writing from the themes of my life

Origami swan on deck

I‘ve mentioned that I tend to bog myself down in perfectionism. And by that I don’t mean that I suffer from being too perfect – haha, no. I mean that I suffer from being too worried about the little things, and from being too hard on myself when I fail to attain some idealized conception of what each little thing ought to look like. Being overly conscious of the details is a double edged sword: sometimes it produces great results; other times it leads to paralysis. The bad news is that I still find myself paralyzed too often. The good news is that I was recently able to use this one of my character flaws as theme fodder for an exemplar I wrote to share with students as they worked on a mini-book writing project. Continue reading

feeling xtranormal


When I was newly married and my wife and I were “making” our first home, she was doing most of the making and I was doing most of the homing – partly because I’m a guy dropping the ball and blaming it on being a guy (my guilty conscience wishes to interject here that I do help with laundry, vacuuming, dishes and so on; but, alas, my wife Julie does more than her fair share; God bless her and help me!), but also because of a video game popular at that time, some sixteen years ago, a game which held me in its clutches and sucked the free time right out of me. X-Com: UFO Defense, it was. Many still call it one of the greatest video games of all time. But that is not the point. The point is that I played the game relentlessly, found myself enthralled and addicted, wasted a couple dozen hours per week trying to save fictional people from fictional monstrous invading alien forces, neglected my wife in the process, and finally, none too soon, gave up on the game, realizing with stuporous slowness that one devoted wife is worth more than all of the imaginary universes in the… well, universe. (Notice the theme here: Love Conquers All!) Continue reading


i want you to write about… theme

Good writing is difficult for many reasons. Let me count the ways.

1. For the most part, there’s no “one right way,” no universal standards of quality. Even the laws of grammar are forever in flux, subject to the influence of what’s currently popular in literature, in traditional media and even in social media. Sure, experience has taught us many principles that form the basis of what we now judge to be effective writing. Yet, sadly, none of us will ever earn a congratulations-you-have-arrived-at-100-per-cent-writing-proficiency badge. Language is flexible. That is its beauty, its majesty, its mystery. And its bane. In other words, writing is not math.

2. It requires endless decision making. Just when you’ve decided upon what to write, you need to decide upon which related ideas to mention. Just when you’ve decided how to begin a sentence with the PERFECT word, and what length the sentence should be, and whether its subject should come early on or later, and whether to append clauses and phrases for greater complexity, and which word will receive pride of place at the caboose, for maximum punch; just then you must do it all over again for the next sentence, only this time bearing in mind that the the new sentence must complement and/or provide contrast to the previous one. And when you’ve pinned down the JUST-RIGHT word over here, you need to pluck a new unbeatable choice over there. Paragraphs must work together. Redundancy must be weeded out. Ideas must echo and support one another. Structure must be established and maintained. And so on, and so forth, ad nauseum.

3. It reflects the writer’s soul. Because writing is an art, the web of words woven by the writer ensnares something of his or her essence. This opens a writer to judgment in a very personal way. When the relationship between writer and reader is good, there is a profound intimacy. Which is why we curl up with a good book. Which is why I feel like Stephen King and Kazuo Ishiguro and Suzanne Collins are three of my closest pals. The flip side of this dynamic is the possibility of being exposed shamefully to the world. No one wants to be rejected. But writing requires rejection. At least, sharing writing does. And, except when to clarify one’s own thinking, writing is pointless if not shared eventually. So the eighth grade students in my classes must risk rejection nearly every school day, every time I ask them to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Welcome to Literacy!

4. It requires deeply analytical thinking. Obviously, right?

And that brings me to the subject of theme, the focus of my recent lessons.

Think for a moment about the original Toy Story. Continue reading


sink or zen: finding my stride in the classroom of life

When you’re weary, feeling small, when tears are in your eyes… I will tell you:

Loosen up.

And you will tell me just where I can shove it. Or maybe you’ll smack me upside the head. Because being told to loosen up is like being told not to think of a pink elephant: both directives are bound to backfire.

Yet I shall risk the shoving and smacking and tell you what I’ve learned thus far about the whys and wherefores of loosening up, for teaching has forced me to swim in seas of stress and discover how not to sink.

When I was a first-year teacher, come December I was shocked to find myself on the edge of a nervous breakdown – this despite the fact that I’d heard over and over again how terribly trying any first year in a classroom must inevitably be. But I had never known such stress. In my heyday, four out of five dentists recommended me as laid-back and easy-going (to their patients who chew gum). Even my solo trek halfway around the world to meet and pick up and bring home from Ethiopia the third and fourth additions to our family, aka our oldest and youngest sons – a trip in which I grappled with language barriers, taxis, oppressive poverty, emotional roller coasters, unfamiliar food, unusual schedules, plane ticketing snafus and sudden illness – did not compare to the stress that saddled me in that first year of teaching. Continue reading


mondays kill me but i rise again

A new school year is upon us. For teachers as well as students, new school years can feel a lot like Mondays. And while it’s easy to feel overshadowed by the dark side of a Monday, in reality Mondays are both light and dark. Mondays are double-edged swords.

This week my eleven-year old son discovered on Netflix the old tv show Lost. I know that Lost was an “It” show when it aired from 2004 to 2010, and though it looks well made and I see the appeal of it I’ve only ever watched a few hours’ worth of the first season. My boy, on the other hand, modern as he is, after viewing four of seven episodes in today’s opening salvo declared that he will devour the whole series – all 121 episodes. (Given his track record, I am inclined to believe he will.) Continue reading


i’ll do it my shui

When I first heard of feng shui, I thought the idea was laughable. An ancient Chinese secret says the direction my couch is facing could change my life? That’s a good one. Years later, I can’t say I believe in qi or polarity or the eight trigrams, which are a few things that Wikipedia tells me I know nothing about. And although I still get a kick out of the fact that the term’s pronunciation sounds like something fabricated by Harvard undergrads during their rambling conversations in the course of an all-nighter marathon beer pong tourney : “Oh, yeah, feng is pronounced fung and shui is pronounced shway – I SWEAR,” I am prepared to say of this exotic room layout hocus pocus: umm, maybe… maybe there’s a kernel of truth in it.

You see, I’m old enough now to have lived in enough homes and experienced enough furniture shuffling to know that it feels different to sit on a couch when it’s pointed east than when it’s pointed west. The phenomenon is even more pronounced, for me at least, with the direction of a bed. Maybe it’s my internal compass that senses direction and then somehow influences my thoughts and feelings. Maybe the tug of the earth’s magnetic field affects my moods depending on my alignment to it. Maybe it’s only the change in perspective and the different angles of light. I just don’t know. But the point is that somehow I can tell the difference.

Students can, too. And since my students and I spend hundreds of hours in my classroom each year, I think it’s important to maximize our experience with respect to environment as well as content. Continue reading


make em wait (suspense rule #1)

My oldest son occasionally says: “Want to know the definition of suspense? I’ll tell you tomorrow.”

This joke captures the essence of suspense, which is to ask a question and then… make em wait!

Good stories constantly imply interesting questions. The questions and their answers are like the bread crumbs that lead you into the fairy tale woods. Reading is fun when you know you’re going into the woods AND you know that the author will guide you through its maze-like wonders and terrors skillfully, step by step, bread crumb by tasty bread crumb. You don’t have to worry about getting truly lost. You don’t have to worry about the woods holding nothing of interest. The skilful writer gains your trust with the placing of the bread crumbs. Then you’re along for the ride. And if the answers to the questions are not immediately provided, the ride will be filled with thrills and spills – suspense!


How exactly does a writer do this – make em wait? Continue reading

Photo of A Woman Literally Embraced by Words on a Page

be specific

When I read fiction I like to savor the author’s style (or voice, or way with words). If words are ingredients in a story soup, then specifics are some of the most flavorful spices. Great writers spice things up with bold specifics that grab readers and don’t let them go.

Here are four instructive excerpts, two from Young Adult fiction and two from literary and contemporary genre fiction. Highlighted words are those I’ve marked as notably specific:


1. From Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games:

“I slowly peel and eat a handful of nuts. My last cracker. The groosling neck. That’s good because it takes time to pick clean. Finally, a groosling wing and the bird is history. But it’s a hollow day, and even with all that I start daydreaming about food. Particularly the decadent dishes served in the Capitol. The chicken in creamy orange sauce. The cakes and pudding. Bread with butter. Noodles in green sauce. The lamb and dried plum stew. I suck on a few mint leaves and tell myself to get over it.”

handful – you can picture a handful. It is a specific amount.

A poor choice might have been: “some.” Continue reading