Sunshine Blogger Award, Baby!

Sunshine Blogger AWardI’m honored to have been nominated last week for the Sunshine Blogger Award by talented fellow blogger Shelly Ray. The award is given by bloggers to bloggers who are positive and creatively inspire others in the blogosphere. Thank you so much, Shelly! I accept your nomination.

Here are the nomination rules; nominees that accept must:

  • Thank the person who nominated them in a blog post and link back to her/his blog.
  • Answer the eleven questions posed by the nominator.
  • Nominate eleven blogs to receive the award and write them eleven new questions.
  • List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger Award logo in your post and/or your blog.

Here are the eleven questions Shelly came up with and my answers:

1. What is your main goal for your blog?

I have multiple goals for my blog, but if I have to pick one I’d say it’s simply to express myself creatively, with the hope that by doing so, I inspire others to express themselves, as well.

2. What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of the fact that despite having been a teenage mother, I have gone on to earn multiple college degrees and create a good life for my children and myself. Only about 4% of teenage mothers earn a bachelor’s degree, and I have a master’s! When I got pregnant at age 16, the message I received from so many people was that my life was ruined. I never believed this. I’ve learned that it’s vital to listen to your own truth and create your own reality.

3. Who is your current favorite singer, and/or what is your current favorite song?

I thought and thought and I can’t pin down just one. I mainly listen to the radio and don’t know half of the names of the artists they’re playing. Sorry, don’t mean to cop out!

4. What do you do when you need to de-stress/relax?

I sit in my favorite cushy chair with a good book and a glass of wine. Other times I have dinner with a good friend or my mom, usually at one of our houses, or go out to dinner with my husband.

5. If you won the lottery, what would you buy?

This is an easy one! I’d buy a condo in Florida and a beach house in New England. I’d buy plane tickets to Europe for my entire family. I’d buy a new kitchen!

6. Where do you feel most at home/what is your “happy place”?

My happy place is Newport, RI. I’m blessed that my mother has a cottage there and that she generously shares it with her family. I have many wonderful memories of spending weeks there in the summer with my (now 17 year old) son when he was little, before I started working full-time.

7. What is one skill you wish you were better at?

I wish I knew how to do web design from scratch. I do a lot of content writing for our website at work and I can design websites through WordPress, but I wish I knew HTML and the inner workings. I’d love to be able to do freelance web design and content writing from home. I suppose I could learn!

8. What are three words you’d use to describe yourself?

Creative, hard-worker, learner.

9. Which city/country do you most want to visit some day?

Germany. I was born there, on a U.S. naval base, and lived there the first two years of my life. My dream is to go back one day, hopefully with my mother.

10. What do you do to overcome writer’s block?

I read, go do something else, and don’t stress about it.

11. What is your greatest strength?

I’m always learning. I love to learn. I feel absolutely stagnate if I’m not. Two years ago I took a StrengthsQuest inventory, and Learner was my top strength, which didn’t surprise me.

Now, for my nominees (drum roll please):

Muddling Through My Middle Age
I love reading Ann’s often humorous and always insightful essays on aging and life.
The Off Key of Life
George’s blog is always a great place to find inspiration and have a good laugh.
Donkey Bytes
Tales from the farm with adorable photos of farm animals to go with them.
Fonz and Cancer
Absolutely inspirational. Fonz’s journey battling and winning over cancer will move and inspire you.
Book Club Mom
I appreciate the time and care this blogger puts into each of the book reviews and author interviews.
Aging Abundantly
This blog reminds us that growing older is a journey and one we shouldn’t dread, but embrace.
A Day in the Life
A daily dose of inspiring photographs.
A Hundred Years Ago
Probably one of the coolest ideas for a blog; 100 year old recipes, advertisements for food products, etc.
Posiworld’s Blog
A great place to stop for inspirational quotes.
Miss Maps
The photographs from all over the world, featured travelers, and details about various countries will inspire anyone to travel.
Monochrome Nightmares
Dark poetry might seem like it doesn’t jive with a sunshine blog award, but A.J. O’Brien’s poems inspire so many people and bring darkness to light that I had to include his blog.

My 11 questions for the nominees:

1. What inspired you to start your blog?
2. What do you find most challenging about having a blog? Most rewarding?
3. What advice do you have for anyone thinking of starting a blog?
4. What is one fun fact about you?
5. What is your favorite book and why?
6. What movie could you watch over and over?
7. What is your favorite quote?
8. List three items on your bucket list that you have yet to do.
9. Who inspired you the most when you were growing up?
10. What do you hope to be remembered for?
11. What is your proudest accomplishment thus far?

Note to nominees: Accepting this nomination is admittedly time consuming. I hope you’re able to find the time, but if not, I completely understand. Either way, please know that I think your blog is awesome!

What Makes a Writer?

You are a writerOne of the most poignant essays on writing I’ve ever read is Pat Schneider’s “You Are Already A Writer” (read excerpt here). In it she discusses the epiphany she had when her uneducated, homeless, alcoholic brother showed up on her doorstep one day and handed her a crumpled piece of paper. On it he’d written about motorcycles from hell chasing him, a metaphor for his alcoholism. In that moment, she realized that writing, and being an artist in general, is about having the courage to share your truth in your own voice.  There were artists everywhere whose stories and ideas were powerful, but the world would never know it because they lacked the technical skills to present them in a compelling way.  This experience inspired Schneider to found the Amherst Writers and Artists workshops.

Schneider’s essay transformed my notion of what it means to be a writer. It gave me permission to explore creative self-expression without worrying about perfect writing. I started to consciously practice completing short pieces from start to finish exactly as they poured out of me, not as I felt they should be presented to others.  This meant no editing the first draft as I wrote it, no agonizing over every word. If I got stuck on how to articulate something, I closed my eyes and emptied my mind until the right words came. I realized that the soul of writing is the story being told. The technicalities are secondary and can be learned or, in some cases, unlearned.

When an opportunity arose for me to teach a one-credit “passion” course to college freshmen through a First Year Experience program, I decided on Writing Our Stories. I’d taken a creative nonfiction graduate course at Wesleyan University with author Rachel Basch that changed my life. It gave me the confidence and validation I so desperately wanted and needed as a fledgling writer. I wanted to offer my students a similar experience. I wanted to give them an outlet for expressing themselves by sharing their personal stories.

I modeled the course after the one at Wesleyan, scaling it down considerably for undergraduate freshmen. I started it off by having them read short creative nonfiction pieces and discussing them, practicing techniques through writing exercises, and eventually they worked their way up to writing their own short stories and workshopping them. Their first reading assignment was Schneider’s essay. I wanted them to know from the start that this wasn’t going to be anything like freshmen English.

The course went better than I could have hoped or imagined. The students wrote their hearts out. Their valiant attempts at using dialogue, showing through scene versus telling, experimenting with humor, and using imagery to tell their stories made my own heart sing. I wanted to wrap my arms around each and every one of them when they shared excerpts of their personal stories with each other. This was a class that laughed and cried together, encouraged one another, supported each other’s efforts, talents, joys, and sorrows.

The course improved the second year because I had time to reflect and make adjustments. I broke the students into small literature circles. They had to read each other’s stories ahead of time for homework. Each circle had two discussion facilitators, two passage finders, whose role was to select a few passages that resonated with them, two critiquers, whose job was to offer constructive criticism in a kind way, and the person whose story was being workshopped. The roles changed up to give students a chance to experience each one, and to have his or her story shared.

This process gave the students complete ownership of the experience. My role was simply to move from circle to circle and listen, and offer occasional feedback. We’d discussed in detail beforehand what workshopping was, what the ground rules were, what each role entailed, and did a few practice rounds so that the students had a good sense of the type of language to use in each role.

I was geared up to teach a third year when the university faculty curriculum committee decided it was time to review the courses being offered by First Year Programs. Specifically, they wanted to know the credentials of who was teaching them. These specific “passion” courses were supposed to be faculty-led, but few faculty signed up to teach them, and those that did expected to be paid for their trouble. First Year Programs had a tight budget. They’d never make it if they had to pay all of the instructors. This is why mostly professional staff was teaching them on a volunteer basis, myself included. Without a master’s degree at the time, or any publications to my name, save a poem featured in a college literary magazine, I was deemed unqualified to teach. There would be no more Writing Our Stories.

Fucking faculty curriculum committee. They had no understanding that this course wasn’t about me and my credentials. It was about the students, and giving them the opportunity to engage in creative self-expression and personal growth through writing and sharing their stories. It was about helping them gain confidence as writers. It was about introducing them to and giving them practice incorporating elements of fiction writing into their nonfiction works. It was about giving them a voice. I understood that universities needed standards, but not one member of the committee asked to speak to me about the course or view the syllabus. They didn’t bother to ask for the course evaluations, which were overwhelmingly positive. All they did was look at my resume, see its lack of advanced degree and publications, and deem me unworthy.

Feeling bitter and dejected, I responded to an advertisement seeking a freelance correspondent for a community newspaper. I spent the next year writing news stories on everything from stargazing to hiking to the college financial aid process. I loved meeting new people all the time, going to events I wouldn’t normally have attended, and coming up with a story angle. The problem was that by the time I did all this and wrote the story, I was making about $5 an hour for my trouble. I had to give it up. I decided it was time to finally get a master’s degree, so I enrolled in a graduate English program.

Two years later, with a master’s degree in hand, graduate coursework in teaching writing, numerous published news stories under my belt, and a capstone paper that my thesis advisor felt was publishable, I didn’t feel any more qualified to teach Writing Our Stories than I had before. That’s because you don’t learn to teach by studying it in school or getting a degree, you learn to teach by teaching.

It’s the same with writing. You can take courses in the craft, and even earn a degree in it, but ultimately it’s the writing that makes you a writer. It’s the day in and day out practice, the trials and errors, the failures you learn from, the crap you write that you hope no one ever sees, the showing up on the page, never giving up, and those magic moments when the writing flows out of you like a gift from beyond – this is what makes a writer. At the center of it all is the story.

You have a voice. You have a story. You are already a writer. You have every right to express yourself exactly as you please. If your technical skills need improvement, take a course, but don’t let anyone convince you that what you are offering to the world through  your unique brand of creative self-expression is unworthy — especially if that someone is a pontiff at the podium who thinks his shit doesn’t stink.

10 Mark Twain Quotes to Love

Mark Twain 1

Twain in his later years. With three of his four children and wife dead, he became depressed and bitter.

I went a little quote crazy this week, inspired by a recent visit to the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, CT. Hope you enjoy!

1. “Courage is resistance to fear, master of fear – not absence of fear.”

Mark Twain 2

Main entryway leading to a lavish foyer.

2. “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

3. “Better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it an remove all doubt.”

4. “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself. “

5. “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

Mark Twain 3

The Gothic-style house cost $40,000 to build, which translates into over $6 million in today’s money.

6. “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

7. “Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.”

8. “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

Mark Twain 4

The next great American writer?

9. “I have never let schooling interfere with my education.”

10. “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

Which Twain quote is your favorite? 


The Overwhelming Power of Fear (and how to break it down)

Fear and Opportunity 2Last week I spent close to an hour trying to convince a 17 year old student not to throw away a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was one of the most intense and honest conversations I’ve had in 16 years of working in higher education. The student is a participant in a six-week residential summer program at the university where I work. The program prepares select incoming freshmen  for the rigors of college academics and acclimates them to campus life. Students must successfully complete it to attend the university. The young man came to my office one evening to tell me he was dropping out of the program and going to community college instead.

As I listened to his litany of reasons, I resisted the urge to systematically shoot down each and every one of them. I knew I had to tread carefully here if I was to convince him that he was potentially making one of the biggest mistakes of his life thus far.

He was so fragile. I could see this as he explained why community college would be a better fit. He wasn’t quite ready to leave home. He had a girlfriend that he loved. His high school hadn’t prepared him well enough for university academics. He was shy about meeting new people. He was scared of student loan debt. What if he graduated with loads of debt and couldn’t find a good job? He said community college was a better place to start and he’d transfer to university later on.

His reasons were valid, but I also knew they were excuses. I could see clearly that this guy was terrified of failing, of not being good enough, of not having what it takes to succeed. His reasons were lumped together into one big ball of fear.

After listening to him without interruption for what seemed an eternity, I took a deep breath and asked him if he was here simply to inform me of his decision or did he also want my feedback. He told me to go ahead, he’d listen to what I had to say.

I began by telling him that I understood his concerns and they were valid. I told him I thought community colleges were terrific and believed he could get a great education at one. I told him I understood that love is a powerful thing. And yes, he had graduated from one of the worst performing high schools in the state and he was correct that it hadn’t adequately prepared him for university academics, which is why he was in the summer program. Student loan debt is scary and there are no guarantees of well-paying employment after graduating.

Then I told him what I really thought. That he was scared to death. That being on campus, taking college courses, immersed in a foreign environment, was bringing out his fight or flight response, and his reaction was to flee to safety, the familiar.

Love is powerful, but true love means wanting the best for one another and supporting each other’s growth and potential. True love would stand the test of being apart and time.

His inner city high school, which I knew had a lovely view of a prison directly across the street, was low-performing, but the admissions office clearly felt he had the potential to succeed here, otherwise they wouldn’t have admitted him.

True, he’d have to take out some student loans, but they were minimal. He’d been offered an amazing financial aid package with lots of grant aid. I asked him to think of people he knew who’d purchased nice cars. Chances are their auto loans were as much or more than what his total student loans would be over four years. This was an investment in himself, in his future earnings and job options.

I agreed that a college education doesn’t guarantee high paying work. Indeed, there are no guarantees in life, period. But at the university, he’d  be able to get involved with clubs and organizations, complete an internship, perhaps study abroad, and build a network of people who might help him out in the future insofar as employment goes. Did he think he’d be able to do all that at the community college, which was located in the same inner city he’d grown up in and would no doubt have some of the same people he’d gone to high school with attending?

Then I pulled out my trump card. I told him that the university had received over 30,000 applications for only 3,500 freshmen spots, that he was one of the chosen few. Was he really willing to throw away this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? If he left, there was no guarantee he would be able to transfer back in. Being admitted once was no guarantee he’d be admitted again.

I didn’t stop there. Instead, I said something I never thought I’d say to a student. Fear I was about to make a huge mistake that would come back to bite me made my stomach tighten, but something in me decided to say it anyway. I told him there weren’t enough black males in higher education. We needed more. We needed him. We needed him to complete his degree and get out there working in fields that don’t have enough diversity. Then I held my  breath as I waited for his response.

This is when the real conversation began. He admitted he was scared. As a black male from an inner city who grew up without a father, he had no positive male role models to emulate. He worried that a racist society wouldn’t want to hire him. He worried he’d go to this mostly white university, rack up debt, and then end up right back where he came from, no better off. He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to keep up with his peers from more privileged backgrounds, who had the good fortune of going to much better public or even private schools. He felt like a fraud, like he didn’t belong here, like admissions must have made a mistake.

What does a middle-aged, middle-class white lady say to all that?

Something inside me welled up. I felt a sudden fierce protectiveness over this vulnerable young man. Though I couldn’t understand first-hand how he truly felt, I could empathize.  I desperately wanted him not to throw away this opportunity. We talked for a while longer, and then I offered a compromise. What if he completed the summer program and then started at a regional branch of the university? This way he could commute from home, yet still be within the university, and be guaranteed a spot if he wanted to transfer up to the main campus at some point.

He seemed interested in this option. Asked a bunch of questions. I told him not to decide right then, to think about it overnight and come by my office in the morning to let me know his decision. He agreed, thanked me, and left.

A group of my female colleagues was gathered in one of the offices, in what looked like an intense discussion of their own. They waved me over. We’d had a head’s up about my student wanting to leave the program from the residential staff earlier that day, so they knew what my meeting with him was about. They ushered me in, closed the door, and asked how it went. I burst out crying. Thank God for the comfort of these women, who knew first-hand the intensity of what I’d just gone through, who’d had enough of their own intense conversations with students to understand. It was close to 9:00 p.m. on a Monday night and we were all still at work, having arrived early that morning for a staff meeting. We were exhausted, but we stayed a while longer and talked.

A few years before, I’d completed motivational interviewing training. It taught me the importance of being invested in the intervention with students, but not the outcome. I knew I’d done all I could to help my student understand the opportunity he’d been given, and the ramifications if he chose to throw it away. It was time to let it go, and to go home.

The student didn’t come by my office the next day, as I’d instructed him to. I ran into him later in the afternoon. His demeanor was nonchalant. He said he thought we were supposed to meet at 9:00 p.m. (huh?). He said that he was going to stay in the summer program and go to the regional campus in the fall.

It was as if the clouds parted and the heavens opened up. My mind screamed hallelujah! I wanted to throw my arms around him. Instead, I simply said that I felt he’d made a good decision and to come by my office later that week so we could schedule his courses at the regional campus.

We parted and went about our day, me a little lighter, him a little braver.