On police and privilege

I said a few years back that I was going to tone down my opinions online. I was going to bite my tongue and figure that you can’t change people who are set in their opinions. I was going to stop “inviting” the nasty comments that my posts elicited, the name calling. I was going to not give people a reason to avoid speaking to me, or to look at me and say something about not approaching situations with anger.

But tonight I call bullshit. I might return to my state of relative quiet tomorrow, but tonight, I can’t keep it in anymore.

You see, I’m a writer. Whatever I post on here about wondering if I’m a real writer, I’m someone who believes inherently in the power of words, who believes that the things we say can have just as big an impact as the things we do. Who believes that the often horrible overabundance of information on the Internet is simultaneously its greatest strength. It gives us all a voice, and tonight I’m going to shout out into the cacophony. Maybe my voice will get lost behind the words of people who speak loudly, or with greater vitriol, or maybe behind people who are just generally more well-spoken and charismatic than me. Maybe. But I’m still going to say my piece.

In the last few days I’ve seen too many posts that don’t check their privilege. Many of these posts (or “likes” or comments or whatever) have come from people I care deeply about and have huge amounts of respect for. They’re from people I like, and people that I know I could have rational conversations with about most issues (some, namely abortion, I’ve stopped even trying to reason with people on, which to me is my own failure of words due to fear rather than a triumph of temperance, but I digress).

The posts also come from strangers, or from general acquaintances, and I’m happy to say that the words that make me most angry come from these people. Perhaps because we don’t have the bonds of history, but mostly I think it’s that the people who are cruelest, who are quickest to dismiss the complexities of life are people I’ve chosen not to allow too deeply into mine. These people—and here I’m including that guy whose post about a traffic stop is plastered all over my Facebook today—too often say something along the lines of “nothing bad has happened to me in this situation, so if something bad happened to you, you must have done something to deserve it.”

It’s about respect, that guy says. And sure, I can support treating people with respect, but too often respect is something we tell minorities, women, and other less-powered people to have. And the people we’re telling them to respect: usually the people who are already in power. As if respect is something that certain people deserve more than others, as if a title, or badge, or life status earns it without question. We have a hierarchy of respect in this country—perhaps in this world—assuming that some groups of people have yet to earn it and other groups of people already have, and we make these determinations with the barest of details.

And to be clear, I’m saying this as someone who bends over backwards to be kind to strangers and acquaintances, often to my own detriment. I’ve never sworn at a stranger or been anything even approaching physically violent. I had to put it as a goal on my Day Zero list to stand up for myself to a stranger, and I accomplished that feat exactly once in 1001 days—and how I “accomplished” that was something along the lines of saying, “Hey, now,” to a guy who joked about getting scored on by a girl at soccer. So yeah. Not even sure that counts.

But I am in a position of enormous privilege. Despite being a woman, I have pretty much everything else going for me on the privilege checklist:

  • No one looks at me and assumes I will be a violent person, or that I would be capable of injuring them if I were.
  • I have been loved every single day of my life and have never doubted that I had people to turn to if things got difficult either emotionally or financially.
  • I have always had a stable physical place to call my home and always have been confident where my next meal was coming from.
  • I have never been physically abused by someone who professed to love me.
  • I have always had a vast support system beyond my family.
  • I have never been told I was stupid, that I wouldn’t amount to anything, or that I was going nowhere in life.
  • I grew up around people who imparted to me the value of books, knowledge, and critical thinking and who without thought exposed me to “standard” English, which means that when I do express myself, people (often) listen to what I’m saying rather than how I’m saying it; people do not make negative assumptions about my intelligence based on the way I speak.
  • When I struggled with physical or mental trauma, I had access to a robust team of physicians who did not assume I was lying, acting out for attention, or otherwise incapable of offering valid suggestions for my own care.
  • I look like a normal middle class white girl, which means people don’t tend to automatically assume that I’m lazy, or worthless, or uncultured simply based on the way I look/dress/style my hair.
  • My parents were financially and mentally capable of being constantly present in my life and were able to instill in me what we might consider a traditional set of ethics; their words and their actions matched each other, as did the words and actions of all important adult figures who were present in my young life.

I could go on, but the point here is that I’ve always had a lot going for me. The point here is that there are many stressors I’ve never had to worry about in my life. There are many things I’ve never had to face and many more that I’ve never even considered having to face.

So I don’t care that so many people can’t conceive of a valid reason that might cause someone else to lash out. Because I’m fairly sure that even if I went out tonight and started acting belligerently to a police officer, they would use the most minimal force to restrain me. I’m sure they wouldn’t pull a gun on me.

We all give in to these stereotypes and snap second judgments at times. I’ve done it myself. One of my most shameful memories is of a time I was in a car accident in undergrad. I was rear ended while waiting at a light, and when I got out of the car and saw that there were two other cars involved in the accident—the one behind me driven by a black man and the one behind that driven by a white woman—I automatically assumed that the black man had rear ended me and, as a result, been hit by the white woman, despite the fact that there had been only one moment of impact. When I expressed this point of view to the other female driver (the whole time we were waiting for the police, I sat and spoke with her, but I never approached or said one word to the black man), she asked me if I would lie to the police and say that was what had happened. Only then did I realize that she had been the one at fault, and though I told the truth to the police officers (one impact), I felt guilty for doing so.

I’ve thought about that day a lot over the years. I was startled and shaken, and in that moment I resorted to pure prejudices. I wonder sometimes how the situation might have changed had the races been reversed, had the accident been caused by a black woman and had the other driver been a white man—and I’m sure that in that moment I would have gravitated toward the white man.

Admitting that to myself leaves me so ashamed, but I can’t do anything to change how I acted in the past. Instead what I can do is take compassion and listening and understanding forward with me—things so much more powerful than blind respect. I can try to spot my own privileges, and the moments where those privileges impact how I see the world. I can try to stop thinking about what I would do were I in someone else’s shoes, because the collection of experiences that make me me don’t exist for anyone else, and the things that have had the most powerful impact on me are often the same things that others are missing from their experiences.

I’ve heard that the girl in South Carolina recently entered foster care, and from what I can tell, it’s not due to the death of her parents. Which, hey, I don’t want to say one proves the other, but this certainly suggests that she’s having, or perhaps has always had, a very different situation at home than the one I’ve had, than the one most of my friends, family, and acquaintances have had.

Look. I don’t know what happened in that classroom, but to suggest, as some have, that the girl deserved this because she’s a “brat,” is, to me, a failure of human compassion. It’s a failure to see that there are other ways to look at the world than the one we see first out our own eyes, to acknowledge that other people have different, and sometimes irreparably challenging realities.

As that man’s Facebook post about his traffic stop suggests, we are all culpable, we are all able to make the world a better place, but I contend, and will continue to contend, that the way we do that is by trying to understand with compassion, not by punishing. We do that by wondering, even for a few seconds, what it would be like to live a different reality. We ask what might have pushed someone to such a place rather than crying for their punishment. It means we try to listen to people, especially when our first reaction is to assume they have nothing important to say. And when they don’t speak, we invite them into the conversation and believe what they say, and when they don’t want to speak we let them stay silent.

It means we stop assuming that everyone who carries a badge or wears a uniform automatically always has the best interest of others in mind, stop assuming those people can make no mistakes. It means that we recognize the power for good and evil (for lack of better terms) in all of us.

Maybe that police officer in South Carolina regrets what he did, or maybe the girl does. Maybe one or both of them acted beyond their normal behaviors that day, or maybe one or both of those behaviors is normal for them. I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter.

What I do know is that there are so many people who have it worse than me, who have not had the wonderful combination of privileges that I’ve had. I know that privilege sometimes blinds us. So to all of my friends and family, to all of my acquaintances who want to dismiss the violence of people in power toward people who are distinctly lacking it, I say this:

Taken collectively, these and other issues of police brutality are not about respect. On the whole, this is not about people “asking for it.” It’s about fear of the other, it’s about letting our prejudices—all of us, all of our prejudices—interfere with our decision making skills. It’s about fear and turning fellow human beings into others. And maybe, just maybe, sometimes it’s about preemptive revenge, just in case. There’s a trend occurring about who does the hurting and who’s getting hurt, and pretending that trend doesn’t exist isn’t going to fix anything. Pretending that this country doesn’t have real issues of privilege and discrimination based on that privilege is just going to make it worse.

I don’t know what will help. Not for sure. But maybe it’s time to try looking inward, to see the ways all of us with privilege are responsible for continuing to uphold a system that benefits those on top the most. To think about all the times we hurt those around us by painting the world with a single brush. To look in the mirror and say, “I can do better by my fellow human beings.”

In defense of early Taylor Swift

Taylor_Swift_-_FearlessI remember telling someone once, a few years back, that it was obvious Taylor Swift wrote her own music. “They’re songs about teenage girl problems, and that’s why teenage girls love her so much,” I said—maybe not exactly, but something to that effect. I meant the remark to be scathing, to be a put down, even while admitting freely that I turned up the radio whenever one of her songs came on. It was before I shelled out any money to buy one of Swift’s songs, but even then I knew I sort of liked her. But I sort of hated her, too.

I didn’t really have any reasons for my dislike. The music was catchy, and Swift was clearly someone who understood her business and her audience well. Sure, there were lines and ideas in her songs that drove me up the wall, that made me want to take all those young girls and say, “No. Please don’t be like this.” Whenever “Love Story” came on the radio, for instance, I would start raging about how the time to get engaged was certainly not immediately after you’re having serious relationship doubts—after raging about how Swift really needed to reread some Shakespeare before turning the Romeo and Juliet story into one about love instead of tragedy.

But I digress. The point was, I didn’t want Swift to spend so much time singing about teenage girl problems, because despite the fact that I was no longer a teenage girl, I could relate to those problems a little too much.

And I hated that.

When I first started listening to Swift, I was at a time in my life when I was learning how to be myself and how to love myself. I was learning to find worth from within rather than waiting for someone to give it to me, to attach my self-esteem to who I was rather than to the things I accomplished (or failed to accomplish). In short, I was trying to finally be the type of woman my mother had always wanted me to be: someone who didn’t need a man to feel good about herself, who loved herself rather than waiting around to be loved. But Taylor Swift has always reminded me how much from my past I still carry with me.

First, there is my twelve-year-old self who watched from a distance as the boy she liked dated first one girl and then another but never even spoke to her. Who knew she didn’t really have a chance but who hoped and imagined anyway.

There is the thirteen-year-old who stood rooted to the spot, face crimson, as a group of boys laughed at her for thinking an invitation to the school dance might be something other than a joke.

There is the fifteen-year-old who tried to navigate a friendship and a crush when she and one of her best friends fell for the same boy, a boy who would first choose the friend, then would choose her, but would eventually break up with her while on the phone, putting the receiver in front of a radio while he consulted with his friend about the best way to do it. Who would later tell her that she made it so easy for him to treat her poorly.

There is the seventeen-year-old who declared she didn’t need any boy to feel happy and chose to go to a dance alone rather than with a willing date because she declared it would be more fun. But that same seventeen-year-old would soon panic and meet up with the boy at a laundromat after the dance because she was afraid maybe he’d changed his mind about liking her.

There is the eighteen-year-old who was pressured into intimacy she didn’t want but who didn’t know how else to make sure her boyfriend would continue to like her.

There is the nineteen-year-old who had a breakdown when that same relationship eventually ended, because she couldn’t envision a future without that one boy, even if he had recently told her not to bother coming to see him if she wasn’t going to sleep with him. The nineteen-year-old girl who cried and cried because she believed in only being with one partner and now she was ruined forever.

Then there is the twenty-one-year-old, who fell in love with a new boy—a man—without realizing it, who refused to believe her friends when they told her they thought he loved her, too, and who instead tried to find her worth in the arms of men who would at least pretend to care for her outright.

There is the twenty-two-year-old who learned what true heartbreak really was, and who learned the hard way that opportunities don’t remain for you to pick up whenever you happen to get around to them. That sometimes things go wrong and you are certainly to blame, even if the fault is not yours alone.

There is the twenty-four-year-old who’d found a nice man, but a man who didn’t fully trust her when things went wrong, a man with whom she tried to perfect things and prefect things and perfect things, all the while resenting the role she’d taken on for herself.

There is the twenty-five-year-old who cried when that man finally had to be the one to leave her, and who cried more when she realized she felt as much relief as pain.

There’s the twenty-seven-year-old who went to therapy to ask why she couldn’t get over someone she hadn’t spoken with in five years, why he kept cropping into her dreams even when she did all the things she knew she was supposed to do: deleted his phone number from her phone, unfriended him on Facebook, refused to ever search for him online and see what he was up to, and went about her life.

There’s the twenty-nine-year old who learned that man was getting married. That version of me is one I sort of like, though. She didn’t cry, and she didn’t dwell. She put a smile on her face and realized it wasn’t that much work to keep it there.

There is the thirty-year-old me who decided to start dating again and chose her first date based purely on logic rather than on any emotion. This is the me who realized that you can easily over-correct, and that over-correcting has consequences of its own.

Then there is the me me, the one sitting here now, the one who’s traveled through all those other iterations, too, who carries them with her, more as history now than as baggage but who still feels sad when certain songs come on the radio, who misses so many people, who regrets little but wishes many things had turned out differently all the same. The me who has learned, more or less, to balance happiness with the moments of sadness, who has learned to see sadness as a thing that comes and goes, just like all things.

Today, that girl—that woman—me—decided against contacting someone who is slipping away. Or maybe I’m the one who is slipping away. Or maybe this entire thing is one final attempt to hold on. Maybe the thirty-two-year-old version of me will know which it is, or which it was, but likely it won’t matter, because by then it will be past, another thing written into the annals of my history, to remember and learn from but not to dwell on.

You see, I mostly understand now—or at least I think I do. Things happen, and sometimes they hurt. Sometimes we’re the ones being hurt and other times we’re the ones causing the hurt. Sometimes we are both. When I heard “Back to December” for the first time, I knew that I wasn’t the only one who was trying to understand how hurting and being hurt could be so inexplicably linked. “Back to December” is when I finally, and fully, started to embrace Swift’s music, because like those teenage girls she’d first attracted to her following, I could finally fully and completely relate to the message. Not a past version of me, not a me I was trying to overcome, but the me right there, in that moment.

And that, I realized, is what she’d done for all those teenaged girls before me: she’d understood. In a world where so many roll their eyes at those adolescent hopes and fears, where girls are taught that their feelings are the enemy, that giving into emotion makes them crazy, or unstable, or weak, Taylor Swift said it was okay to love, to hurt, to cry. She said that it was normal to feel pain and fear, that it was okay to love once, then love again. She took those feelings so many of us have had and put them to song, and in the process she let countless girls believe that their feelings mattered. That they mattered.

And for anyone struggling to find their way through this beautiful mess of life and love, that’s a super powerful thing.

An unexpected challenge of calling myself a writer

Writing at the airport, a few months before finding out I'd been accepted to graduate school.

Writing at the airport, a few months before finding out I’d been accepted to graduate school.

When I was younger, writing was easy. I was always naturally talented when it came to putting words on paper (or typing them onto a screen). I didn’t learn how to revise until graduate school, and even then, it was only my creative writing; the critical papers I turned in were always first drafts. It might take me half an hour to write a paragraph, but when I had it, I had it—though it was more usual that I’d write much more quickly.

But before then, before I began my work toward a graduate degree in writing, before I switched to studying a writing-related field in undergrad, writing was just a hobby. One of the reasons I did switch to professional writing in my third year of college was because I spent more time writing then I did studying for my engineering classes. There were no stakes when it came to telling stories like there were when I completed a problem set of studied for an exam, and in the fall of my junior year, I “won” National Novel Writing Month by writing 50,000 words of a novel in thirty days. Despite feeling increasingly lost in my major (I switched from engineering to microbiology, something I’ll never understand since I’d hated the one bio class I’d taken), writing felt increasingly safe and wonderful.

It stayed that way even after I became a professional writing major. I took classes on grammar and editing, on visual rhetoric and web design. I turned in first-draft papers and received 4.0s, even when I wrote them in their entirety the same day they were due. (This is the point where I hope none of my students are reading this….) My creative work was still kept separate. Even when I began applying for MFA programs (and yes, the “revising” I did on my writing sample before sending it off amounted to changing a few words and fixing a few commas), writing remained a place of glorious refuge.

And then I got to graduate school, and suddenly things weren’t so easy. Some of my classmates were so very talented, and for the first time I wondered about my ability to live up to that level of skill. My first short story, one I was really pleased with, was politely but poorly received—I didn’t realize just how poorly until we workshopped my second story and everyone exclaimed how much better it was.

I started sending out work to be published, and like an idiot, I sent my first piece to Tin House. I told myself I wasn’t surprised when I was rejected, but in some ways I was (I was still learning the crazy level of competitiveness at literary journals, especially the ones in the upper tier). I began to wonder why I’d given up my highly lucrative future as an engineer to do something I was only okay at, and because I didn’t know how to revise (that lesson didn’t come until I started working one-on-one with my thesis advisor), I started to lose my nerve. I only wrote when I had to. The rest of the time I was too scared to open up a Word document and see what type of crap I’d spew onto the page. Instead I threw myself into editing—both critiquing my classmates’ work and through my work with Willow Springs. I began to wonder if it had all been some big mistake, if I was a better editor than a writer, and if my professors had been wrong to let me into graduate school. I worried so much about this, in fact, that I called my mother crying a few weeks before my thesis defense and told her I couldn’t do it, that I wasn’t good enough to get the degree. That I passed my defense easily and enjoyably—it’s one of the times I had the most fun in all of my MFA program—only temporarily stilled my worries.

Since then, I’ve had ups and downs with writing. I had my first short story accepted at PANK, one of the journals on my list of dream-journals, and I wrote a handful of book reviews for The Collagist. But I’ve also had frustratingly long droughts during which there weren’t any nibbles, let alone bites. And in these times of rejection rejection rejection, I find myself wondering again: am I good enough? do I have what it takes?

I’m in one of those droughts right now. Aside from a few spurts in December when I was laid out with a broken foot, I haven’t written, revised, or submitted any fiction. I haven’t even opened the files to look at my work. I’m so afraid. So very afraid of what I’ll find. I know I can write stories that are good, but being a good writer isn’t enough for me anymore, and while I know that only practice can take me from good to great, I haven’t yet figured out how to handle all the disappointment that comes with getting better, because you can’t get better without failing. And I don’t know how to fail.

Sometimes I still miss those days when the writing I did came without consequences, when I could write and write and write and still think highly of myself—highly enough that I thought, yeah, I can do this for the rest of my life. There was no risk then, but no reward, either, and I crave that reward more than almost anything else in the world. At some point, I’ll have to decide if my risking my pride and facing my fears is worth having a shot at getting what I want.

No writing tip this week

I’m still fighting off the last vestiges of whatever nasty thing I came down with a few weeks back, and after overdoing it with some physical activity today (soccer game and a run), I’m feeling crappy again. And next Friday I will be at the wedding of one of my best friends, so I’ll be back with writing tips the first week of October.

Stitch Fix #2

September Stitch Fix

I took a picture of all the things from the box that I was going to put here, but it turned out blurry, and since my dog threw up all over my living room in the last few minutes AND gmail stopped downloading new attachments, I’m just going to use this one instead.

I got my second Stitch Fix box today. Technically I asked for it yesterday (my thirtieth birthday), but it came today, which is fine, since I was pretty busy yesterday. Today is the day FedEx estimated it arriving from the beginning, too, so I was prepared for the slight delay.

I made one special request in this box: I wanted a pair of pants that weren’t dark blue denim, since that’s really all I own. Seriously. I have six pairs of jeans, and two are skinnies, but they are all dark-blue denim. I figured it was time to diversify a little bit. My stylist completely delivered by sending me an amazing pair of grey skinnies. In fact, she nailed my style again with this box, and I loved every single thing in it. There were some small problems, but I’ll talk about those below. So without further ado, here’s what I received for my special birthday Stitch Fix. Continue reading “Stitch Fix #2” »

Writing tip of the week: keep your focus

A few more days of headaches and general sickness means I’m a day late on this week’s writing tip.

My first student papers come in this week, and though I haven’t started the grading yet, it seems like a good time to talk about one of the top issues I see with student papers.

First, let me say that I get where this comes from. Students want so much to impress, and they want to be seen as smart and intelligent. They are smart and intelligent. I haven’t yet had a student in my classroom that I don’t think that about, even though they have smarts and intelligences in different areas. It breaks my heart when so many of them tell me that they’re bad writers, that they hate writing. It’s clear that they don’t think they have it in them to be good writers. If there’s one thing I want to change in them, I want to disabuse them of this notion. They might not be superstar writers in every situation, but each student has situations in which they are capable of being superstar writers and communicators.

But back to focus. So many writers—not just student writers—think more is better, but in writing, it’s usually less that’s better. Staying focused on one thing, or a few things, allows you to go deeper into your subject, to explore it in ways that are interesting, that are new, or at least new angles. When writers stay off focus, when they reject depth, they have to go for breadth instead.

The trouble is, when we, as writers, go for breadth, we spread ourselves thin. We don’t go past the surface, which means we don’t move into originality. We don’t move past summary.

Now, on the one hand, that surface information is often essential. We have to start from somewhere, and what good is it to know, to pick a random example from my science days, how electrons affect bonding if we don’t first know what an electron is, or an atom, or a molecule. However, if all of the papers—or talks or whatever—on electron bonding first explained what a molecule was, then an atom, then an electron, readers would get bored pretty fast. Every time a reader picked up a piece on electron bonding, they’d get the same information, over and over, rather than learning about something new. Maybe the end of each of those pieces would do something different, but it’s a lot of breadth—a lot of surface, a lot of repetitive stuff—to get through before getting to the meat of the matter.

Now, we can think about this from a creative writing angle, too. Readers want to get into the complexity of a plot, they want to see the depth of characters. Think about Harry Potter, for instance, with just the surface plot. Where Harry, Ron, and Hermione just go after Voldemort. Where they don’t have deeper interactions with each other, or with any of the other characters. There’s no complexity of character. Harry doesn’t feel mixed feelings about his father, Dumbledore doesn’t end up being more complex, and Neville doesn’t shift from feeling scared and unimportant to brave and full of self-worth. It would be a different kind of series, then, and way shorter. It probably also would be an obscure series, not one beloved by millions. Depth is what makes those stories stand out, what makes them catch our attention, and it’s the same for most types of writing. There are of course some exceptions, but then again, there always are.

Back to school

My how time flies. It seems like only yesterday I was starting summer break, and here we are now, already two (kind of) weeks of fall classes in the history books.

First, a few housekeeping-type things. I’m still working on updates to the new site design, so there may be some changes over the coming weeks/months or (heaven forbid…) some errors and/or bugs. Also, yikes. I missed three weekly writing tips. First because of prep work, then because classes had started and oh my goodness where was all my free time, and then because I had the migraine/tension headache from hell that left me in bed for 56 hours. I won’t go into the gory details, but it was one of the worst experiences of my life. I’m all better now though! Well, mostly. Food and I are still having a bit of a complicated relationship.

By the way, I’m fully aware that two of those things are excuses for not getting my work done, while only one is a reason.

Okay, back to business! Classes started last Wednesday at MSU, which was treated like a Monday, which didn’t matter one bit to me, since my Monday and Wednesday schedule is exactly the same. Apparently for students who have recitations or one-day-a-week classes, though, this is an important distinction. I’m teaching three classes this semester (that’s full time for me), one of which is a totally new class that I spent the summer (and part of the spring) designing, while the other two are repeats for me. Sort of. I wanted to take some time today to introduce you to some of the work I’m doing in those classes, since I’m sure I’ll be talking about them much more at length in the coming weeks.

First-year Writing, Studio Model

The two repeat sections for me are studio-like models of our first-year writing course at MSU. I teach my sections focused on professional literacies, and really try to give the students a lot of hands-on experience and personalized attention. The students spend almost two months of the semester in groups of around six, working on a project for an on-campus clients. They research and analyze both their client and their audience, use their findings to create a piece of publicity for the client, then write a paper arguing why their proposed publicity material is effective and appropriate. During the course, the students learn how to write professional email, how to write resumes and cover letters, how to design a meeting agenda (and run a meeting), how to conduct interviews, how to talk about their professional experiences through narrative, how to work effectively in groups, etc. The goal is for as much of the class as possible to transfer in immediate and obvious ways. I’m teaching one of my sections as a joint section with another professor (so twice the number of students, but twice the number of professors, too), and I’m teaching the other section in a REAL classroom. (Note to self: you need to add code to change the color of links in text.)

Managing Publication Projects, ing Magazine

My brand new class, which is part of the Professional Writing major at MSU, is a section on producing a monthly magazine. We’ve recently begun to focus on moving the students toward experiences in the classroom, and this is one of the ways we’re hoping to accomplish that. The students in my class will work together to curate, write, edit, and design the content for ing, an on-campus arts and culture publication. They will also work to create an institutional memory for the publication, and will research the on-campus audience as well as other similar publications to get a feel for how we can be most effective. Our big projects this semester, in addition to producing the October, November, and December/January issues of the magazine, are a history report, a landscape analysis, an audience analysis, and a distribution report. Like my first-year writing classes, this one also stresses teamwork in many aspects and seeks to show students the ways in which group work is essential in professional editing and publishing spheres.

And that’s it! Or, well, that’s it on paper. In reality, there’s a lot more going on than two short paragraphs of text can really get at, and it’s those as-of-yet untapped spaces that I’ll be exploring more throughout this semester. It should be fun!

writing tip of the week: dialogue tags (part 2)

Wow it’s been a crazy week! My lesson planning is in full swing (looking forward to sharing some of it here, actually), and the first day of classes grows ever closer. Wasn’t it June only yesterday or so?

This week’s writing tip is the second and final part in a discussion on dialogue tags. Last week I talked about not using repetitive tags (tags that do the work the dialogue already did) and trying to avoid writing dialogue that needs to be rescued by tags. This week, though, is about exceptions. Because of course there are exceptions. And I’ve put together a few examples of times I think dialogue tags work well.

For Pacing

I’m starting with this tip for admittedly selfish reasons: I love to use dialogue tags for pacing. I like to pay attention to the rhythm in my prose, and I think dialogue tags can be a good tool for the way it sounds when read aloud. They can also add suspense at times.

Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel are two writers who I think do this extremely well. Check out that first link to hear Richard Ford read three stories by Raymond Carver (so you can hear the pacing) and then look at “Today Will Be a Quiet Day,” by Amy Hempel to see what it looks like on the page, though I think her work sounds awesome read aloud, too.

For Irony or the Unexpected

Sometimes tags are necessary because the dialogue is not being said in the way a reader would expect. Maybe your character is feeling snippish rather than romantic when he says, “I love you,” to his wife, or maybe a character deadpans a joke or fakes indignation. These are instances where a little bit extra in a dialogue tag can expand rather than interfere with meaning.


This one is always a sticking point for me. While I know that genres like romance often use the convention of…shall we say explanatory dialogue tags, I still feel the writing would be stronger without it. Still, who I am to decide the conventions of an entire genre?

Another genre where we see more detailed dialogue tags, specifically ones with adverbs, is children’s writing. Part of a book’s job at that age is to expose children to language, and with a child’s growing understanding of how people say things, adding descriptive adverbs makes a fair bit of sense in terms of helping children expand their vocabluaries. I wrote reading passages for children in grades three through eight for a year, and breaking myself of the habit of simple dialogue tags was very difficult.

So there you have it! My expanded thoughts on dialogue tags with some guidelines on when they can help and when they just interfere. Happy writing!

writing tip of the week: dialogue tags (part 1)

The first spring after I finished grad school I signed up for a creative writing class through MSU’s continuing education program. There was a beginner class and an advanced class, so naturally I enrolled in the advanced one. I didn’t have any delusions that it would be like grad school, but I still had some expectations. But then came the second class period, the one where my professor stopped the workshop to give us a lecture on dialogue tags. I don’t remember how the conversation went exactly, but it was something like this:

HIM: Don’t say “Tom yelled loudly.” That’s weak writing.

ME: *nods along in agreement*

HIM: Instead, find a verb that conveys both the weak verb and the adverb. Try something like “screeched” or “hollered” instead.

I didn’t say anything, having already (politely) offered a counter opinion to a few of my professor’s statements earlier in the class, and I didn’t want to be that girl, but if I had known in advance that this was coming, I would have saved one of my objections for this advice.

Screeched and hollered, you see, are still weak writing in most instances. I’m not even sure they’re an improvement over the verb-adverb combination. The problem, though, isn’t inherently the adverb, or even those words themselves: it’s in the dialogue itself.

Let’s take a look at an example:

“Good idea,” whispered Hermione, clearly pleased that Harry was calming down. “Ron, what are you staring at?”


“Nothing,” said Ron, hastily looking away from the bar, but Harry knew he was trying to catch the eye of the curvy and attractive barmaid, Madam Rosmerta, for whom he had long nursed a soft spot.


“I expect ‘nothing’s’ in the back getting more firewhiskey,” said Hermione waspishly.

-Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

This example takes us back to the adverb problem—and if you’ve been writing seriously and engaging with other writers for even a minimal amount of time, chances are you’ve heard some form of “adverbs are bad.” I don’t agree with this as a rule (though I do thing a suggestion to be wary of adverbs is a good one), but this quote shows why adverbs aren’t always our friends. Read the above excerpt through once, then read it again, this time leaving off the last word so that the final dialogue tag just reads “said Hermione.” Is there any way you’re going to misinterpret her? Is there anyway you’re going to think she says it kindly, or angrily, or lovingly? We know exactly how Hermione sounds when she says that line, because JKR has written us some fantastic dialogue. The adverb, in this instance, becomes repetitive, and unneeded repetition is, to me, writing that can be stronger.

Now, I used an example with an adverb here, but the same type of repetitive mistake can be used with my professor’s “stronger” verbs. Take the line “‘I love you,’ she said sweetly.” It does the same type of thing. Unneeded repetition, unneeded details.

Unfortunately, the opposite of repetition can also occur when writing. Sometimes the dialogue isn’t strong enough to convey any real emotion and so writers use dialogue tags as a crutch.

My advice thus far has been to keep dialogue tags simple and to not have them either tell or interfere with the story, but the truth is, I do think there’s a use for these types of dialogue tags. I even think there’s a use for tags with adverbs at times, but I’m going to save that for next week’s post.

*Please note that I label these tips and not rules, and even if I had called them rules, I’m a firm believer that sometimes breaking the rules is the best thing for your writing. Writing isn’t about memorizing a set of rules and following them, but I do believe there are certain guidelines that, more often than not, will help writers improve—either by following them or by breaking them intentionally.

Halloween costumes

It’s early August, just over three weeks to the start of classes, classes for which I am not yet ready for. I have approximately a million and twelve things to do, but what am I up to tonight? Looking for a good Halloween costume. Naturally.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Halloween. I loved getting dressed up as a kid, but as I got older, it got harder and harder to find good costumes, and so I attended Halloween festivities less and less often. As an adult, I’ve had exactly four costumes: a sorority girl, a rabbit, a cat, and a unicorn. They were all half-assed costumes, and looking around at what all my peers were wearing made me a little bit ashamed of my last-minute ensembles.

So this year I’m going to start early and try to put together something awesome. Something literary, I think, or maybe just plain geeky (a style I much prefer to sexy). I’d love to go as Red from Once Upon a Time, or Tris from Divergent. Zelda would be pretty sweet, and so would Astrid from How to Train Your Dragon. Only you can’t really buy these costumes premade (at least not for anything I’m willing to pay), which means I’m left to put them together myself. Tris looks the easiest, since there’s no sewing involved (I can sew on a button or stitch up a small tear, but other than that I’m hopeless), but I get the feeling there will be a fair few Tris costumes running around this year. Here’s the complete list of what I’m considering.

What awesome literary and/or geeky costumes have you put together? What are you thinking of doing this year? And where on earth do you get the pieces for your costumes?