Monthly Archives: April 2009

Today’s Fiction. . .

Heather Sellers posted a dinner party what to read list on her blog, Word After Word, recently. Can’t help but notice that so much of the list is nonfiction–which I find myself drawn to more and more these days because. . .dare I say, I find it’s better written, manages to combine interesting subject matter with elegant prose more than much of the fiction that seems to find its way to bookstore shelves today.

I read an agent quote from a Poet’s and Writers interview suggesting that there was a lot of “beautifully written” fiction out there but it didn’t “grab” the agent.

Surely, there must be submissions that do both. . .I’m reading The Lace Reader for a book club right now and while the plot is decent enough, I can barely get through the writing, first person present tense, pretentious and self conscious. Is it possible that these editors/agents are revealing a bias against good writing in fiction, believing, when they see it, that they just have a “beautiful little nonstory” on their hands.

Interestingly, one of the other people interviewed described watching teenage girls in a bookstore talking about great books that they’d read and then observed, that, come to think of it, “there are a lot of good books in the YA market these days.” Well written books, too, I’d like to add. I’m rarely disappointed in the writing in a YA book, and the burden of a strong plot is on those books just as much, perhaps more, as their adult counterparts.

Food for thought. What do you think?



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Another Gold Baguette Award Winner

Baguette inside my Indesit Pictures, Images and Photos

This time it’s  Ann Stameshkin, who created, edits and maintains the hot new writer’s website, Fiction Writers Review. I’ve been reading this blog for about a year and have turned on many of my students to it. It’s the go-to site for the latest in literary news, for reviews, essays on writing and teaching writing, interviews, etc.. What a great service Anne has done in founding and building this site!

Shameless promotion alert here, Fiction Writers Review also just published an essay of mine about teaching writing, “Deconstructing a Good Cry”, which you can read here. Other attributes making Anne Stameshkin “gold baguette award worthy,” are that she, like Wordamour herself, is a Camel,  albeit I’m sure a much younger one, sigh.  In other words, she is a Connecticut College alum and, the best part, she is also fan of the great, underrated novel by Jesse Lee Kercheval, The Museum of Happiness.  Kudos, Anne! 

And just for fun, the entries for the Washington Post 2009 Peeps contest are in.  Well worth a view here.

Bye y’all,


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The One with the French Bread Recipe

French bread Pictures, Images and Photos
So I just made a batch of Vanderslice Family French Bread, a 40 year plus tradition, and I thought it being spring, Passover, Easter and all, I’d finally get the recipe online.  I gift this bread a lot and it’s my fallback potluck essential and I have to say I get LOTS of compliments on it.  But when my father-in-law and mother-in-law made it, it was the best bread on the planet.  Unfortunately, even though my father-in-law actually taught me the process step by step,  I’ve never mastered the exact taste and texture of their loaves. I can come close enough, though.

French Bread  (makes 4 loaves)

2 1/2 c warm water

1 Tbsp each: salt, yeast, sugar

5-6 cups all purpose, unbleached flour (though bread flour is even better)**

Combine water, yeast, salt and sugar in a large bowl.  Cover loosely with a dishcloth and allow to proof for about five minutes or until the mix has a froth on top.  Then, add the flour one cup at a time, mixing well, until stiff. (If you have a stand mixer with a dough hook, you can add the flour 2 cups at a time.)

Turn onto a well-floured surface and knead the dough for ten minutes (again, if you have a mixer you can let it do a little more of the work and knead for 3-5 minutes).  Place the dough in an oiled bowl, turn to be sure the dough is covered with the oil, then cover and place in a warm place to rise until doubled in bulk.  This will take a minimum of one hour, but bread dough is very flexible and will work with your schedule, so if you need to leave it for several hours, go right ahead.  This is the beauty of bread.

Preheat your oven to 350.  Turn the risen dough upon a well-floured surface and punch down to get rid of the air bubbles.  Shape into a large cylinder.  Divide the cylinder evenly  into 4 dough balls.  Shape each ball into a baguette about 8″-12″ long and 3-4″ wide.  Place on a well-floured cookie sheet, two to a sheet (I use baguette pans like these since I’ve been doing it so long, but you can get away with cookie sheets).  Slash the top of each baguette diagonally with a sharp knife, then brush with milk.  Bake for 40-45 minutes.  Serve hot and crusty with butter or pesto or enjoy plain.

(If you like how these turn out, double the recipe and make eight at a time, which is what I do.  It’s just as easy to make eight as it is to make four.)

**Any brand of flour will do, but I’m partial to King Arthur.
Let me know if you have any questions and let me know how it turns out. 
Happy Spring!


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Writing Transformations and meeting Jamie

So I realize my last post was pretty vague about the meetings I’d attended, probably because I was both mentally and physically exhausted. All the sessions were good but I think the best one was on why participants in the writing project find it such a transformative, almost cult-like experience. Ann Whitney of Penn State is studying the phenomena and looking at what conditions were most conducive to it. What I got from her was that of all the transforming experiences of the writing project summer institute, the most important one is the writing group. Whitney’s conclusion then, is that writing group time needs to be conserved at all costs. If you need to cut corners, DON’T do it during the writing group. It’s important, too, to make sure the writing groups are well balanced and that they’re running smoothly I think most of us who have experience with summer institutes would tend to agree—the writing group seems to be where teachers bond and where they feel valued as writers. She also noticed that the writing that the fellows did that was most transformative was when they wrote as authorities about what was going on in their own classrooms.
Yesterday was National Program Leaders meetings. Intense and a little scary, it felt like the Star Chamber in there but in a good way. At one point I raised my hard to ask a question, “So when you [meaning the powers that be] decide. . .” and in answering it, Tanya Baker kindly reminded me that it’s “we,” not you. Gulp. I have become “them. “ My partners, Lynette Harris and Paul Epstein made the transition as smooth as possible, though, and there’s no other “them” I’d rather be.

But I’m leading up to the best part of my story, which is introducing Jamie. Anyone who reads my blog knows that I’m a pretty reluctant flier, in spite of the fact that I do it all the time. I was a bit nervous about the trip to Memphis since there was a possibility of storms when we landed—joy joy. Then I boarded the plane and met my seatmate, seventeen year old Jamie. Bless his heart, this was only the second time Jamie (not his real name) had ever flown (the first being on the way to DC) and he was absolutely terrified. That was how he introduced himself, extending his hand and announcing“Hi, I’m Jamie. I’ve only flown once before and I’m pretty scared.”

Needless to say, the higher power must have been working for me, because other than sitting beside an off-duty pilot (which I highly recommend, based on experience), sitting next to a bravely terrified seventeen year old who’s palpable fear is eliciting every nurturing-mama instinct in my body, makes for a pretty good trip. I had to talk him through take off and landing (i.e. “Mind if I bring these armrests down, ma’am? I need to hold on during this part”) and explain every bump and rattle. I also got to see pictures of his momma, and his lovely girlfriend and her lovely “cornflower blue” prom dress. He’s wearing a white tux with a cornflower blue vest, by the way.

And what a guy. He was in DC because he’d been named a Horatio Alger Foundation scholar, a competitive college award for youth who have been through adversity. I guess having his father die when he was 15 and his mother in a nursing home due to various health problems—he’s lived in eight different friend’s homes since he was a sophomore—is what qualified him. That and the three essays he had to write. He told me about those when I told him I was a college writing teacher. Of course he said, “I’m not much of a writer,” and then proceeded to tell me that he does like to write poetry and music. Music is his passion—he plays about five instruments, including the baritone and the guitar and he organ at church. It’s in the genes I guess; his Dad played backup guitar for George Jones. He wants to play in the Ole Miss band and he’s going to be a music education major, after two years of community college—he wants to stick close to home at first so he can visit his mother every day and continue to volunteer at the home.

Anyway, he also showed me photos of the black tie ceremony where he received his Alger medal (they even give them shadow boxes to keep them in, nice touch) as well as photos of him shaking hands with Clarence Thomas, Denzel Washington and a “billionaire” who promised to personally give every scholarship recipient at their table $500 a month while they were in college. All I can say, is, the guy better keep his promise. I believe it’s a mortal sin to mess with the minds of kids like this.

I asked him if Denzel Washington had any words of advice for him. “Yes ma’am,” he nodded somberly. “He told me to stay with my music.”
I didn’t ask about Justice Thomas.
Bye y’all,


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Washington Day Two

Well, I’d forgotten how common sirens were around here. 

So today we heard some great lobbying stories from other sites that have given me some good ideas for next year, and then broke out into sessions on future NWP initiatives and the transformative effects of the NWP experience.  Both were good sessions, the latter was especially interesting. 

It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon–a nice switch from the past two  rainy cloudy days, so I walked down to the national mall and hung out at the National Museum of American History for several hours.  They had just renovated the entire museum to give it a more “thematic” effect, with specific, permanent exhibits (i.e. The American Presidency etc.) which was fine, but I kind of missed the  “attic of America” feel of the old museum.  I guess that makes me sound a little crotchety but there it is.  They used to have Fred Roger’s iconic sweater on display, but I guess that didn’t fit any of the themes, so that’s gone.  Julia Child’s kitchen is still there, in it’s entirety, though, so that was a plus.

I was fortunate to meet my Co-Chair Paul Epstein and a bright young teacher from West Virginia for dinner at the hotel cafe, which suited me fine because I felt as if I was on my feet all afternoon.

And so to blog and to bed.  I’ve been traveling quite a bit this year and have gown accustomed to the “signature” beds that are the pride of each hotel which are really quite comfortable–but the bed at this hotel, the Washington Court, really is a like sleeping on a high thread count cloud. 

Good night and . . .

Bye y’all.


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Wordamour Goes to Washington

So after some TSA drama that made turbulence seem like a bounce in the park, Wordamour has arrived in DC for the National Writing Project Spring meeting, whereupon about 400 Writing Project people descend on Capitol Hill to lobby for continued, ideally increased funding. 

The kick off this morning was really one long pep talk.  Rep. George Miller, sponsor of the increased funding in the House really seems to get it.  He talked about treating teachers like professionals in a modern workplace.  Now before you recoil in horror—I hate all that corporate model for education stuff too—what he meant was that teachers should be REWARDED for their “time, talents, responsibility, and training,” instead of piling on all those extra duties without any compensation.  Test scores and merit pay?  Not a whisper—he’s not talking about that.

Quote from new Ed. Secretary Arnie Duncan:  “there are aspects of No Child Left Behind that are toxic.”

After the pep talk and state by state roll call (Arkansas was one the first and it caught us so off guard we forgot to call the hogs) we were off for the schmooze tour.  First stop, Rep. John Boozman’s office R, which really was a schmooze fest.  Now, first things first, we didn’t have an appointment here but Rep. Boozman agreed to see us anyway, which is really significant and for which we were quite grateful.  He said he would support us in any way he could.  We told him that he could do this by signing George Miller’s Dear Colleague letter.  No real answer in this regard—so let’s hope.  If we find out he actually signed it, I’ll jump for joy.

After a lunch at a Greek restaurant a mere blocks from my old house on F Street, and a cup of coffee in the Dirksen building “servery” the enormous cafeteria in the basement populated almost exclusively by freshfaced right out of Georgetown twentysomethings, we next met with the legislative aides of Arkansas Senators Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln, both Democrats who have been very supportive in the past.  We thanked them for their support, and told our writing project stories.  More hopeful here, both aides said specifically that they saw no reason why the Senators would not support us again this year.

The aides, by the way, seemed really exhausted.  It was, according to Lincoln’s aide, “voterama” around there, especially with regards to President Obama’s budget, so there was a lot of running around back and forth to the floor.

Evening was spent at a reception at the National Postal Museum,  where most people socialized but I was really fascinated by the exhibits (I have always loved mail, what can I say) so I took in as much as I could.  Especially fascinating was the one on V mail in WWII.  Tomorrow: keynote from Jacqueline Jones Royster, two sets of roundtable sessions, Saturday, National Program Leader meetings.  I’ll keep you posted.




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