Monday, January 12, 2015

The Seduction of Story

Photo by partsofmybody
What is it about a story that seduces us? What is the je ne sais quoi that keeps us up past our bedtimes reading late into the night?

What makes us turn the page?
What makes us want to be with any particular story, novel, or movie?

As a literary critic/scholar and author both, these are questions that I seek to answer on a daily basis. Definite, hard reasons are hard to come by. Story is as elusive as it is concrete.

I have begun my spring semester reading assignments early. I read The Gates Ajar by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, and I thought, "This novel can not end soon enough." Yet, during the book's time of publication (shortly after the Civil War), Phelps was a bestselling author. The story of a woman whose brother died, and then her aunt resonated with thousands of people across the nation. People were looking for a connection to the afterlife and Phelps gave them a reasonable answer.

I was glad the novel can be crossed off my list, so to speak, and I moved on to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, and this story is so much different than Phelps. The novel is only about 230 pages, and it should be something I could chomp off in an afternoon pretty easily, yet I cannot. I'm two weeks in and still reading. I cannot bare the content, so tragic and awful. I could not imagine that life on my own, and I want to know more about Linda. I want to know what happens to her. If she survives. If her children survive. But, the story is so tragic, I can only handle small doses.

This, I believe, is the key: I can imagine Linda's life because Jacobs experienced that life first-hand and wrote about it, and shared, and I am now a part of this woman's life who died in 1897.
The other day, I read the following tweet from Sarah-Jan Murray:
If you’re interested (and you should be), I’ve posted her TEDxSanAntonio talk at the end of this post. Murray makes an amazing point in her succinct tweet. Stories allow us inside worlds we would normally not ever have access to. Reading old manuscripts—the original brick and mortar books and folios places us in communion with readers—people—across the ages. We are able to relate in a human way. Like a physical touch of the skin. 

Story is intimate, like the breathy whisper of a lover in our ear. 

That connection is ingrained, hardwired into our heads, says Murray, and I agree with her.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Menu of Simplicities

Coming home at the end of the school day, having taught and learned, my wife having done the same, and looking forward to an evening chauffeuring our kids around town, a frozen chicken breast in the freezer seems overwhelming. In an ever evolving effort to continually simplify my life, to cut out as much fat as possible, I often create monthly menu plans. I post the menus for the current week on our refrigerator. Last semester, I did not do this, and spent way too much money driving through McDonald’s or a Chinese fast food joint, ordering pizza and ordering more pizza. The amount of work it takes to put one of these semester long menu plans together is considerable and more stressful than working on a thesis. The pay-out, however, are easy meals and twenty minute grocery shopping trips.

I have a few rules for my menus. One, the meals have to be cheap. I’m really happy if I can feed the family on $50 for the week. Two, the meals have to be quick. Rachel Ray’s thirty minute meals be damned. I’m talking ten minutes flat prep, cook, and serve. Third, one meal a week is crock pot night. I will say that this last rule is more of a rule of thumb. Hopefully it happens. Grad school, for some reason, tends to be filled with evening classes. A crock pot meal is nice to come home to. The kids and the wife have already eaten. The pot is still simmering, and it’s just plop on your plate, eat, and go to bed. My cousin runs a crock pot Facebook page, though I am a little ticked off at the page because it’s called “Crock-pot Ladies.”

Other sites I follow:
                   The Pioneer Woman
                   Grocery Budget 101

And then at that point, I am at a loss, and my menu planning consists of crazy and desperate Google searches. Then recipes get lost never to be repeated in our household again. I wish I could find an app that I like that would allow me to collect this stuff.

When my wife and I were first married, one of our wedding gifts was the 1991 edition of the Betty Crocker’s Cookbook. We still have this book, but the cover has been replaced with duct tape. Pages are falling out. Other pages have huge tears down the center and repaired with Scotch tape. There are oil stains, and the pages are yellowed at the edges. We do not use this book any longer. It sits on our bookshelf beside our wedding album, a testament of almost seventeen years of marriage, two kids, and several moves across the country.

Here’s a recipe:

Boil spaghetti noodles al dente.

In a frying pan, slice up a kielbasa, add red onions, sliced zucchini, yellow squash, and some Kraft Italian Tuscany dressing. While this is all cooking, strip baby spinach from their stems, and cut in half several grape tomatoes. Drain the noodles, add the spinach to the drained noodles, toss, and put take the pan stuff and add to the noodles, toss again. Put the tomatoes on top, then lid the noodles. Let sit for a bit, so the tomatoes can sweat and the spinach can wilt. Serve topped with feta cheese.

Do you have a favorite recipe? A menu app that you’d like to share? Shopping tips?  

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Power of Story

The power of story.

I believe in this.

Stories tell us who we are. They tell us who we aspire to be. Stories make us better. And I don
’t just mean highfalutin literature, but I mean everything from the dime detective novel to flash fiction and genre.

Look, I tried to write a romance novel once. Dismal failure, really. I had this long, convoluted, outline, stock characters, and followed formula to a T. Really, I had the hope to make money. Lots and lots of money. Because, well, I was broke. When I finished the draft, I sent the novel to publisher after publisher. After the first thirty pages, they always wanted to see the complete novel, and I
’d send them the whole enchilada, and they’d write back and tell me that, though the story was good, I hadn’t written a romance. Well, what do you mean? There was kissing and some sex scenes, and even a fight to win the honor of the woman. I mean, riveting stuff. Nobody wanted to publish it.[1] What I didn’t understand was the nature of story. Why it mattered, and why people who read romance read romance. The romance genre is about empowerment[2].

’ve tried my hand at fantasy fiction as well because I’ve always admired authors such Patricia Wrede[3], Ursula K. Le Guin, and I grew up on Dungeons and Dragons without my parents’ knowledge. Again though, I didn’t really understand why I was trying to write these stories about elves and dragons or why the fantasy genre was even important.  Dave Robison writes on his Mythic Scribes blog that, “With a few rare exceptions, genre [fantasy/science-fiction/speculative] fiction is generally dismissed—even disdained—by ‘serious’ authors and critical reviewers alike.” Yet, many people, such as I once did, miss the point of fantasy. The genre opens to possibilities.
I could go through the entire list of genres: western, mystery, erotica,  whatever. Not really my point though. My point is the power of the story, and how that power has erupted across the Western World, thanks to new technologies and cutting edge companies such as Amazon.  It’s like a new Renaissance really, giving people from all walks of life the opportunity to tell their stories. The best invention since the printing press.

Self-publishing seems to get a bad rap though, especially from, well,
“serious” authors and critical reviewers.

But if reading even the so-called junk—the romance, the mystery, the fantasy—if even that kind of reading works to empower with possibilities, how much more so does the actual act of writing empower possibility within the individual and society at large? Self-publishing, of course, is not a new endeavor, just the delivery method is new, easier, quicker, and more subversive to the vanguard publishers and gate-keepers. Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Deepak Chopra, Gertrude Stein, Zane Grey, Upton Sinclair, Virginia Wolff, Rudyard Kipling, Henry David Thoreau, Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, Beatrix Potter
…..  those are the footsteps of far greater authors that I walk behind and into. And that’s pretty exciting. Pretty scary power.

So Shakespeare be damned[4]. Let
’s dig into all that indie stuff[5]! Write something today.

[1] And now that I have the opportunity to publish myself, the thing will still never see the light of day. It has been shoved into a drawer, and should probably be burned.
[2] Check out Anne Browning Walker’s article on Huffington Post; it’s from 2012, but still a really good read.
[3] I met Ms. Wrede on a now, I am pretty positive now defunct electronic buliten board, if you remember what those are you have a pretty good idea of how old I am. Wrede encouraged me to attend the University of Iowa and learn more about creative writing. If I had known what I was getting myself into, I would have never taken her advice at the time, but I am so glad I did. I should probably get back in touch with her, though I doubt she even remembers me. I was just another fan I am sure. Another electronic blip that came across the screen in the late 90’s. Maybe she has a Twitter account?
[4] Um. Not really. A canon of literature exists that tells us where we’ve been and where we should head. The canon, of course, has been traditionally associated with the British, but that mindset is slowly changing. A way more liberal, global approach needs to be still more fully embraced, but then that raises some amazing issues, like how the heck do you catalog all that information, how do begin to study a world literature. More to the point, when do you stop reading?
[5] Maybe I’m saying this because I myself am an indie author.  I have an alterior motive. Buy my book. No. Actually, don’t do that unless you think you’ll like my book(s). Heck, I’ll give you a free copy if you want. Just email me at with FREE BOOK as the subject heading.

Saturday, January 3, 2015


In the throws of putting together my master’s thesis, I really have no complaints. 

Except maybe one.

I have had so many people look at my chapters, pick over the logic and the grammar, the ideas, which is absolutely fine because it is a part of the process, but I have so many draft copies it is difficult to keep track of the work flow. So thank goodness for the awesome people at Literature and
Latte[1]  and Scrivener. I praise Scrivener so much in my everyday life that my cohorts have asked if I get a cut off their sales. I don’t; the product has just made my life entirely easier. And I’m all about easy.


’ve created a folder in the Scrivener binder called DRAFTS.

Within that folder, you can see that I have three more folders: My Drafts, Unreviewed Comments, and Reviewed Comments. From here, you can probably pretty much guess what I do. I work from the My Drafts folder, place committee member commented upon PDF drafts in the Unreviewed Comments Folder, until I get a chance to actually look the comments over, and then move those PDFs to the Reviewed Comments Folder. 

This might seem convoluted, but the process works for me. Plus, this way, nothing gets accidentally deleted.
I created my thesis template from scratch, which has been daunting, but whenever I begin a new project there is always a level of dauntingness that proceeds it. The problem with Scrivener is that there are so many options on how to write and how to organize the writing and researching process. But I am not alone. More importantly, you are not alone. A wealth of Scrivener templates are available online specifically made for academic writing. I have not found any on particular template to my liking, but you can always tweak. For your convenience, I have included the following links to Scrivener templates geared towards academic writing![2]

Obviously, though I vehemently disagree, Scrivener isn’t for everyone, so to end today’s post I pose the following question: what software do you utilize for academic writing? And, if you use Scrivener, do you have a specific template you use?

[1] Being an English major, you’ve got to just love that name!
[2] Wow, right?  :)