December 20, 2013

Poetry Friday, New Years Edition: "The Journey"

The Journey
by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

November 30, 2013


November's always been one of my favorite months, because it's filled with opportunities to reflect, celebrate, and be thankful.

I'm thankful for my students, who make me laugh, make me think, and make me feel like I hold a valuable place in the world.

I'm thankful for my work. This year, I've gotten to achieve some fairly substantial dreams: I've done work for National Geographic, and I've gotten to craft my own creative writing class. I am thankful for the trust those around me have had about my ability to do these things well. I work very hard, but I'm fortunate that so much of my work allows me to share my passion, and to fill my life with it.

I'm thankful for my writing, which inspires me to get up before the sun, and stay up long after it's gone to bed, exploring and dreaming and discovering. I'm thankful for the way my writing allows me to better understand myself and my world. I'm thankful for my critique partner, Ryan Graudin, whose encouragement, kind words, and "done yet?" emails help me remember how important my writing is to me, and how much I want to continue to pursue it.

I'm thankful for my friends, who keep me sane in the midst of my crazy work schedule, who make me laugh and feel seen, known, and celebrated. Even when they're far away from me.

 This Thanksgiving, I feel very thankful for my family. I feel thankful for the fact that, even though my brother and I are very different, we can still find joy in doing crazy things (like jumping out of a plane) together. I'm thankful for the fact that he's the ONLY boy who's ever been unembarrassed to dance with me around the kitchen. I'm thankful that I had the opportunity to sit around a crowded table and soak in the eccentric, outspoken crazy of my family members.

And - because I don't think we do this enough - I am thankful for myself: my resilience, my courage, and my continued desire to be open to the world and passionate about it, even when I'm tired and depleted and unsure.

November 9, 2013

Two Poetry Fridays: "Because I could not stop for Death" and "Detail of the Woods"

I love this first poem because it reminds me of my current novel-in-progress. I love the second poem because I just went for a run through autumn woods and wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment that everyone should have a place, and it shouldn't be within someone else.

"Because I could not Stop for Death" 
by Emily Dickinson
(try singing it to the tune of Amazing Grace. Cool, right?)

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school, where children strove
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then 'tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.

"Detail of the Woods"
by Richard Siken

I looked at all the trees and didn't know what to do.
A box made out of leaves. What else was in the woods? 

A heart, closing. Nevertheless. Everyone needs a place. It shouldn't be inside of someone else. 
I kept my mind on the moon. Cold moon, long nights moon. 

From the landscape: a sense of scale. 
From the dead: a sense of scale. 

I turned my back on the story. A sense of superiority. 
Everything casts a shadow. 

Your body told me in a dream it's never been afraid of anything.

October 29, 2013

11 Tips for Finding the Writerly Zone

Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) is meant to be a time when you throw caution to the wind and try to write 50,000 words in four weeks. That's maybe in the realm of possibility if you've got a bucketload of time and an endless supply of Reese's pumpkins. But I don't have either one of those things. I believe that, even if I DID, one month just isn't enough to produce a quality first draft. Nanowrimo stands as a great motivator, though. For me, it's become about finding new ways to write effectively in the time I can manage to carve out.

I've found that the key to writing effectively with limited time is the ability to get into the Writerly Zone quickly, and stay there for as long as you can. It's hard to get into that zone, though, when you're working long, demanding hours; it's hard to get into that zone when you're tired or unsure about where your story is heading. But here's a thing I've discovered: the longer you let a project linger, the more likely it becomes that you'll lose your flow, your motivation, and your sense of why you started writing the thing in the first place.

Here are some of the tricks for finding, and maintaining, the Writerly Zone:

1. Set up goals for each writing session ahead of time. When you sit down at your computer, you don't want to waste precious time staring at that ugly, blinking cursor, scratching your head over what you want to write. Create a road map--or at least a few road signs--for what you want to accomplish in the hour you have at your disposal. Set a concrete goal, whether it be reaching a particular word count or reaching the end of a scene. Just remember that writing to a certain word count doesn't work well for everyone, so set a goal that keeps you motivated.

2. Carve out at least an hour of writing time (90 minutes would be better). You need enough time to allow your mind to unwind and put itself back in the world you're creating. Energy experts suggest that working in 90-minute bursts seem to be a productive time block: long enough to get things done, not so long that your eyes start to burn.

2. Don't write for TOO long. This sounds silly, probably, but sometimes you need to call it. I've found that when I start to hit a wall (and I mean REALLY hit it, hard enough to crunch metal), it's better to stop than to keep going. Try to end your writing time before you run out of things to say; spend those last few minutes planning for the next session.

3. Don't be afraid to think small. The key to achieving any goal is to make it achievable. It's like training for a race: the only way you're going to get to the end is if you focus on what's right in front of you instead of what kind of pizza you're going to order after it's done. It's easy to be intimidated by the thought of writing a novel - but there are other options for flexing your creative muscle this month. Try writing scenes or short stories; write a new story every day. That way, you're not investing in any one story for longer than you'd like, but you're giving yourself room to learn and grow.

4. Carve out the time, then make it a ritual. We are creatures of habit, aren't we? We like to sleep in our own beds, with particular pillows, and a particular book in our hands. When that routine's interrupted, it's often harder to get to sleep. It's the same with writing. Try to write at the same time every day; condition yourself to write under certain conditions; make it into a ritual that contains the same things every time you sit down. That ritual will let your brain, and your creative muse, know when it's time to get serious.

5. Did someone say "ritual"? Here's one of my best secrets for getting in the Zone in 60 seconds or less, no matter where I am: I put on my headphones and queue up a playlist I've compiled particularly for writing. That playlist is usually filled with songs that evoke the mood I'm trying to create. Once I start writing, that music fades into a pleasant background that shuts out any outside distractions.

6. Stop making excuses! No, you don't need to do laundry right now. You don't need to text your mom. You know why? Because it's writing time, and that time is sacred. Don't let other people's opinions stop you from committing to that sacred time. There will always be that little voice somewhere inside you saying that this thing you're doing is a waste of time. There will always be someone in your life who thinks that same. Ignore those voices, because they don't matter. Give yourself permission to take your writing seriously.

7. Limit and block distractions. Seriously, guys: don't think you can have five tabs open while you write. You KNOW you're going to click to them. Don't try to write in a crowded room full of friends. Cut out as many distractions and draws on your time as you can. Put your phone in a drawer; shut the door to your room. Let people know you're taking an hour and you'd appreciate that it be uninterrupted. What are you doing checking Facebook?! It'll still be there in an hour. I promise.

8. Keep a writing journal at the ready. Inspiration comes at unexpected times. Or, if you're me, inconvenient times. Like when you're driving. Or when you're mowing the lawn. Or doing something that demands attention, sharp objects, and fine motor skills. Having a journal with you allows you to capture any stray lightning bolts of inspiration before they float away. It also encourages you to write down those small, interesting moments in any day that feed the writerly soul. You'd be amazed how many inspiring things are lurking in that overheard conversation in the grocery store or the sounds emanating from the locker room.

9. Decluttering and Reminding. Clear off your desk. The less cluttered it is, the less cluttered you'll feel when you sit down at it. Post some encouraging sticky notes on your desktop. Whatever you think you'll need in those moments when you start to doubt or your mind starts to wander.

10. Give yourself permission to suck (well, at least to not look back). Remember that you're writing a draft - not a finished masterpiece. That comes later. If you're stuck, allow yourself to move on, knowing that you'll come back to it.

11. Have a mantra. Something you do when you're starting to feel as if you're the worst writer of all time. Recognize the challenges inherent in writing into the unknown. Writing takes work, and sometimes it's incredibly hard. Recognize that some days won't feel as productive as others. But ALSO recognize that every time you sit down to write, you are learning something. No writing time is ever wasted.

Happy Almost November! Now go forth and write.

October 18, 2013

First Poetry Friday: "Sharks' Teeth"

Teaching Creative Writing in an endlessly inspiring task. Pushing my students out of their comfort zones, and asking them to look closely at poetry to figure out how it ticks, gives me the opportunity to discover new poems and poets that I come to love.

In the past few months, I've LOVED having the opportunity to sink back into poetry and share my passion for it with my students. So now, I'm going to share some of those poems with you.

Welcome to Poetry Fridays.

I discovered Kay Ryan's award-winning book while browsing idly in Northshire Bookstore. I picked it up because I loved the cover. I bought it because I kept snapping photos of every page, entranced by the beauty in her spare language and wonderfully crafted rhythms.

"Sharks' Teeth"
by Kay Ryan

Everything contains some 
silence. Noise gets
its zest from the
small shark's-tooth
shaped fragments
of rest angled
in it. An hour 
of city holds maybe 
a minute of these 
remnants of a time 
when silence reigned, 
compact and dangerous 
as a shark. Sometimes 
a bit of a tail 
or fin can still 
be sensed in parks.

Source: Poetry (April 2004).

September 15, 2013


This post is a little late, but I couldn't resist the desire to crow about this little baby, on which I had the privilege of working:

This magazine, out now, contains 100 unique and off-the-beaten-path destinations from around the world, many of which are places that few tourists know to go (my favorite: Coomera Falls in Australia's Gold Coast Hinterland). Each location is accompanied by useful information about what makes the place worth visiting, and how you can get yourself there. This magazine is for people who love being adventurers rather than tourists; for those who want to experience the unique and untrodden. I loved working on this project, and I hope you'll love it, too!

July 2, 2013

Book Review: The Night Circus

I've discovered that the first week of a teacher's summer break can be a restless, wily thing. I'm so used to having one million things to do that both body and mind had forgotten how to cope with relaxation time. Every time I sat down, I felt guilty. Surely I should be DOING something. I couldn't even write, my mind was so fractured. It seemed to want to run around, trying to cover as much ground as it could.

Now, it's not that I'm complaining. It's just that my beginning-of-summer frame of mind made it difficult for me to find the right book to read. I needed something smart and articulate and emotionally weighty, but also something that would grip my mind and hold onto it.

The Night Circus gave me all of that. In fact, it gave me more. I was fairly bowled over by this beautiful, surprising novel. It was so many of the things I love in a story: lyrical and a little eccentric, with a captivating voice and a lot of stop-and-write-it-down worthy one liners. It also has love and travel and magic, a combination I'm bound to get excited about.

At its heart, The Night Circus is about a grand competition constructed by two long-time rival magicians who have different opinions about how magic should be done. It is based in our world (circa 1890), but also creates its own world within the confines of an strange and beautiful circus created as a backdrop for the game. As the magicians' two players grow older and the circus they've helped create becomes more complex, they fall in a love that wreaks all kinds of beautiful havoc on everyone involved. The story spans so many lives and years, weaving together a multitude of narrative threads in a way that is riveting, and which feels effortless. Not only that, but the author uses second person in a really interesting way: she makes the reader a part of the circus by putting them within it.

Another thing I love about this novel is the way she makes her setting a character. The circus almost jumps off of the page, so tangible and lovely that I slowed down my reading so I couldn't delay finishing it.

This book isn't like anything I've ever read. But if I had to draw comparisons, I'd say it had me thinking of Mr. Norrell and Jonathan Strange, with a sprinkling of Jane Austen and the same magical allure as Harry Potter, although it was very different than all of those.

This is one of those books that's next to impossible to describe, really, other than to say it's one of the best books I've read in a while.

Music I'm Writing To: "Lifeforms" by Daughter

June 22, 2013

School Is Out

School is finally, officially out for summer, and I finally have time to relax and reflect on what a crazy year it's been. My body hasn't quite figured out it's summer yet: I still wake up early, tense and ready to get 1,000 things done. I feel guilty sitting down for ten minutes to have coffee without doing anything else at the same time. So my primary goal for the summer is to let myself unwind, reflect, and just BE sometimes. I miss what it feels like to let my mind wander!

Other goals include: revising my novel, reading for fun, getting back in shape, cooking, adventuring, learning how to use InDesign (properly)...and, you know, writing more interesting and cohesive blog posts. 

Despite my appalling lack of knowledge about design software, it did manage to make this 'favorite quote' collage for my 11th graders. Recognize any of these literary gems?

Despite its intensity, I've had an incredible last nine months: now I'm ready to take some nice, deep breaths. Here's to The Summer of Freedom!

May 11, 2013


...that Secret Thing I've been working on since September, and which I finally get to brag about:

This year, I have had the fortunate privilege of working as project editor on two special editions of National Geographic. Like many adventurous, book-loving kids before me, I long dreamed of working for Nat Geo. And now I can say that, after months of late nights and hard work, that vision is a dream realized.

I'm very proud of the finished product, created and crafted by a wonderful editorial team from whom I learned so much. It is a compilation of 100 of the world's most beautiful places, from the tourmaline waters of the Great Barrier Reef and the jagged cliffs of Ireland to the sun-drenched walls of the Grand Canyon and the glistening ice sheets of Antarctica. This book is an inspiration for avid travelers, and makes a wonderful present for kids with wanderlust or adults with an affinity for beautiful photos. They  are available at bookstores and most newsstands and retailers (I've found them at Barnes & Noble, CVS, and many grocery stores). You can also purchase one here.

April 5, 2013

Ode To Students

I have the kind of job where I often get the chance to think, "Wow. I'm really interested in what this student wrote."

Where I sometimes get to think, "Wow. I'm really proud of what this student has ended up writing."

And then there are those very rare moments when I get to think, "Wow. I wish I had written what this student wrote."

Sometimes, I am lucky enough to read a piece of student writing that leaves me with a true sense of wonder. How can someone so young say something so simply, so beautifully? Usually it is in moments when they are writing unselfconsciously, as in an email written late at night, or in the writing journals I have them keep. It was in one such journal that I came across this sentence:

English is the study of poorly defined questions.

I find myself...lingeringly troubled by this statement. Not because I think this student was knocking his English class, but because of those two descriptors: "poorly defined." As if to ask a question without a rigid shape, and without an easy answer, is something not quite to be trusted. As if by making a question blurry, it loses some of its potency; loses some of its importance.

Here's what I have to say about poorly defined questions (which, I warn you, is probably going to be a little obtuse):

They ask you not to calculate, but to explore. Not to find some right answer--the what--but the WHY. Why do things fall apart? Why do things hold together?

I understand why these questions are troubling. Poorly defined questions are steps into a dark tunnel, not knowing what you'll find there; they are expeditions that could lead you anywhere, or everywhere, or nowhere. They can make you feel like you're throwing yourself off a cliff with no means to claw your way back up. But they are also about making connections between different ideas, different threads, different moments in a piece of literature, and using them to find a larger possible truth. Why do things fall apart in Lord of the Flies? There are many reasons, and they all lead back to the question of whether we, as humans, are inherently good. Whether compassion and empathy can withstand the blunt force of the need to survive and to control. Are there clear answers to these questions? Are there easy answers? No. But might they lead us to conclusions that matter? I think so.

For me, poorly defined English aren't about answers. They are about the means by which you seek those answers--intellectually and otherwise--and what you might discover along the way. I love asking these questions in my classes because I learn about my students through the answers they give. I can ask a room of students, "What is the American Dream?" and they can answer in one of so many different ways, all of which can be both right and wrong. All of which will give me some insight into what interests my students, and what drives them, and what matters to them, which ends up being what matters to all of us.

What do I love about poorly defined questions? That essentially they are all asking about the same thing: about what it is to be alive in the world. And those questions will always result in different answers, and the same answers.

March 6, 2013

Photo Collection: Playing with Shadows

A few days ago, I walked through the woods on one of those rare winter afternoons where the sun is actually out and your soul starts to peek out from behind its woolen blanket. I found myself thinking about my writing, as I often do: about how stories need both light and dark--points of contrast and contradiction, of both soft lines and sharp edges--in order to capture my full attention. I don't know that I came to any conclusions about how to make that happen in my own story, but I did end up with some pretty pictures.

February 5, 2013

Why I Didn't Watch Even One Second of The Superbowl

Over the course of the past week, I realized something important about setting goals. I can't say that this realization was completely new to me: it's something I've understood for a while now, but haven't been able to really internalize in a meaningful and actionable way.

Every day, I make imposing TO DO lists. And every day, my to-do listing essentially sets me up for failure. Because my lists generally look like this one to the left.

This list represents the things that I feel I need to do in a given day, or cluster of days. Most of the things on this list are not five minute activities; they are complicated and involved.

There are a couple of things to note here. First, that this list sets up completely ridiculous expectations for a given day, at the end of which I will inevitably feel like I've failed. This list does not catalogue the inordinate numbers of things I need to do that I don't feel the need to write down. Before starting in on my to-do list, I have to teach a full day, eat, sleep, converse with colleagues, respond to email, attempt to inspire students to enjoy critical thinking and reading (and sometimes juggling and sonnet writing), get up and stretch, and maybe even exercise (if I get very lucky). Even if I had a full day at home in the quiet, sipping coffee at my desk, I don't know that this list is actionable. Even if I had two personal slaves personal assistants to help me, I don't think I could pull it off.

Second, its' important to note what tasks have remained unchecked. Which ones, you ask?

The personal ones: my writing and personal health goals. The ones that are really important to me.

Not to say that work-related goals aren't important to me. They really are. But are they always and forever the most IMPORTANT goals, the ones that should always get top billing? I'm not convinced.

My students are often lamenting the fact that they are given so much work and that what's expected of them isn't reasonable. They're right: it isn't reasonable to expect that they can give their very best to every class and every assignment on every given day. We only have so many hours in the day and so many iotas of concentration to contribute. That means you have to pick and choose where and how you expend your energy.  It's about making choices about what your priorities are going to be. It's also about knowing that you can't do it all. You can try, but you can't. At least you can't do it all well - and isn't that what we're striving for? Sometimes you have to ease off in certain aspects of your life in order to live the life you really want. It isn't an easy thing to do sometimes, but the alternative is feeling like you're always failing.

Which is why, instead of watching the Superbowl, I worked on revising my novel. Because I have a big goal of revising this novel in the next six weeks, and watching football isn't going to get me there.

Music I'm Writing To: Ben Howard, "Under The Same Sun"

January 19, 2013

Top 5 Books of 2012

The Space Between by Brenna Yovanoff
Genre: YA Speculative Fiction
Why I Loved It: Because it was dark and magical, but sparingly so. The narrative voice was sharp and subtle, deftly crafted in a way that pulled me in completely without getting in its own way. I'm not sure if that will make sense to anyone but me, but that's how this book read for me. I'm not always a lover of stories about angels and demons, but this one felt fresh and accessible: this was less about religious exploration and more about what it is to be an outsider in your own life. I also happen to LOVE books that utilize dramatic irony well, especially when it comes to two love interests heading towards each other and NOT EVEN knowing it.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
Genre: YA Speculative Fiction
Why I Loved It: I love this author so, so much that I find it difficult to imagine disliking anything she writes. In fact, I love her so much that I read this book for the second time over Christmas, and loved it even more than I had the first time. Maggie's writing is so distinctive, and so beautifully and lyrically crafted. Her characters in this book felt incredibly real, exhibiting tragic flaws and beautiful vulnerabilities that made them a pleasure to follow around even when they were pissing me off. The premise (I don't want to spoil it--just read the prologue, would you?) is one of the most unique I've come across in a while. It has all of the crucial ingredients that make me fall in love with a book: great writing, a compelling voice, dark edges, unique characters, and angst. It it has real twists and mysteries, too. I was sad both times when I turned the last page.

Nightwoods by Charles Frazier
Genre: Adult Literary Fiction
Why I Loved It: I was afraid that, after Cold Mountain, I could never love another book of his as much. To my surprise, though, this book worked a kind of spell on me. It has all of Frazier's characteristic hallmarks of style: a lush, detailed setting, a calm and beautiful voice, and an atmospheric pull that makes it incredibly satisfying to read slowly and savor. He deals with issues of abuse and brokenness in a way that is beautiful, but never gratuitous. It isn't often that I read a book that makes me believe in literary magic, but this one certainly did.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Genre: I'm stumped...let's say YA Historical Fiction with a speculative twist?
Why I Loved It: I had the pleasure of finishing this book while sitting on a bench in Switzerland. I also had the pleasure to teach this book to 9th graders, and watching them fall in love with the strange and devastating world of this story. I don't know that I have ever read something so carefully--or uniquely--crafted. You fall in love with the characters and the place they inhabit, and you can't look away from them even when horrible things are happening in their lives. It creates a commentary around the Holocaust that feels new, and devastating, and also filled with hope. I feel lucky to have had the change to read it so closely and talk about it with my students.

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn

Genre: YA Contemporary
Why I Loved It: This short novel felt so incredibly stylized--the way teens talked and moved and felt--while managing, at the same time, to feel incredibly real. I loved following the two characters around as they stumbled their way through their feelings. I read most of this book out loud to a friend as we drove through the South, which brought home what an incredible job these writers did at creating two very distinct voices for their characters that still managed to meld and flow together.