Category Archives: Essay

Mom Made Me

I’m sorry this post turned out so long. My back has been out for days, so I probably am not thinking clearly. I’m taking Advil, but it isn’t touching the pain. (Hidden subtext: feel sorry for me, please).

LESSONS

My parents struggled financially when I was a kid, but I still got weekly lessons in one or more of the arts.

When I was about seven, my mother started me in ballet school. Mrs. B had been trained in the Royal Academy style of ballet and had been a member of Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet. I wasn’t very talented, but I tried (I really did) and managed ok. My favorite part of Royal Ballet training were the folk dances because they were a release of emotion, whereas you had to suck it all in for ballet. Not just the emotions, but also the derriere, as Mrs. B called it.

By third grade, I wanted to tap dance. Tapping seemed more outgoing and forgiving of mediocre talent than ballet. As a guest student one Saturday morning, I watched kids pull their shoes out of their little pink or black dance bags. They all had black patent-leather shoes with single ribbons across the arches and silver taps screwed on the fronts and backs of the soles. When the kids lined up in rows across the wooden floor, I tried to copy, but was several steps behind, which confused me.  I knew there was no use as Mom wouldn’t let me join the class permanently.

What I had already learned by then was that ballet was “good” for me, and tap wasn’t enriching, so there wasn’t extra money for it.

A couple years later, I fell in love with the Scottish highland dancing that Mrs. B taught in the class after mine. It’s related to Irish dancing with a stiff upper body and strong legs. Unfortunately, you need expensive kilts, knee socks, and black lace-up shoes even for class. Mom said NO.

hs-16

A few years later, I was reminded again that Mom knew best about what lessons I needed. It was important that I learn to play the spinet piano that my parents had purchased.  But there was no money for voice lessons, drama class at the Civic Theatre, or riding lessons (or a horse ;)).

A few years later, Mom decided that art lessons were important, so I went to art class at the art museum.

HOW DID I FEEL ABOUT THESE LESSONS AT THE TIME?

Sometimes I cried myself to sleep on Friday nights, filled with anxiety over the ballet class to come next day. I didn’t cry because I didn’t want to dance, but because the older girls were “mean girls,” and they treated my friend and I with condescension and nasty comments.

Sometimes I fooled around on the piano between lessons, but I never practiced. Right before my lesson each week–if I had a few minutes–I would pull out last week’s assignment and read it over, maybe plunk a few keys. Then I went into class and played better than I had the week before. Not well. Just better. After all, it was my second time playing the pieces. I didn’t realize my piano teacher knew I didn’t practice until one day when tears came to her eyes as she chastised me. “You could play quite well if you would just take the time to practice.”

Ahem. That was my modus operandi for a lot of things, let me tell you. That’s probably why art lessons went well. There was no homework. We did our work in class and then didn’t think about it again until the following week.

WHAT DO I THINK ABOUT THE LESSONS NOW?

I learned a lot from taking ballet for years. As a young adult, I even went back to ballet class on my own–and searched out Mrs. B. More recently, Mom attended a lecture on Swan Lake by my old teacher who still looks marvelous (yes, Mom sent a picture).

I loved art class and it gave me an advantage in art classes in public school.

Piano taught me about music in a general sense. It also taught me that I was a disorganized and lazy fool who threw away opportunities.

My parents found it hard to carve out money for these lessons. I felt ungrateful.

Now I’m kind of winded with guilt when I think of how many kids would have loved these lessons and they received none.

Sometimes I wonder if I would have become a more outgoing person if I’d been allowed to pursue the arts that appealed to my child sense of fun–tap dance, highland dancing, singing, acting, and riding (which I tend to think of as an art as well as a sport)–rather than pursuing the more introverted endeavors of ballet (huge focus on barre work), piano, and art.

 

Did I learn any parenting lessons from my experience? Hahaha. No. And yes.

When my daughter was little, she showed singing talent by age four. I thought I would ignore that and encourage her in sports, rather than the “typical” lessons for little girls. I went on and on  yadda yadda how I would put her in soccer and roller hockey and keep her away from the “expected” activities for girls.

But when she was six, she begged for shoes that make noise, and I knew I couldn’t force her in a direction I thought was correct. The way she could get shoes that made noise was to take tap lessons.  Now, after years of dance, voice, and acting lessons (that cost me buckets of money) and years of experience in those areas, my daughter is able to go after her own interests–as she says, she follows her dream. For full disclosure, by age nine, she had the makings of a talented athlete according to her PE teacher, but she had to decide between performing lessons and sports because there is only so much time and money, and she had religious classes as well. She chose performing.

If you think I’m writing this to point out that my mother was wrong to choose my lessons and that I was right to let my daughter’s interests call the shots, I’m not. Well, maybe I thought that once, but not any more. I was a lucky duck for my lessons and my teachers, and my daughter was also blessed to have the lessons and teachers she had. I’m not sure either philosophy is right. Training and experiences do help guide our paths in life. Maybe I would be more outgoing if I’d had tap and voice lessons, but then it’s less likely that I would be a writer. If my daughter had been persuaded to pursue soccer at a certain point in her life, who knows where her life would be today? She wouldn’t be the brilliant performer she is, though, that I believe.

If neither of us had had these lessons at all, our paths would have been still different. Different, not necessarily worse or better. That’s just my opinion. But I can almost hear other opinions clamoring out there. Maybe you had lessons you hated? Or lessons you couldn’t have that you wanted so bad you still feel resentful? Maybe you think kids shouldn’t have lessons at all until they prove themselves worthy of them?

What is your opinion of supplemental art and music (type) lessons for kids?

One last thing: I feel very very strongly that art and music (and dance and drama) should be offered in public school for children of all ages. This is a different subject than after-school lessons, but obviously related.

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Filed under Art and Music, Essay, Family history, Lifestyle, Nonfiction, Writing

How Do You Like Your Art–Fixed or Unfixed?

For years, it didn’t occur to me that art could be other than how I knew it: something tangible that existed in a (hopefully) permanent form so that the art appreciator could go back again and again and drink at its well.

I learned that I could have a different reaction at different times, but that the art itself was the same–only I had changed. Or its context had changed.

At the Chicago Art Institute my favorite painting was Caillebotte’s “Paris, A Rainy Day.” Anytime I visited Chicago I could go to the gallery and see it again.

from Wikipedia

from Wikipedia

At six, I fell in love with Tchiakovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty Waltz,” probably because I knew it from Disney–having seen the movie before I turned four–and when my mother bought me the classical album, I even carried it to first grade class for show and tell. I fell asleep every night to the entire symphony for quite awhile.

There is a difference between the Caillebotte and the Tchiakovsky beyond art form. The Caillebotte is a fixed art form. Unchangeable. The Tchiakovsky is, as well, except that it can be varied upon because every time a new symphony performs it, something might change. I still consider this a fairly fixed form, though, because I am unlikely to notice the differences. It takes a lot of musical education to know.

The ultimate fixed form, to my mind, is the book. It’s unlikely to change and, unlike art, which draws part of its meaning from its setting in a gallery or on a street corner, a book is the same around the world. As a writer, I like the fixed nature of the art I work in. It suits my hoarding, controlling nature.

I was interested in theatre and dance from a very young age, even writing and directing little plays for the neighborhood kids and my classmates. I created puppet theatres with, wait for it, dolls, of course. But I never stopped to think about this form of art.  Is it fixed, especially after the play script is written, or is it unfixed because there are so many variables–actors, directors, costumes, sets, props, technical crew, and even errors change the art. The audience has the ability to change it.

When my daughter fell head first into the performing arts, I shapeshifted into one of those crazy dance moms running around with a video camera, always wanting to record her performances, even tech rehearsal, because I had grown up thinking art must be captured to exist. If my daughter danced and it wasn’t recorded, had she really created art?

Then I read and began to teach Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony about a half Laguna Pueblo / half white WWII veteran with PTSD. There is a very important scene where Tayo visits a Navajo medicine man for a cure. The ritual involves the creation of a white corn sand painting. The shocker for me was that the painting is erased. Yes, erased. The purpose is in the making, not in the hanging onto it. When you think about it, this is a much more spiritual response to art because it takes the need to control out of the picture. It is not goal or perfection oriented.

When I researched the sand paintings, I discovered that the notion of saving our art, rather than erasing or letting it change over time naturally (like the poems of balladeers), is culturally based. It even intrigued me when I finally read about elephants creating art (I’ve written about that before when I talked about the book When Elephants Weep) that they create and then erase. Of course, they do: humans, not elephants, are ridiculous hoarders. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Or does our culture demand it?

Maybe not. Look at performance art. Poetry slams. Improv shows. “The Million Line Poem” by Tupelo Press. Even New York theatre is reaching out to the audience to participate in many plays. Is this a fad that can’t survive? After all, the sand painting survived as art process because it was a ritualized part of the life of a people. Without this broader context for unfixed art, can these art forms survive?

Another reason we might be stuck with mainly fixed art: iPhones and other technology. Did you hear about an audience member setting up a video camera on a tripod to record Adele’s concert? She was pissed and chastised the person. But it’s a losing battle. No venue can police an entire audience–and what kind of relationship would that produce?

What about your tastes? Do you prefer your art fixed, like books and paintings, or unfixed, like ice sculptures? Or do you prefer something in between–a known script in a new production, a live concert of your favorite band’s best songs?

 

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Filed under #AmWriting, Art and Music, Essay, Nonfiction, Writing, Writing Talk

Who Can Put Humpty Together Again? (Hint: We Can)

When I was a teen, it was popular to believe that nurture was far superior to nature–and that almost anything in nature could be overcome. I took that with me into parenting when we adopted our children as babies from Korea. Even if my kids were to come with problems, my love and care and brains would allow them to thrive. (Don’t judge me–it was the 80s).

Hahahaha. My kids are wonderful people, both because of their upbringing (I hope) and most definitely because of their genes. But this isn’t actually about them.

I was so stupid  naive.

One reason I was naive is that I didn’t realize that my own genes were so flawed. After obtaining 23andme medical information for my daughter and me, I can tell you that my daughter’s genes are far less saddled with disease than mine. That goes for physical and mental diseases.

Another reason for my  naïveté lay in my supposition that nature and nurture can be taken apart.  Is behavior caused by nature or nurture? It’s caused by both and they are more closely tied together than you can imagine.

The experimental field of science that deals with this stuff is called behavioral epigenetics. What behaviorial epigeneticists have discovered is that our genes have been altered and coded by the experiences of our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on. WOWSA. This is so cool. Sometimes science blows my mind.

If your grandfather was ignored left to his own devices by his parents, as I suspect mine was, it not only had an effect on his personality, but it probably changed his DNA–and he passed those altered genes on to my mother who then passed them on to me!!!

So experiences in pogrom-ravaged shtetls, potato famines, slavery, and alcoholic families have encoded our genes for anxiety, depression, and a whole host of other problems.

Don’t think this only works in the negative. Positive adventures in life and strong support and love experienced in childhood encode genes in good ways, as well.

From a writer’s perspective, the new field validates the work I’m doing in Kin Types, my poetry chapbook based on family history research.  All the experiences of my ancestors have influenced (or have had the opportunity to influence) who I am today.  I always felt this was true, but had no idea how it worked and no proof that my hunch was correct. I had a hard time even assuring myself that my studies into my ancestors had any importance other than how it brought details of history alive to me.  But family history done right (it shouldn’t be a study in dates and places) actually teaches a person about him or herself.

Does any of my family history have meaning for my kids? Or my brother (who was also adopted) and his children? The meaning it has is that the people who have made me who I am have contributed to their lives. They don’t have genes encoded with the same adventures and tragedies that mine are, but they have reaped the benefits and drawbacks of being raised by or with someone who has.

Think of the power of this knowledge. New ways of treating mental illness can be developed. And we can take negatively encoded genes and, over generations, change them for the future as we provide positive NURTURING, support, and love to others. It’s not true about Humpty Dumpty. All the pieces can be put back together because genes can be improved — and not through Frankenstein-type science, but through our actions in this world.

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Filed under #AmWriting, Essay, Family history, History, Inspiration, Nonfiction, Poetry, Poetry Collection, Writing

“And So It Goes”

I mentioned some time back that I had a flash nonfiction piece coming out in a journal called Toasted Cheese. There aren’t a lot of places that publish flash nonfiction (as opposed to flash fiction like my “Parking Lot Superhero” story). At least I haven’t found too many.

Here is the latest issue of Toasted Cheese, and in it is my story “And So It Goes.” I believe that if my name was taken off this and Superhero that nobody would guess the same person wrote both of them.  The only thing in common is that both have an experimental quality to them. In the Story Shack piece, I used a structural twist to get to the essence of the story. In this new story, I begin at both the beginning and the end and then move through the story forward and backward.

“And So It Goes” is about my great-great-grandfather Pieter Mulder and my great-great-grandmother Neeltje Gorsse Mulder.

You can find the story here at “And So It Goes.”

 

“And So It Goes” is prose, but it will be in my chapbook collection based on my genealogical research. I expect to have two or three prose pieces, as well as poetry and prose poems.

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Remember that Toasted Cheese provides writing prompts and creative blog posts about writing.

On February 29, I posted this sample from December 15, 2015. You can find April’s writing prompts here.

What Do You Recommend?

 

By Baker

  1. Recommend on social media at least one thing you’ve read this year. If you don’t use social media, recommend in person. Independent authors are particularly grateful for recommendations.
  2. Create some recommendation business cards and leave them with your favorite works in the bookstore. You can print them at home. They could be as simple as the word “recommended” with a thumbs-up or a shelf card that lists why you recommend the book. Don’t put stickers on or in the books.
  3. Ask for recommendations at a used book store and/or independent bookstore. If you’re lucky, your local chain bookstore will have fellow book lovers who are well-versed enough to recommend as well.
  4. Recommend a book to a friend on Goodreads.
  5. While you’re there, write a recommendation of a book. If you’re stuck for one, think of a book you discovered on your own and write the review as though you’re speaking to your younger self.

 

I’d like to remind you that today is Holocaust Remembrance Day (began last evening) and Cinco de Mayo. Two completely different events to ponder, both related to war.  Look at how much one day can contain. It reminds me that in writing it’s important to think small to go big.

 

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Filed under #AmWriting, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Family history, Flash Nonfiction, History, Literary Journals, Nonfiction, Poetry Collection, Writing

Pilot Fish Trailblazer Nominee: Cleveland Amory

I’m so honored to write an article about my hero Cleveland Amory for Patti Moed’s Trailblazer Nominee series over at Pilot Fish. Please check it out and see what kind of world Amory wanted to create.

Pilot Fish

It’s with great pleasure that I introduce this week’s guest blogger, Luanne Castle, who writes about a man who has inspired her since her childhood.Luanne is an award-winning poet, educator, writer, and an advocate for animal rights. She divides her time between California and Arizona, where she shares land with a herd of javelina. Her heart belongs to her four cats and the homeless cats at the animal shelter where she volunteers.
The New England conscience does not stop you from doing what you shouldn’t–it just stops you from enjoying it.–Cleveland Amory

Black Beauty

Black Beauty Cover, First Edition.https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/dc/BlackBeautyCoverFirstEd1877.jpeg Black Beauty Cover, First Edition.https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/dc/BlackBeautyCoverFirstEd1877.jpeg

When I was eight and staying overnight with my grandparents, I discovered a tattered copy of Anna Sewall’s novel Black Beauty in my mother’s old bedroom. I began to read and when my parents came to pick me up the next day I was still reading, lost in the…

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Pinched Ideas on Recommending Books

In March I have a flash nonfiction piece coming out in a journal called Toasted Cheese. I will post a link when it’s published. The piece is called “And So It Goes,” and it’s the story of my great-great-grandparents who immigrated from Goes and Kloetinge (Netherlands) to Michigan. It’s meant to be part of the family history chapbook I plan to put together.

If you’re a writer or want to write, I think you might want to check out and follow the Toasted Cheese website. They are very interactive and provide DAILY writing prompts and creative articles about writing and reading. Here’s a sample article from this past December. The subject is book recommendations.

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What Do You Recommend?

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker

  1. Recommend on social media at least one thing you’ve read this year. If you don’t use social media, recommend in person. Independent authors are particularly grateful for recommendations.
  2. Create some recommendation business cards and leave them with your favorite works in the bookstore. You can print them at home. They could be as simple as the word “recommended” with a thumbs-up or a shelf card that lists why you recommend the book. Don’t put stickers on or in the books.
  3. Ask for recommendations at a used book store and/or independent bookstore. If you’re lucky, your local chain bookstore will have fellow book lovers who are well-versed enough to recommend as well.
  4. Recommend a book to a friend on Goodreads.
  5. While you’re there, write a recommendation of a book. If you’re stuck for one, think of a book you discovered on your own and write the review as though you’re speaking to your younger self.

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What do you think of those recommendations? Do you do any of them? Or do you finish a book and move onto the next and squirrel away your reaction in your own mind?

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Kana playing with her activity board

This toy is pricy, but it’s rewarding to see cats hunting for their food (without any resulting tragedies to small animals). This is an activity that is natural for them.

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Filed under Book Review, Books, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Family history, Flash Nonfiction, Literary Journals, Nonfiction, Publishing, Reading, Writing, Writing Talk

Lyrical Experimental Flash Nonfiction Bug Struck Me

Cover art by Alex Walsh
Issue 45.1
Winter 2015

Table of Contents

Special Feature: Honoring Alan Cheuse

  • Nicole Idar & Elizabeth Gutting, “Alan Stories”
  • Michael Cowgill, “Major Key”
  • Priyanka A. Champaneri, “Lessons from AC to PC”
  • Nicholas Delbanco, “A Chapter in a Long Tale”
  • And back from our winter ’88 issue, Alan Cheuse’s “Bio”

Fiction

Nonfiction

  • Jason Arment, “Fear City”
  • Luanne Castle, “Ordering in Four Movements”
  • Gail Griffin, “Gloria”

Poetry

  • Drew Attana, “Parallel Parking”
  • Brian Ma, “Mirage Roche”
  • Ellen Noonan, “Ditto”, “Certainty”
  • Heather Bartlett, “A Mockingbird Sings”
  • Katie Willingham, “Let’s Hope Kepler-186f Is Baren”, “Honey Locust”
  • Monika Cassel, “Feeding Cake to the Storks”
  • Felicia Zamora, “No Fisher”
  • Shareen K. Murayama, “Exploded as in Fairy Tale”
  • Amy Jo Trier-Walker, “Prowl the Marriage Away”
  • Phoebe Reeves, “ˈƐƏˌtaɪt (airtight)”
  • Vanesha Pravin, “Dialectic Through a Stained Glass Window”
  • Champa Vaid, “Neither Sleep nor Death”, “Tree of Memories”

Editorial Staff

  • Fiction Editor: Lina Patton
  • Poetry Editor: Qinglan “Q” Wang
  • Nonfiction Editor: Eric Botts
  • Assistant Fiction Editor: Sarah Bates
  • Assistant Poetry Editor: Douglas Luman
  • Assitant Nonfiction Editor: Kerry Folan
  • Faculty Advisor: Eric Pankey

Readers

Betsy Allen, Sarah Batcheller, Kristen Brida, Edward Capobianco, Andrew Cartwright, Christina Crockett, Sarah Davis, Kyle Freelander, Kelly Hanson, Michael Hantman, Frank Harder, Darcy Gagnon, Ariel Goldenthal, Kelsey Goudie, John Guthrie, Stephanie Klien, Joey Kuhn, Madison Lennon, Isaac Lewandowski, Lisa Macedo, Janice Majewski, Yousra Medhkour, Katie Ray, Katie Richards, Rebekah Satterwhite, Cloud Spurlock, Melanie Tague, Alex Walsh, Madeleine Wattenberg, Sarah Wheeler, Lily Wright

Special Thanks To

Leslie Steiger, David S. Carroll, Kathryn Mangus and the George Mason University Office of Student Media, Eric Pankey and the George Mason University Creative Writing Program.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Flash Nonfiction, Literary Journals, Memoir, Nonfiction, Publishing, Reading, Writing

Go, Read, Enjoy!!!

Let’s talk about Sheila Morris‘ new book The Short Side of Time. It’s a collection of some of her best blog posts. Click through the cover image to order her book.

I’ll let the blurb I wrote for her book (yes, she asked me to write a blurb–woohoo!!!) describe The Short Side of Time:

These hand-picked treasures from the blogs of Sheila Morris showcase her humor and heart while immersing the reader in the day-to-day life and decades of experience offered by a lesbian now on the “short side of time.” Morris loves her sports teams, the written word, and her friends. What means the most to her, though, is family, including her partner Teresa, her dogs, and her late grandmother. Morris’ lively and thoughtful voice draws readers into the drama of her Texas upbringing, as well as how recent milestones for the LGBT community have contributed to her life.

Sheila and I first met through her blog about her dog The Red Man, Red’s Rants and Raves, and my family history blog The Family Kalamazoo.  Red writes the blog posts in his own voice, which is very appealing to this animal lover. Sheila has two other blogs, as well. Imagine my surprise when I first read I Will Call It Like I See It, written in Sheila’s voice, rather than Red’s! Sheila showcases her photographs on The Old Woman Slow’s Photos. Slow is what Red calls Sheila. Sheila’s partner Teresa is called Pretty. After reading Red for a long time, I had to get used to thinking of them as Sheila and Teresa, rather than Slow and Pretty!

One of the most distinctive qualities of Sheila’s writing (and there are several) is the way she uses humor. She uses it liberally, yes, but also with a carefree flourish that I admire.  She is someone you would want to have around you a lot, maybe a coworker who works in the same space, or a friend you spend a lot of time with.  Since that isn’t possible for most of us, reading her new book is the next best option. Then, if you haven’t yet, read her memoir, Deep in the Heart. You can read my review of that book on the post “A Lesbian in Mayberry.” You’re going to want to get your hands on a copy of that one, too!

Go, read, enjoy!!!

I’m closing comments today because I have to travel so please take the time to go check out one of Sheila’s three blogs!

***

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A Group Journey Out of Homelessness: A Book Review

I was born with the desire to know what it’s like to live more than one life. If you’re a reader, you understand what I mean. That’s why we read. For the time it takes to read a novel or memoir, we can get inside someone else and look through his or her eyes at the world around us. Better yet, we can hear that writer or character’s heartbeat.

When I choose a book I tend to choose a memoir or fiction that is closely tied to one protagonist. But I just finished a book that is a compilation of memoirs by a group of writers.

These writers are bound together by a writing class and a commonality: they have all experienced being homeless. Writing Our Way Home is subtitled “A group journey out of homelessness.” Edited by southern writer and blogger Ellen Morris Prewitt, whose touch is so light her name is not on the cover or title page, this book weaves together the stories of fifteen writers and organizes them thematically.

I began reading slowly because I wanted to isolate and listen to individual voices in the group and not confuse them with each other. I needn’t have worried. Very early on, I began to “hear” who was “speaking” within the first sentence or two of each brief entry. I listened to Leroy Scott’s straightforward prose, Cynthia Crawford’s engrossing storytelling, Tommy Payne’s brilliant and varied writing style, Latasha Jackson’s pattern of detailed imagery (sipping peach wine in the bath, the lost doll collection), and other unique voices. As Tommy himself says, “It is easy to tell a book written by James Michener from a book written by Ian Fleming. An Ernest Hemingway novel from a play written by Shakespeare.” And so it is with these writers.

Most importantly, I learned what these fifteen people had to say about their own lives and about the condition of being without a home.

The book developed from a writing class that Ellen teaches in Memphis. The class and the Door of Hope organization that runs the class seem to be based in Christian teachings, although I don’t find much about religion on their website other than that they offer contemplative prayer classes, as well as creative writing.

If you have ever—even once–looked at a homeless person and forgot that he or she has a whole history of living, relations, emotions, and past belongings, as well as current needs, hop over to Amazon and pick up a copy of this book! If you want to find out if you should give a handout to someone who asks, you will find eleven answers.

Now that I’ve read Writing our Way Home and had time to let it settle into my bones, I feel it’s permanently changed me. A big thanks to Roderick Baldwin, Donna Connie, Cynthia Crawford, Jacqueline Crowder, Veyshon Hall, Tamara Hendrix, William L. Hogan, Jr., Latasha Jackson, Anthony Johnston, Robbin K., Rhonda Lay, Jockluss Thomas Payne, Leroy Scott, WJS, and Master Major Joshua Williams for inviting me into your lives.

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Filed under #AmWriting, Book Review, Books, Essay, Inspiration, Lifestyle, Memoir, Nonfiction, Writing

You Wanted to Hear What That Flash Nonfiction Course Was Like?

Marie from 1WriteWay and I completed our Flash Essay on the Edge course. It was offered by Apiary Lit, which offers editorial services, as well as courses they call workshops.

The course instructor was talented writer and teacher Chelsea Biondolillo. Her prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, Passages North, Rappahannock Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Shenandoah, and others. She has an MFA from the University of Wyoming and is a 2014-15 O’Connor Fellow at Colgate University. You can check out Chelsea here or do a search for her pieces in online magazines. Her knowledge of the genre and generosity to share that knowledge with her students was outstanding.

I took the course because I hadn’t written for months, mainly because of my father’s illness and death. Knowing the way I operate, I figured that a course would force me to focus and get a little writing done.

As planned, Marie and I evaluated the course when we were finished. We are both posting a list of the pros and cons of the course, as we saw it. At the end of the list, I’ll give you my additional impressions. Check out Marie’s post because she will give her own impressions.

Course Textbook

PROs

  • The teacher prep was outstanding. She provided a wealth of readings, which were useful in showing me what flash nonfiction can look and sound like.
  • The course was only four weeks, so I found that to be very manageable. If it had been longer, I would have been too stressed during the summer and at this time in my life.
  • The instructor generally gave useful feedback, seemed qualified in the subject, and was very nice. She seemed to love her subject.
  • The instructor was accessible, responding within the same day if there was a question or concern.
  • Other than a problem I will list under CONs, the website was pretty easy to negotiate.
  • The online classroom had various forums that enabled you to share your work with the other students and have discussions.
  • The writing prompts were generally interesting, but I didn’t feel tied to them, which was good.
  • The course was not graded.  I could focus on what I wanted to turn in, not what I thought I had to turn in in order to get an A.
  • The course got me writing without adding stress to my life.
  • I got more writing done in this past month than I would have otherwise.
  • I feel that I know where to go with flash nonfiction now. It would be ideal to get more feedback down the road on attempts at Flash Nonfiction, but at least I feel much more comfortable with the genre from taking this course.
  • Above all, I had fun with the readings and the writing.

CONS

  • Although there were forums available, we had no real discussion of any of the readings. We were not strongly encouraged to interact with each other. We had maybe one discussion prompt during the whole course.
  • The readings and essay examples were available through either some kind of Adobe program that took a bit of time to figure out, or through hyperlinks that weren’t always easy to download.
  • We posted our written assignments privately to the instructor so I had no way of learning from what others had turned in or from reading instructor comments on the work of others. I didn’t care for this method as it diminished what I could learn from the course by a hefty percentage. I suppose this is the difference between the workshop method and a traditional style class.
  • We felt isolated in this class and had little interaction with anyone but each other and the instructor.  In the discussion forum, one other student interacted with us, and another made a couple of independent comments.  Other than that, it was a strangely quiet class.
  • Two platforms were used for the course:  an online classroom and a blog, so sometimes I had a little trouble negotiating the course. Sometimes I had to login in two places. This inconvenience turned out to be less of a problem than I first anticipated, but it could be streamlined.  The blog material could have been included on the classroom platform.
  • Since I don’t know how many people were in the course, I don’t know the instructor’s workload. My belief is that in a course that is short in length, the instructor should return assignments in short order. The lag time between turning in an assignment/beginning reading for a new lesson and getting the instructor’s feedback on my previous assignment was a little too long for my comfort.
  • The price at $199 was a little steep for four weeks and no discussion/no workshopping.

***

 I want to make clear that I am really glad I took the course. Apiary hired a qualified instructor and offered a solid, contemporary course. There was so much that was right about the course. But I think it needs a little tinkering to make it better in terms of both learning environment and the economy of the course.

The above list really hits the main points of what I liked and didn’t care for about the course. The oddest thing for me was working in such an isolated environment. I’ve been in many workshops, and this isn’t a workshop. In workshops, your work is presented to the teacher and classmates. Typically, you receive feedback from both the instructor and at least a fair number of peers. I learn this way from what several people have to say about a piece. And I learn a lot from reading the work of others and seeing what all, especially the instructor, have to say about a variety of writing.

That said, there are people who hate workshops, generally because they have had a bad experience with one. I also find it fun to diss them sometimes. But, overall, they are an effective way to improve one’s writing.

The class seemed eerily quiet, perhaps because it wasn’t a workshop. But if we had had discussions about our readings, that would have provided some connection between students.

One other student (besides Marie and me) did participate in the class as much as possible. The course had a feature that she and I both used. It was called the Work-Sharing Blog. We were allowed to post anything we wanted to and see if anybody would give us feedback. It was not encouraged by the instructor or the course setup, but this other student and I both took advantage of it. I was thrilled to get feedback from her and from Marie on a piece I’ve struggled with.

I’ve taken online writing courses from a variety of schools/companies. They all have their pros and cons. For what I wanted this summer, Apiary’s course satisfied me fairly well.

If you are looking for an online writing course, my suggestion would be to decide how you want to learn and then ask questions. If you want a workshop, ask if all students will be sharing their work with the class and if the class will be providing peer feedback. Will there be guidelines for providing that feedback? The guidelines protect the writer from snarky or downright mean classmates. If you don’t want a workshop, ask those questions, too. Be aware that the majority of online writing courses are workshop-based.

Have fun! It’s so rewarding to get motivation, specialized readings, and writing feedback all in one place.

Once I get my thoughts together on the subject, I’ll post something about the genre of flash nonfiction, to give you an idea of what we were working on.

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