my first class at the school where I’m currently teaching. I haven’t asked what my former student–now a writer/editor making her own way through–saw in the piece, why she retweeted it, but I imagine it’s because the piece publicly acknowledges that class and socioeconomic status ARE tied to our dreams more than the writing community (or the US public at large) like to admit.  Or perhaps that’s why I retweeted it.

Retweeting is a lot easier than posting a piece, but isn’t as authentic to my thoughts as a post would have been. Tweeting keeps me involved in the writerly world when everything else in my life is pulling me away. So I tweet, and I’m happy, and I regret.

7 February 2015

Laura Bogart’s response (also from Salon) to Bauer wherein she turns the false dilemma between “thriving and surviving” as an artist on its side and references the idea that many of us mortal writers are looking for a way through, not out, of our real lives (from Strauss’s piece on Wild for Elle).

With this piece, the cycle starts over again, doubling out. I again am thankful for the level of success and accomplishment that writers I know are achieving. It’s a reason to be hopeful. I’ve seen more people from grad school posting their own stuff in the last year than I have in the previous 6 years combined. It’s as if we are all finally arriving in the dock after a slow and seasick ride across the ocean.

And then I realize that I’m still on the boat and that this metaphor sucks anyway because it erroneously assumes that there IS a dock when I know what’s more likely happening is that my friends are simply getting on a different boat or moving up to a higher deck, where they have a room with a view.

I again ask myself how I got where am I, and why I’m not somewhere else, and I again am torn between causations and blame, feeling one thing but knowing another.


Like Laura Bogart, Sallie Mae–now Navient–gives me a monthly bruise. I’m still working my way through, or trying to find a way through, but I’m not seeing many windows, and that’s a scary thing. So how do I know if I’m taking the logical fallacy route and simply finding blame and causation where it’s easiest for me to feel the most guilty–especially when there’s no evidence that I’m a particularly lazy individual or unmotivated? How do other struggling writers–the ones I don’t see posting on my social media feeds–handle all the years of not making it through or around?

Perhaps they force themselves to write and post crappy first drafts on the same deadlines they give their upper-level writing students.

As a thirtysomething between Gen Xers and Millennials (the world sometimes forgets the Jared Catalano Generation) I am constantly reconsidering my identity, my past, my path. Comparing myself to others is also a soul-crushing part of being a writer. And even as I type this, I’m second guessing whether I truly identify as a writer anymore. But I know that I’ve written today–and my former teacher and super success story EJ Levy says: you’re a writer when you’re writing.

(Students: this is 876 words)

What’s on yours? (The BumperSticker Assignment)

The following post is my own answer to the prompt I will be giving my students on the first day of class in a little over a week. I’m posting it as an example and as a sign of good faith that I will also be posting on a deadline this spring.

By the time I was halfway through high school, I couldn’t wait to get out of the state, for good. I wasn’t a world traveler, but I knew enough to want something different than north Texas heat and a particular type of religious politics. It took me six years—finishing high school and college—to do it, but two months after my college graduation I set out alone, with my azure 1997 Mitsubishi Mirage (Molly) traversing 1300 miles from Mansfield, Texas to Washington D.C. to start my new, broke life as a writer. I only brought what I could cram in my car—which was mainly books, clothes, and cds. I purchased some cheap Swedish furniture for the room I rented in a house with three other twenty-somethings and borrowed a futon.

Ten years later, I’ve taught in DC, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, and Wisconsin, but not in Texas. There are fewer and fewer reasons for me to go back. In fact, before my recent trip to Ft. Worth, the last time I’d been back was 2011. But even though it is far from my body it is close to my mind. I think about Texas often, but I don’t ache to return the way I once yearned to leave. It is a complicated love, but it is love. I believe in leaving home to understand how you feel about it.

When considering who I’ve become since I left home, I can easily list in a minute several things I believe in, but my identity is most connected lately to two things: The first is that I live to see and understand connections–that’s part of what good writing is: making a connection between what I’m just now seeing, knowing, discovering and things that I’ve already seen, known, or discovered. If my life were a car, the bumper might read #NerdAlert expressly because I think that if we look at anything close enough and consider it carefully enough, it isn’t boring. Boring means you haven’t given it a chance to be not-boring. I like the phrase “Geeking Out” better, only partially because I relished the short-lived late 90s show Freaks and Geeks, but alas, I am not as technological as I think the word “geek” signifies. Nerd, on the other hand, seems to imply not only that I know a thing or two but that more importantly, I LIKE learning.

I think English–and composition specifically–chose me because when a person studies writing, it means she is studying how other people think, react, create, and understand. And, you are forced to consider and question how it is that YOU think, react, create, and understand. As a writing instructor, every subject in the world is available to me. Because as students of communication, we can and should use many perspectives and tools. I love that writing, as a form of communication, can involve all of the other fields of study. #NerdAlert

The second thing my identity is most connected to these days is a sense of priority. I think that with each passing semester and year I’m getting wiser at choosing my short-term priorities and my long-term priorities so that I have no regrets about how I’ve spent my day, my week, my month, etc. I’m not there yet–having absolutely no regrets–but I’ve come a long way, and I can celebrate that. For instance, I will be teaching two different courses this spring, directing the PARC with its tutors and SI Leaders, training for and running some races, and being a first reader for Creative Nonfiction–among the other everyday things (like spending time with my Drew and our cats [and watching Netflix through our Apple TV when we can’t bring ourselves to just go to bed already]). Like all of you, I struggle with what needs to get done each day and with making the time for the things that truly matter in the long run to me, but (hopefully also like you) I’m making smarter decisions about how I spend my time and who I spend it with. I believe in continually redefining [your]self. I am excited that I get to work and learn from a new group of writers this semester as I continue to work on becoming more like the person I’m meant to be each day.


So it’s another early morning I wake with Drew, make breakfast, have coffee and then she’s out the door for the day and I’m here with two needy cats and a pile or four of work. Most days I jump right in and focus until noon, when I shower or play with the cats or eat lunch, but not today.

Today I have another cup of coffee and do the laundry and think about writing again.  Today, I start a blog.