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Commencement Address

Esteemed President. Distinguished Board of Trustees. Revered faculty members. Graduating students. Good morning, everyone.

I am honored to be your commencement speaker today. As to my topic, several temptations assail me. One is to repeat some of the advice that I have heard on these occasions; for example, “Don’t be afraid to take a chance!” “Cherish these surroundings—you will never live anywhere so beautiful again!” “Choose your rut carefully—you will be in it for the next twenty years!”

To avoid these traps, I turn for guidance to a favorite writer, Rose Macaulay; the quotation appears at the end of her novel, The Towers of Trebizond:

“After all, life, for all its agonies of despair and loss and guilt, is exciting and beautiful, amusing and artful and endearing, full of liking and of love, at times a poem and a high adventure, at times noble and at times very gay, and whatever (if anything) is to come after it, we shall not have this life again.”

These lines make me weep every time I read them. I love them because they tell you, better than I can, to treasure every minute of your life, even the bad times, which, I assure you, will be yours, as well as the good ones.

Treasure your life. Don’t waste time on frivolous matters. Work hard. Think deeply. Respect your teachers and your parents. Take time to do generous deeds. Remember that others may be struggling. Be polite. Smile. Take a deep breath. Go for a walk. Do another good deed. Study harder. Fall in love. Tell the truth, especially to yourself.

Once upon a time, I would have said to you, as Tennyson wrote about Ulysses, that your goal should be “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Now I say to you, be compassionate and empathetic. Put down your cell phone and engage the other person:  We are in this life together.

Goodbye, good luck, and, no matter what happens, appreciate your life. Smile.

Sometimes, it’s good to be the Jack

It was pretty common for teenage boys to want to play guitar when I was in high school. From the looks of things, that still holds true. The phenomenon has even breached the gender barriers. For me, however, music was not a super relevant part of my life until a few years after high school, so my teenage interest in the guitar was more motivated by family ties. My father was a pretty accomplished guitarist, albeit as the result of a lifelong hobby and not through a drive to “make it big.” So my interest started as a way to connect with him as I grew into manhood (however I was defining it at the time). But he was kind of an aloof and distant individual, and he seemed to guard his hobbies (carpentry, surfing, guitar playing) pretty fiercely.

Jesus + Patrick Swayze in Point Break + James Taylor = my dad.

 

So, because of his guardedness, my teenage dreams of father-son musical bonding tapered off. But a few years later, the itch to learn came back. At that age, I had been more severely exposed to an array of rock music through various friends, and record stores were still a thing, and making entire albums was still a thing. People cared, man! But my point is mostly that I had started to feel that music was now an integral part of my personal development. So much so that I (apparently) needed to make some of my own. So come my twentieth birthday, I embarked on what would be an epic, twenty minute journey to the local music shop. I walked in, saw a “starter kit” that I could afford, and bought it. Like I said. Epic.

 

serving suggestion

My hands shook with giddiness as I unpackaged my first guitar: picks, tuner, gig bag (for all of my upcoming gigs), beginner lesson book, beginner lesson CD (too fancy), and the first and only acoustic guitar I have ever owned. I bought myself a low-end Fender and never looked back. And while I did not play it ‘til my fingers bled nor was it the Summer of ’69, I did get blisters after about thirty minutes of playing “Frere Jacques.”

 

The guitar is something I won’t master in my lifetime, but I have since played with my father a handful of times. It didn’t forge an inseparable bond between us, but it did give me a rewarding hobby that I am more than happy to share with anyone. It also gave me a different way of interpreting the world. And because this is a writing blog after all, I begin my seamless, almost imperceptible shift toward the writing process.

 

I think too often, we are good at convincing ourselves not to pursue things that will not fulfill a specific goal or immediate need. We are also possibly deterred by virtuosity; meaning someone else’s mastery of a skill can often be intimidating. I don’t LOVE essay writing, but I absolutely appreciate the writing skillset it packages in neat little bundles. The argumentation, the organization, the analysis. Those are all elements that can translate, at least cognitively, across media. Analysis helps me understand which chords/notes/melodies convey a certain kind of “tone” or “voice.” Organization helps give my song form and movement. A few good verses of lyrics can create an argument (a main point, or even just a gripe).

 

I don’t get into every hobby or any new skill thinking I will master it or even that it will precipitate some necessary life change. I do go in looking for connections and looking to adapt my old skills and lessons to the new. The full label for us is “Jack of All Trades, Master of None,” and I don’t find it to be insulting. For me, there is something liberating about being versatile or nimble with my skills. Some areas are more developed than others, but they tend to inform each other rather well. And that tends to diminish my fears of virtuosity, which helps me feel good about new endeavors. Writing, music, life, etc.

Jamming

Jamming

In the 1940s, when I was a young teenager, music was a central part of my life. Our mother, a graduate of the Yale School of Music, supervised the musical productions at the local elementary school and gave her three daughters piano lessons. Our father’s mother was an opera singer (at home, not professionally), and he knew every score by heart. My parents’ 1924 honeymoon was spent in a hotel that featured every afternoon tea dances with a live band. We had a Victrola in our living room, and we danced together after supper.

Our passion was Big Band music. Leaders of this phenomenon, clarinet players like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, were superb musicians, classical as well as jazz, whose bands played swing music, sometimes called “swing jazz.” The notes of a clarinet can soar, floating above or playing off the other instruments. To describe the effect of the clarinet on me is to define happiness: I was transfixed by the sound. The notes are pure, rhythmic, and exciting; most of all, they made me want to dance. Impossible for us to sit still when we listened to swing, we jitterbugged around our old-fashioned living room; in the slang of the period, we cut a rug.

When we went to dances, we were too young to drive and traveled in a pack, rather than pairing off—a parent transported us. Not all of the boys felt the spirit of the music, but some were excellent dancers, and we sought them as partners. A boy once asked me what instrument I wanted to learn to play. I replied, “The clarinet.” I was a skinny girl with long straight blond hair. “Annie,” said the boy. “Have you ever thought what you would look like playing the clarinet?” I was crushed; I remember the exchange exactly, as if it were yesterday.

To use Alan’s word, let me “riff” on clarinet playing as a metaphor for writing an essay of literary criticism. I introduce my topic, the way the clarinet, and others in the group—the bass, the piano, the brass—lay out the melody. I react to the topic with a series of new ideas or motifs, just as the musicians respond to each other by improvising with variations on each theme. We both strive for drama and cohesion. I use commas to indicate pauses; the musicians take a breath. We both use the term “phrase” for verbal or musical units. I use parallel construction; the musicians vamp. I make allusions to my literary heroes; the musicians pay homage to other players with quotes from their work. In the conclusion, I tie my themes together in a cadence, the way the band returns to the melody for the last time.

The Tension Between the Hard and the Soft

Fourteen-year-old me would have told you that I would become a music journalist, writing for either Alternative Press or Rolling Stone. I would go on tour with the hottest bands, review the latest albums, and interview music legends. I would be a household name, respected and sought after. That was my dream, one that I held onto for many years. One that took me to Boston University to pursue a degree in journalism. One that fizzled out shortly thereafter.

There are some careers for which you do not need a degree. Music journalism is one of them. In my four years at Boston University, neither a class nor portion of a class was devoted to music journalism and its principal characteristics. Arts criticism, in general, was rarely spotlighted. Instead, BU was all about the hard news, which is important, informative, and, nine times out of ten, boring – really boring. The likelihood of me writing huge, investigative, Pulitzer Prize-winning stories was small, if not non-existent. Rather I would be writing what I wrote for my classes, stories on zoning elections, budget meetings, and medicaid. Boring, boring, and boring. I like writing more creative pieces on topics that are of interest to me. I like to inject my voice, my style. Hard news does not allow for that; in fact, it strictly forbids it. Two and a half years at BU were spent writing hard news, and by my junior year, my love affair with journalism was over. Or so I thought.

Feature Writing. Magazine Writing. Arts Criticism. These were the courses that reawakened my passion for journalism. I may not have been writing about music, but I was able to pursue topics that were rarely found in the columns of a newspaper. I wrote about the L Street Tavern, a bar in South Boston that was used as a set in the film Good Will Hunting. I wrote about how Facebook walls served as virtual grave sites where the friends and loved ones of those who passed away could visit and pay their respects. I wrote about the rise of film adaptations of literature and questioned whether the film industry was losing its originality. I wrote about the subjects that I cared about and had a blast doing it. It’s difficult for me to write when I’m not invested in what I am writing about. If I don’t care, why should you?

Writes Well with Others, or, Coming to Terms with Words

“Heteroglossia” was a term I had never heard until I reached grad school. I had never heard of Mikhail Bakhtin either. But I wasn’t a stranger to some of the concepts the term engenders. Multiple discourses creating a “complex unity” (see Fig. 1). Things of that nature…

Figure 1. Heteroglossia in motion.

 

I tell you this because, sometimes, I don’t work well with others when it comes to words. I remember one incident in particular when my friend and I were playing guitar together a lot (NOTE: if you’re legit, you call it “jamming”). We had started to discuss the possibility of collaborating on a few songs, but it was clear we were very different lyricists. I strove for concrete imagery, storytelling and wordplay, and he strove for obscurity, free association and stream of consciousness. Needless to say, the “band” broke up before it even began. But that’s neither here nor there. During that brief period of collaboration, my friend and I spent a few weeks in Costa Rica together. We had brought our guitars, and I had brought a small notebook full of various snippets of songs and poems. At one point, I had left the hotel room to explore on my own for a bit. When I came back, I found my friend paging through the notebook, pen in hand. He decided it would be perfectly acceptable to read/edit/revise my writing without asking. He was under the impression that I would be cool with it….

 

It was not perfectly acceptable.

He had the wrong impression.

I was not cool with it.

Basically, this was not my idea of collaboration.

 

In a more recent incident, a friend forwarded me a few pictures of some writing we had done in junior high and shortly after high school (NOTE: This was totally unrelated to any #TBT reference). The first picture was of a set of symbols I had developed for writing notes in code. (Yes, it was awesome. No, you can’t see it. It’s a secret code!)

How to break codes that can’t be broken.

But the second set of pictures was of lyrics that we apparently co-wrote. I found myself struggling to remember ever writing the words or if there was any music attached to them. As I read more carefully, I struggled to imagine myself being okay with the collaboration. I noticed that I had written the original lyrics, and my friend (different from the friend previously mentioned) had basically crossed out some words or phrases to insert her own. In my humble opinion, neither of us were very good, but I also just felt there was a disjointedness to the whole thing. As if (surprise, surprise) two people with diverging aesthetics tried to write a song together. These two incidents were not my only conscious encounters with heteroglossia.

As a Creative Writing major in undergrad, I was privy to all sorts of strange writing prompts that my instructors used to begin workshops. The one that comes to mind now is an exercise where you essentially write the first line of a poem and then pass it to your left. Each writer adds a line to the poem in front of them, then passes it again. This continues until the poem you started returns to you. It’s essentially an amped up version of telephone. But I admit it was pretty exciting to see the results of other writers riffing on your lines.

“My love is like a red, red rose.” Pass it on. “My glove is like a Dead Head rose.” Pass it on. “My dove is like a well fed toad.” Pass it on.

 

When I look back on these various experiences of collaborating on texts, I start to come to terms with heteroglossia as a fundamental part of language use. Really, as a fundamental part of human life. Even if some of my collaborations were utter failures in my own opinion, changing the format and setting had vastly different results for me. Somewhere along the way, I recognized that I could generate my own more private writing as well as contribute to a collaborative linguistic experience. This is what we do when we have conversations, discussions, arguments, dialogues. When we read or write texts, when we engage ourselves with the work or words of another. We use language to co-construct meaning. The words we use are so rarely of our own invention. We are using an inherited script of words and meanings upon which we cross out certain lines and insert our own verses. And the overwriting comes from a multitude of voices, speaking all the time. We are always already collaborating. And that collaboration allows us, and requires us, to represent a community of voices even if we only hear our own when we write something down or speak up.

Flood and ebb currents (February’s blog post washed up)

“Don’t know where I’m going

Don’t know where it’s flowing

But I know it’s finding you” – “Finding You,” The Go-Betweens

I feel most connected by the writing that others feel is connective, if that makes sense. All writing makes us feel connected in some way, but what matters is that we understand that we’re making connections every time we write. Even when we write in journals (which I have done for a long time) we’re connecting to ourselves by emptying our minds and hearts on the page and attempting to (gently) reconcile ourselves with what we find there.

So for me, the writing that makes me feel most connected is (no surprise) lyrics. To me, all of us listen to music, we all find something within the writing that makes us feel whole and usually brings us to a memory of connecting with friends and lovers. Novels can do the same, if they’re done well, but what’s done “well” is pretty subjective (I think) and let’s be honest, a song is a quicker way there (though that doesn’t necessarily mean better all the time). My poetry and any type of creative writing also makes me feel connected. The image of the poet (which is not what I’d call myself, just to be clear) is usually a solitary one and I would agree with that to some degree; however, when and if you choose to share your poetry, it’s extremely connective. Not in a superficial way, but in a way that is very revealing, a window into the person in the same way that dreams might be, and depending on your writing it’s a toss-up whether your poetry or dreams are weirder and more intimate.  There’s social media, too of course, the obvious one, and I think that fosters another, different kind of connection. Arguably less intimate and oftentimes more brave (for good or ill).

And of course, I feel very connected to the writing I see each day that I consult at the CWE. I’m very grateful that writer’s share so many types of writing with me on a weekly basis: it inspires me, piques my curiosity, and often moves me. It can be anything from a study of how the moon affects ocean tides, to a personal story of a challenging experience, to a thesis on poverty among single mothers in the U.S. All of these kinds of writing and more helps me to feel connected because I hear the unique voice within it, not just the words on the paper(s).

That is why it’s so important that we understand that we are making connections each time we write. It’s more than the tediousness we often ascribe to it. When we write, we’re offering our audience a glimpse of ourselves, even if we think that’s ridiculous or we’re not entirely aware of it.  That’s why when we finish a really good book, we feel sad. Or we replay a song ten times. Or revisit terrible poetry we wrote in ninth grade. Or a beautiful or even boring note from someone who has passed. Because it all makes us feel intimately connected to ourselves or someone else. There is no one type of writing that makes me feel more connected than another. The beauty is that it’s a way to connect in a way that we forget holds so much power.

Writing: A Connection to Mind and Soul.

When I think to myself, “what form of writing makes me feel most connected?”—two seemingly polar opposites come to mind: poetry and research. Since elementary school, I have always been very passionate about writing poetry. It has been the one, constant way for me to express my feelings and relationships without any judgment. It is through poetry that I feel most connected with my inner self. Poetry helps me grapple through hard times and celebrate good ones. It brings me to a place of deeper understanding in relation to both myself and the people and the events in my life. Poetry is the connection to my soul.

On the flip side, I share an oddly deep connection to research writing. With research writing, I continuously expand my knowledge and feel connected to what is going on in the external world around me. Research writing is one of my favorite avenues to learning.   Through this type of writing, I feel connected to some of the most groundbreaking ideas, particularly in the field of psychology. It is my own unique way of discovery and growth. Research writing is the connection to my mind.

Digitally Aging

I loved reading Alison’s take on the digital age from her generation’s point of view. Here is a quick overview of my perspective:

I am a child of the Great Depression and the Second World War. When I wrote term papers in college, I used an old-fashioned Smith Corona electric typewriter. I could not move the paragraphs around nor could I fix typos without using tape to erase the errors. A major revision meant retyping the entire paper. When I wanted to look something up, I walked to the library.

Although I am greatly excited by its research potential, digital matters are, for the most part, a mystery to me. I can work happily in Word, but I do not take advantage of the apps on my PC or own a smart phone. I do not text or tweet, although, when I hear the latter word, I think of Duke Ellington’s swinging and singing: “When my sugar walks down the street / all the little birdies go tweet, tweet, tweet.”

I enjoy my email, but I think with nostalgia about the long, handwritten letters I used to send to and receive from my friends—full of news about what we were reading and with whom we were in love. Those confidences about life and shared reactions to books were the medium in which we thrived.

My earliest English-teaching days seem innocent and intimate to me now. We had no video or audio equipment or television in the classroom—just our books. I was raptly absorbed in literature and language. My children (as I thought of them: I was 21 years old) wrote one paragraph in class every day on one aspect of our reading. I explained the active voice, stressed the skill in minimal use of modifiers, and extolled elegance and clarity. I strove for an atmosphere in which we could talk freely about the aspirations, strengths, and weaknesses of our heroes and heroines. Was Dickens’s Sydney Carton a hero? How did Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne withstand her community’s opprobrium? Was Austen’s Fitzwilliam Darcy rude to Elizabeth Bennett? Did Wharton’s Lily Bart intend to kill herself?

Great literature moved us—often to tears; when we read aloud or talked about one of our favorite characters, my children and I were communicating in a deeply personal way. Perhaps I will learn to make more use of digital experiences as I grow up.

Technology is Best Used When it is Used for the Best: Facebook, Digital Academia, and Millennials

In 2011, I completed a master’s thesis on digital literacy, so people might think I am a true advocate for technology, and they would not be wrong. However, I also have my concerns. In 2014, I joined Facebook for the first time and was teased by my friends for being “late to the party.” At this point, even my grandmother had a Facebook profile, lol (yes…I just said lol… pun intended). The reason I hesitated to join the social-networking colossus for so long was, in part, due to paranoia and, in part, having little time for socializing. Since then, I came to love Facebook since it gave me the chance to reconnect with people with whom I lost touch. I even figured out how to tighten my security settings, mitigating my paranoia.

When it comes to social media, however, I argue that Millennials, and now, Generation Zs, sometimes fail to recognize the line between “social” media and online academia. I have seen countless episodes to support my theory, but one example comes to mind: Most of the college students I have worked with over the past few years are truly savvy when it comes to social-media and technology. They use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. to connect with their friends. Some even type entire essays for their classes on their phones instead of a regular computer with a keyboard. Yet, when I have tried to get some my students and/or advisees to complete a task using academic sites such as Blackboard Learn, Canvas, Web Advisor, and even email, they sometimes get lost. Some are great with technology for both school and personal tasks, but many are only savvy when it comes to personal uses. The moral of the story? Technology is best used when it is used for the best. Technology is wonderful, and I just hope the younger generation values it for everything is has to offer… academia included.

A final thought: I’m glad to be a Millennial who has had a broad and rich exposure to social media and the digital age while I’m still young enough to grow with it. I am, however, glad to be an “older Millennial” who is old enough to have used library card catalogs and dial-up Internet in high school. Are these lost arts? I don’t think so. I’m glad to be a member of the digital age!

Creative Nonfiction (Belated February Blog Topic Post: What form of writing makes you feel most connected/disconnected?)

Writing creatively has always come naturally to me. When I was nine-years-old, I declared to the world that I was going to be a writer, and from then on, I wrote short stories, plays, poems, newsletters, etc., every chance I got. It is truly a passion that carried me into adulthood, where I now teach writing. Unfortunately, I cannot truly say that I “made it” as a creative writer—at least not yet; however, through teaching, I did discover a passion for counseling students. The more time I spent in higher education, the more I become drawn to the psychology of writers and students. It is through this experience that I began to combine my passions for creative writing and psychology. I now realize the style of writing I connect with the most is creative nonfiction. I enjoy writing creatively about life: history, politics, art, the human mind, etc. Nothing makes me feel more connected to the human race than telling stories of nonfiction in fun, descriptive, and creative ways. This is something I likely did as a nine-year-old (although I may not have realized it then), and even though I have yet to write the great American non-fiction novel, I am proud to say I figured out a way to not only be the creative writer I always wanted to be but to also discover a new passion for helping people and writing about the happenings of this amazing world!