Monthly Archives: February 2013

Just Push Play: Two Princes

Today marks the end of the BlogHer Love and Sex Post a Day month. Although I’ll continue to post many times a week, I am not officially doing a blog a day for March. But there will be some groovy stuff coming your way.

As a send off for this month, I’ll share a little song that for reasons beyond me, I desperately love. Like “Semi Charmed Life,” “She Drives Me Crazy,” and “Dancing Queen,” I let out an ear-piercing “squee!!”when I hear this song. I know every word. Heck, even the introductory strains send me into a frenzy.

So close your office door, crank it up, and enjoy this trip with a two-hit wonder from the 90s. Just go ahead now.

XO

A

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Write On Wednesday: Creative Reading

“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent reading in order to write; a man will turn over half a library in order to make one book.” –Samuel Johnson

As my students can attest, I am riddled with pet peeves when it comes to writing: the use of second person in academic essays, repetition of initial sentence words, repetition of verbs, repetition of pretty much anything (although there are certainly exceptions), cliches, comparing vampires to statues, overuse of adverbs, overly dramatic tags, overuse of names in dialogue, any description of passion that mentions fire or burning, naming a main character Jack . . . the list goes on and on. For creative writers, those mentioned above are the more nit picky, forgivable things that I will grumble to myself about, mark, and move on. However, I have two main pet peeves, not so much with writing but with writers:

  1. Writers who cannot/will not/do not take criticism.
  2. Writers who cannot/will not/do not read.

To me, these are almost unforgivable curses. If a writer cannot do these two simple things, they should not write. Or they should not make other people read what they write. Or maybe they should not make me read what they write. I would like to address taking criticism, which is a skill in and of itself, in another post. So I proceed with the second bit of peevish behavior: writers who do not read.

Before I get into the practical and craft building necessity of reading, I will share a story. Several years ago I joined an online writing forum. It wasn’t particularly great, but it allowed a place for writers to brainstorm together and find critique partners. (I’m always a fan of actively working on craft.) One day, a participant referred someone, who I shall call Pedestal, to a book that might help with the piece she was writing. Pedestal replied: “I don’t like to read that much because I feel it corrupts my style.”

This was one of those times I am glad I was behind a computer screen instead of in a face to face environment (my facial features betray everything, an unfortunate impediment that has gotten me into trouble on more than one occasion), because “What kind of arrogant, ignorant buffoon are you?” was probably written on every bit of my face.

It’s like those actors who in interviews (cough *Harrison Ford* cough) say that they don’t go to the movies, like they have such great lives that they don’t have to stoop to mass entertainment like the rest of us, even though that’s what they do for a living. Enjoy your ranch, Harrison. Glad we peasants were not held to your high standards and saw Indiana Jones, even the terrible one(s).

I feel the same way about writers who don’t read–how can you be a part of a community if a.) you only give your own work without appreciating others, and b.) you don’t know anything about what’s come before and what’s happening now in that community? It is downright baffling to me.

Back to Pedestal’s comment on style: certainly there is a possibility of stylistic influence, particularly when reading someone with distinct style. I went through a four month period in college when I was reading Bret Easton Ellis like there was going to be book burning at the end of the semester, and there is no doubt whom I was reading when reviewing my writing from that period. Do I still write like Ellis? No. I moved on to another author, kept writing, and continued to develop my own voice. Are those stylistic elements still present in my writing? Some bits, I’m sure. Less than Zero uses modular design in an interesting way that I play with sometimes. But Ellis was certainly not the first to do character point of view shifts from chapter to chapter. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying does the same thing. I don’t believe it to be presumptive to consider that Ellis read Faulkner at some point. Part of progress and creation as an artist, at least in my mind, is understanding what has come before, even if it isn’t your taste and/or genre, and then asking, “What can I do with this?”

My point then is this: writers must read to understand and appreciate good writing, as well as recognize bad writing. They must read to understand the fundamentals of narrative, grammar, and style so that they may then create in a more effective way. Writers must read so that they may begin to review their own work.

What to read? Read things in the genre you write (if you are in fact a genre writer). Read classics, especially if they aren’t in the genre you normally write/read. Read short stories. Read fiction, Read non-fiction. If you still have no idea where to start, look at the Reading List page. Many of those are available for free online or at the library.Or, go back to your favorite book that you haven’t read in awhile. Reread it and jot down what it is you love about it. I’m doing that at the moment with Blind Assassin.

Personal writing aside, I also suggest keeping a Reader’s Journal. There are fancy versions available, but those aren’t necessary. Use a plain journal, blog, or even just a Word document to write a critique every time you finish any book. Write about your thoughts on the book–what worked? What didn’t? How successful were things like style, pacing, plot, characters, dialogue, setting, description? Is there any technique or idea that you might want to explore in your own writing? Are there any quotes or scenes that you really loved or hated? Note those pages numbers for future use.

“There is then creative reading as well as creative writing.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Top Heavy Leisure: The Homework Problem

Yesterday as I was paging through my new issue of Brain, Child magazine (which, if you aren’t reading, you should–it’s the best parenting magazine on the market), I came across a section where parents where asked the craziest thing they had done to help their kids with homework.

Expecting things like late night runs to Wal Mart or helping hands on craft projects (which were present), I was shocked to find parents who admitted to–nay almost bragged about–doing their kids homework for them, refusing to make the children do homework, or telling the teacher that her definition of homework didn’t work for them and she should accept what they termed as homework.

Really?

Our country continues to fall behind in academics, students go to college and the workforce unprepared with poor work ethic, and we wonder why. It’s not the action that bothers me (okay, so it bothers me a little), it’s the attitude. That students deserve plenty of leisure time and education is infringing on that. With younger kids, I get not loading them down, but I also think that having something for them to do each night that relates to school is important.

As they get older, many students and parents seem to think leisure time and after school activities should take precedence over homework. My colleagues and I constantly receive emails from our dual credit students telling us they cannot do their college work because of their extracurricular activities. Apparently they don’t understand the extra part of extracurricular. More than that, a number of my students of all types are just lazy. They are annoyed that I ask them to do things outside of class.

I suppose I do have some nerve, asking them to read and write essays for a college writing class. Or asking them to turn things in on time even thought they have basketball practice and have known about the essay for three weeks.

Last week I was watching PBS in my hotel room at an assessment training conference. Charlie Rose was interviewing former DC superintendent Michelle Rhee (I first became aware of her in the documentary Waiting for Superman). Rhee made the point that education is not, as we treat it, a social issue. It is an economic issue. I’d never heard it articulated like that before, but she’s dead on. Education is not for socialization (that’s a side-effect); it’s to create a strong workforce. So when parents don’t make their students complete homework, they are modeling a poor work ethic whether they realize it or not.

Yes, I agree that there is a difference between homework and busy work. Yes, I agree students should have some down time. But many students seem to think they are only accountable during class hours (never mind those that bring their leisure time into my class as well–phones are the bane of my existence). Homework is the chance for them to work on bettering themselves, establish what they do and don’t know, and attempt to demonstrate the skills without someone looking over their shoulders.

So if your student comes home with work, teach them time management, answer their questions, guide them, but for their sake, make them do it.

XO

A

Categories: Get Smart, Life and Other Nonsense, The Little People and Furry Friends | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Kiss Off In Review

Last year after writing a number of love letters, which I have been reposting this month, I did a stint of Dear John Letters, breaking up with Kathryn Heigl, James Patterson, George Lucas, House MD, potentially Chelsea Handler, McDonalds, and my grey yoga pants. Many seemed like omens–George Lucas sold Star Wars, House ended its run, and I became a vegan a shortly thereafter. It was hard to pick just one to repost, but in the spirit of literature, I’ll give you my Patterson break up as it still represents our current status.

Dear James Patterson,

Ours is a complicated relationship, without a doubt. I have never shown you public respect, likening your books to potato chips–easily consumed with little substance. But in private, I enjoyed reading them for distractions, in particular the Alex Cross and Women’s Murder Club Series. When I didn’t feel I could stand another foray into free indirect discourse or political allegory, I’d grab one of your books and lose a few hours. You were essentially my book booty call.

I will say that you have a great sense of pacing and twists and so for that I’ve been willing to overlook your lax character development and often ridiculous dialogue. (FYI, groups of women, particularly professional women, do not refer to each other as ‘girl’ or ‘girlfriend.’) Our relationship was fine for what it was and I appreciated it when you did try to stretch yourself, although sadly that often showed why you should stick to what you’re good at.

So here’s the issue: your series have no end game. How many times can Cross have a girlfriend/wife/lover who ends up dead/kidnapped/in witness protection? How many times can we have the same masterminds interfering? I just can’t commit to you because you can’t commit to any sort of logical series arc. And to make matters worse, you co-write a bunch of this stuff. Really? You need help with that stuff?

I just can’t keep using you like this. You don’t fill my needs and I think we both know it’s time for me to delete your number from my phone. I promise, no more drunk dials for you, even Kiss the Girls. I wish you the best.

XO

A

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Potent Quotables: Twelfth Night

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Five Things that Rocked Feb. 17 to 23

  1. This Buzzfeed article of “23 Tips for Parents Taking Selfies.” I feel like mother of year after looking at some of that crazy.
  2. Ploughshares. It happened. Read about it here.
  3. Watching my pibble and my cat work together for a common goal. It was sweet in a dominate predator kind of way.
  4. My review of A Good Day to Die Hard on Cinefilles.
  5. This picture someone posted on my Facebook:

XO

A

Categories: Get Smart, Let Me Entertain You, Life and Other Nonsense, The Little People and Furry Friends, Write On | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Little Minnow Me: Welcome to Ploughshares

The New York Times once called Ploughshares Literary Magazine “the Triton among the minnows,” which is an impressive way of saying they are the cat’s meow. Aspiring writers should, if they don’t already, read the magazine because they continue to publish some of the best short fiction today (along with other things). Personally, I have a collection of old issues guest edited by writers I admire like Sherman Alexie and Elizabeth Strout.

Last November, on a Friday where I was supposed to be grading but found myself messing about on Twitter, I discovered that Ploughshares was looking for bloggers. Maybe it was the stress level inherent in the end of the semester or maybe it was too much coffee–whatever the reason, I thought I’d take a shot in a barrel of fish and submit a proposal. It was one of this things I send off into the universe every now and then, never expecting to hear back about.

Of course I did hear back (or there wouldn’t be a story). The invitation to join Ploughshares was followed by a flurry of emails between myself and my dean as I had to get permission to take outside employment since the publication required me to sign a contract. Waiting for confirmed permission with the deadline for accepting the invitation looming was probably the hardest part. In the wee hours of the last day of the semester, I got the all clear.

All that exposition to share that today my first post went live. I’m nervous, I’ll admit, as I sit here in my Ploughshares t-shirt. I’ve watched the other new bloggers post over the past few weeks and my resume is decidedly less impressive. Their posts have been witty and often cerebral as they approach reading and writing; mine is about why we like cowboys. I definitely feel like a minnow. So, even if you don’t care about cowboys or literary journals or literature, go take a look at my post for one reason: I am just a lowly teacher from Texas who is working for someone prestigious just because I had the audacity to say, “Why not me?”

“The Myth of the Literary Cowboy, Part 1: Peculiarly American”

XO

A

Categories: Get Smart, Write On | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Bedside Companions

When people find out that I am an English teacher, they generally ask me one of two things. The first involves telling me that my field is becoming obsolete because no one reads, no writes, no one cares, and there is no career or purpose in the study of literature. The question here is basically, “Don’t you agree that your life’s passion is useless?” Depending on the asker and the company, I have several answers to that, none of which are relevant to today’s topic.

The other question I get, usually from older people, is: “I would like to encourage my child/teenager to read. What do you suggest? What do you read?” My response is always the same: “Well, what do you read?” The majority of the time the parent just looks sheepishly at the ground and admits they aren’t much of a reader. Some are bolder and just tell me point blank they don’t care or don’t like to read. But they want their kids to? This is a point I could argue for hours, but instead, I start by saying, “I read everything I can.”

This is the truth. I read novels, I read non-fiction, I read plays, I read newspapers, I read magazines . . . generally if it’s in print, I give it a whirl. That being said, I am still not as well-read as I would like to be. I have friends who rush out the day a book is released and buy it. It usually takes me a few months to get to something, unless it is a work I have been anticipating. But whether or not I’m not reading a new release, I am always reading. Reviewing the pile on my nightstand at the moment, a series of categories emerge that I find to be highly indicative of my reading style and tastes.

Something New This represents the intellectual category–books that I have never read before that actually require me to pay attention. Sometimes, they are just works of well-crafted fiction, sometimes they are more challenging reads. Most of the time they aren’t even particularly new works–they are just new to me. These more challenging reads I have to save for summer because I can’t focus enough during the semester to really process the work.

Fluff My fluff readings are also books I haven’t read yet, but tend to be paperbacks or commercial genre fiction that require little to no concentration. I don’t just deal with chick-lit (in fact, I rarely read chick-lit unless I hear good things from other people); this category also includes light-weight thrillers (such as Dan Brown or James Patterson) and the YA fiction which is often times better than adult level works.

Reruns Very rarely do I get rid of a book when I am finished reading it. Even if I hated it, I generally will keep it to go back later and reread. It’s funny how tastes can change. For example, I was in college when I read Bridget Jones Diary and I thought it was utter self-indulgent crap. Five years later I picked it up again and was surprised that once I wasn’t in a shroud of undergrad pretension, I actually enjoyed the unique nature of the character Fielding had created, along with her sly little winks at Austen’s prototype. (I still, however, think the second one is crap.) In this category, I seem to cycle through books that I have read before. Sometimes I will read something that I have only read once. But more frequently, I reread the same roughly twenty works, most of which have been read at least five times.

School Related or Non-Fiction This tends to change depending on my academic status. When I was a student (I like to take graduate classes when I can to get hours above my masters and improve my overall knowledge. Plus, it keeps my brain from getting soggy). During that time this space was occupied by things like Renaissance Drama: An Anthology and an overload of philosophical texts on the role of ‘other’ and Aristotle in justification of native treatment during the Spanish colonization of Latin America (and most of those were even less interesting than that description, save the one on Native witchcraft). This spring I gave myself a pass on school and instead read a variety of non-fiction works, most about WWII from my grandfather’s collection.

Magazines This is probably the most random pile of them all because magazines are my short handed way of indulging all of my vices and virtues. The top of the pile is Entertainment Weekly, a magazine I have gotten since junior high. It’s on top because it’s the only weekly one. It’s also the only one I tend to read cover to cover. Then there’s Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. I try to read as much of these as I can, but anyone who has cracked the cover of either one can tell you that some of those articles need their own zip codes. National Geographic is a family tradition and I generally read all its articles as they are concise and enlightening. But lest you think I am too scholarly in my magazines, the pile also contains Better Homes and Gardens, Elle, InStyle, and at the moment FitPregnancy and Pregnancy and Newborn.

In general, I read roughly four books and a slew of magazines simultaneously. What I pick up on any given day depends on my mood, level of focus, and time constraints. On a day when my daughter is at school, I am more likely to pick up one of the more challenging works. If I’m reading with Monsters, Inc. or Up playing in the background while confirming to my daughter that, yes, those are balloons, it’s more of a fluff day.

I could give a long list of books I suggest for every occasion, but I think I will save that for another day. My main plea, no matter your age, is to read anything you can, even if it’s just an article about how to make the perfect chicken nugget. And for those who complain of being slow readers, reading is like running–the more you do it, the stronger you get.

Categories: Get Smart, Life and Other Nonsense | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Write On Wednesday: Portraits of Artists

Previously I shared my fascination with black and white artistic author photos, highlighting images of Eudora Welty, Katherine Ann Porter, Virginia Woolf, Colette, and Margaret Atwood.

Finding images of male writers that compare to the women is difficult for me–most of them lack the intensity or are off in some way (Hemingway’s tendency to be photographed with guns, the obvious way Fitzgerald pandered).

Samuel Beckett. The Irish playwright has a fantastic face and there are a number of striking shots of him looking directly into the camera. The almost goofy nature of this image, his glasses on his forehead, shows that he is not all intensity. The Irish sense of humor is evident.

John Fowles. I happen to love pictures of Fowles because he, like me, always has crooked glasses. The rocky seashore, the isolation: he might have just stepped out of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Even though the photo is certainly posed, it looks almost as if Fowles was stopping to say something when the photographer snapped it.

Jack Kerouac. In pictures, Kerouac tends to read as an aspiring method actor–all intensity and stray locks of hair. Photos like this one are striking to me in that I can see the author caught unaware, working, as opposed to posing. His eyes are closed as if he is away from the physical world. Thinking? Listening? Creating?

Haruki Murakami. The Japanese writer is often photographed in guarded positions. His go-to pose is to lean his head on his hands. Sometimes he’ll cross his arms over his chest. In this image, the photographer either wisely gave him something to keep his hands occupied, or Murakami used the kitten as a crutch. Note the hand placement and the way he is holding it–is he protecting the kitten or the other way around? They seem somehow ostracized from the viewer, isolated. Thematically, the photo seems deeply connected to Murakami’s own writings.

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Just Push Play: The Herb Ritts Edition

No, Herb Ritts was not a musician. Technically, he was a fashion photographer whose black and white work defined a generation. Careers were made by his work. He also directed some of the sexiest music videos in the history of ever. This week Just Push Play is dedicated to Ritts, a visual genius gone way too soon. I would have loved to feature “Wicked Game” with my other favorite, “Love Will Never Do Without You,” but sadly the latter is not available. However, if you’ve ever seen the Ritts directed video with Miss Jackson and a few famous fellas, you know it’s crazy cool.

(Note: This is a slightly edited version of the original Chris Isaak video because Youtube requires age verification to show the original. It’s that hot, ya’ll.)

I miss Janet Jackson. This album defined my junior high life and this video still makes my day.

 

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