Tag Archives: grad school

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)

The truth about empathy in teaching

As I sat there, reconstructing the cheekbone and eye socket of my clay face, I knew I still wasn’t doing it right. I couldn’t visualize how to build up everything around the eyes so that it looked more human, more real. Sure enough, my Advanced 3D studio art professor came around another time before class was over and poked his big thumbs deep into her skull.

That’s where the eyes should be.” He must have told me three or four times exactly what I was doing wrong. And, of course, using his thumbs, he would try to help correct it. Then he would walk away.


Visualizing the types of writing that I now ask my undergrad students to do is a big part of the way I explain and teach when assigning new projects. I also draw in a notebook as the students talk in my office hours, translating what they’re saying into a visual shorthand so that we can look at the shape of the draft they are crafting. The topics, for all of my students, for all of their projects, are self-inflicted.


In undergrad studio art classes, I was increasingly unable to create anything for art’s sake. Way more devoted to abstract ideas and the process of making art than the end result, I struggled in assignments when I didn’t have an immediate concept to build from. I never trusted myself to simply create a “draft” and then make it better through revision. In fact, I don’t think I learned to properly revise writing until the end of grad school. My favorite studio pieces–both of mine and others–were those that were heavy on concept and visually intriguing. After taking an atelier at NYU between my junior and senior years, I really understood what that meant. My heart wasn’t in the things I did without concept, and they suffered.


Revision is the hardest part of writing, and it’s a foreign concept for students who’v been told their whole lives that they write well, until they take some kind of creative writing class, or are forced to do revisions in a senior seminar or other “super hard” class. I’m convinced that it’s the revisions innate in these courses that make students fall in love with [and paradoxically hate] writing, at least the ones who continue to do it well. Revisions turn people into good writers.

Today I assigned a braided narrative project in my advance writing class–made up of junior and senior undergrad students. Before class started, a draft of their previous assignment was due in an online dropbox–a spiraled essay. The spiral has traditionally been the hardest concept for the students to master, so I try every semester to make my explanations better, more thorough, to assign better examples and have more discussions about the spiral in selected readings. I know I’m not completely failing because there is at least one someone every semester that writes a spiraled essay on the first attempt; however, most drafts have to be heavily revised into a spiral once they’ve been turned in–using the revision grade up on mastering the shape instead of focusing on polish.


Today, as I went to the board and drew the familiar two-tone wave recreated in Bascom’s “Picturing the Personal Essay”–like a simplified and horizontal 2D representation of DNA–I saw recognition in their faces. For braided narratives, a writer has to submerge one storyline while talking about another. Sumberge is a good visual cue because the narrative is simply out of sight, not out of mind. A good braided narrative will utilize jargon of one narrative in descriptions of the other, to keep the relevancy of one story to the other alive in the reader’s mind. Swtich, rinse, repeat.

“What would happen if one’s ‘spiraled’ draft was actually a braid?”

“One would have to revise.” I smiled in condolence at the class–hoping that they were better than I had been as an undergrad.  At least a few students immediately understood that the essays they had turned in for me were in fact braids, not spirals, and in a week’s time when I hand them back, some of the shock will be dissipated.


I never correctly deepened the eye sockets of fake-clay-face. Even though I trusted my art prof, I didn’t trust what I couldn’t visualize myself. I ended up making a cartoonish version of a face in relief on a rectangular slab of background that I later had to bronze. We were learning the lost Renaissance art. There was no real assignment prompt for the bronze piece, and at the time, I still really needed prompts. So I settled on something I thought would be difficult to render in clay: a face concentrating, with one eye puckered closed, looking at something just past her thumb. Her hand would be in relief, coming out of the bottom right corner of the frame and her face would take up a lot of the left half. I had at first thought that maybe she was threading a needle–that’s what the face portrayed, but I never ended up creating a needle to go in her hand. Ultimately, the art object that resulted from me learning the lost wax method process was a huge failure. It wasn’t beautiful, accurate, or useful. And, it was heavy. Cast in bronze, my relief face-with-hand-in-slab was an ugly reminder that I was not cut out for this. The resulting 12″ x 18″ (and roughly 10 lbs) failure spent some years outside in my mother’s flower beds before I finally got rid of it.


“So then what is the difference between a spiral and a braid?”

I drew a random constellation of different shapes on the board under the diagram of the submerged braid. And then I connected the different ‘dots’ one at time, drawing a spiral as a I went, and explained that with each new piece of your spiral, you are still talking about the same concept. “The pieces may seem random at first, but you connect each one back to the larger idea. There is one main topic, and you keep approaching it in different ways so that readers travel with you, piecing together their own understanding until all the segments are there and a fully developed image of your one concept shows up–like a picture in a connect-the-dots-coloring book.”

After class, a student wants to talk about using his path of religion and spirituality for the braided narrative and asks if that could be two braids.

“It sounds like one narrative to me. Think about the braided narrative assignment like a really long extended metaphor or comparison of two objects that at first glance do not seem alike. Except, instead of objects, both are narratives. Once you have your first narrative in mind (for you: the story of your spirituality, how you came to be here), consider what other thing in the universe moves in the same way as that first narrative, or has similar characteristics. Surprise your reader. Alternate between the stories, using juxtaposition, to highlight their similarities.”

To me, this is a discovery moment, a moment when I feel I’ve stumbled across a new way of explaining something I’ve explained many times before. I try to harden it in amber so that I can pull it out in a later semester and use it again. But almost as quickly as my moment of victory came, and the student walked out the door seemingly on course, I started to second guess myself.


I see myself in my undergrad students. I see a good writer that doesn’t know how yet to be a good writer–and I don’t take it for granted that that kind of student is always on the verge of going elsewhere, of deciding her most recent failure is a sign to get out of this wordy mess. So, I want to always be saying the one thing that fits in the lock and opens the door. I want the essays I assign to be understood on some primal level, so that we can dig easily with our fingers below the surface where the meaning is submerged.

In grad school nonfiction workshops, I had one professor who liked to use a found metaphor of “reading tea leaves” when talking about crafting CNF. I heard and overheard her use this comparison several times with various students. It is a good comparison. Yet there are two true things I know about it: I only partially understood what she meant at the time, and I’ve never once used her comparison myself as an instructor of writing.

And so the real discovery is that the types of explanations instructors and professors latch onto are most likely the ones that help our own selves understand the concepts better. And if we don’t keep looking for more, we’ll only be teaching ourselves. I think this may factor into “The Source of Bad Writing”–or its equivalent in face-to-face instruction. I may see myself in my students, but I should continuously search for who they are when explaining concepts.


How does seeing yourself in the people you work with or work for help you empathize and understand them? Are there limitations in your field for doing this?

Short Answer

A student asked me recently how I got into running. Knowing that a have an ability to tell a very long (read: boring) story, this is what I wrote back:

I started playing club soccer in 5th grade, and then I did a little cross country and long jump in middle school. I kept playing soccer on the side, not for school, until I was in high school. I didn’t actually really get into running as its own sport/exercise until graduate school. I needed something to help with stress, and I really enjoyed it. Graduate school was exhausting. In the summer time, I was traveling and  teaching so much, that the only free time I had, I spent running. That’s about all I had the money for [!] and I didn’t know the areas where I was stationed that well, so it was a fun adventure going out in the mornings and running around the cities and neighborhoods, getting lost and finding my way back. It made me feel strong and clear-headed. It made me feel independent, and I needed that sense of control in a chaotic life. I guess I still do.