I Love Homework

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I’m in the second semester at the University of Chicago’s Writers Studio. We have a great teacher—Kevin Davis. During our first night he had classmates interviewing each other for 10 minutes about a memorable holiday moment, and then he asked us to write a scene about it. He’s big on research so he wanted us to add a little to flesh out the scene.

I’m not sure I did Sarah’s Christmas any justice. She certainly did  mine. But it was nice to break out the old interviewing and research skills again and fascinating to use them as a tool to create a scene. Scenes are a great way to move a story along. Breaking down essays this way is enlightening in more ways than I can say. I look forward to using this and those lessons awaiting me in my future work.

In the meantime, here’s Sarah’s memorable holiday moment, edited after great input from the class:

On December 26 Sarah stirred up some magical memories in her Minnesota home, allowing the joy of the season to spread over the Ashley family for another full day. Sarah Ashley, a 27-year-old content writer and actress now living in Chicago, hasn’t missed a Christmas at her childhood home in Minnetonka, eight miles west of Minneapolis. She doesn’t make the trek solely because it’s the big birthday bash for over 2 billion Christians around the globe, but because it’s her sister’s.

This holiday marked Claire’s 25th, and to celebrate her quarter-of-a-century, friends and family gathered on the 26th for a dinner party. The Ashley’s eight-foot Christmas tree and holiday decorations sparkled in the family room as Claire’s 10 girlfriends, a handful of 21-year-old brother Graham’s buddies and some family friends filled the house with chatter and laughter.

“It even snowed that night, like a pretty little veil on Christmas,” Sarah said, her blues eyes twinkling, too, as she recounted the evening.

The Ashley’s had the party end nailed. The dinner part wasn’t as firm.

“My mom doesn’t know how to prep for lots of people. I knew if I didn’t step in, it wouldn’t happen,” Sarah laughed, lovingly.

On the menu: homemade pasta and sauce with shrimp.

She commandeered the kitchen, appointing some to pasta boiling, others to sauce prep and the remainder to shrimp handling. Long-time friends, dressed for a party, bustled about following Sarah’s orders as she directed the meal. Garlic, tomato and basil joined the party, too, their scents floating through the house along with the pine. So engrossed in her efforts, at one point Sarah turned around to see all her line cooks quietly awaiting their next assignments. She laughed out loud, breaking the silence. Now confident there was no way it would come together simultaneously, the chatting, laughing and cooking resumed.

“Everyone was having such a good time, trying to cook fast, enjoying the evening. It felt like a scene out of a Nora Ephron movie,” Sarah said, her hands gesturing about as if she were replaying it in her head.

The partiers loved the meal, and Graham and his friends relished in the gaggle of 25-year-old women as much as pasta and shrimp. At the end of the night, the birthday girl and her friends prepared to hit the streets of Minnetonka. Sarah, who enjoyed sitting back and taking it all in because she had no friends to distract her, sipped her wine, content in playing her part in such a holiday spectacular.

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost – Bookworms Club

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My laptop continues undergoing a tune-up before I start school in mid-January, and both packed and yet-to-be filled boxes abound around the condo we’re moving from at the end of the month. I’m focused on organizing the pieces of our lives so the next stop in our journey unfurls as uncluttered and stress-free as possible so I can participate in class without being too distracted. Still, I’m hard-wired to find time to write and read. I picked up Meaghan Daum’s new book of essays, “Unspeakable,” and am up late into the night reading and re-reading it. What an amazing piece of work. She’s a brilliant writer.

This morning skimming through email I found this timely and timeless poem in a LinkedIn discussion. We’re all entering a New Year if not a new home. I hope you, too, are as inspired by this masterpiece as I head back onto the path full of boxes.

 “The Road Not Taken” is one of Frost’s most critically acclaimed poems. The poem starts with the narrator standing at a fork road where he is supposed to make a decision about which road to take. As he knows he cannot take both road at the same time, he try his best to look at one road till it bends in the undergrowth, but then he takes the opposite road. While travelling through the selected road he is constantly thinking of the road not taken. As most of us do, probably Frost is pointing to the truth of life. That none of us try to concentrate on our present task or the path which we have taken. We always try to think of the lost benefits from those untrodden paths, as the saying goes – “ The road is always greener on the other end”. 

 Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference  

 In the end our narrator writes that he will be recalling this journey with a “sigh” in the future. Whether the sigh is a happy sigh or sad sigh, is something we as readers have to interpret. Or maybe even the narrator also didn’t know. All he knew was that, “All the difference in your life was finally because of the road you selected.”

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost – Bookworms ClubBook

How do you manage your writing time?

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Outside of ensuring my family and friends are happy and healthy, I have only two big goals over the next two years. The first is to move, and that’s simply a matter of timing. The place is ready to be shown. We already did the “big” downsizing when our girls had the audacity to leave us so this next one is much easier.

My second goal is to finish the two-year Writing Certificate program at the University of Chicago. Tonight is class #2. I’ve done my homework, and I’m excited to get to know my colleagues and teacher better as well as learn to become a better writer.

Still there is also so much info on the web to read from credible sources like “What turns editors on?” “What gets you thrown off the slush pile?” “10 ways to impress an agent,” “How to manage your time!” Then there are the magazines—Poets & Writers, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Sun not to mention all the great literary publications from Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, Fifth Wednesday JournalAnd the on-line journals and blogs—way too many to list. But so many great ones to read.

I’ve worked hard to keep up a writing routine. In the morning I go to my desk. It’s somewhat away from the hub of the house so it’s relatively quiet. But people know how to find me! At least once a week I go to my girlfriend’s. She lives on top of offices. We work in the offices, and truly get very few distractions so we do get a lot of work done.

But we never end a long and intense day without feeling like there’s so much more we need to do, learn, research, double-check. Writing is hard, time-consuming, and we know it’s unlikely to make us wealthy. But writers have to write.

Any suggestions? I guarantee I’ll find time to read those.

I’m a writer now

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My life has changed dramatically since I returned on March 21 from Ragdale, a writer-in-residence retreat in Lake Forest, IL. I’m a writer now. I’ve got no problem saying it, writing it, filling it in the occupation blank on forms. Those 18 days surrounded by other writers and artists transformed me from a tentative wannabe into a determined published author and writer.

All my life my mom told me I was destined to write the Great American Novel. Not too much pressure. When I was probably 6 or 7, my cousin pulled from her bookshelf a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, and I was hooked.

After a million more books and sitting in more classrooms than your average nerd, I learned fiction isn’t my thing, so I’m not on the line for the Great American Novel catch. I write essays, or what’s known nowadays as creative nonfiction. They just moved the deadline out a month so I won’t find out until September if I’ve been accepted into the University of Chicago’s Writer’s Studio. That would be two more years of classes, 24 months of nirvana. I have everything crossed.

I’ve written several essays and sent two to dozens and dozens of publications. I’m learning how to deal with rejection letters. Remarkably, however, both were picked up at More magazine.

The first one was called “Connections,” but the editor changed the title to “What Needlecraft Gives Me.” They could have called it “This Writer Sucks” and I’d still be thrilled―a published writer! It can be seen at http://www.more.com/print/438749. Forty one days later, they picked up my other essay, which was laying on slush piles all over the country. “A Picture Bigger Than Life” is at http://www.more.com/member-voices/your-stories/picture-bigger-life.

Now I’m working on a compilation of essays for a book I hope provides me the opportunity to read rejection letters from a whole new audience: agents. The Writer’s Studio would be The. Perfect. Place. to complete it. In your second year you work with a professor to write your final project: a 250-page creation.

But I’ll survive if U of C rejects my first attempt at the program. In fact, I may then just write those 250 pages in a single year, get an editor, then read rejection letters from agents. And that’s okay. I’m a writer now. Rejection comes with the job description. And so does one the most rewarding career-sided emotions when that one out of 100 letters/texts comes back saying “accepted for publication.”

And who knows. One of these days someone may even pay me for my own words 🙂