Monthly Archives: February 2008

Eileen Spinelli–On worry, risks and loving the work

 I can’t tell you how many students of mine have said, “I want to write this novel, short story, poem,” but I don’t know if I’ll ever get it published.  And I can’t say enough, don’t worry about that while you’re writing.

Worry.  Robert Frost once said that once it’s written, a draft of a poem can be worked over but the poem itself cannot be worried into being.

Here are some wise words from Eileen Spinelli about this very subject.  Spinelli is one of my favorite children’s authors, her book Sophie’s Masterpiece really is a masterpiece.  She’s also married to YA author Jerry (Stargirl, Maniac Magee) Spinelli.  Take a listen:

“Here’s a beautiful quote that I love. Natalie Goldberg said, “If you love the work, it will love you back.” How can you love the work if you’re already a mile down the road worrying about whether it’s going to be published? The publication will take care of itself. I hate to see writers just cringing and skipping ahead, and worrying about publication. I think it interferes with what you do. It makes you afraid to take risks, for one thing, because you are too afraid. “Is the publisher going to want this?” or “Is the editor going to like this?”—that’s the adult in you.”

So, quit worrying–but keep writing!

Bye y’all,




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In Praise of Mistakes


Because I’ve been deeply involved in reading Eric Maisel’s wonderful book, Fearless Creating, I’ve been thinking a lot about mistakes.  Failure.  Blowing it.

 In order to succeed as artists, and in order for our students to succeed, we must feel the freedom to take risks.  Taking risks often results in failure.  Just creating can be taking a risk, because it inevitably involves these mistakes. 

We must give our students and ourselves the freedom to fail.

Working writers already know this.  Witness Anne Lamott’s famous “Shitty First Drafts” chapter in Bird by Bird (if you haven’t read this book yet and you’re interested in writing, you simply must).  Eric Maisel writes that we must view creating as “a mistake making adventure.”  For this reason John Irving says half of his life is revision.  Philip Roth offers to hold up his own bad drafts beside anyone else’s just for sheer badness.

What does this mean in our test-driven, product-driven, results-driven society?  We simply must make room for teaching our students that mistakes, and failure are the only route to success.  The first step may well be freely sharing our own mistakes with them, sharing our own drafts, our own bad writing.  Not just the good stuff.

In my own introductory creative writing classes, I do this by not grading my student’s creative work.  Yes, I respond to it thoughtfully, carefully, and in writing, talking specifically about strengths and weaknesses.  But I don’t grade it.  Lots of other work in this class does receive a grade, peer reviews, book reviews, cover critiques, reflective work.  Just not the creative stuff.  My students love this.  It gives them the freedom to try new things.  It gives them the freedom to fail.

 How do you give your students the freedom to fail?


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Reading Grants, Writing Grants: What I Know

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I spent the weekend at one of the tables above, reading Continued Funding Applications (hereafter known as CFA’s) for the National Writing Project, a thirty plus year old federally funded program to enhance the teaching of writing in American schools and offer teachers a professional network in the process.  It was an intense, exhausting, amazing experience.  Those who submit need to know that their CFA’s are in the respectful, nurturing hands of those who are devoting themselves to getting to know their Writing Project site (there are 190! currently in the US), to celebrating what is working and to offering suggestions on addressing what’s not working.  Like most writing project efforts, it’s a “big picture,” kind of process. 

In the course of three days, I only read and wrote review letters for three sites and that was fine!  In fact, that was about average.  If I had gone faster than that, it probably would have been cause for concern.  This is not a read ’em, rate ’em, ship ’em out kind of thing.  In fact, “rating” rarely comes into play at all.  All in all a powerful experience in which I got as many ideas to bring back to our site as I proffered for the sites I reviewed. 

Now let me say a few words about grant writing, since I’ve done it for awhile, with some success, and since my friend Tim is entering the foray for the first time.  Successful grant writing really comes down to 1. writing well, incisively, cogently, etc., 2. following the directions, and 3. giving them what they are asking for.  And really, the most important are # 2 and 3.  In fact, nothing trumps #2 (but you’d be surprised how many people blow this one).  If they tell you, In this section, describe your: assessment plan, leadership team, philosophy of radical vegetable canning whatever , you’d better do exactly that or you will lose serious points.  This is not unlike an essay test, except you have time to revise.  If they tell you your budget request must equal $50,000, then asking for $49,500 will not make you look thrifty, it will make it look as if you didn’t understand the directions.

A word about budgets:  they used to scare me.  And while, there is still a lot to be scared of when it comes to money, budgets are not one of them.  Just make sure you’ve accounted monetarily for your needs and what you plan to do. 

And about deadlines.  They mean it about deadlines.  It’s very similar to publication submission context.  The Radical Canning Association is looking  for ways to winnow the six foot pile of manila envelopes threatening to trap their program assistant in her cubicle.  Envelopes that don’t meet the deadline are the first to go. Period. No exceptions.

Finally, if you’re applying for a grant from an organization that has a website, read through it carefully.  Get a sense of what this organization wants to do, what their mission is.  Google key members. If you discover the President of the Radical Canning Association has had a lifelong interest in  the rutabaga as an underutilized vegetable and you can think of a way to mention that in your canning philosophy or give a subtle nod to rutabagas in your demographics analysis, believe me, you’ll attract attention.  Mostly the good kind.

Anyway, that’s what I know and it’s worked for me.  Happy grant writing and,

Bye y’all!

PS–A shopping heads up if you’re ever in Berkeley. We only had one afternoon, but the Fourth Street Shopping District was fantastic. Lots of high end fun stores (i.e. my fave, Anthropologie, Bare Escentuals, etc.), two GREAT bookstores, including one devoted entirely to books about architecture and design, and my personal favorite, Castle In the Air, an emporium for writers and artists where I picked up a bone folder and a vial of German glass glitter (not the kind of thing you can get at Hobby Lobby) for my crafty side.  Check out their website here and see for yourself. It’ll draw you in!


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A Visual History of Creative Writing or, Why I love my students

In my Teaching Creative Writing course, a senior seminar, we spend the first few weeks talking and reading about the history of higher education and the history of writing and creative writing with that landscape.  It’s a lot of history, a lot of names, dates and places to remember so before we move on, I have them get into groups to create a poster that provides a visual representation of that history.  I borrowed the idea from a grad school teacher of mine (thank you, Dr. Ann Dobie) and find that the mental leaps required to put something in visual form really helps cement that learning.

It is also great fun to see what they come up with. They are incredibly creative.  In years past, I’ve had creative writing history portrayed as the “evolution of man,” as the solar system, you name it.  I’m sharing with you some of my favorites from this year.  First, the Creative Writing History World Tour T-Shirt:
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Next, some of the text from the “comic book history of Creative Writing in Education.”

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I’d say they get it, wouldn’t you?

Coming soon, a look inside a grant review session and San Francisco sunsets.

Bye y’all.


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Valentine’s Greetings


That’s all.  Just Happy Valentine’s Day.  Which I view more as “tell your friends and family you love them day,” rather than the romantic stuff –not that there’s anything wrong with that 🙂

Anyway, I’m working up some interesting writing and teaching writing posts from all my various activities in the last week or so.  Coming soon:  1.) a visual history of creative writing in higher education (courtesy of my brilliant students) and 2.) snapshots (literally and figuratively) from the National Writing Project annual review in Berkeley, CA.

Till then, don’t eat too many candy hearts–

Bye, y’all.



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This one goes out to all the junk drawer people. . .

You know who you are.  Got a junk drawer? Or two? Or three? Or four?

 Bella Dia can tell you how to organize them here.

 Wish I could write more but I’ve been reading National Writing Project Continued Funding Applications all day the last two days and writing response letters.  As fascinating as that is; and it really is, my brain is completely fried.  I’m sure sometime the middle of next week I’ll get back to my normal blogging self.

Till then,

Bye y’all



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Winners announced, Tornadoes devastate

We had four sets of prizes from the AWP Bookfair to giveaway.   And the winners are:

 Tim Sisk

Monda Fason

Cindi Hoppes

Cindi Hoppes

Congratulations to the winners!  I’ll try to come up with another giveaway whenever I can. 

Cindi, please email me with your address.  I have everyone else covered.

You may have heard that my home state, as well as Tennessee (see Tim’s Bookspaz blog for more info) and Kentucky were devastated by tornadoes last night.  Our town of Conway was lucky but one of the worst tornadoes hit about twenty miles of north of us, in Atkins, as well as Clinton.

If you would like to contribute to relief efforts, click here.

In other news, WIOTD Resurfaces!
I just received a call from my youngest’s teacher. Apparently, the zipper has been stuck on his coat all day and they cannot get him out of his coat. They have tried everything but they can’t get it over his head (he’s always had a big head). Since he was beginning to really sweat, they were asking permission to cut the coat, just enough to get his head out.

Sigh. We’re going to hear about this when we get home I’m sure. But it was certainly good for a chuckle!

I’m going out of town tomorrow (again!) and may not be as able to blog for a few days.  I’m reading annual reports for the National Writing Project and I have a feeling they may not want me to blog about the process.  I’ll be taking notes of ideas for our own site, though. Can’t wait.

I’m home again Monday for a long time and thrilled!

Here’s to seasonable weather!

Bye y’all,


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Of books, birthdays and debriefings (from AWP, that is)

We returned from New York yesterday, after three flights.  FYI, three flights is AT LEAST one flight too many, especially if you don’t like to fly. 

Well, it happened–I went over the luggage weight limit.  I had 39 lbs to work with but ended up with 66.  This means I picked up 55 lbs worth of books and journals at the conference (I may not be doing the math right, but it’s close enough and I’m in a hurry). 

This necessitated a frantic scramble at the baggage counter.  John only had 5 lbs of space in his bag, so I had to figure out a way to shed 10 lbs.  I did this mostly by stuffing my carry on (I couldn’t even close it) and yes, I left behind two literary magazines and two issues of Poets and Writers at LaGuardia airport.  Oh well.  Hope someone out there enjoys them.

Besides all the info I picked up, attending AWP is sort of like watching your life pass before your eyes.  I spent time with friends from George Mason (age 22-26), UL Lafayette (26-30) and UCA (30+).  In fact, if Bill Lychack had been able to make it, I could have gone all the way back to my undergrad days. 

Which makes one somewhat rather reflective, since it coincided with my turning 41 today.  In one of my favorite Jim Croce songs, he sings:

If I had a box just for wishes, and dreams that had never come true–the box would be empty except for the memory of how they were answered by you. . .

My box has been pretty much emptied in the last twenty years. To wit:

I always wanted wavy hair.  Now, thanks to a good haircut and the hormones of the middle years, I have it.

I always wanted someone to cherish.  Now I’ve been married to the love of my life for 15 years.

I always wanted to be a mom.  Now, with a little help from modern pharmaceuticals, I am one. Twice over.

I always wanted to be an aunt. Thanks to being  married to someone with seven siblings, I am one. Fourteen times over!

I always wanted to spend my days with words and I never wanted to leave college.  Now, I’m a college writing teacher!

I had a “friend” who once described me as someone who was “too easily pleased.”  But if there’s anything I’ve learned over the years, it’s the old saw that contentment is not the fulfillment of what you want but the realization of how much you already have.  And if that means I’m too easily pleased, well, I can’t help but see it as a compliment as I look forward to whatever the future holds.

Bye y’all,



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As AWP Turns: Fourth And Final Day

“I never knew that writers existed in crowd form.”

                       Martin Amis, reading at AWP 2008

Snippets from the day’s meetings:

4 Truths of Writing (According to Gail Scher)

  1. Writing is a Process
  2. Writers Write
  3. You don’t know what you’re going to write until you’ve written it.
  4. The only failure is not writing.

What creative writers bring to comp teaching (according to Lad Tobin)

  1. Extensive experience as practicing writers.
  2. The abilitiy to imagine what the text can be.
  3. The ability to read for potential and possibility.
  4. Willingness to let the text remain within the writers control.

One Night Stand Writing= Writing from first to final drafts the night before.

A story is the rescuer of time like fish from a moving stream. Joan Silber

The menu that results if you go to the bookfair hoping to score some free lunch:

  1. 2 Hershey mini chocolate bars.
  2. Handful of candy conversation hearts.
  3. 1 mini York peppermint patty.
  4. 1 vermont maple sugar candy.

Eeeck.  Even a 20 oz. diet coke couldn’t counteract all that sugar.

Note to Tim:  Fortunately, AWP is usually NOT in NY.  Next year it’s in Chicago; year after that Denver, then Washington DC then back to Chicago.  Also, post all you want, but I have some stuff earmarked just for you outside the giveaway.

Three more flights tomorrow (NY-Cincinnati-Atlanta-Little Rock) and I am HOME!

Will:  When are you coming home, Mommy?

SV: 4:30.

Will: In the morning or afternoon?

SV: Late afternoon.

Will:  Oh, late afternoon.  You mean when it gets all yellowy in the sky.

What do you think?  A writer’s kid?  Maybe?

Big news at home.  Younger brother beat older brother in a Yugioh duel  in which it was “every man for himself.” When you consider that for the last several years at  our house most of these battles have ended  with 1. the “I won again,” cheshire cat grin and 2. “I’m never dueling with you EVER again,” declared through frustration and tears, this is truly a momentous occasion.  

Boarding plan:  We weigh my bag first.  If it’s over the weight limit (remember, I had 39 lbs to work with but hotel rooms do not come equipped with scales) I shift a bunch of stuff to John’s bag.  Fingers crossed!

Bye y’all!



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As AWP Turns, Day Three: You’re The Boss of Your Poem!

With really young people, the teaching strategy is obvious: get out of their way.             

Philip Levine

The K-12 Pedagogy workshop was a great way to start the day.  Various writers in the schools programs across the country weighed in on the best way to step into a classroom and teach as a guest.  I liked the rules from one poet in the schools the best:

  • No yelling.
  • No teasing.
  • No rules.
  • You’re the boss of your poem.

I especially love the last one.  I think I’m going to use it with my college students.  Get a load of this excerpt from a grade schooler’s poem about hands:

My hands are everything.

My hands rock the sea.

My hands remember my hamster.

My hands are sewing the big blue blanket above you.

My hands hold the earth so it does not fall.

Sigh.  It’s hard to write after that. 

Another presenter talked about stepping in as a guest in the classroom, suggesting guest teachers, “contact classroom teachers about what their needs are, develop a rapport, find out what the teacher wants and build on what’s already being done.”  She emphasized making positive references to the teacher in the classroom and treating the teacher as a peer and expert!

I value that she was telling us this but part of me wants to say, well, duh!  Of course the teacher IS a peer and expert. Jeez.  Does this really need to be said?

I guess it does.

Went to a presentation on moving from writing the short story to the novel that was entertaining but not particularly useful.  Everyone was speaking off the cuff, some better than others.

Picked up another pile of stuff at the book fair; I better slow down or I’m going to have to send stuff home.  Some amazing stuff though is up for the giveaway:

Vintage Didion

America, America by Ethan Canin (advanced readers proof!)

Secrets of the Sea: Nicholas Shakespeare

Two most recent issues of Poets and Writers.

Four Issues of The Writer

Two Gettysburg Review art calendars.

Three Georgia Review Mini Notebooks.

Ran into Allan Cheuse in the escalator line and got a big hug.  He looks great; planning to go to his reading with Edwidge Danticat tomorrow. 

Finally ended up at a workshop on creative writing opportunities in the UK which was interrupted in the middle by a fire drill.  Too bad, if it weren’t for the drill, I would have been able to stay inside all day–it’s mighty nasty out!

Now, I’m off to Nintendo World per directives from the kids.

Bye y’all!



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