Monday, April 29, 2013

Emily Recommends: These Is My Words

Have you ever read a book that you loved so much you couldn't put down, yet didn't want to finish? You read one more chapter, one more page, all the while telling yourself that at this rate, you'll be done by tomorrow, and then the world you've been immersed in will be over, the characters silent. Bookless. But you just want to keep reading...

That's how I feel about Nancy E. Turner's These Is My Words. The story, written in diary form, follows the life of Turner's great-grandmother as she grows from teen to woman in the harsh Arizona territories. It's vast-sweeping, with a fantastic love story and plenty of western action. This is the third time I've read the book--a rarity for me. It's been years since I last read it, though, and I've forgotten many of the details so that it feels new. I'm also struck by the pieces that have worked their way into my psyche. For example, pious and gentle Savannah tells her sister-in-law, Sarah (the main character) that you know you're in love when we can sit comfortably in silence together. I first read this book in my late teens, and I absorbed that little gem as an ultimate measuring stick for knowing whether you're in love. What a reminder, a I finish revising my YA novel, of the power of fiction.

Friday, April 26, 2013

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Making it Big

I was captivated at noon today, hearing my former creative writing professor Patricia Hampl give a stage reading of "The Big Time: F. Scott Fitzgerald" on MPR. Written by Hampl, supportive by live jazz music, and featuring the letters of Fitzgerald, we follow him from his low summer as a "five-time failure" in dreary St. Paul to his success of rock-star proportions, and what he does with it. Happy listening!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Coming soon...

Coming soon, a review of Zubair Ahmed's rich and lyrical poetry collection, City of Rivers.

If you look at it that way....

Photo: humor, I admit, but a good perception-shifter.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Emily Recommends: Blood, Bones & Butter

I have spent the past week or so lost in Gabrielle Hamilton's beautifully written memoir Blood, Bones & Butter. She has led an astounding and frenetic life, both in and out of the kitchen, and she writes about it unflinchingly and graciously. She credits the parents who taught her so much of what she needed to be a successful chef while also presenting the ways they destroyed her adolescence. This is a memoir told with humor, openness, and a lyrical delight of food. I offer these two sentences as one early example:

"I love how you can snap a pea's stem and pull the string and how it leaves a perfect seam that opens easily under your thumbnail. And then you find those sweet, starchy peas in their own canoe of crisp, watery, and almost sugary pod." p 14

Highly recommended.

Friday, April 19, 2013


I was quite struck by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers's poem "Drinking Senegalese Tea with Mint after a Visit to the Slave House of Gorée Island," which appeared in the current issue of Prairie Schooner. Out of respect for the poet trying to make a living, I invite you to read the poem here rather than just pasting it in.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Let's Talk Crap

It seems to me that that teaching freshman English composition is an excellent invitation into the hard discussions: identity formation, racial reconciliation, gender equity, human rights. Why? English in general, and comp in particular, is all about finding the right words to articulate big ideas and join in the discussion.

Rose George makes a similar point in this short, engaging TED talk about one of the most basic of human rights that's hardest to talk about. Clean water? Sure, we'll chat all day long. But toilets? Ewww.

If we don't talk about it, we won't remember that it's a problem. We won't fix the very fixable fact that poor sanitation spreads disease that kills children in astounding numbers. George goes further, tying in the presence of toilets in schools with prolonging education for girls. (Need a hint why? Think puberty.)

Filled with all the puns I could hope for and a very interesting campaign  in India to make the toilet sexy, or at least matrimonial, this talk is definitely recommended.

Monday, April 15, 2013

11 Lessons to Learn Before Becoming a Parent 

I can't take credit for writing this one, but I laughed so hard, I had to post it here.

Lesson 1

1. Go to the grocery store.
2. Arrange to have your salary paid directly to their head office.
3. Go home.
4. Pick up the paper.
5. Read it for the last time.

Lesson 2

Before you finally go ahead and have children, find a couple who already are parents and berate them about their...
1. Methods of discipline.
2. Lack of patience.
3. Appallingly low tolerance levels.
4. Allowing their children to run wild.
5. Suggest ways in which they might improve their child's breastfeeding, sleep habits, toilet training, table manners, and overall behavior.
Enjoy it because it will be the last time in your life you will have all the answers.

Lesson 3

A really good way to discover how the nights might feel...
1. Get home from work and immediately begin walking around the living room from 5PM to 10PM carrying a wet bag weighing approximately 8-12 pounds, with a radio turned to static (or some other obnoxious sound) playing loudly. (Eat cold food with one hand for dinner)
2. At 10PM, put the bag gently down, set the alarm for midnight, and go to sleep.
3. Get up at 12 and walk around the living room again, with the bag, until 1AM.
4. Set the alarm for 3AM.
5. As you can't get back to sleep, get up at 2AM and make a drink and watch an infomercial.
6. Go to bed at 2:45AM.
7. Get up at 3AM when the alarm goes off.
8. Sing songs quietly in the dark until 4AM.
9. Get up. Make breakfast. Get ready for work and go to work (work hard and be productive)

Repeat steps 1-9 each night. Keep this up for 3-5 years. Look cheerful and together.

Lesson 4

Can you stand the mess children make? T o find out...
1. Smear peanut butter onto the sofa and jam onto the curtains.
2. Hide a piece of raw chicken behind the stereo and leave it there all summer.
3. Stick your fingers in the flower bed.
4. Then rub them on the clean walls.
5. Take your favorite book, photo album, etc. Wreck it.
6. Spill milk on your new pillows. Cover the stains with crayons. How does that look?

Lesson 5

Dressing small children is not as easy as it seems.
1. Buy an octopus and a small bag made out of loose mesh.
2. Attempt to put the octopus into the bag so that none of the arms hang out.

Time allowed for this - all morning.

Lesson 6

Forget the BMW and buy a mini-van. And don't think that you can leave it out in the driveway spotless and shining. Family cars don't look like that.
1. Buy a chocolate ice cream cone and put it in the glove compartment.
Leave it there.
2. Get a dime. Stick it in the CD player.
3. Take a family size package of chocolate cookies. Mash them into the back seat. Sprinkle cheerios all over the floor, then smash them with your foot.
4. Run a garden rake along both sides of the car.

Lesson 7

Go to the local grocery store. Take with you the closest thing you can find to a pre-school child. (A full-grown goat is an excellent choice). If you intend to have more than one child, then definitely take more than one goat. Buy your week's groceries without letting the goats out of your sight. Pay for everything the goat eats or destroys. Until you can easily accomplish this, do not even contemplate having children.

Lesson 8

1. Hollow out a melon.
2. Make a small hole in the side.
3. Suspend it from the ceiling and swing it from side to side.
4. Now get a bowl of soggy Cheerios and attempt to spoon them into the swaying melon by pretending to be an airplane.
5. Continue until half the Cheerios are gone.
6. Tip half into your lap. The other half, just throw up in the air.

You are now ready to feed a nine- month-old baby.

Lesson 9

Learn the names of every character from Sesame Street , Barney, Disney, the Teletubbies, and Pokemon. Watch nothing else on TV but PBS, the Disney channel or Noggin for at least five years. (I know, you're thinking What's 'Noggin'?) Exactly the point.

Lesson 10

Make a recording of Fran Drescher saying 'mommy' repeatedly. (Important: no more than a four second delay between each 'mommy'; occasional crescendo to the level of a supersonic jet is required). Play this tape in your car everywhere you go for the next four years. You are now ready to take a long trip with a toddler.

Lesson 11

Start talking to an adult of your choice. Have someone else continually tug on your skirt hem, shirt- sleeve, or elbow while playing the 'mommy' tape made from Lesson 10 above. You are now ready to have a conversation with an adult while there is a child in the room.

This is all very tongue in cheek; anyone who is parent will say 'it's all worth it!' Share it with your friends, both those who do and don't have kids. I guarantee they'll get a chuckle out of it. Remember, a sense of humor is one of the most important things you'll need when you become a parent!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Six Things I Wish I'd Known Before Starting As An Artist

I heard a fascinating discussion on MPR's Daily Circuit today about the life and practice of being an artist. Two hip-hop artists and one actor were incredibly articulate about the behind-the-scenes of making art. The basis of the discussion was hip-hop artist Guante's blog, in which he listed the six things he wishes he'd known when he started. Follow the link for more info, but they are, in short:

1. Take your time.
2. Memorable > Talented
3. Work Harder and Smarter
4. Plan Ahead and be Organized
5. [Basic Tips and Resources: see link]
6. Define "Success" for Yourself.

Recommended listening.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

teaching fiction've read a lot of articles on how to write good fiction, but rarely have I seen so many insightful key ideas summed up so nicely as in Lisa Cron's article "The Rules of Story" from Below is part of the article, her "seven immutable rules:"

1. All stories make a point, beginning on page one. A story is designed, from beginning to end, to answer a single overarching question, which complicates as the story progresses. After all, a story is a simulation-it captures our attention because it allows us to vicariously experience what it would be like to navigate a challenging situation.

We need to have an idea of what that situation is from the get-go. It’s like when your friend is rambling on about something that happened yesterday, and you nod and smile politely while a little voice in your head screams, “Okay, okay, but what’s your point?” Same with a story. Think of your story’s point as the context that allows the reader to gauge what things are adding up to.

2. Story is about how someone solves a problem, which is another way of saying story is about change. But here’s the fine print: change results only from unavoidable conflict. Because no one - you, me, or the guy next door-changes unless we’re forced to. Think about it. We swear we’re definitely going to start looking a new job-tomorrow. Which is code for about a week from never. Until one day we show up for work and the door is padlocked, the factory closed, and guess what? It’s tomorrow!

In other words, a story’s job is to shove protagonists into the fray, where they find out what they’re really made of. It’s like that great JFK story. When asked what made him a war hero, he replied, “I didn’t have a choice. They sank my boat.”

3. All story is emotion based. Neuroscience has proven that, as Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert says, “Feelings don’t just matter. They are what mattering means.” In life, if we’re not feeling, we’re not conscious. In a story, if we’re not feeling, we’re not reading. The question is What are we feeling? The answer is The reader feels what the protagonist feels.

The protagonist is our surrogate-our avatar-in the world in which the story unfolds. Can you see the fine print in this one? It means that the protagonist had better be affected by everything that happens and react in a way the reader can see.

4. Story is not about the plot; it’s about how the plot affects the protagonist. This means that everything in a story gets its meaning and emotional weight based on how it affects the protagonist in pursuit of his or her quest. You can have a dramatic event in a story, and we’re talking birth, death, or the fall of the Roman Empire, but if it doesn’t affect the protagonist-if it doesn’t matter to her-then it doesn’t matter to the reader, either. Drama for its own sake means nothing.

5. Story is about an internal journey, not an external one. In other words, a story isn’t about the external events that unfold, it’s about the internal changes the protagonist must make, given those events, in order to achieve his or her goal. At the end of the day, what your reader is aching to know is What would it cost someone emotionally to do that? What would it gain them?

6. Everything in a story must be there solely on a need-to-know basis. When your brain focuses on something, it filters out all unnecessary information, the better to concentrate on the task at hand. And since about 11,000,000 pieces of information bombard your five senses every second, your brain does a pretty good job of it. In a story, that’s your job as writer. Because as far as readers are concerned, there’s a story-reason for everything you tell them, or you wouldn’t waste their time mentioning it.

The problem is that the brain is wired to read meaning into everything, so if you throw in something that might be beautifully written, but that doesn’t have an effect story-wise, readers will try to read meaning into it anyway. And when that doesn’t work? The rush of dopamine that kept them riveted dries up, and they decide to see what’s on TV.

7. In a story, everything that can go wrong, must go wrong-and then some. It helps to think of a story as that annoying schoolyard bully who always taunted, “Oh yeah? Prove it!”

The purpose of a story is to allow your reader to learn from experience-namely, your protagonist’s. Which means that as writers, it helps to be a little bit of a sadist. Because your protagonist has to earn her victory, nimbly snatching it from the jaws of defeat. And the only way she can do that, is if you construct a plot that forces her to face things she’s probably spent her whole life trying to avoid.

This is what the reader comes for - to find out what it would really feel like to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, you know, just in case.

And lest it sound as if I’m speaking metaphorically when I talk about the reader “feeling” what the protagonist feels, here’s something to think about. Recent brain imaging studies show that when we’re lost in a good story, the same areas of our brain light up when we read about something happening to the protagonist, as light up when we actually experience it ourselves.

Story is the world’s first virtual reality, and as neuroscience reveals, we have the hardwiring to prove it. Of course, it also helps immensely to get the punctuation right.

Check out Cron's website at

Monday, April 8, 2013

Mo Willems of the great pleasures of having children is getting to read lots of children's books, and on that list, Mo Willems ranks in the top three (hanging out in the good company of Sandra Boynton and Kevin Henkes.) The combination of real-life photographs and cartoon drawings in the Knuffle Bunny books keep my daughter engaged page after page, and the masterful humor makes me happy to reach for this one again and again. Knuffle Bunny Too features one of my favorite lines in a children's book:

"Trixie's daddy tried to explain what 2:30 AM meant."

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Flash Fiction

The results of Marco Polo Arts Magazine's 100 x 100 flash fiction contest are up. 100 stories of 100 words. Here's mine: "The Bunker." My first foray into sci-fi.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Listening Across America

In the ongoing theme of those who use writing as a way of noticing and listening, I'm happy to post this radio program "Walking Across America."                                        Here's the co-producer's description, as posted on

It’s rare we take the time to listen to hour-long radio stories anymore, but I hope you’ll listen to this one, maybe twice. It’s an epic journey, a coming of age story, and a portrait of this country–big-hearted, wild, innocent, and wise. I co-produced it, but the credit goes to Andrew Forsthoefel, a first-time radio producer, who set out at age 23 to walk across America, East to West, 4000 miles, with a sign on him that said, “Walking to Listen.” Eventually, he showed up here in Woods Hole.
Andrew didn’t intend to make a radio story–he just wanted to listen to people. You’ll hear in Andrew’s interviews his quality of attention. He is a magnet for stories and for the desire to connect.
This hour is culled down from 85 hours, an epic task in itself. Andrew has written extensive notes on his process that might be helpful for anyone undertaking a sprawling project. Transom is also collaborating with our friends at Cowbird as Andrew maps his journey, steadily adding new entries in the coming weeks. We hope you’ll listen, and ask questions Jay A

Monday, April 1, 2013

teaching creative writing

The New York Times

March 22, 2013

Straight Through the Heart

As each semester begins at Grinnell College, a small liberal arts school nestled in the Iowa prairie, I get numerous e-mails from students pleading for a spot in my fiction workshop. The wait list is long, and as much as I’d love to take credit for the course’s popularity, I’m learning it’s less about the teacher and more about the way fiction writers approach the teaching of literature. 

Many of these students aren’t English majors — in our dynamic department, majors tend to geek out on theory and critical reading courses from the start. And unlike most M.F.A. students I’ve taught, these undergraduates tend not to consider writing a career choice. They never ask for my agent’s e-mail.
Instead, each semester, I meet students who might be afraid of traditional English courses, but are drawn by the oddly warm and fuzzy phrase “creative writing.” In most academic work, we teach students to discuss other people’s ideas, before they attempt to formulate their own. We withhold the challenge of creation. But in creative writing, we read a few books and then we’re off. By semester’s end, a seeming mystery, I have a roomful of young people in love with reading stories and telling their own. Almost all of them write better sentences and cleaner paragraphs too. 

I realized that what I’m really instructing them in is reading as a process of seduction. Consider how one falls in love: by fixating on certain attributes of the beloved. The way he looks in his brown cords. The way she flips her hair from her face. The flecks in her eyes, the twitch in his smile. We do not yet know the whole person, but we are lured by primal responses to a few details. We get to the classic final lines of “The Great Gatsby” or see Lily Briscoe finishing her painting in “To the Lighthouse,” and we want to go back to Page 1 and start again, to know the novel more deeply. 

It took a while for me to figure out how to offer students any kind of instruction in this. As an undergraduate myself, when it came time to write an essay on Aphra Behn or Theodore Dreiser, I found I had no idea what to say about it. My professors, and their graduate assistants, usually agreed. They pointed me to secondary texts, which confused me even more. Later, as a teaching assistant in one of the nation’s best English departments, I still had no idea what to say about a piece of literature. I only knew to teach the works that I liked to read. And so that’s where I began with my students. Not exactly a strong teaching philosophy, perhaps, but now that I am both an author and experienced teacher, I still ground the discussion of a well-known work of fiction in that basic question: What did you like about this story? Show me your favorite lines. 

A cynical friend of mine calls this the Book Club pedagogy, akin to treating literature as a string of Facebook statuses about our feelings. But think about the first work of literature that blew your mind. Whether it was Salinger or Ellison or Austen, or a Munro story you came across in a waiting-room copy of The New Yorker, there was most likely a moment, a snippet of dialogue or flight of lyricism that exploded in your squirrelly little heart. Perhaps you put an exclamation point in the margin and yellowed the sentence with a highlighter. You felt real energy there — a stirring in your soul, and you wanted more. Excited to find a kindred consciousness, you wanted to understand how a writer could make you feel that intensity with nothing more than words on a page. 

In my classes, we read great fiction obsessively, and then attempt to see how a writer managed to affect us. We try to understand which elements — diction, syntax, point of view and so forth — made us feel that way. After we spend several weeks reading this way, wondering how the author made us shiver like that, we try our own hand. I ask students to begin with “green lines,” to isolate writing so good it makes one writer envious of another. Which parts do they wish they had written themselves? Students start to understand how their own writing works, where it ripples with energy. 

Obviously, this is great fun for a pack of aspiring novelists, but why does such a motley assortment of computer science majors and chemistry students flock to these classes? For one thing, there is, at first, no reason to understand the historical significance or theoretical implications of a given work. It begins with a reader in the room with a story. Reading like a writer, as we do in workshops, provides a ground floor for any student. The question “What was your favorite moment in a story?” is an easy entry point for both a student schooled in the finest prep academy and a science major straight out of a substandard district. Anyone can find a favorite line. Placing further pressure on those lines — Why did you like it? What changed at that moment that brought energy to the text? — can help students trust their instincts: they were on to something! It’s a less intimidating approach to literature, free from the burden of historical background and devoid of grad-school jargon. 

Back when I was teaching first-year composition at a large state school, I’d often lament with my colleagues that so many of our incoming students hated to read (we were instructed not to use texts more than a few pages long). We bemoaned the fact that many had left high school without even knowing how to write a sentence. 

But how can you teach someone to master language or read literature until he’s fallen in love with it? Maybe in place of first-year composition we should be teaching first-year fiction. In a creative writing workshop, students begin to think about literature as stories to love, the way many of them did as children. Instead of deconstructing a text (that terrible word, text), they begin to understand the well-crafted sentence and the way it energizes and adds power to a larger story. After reading masterworks and feeling the effects a writer can have on their own souls, they want to get out their laptops and try doing the same thing.
What they really want is to have some kind of firsthand, visceral relationship with a book — to see what it’s like to take a work apart and put it back together — using great stories as structural models, just the way the kids I grew up with in Detroit fell in love with cars by spending weekends trying to make derelict Ford Mustangs run again. When the engine finally starts, when you figure out how to make it fire, it’s an incredibly powerful learning experience. 

Love, after all, isn’t a passive process. Just as a chemistry student doesn’t want to lean back and watch an experiment in class, my students don’t like to be told to sit around and admire something simply because it is theoretically or historically significant. They want to formulate their own theorem, to write their own code.
By teaching the pleasures of writing our own stories, we remind them of the pleasures of reading and of the power of literature, something they may have experienced with Harry Potter but lost when they wrote a five-paragraph essay about Hawthorne. For one semester, at least, we do the work because we grow to love the work. After that? Well, with love, all things are possible.
Dean Bakopoulos, a professor of English at Grinnell College, is the author, most recently, of the novel “My American Unhappiness.”