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In the spirit of the holidays, I thought of Hermey from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s an elf, but he hates making toys. He wants to be a dentist! When he meets Rudolph, he says, “I’m a dentist! Well, I want to be.” It’s a good lesson for writers–identify yourself as one. Don’t be shy! Or, as Kurt Vonnegut so famously said, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
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Recently, I stumbled across a 2006 interview with the writer Anne Lamott, conducted when she was promoting her memoir, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith. She said something that struck a chord with me. As someone who writes in and about many genres/subjects–fiction, nonfiction, the art of writing, parenting, faith–Lamott is sometimes asked about each subject separately. To her, though, they all blend together. To paraphrase, she says that whether she’s talking about her faith, her writing, or being a parent, it all boils down to the same idea: of taking it step by step (or bird by bird, if you will), of trusting your gut, of not being afraid of making mistakes, of revisiting choices and revising when you can, of believing that following the inner voice will lead you to where you need to be.
I love the idea that we can blend aspects of our lives, that we can take the lessons learned at work and apply them to our creative lives, or that we can take lessons from our creativity and apply them to our relationships. We don’t sacrifice our artistic selves by problem-solving at work; our analytical selves are not jeopardized when we engage in creative thought. Engagement in different aspects of our lives creates a stronger, more vibrant whole. Even our physical lives can inform our creative selves. I thought of that during this past weekend while running a 5K race. The way I pictured success while running is similar to how I envisioned, for example, Killing the Angel magazine’s success during the early planning stages. I succeeded in the race (at least by my personal standards), but did the mental picturing technique work for my magazine? Feel free to pick up a copy and judge for yourself.
It’s been a busy few months, but it’s all worth it because… the first issue of Killing the Angel magazine has finally arrived! Here are some ways to get involved:
1) Purchase a copy of our first issue, which features original fiction, poetry, nonfiction, interviews, and inspiration. Click here for ordering information.
2) Come to our NYC launch party on December 18, 2012, from 7-9 PM at the KGB Bar, 85 East Fourth Street, New York, New York. Several of our first issue contributors will be reading their work. Join us! Click here for more information.
3) Submit your original work to us for our second issue! Submissions are open through February 1, 2013.
1) How to write that problematic “dinner party” scene.
I put dinner party in quotes because the scene in Heartburn isn’t really a dinner party scene–it’s group therapy–but it poses all the problems that the writer’s classic “dinner party dilemma” poses. How do you keep these secondary characters distinct while maintaining forward movement? How do you show these distinctions without telling or having a stop-and-go effect… all while keeping the tone consistent? Read chapter 4 of Heartburn and find out.
2) How to write an engaging personal essay about basically anything.
Whether she was writing about the harrowing depths of her purse or life with alcoholic parents, Ephron’s essays easily engage their readers. She understood how and where to focus the reader’s gaze so that her subject was fascinating and engaging, no matter how conventionally “important” it was or wasn’t. The takeaway? It’s not what you write about… it’s how you write about it. Which leads me to the next lesson…
3) Humor is everywhere.
It’s in food. It’s in divorce. It’s in your sagging, wrinkly neck. It’s in love. It’s not just funny of the “haha” sort; it’s humor that comes from the acute observation of the surprising, contradictory, nuanced truths of the elements of our lives. Anything can be funny.
4) A writer can be proficient in many genres.
Everyone’s mourning Nora Ephron because everyone was her audience. She was involved in so many genres: film, blogs, fiction, personal essay. She mastered each genre and was confined to none. So we can’t say we refuse poetry because we’re novelists, or refuse fiction because we’re screenwriters. It can all work together.
5) “Everything is copy.”
Ephron’s mom told her this when she was young. Copy essentially means words. “Everything is copy” means that everything inspires thought, sentences, stories, art. When tragedy befalls you–that’s copy. When joy befalls you–copy. When traffic jams befall you–copy. It’s our job to use our lives toward creativity, and that’s exactly what Nora Ephron did.
In addition to teaching English, I’m certified to teach French. To become certified, one of the things I had to do was take a course on methods of teaching world languages. In that methods class, my professor told us that the best way to learn a new language is through immersion–to listen and to speak exclusively in the target language. An ideal French teacher, she said, will only speak in French to her students, even on the first day of study. TPR (total physical response), pantomiming, gestures, and pictures, among other methods, would help students understand what the French meant without actually using English to translate. I was skeptical (as someone easily caught up in logistics and details, my first thought was, how would you go over the course syllabus on the first day?), but was convinced after sitting through a number of my very effective 10-minute Chinese presentations from my colleagues. I didn’t speak a word of Chinese and it’s not a Romantic language, so I wouldn’t be able to use my knowledge of French to help me out. The Chinese teachers-to-be spoke only in Chinese during the lesson, and to this day I remember the target words/phrases from their lesson and what they mean.
I later realized that this concept applies to more than just language learning. My boyfriend is a photographer, and when I first met him, I knew next to nothing about artistic photography. But he’d speak to me as though I did. I’d watch him going through his shots, and he’d say that a particular photo would have been better if the ISO had been higher, or if the aperture had been tighter. He’d demonstrate what those terms were when I asked, and I began to understand some of the finer points of photography. Nowadays, I look at photos with a more critical and more appreciative eye. I also think that, to some degree, this kind of immersion happens every time I read a writer doing something new with language and form. I’m immersed in an unfamiliar style, and it forces me to grow in my understanding of the power of what language can do.
The idea of immersion connects to what in teaching is known as the zone of proximal development. In a nutshell, the zone of proximal development is the area just beyond what the student already knows. It’s the teacher’s job every day to push the student just beyond what he already knows and into the next level. Appropriate immersion can help bring a student to that next level, whether you’re a student of language, photography, writing, or life. So, fear not the unknown! Venture forth and you just might find yourself growing in ways you never expected.
The first issue of my literary magazine, Killing the Angel, is almost ready to go to print! In the meantime, check out our re-vamped website. I post updates from time to time on there, as well as submission guidelines, contact information, and other fun stuff. Enjoy!
I heard a story on NPR this morning about how Harvard and MIT are joining the ranks of top tier universities offering FREE online courses. Awesome! The courses don’t lead to degrees, but according to the story, they might in the future.
I found this so inspiring. A Harvard class for free? How cool is that? So I checked out available courses, and one of them is Shakespeare After All–The Later Plays. Sign me up!
Happy April, and Happy National Poetry Month! To celebrate this awesome month, my students are starting off each class period by reading a poem of their choosing. I directed them to poets.org, my favorite poetry website, to begin their search for poems to bring in. Poets.org is sixteen years old this month and is doing fun things to celebrate its “Sweet Sixteen”–fun! To join in, I’ve compiled a list of sixteen poems that I’ve enjoyed in my life. Next to each poem, I jotted one takeaway or “summary” to give you an idea of what the poems are about, so if the title, author, and/or topic piques your interest, give it a google and give it a read!
1. “Sadie and Maud,” by Gwendolyn Brooks – on following your own path in life
2. “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” by Walt Whitman – on persistence and patience
3. “O Me! O Life!” also by Walt Whitman – on the meaning of life
4. “For Those Who Need a True Story,” by Tara Betts – on survival
5. “One Art,” by Elizabeth Bishop – on the art of losing
6. “Dublin Made Me,” by Donagh McDonagh – on the pride of your roots
7. “Age Looking Back at Its Youth,” John M. Ridland – the electricity of youth
8. “If Thou Must Love Me,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning – on love
9. “One Boy Told Me,” Naomi Shihab Nye – on fresh perspective and questioning
10. “Why Are Your Poems So Dark?” by Linda Pastan – on poetry’s inspiration
11. “Love the Wild Swan,” by Robinson Jeffers – on freedom
12. “On Turning Ten,” by Billy Collins – on leaving childhood
13. “Like You,” by Roque Dalton – on human connection
14. “On the Death of a Colleague,” by Stephen Dunn – on the inevitability of death
15. “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” by John Donne – on the strength of true love
16. Number sixteen on this list is reserved for some of the poetry submissions I got for the first issue of Killing the Angel. They were fantastic, and I can’t wait to make the first issue acceptances final and write those poets to let them know how great they are! Who knows, maybe those poems will be on your top sixteen list when you read them this summer…
1) If inspiration were an establishment, that establishment would be Shakespeare and Company (read about the history of my love for this bookstore here and here). Last week, I received notification that Killing the Angel, my literary magazine, will be on the shelves of Shakespeare and Company this summer. There are no words.
2) Killing the Angel is still accepting submissions for our very first issue. We have an April 1 deadline and are still eagerly reading all the submissions that we get. We invite you to submit your work.
I leave you with a random literary thought: Anyone who said chick lit started with Bridget Jones’s Diary in 1996 is just wrong. Clearly, it began with Nora Ephron’s Heartburn in 1983. Everyone else just took an extra thirteen years catching up.
I’m wrapping up a unit on Transcendentalism with my American literature students. We’ve focused on essays by Emerson and Thoreau that beseech us to reject technology, embrace our individuality, and accept nature as part of our divine existence. However, something I heard on NPR tonight suggests that technology might be the very key to sustaining our individuality.
According to a report on All Tech Considered, half of the total languages spoken in our world could be extinct by the end of this century. Aboriginal languages in America’s Pacific Northwest, for example, are slowly being phased out as those cultures assimilate more and more into the dominant English-speaking culture. However, thanks to digital tools now available to us, staying connected to your language is easier than ever. Online lesson plans, translations, social networks, and dictionaries make it easy and convenient to stay in touch with one’s native tongue. And in Canada, the Inuit people are taking steps to preserve their language, Inuktitut, by working with Microsoft to create translations of Microsoft Word and other everyday computer programs. The project leader has this to say about the importance of everyday engagement with one’s native tongue: “So many people will spend their entire day sitting in front of a computer, and if you’re sitting in front of your computer in English all day then that just reinforces English… if you’re now using Inuktitut, it’s just reinforcing that this is your language.”
We have language to communicate, so embracing technology that can link speakers together could be the answer to keeping all 7,000-odd world languages alive instead of fulfilling the linguists’ prediction that half will be gone in the next ninety years or so. I also see language as a powerful, albeit intangible, artifact of a culture. A culture’s values can be apparent simply in the variety of its distinctive lexicon. As our world becomes increasingly globalized, we have the unique challenge of maintaining our individuality while continuing to come together as a global community. Emerson and Thoreau might have eschewed technology, but they also said that we shouldn’t be afraid to evolve in our ways of thinking about the changing world around us.