Monthly Archives: May 2012

Feel the Heat: The Summer Game Plan

Back from my romp with commercial cruising, I am looking at the months stretching before me, wondering what to do with myself. (Aside from teaching my online classes starting next week.) The possibilities are endless, so I have to consider what do I really want/need to accomplish right now.

  1. I’ve got to finish cleaning and organizing my house. That in itself is a month long project. My hope to get my kids involved along the way. Liliana and I are currently planning an upcycle/recycle craft day every week to find new uses for some of our old things.
  2. Cooking is still daunting on many levels to me, but I find it easier with the more I do it. I have also decided to go vegan in June, presenting all new challenges. It’s exciting.
  3. Walking was once the way a cleared my head. It needs to be part of my schedule again.
  4. Reading! My summer reading stack is growing as I type this!
  5. Writing, not just my blogs, but my professional work as well. Last summer I knocked out several pieces that I believe are some of my best.

What does all this mean for Generation Cake? Projects, recipes, and who knows what else. Stay tuned!

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Matters of Life and Death, Part 3

This week I present the third section of Melanie Rae Thon’s exercises. Please see last week’s post for Part Two: Remembering.

Part Three: Filling the Gaps

The intention with these exercises is to fill in the gaps of your memory through imagination and research. Here is the place where the exercises move from strictly autobiographical to fiction (or into a world of memoir that extends beyond isolated experiences).

I REMEMBER WHAT I DON’T REMEMBER

Choose something from your “I Don’t Remember” list that seems essential to the story. Try to render this scene or series of images you do remember. This is one of of the small, constant challenges of making fiction, a basic part of the process that requires great energy and attentions, and the willingness to explore your own imagination.

NECESSARY RESEARCH

Every story requires research of some kind. Sometimes we need to do “traditional” research, in the library or online (prudently). Melanie Rae Thon notes that even authors like Tim O’Brien, who writes primarily based on his experiences in Vietnam, must research by reviewing his own journals, looking at photographs, reading various texts, and talking to other vets. This makes his writing fuller, more vivid and accurate.

Research may involve reading medical or historical texts, seeing films, talking to your mother, taking a journey, visiting a priest, going for a dangerous walk, witnessing a birth or an autopsy, eating fresh raspberries in February . . .

Your task?

Make a list of the things you need to understand more fully in order to make the story you have been brainstorming for the past week. Look into them as best you can in the most fitting way. Remember, you aren’t writing an informational analysis, you are hoping to make your writing rich and vibrant.

To Be Continued . . .

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At Sea . . .

. . . literally! This week I am on a boat to Belize, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to read, here and elsewhere.

  • Stop by the new Recipe section to see what’s been cooking in the Generation Cake kitchen.
  • Check out my new links page for places I like to visit.
  • Page through my Reading List to see what books I love.
  • Trot on over to my writing blog, Amber Kelly-Anderson, and find inspiration for memory work, writing, and journal writing with Matters of Life and Death: Part One and Two.
  • Stop by The Baraza to see what’s going on. Search for Ginger Pop and you’ll find my regular column on pop culture, including this post on fictional characters I would not befriend.
  • Sound off in the comments about what you, Cakesters, would like to see on Generation Cake this summer.

XO, A

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Matters of Life and Death, Part 2

This is a continuation of Melanie Rae Thon’s exercises. Please see last week’s post for Part One: Brainstorming.

Part Two: Remembering

I REMEMBER

Look at your list from Part One.

Focus on the one that seems most compelling at this moment. (Sometimes a single event may be intertwined with several others–that’s fine. Try to explore them one at a time and perhaps combine them later.)

Try to remember as many details of the event as possible. Be specific. Focus on actual images, things you can perceive with your senses. (When you try to remember, imagine you are watching a movie of yourself in the past. What do you see and hear? If you could step inside the movie, what would you smell, taste, feel with your hands?) Avoid abstract words (love, hate, fear, rage, sorrow). Just try to conjure your movie through sensory details.

Begin this exercise with the words I remember. Every time you get stuck, say I remember again. Repeat the phrase until another image comes to you. Don’t stop writing. Write for at least 10 minutes, aim for 15. Don’t worry about telling the story. The purpose of this step is to evoke images, to discover what you already know.

I DON’T REMEMBER

Begin a second writing exercise with the words I don’t remember. Try to list all the things you wish you remembered but don’t. (For example, I can remember my grandmother’s purse but not the sound of her voice.)

Sometimes saying I don’t remember makes you remember another detail. Don’t worry if you stray, but when you’re stuck, say I don’t remember and keep going.

Again, write for 10 to 15 minutes.

Try the I remember/ I don’t remember exercise three separate times (in different moods, at different times of the day, etc.) If several events seem linked, try separate exercises for each one.

Stay tuned for Part Three.

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Matters of Life and Death: Part One

Looking through my grad school writing portfolio, I found this extended exercise to help writers take the basic principle of “Write what you know” to the next level. Some of the ideas I generated doing it the first time became strong, wonderful stories. Even rereading it brings up new responses and ideas. Over the next few days I’ll be posting it in sections. Hope someone finds it useful.

Translations: Matters of Life and Death

By Melanie Rae Thon

Part One: Brainstorming

Ask yourself the following questions. List as many episodes or moments as you can, avoiding just yes or no answers (you are looking to tap into specific memories).

  • Have you ever been close to death (your own or someone else’s)?
  • Have you ever witnessed or committed a crime?
  • Have you been involved in an accident?
  • Have you sustained serious injury or been critically ill?
  • Have you been the victim of a crime?
  • Have you ever been accused of something you did not do, or escaped punishment from something you did do?
  • Have you lost something that can’t be replaced?
  • Is there an incident in the life of a sibling or parent that seems disturbing and/or mysterious and/or miraculous to you?
  • Are there secrets in your family, stories that are known, but never discussed?
  • Are you capable of physical violence; and if so, how do you know?
  • Are you capable of focused, unselfish love? What revealed this to you?
  • Have you ever been trapped in a small place?
  • Have you been lost?
  • Are there any incidents in your life that have changed you (internally or externally)?
  • Are there any incidents that have revealed some part of your personality, especially a part you did not like?
  • Have you ever witness extraordinary kindness (in a stranger, yourself, a friend, a family member)?
  • What were the circumstances of your birth?
  • Have you ever feared for the life of someone you love, especially a sibling, a child, or parent?
  • Have you ever been surprised by your own strength or courage, or dismayed by your own failure to act with conviction?
  • Have you ever seen “the face of God,” ie. have you ever had an experience in the natural world that seemed transcendent?

Try this brainstorming exercise three different times, adding to the episodes and the details each time.

Thon adds at the bottom of this section: “Yes, I am using autobiographical material as a base for the experiment. But this is only a starting point. Any life becomes rich and complicated when you look at it closely. The questions you ask yourself can be asked of any narrator or any character. Recounting mysteries and turning points in your own life may give a source of ideas to tap for the lives of the people in your stories, or may open your heart to the people you encounter in life and in literature.”

 

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We Who Have Lost Our Minds Salute You!

This week marks the beginning of my summer break (which is about three weeks before summer school commences). People are quick to comment on how nice it must be not to work three months out of the year. To which I reply, “Yes, it is. And you should be glad we don’t, or the state of education would not be a crisis–it would be a full-scale apocalyptic meltdown.”

Take me, for example. I started the year in a division with five full-time English faculty. Even with those numbers, we all had about 130 students. (Load is 80 students, meaning that the state believes that is the number of students a community college teacher should work with.) Although 130 is a significant amount over load, I am used to it by now and can function with those numbers. Fast forward to spring semester.

Our online dual credit program added 82 students. Taught by another professor in the fall, their second semester of college English fell to me. At the same time, the enrollment limit of my Comp I class kept being stretched; a class that should have closed at 30 eventually closed at 43. I started the semester with 220 students. Then in February our dean, also an English teacher, left for personal reasons. Her classes were distributed between myself and an adjunct, bringing my totals to 246. That’s roughly three times the accepted limit.

Meanwhile, my mentor (another English teacher), announced her retirement at the end of the semester and another instructor decided to transfer to another campus. For those playing the home game, that means a department that started the year with five would end with two. Due to the state budget cuts, it was decided we would only replace two of those vacant positions. Then the state sent another round of cuts. My mentor visited me in my office to tell me administration wanted to replace only one English teacher, of the three leaving.

I shook my head and buried it in my hands. Then I actually started laughing like a character from Arkham. She just smiled knowingly. Finally I said, “I can’t do another semester like this one. Well, I can, but they are going to make me into a bad teacher.”

I meant it, too. This past semester was so exhausting. The grading never stopped, in part because much of the time I would have spent grading was spent replying to student emails. Some of the emails were valid questions; the majority of them were things that the students could have figured out on their own but were just too lazy. (My favorite was a student who didn’t want to bother to open the extra credit word file and just emailed me wanting to know what the file said.) By the end of the semester I tossed my traditional essay and short answer tests in favor of scan tron tests and one of the essays for Comp became a revision instead of an analysis.

The issues wasn’t just time–I was emotionally drained. Those dual credit students proved exceptionally needy, unable to do simple things like work in a group without emailing me multiple times to tell me that they “didn’t like each other.”  Plagiarism rates were the highest I have experienced since I began teaching. The on campus class I inherited from my departing dean was filled with students who would not bring their books, no matter what I said or did. Instead of my traditional discussions, I spent frustrating classes spoon-feeding the material while they took no notes and did no readings. And apparently there is some sort of plague in Texas because during the last two weeks of the semester I had six deaths my students’ friends and family members.

Certainly none of these behaviors are out of the norm, but the sheer number of students and their behaviors amplified my stress, leaving me, for lack of a better term, weary. I’m worn out by the students, the administration, and the beating that is working education. When people wonder how teachers end up as bad teachers, I think this might be worth looking in to. Too many students, too much crap, too little pay, too little help. A few more years like this one and I could see myself as a check list, regurgitation teacher. If I get to that point, I hope I still have the self-awareness to quit.

For now, I am going to take three months to read, walk, cook, write, and spend time with my family. I’ll teach three online classes, but the numbers will be much lower. When August comes, I’ll be ready to head once more into the breach, optimism and inspiration flying as my standard.

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The World My Daughter Wants

I always promised myself that when I became I parent I would never say, “Because I said so, that’s why.” This promise was obviously made when I was child-free and naive as to just how many questions of an increasingly ridiculous nature a 5 year-old can ask in a matter of minutes.

Sometimes, however, my daughter asks questions that are not ridiculous but that I still struggle to answer. Recently at her school they have been studying animals, learning things like which animals lay eggs and what a group of geese is called (a gaggle, FYI). Sitting at lunch last Saturday, Liliana asked me if eating eggs was killing baby chicks. I’ll admit the question took me by surprise. While vegetarian and vegan eating has certainly become a part of our household, I haven’t discussed it with Lili aside from telling her we’re eating more vegetables to be healthy (which is true).

My brain was whirling at this point–was I really prepared to discuss fertilization with my pre-schooler? No, I wasn’t. Instead I told her that the eggs she eats aren’t the kind that turn into baby chicks–the rooster has to take care of them first. (Lame, but sort of true.) She took a few more bites of broccoli and asked, as if she had been thinking about it for a long time, “Do other animals have to die for me to eat?”

What should do you say? I didn’t want to lie to her, but I also didn’t want to scare her. So I winged it: “When you eat chicken, honey, it comes from a chicken. We can’t eat chickens or cows when they’re alive.”

I know, lame again. But I really was at a loss. She was quiet while she finished her lunch (a rare thing for her) and then threw this one at me: “I don’t think I want animals to die for me to eat. Can I just have vegetables instead? Is there a way to eat meatballs without hurting animals?”

I can’t explain how proud of her I was. Not because she selected the lifestyle I’ve been leaning toward, but because she thought of something besides herself and her own happiness. She considered a bigger world that is not about immediate gratification.

In the end I told her it was up to her; if she wanted to eat meat, then she could eat meat. If she didn’t, that was fine, too. And I meant it. She is her own person and ultimately it is her choice. But the fact that she is even being more thoughtful about what she eats and how the world is impacted by her actions is lovely. (And because those who read regularly know that she is a ‘spirited’ child, I can be excused for bragging that she now asks me to put broccoli in most of her food.)

My recipe experiments continue and you will see a new page for Recipes. The drop down menu contains things I’ve personally tried with my kids and meat-eater husband. I have now added a vegan cookbook to my collection (I already have one vegetarian) and have already been rocked by some of the recipes.

Now I just need to figure out a vegan meatball . . .

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Repost: PSA

This post was something I originally wrote last fall, but given the current climate and events of the past few days, I felt a repost was appropriate.

For several weeks I have been drafting a piece about my feelings on not just gay marriage (which I have addressed before), but some issues of tolerance that I find crucial. However, no matter what I write, it will never been as powerful as what this young man has to say.

I am extremely proud to say that a large number of my friends shared this on Facebook. And just to put things in perspective, the young man above has parents whose marriage is not legally recognized. The parents of the child below are considered married in the eyes of God and the United States.

Just something to think about.

XO

A

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How to Beat the Slush Pile

Excellent and simple advice that I think many writers ignore.

THE LITERARY MAN

We’ve all been there: the Slush Pile. That netherworldly waste land of hopes, fears, and dreams. We write our stories, pen our poems, and send our art out into the art-hating world of television-loving football fans. And yet. And yet, somehow, authors are discovered through the slush pile every single day. At the New Yorker, hundreds of poems and stories come in every day. Every now and then an editor will reach out to the author, if their submission’s good but not quite ready, and request another story. Often, nothing comes of it, but every now and then this leads to the author eventually publishing. Another one of our beloved mags, The Southern Review, gets anywhere between fifty and a hundred stories a week and maintains that 95 percent of accepted stories from the slush. This means there’s hope! So, dear writers, how does one stand out among the…

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For Teachers: 10 Signs It’s Final Exams Week

1. You fantasize about taking all the papers in your office and reenacting this scene from Waiting to Exhale. When reprimanded by campus security, you would also growl, “It is trash.”

2. You have a conversation like the one below at least once an hour.

 

3. Or this one.

4. You seriously consider taking an application for Starbucks while waiting on your morning coffee.

5. You discover a new form of cheating previously unknown to mankind.

6. You type the phrase, “There is really nothing you can do at this late date to make up for all the missing assignments” so often that your computer begins to automatically insert it when you type “There is.”

7. You can’t remember the last time you consumed something that didn’t come out of a cup or a vending machine.

8. You discover what your students have known all semester: The Norton Anthology of English Literature makes a great pillow on your desk.

9. You hang a sign on your office door that says, “Do Not Disturb (already disturbed enough).”

10. You seriously consider putting this on an exam, just to see how many students would get it wrong:

Would you ask William Shakespeare to:
(a) build a bridge
(b) sail the ocean
(c) lead an army or
(d) WRITE A PLAY
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