2017 Writing Goals

I don’t think I actually set 2016 writing goals unless they’re listed in a buried notebook. I did challenge myself to revise work and while I had a tantrum and didn’t manage to knock out the one-a-week revision edition, I did steadily  practice revision all year, sometimes playing for the sake of playing (like with poetry), sometimes finishing a story because it was time, and twice revising to publish (here and hopeful). A year ago I also started exploring creative nonfiction through an online course. That class woke up an interest in telling true stories and showed me the time involved in telling a story well. Meaning that while 2016 is the year I decided I can be a teacher and writer, 2016 is also the year I realized there are some stories/ projects I need time to commit to doing well.

But this post promised my 2017 writing goals. So, here they are:

  1. One notebook a month
  2. FINISH Canyon Edge story
  3. Practice looooonger essays/ expansion as revision
  4. Write a sonnet composed of found comments on a single article/ issue/ video
  5. Submit five pieces for publication to at least three different magazines/ sites

I can do that.

Growing Into Who I Am

A couple of months ago a writer friend forwarded an email call for submissions to an ebook collection of stories from expat teachers. Such a specific author call! I thought of what essays I might rework or draft. I wrote around a couple of ideas, let the work drift. Then a few weeks ago, my friend and I decided let’s do it, set up workshop via Google docs and drafted, commented and revised to hit today’s submission deadline. The whole collection will support the Children of Haiti Project.

I’ll let you know if my essay is published and where to purchase the collection when it’s released. Meantime, here is the essay I submitted. I can’t get away posting much of my finished work but think it’s okay to post this here.

On the writer side of things: titles. What do I call this? I titled the piece “Choosing Heartbreak” and then “We Choose Heartbreak.” Both titles are dumb, to me. “Growing Into Who I Am” fits but also sounds dumb. I suck at titles. Read the piece and if you have a title idea, please please please leave a comment.


As Yet Untitled, In My Mind

For years I held my profession at arms’ length, uncertain I really was a teacher until a decade passed and I couldn’t pretend I was actually a writer anymore. Instead, all those semesters of practice made me a good teacher. I have joy in the classroom. I wake up tired, run my treadmill miles, negotiate traffic with kids in the backseat, order a coffee I pick up from gate two on campus and walk back to my classroom, open the door to first period.

We aren’t always ready for first period. Students trail in five or ten minutes into class, find a desk. We roll our bodies and minds into the school day. A few years ago I started asking students to “be present” in my class and I do the same. We enjoy the people nearest us for fifty-five minutes. We learn what we can in fifty-five minutes. The joy I have in my classroom stems from affection for people as they are and belief those fifty-five minute classes matter to more than academic growth.

Still, last year was a wrestle with identity: am I more teacher or writer?

I had a group of seniors preparing for college: essay, applications, college visits and fairs, acceptances and rejections. These young men and women were making such big decisions. Sometimes they asked about my experience or opinion. Everything matters: small liberal arts college, Ivy League school, state university; declared or undecided major; visa issues in UK or US. I assured a few students they would be okay, wherever they landed, eventually, maybe. I went to a university that promised a scholarship, supposing I’d transfer after a year or two but instead I studied English which led to me choosing a teaching certification which wandered me from Wisconsin to Colombia to Kuwait. No choice is inconsequential and that’s a terrifying thought for an eighteen year old. It’s a terrifying thought for a thirty-five year old. I saw parallels between my seniors learning who they were, what they wanted next, and my own questions about why I was in the Middle East and what I was doing with my piles of notebooks and files of finished poetry and narrative pieces.

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Part Two Of Leaving Kuwait: Can’t Be Smug About Waiting, Can Doubt

We don’t have a job yet. We probably won’t get a contract until January or February. Friends who ask if we know where we are going yet rearrange their faces when we say no. There isn’t much exciting or possible about no. The other day a friend I hadn’t seen in a month assured me, “It’s still early. If it were March I might be worried for you guys.” If it were March I’d be negotiating rent and commune-like cooking promises with my parents who still have four kids living at home. If it were March, we might fire sale our belongings and put up rent for a year of homeschooling in Budapest. If it were March we might look for a rental in our college town and scrape by on sub pay. But it isn’t March. It’s mid December and international schools are starting holiday break and our applications are in a few someones’ inboxes, waiting for whim or vision to turn into an interview offer.

There isn’t a lot to say about waiting. Except waiting works your character.

Can’t be smug about waiting.

Last week one of my students said to me, “Pray for me, Miss. I find out if I got into NYU at one in the morning!” I pictured her refreshing her email. Please please please. I do the same. I check my email. No one wants an interview yet. I wait another hour or two and check email again. No one wants an interview yet. When it is midday in South America, I check email again. No one wants an interview yet. Later, a quiet voice tells me not to check email again but I open my email again and still no one wants an interview. I whisper fuck.

At church this week, a woman talked about doubt. What do you do with doubt? She preached from Matthew 11, when John the Baptist wonders if Jesus is “the one to come, or shall we look for another?” So John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus even though he knew. He’d already leapt in his mother’s womb when Elizabeth greeted Mary. He’d already spent years in the wilderness, unbound by convention, prophesying Christ to come. But Jesus didn’t show up so bold as John might have imagined a savior should, so John had to ask, “Are you the one to come, or shall we look for another?” John’s doubt wasn’t unbelief and Jesus didn’t belittle his cousin for wanting another confirmation. Instead, Jesus sent word back: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Doubt that God will do as he says can grow faith. Consider the disciple Thomas. Others went around talking about the resurrection and Thomas is like, I’m not buying it unless I touch the wounds, put my hand in Jesus’s side. Imagine Thomas later when he sees Jesus standing in front of him. I might feel shame or embarrassment. I might try to duck out because Jesus knew what I’d said, my bluster about putting a hand to his crucifixion wounds. But Jesus invites Thomas to touch the wounds. Thomas’s doubt led to an encounter that radically confirmed his faith. I listened to the sermon.

Last night I didn’t sleep. I have a pinched nerve in my neck that sends sparkles down my left arm, numbs the thumb a little. I bit the pad of my thumb to test if it was worse. I sat up in bed. I laid on my side. I turned on my belly. I thought about the perfect will of God and his permissive will. I rolled over onto my back. I pressed into the cords of my neck and shoulder, looking for the muscle that cut my nerve. When I woke, I felt terrible.

On the drive to work I yelled at my son because he lost his winter coat, the puffy inside jacket and the heavy shell. I’ve been telling myself I am not anxious about this move. We are fine leaving Kuwait. I want to go. But I want to know where we go. And this week showed me in boldface underline highlight that I need to learn how to wait. How to pray. How to hope. How to trust. I need to learn how to wait because it matters to God that I rest in his love and peace. It matters to my husband and kids, colleagues and students. If I am consumed by fear, I lose this place in front of me. But I can’t make myself rest and that’s an accepted mystery of faith for me, that I go to Jesus and say my questions and lay down my fear and doubt again again again, more often than I check my email or refresh job postings, and I trust God kneads the tight cords in my heart and body, works out the fear I hold.

When something is out of my control, I like to look around and pick up what I can control. Sometimes this is a friendship I stoke for the pleasure of being liked. More often, it is the food that goes in my mouth or the miles I put on my body. I like physical, measurable control. This week I wanted to tally my food, I wanted to run when I hurt. But I saw this behavior in a new way, the sin of holding part of my life with my own hands when Christ says to follow him is to surrender all. To follow Christ is to surrender even this waiting time to God’s glory. I am not supposed to wait in worry or feed my pride with what I manage to hold on my own. Over and over in the Word, I see God is for me. What happens if I say, take this body too, the knots of anxiety I pretend aren’t there, the belly that eats doubt, the legs that want to run away forever: work out this waiting perfectly, physically, in my bones, in my blood and brain, over my muscles and skin so I rest and wake in peace.

I know doubt. And like Thomas, I’ve put up challenges to more faith. God answers and I believe. I falter and God answers and I believe. This year, I don’t doubt God provides. I don’t doubt his faithfulness. This year, I’ve got no one to seek but Jesus, like John the Baptist sending a message directly to his cousin to find out if what he believed really was true. I want to know where we go. I want to know do I teach. I want to know what relationships wait for our family. Instead of worrying these questions with a best laid plan, I press into doubt, honestly and a little afraid. This year I wait, sit with uncertainty, and read the Word for assurance. I know my God. But like John the Baptist, like Thomas, I want to know again.

One Situation, Three Flash Fiction Pieces

I’ve been working on one school’s application for two weeks and I wish that was an exaggeration. The application is made up of tough questions I can’t answer in the space provided, questions that would meet a pause before answering in an interview. I understand the thoroughness of the process – the school is Christian in deed, not just name, and administrators want to know not only what kind of teacher I am but also how my faith works. And in between drafting and revising the application for this school, I’m writing cover letters to other places too.

This is not a post about job search stuff though. This is a post about how I missed writing fiction and joined a class for one of my favorite exercises from What If? which is to write five mini-stories of a single situation. 

Situation examples:
Mom walks into her daughter’s room
Two strangers next to each other on a plane
Someone takes something from someone else

I stole the last idea from a student (apropos) but only managed three mini-stories. Even so, what fun and challenge to step away from cover letter land.


Some Of Us Know
The sophomores were stealing again. Mr. Shannon already talked about it at the grade level assembly in October, then again in December. Don’t leave your bags around, he said, but the kids all left their bags in heaps outside the canteen or strewn like dots on the outside of the track. Security and maintenance staff had to show their backpacks, turn out their pockets at the end of a shift. Then the scholarship kids got called in one by one. A girl named Valentina laughed when Mr. Shannon asked if she knew who was stealing. You think it’s me, she said, Because I wear sandals from Bata?

It was too easy, Eduardo found. And fun, to slow his breathing and steady his pulse. The first time he stole on a dare. He took the slim phone to a booth in Unicentro, swapped the sim card and sold it for the cost of a good sushi dinner to a taxi driver. Now, in history class, Eduardo saw a rose gold line under a paperback on Catalina’s desk. He hadn’t stolen from a girl before. He had a small collection of black and silver devices at the back of his wardrobe that he almost wanted his maid to find, for the relief of contrition and repentance. Daniel and Santiago hadn’t stolen since right before winter break. Eduardo wasn’t sure anyone else was still in the game.

Catalina looked up then. Eduardo didn’t look away. She bent over her notebook, one hand cupped around what she wrote. Then she tore the page from its spiral and folded it over twice. Catalina held the note in her hand. Eduardo got up and walked over to her, took the note. His heart was wild. He sat at his desk again and unfolded the paper. Some of us know. Eduardo swallowed. He could feel Catalina waiting. He looked up but she was only bent over a book, her finger following the lines.

I Give You
For a week I do not put you in a bassinet or crib. I hold you against my breast, let you suck. I have no milk yet. I have only white pain at your strong suck. For a week I wait for my milk to come and you pull at the nipple, turn away, sleep, wake to pull again while I believe all the literature I read about colostrum nourishing you until my body decides the milk comes. I drink a beer. There is something about the malt. I remember a woman saying a beer relaxes the mother, reminds her body to let go. I hold you and wonder what I need to let go. Women carry emotion in their hips, I read.

My hips sink into the sofa. Paper dolls come with little skirts or shorts that fold over the abdomen, the upper thigh. That’s what hurts, the middle band of my body, like my hips opened all their doors and everything fell out. Your suck tightens my uterus. I know this is good. I read it was good.

I haven’t held a baby in years but now, you fit my arms. You snug against my belly. You flop over my shoulder. When you are nursing, I watch your jaw work. I touch the nape of your neck. This is the most delicate we are, together, and I have this surge that goes up my body that makes me say out loud, Be careful. I am so tired. For a week I have dozed and started, afraid to let go of you. But now I am tired and make a little nest for you on the floor next to the sofa and I stretch my legs out and close my eyes. We sleep for a long time.

When I wake, my breasts are engorged. I read this might happen. How the milk comes fast and fills the soft tissue to bursting. I sit up. I need you more now. I pick you up and hold you to my breast, help you latch because the nipple isn’t slipping easily into your mouth. I watch your jaw work. My breast is like a firework, warm sparks of milk letting down and you choke, pull away. My breasts are leaking and I help you again. You find a steady suck and I think of the empty cradle of my hips, the better weight of you in my arms, and I wonder what we will hold together as we make our way.

What I Can Do
Tasha’s daughter came down the stairs one morning with her hair combed in a slant across her face. Tasha said, “Lizzi, I can’t see your eyes,” and reached a hand to brush aside the curtain but Lizzi ducked away, went to the cupboard for a bowl. “You look mysterious,” Tasha said but Lizzi only hunched over her cereal. When the style lasted a few days, Tasha suggested they go to the Cut ‘n Curl next weekend, have the fringe done like that actress that’s everywhere, what’s her name. Lizzi didn’t answer. “Would you like that?” Tasha asked. Lizzi said she guessed so. A year ago, Lizzi dyed a pink streak in her hair. She’d worn a red cape to school most of spring semester. Now in seventh grade, Lizzi didn’t know if she wanted her hair cut.

That Saturday, Lizzi sat in a salon chair while Tasha watched her daughter from a fake leather couch, flipping through a magazine. The stylist was a woman in her early twenties who asked questions about school and favorite bands. Lizzi was quiet. The stylist got quiet too. She took her time, pulling lengths of hair to check evenness and snip strays before blow drying the cut, showing Lizzi how to work a bit of gel through her hair for texture. “There,” the stylist said, “You look great. This cut suits you.” Lizzi looked at her reflection and smiled. Tasha wanted to hold her daughter, kiss her forehead. They bought a bottle of gel and a round brush. Tasha hugged the stylist.

On the sidewalk, Tasha reached for Lizzi’s hand and for a couple of blocks, it felt like nothing invisible had shifted, like Tasha had only imagined the tremor. Tasha suggested a pastry or hot chocolate. A trio of girls was walking toward them. Lizzi’s grip tightened. All three girls smiled. “Hi Lizzi.” “Hi Lizzi.” “Hi Lizzi.” Lizzi ducked her head. “You must be Lizzi’s mom,” said one of the girls.

“I am,” Tasha said.

“Lizzi is in my social studies class with Ms. Bryant,” said the girl.

“Lizzi, your hair looks gorgeous,” said the second girl.

“Did you go to Candace?” asked the third girl.

Lizzi didn’t say anything. The girls blocked the sidewalk. They looked from Lizzi to Tasha with wide eyes and lip gloss smiles. Tasha understood then. There had been a tremor in her daughter. Tiny fractures in rock that could shift and open a wound at the surface.

“Excuse us, girls,” Tasha said and the three made way for her and Lizzi to walk on. Tasha could hear the trio behind them now. “Excuse us, girls.” “Excuse us, girls.” “Excuse us, girls.” Tasha held Lizzi’s hand all the way to the bakery, ordered two mugs of hot chocolate and two almond croissants and found the table near the bookshelf where they always sat. “Lizzi,” Tasha said.

“Don’t, Mom.”

“Lizzi, those girls might never be nice to you.”

“I know, Mom. I don’t care.”

Tasha didn’t say anything for a moment. She cared. Those tiny fractures in rock might not open a gaping ravine at the surface. Those tiny fractures might instead compound where no one sees, turn rock to gravel, cause a landslide. Tasha took a sip of hot chocolate. She watched Lizzi bite into the croissant. “Tell me what I can do, love,” Tasha said. Lizzi looked up, powdered sugar on her lip. “This is nice, Mom.” Tasha had another sip of hot chocolate. “This is nice,” she said.

Part One Of Leaving Kuwait: I Tried On Hope And Went To A Job Fair

I tried on hope. I tried on fearless hope. And for a few days I felt like the name-it-claim-it-Oprah’s-secret kind of people might really have something, like the send-it-out-to-the-universe people might be right. I was high on hope. I thought maybe I’d been missing something essential in my faith for decades and now, look, I was unstoppable and sure and able because I wore hope. Not long ago, my friend sent me one of those daily affirmation emails that landed in her inbox. The message was to change your narrative. I’d been thinking about that in light of faith, reminding myself of who I am in Christ. We tell ourselves a lot of stories about what we can or can’t do, about what we should or shouldn’t want. We need to learn true stories.

So I tried on hope. I have this faith that says I can do all things in Christ. I have this faith sewed up with hope and trust. But for years I worked hope in private, praying for healing or joy or contentment in my own body and mind. And when I admitted hope to others, I couched assurance in maybe later or probably not. Like I know it’s a long shot to write a book in Budapest or run a hundred miles or climb Kilimanjaro but I still hope I do.

Maybe I confuse hope and dream. A dream is like spun sugar. Even dark dreams are made of spindly wisps. But hope is a cinder block. Hope has weight and sharp corners. Your arms get tired and scraped carrying hope around. That’s it then. Hope isn’t a fuzzy shawl that imbues you with certainty. Hope is a cinder block that cuts into your palms. True story: hope is hard to carry. I must be doing it wrong.

I want to live in Nairobi. This desire surprised me a year ago. We visited my brother and his family and all I could see was green trees and red clay. My sister-in-law took us to an outdoor market where vendors expected bartering but charged a Western price anyway. I ran the hills each morning, up and down quiet streets lined with gated properties. I found alleyways and narrow paths cutting through fields. When we drove out of Nairobi, I imagined us in our own boxy jeep exploring the plains. I have this spun sugar dream of a linen shirt, kicked off hiking boots and a cold beer. I have this spun sugar dream of running to the edge of quiet and standing very still under sky unrolled by God. I have this spun sugar dream of my kids climbing backyard trees, eating thick skinned fruit.

I made Nairobi tangible. So when Justin and I decided this is our last year in Kuwait, I saw us going to Nairobi. I saw my kids growing up with cousins. I saw weekend morning coffee with a splash of Baileys. I saw Justin biking to work. This is about the time I decided to try on a fanatic brand of hope, making Nairobi something that just had to happen because it had to happen because I was hoping hard enough that this city was our next home. And I thought God had to give me this. I wasn’t asking for France or Argentina. I was asking for a country with fire ants and the nearby threat of al-Shabaab.

We had an opportunity. Our first interview in eight years. Later, I’d think how underwhelming we were, lacking concision and polish. Later, I’d cry because I supposed I’d wanted this place too much.

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A Poem That Waited For Me

Four years ago, I found a blog out of Syria. Citizen journalism, mostly cell phone video and unedited, graphic descriptions of the daily violence parts of the country suffered. For a short while, I checked the blog often. One night I saw a video of a man carrying a girl, looking for help that was clearly beyond reach. I watched the video twice. I felt sick. I cried. Someone knocked on our apartment door and I answered. Our friend Harvey asked what was wrong and I said, Syria. I asked if he ever got caught up with a story like that, sad for a country you’ve never been to, hurt for people you won’t meet. Of course. I can’t remember how he explained the line he draws to keep from feeling consumed by tragedy but it was something like: know what is happening but look away when you need to, live.

Watching clip after clip of rubble streets, dust-covered bodies and women shouting to the sky breaks the heart. I think we need to feel broken for others. Empathy, deep sorrow, births prayer and action, even as we live in safe places. I still follow what is happening in Syria, and once checked to see if that blog was still up. It isn’t. But what I saw then, at the opening of Syria’s war, stays with me as horror that continues.

That clip of the man and girl is a scene I’ve written around before but last week I found a new way into the idea of what that girl’s life might look like now, if. I asked students to write a poem using a pre-Socratic epigraph to open. This is an exercise from The Practice Of Poetry that moves your poem in unexpected directions. A philosophical quote prompts wandering thought. The challenge is to tether your thoughts to images. Some epigraph options include

Actions always planned are never completed.
Democritus

The path up and down is one and the same.
Heraclitus

All things were together. Then mind came and arranged them.
Anaxagoras

I chose

Worlds are altered rather than destroyed.
Democritus

and because my seniors are finishing a unit on satire, I thought about the crass irony of calling a destroyed world altered. Yes, altered. Terribly altered. I thought of Syria, those before and after photos we’ve seen of market halls and streets, showing a world altered. I wrote and revised the following over a few days. I can’t include the epigraph in the final poem. Syria breaks my heart. This girl breaks my heart.


She Might Now

The video is jumpy, drops and whirls like
the men it follows, the men circling
a father carrying his dark-haired daughter
He carries her last minutes in his arms
Her lips move like a fish breathing
Her eyes are open, looking it seems, looking
Her voice does not speak or cry. The only
sounds come from the mouths of men,
noise that needs no translation because
I understand when the father turns
so the camera shows this girl’s dark hair
cut away at the back, a hole the size
of a fist in her skull, pink brain slipping out

When the camera returns to the girl’s face
I wonder does she see anything at all or
is her being now made from the fabric of her
father’s shirt, the smell of midday sun, the
muted waves of men’s voices in an alley,
the whisper of air on her lips as her father
turns and turns looking for someone to
come, take his daughter, make her whole

She would now be twelve or thirteen
She might now tuck her dark hair under
hijab and help her mother in the kitchen,
walk with her brother to a reopened school,
kiss her father’s cheek at his return late
afternoon, before they sit in slanting light
to eat food from chipped plates. She
might write songs with her shiny pink
brain, its delicate stem running nerves the
length of her limbs so she spins, arms
open, turning and turning in the last slip
of light day gives

A 50 Minute Paragraph

About a year and a half ago I drafted a story in three parts about a town somewhere out west. The story came to mind as I read my way through Psalms.

From Psalm 135

15 The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
    the work of human hands.
16 They have mouths, but do not speak;
    they have eyes, but do not see;
17 they have ears, but do not hear,
    nor is there any breath in their mouths.
18 Those who make them become like them,
    so do all who trust in them!

The passage startled me. It’s vivid and frightening. I thought what it might look like if a group of people went mute, deaf, bowed before silver and gold idols. If they became as those chunks of metal, without breath. I wrote the draft quickly. About a year later I workshopped the story with some friends, all of whom wanted the piece to be expanded.

I agreed. And tucked their notes away. I took the notes with me to Budapest this past summer. I flipped through the pages, thinking how to revise. But I didn’t write. I didn’t make any new notes.

I’ve had this story in my head since I first drafted it. I can see the landscape. The faces of the Edges. I want to get it right and I know any revision risks getting it only almost right. (Like the butterfly Ann Patchett talks about in “The Getaway Car,” the beautiful vision we’ve got for a piece that we pin down on the page at the cost of smudging its wing). Even so, today I sat at the dining table with the notes out again, opened my notebook, and started writing more. One paragraph more. The first wedge of expansion.

The one paragraph felt good to write. Lately I’ve opened my notebook to journal or pray or think in loops but this afternoon it felt good to return to fiction and better to start a revision I’ve put off. At the end, I had a page of writing, most of it with lines drawn through, a single paragraph hidden in the sticks, a single paragraph that opens the way for more paragraphs to tell the better story.


The discovery of gold in surrounding fields.

The gold rush was already five years on. In forty-nine and fifty, a few townsmen cut south to join wagon trains west, sending occasional letters home reporting rain and sun but no news of gold. Most of the men and women in town didn’t have an appetite for gambling on a stream bed. Their great risk taken a few generations before, the very risk that planted them at a yawning canyon, was tempered by a sense of practicality, also traced back a few generations, that supposed the land at the canyon was enough and there was no need to find clearer air than this, or a deeper river or darker soil. Most of the town agreed the sun turning the canyon to gold in late afternoon was rich enough. Before forty-nine, settlers continued to find their way to Canyon Ledge by way of misreading maps, following the wrong river or falling out with wagon masters. Those settlers arrived surprised by the tidy grid of a town, the surveyed acreage. There was no need to push on after a night’s rest. But Californian gold calibrated hearts due west so the town received no more stragglers, no more accidental settlers, so that when Marshall Severson turned up yellow metal with his plow, the only men and women in town were those who could’ve gone on quite happily without the  gold or the ribbons, shoes, pianos, bridles, window panes and pigs it might buy.

I Felt Like My Seniors: Writing A Personal Narrative That Says “Like Me, Choose Me”

English 12 started the school year with the College Essay. The all important personal narrative that matters more now that more college admission boards read applications holistically. When I applied to state university nearly twenty years ago (!) I remember handwriting a couple of paragraphs in pen. I do remember thinking about what I wanted to say first but I don’t remember worrying if those sentences would sell me as a student because I was weirdly unworried about where I went to college, thinking I’d move on to an art and design school later. This passive approach to major life decisions was a pattern I kept through dating, career choice, marriage, jobs and children up until maybe two years ago. It’s mostly worked out. But this year Justin and I are looking for a new country and while I’m not anxious about where we’ll land, I also want to be wise about the search, upping our chances at choosing a place rather than taking what seems the easiest or most practical option.

So as my seniors were thinking how to frame themselves in a single, short narrative, I was also worrying what I look like on paper. I spent a couple of months picking at my resume, counting the many times I opened the document, sighed, and closed it. Then I had to write a bio for the international teaching placement service we’re using. I was in the thick of reading college essay drafts and revisions. During conferences with students, we’d look at whether they were telling a specific story to illustrate their character or ambition. We’d point where to expand, where to cut. We’d commiserate over the difficulty of conclusions. All the while, I penned bio starts in my notebook and thought it was hopeless, I wouldn’t find a way to say to potential employers: This is who I am!

One Friday afternoon the kids were out and I made myself write the bio. A lot of my essays get a first draft like this, the just-write-it-now draft. After I’ve written an idea again and again in my notebook, I surrender it to a typed page, see how I might shape it.

My first draft was long. I had to cut nearly a third of the words. Concision appeals. Having to pare a piece forces precision into your work. I don’t totally like the short version best. However, some of the revised diction and syntax works better. While I posted the short version as my bio, I decided to create a last draft combining my long and short version in a piece I think works well. What is gained or lost in the expansion or cuts?

First, the combination draft at 971 words:

This summer I learned to bake French macarons. I can buy them at a bakery for a half dinar or about two dollars apiece but I wanted to see if I could bake a tray myself. I do this sometimes, pick a pastry and learn how to make it. When we first arrived in Kuwait, I spent a few months perfecting the croissant. For a while I baked our bread. I spent a year playing with chocolate chip cookie recipes until I found one I like enough to use exclusively. And now, the French macaron.

I bought a kitchen scale and weighed one hundred twenty grams of almond flour and two hundred grams unrefined powdered sugar which I then sifted between two bowls half a dozen times. Making macarons is meticulous. Recipes use words like “just” as in, whip the egg whites until they just form a stiff peak, and warn against over folding the almond flour and sugar with the egg. But you don’t know you’ve done it right until the macarons are in the oven forming crinkly feet at their edges. Even then, the shells might be hollow in the center. Macarons are maddening. I’d finish a batch and guess what to change on the next round. I ate a lot of macarons in one month. I sent plates to neighbors. I found my favorite flavors – pistachio, salted caramel, and raspberry. Most of my macarons were imperfect, the rounds a little lopsided, the filling too thick or thin. I had fun though.

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Drive Words Poetry Exercise

This writing exercise comes from Thirteen Ways Of Looking For A Poem by Wendy Bishop.

First, list four or five words for each of the following categories:

Flowers or plants
Metals
Animals
Types of landscape or weather
Parts of the body
Words you simply like the sound of
Colors
Scents

List quickly. Don’t overthink. Then circle five words. Those are your drive words. Now, go to a poem you like and circle five words that seem to resonate with the poet. When I choose drive words from a poem, I look for repetends, strong verbs and imagery.

Write five couplets. Each couplet must contain two drive words, one from your list and one from the other poet’s list. You are going to write a poem you wouldn’t otherwise write. Have fun. Putz around or rip through the couplets.

Like most poetry writing exercises, this doesn’t yield a finished poem. Instead, you’ll find an unexpected place to start with a new image or phrase or narrative.


I assigned this exercise to my creative writing classes last week. It’s an easy prompt to start but difficult to finish because we ask too much of our writing exercises. We don’t want any of the lines to land with a thunk. We want the right phrase on the first try. And exercises like this might take multiple attempts before we manage a so-so finish, which can feel like a waste of time but isn’t a waste at all if your writing expectation is to enjoy putting words on paper.

As an aside, I haven’t posted anything here for a month because we’ve been getting school off the ground, jumping into and out of our weekday routine (a week off for Eid, after two short weeks of school; a three day weekend for Islamic New Year), and I’ve been consumed with writing a bio for our job search (maybe more on the bio later as the process mirrored my seniors’ college application essay writing), and now I finally have a poem to post here and my kids are squabbling from top bunk to bottom bunk about feet and flashlights. So every bit that you just read was interrupted like ninety times. But I’m not quitting. Give me credit for not quitting yet.

Seven or eight notebook pages, mostly crossed-out lines and couplets. My drive words: weeds, silver, hip, field, please. From Wendy Bishop’s “Your Apple Tree”: link, crack, empty, fuel, unwilling.

From the first try, I wrote about my tight hip, an old injury that is healing, slowly. I wanted to write about the year I first noticed my muscles pulling my gait to one side, the sense something was wearing out but I didn’t want to stop long enough to heal because I had to keep running. I’d go out and run and run and run. I still do this, without good reason. Only that when I run, I calm.

But as I wrote through several drafts, I wasn’t sure I’d get to say everything I wanted to say while adhering to the rules. I left the exercise unfinished for a few days. Today I followed the rules.

Of This Hurt

When my hip cracks I see silver go white
I catch my breath, say what I say

when I pray Please […] Amen
This injury links hurt the length of

me: foot ankle shin knee hip neck/
pull strain swell pop break. I empty

my body. For years, unable (unwilling)
to see my heart, I ran a grid of fields –

corn, soybean, weeds – on a fuel of
restless anger. I think that is the cradle

Fluorescent Truth

I just finished week one of a new school year. Everyone is writing. My creative writing students are (re)establishing their writing practice with timed writing and go-to prompts (like I Remember…) but I fit in one exercise with a group.

As You Like It from Room To Write by Bonni Goldberg

Today draw comparisons between two things. Choose at least one from your surroundings. The other can be an object, a person, or an abstract concept like love, jealousy, fate. How many ways can you compare them? Go for at least twenty-five. Stretch yourself.

I looked up at my classroom ceiling. I wasn’t going to compare a ceiling tile to anything. I wrote down Fluorescent Light. Then I cheated a little, thinking of two or three immediate comparisons, and wrote Truth. We gave ourselves fifteen minutes. I got to number five in my list and blanked. It got easier around number fifteen or sixteen, until I got to number twenty-four.

  1. glaring
  2. can be harsh
  3. brings clarity to a situation
  4. not shy
  5. unavoidable
  6. hidden until a switch is thrown
  7. runs on a current
  8. can prompt finding a softer alternative
  9. sometimes unwelcome
  10. long lasting
  11. hums under conversation
  12. made strong through/ by reflection
  13. sees the way flesh goes: cellulite, bruising, pores, lines, veins
  14. can yellow
  15. not always everywhere we go
  16. may cause a headache
  17. wakes you up, ready or not
  18. knows not everyone is a fan
  19. offers no apology or excuse
  20. can change the atmosphere of a room
  21. conserves energy
  22. eliminates shadow
  23. necessary
  24. blinds
  25. restricts what happens next

Try it. Turn it into a poem. Or explore a comparison from your list.