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Annalise Mabe

Against Grammar

Posted by Annalise Mabe Expert Jun 7, 2017


 “College is a foreign country,” a participant said at a recent writing center colloquium during a round table conversation on social justice in the writing center and in the classroom. What she meant was that college, or the university setting, is foreign to everyone and requires the learning and understanding of a new set of rules. College, and academia more broadly, are a context in which email etiquette is key, syntax is scrutinized, and the oxford comma reigns king.


            Grammar, as the Merriam Webster dictionary defines it, is “b: a study of what is to be preferred and what avoided in inflection and syntax.” But who is deciding what is preferred, what is to be avoided, and how are we dictating what is “right” or “wrong,” “correct” or incorrect”?  As professors, instructors, or writing consultants, it is important to impart to students and writers that the way they may talk, write, or speak is not wrong, but may not be aligned with what is expected of them in the academic setting. The line is fine here, but what I describe is a shift in framework, a mindset or an awareness, a communication with students that says: I see you, I am not trying to change you or tell you that how you write or speak is “wrong.” But in this setting, we are expected to write in a different style. Let me show you that style. The difference here is the difference between “you are wrong,” and “this current context is expecting another style of writing from you.”


            Some professors argue that English grammar is inherently colonialist, meaning that it promotes the gaining of “political control over other countries” via language, through erasure, by replacing an individual’s cultural set of practices with another. And while some professors and students may not agree, language, diction, syntax, and grammar all have power, subtle as it may seem, and changing how a person writes or speaks may have lasting effects on how they see themselves, and how they present themselves to the world around them.


While learning proper grammar is certainly important and has its clear benefits (i.e. providing ethos for the writer by communicating clearly and consistently in the style of writers who came before them) it is equally important to communicate with students that the way they talk or write—especially if it deviates from what is preferred, “correct” grammar—is not wrong, but simply may not be what is expected of them in the sphere of academic writing.


            Instead of contributing to or continuing on a path of erasure (sometimes literally erasing, striking out, or annotating papers) what if we re-framed the writing process, de-emphasized grammar (at least in the early stages of the writing process), and let writers continue penning their thoughts, staking space on the stage, before correcting or stunting them in the writing process with the rules of proper grammar? How many more great ideas might we see if we hold off on shutting students down purely on the basis of their grammatical skill? Patrick Bizzaro says, “We must spend less time telling our students what they should do when they write and more time showing them who they can be.” This change can come from a professor’s support, a restraint in correcting every comma, an encouragement of where this student is in their writing process and where they want to go. A new approach to writing, one that de-emphasizes grammar, may result in more missed Oxford commas, and in stronger, more confident writers.


When I was younger—a twenty-something graduate student working on a creative dissertation and teaching intro-level creative writing classes—I considered myself something of a creative nonfiction purist.  I knew, of course, that trying to write absolute, Capital-T “Truth” that everyone could recognize was impossible.  Our perceptions are inherently subjective, and language—useful as it is—is sometimes insufficient when it comes to capturing reality’s complexity.  Nevertheless, I thought, we essay.


I took it as something of a personal insult when a best-selling memoirist turned out to have deliberately embellished his experiences with addiction and incarceration, or when another supposed nonfiction writer turned out to have invented her criminal background for the sake of drama.  “Here I am,” I thought, “struggling to find those conflicts and contradictions that shape my life, that inform who I am, that make me me—and I’m trying to write it well, without fabrication, so that others will find this work worth reading.  And then there are these people.  They cheated.”


It was an issue of ethics, I thought.  Phillip Lopate wrote in the introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay that, in an essay, “a contract between writer and reader has been drawn up: the essayist must then make good on it by delivering, or discovering, as much honesty as possible.”  I believed then—and, frankly, believe even now—that the same could be said for other nonfiction forms, including memoir and literary journalism.  The fraudulent nonfiction writer, I reckoned when I was obsessed with a type of “artistic integrity” that bordered on narcissistic contempt for those who disagreed with me, was a threat to serious literature (and thus, a threat to humanity in general).  And I used to make this point clear to the students in my workshops.


I wasn’t completely wrong, but I probably didn’t need to be quite so pompous about it.  Lopate also reminds us that “[t]he enemy of the personal essay is self-righteousness”–   such smug self-regard discourages honest and nuanced reflection about our own lives and minds.  And make no mistake, I was smug when it came to discussing—and writing about– the perceived ethical shortcomings of other writers, when I probably should have been using that time to work on my own flaws as a writer.


I still prefer to not read the works of dishonest nonfiction writers—those who have been caught lying and publicly shamed, as well as those who are still believed to be credible but whose books caused me to roll my eyes and proclaim (to myself, to my wife, to my cats—whoever happens to be around) “There’s no way this happened.  Not like this.”  I think I can tell when someone is lying in a work of nonfiction.  Joan Didion tells us that, for a while at least, “We live entirely… by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”  A writer of Didion’s caliber, of course, isn’t satisfied with a simple story, a narrative line that is too neat or convenient; she  reexamines, she calls into question, she complicates.  A less honest writer, though, keeps things tidy, simple, and uncomplicated.  The work winds up too perfectly shaped—the result of having the narrative line imposed rather than having disparate strands of thought presented together and explored without an attempt to force them into a structure that resembles an inverted checkmark.  When things in a memoir or essay seem too neat—or too familiar, or too predictable—I tend to feel that the work has failed on an important level.


Keep in mind, I’ve never had a problem with writers who employ exaggeration or sarcasm for comedic effect—there’s a difference between joking and lying, after all.  And I’m not talking about writers who try to expand nonfiction’s horizons—those writers like Ander Monson, Steven Church, and Lauren Slater who experiment with these forms in order to see just what they can do, and how we might use these forms to explore complicated, personal truths.  No, I’m talking about the writers who adopt manufactured identities and describe experiences that didn’t happen in an attempt to mythologize themselves.  I still tell my students to avoid these writers, but not necessarily because I feel like a dishonest memoir will inevitably lead to the fall of western civilization.  Instead, I simply point out that it’s been my experience that such books—with their tendency for the formulaic and clichéd– almost always represent a failure not of ethics, but of aesthetics.


But, as I said, I try not to be a jerk about it.  These days.





[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on 12/1/11]]

Many times, students come to office hours wanting to know the answer to one question: is my paper good enough?


There are many ways to answer that question, but this is sometimes harder for students to see than we think. Students tend to see their grades and their writing as black or white, as good or bad. They tend to judge their work in this binary and often fail to ask questions that could lead them to new thoughts and ideas, opening their writing up further.


That’s where the professor, and the Socratic Method, come in. Introduced in Plato’s Theaetetus, the Socratic Method works to engage participants in a dialogue, drawing out thoughts, and prompting students to consider why they’ve made the choices they have or what possible changes they could make. Using it de-emphasizes this “good” or “bad” binary, reframing student work and grounding the revision process in questions.  


When frazzled students arrive at my office with a stack of papers near the end of the semester, I start by just talking to them, slowing down and giving them a few minutes of intake: How are you doing? How has the semester been going for you so far? What brings you in? Giving students the space and time to de-compress is the first part of the process, and it allows them to relax and to reflect on their journey through the course thus far, where they are currently, or what they are struggling with at the moment.


When it comes to the stack of papers, we don’t start reading right away. Instead, I ask the student specific questions about their work: Where do you think the tension is slacking? As a reader, where are you bored? What do you think the paper is struggling to achieve right now? Is there a reason why you’ve organized it the way you have? Asking these questions allows students to critically but honestly reflect on their own work by stepping back and explaining it to someone else. Suddenly, they may realize that they hadn’t organized their work in any particular way at all, or that they know they’ve been bothered by the thesis the whole time, that it’s just not quite clear enough.


Students know more than they give themselves credit for, and employing the Socratic Method offers them a chance to reach these realizations, and to make decisions about their writing on their own. This method empowers students by giving them the questions they may already know the answers to, and giving them an audience as they make their way toward new discoveries in their writing.

This week's Technology Tuesday activity comes from Eric Reimer at the University of Montana.  He helps his students master associative thinking by using blogs "create conversations among the disparate writers and texts of the course."  After asking them to write and explore in the digital space, Professor Reimer asks students to use the "digital writing technologies [to] suggest possibilities for new aesthetic and argumentative arrangements in their print essay." 


To download Professor Reimer's great assignment, click here: Hetland Chapter 5 


To view other ways of applying technology in the literature classroom, see Tim Hetland's full resource, Teaching Literature with Digital Technology


Have a great week, everyone! 

Hi all, 


We're back with our next Technology Tuesday installment of Tim Hetland's great resource, Teaching Literature with Digital Technology.  This week, we're highlighting an activity from Rochelle Rodrigo at Old Dominion University, who has a helpful class activity for anyone teaching the literature survey course.  This flexible activity allows students to "contextualize literature" across literary periods and genres, using a wiki as the foundation.  


To download the full assignment, visit "Writing a Wiki Guide for a Literature Survey Course."


To see the entire Hetland digital writing resource, visit Teaching Literature with Digital Technology


Happy Tuesday! 

One day late, but I couldn't wait until next week to share!


This fantastic assignment by Angela Laflen (Marist College) is subtitled "Collaborative Learning in the Literature Classroom" and it delivers exactly what it promises: a chance for your students to approach literature as a conversation space through the power of wikis. For more great digital assignments for your literature classroom, see Tim Hetland's complete resourcehere.


Wiki Critical Editions: Collaborative Learning in the Literature Classroom

Annalise Mabe

What to Teach Now

Posted by Annalise Mabe Expert Mar 10, 2017

Recently at a reading, writer Ira Sukrungruang asked the audience: Wouldn’t it be nice to start every day with a poem?


Yes, I thought, and realized I should be reading more in general—a poem, a story, or an essay every morning; that there are so many classic titles and contemporary writers alike I need to re-read, and to teach my students.


Here are some recommendations—of new works as well as classics—that should be read, revisited, and taught now.


  1. Girl ” by Alexander Chee


In this essay first published in Guernica and reprinted in the Best American Essays 2016, Alexander Chee explores the power of makeup, his early fascination with it, and how wearing a mask can sometimes help you find yourself. Diving into his background, readers see that his investigation of self intersects with what it means to be a man, a woman, Asian American, and white, or “passing.”


“This beauty when I put on drag then,” Chee writes, “it is made up of these talisman of power, a balancing act of the self-hatreds of at least two cultures, an act I’ve engaged in my whole life, here on the fulcrum I make of my face. That night I find I want this beauty to last because it seems more powerful than any beauty I’ve had before. Being pretty like this is stronger than any drug I’ve tried.”


He continues.


“This power I feel tonight, I understand now—this is what it means when we say ‘queen.’”


Alexander Chee is a contemporary fiction writer and poet who spent his growing up in South Korea, Kauai, Truk, Guam, and Maine before attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.



  1. Fahrenheit 451: The Authorized Adaptation by Ray Bradbury and Tim Hamilton


Many high school students are tasked with reading Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451 as part of their curriculum—a book about a 1953 dystopian future where books are banned and burned, where literature, where knowledge, is considered dangerous—but fewer people have read this stunning adaptation.


In this classic book turned graphic novel, thanks to the collaboration of Bradbury and Tim Hamilton, readers not only get to see Guy Montag’s destruction of beloved books in huge splash pages of orange and red fiery blooms (“Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn ‘em to ashes then burn the ashes.”), but they are given a new introduction from Bradbury in which he writes:


“Finally, may I suggest that anyone reading this introduction should take the time to name the one book that he or she would most want to memorize and protect from any censors or ‘firemen.’ And not only name the book, but give the reasons why they would wish to memorize it and why it would be a valuable asset to be recited and remembered in the future.”


  1. Letter from a Region in My Mind” by James Baldwin


James Baldwin was a classic essayist in the nonfiction canon who wrote about the complexities of race, sexuality, and class in America.


In “Letter from a Region in My Mind” from The New Yorker’s November 17, 1962 issue, he writes:


“When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves with me by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and, for good measure, leaving me flat on my back in one of Harlem’s empty lots. Just before and then during the Second World War, many of my friends fled into the service, all to be changed there, and rarely for the better, many to be ruined, and many to die. Others fled to other states and cities—that is, to other ghettos. Some went on wine or whiskey or the needle, and are still on it. And others, like me, fled into the church.”


Baldwin writes vividly, conveying what it was like grow up in Harlem as a young black boy watching his peers change before him, watching how he, himself, changed too.


Important to note is that before his death in 1987, Baldwin was at work on a book titled Remember This House, which sought to memorialize the deaths of three of his close friends, Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King Jr. The manuscript was only thirty pages long at the time of his death, and has now become the inspiration for filmmaker Raoul Peck’s documentary I am Not Your Negro, currently out in theaters. The documentary features interviews with Baldwin and Samuel L. Jackson’s narration of Baldwin’s notes: “In America, I was free only in battle.”


  1. Despite My Efforts Even My Prayers Have Turned into Threats and “Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient)” by Kaveh Akbar


In “Despite My Efforts Even My Prayers Have Turned into Threats,” the epistolary poem published in POETRY in November 2016, Kaveh Akbar writes to God:


Will his goodness roll

over to my tab and if yes, how



In “Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient)” published in issue 17 of The Adroit Journal, Akbar writes:



Akbar is quickly becoming a favorite contemporary with his wild images and sharp colloquialisms, and he’s being noted, also, for his stewardship of introducing new poets from the seven countries recently affected by Trump’s travel ban, some of whom include Khaled Mattawa (Libya), Ladan Osman (Somalia), Safia Elhillo (Sudan), and Majid Naficy (Iran).


Born in Tehran, Akbar has said “there is a part of Iran that is hardwired in me,” and this is evident in his rich poems that sprawl open on the page.



  1. How to Be a Real Indian” and “Fibonacci” by Kenzie Allen


“The first time someone asks you how Indian you are, lie.” Kenzie Allen writes in her poem, “How to Be a Real Indian” published in Narrative.


She continues:


Say you dream

in Oneida at night, show-and-tell them rose rock

and kachina, give them exactly what they ask for…”


In “Fibonacci,” she delivers cold and blunt lines:


“Remember when I loved you so much I would break things?

I don’t love you like that anymore so you don’t need to call the cops…”


Kenzie Allen is a poet, editor, and literary activist completing her PhD in English and Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as an Advanced Opportunity Fellow and Chancellor’s Award recipient, and a Teaching Assistant in American Indian Studies.



  1. MAUS I, My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman


Art Spiegelman delivers one of the most powerful graphic novels with MAUS I: My Father Bleeds History.


Spiegelman’s MAUS is a metanarrative that follows two storylines: one that investigates the relationship between Spiegelman and his father, Vladek, as he visits frequently for interviews and one that follows Vladek’s incredible story of surviving the Holocaust where, in this story, Jews are portrayed as mice and Germans as cats.


Readers can relate to the familial bonds and habits between parent and child and are shown a chilling inside story of what it was like to be a survivor of one of the most traumatic genocides the world has ever seen.


This account is an incredibly important and necessary story that depicts the unbelievable events of the Holocaust from a survivor’s perspective.



  1. Ordinary Girls” by Jaquira Díaz


In this Best American 2016 essay first published by the Kenyon Review, Jaquira Díaz writes of what it was like to grow up as a teenage girl in Miami Beach, Florida:


“We started talking about dying long before the first woman jumped. What our parents would do once we were gone. What Mr. Nuñez, the assistant principal at Nautilus Middle School, would say about us on the morning announcements, how many of our friends would cry right there on the spot. The songs they would dedicate to us on Power 96 so that all of Miami Beach could mourn us—Boyz II Men’s It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday,” D.R.S.’s Gangsta Lean.” Who would go to our funerals—boys who’d broken our hearts, boys whose hearts we’d broken.”


It’s her early meditation on death, on being young in dangerous situations, that makes her essay so compelling.


“Some girls took sleeping pills and then called 911, or slit their wrists the wrong way and waited to be found in the bathtub. But we didn’t want to be like those ordinary girls. We wanted to be throttled, mangled, thrown. We wanted the violence. We wanted something we could never come back from.”


Jaquira Díaz was born in Puerto Rico, raised in Miami Beach, and is the Kenyon Review fellow in Prose for the 2016-2018 year. She is undoubtedly one of the most influential voices molding the nonfiction landscape today.



While the list could go on and on, this is a useful starter pack for what to read and teach now—a brief list, at least, with which to start our mornings, and, possibly, on which to base our classes.

This great assignment from Jennifer Parrott at Clayton State University connects critically literary skills with the social media that surrounds us.  For more great digital assignments for your literature classroom, see Tim Hetland's complete resource here.


Writing on the Wall: Using Facebook's Timeline for Literary Analysis

Tim Hetland's fantastic professional resource, Teaching Literature with Digital Technology, gets at that all-important question of how to bring technology into the literature classroom in a way that feels authentic to the material and engaging for students.


In our new Technology Tuesday posts, we're going to highlight some of these great activities and, we hope, start some great conversations about how they can be personalized for your own classroom.


Today, we're looking at "Shaking the Magic 8 Ball: Social Media for Readers and Writers" by Laura Madeline Wiseman and Adam Wagler.  Their assignment centers around following authors on social media to help students understand how the world of modern literature interacts daily with the world of modern technology. 


You can access this great activity through the link above, or find it attached below.  To access the entire collection of digital writing assignments, see Tim Hetland's complete resource here.

I often find myself weighing the degree to which the workshops I lead should concern themselves with things other than the manuscript up for discussion. On the one hand, I believe in a workshop—especially at the undergraduate level—that focuses on writing, and not on what one does with the writing once it’s finished. Put another way, there’s no better element of professionalization than learning to write well.


On the other hand, part of being a writer means giving readings and submitting work for publication, and I’m not doing my students any favors by pretending otherwise, or by withholding information or advice that could benefit them. Beyond that, I would argue that the very process of preparing a manuscript for a public reading or for submission to a journal makes one a better writer. When I know that I’ll be reading my work in front of actual, live human beings, I’m suddenly able to see the work with fresh eyes and less patience. I become a better self-editor. Imprecise words, flabby phrases, and lags in pacing—not to mention typos—announce themselves loudly.


Similarly, when I prepare to submit a piece for publication, I find myself reading it through the eyes of someone who doesn’t already know me and who has no reason—or time—to give me the benefit of the doubt. The piece, in other words, must stand on its own, and it must stand out.


So certainly there’s a pedagogical element to professionalization. Yet I value the workshop as a space that encourages ambition, experimentation, and even failure. That’s how we grow as writers, and much of the work we do in workshop is not meant for public consumption. The writer’s apprenticeship is a long one, and to rush the process—to make one’s work public before it’s ready—does the writer no favors.

I’d love for others to weigh in:


  • Does your workshop give a class reading? If so, is it made public?
  • Does your workshop involve educating students in the submission process?
  • Should students in workshop be encouraged—or even required—to submit their work?




[This post originally appeared on LitBits on 11/3/11]

Annalise Mabe

On Diverse Reading Lists

Posted by Annalise Mabe Expert Jan 24, 2017

As instructors, professors, or graduate assistants, we are often in charge of selecting course texts, mapping semester outlines, and designing syllabi. These tasks, however, come with choice. Who do we highlight? Whose voices do share? And how could our choices affect our students who are close-reading these works for the first time in their lives?


In Margaret Atwood’s poem “Spelling,” she writes:


A word after a word

after a word is power


From a rhetorical perspective, every choice, especially word choice, inherently creates meaning—an argument, a stance, a connotation—even if we don’t mean it to. Thus, by selecting specific texts and authors, we have (whether we like it or not) an undeniable power to change the direction or trajectory of how students may perceive themselves, their work, their capabilities, and their understanding of the world around them.


It is paramount, then, to be aware of what and who we choose to read with our classes. Kenzie Allen, a current PhD student in English/Creative Writing, writes:


“I think a diverse reading list is an essential tool for decolonizing the classroom, and a way to address the narratives, preconceptions, and shorthand notions we learn and initialize.”


And what better a time to challenge traditional or homogenous notions than when students are still in their formative years, when they are getting a first-hand “college experience,” being surrounded with some 35,000 different faces, flyers handed to them left and right, and a man with a mega-phone practicing free speech?


Multiperspectivity, or exploring multiple perspectives, has actually been proven to make us smarter. In a recent study, researchers Sheen S. Levine and David Stark assigned students to either a diverse group (with at least one student of another ethnicity or race) or a homogenous group, then asked them to participate in a stock trading exercise. Findings were sharply conspicuous showing that students in diverse groups performed 58% more accurately, providing more correct answers while those in homogenous groups tended to copy one another, providing wrong or misinformed information. The researchers concluded in their New York Times Opinion article that “diversity brought cognitive friction that enhanced deliberation,” that “diversity prompts better critical thinking,” and that “diversity matters for learning, the core purpose of the university.”


These findings could extend to the company we keep in our classrooms—the pieces we read.


Kenzie Allen is Oneida and writes of her experience as a Native American writer: “For me, I feel a personal responsibility to imbue into my poems not simply the ‘dead and gone’ Native that is so often depicted in the non-Native gaze or colonial metanarrative, but to show something of our modernity, our on-going issues, and our survival.”


College is a time for reflecting on self-identity, a chance to re-invent, to step outside what has always been known, and to challenge the stereotypes or generalizations that our students may have grown up with. We can do that by breaking the monotony of Poe, Hemingway, and Hawthorne; we can introduce Maxine Hong Kingston, Sherman Alexie, Roxane Gay, and so many more.


Allen continues to explain the importance of multiperspectivity: “In a time when the marginalized are so often silenced, to speak at all can be a radical act, as is making space for those voices.”


She writes, “It’s another kind of justice, or healing. The author is always more than simply one aspect of their identity or interests, so the more diverse or multi-faceted the reading list, the more we are able to bear witness to this complexity.”


As instructors, we are gatekeepers. We are the ones who decide what will be read, what will be written, and what will be shared over the course of a four-month semester. We have an ultimate responsibility, then, to empower our students with a more diverse experience, opening their minds to who they can be.

It is not always easy to distinguish between drama as literature and drama as theatre.  My view has always been that good drama is based on good literature, but having said that, we all know that there are moments in the theatre when the action moves far beyond the printed page and its stage directions.  Those are the moments when we realize that drama is theatre.


This meditation is a result of my having just seen a wild adaptation of Molière’s A Doctor in Spite of Himself directed and adapted by Christopher Bayes, whose roots are in the Theatre de la Jeune Lune.  Bayes tossed out the standard text and built a commedia dell’arte version on the comic bones that Molière had provided beneath the dialogue.


The result was dynamic, wildly comic, and enthralling to the audience.  And while the slapstick, the ham acting, the sometimes lewd jokes, the inappropriate, but funny, music, and all the  screaming, shouting, dancing and romping was over, we realized that the story line that Molière concocted as a way of ridiculing the current medical profession was in a bizarre way, still intact.


What I realized–and what delighted me–is that no printed version of this adaptation could ever have done justice to it.  And that goes for any version on YouTube or even the iPad or laptop–because much of the fun of seeing the play was in sharing the pleasure with a living audience.


In teaching I think it is important to try to talk about the aspects of the play that go beyond the printed page, but at the same time to make sure that the literary values are clear and that they remain the bones on which the production must be animated.


How do you teach students the difference between drama as theatre and drama as literature? What plays and/or performances have illuminated this difference for you and for your students?



[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on December 21, 2011.]] 

In the small town where I live, one of our nicer restaurants often has their satellite radio tuned to a station that plays exclusively soft rock from the 80s and early 90s.  Air Supply.  Foreigner.  A little Journey or, if we’re really lucky, solo Steve Perry.  But there’s one song that seems to come on every time we eat there, one song that causes my wife to reach across the table, grab my hand and whisper, “Don’t sing.  Don’t sing.  Don’t sing.  I mean it.”


The song I’m talking about is Chicago’s song “Look Away,” which a quick Internet search tells me was written by Diane “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” Warren.  I didn’t know this until just ten minutes ago, but I can’t say I’m surprised.  Like every other Diane Warren song I know, “Look Away” expresses its ideas about love in rather obvious, sentimental ways.  The song is written from the point of view of a young man whose ex-girlfriend—with whom he still has a friendship—calls to tell him about her new love.  In fact, the lead vocalist (whose name is not Peter Cetera) opens the song with the observation, “When you called me up this morning/ Told me about the new love you’d found/ I said I’m happy for you/ I’m really happy for you.”  Of course, things aren’t really that simple; as it turns out, our speaker is still in love with his former paramour/ current friend, but he can’t possibly act on those feelings.  For some reason.  So he assures her that he’s “fine,” but then admits that “sometimes [he] just pretend[s].”  In the chorus he tells her:  “If you see me walking by/ And the tears are in my eyes/ Look away, baby, look away… Don’t look at me/ I don’t want you to see me this way.”


This is not a particularly good song.  In fact, I don’t think it’s very good at all.  But I love it anyway, and feel the urge to sing along with not-Peter Cetera every time it comes on.  This desire has nothing to do with Diane Warren’s craft or not-Peter Cetera’s singing, and has everything to do with the memories this song evokes for me.


Imagine, if you will, your humble narrator as a 7th-grade boy.  In the dimly-lit gym, wearing his nicest slacks and a shirt with buttons, watching—sadly—as the love of his life smiled her metallic smile at or rested her permed head upon the shoulder of… well, that doofus she was in love with.  They slow-danced awkwardly, while the young me stood off to the side, heart breaking, while not-Peter Cetera assured his own love “I’m really happy for you” even though he was dying on the inside as surely as I was.  Yes, I thought, this song must have been written specifically for me.

I know that this sounds like a bad memory, but as a disciple of Joan Didion, I agree with her that “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”  And the truth is, I kind of find that super-intense, comically angst-y  12-year-old good company.  I like that even now, after decades and other relationships have reshaped how I understand love and romance, I can still remember a time when I was innocent and naïve enough to believe that I could find a type of personal truth in such a cheesy song.


I’ve found that most people have such a song—a song whose opening bars can transport them back to a specific moment in their lives.  In fact, some of us have several.  So in my creative nonfiction classes, I begin the semester with something I call The Music and Memory Exercise.  First, I have them read Hope Edelman’s “Bruce Springsteen and the Story of Us” and Bob Cowser Jr.’s “By a Song.” We discuss the way Edelman describes the Springsteen-dominated “soundtrack” of her late adolescence, and how Cowser finds solace at a difficult time through  the music that transports him back to a time of innocence and protection.  Then, I tell my own story about young Bill Bradley, alone at the dance in the gym, and how old William Bradley loves a song he doesn’t really like because of the way it tethers him to that sad little boy.


And then, of course, I ask the students to write the story of their own song and the memories it evokes in a mini-essay of 3-5 pages.  We usually read their essays out loud in class, a nice icebreaker for the beginning of the semester.  In the eight years I’ve been teaching creative nonfiction writing, I have never had a student find this exercise difficult to complete.  Even the concerned student who corners me at the end of the first day of class and admits in a panic, “There’s nothing interesting about me to write about” gets into this assignment.  It’s an enjoyable way to inspire reflection, and it assures the student that we all have experiences and a point of view worth expressing in essay and memoir writing.


So, anybody else have an interesting—or, preferably, embarrassing—song that inspires such reflection?  Leave a comment if you do, and I’ll tell you all about the “late 80s/early 90s rap and hip hop” playlist I have on my iPod (needless to say—yeah, I totally have Vanilla Ice’s song about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on there).


[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on January 12, 2012.]]

For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching creative writing is finding new ways to break students out of their routines, getting them to look at their world and describe it a little differently, a little slant. This semester, I gave my introductory students an assignment, based on an exercise of John Gardner’s, in which they wrote 250-word sentences that might appear in a story. The assignment, I hoped, would make unavoidable a deep consideration of details, clarity, pacing, and of course mechanics. It gave them fits, in the best sense—but in the end they cooked up some doozy prose, also in the best sense. In fact, some of the best writing all semester was contained in these long, long sentences. I suspect that’s because when building and wrestling a sentence of that length, students can’t help focusing on the parts and the whole simultaneously. They see that form is content, that punctuation carries meaning, and that this sentence (and, by extension, all sentences) demands nothing less than our most considered attention.


I’m going to use that assignment again.


Next semester, I also plan to spring a “radio drama” assignment on my upper-level fiction workshop. I’m thinking that students would work in pairs, create a drama that is five minutes long, with nothing but dialogue and sound effects. No voiceover. My hope is that the assignment will cause them to pay close attention to dialogue and narrative structure. It should also be fun. We’ll play the finished five-minute recordings in class, maybe burn CDs with everyone’s work—an audio anthology of radio dramas. Perfect for long car rides.


So my question, as this semester draws to a close, is this: What have you got up your sleeve for the spring?


[[This post originally appeared on Litbits on December 28, 2011.]]

On social media, every post is an impulse towards connection. Whether you’re seeking likes, sharing new information, or looking for a discussion, everything we do on social media is in conversation with the people logging in around us. Every part of our digital footprint is a micronarrative that could be explored more. The beginning of an idea. The tip of the iceberg.


Author Jonathan Franzen, in his introduction to the 2016 Best American Essays, questions the essay’s current existence in relation to social media: “Is the essay becoming an endangered species? Or is it a species that has so fully invaded the larger culture that it no longer needs its original niche?”


The long-form essay is endangered, competing with the 140-character flash narratives of our lives, brief blips that could be investigated, but are usually left to collect digital dust, to pile beneath the other posts that will push them further down into a void we’ll likely never see again.


But we need to explore these impulses, blips we send out from our radars, now more than ever. Anna Quindlen, New York Times columnist, says that “first person is the connective tissue, and we live in a world where there is too little genuine connective tissue.”


If the essay is a writer's mind grappling on the page with a question they cannot answer, we need the essay now more than ever to understand the world around us, and the people we interact with. If the essay encapsulates live moments, then we need to essay in-depth, at length, not write one-offs that sink to the bottom of the news feed.


It’s no surprise that we live partially online, most of us carrying around Smartphones in our pockets or purses, checking them over a hundred times a day. We are craving a connection we’re still missing out on.


And it’s no surprise to find that, like theorist Peter Brooks suggests, we live in “anticipation of retrospection,” where we are always looking forward to look back. Charles Comey, in his essay "Against Honeymoons" writes of this very sensation--the looking forward to look back: "The strange thing about a honeymoon is that even while it's happening, it's already lived as a story. We sit inside it saying, ‘We will have been here.’" It’s almost as if we are posting blurbs or curated snapshots of our lives with the sole purpose or intention of remembering all of this later, rather than to examine the present life we are living in more closely, and at greater length.


We look forward to retrospection, reflection, or reminiscing, and sometimes this anticipation preoccupies our mind in the very moment we should be experiencing the hike up the mountain, the view of the sun melting everything around it. Instead, we grab our smartphones and start taking photos--of the sky, of our faces with the sky, of our bodies in front of said sky--so we will remember it later, and so others will know we were here. And during all of this picking and choosing of how to make ourselves look like we aren't trying super hard to be cool, easy, and free, we are missing the quiet shifting of clouds, the insects trilling, and everything else we should be looking at.


Comey continues: "Each moment slips through his fingers; everything is already over." The essay exists for many reasons, but one is to catch what’s happening in the present, what has happened in the past, and what could happen in the future, and to share this with readers who could make meaning, could relate, and could connect over this shared matter, the idea that’s been turned over and over in the writer’s mind.