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A Collaborative Comparison

Camilla and Ann collaborated on a comparison of two genres, news reportage and the academic essay. Camilla has expertise as a reporter; Ann’s experience is in literary criticism. We had not thought of the genres as compatible and were surprised at the number of similarities.

Both genres are a form of communication that requires analysis and clarity. In a reporter’s first paragraph, she asks questions such as who (the person of interest); what (the incident or event); when (the date); where (the place); and why (the motive or purpose). In an academic essayist’s introduction, the same questions apply: who (the audience), what (the topic or issue); when (the period, current or historical); where (the setting or scene—politics, the arts, literature); and why (the argument or thesis).

A reporter’s point of view is third person singular and objective, except in an opinion piece, when the reporter uses the first person. In an academic essay, the point of view is generally third person singular (“This aspect of Stafford’s short fiction demonstrates . . .”). The point of view of an academic essay might also be in the first person; addressing the audience in the second person (“When you realize what the story means . . .”) undermines the authority of the author’s voice.

A reporter’s body paragraphs are short and concise, enhancing readability within the restraints of columns. The academic essayist also tries to avoid unnecessary words. In both cases, the body paragraphs relate to each other and carry the momentum forward; in both cases, the analysis for the discussion is based on evidence and identified sources.

Both genres fulfill their initial promises to the audience. A reporter’s conclusion wraps up the story, leaving the reader wanting more information about the topic—perhaps in tomorrow’s paper. The essayist slakes the audience’s thirst by rounding out the argument, adding a new insight that suggests the need for further academic discourse on the issue. Writing of any kind is, at its core, clear communication with a reader.


Downtown Gretchen Brown

My friend Gretchen has breast cancer. We play tennis doubles together on satiny red-clay court at a quirky tennis club in Orange, New Jersey. Clay is the surface aging tennis players seek out as their knees, hips and backs begin to give out. When we play, Gretchen is the strategist and I’m the runner. Asthma, her constant companion, often jumps over the net to play for the other team. We do pretty well together—the runner and the strategist—often times beating our opponents because of their predictable assumptions about how we’ll play. I learned tennis late, mostly at the urging of my husband who grew up playing on beaten-up municipal court that littered his hometown on the Jersey Shore. I learned when my children learned. They were supposed to be the perfect tennis partners he was searching for—but I was the only who stuck it out. Gretchen learned late too, a kind of gift she gave herself later on in life. But she really took to it and plays with a vengeance. She likes to win—and I mean really likes to win.

My friend Gretchen has breast cancer and is black, which is a bad combination. Last month, the American Cancer Society released a study that showed, for the first time, that the incidence of breast cancer in African-American women has increased and is now equal to that of white women. That’s a dubious distinction. A number of factors are at play here, from an increase in the obesity rate to having children later in life, or not at all. But it’s more complicated than just that. Another more subtle factor driving these numbers is the disparity in the quality of health care available for black women who may have less access to quality screening and treatment or a less trusting attitude toward the health-care system.

I bring this up because of discussions about race that we have been having on campus in response to this year’s Montclair book, David Margolick’s Elizabeth and Hazel. Sometimes, it’s the more nuanced and subtle aspects of racism that really trip us up as a society. The black deaths at the hands of police in Ferguson or Baltimore or the shootings at Emanuel AME church in Charleston are explosively seminal events and crystallize shocking aspects of a persistent racism. But the more ingrained habits of systemic and institutional racism may be an even greater threat to a larger number of people. These are less obvious aspects of ingrained racial practices, often intertwined with socioeconomic factors. Their symptoms are a series of “lacks” that many white middle-class women rarely think about: the lack of insurance coverage, the lack of access to quality health care, the lack of easily accessed and affordable grocery stores, the lack of available information.

Gretchen’s cancer has spread, so she will be starting chemotherapy soon. I have no doubts that she will be on the courts with us this spring and orchestrating the social life of the club in high spirits. She likes to win.

Please Dunkin Donuts, Just Call My Name!

Just a few days ago, I was partaking in my daily routine of going to Dunkin Donuts before I kick start my day. My headphones were in, I was jamming to Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space,” and the next thing I know the following parody just seemed to transpire….

*Cue Taylor Swift Instrumental*

This is gonna take forever

But it’s the only thing that keeps me sane

As I wait on this enormous line

It begins to rain

And I forgot an umbrella

Which only adds to the morning pains

Maybe I’ll get a donut with my coffee

To help brighten my day


‘Cause I’m hungry and I’m tired

But this line is way too long

Once I get my coffee, I’ll be wired

And nonstop singing this song

I don’t know how much more I can wait

Before I go insane

So please Dunkin Donuts

Just call my name!


Luckily, my name was soon called and I happily went on with my day; all thanks to Taylor and a little caffeine/sugar rush. Now, I have to work on getting this song out of my head…again. Wish me luck!

Belated October Tribute to Gerald Stern

For this post I wanted to channel one of my earliest poetic influences: Gerald Stern. I have actually seen him do a reading once, but never had the chance to work with (He was at Drew University) or speak with him. What follows is a poem of sorts that deals with what it is to be Gerald Stern (as a poet) and what it is to be a poet writing as Gerald Stern. One thing I think GS is concerned with often is the connections between himself and the creatures of our world. This has all kinds of variations: man’s own creatureness, creatures that are dead, creatures that are undesirable. So as part of my process for writing this Ode to Stern poem, I “remixed” (cut and paste) three of his poems that I felt exemplify one his favorite poetic attitudes. The three poems are “Another Insane Devotion”, “One Bird to Love Forever”, and “I Remember Galileo”, and they can all be found easily at (The remix poem appears after the “Ode.”


Extracting the Sternness


I have told this story over and over,

but it’s not my story. I hold a soft bird

or I let it go; the bird is dead and bursting

with gold. The dead bird is my left eye,

The Sternness is my right eye, a blend

of euphoria, sadness, insanity, stillness.


We meet again and again. We never meet,

never shake hands, only hold our own shaking

hands, or this death or that flight or a jaw,

this mandible, to keep it from articulating

and drowning out The Sternness, the sound

of the soul, of the traffic, of the stillness.


I follow you to the street, to the place

where I already was, but we know this

now. We know this, we know these hands

in the dirt. It’s harder to recognize them

against the sky. The Heavens speak so

loudly sometimes. No, always. We agree


on nothing but the worth of our hands

in the dirt. Our wrists make sense against

the ground, against the scrape of rock,

the shrink and push of a worm, the soft

humming beneath us. These tuning forks

can be musical when our jaws are shut.


The Remix Poem

I have told this story over and over:

a squirrel caught crossing route 80;

one of the tiny cats of Rome; the desert sparrow,

sweetest thing to ever live. I loved the sight of it

sticking to a tree or jumping. Paper will do in theory,

I remember Galileo as a piece of paper, I remember

because some things root in the mind: his boldness,

his lowness, his soft little nest underneath the chin.

I think it’s my own dumb boyhood, walking around,

the speed of the squirrel. I remember his lowness

to the ground, his great purpose. How crazy it sounds.

His face twisting with cunning. The wind blowing

through his hair. His jaw working. When it flies it rises,

and when it flies, and when it sits. The softness of birds;

his clawed feet spread; I watched him with pleasure,

his whole soul quivering. I cannot sit back in a metal chair

and study shadows. I need a squirrel, one bird to love forever.

I still am puzzled by the connections, my yellow teeth ground

to dust.

Collaboblog Riddles

For our November blog, Norman and I are collaboblog buddies, and we are creating and solving writing riddles. Feel free to add your own riddles.

Here’s my first one: What piece of writing can one never finish? And… go!

What’s in a Sentence?

What’s in a Sentence?

Ann McKinstry Micou

Writers of academic prose are absorbed with sculpting the architecture of their first paragraphs, building up to their assertions—their central claims—that will become the focus, the purpose, and the promise of their essays.

What about novelists? For them, their most drastic and daring step is to conceive and write the first sentence of the narrative. What clues does the first sentence reveal about the tone, the point of view, and the direction of the work? Let’s take a look at the first lines of five famous novels.

The first three examples are written in the first person singular. In the first two, teen-aged narrators address their audience in the second person, “you,” and establish their right to the vernacular, with words like “ain’t” and “crap.”

Mark Twain begins The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1994), “You don’t know me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.” Twain quickly makes friends with the readers by reminding them of his previous popular book and promising them another nonconformist, sketchily educated, and deeply engaging young hero.

J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) starts, “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” Salinger gives away a lot in this sentence: his young protagonist wants to tell the readers his story (whom he also addresses in the second person), while the author wants them to know that Holden Caulfield is sensitive, depressed, and, like Huck, a renegade.

The third first-person narrative, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915), begins, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” The narrator here is more mysterious than the two teenagers. He is not young, because he is looking back at his life; he is not the protagonist but describes an acquaintance or friend. The readers’ suspicions are aroused: if the narrator is reporting secondhand about someone else’s life, can they trust him to be reliable in his telling of the tale?

In the next two examples, the point of view is omniscient: the author does not participate as a character in the story but observes and comments from on high, looking into the minds and emotions of the characters. These two narrators have wide experience with the vagaries of the human spirit from which they have extrapolated certain “truths.”

Jane Austen’s first line in Pride and Prejudice (1813) is, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in position of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” The author reveals her tone—satirical and snobbish—and promises a social comedy with moral underpinnings.

Leo Tolstoy’s first line in Anna Karenina (1877) is, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” With this axiom, Tolstoy signals that he has set his sights on a tragedy.

“What’s in a name?” asks Juliet. Similarly, we ask, “What’s in a first sentence?” As readers of novels, we find intimations in first sentences about the tone, the point of view, and the direction of the narrative.


Midterm Woes

I got midterms, gotta a lot of midterms
Gotta a lot professors tryna drain me of my sleep, you heard
They tryna take time from a girl
Messin’ with my life and pray for your girl

I got friends in my life sayin’ come out and play
Can’t, my girls, I say, I got no time today
I got arguments to develop and study guides to prepare.
I got research to do and Google docs to share.
I got essays to write, twenty-two pages in total
I got chapters to read, I can’t wait til it’s over
I got 8 o’clock classes and I gotta be on
But I’m starin’ at the clock, thinkin’ I’d rather be gone

I got midterms, gotta a lot of midterms.
Gotta a lot professors tryna drain me of my sleep, you heard
They tryna take time from a girl
Messin’ with my life and pray for your girl

I got two pages of a paper that I gotta chuck
I gotta switch topics now, wish me all the luck.
I bought Ben and Jerry’s, I bought chips and guac
I keep buying food cuz I’m stressed, runnin’ out of luck
I got three pages to go and havin’ trouble with my Wi-Fi
So how can I meet my deadline
And still have enough time
To proofread every line
I’ll pray that it works out for me
I got a computer screen that I can barely see
Been starin’ for so long, it’s all blurry to me
I keep thinkin’ about the time, the time when I’ll be free
I think I’ll sleep ‘til twelve, then go on a shopping spree
Bout to conk out, but there’s too much in front of me
I gotta keep focus and let it will be
Well we’ll see if I make it, yeah we gon’ see.

I got midterms, gotta a lot of midterms
Gotta a lot professors tryna drain me of my sleep, you heard
They tryna take time from a girl
Messin’ with my life and pray for your girl

10:22 marks the time that I finished
Ya’ll the file is sent, now it’s time to relinquish
All the stress I feel, ya’ll it’s time for my reward
I got a pint of Americone Dream, not Rocky Road
I only got the best, all the rest can go

I’m tryna tell ya, I had midterms, had a lot of midterms
Had a lot professors who drained me of my sleep, you heard
They took time from this girl
Messed with my life and prayed for this girl

Run up

I had midterms, had a lot of midterms
Had a lot professors who drained me of my sleep, you heard
They took time from this girl
Messed with my life and prayed for this girl

“She makes the sign of a teaspoon, he makes the sign of a wave…”

“People say she’s crazy

she got diamonds on the soles of her shoes

well, that’s one way to lose these walking blues

diamonds on the soles of her shoes…” – Paul Simon, “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”

I’ve been thinking lately about the ways that we define wealth. About grad school, happiness, karma. The usual.

I think that I’m really rich.

It wasn’t always this way. I’ve been poor, too.

But now I see the ways that I’m rich. Which makes me rich. It’s the kind of thing that manifests itself when you learn to recognize it.

I’m not talking about “poor” like when I was a housekeeper, pumped gas and bartended, etc. (who hasn’t done these things?!). Or even when I spent all my money on things that were stupid (rare when you don’t have a lot, but it happens).

And I’m not talking about “rich” like Uncle Scrooge who used to dive into his vault of coins in the beginning of “Duck Tales” (wouldn’t that hurt?). Or driving an expensive car and having expendable income for whatever it is that people who have expendable income buy.

What I mean is the kind of wealth that money can’t buy: a trite subject, yes, but worth pause at this time of year, or any other. It’s easy to complain right now. Summer is over, school has begun, assignments are overflowing and mini breakdowns occur each time a syllabus is received. Commutes suck, traffic sucks, parking sucks. You’re tired, you’re hangry, there just isn’t enough tiiimmmee, pressure cooker status.

But what’s good? What, or who, makes you smile at the end of a long day?

I’m rich, because I can answer that question with a lot of things and people. But there’s also things like cocooning in my bed after I just washed the sheets, made it, and tucked the corners tight (just so I can ruin it). Or eating peanut butter out of the jar. Or bonfires in the Fall. Or not wearing shoes. But I’ve also been thinking about the friends I’ve added to my life in the past year. The ways we’ve benefited each other.

We add to each others pockets. The pockets that you can’t see. Words of encouragement rather than authority, intelligence without superiority, advice without condescension. Laughter. So much laughter.

Speaking of laughter, someone told me recently that I seem confident and collected. Like I belong wherever I am. That was a mindblower. I don’t often feel this way. Being a person given to (what some might say is) excessive self-reflection and who often lives in my mind, which is a place that any meteorologist would say is completely uninhabitable for humans, it was amazing to me that anyone could ever have this perception of me. But then once I stopped laughing, I thought about it, and I think I understand why:

“Wherever you are, be the soul of that place.” (I don’t remember who said this)

I can be loud, obnoxious, inappropriate, over-analytical, neurotic, morose, cantankerous, immature, temper tantrumy, impatient, generally Type A, and sarcastic. I’m sure I’m missing some (this very post could demonstrate that I’m self-absorbed at times), but I’m aware of these qualities. Which is more than a lot of people can say. And which makes it less likely to bother me when I’m called out on any of it: I’m workin on it, we all are, get over it. Alternatively, because I am aware of these qualities, I make an effort to always be kind, positive, empathetic, and to make people laugh as often as possible. That does not mean that I always succeed. Notice that these good qualities do not outnumber the bad, but that the good ones are pretty freakin good and therefore, I hope, hold more weight. Many of the people I’ve met in the past year have few if any yucky qualities, and instead are super smart, hilarious, fun, humble, gracious, dedicated and sweet. How wealthy am I for the fact of their being?!

If I did not have these crappy and good qualities, I would not have soul. I am all soul, and that’s just too damn much for some humans. I’ve made peace with that. I’d rather be the soul of any place than its flesh, its face, or its fist. And maybe that’s where this comment came from (which I still don’t really believe, but can still meditate on). Some of the things I’ve experienced in life, like watching my healthy, strong uncle, who I was very close to, pass away from cancer, have made me realize how short life is, and what’s really important. It’s not superficiality. It’s not money. It’s not taking delight in making people feel like crap, marginalizing them, or giving anyone a reason to be upset. It’s not finding new ways to be passive aggressive. It’s not lording knowledge over them or being so full of pride that you can’t see their essence. It’s actually not most of the things you’ll worry about on any given day. It’s making them laugh. It’s helping one another. It’s a hug, or a compliment that is genuine because you don’t have any other setting. It’s trying to leave people happier than you found them. It’s not just filling your own pockets, but filling as many others as possible. It’s wearing diamonds on the soles of your shoes (that’s where they go), and leaving nothing but light behind you.

It’s wealth.

Spread it.

“And she said honey, take me dancing

but they ended up sleeping in a doorway

by the bodegas and the lights on Upper Broadway

Wearing diamonds on the soles of their shoes.”

Yielding the Right of Way

“Run for the rose, get caught on the briar

You’re warming to love, next thing, there’s a fire
You got the do re, I got the mi
And I got the notion, we’re all at sea
Yes, we’re all at sea

Run, run, run for the roses
Quicker it opens, the sooner it closes
Man, oh, man, oh, friend of mine
All good things in all good time”   – Jerry Garcia, Run for the Roses

I attempted to look for a job over the summer, contemplated going back to bartending, and then decided that two months of work was less important than doing what I did, which was spending time with my son. We celebrated both of our birthdays (mine in June, his in July). We hung out in bed and watched “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” ate pancakes, went on mini adventures to waterparks and on little hikes, played video games, played with cars and Legos, watched movies and made dinner together (he likes to add the seasonings and mix things). We danced to music, went to the train museum and visited grandparents, did a sunflower maze (he was line leader and didn’t let me forget it), went down the shore and felt the waves, and ate lots of ice cream and peanut butter cups. He will only be four once, and I am happy to have spent my summer just the way I did. My son, and spending time being his mom, is more important to me than the few paychecks I would have earned or the objects they would have bought me.

I also caught up with grad school friends, more than just the angsty, exhausted conversations and texts we usually share. It was actual quality time, like human beings who are friends spend together. This time with them reinforced that a) I love them, and b) I have no idea how the hell I would get through any of this if not for their presence and friendship. They are a family that you have known for a year that, due to circumstance, you have really known for approximately ten years. You don’t have to ask, or even think, “Are we here yet? Can I go there?” because you are and you have.

And now I’m back to the first few weeks of school. Back to the existential questioning of who am I? What am I doing? What is this life? What level of Car Parc is my car on (it’s always wrong – go back to the stairs) or where in that vast wonderland that is lots 45 and 60 is my car? When will I eat an actual meal? The questions will pass and become the norm. Especially around the time of final papers, I will morph into animal zombie machine hybrid and most likely stay that way through the spring when writing my thesis. I just finished about 100 pages of reading (approximately 500 pages are due this week between my three classes) and I feel like [insert metaphor here I can’t even think of one]. I’m excited too, and I’m eager to be challenged or else why would I be here?

I’m also adjusting to the commute again. I live in the far far away, about 45 minutes to an hour from campus, depending on traffic, road closures or construction, weather etc. You never really adjust to a commute, though. You just bury the anger deep within your soul, or write a blog post about it.

Accordingly, I’ve created 13 basic rules of the road that also apply to writing. Feel free to add your own! I’m also guilty of using a lot of “bad” words during all of these 13 driving and writing occasions, but then as my man George Carlin (RIP) said, there are no bad words only bad thoughts and intentions. Writing rules are in italics.

1. You don’t own an 18 wheeler. Therefore, when you make a turn, there is absolutely zero reason for you to swing your vehicle out before you turn. This applies even if you have a ridiculously large SUV like a Tahoe or something for your one child and her toys. Don’t ruminate, run right at the thing.

2. When other vehicles are exiting a store or other establishment’s parking lot and attempting to get on the road, do not stop a long line of traffic to allow them to exit. Especially, do not do this suddenly, or when there is a red light that just turned green. This is a very good way to cause an accident. You think you’re being nice, everyone else thinks you’re an idiot. Including the person in the car that you just allowed to go. Don’t open Netflix, YouTube, or 10 other tabs while working on a writing assignment. You think it’s a few minutes but it’s not. Next thing you know you watched an entire season of something and it’s 2 a.m. and nothing has been written.

3. Similarly, stop hitting your brakes when someone is exiting a parking lot because you *think* they *might* pull out. Again, good way to cause an accident: your hesitation will make them think that you’re allowing them to go, which….see rule 2. Don’t hesitate to just WRITE. Stop hitting the brakes waiting for inspiration or the perfect word/sentence and just get it out.

4. Stop putting your makeup on in your car. Just stop. Unless your boyfriend/boss/coworkers/friends/whoever are going to teleport to hang out with you in your car, while you’re driving, right now, do it when you get to wherever you’re going. Or just like, don’t wear any and don’t sweat it that much, because you’re pretty, babe.  Don’t cover up your voice because you think it should sound a certain way. Audience is important, of course, but it shouldn’t preoccupy your mind over all other concerns. Because I like your voice, babe.

5. The fast lane. It’s for people who are going fast. In New Jersey, that means pretty damn fast. If you look in your rearview mirror and you see that there are at least two cars behind you, following very closely, MOOOOVE OOOVVVVER. This applies even if you have a Lexus, or some sort of expensive red convertible because you’re having a midlife crisis. People will begin passing you on the right. This is not what the right lanes are for. More potential for accidents.  If you’re having trouble, walk away for a while. Move your mind over. Switch gears. And come to the CWE!

6. Those who drive motorcycles: stop zigzagging between cars. I almost hit one of you two days ago because I changed lanes and you magically appeared behind me right as I did, and consequently you almost came through my rear windshield. If you had, I would have kicked you out of my backseat and berated you for being so stupid. Assuming you didn’t badly injure yourself.  One thing at a time. If it works for you to be thinking about your conclusion before you write your introduction, then write your conclusion. If you want to get right to the meat of your paper, go for it. But once you commit, commit: don’t zigzag around your paper and make more work for yourself.

7. If your exhaust is louder than my music, which is usually pretty loud, your exhaust is too loud. Turn down the noise. Stop thinking about what your prof/sister/girlfriend/parents would say or think and think about what it is that you’d want to hear in your paper. Don’t allow judgment: turn those voices down. 

8. Look for a parking spot AFTER you get off the road. Looking for a parking spot when your car isn’t totally off the road yet is just so amazingly self-absorbed that I can’t comprehend it. Stop looking at the page length, formatting, and other requirements and allowing it to dominate your mind. Go with the flow: you aren’t even writing yet. You’ll get there.

9. Signal before you turn. I have no idea why you’re slowing down and I’m seeing brake lights when the speed limit says 50. Which is awesome because a few miles ago, you had your turn signal on for like a solid three minutes of driving straight.  If you’re having trouble, tell someone. Go to your professor. Come to the CWE. Don’t think you can figure it out on your own, (but also don’t rely on others to figure everything out for you). Blend confidence and humility.

10. When I’m getting on the highway, and you’re in the rightmost lane, and you see me getting on the highway with my turn signal on, and you see me increasing my speed, and the next lane over is totally free of cars, think you could maybe move over? That’d be cool. I’m just merging, no big deal. Give yourself space, mental and physical. Set aside time, expect that you will encounter things that won’t move over.

11. Speaking of merging, why is this concept sooooo difficult?! Just merge! You’re overthinking it, man! It doesn’t matter if you get one car length ahead! It doesn’t matter who goes first! This isn’t a car line that leads to free food or money! This is business, people. You’ll have friends that miraculously can write a page the night before and get an A. This won’t always be the case. Remember that writing, like a lot of things in life, isn’t a competition with others, it’s a competition with yourself.

12. If you walk in front of my car, as many a meme has demonstrated via Samuel L. Jackson, I want to see heel toe action, knees to chest. Move it. As much as it may be tempting to go to a party the night before a paper is due, or do a favor for a friend, or work an extra shift when your paper is not written yet, you’ve gotta resist. Learn to say no sometimes and be comfortable with that.

13. Drive past accidents. Just drive past them. “Oh but I just want to see” NOPE you don’t, you don’t need to, you can keep going and you will still be whole even though you didn’t see what was happening. If you hit some writing congestion, move past it. Have a short memory when it comes to supposed “mistakes” – you’ll see it was all part of getting to your destination.


Thanks for reading. I’m gonna go back to page 156 of Great Expectations now.

Just kidding, I’m gonna go watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and not drive my car (or write) for the rest of the day.

Baby you can drive my car, and baby I love you. Beep beep, beep beep yeah.

Fighting Bad Reading Habits: My Never Ending Story

book coverSomewhere in the annals of my brain there exists a 1980s movie archive. And in that archive there is a relatively well-kept record of a movie about a boy who reads a magical library book. This is not to be confused with my 1990s movie archive record about a boy who befriends three library books. In the 80s movie, Bastian reads a story that he eventually realizes he must fully participate in. In other words, unless he admits the power he holds as a reader of the NeverEnding Story, the world within that story will be destroyed. Like a good Hollywood storyline, it takes almost the whole movie for Bastian to figure it out. Once he fully participates in the story, he is able to transform from the passive reader to the active participant. He then helps to rebuild the world of the story just as he imagined it.

            As a writer, I sometimes (often) struggle to participate in the reading that I know I will have to write about later. Like Bastian, I find myself moving through the novel/article/essay/memoir a bit passively. Maybe I am expecting the text to tell me what to think.

As we advance through our higher education, the onus becomes more and more on the student to interact with, and react to, a text in more complex ways. During my undergraduate studies, I was forced (against my best efforts) to find ways to participate in my reading more actively in order to facilitate my writing. I’ll start by telling you about the (several) bad reading habits I developed, and what that meant for my writing:


  1. Reading something only once
  2. Waiting until I was done reading before writing anything down
  3. NOT making notes in the text (marginalia, highlighting key quotes/passages, dog-earing, sticky notes, etc.)
  4. Being too comfortable while reading
  5. Reading without breaks


All of these reading habits (or lack thereof) often amounted to writing that was impressionistic. Don’t get me wrong. I wrote a great impression, but it is difficult (and also oxymoronic) to create impressions that have depth, precision, and specificity. I also found that I struggled getting through longer texts without falling asleep or losing focus (interest). This made it difficult to retain what I had read and to get the reading done in time to write a thoughtful response. In order to improve my writing, I knew I needed to participate in my reading in more productive ways.

Essentially, I started by self-diagnosing. Some of it was easy. For instance, I never really developed any serious note-taking skills in undergraduate studies, so it was easy to take note (pun!) of how that might help me. I didn’t like the idea of interrupting my engagement with a new text by making a note every few sentences, so I started reading things at least twice. I’d give it that initial read-through so that I could just wrap my head around it, and then I’d go through again with my fine-tooth comb. I would type up any interesting or difficult passages in a Word document and write mini-responses or just some basic instructions to myself about how a specific passage or idea might help me construct a response. The second read-through helped me respond more immediately, and also allowed the text to sink in a little deeper.

Once I was comfortable typing notes, I eventually expanded my strategy and started marking up the text itself.

[The disclaimer here is if you don’t own the text or it’s not your photocopy, marking it up is essentially destruction of property.]

notes imageOf course, marking up a text can include digital markup. I’ve taken advantage of Adobe’s highlight/comment tools if I have a PDF version, and there are dozens and dozens of apps that will allow you to annotate digital documents. Of course, if you’re stuck with a print version you don’t own, you can always go for sticky notes. I’ve even gone as far as color coding my sticky notes based on specific characters in a novel. So by engaging with the text more actively, I was able to locate and discuss specific areas of the text. Taking good notes can also help to jumpstart that first paragraph because you already have some material to work with.

            The last two bad habits may just be my own personal issues, but just in case you too suffer from nodding off and zoning out while reading complex/longer texts…

When I suddenly couldn’t get through a 10-page article without falling asleep, I figured it was time to change things. I also had some lengthy novels (Dickens…) to get through in the span of a week. It’s hard to settle in for a good long read without making yourself overly comfortable. Maybe you start by sitting up with your feet on the ground, but then you lean back and find something to prop your feet on. The next thing you know, the couch pillows have all huddled around you and a blanket has crept up your lap all the way to your chin. The couch monster has consumed you. You eventually come to with a book dangling from your hand, and you may or may not have lost your page. But you’ve certainly lost your motivation.

sleepy bastianIn other cases you may just find your mind wandering at every little turn of events. You have to reread the same paragraph for the tenth time, and you can’t really remember what happened the chapter before. In both cases, you need to get in motion and get a little less comfortable.

If I find myself getting cozy the moment I sit down, I make sure to escort the pillows and blankets from the premises. Sometimes I’ll situate myself at the kitchen table, or somewhere where it’s more difficult to lounge. If I find that my mind is wandering or I am just robotically reading the words on the page, I’ll take a walk or do light exercise to give my eyes and mind a little rest. There’s nothing productive or particularly useful about plowing through a text just so you can say you read it. It’s not likely to help you in a class discussion, and passive reading will likely give rise to poor writing.

I don’t really remember the sequel to “The NeverEnding Story” because, let’s be honest, it was probably terrible. But the point of using this old movie reference was to let you know that as a writer, it is an ongoing battle to bring your active reading skills to the text each and every time. We are not always able to read longer texts twice, and sometimes we over-notate texts on a first read. As a general rule, giving yourself the best opportunity to read well and read actively can not only improve the precision and depth of your content but facilitate the process of getting started.

If you do it right, reading will feel kind of like flying through the city streets on your luck dragon, chasing down bullies.

bastian and falcor