writing tip of the week: writing from real life

My last few posts have been (obliquely) on teaching, but I identify first as a writer, and I wanted my new blog post to reflect that aspect of my identity. And so the weekly writing tip was born—though I have to wonder if I can, in good faith, call it weekly before I’ve shown a commitment to that schedule. We’ll see!

This week’s tip was inspired by something I hear frequently—from friends, family, acquaintances, people I met randomly five minutes earlier, etc. It may be a throw away comment from some people, and to others I see how they are trying to establish a connection with me, but it almost always makes me wince inside a little bit.

What happens is this: I’ll be talking with someone, and they’ll tell me a story. Usually it’s a story about something weird that happened, or a story about something sad, or bad. And I’m listening, and I’m interested, and then the person will say this: “I should write a book about that.”

And maybe the person should write a book about it. Goodness knows that a lot of successful nonfiction (and even fiction) has come about in response to events that happened in a person’s life. But what many amateur or aspiring writers fail to realize is that there’s a difference between a good anecdote and a good story. Continue reading “writing tip of the week: writing from real life” »

my first Stitch Fix box

my first Stitch Fix clothing

The clothes from my first Stitch Fix. I also got a purse, but I forgot to pull it out for this, then I was too lazy to reshoot.

Those of you who have known me for a while know that I’ve never had much fashion sense. I’ve always valued comfort over cuteness, and for most of my life you were more likely to find me in jeans (or sweatpants!) and a t-shirt than anything else. But then I started teaching, and I realized I would have to look at least somewhat different than my students. Over the past few years I’ve slowly been upgrading my wardrobe, but I’ve pretty much stayed within my comfort zone. It’s gotten a bit stale, to say the least. It was time to try something new.

I’d been hearing about Stitch Fix for a few months (though apparently I was still way behind the rest of the Internet), and after seeing some friends have positive experiences, I thought I’d give it a try. I figured I didn’t have much to lose.

For those who, like me a few months ago, might be unfamiliar, the basic premise is this: you sign up for Stitch Fix, fill out an extensive style profile, set a date for your box to come, and you wait. While you’re waiting, a stylist goes through your profile (and your Pinterest style board, if you have one) and chooses five articles of clothing and accessories for you, puts together a handy style cheat sheet, and ships it to you. Then you try on the clothes in your own home, pairing them with your own wardrobe to see how they work, and you send back (free of charge) anything you don’t want. They charge you $20 for the box, but if you choose to keep anything, that money goes toward your order. You also give them feedback on what you liked and didn’t, and why you did and did not like those things, and they use that to improve your next fix, if you choose to get one.

My first box came today. I was pretty excited for it, and also a bit nervous, but it turns out I had nothing to be nervous about. My stylist somehow understood the hodgepodge of information I’d given her and knew just what to send me. Some things I loved, some I didn’t. Some thing I would have picked out for myself, and others I would have passed over so far (and, perhaps not-so-strangely, the things I didn’t like were not the things I would have passed over). In the end, though, I can understand why she picked out each piece she did. I’ve never though of myself as having a style, but apparently I do, and she nailed it.

So without further ado, here’s what my stylist sent me, and what I thought of each piece. Continue reading “my first Stitch Fix box” »

back to school shopping

back to school supplies

It’s not much, but it still makes me happy.

We’re less than a month away from the first day of classes at Michigan State, which means I’ve finally had to stop pretending this summer will last forever and start designing syllabi, setting schedules, and planning lessons. I actually find this work enjoyable most of the time, even if I’d rather not be thinking about it quite yet. (Seriously. Didn’t spring semester end approximately two weeks ago?) But my favorite thing about this time of year: I get to buy school supplies.

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for office and desk supplies, and when I was a kid, I loved back to school shopping (but I was also one of those weird kids who got excited for the first day of school, so maybe I’m not completely normal). I loved picking out notebooks and pencils and binders and highlighters. I liked pulling the backing off a pack of pens and lying them out on the table to decide which ones would go to school with me and which would stay home on my desk. I loved color coordinating my notebooks, binders, and folders. My parents tolerated my exuberance, and maybe even encouraged it, by continuing to let me buy new things each year, even after I acquired a large supply of automatic pencil lead and notebooks with only a few used pages. (As an aside, this accumulation came in handy when I was in college.)

Back to school shopping is different for me these days, of course. Unlike K through 12 teachers, I don’t have a classroom to stock or decorate, and my students bring most of what they need. I do have my own office, which is far from common in the world of non-tenure-track faculty, but I don’t keep much stuff there. I do most of my grading at home and on the computer. Even most of my teaching uses digital tools these days. Still, I acquired a few new things.

multicolored pens
I treat myself to new pens before each new year. My freshmen will probably be getting mostly digital feedback from me this year (thank you Google Drive for adding a track-changes-type feature to the already awesome commenting system), but the students in my editing classes still get a lot of hard-copy feedback. I think robust feedback is an important part of my job as a teacher, and I figure if I’m going to do it, I might as well do it with pretty colors of ink.

correction tape
For three years, every time I’ve needed to white something out I’ve had to walk down to the main office and borrow the stuff there. Now I have my own, and as a writing and editing professor who is still human enough to make the occasional mistake, this comes in handy.

While I don’t often have a use for highlighters, when I want one, nothing else makes a good substitute. Plus, they come in pretty colors.

new binders and divider tabs
Though I keep digital copies of the handouts I make, I also like to keep print copies, and I keep a separate binder for each course I teach. This year I’m teaching a brand new course on magazine production (more on that later!), which meant getting two new binders. One will hold assignments and handouts and live in my office, but the other will come to class every day and serve as our production handbook. I’m going to have the students create style guides, process documents, and instruction manuals, among other things. There will be digital copies of all of this, too, of course, but I’ve always found it helpful to have a print resource as well. We’ll see if the students agree.

stickers (not yet acquired)
I still need to buy some stickers. It may sound odd, but two years ago I randomly put some stickers on a short homework assignment from my 300-level class, and when I didn’t do the same on the next assignment, the students complained. So now I try to always keep stickers on hand. I looked for some at Meijer the other day, but I could only find fancy scrapbooking stickers, so I’m still on the hunt for good (but cheap) packs.

Does anyone else get excited for back to school shopping? And, more importantly, does anyone else use silly things like stickers with their adult students? I’ll admit I’ve never tried anything like that with my first-year students because they seem more likely to find it lame.

changes afoot

I have a confession: this blog has never been what I wanted it to be.

I’ve written irregularly, and the sporadic nature of the posts has, understandably, resulted in a low readership. Not seeing brag-worthy numbers in my Google Analytics account made me feel discouraged and resulted in my writing posts even less awesome.

About a year and a half ago I decided it was time to do something to break out of the spiral. The problem, however, was that I wasn’t sure what that something was, and so I let the blog sit, only posting every month or two just to remind people that I was indeed still here.

And then it finally hit: I was trying to do too much. I realized I’d come up with ideas for posts and then never write them because I was sure there was something more interesting, or more blog-worthy. I needed a focus. I’d been toying for a while with the idea of writing a teaching blog, but I didn’t like the idea of limiting myself that much, especially when I still identify as a writer who teaches rather than a teacher who writes.

Can you see where this is going? I can’t believe it took me this long.

My blog, which has only been kathrynhoughton.com up to this point, has now been reborn as read. write. teach. I’ve switched to a new theme, and I finally posted information about my freelance skill set. Next I’ll be tweaking and personalizing the design, and hopefully there will be some new content up before too long as well. I hope the few of you who stayed with me this far will continue to follow me as I transition to an exploration of all things language.

Day Zero: a month without (buying) takeout

I haven’t actually been paying a lot of attention to my Day Zero list since I started it (in December 2012), but after a random series of reminders, I took a look at it again a few weeks ago (I’m really not doing well), and decided it was time to start working toward some things again. And because I don’t believe in easing my way into things, I figured I’d start with one of the harder goals on the list: going a month without buying takeout.

June, I thought, would be a perfect month. I’m not teaching so I have time to cook. My schedule is lax enough that I can easily plan it around meals. Also, June only has 30 days.

Now, when I say takeout, I’m not just talking about Wendy’s (although I do love their french fries and Frosties). No, for me I defined this as any non-service restaurant or establishment where I might buy pre-prepared food in its final state (so things like Meijer rotisserie chickens are still okay). This means no fast food, no delivery (or pickup, I suppose) pizza, no soft pretzels while I’m at the mall, no Panera…

I’ve made a few exceptions, though. I’ll eat the food on the above list if someone else purchases it for me, or if I’m invited out and it would socially unacceptable to sit there looking sad and hungry. Mostly, these exceptions are just so that my already-lacking social life doesn’t die completely during this month. Oh, and I’ve also made an exception for movie theater popcorn because, come on!

To a lot of people maybe this doesn’t seem that hard, but it has been a challenge for me so far (and I’m not even halfway done!). I don’t grab burgers every day, but I eat probably more than my fair share of takeout, and I have a horrible soft spot for Auntie Anne’s Pretzels every time I go to the mall. But I did go through a phase in February and March, when I was moving and traveling, where it seemed that almost every meal was restaurant or takeout, and I swear I’m still feeling the after-effects of that (both health- and money-wise).

So I’m hoping this will inspire me to cook more, and help me get back on the right track health-wise. It might be a bit early, but I’m tentatively calling this goal a success!

Meet Liam

This is Liam

This is Liam. Yes, he does sleep like this sometimes.

As I adopted my puppy three months ago yesterday, this post is long overdue (though not as overdue as the one about my house, which I moved into three months ago yesterday but bought a few weeks prior to that). Yes, I adopted my dog the same day I moved into my house. Within thirty minutes of the movers delivering the final box, I was in the car on my way to Ohio. A little over five hours later I had a puppy and was headed north again. It would have been quite the enjoyable drive, sitting in the back cuddling with a snuggly puppy while my sister drove, but it turned out that stressed, scared, and confused puppies sometimes get motion sickness, and five hours is a long time to spend in a car when one does not feel well (or when one is being puked on).

Liam is not good about respecting people space.

Five-month old Liam was not good about respecting people space. I don’t see this changing any time soon.

Still, Liam adjusted quite quickly to his new life. He eats well, plays well, and is social with all of the dogs and people that he’s met. He’s crate trained and potty trained (except when he drinks the entire water dish at my parents’ house) and is in a basic obedience class. He doesn’t mind car rides now, and he likes all of the attention he gets at the vet, even if he is a little melodramatic about being poked with needles. He’s a little melodramatic about a few things, in fact, though apparently eating staples isn’t one of those things. A few weeks ago he had to go to the emergency vet after eating somewhere between 50 and 100 staples. They gave him lots of attention and lots of food, and he pretty much thought it was the best thing ever. I, on the other hand, was less enthusiastic about the experience.

Other than questionable eating habits, Liam is a joy. He’s fairly calm for a puppy, and, like most puppies, oscillates quickly between playing and napping. He’s almost always in a good mood, and he’s pretty chill about going along with whatever is happening, whether it’s napping right after waking up because I have a migraine or getting snapped at by my parents’ Shiba Inu because she’s convinced everything in that house belongs to her (he’s still convinced she’s a best friend waiting to happen). The one thing he’s really not a fan of is being left alone when I’m nearby. If I go to work and crate him, he has no problem. But if he’s locked out of the dining room while I’m eating dinner with friends, he’ll sit on the other side of the baby gate and give me the worst puppy eyes.

Why yes, he is the most beautiful dog ever. Thanks for asking!

Why yes, he is the most beautiful dog ever. Thanks for asking!

Some Basic info:
Call name: Liam
Breed name: WindnSatin Ultra Violet
Breed: Silken Windhound (sighthound family)
Birth date: October 23, 2013
Littermates: 4 (3 registered)
Coloring: cream with white trim
Current weight: 30ish pounds
Favorite toy: a squeaky basketball
Favorite treat: his nightly dental chew
Loves: all people, all dogs, eating staples, chasing bugs
Hates: that the cats are not best friends with him, turning around on walks and having to walk back the way he came
Top speed: approximately 8 zillion miles per hour
Clumsiness level: 8.5/10; has repeatedly fallen off the bed or couch while sleeping
Shedding level: 1/10; every now and then he loses a hair or two
Noise level: 3.5/10; will bark when he wants to play and is being ignored; squeaks toys like no one’s business
Most embarrassing moment: when his human had to take apart her bed because he was stuck underneath it
Least favorite obedience skill: loose leash walking
Aspirations: to become friends with everyone everywhere, to be allowed to eat off his human’s plate at meal times, to sample every solid object for its nutritional value and/or chewing capacity

More photos after the cut.

Continue reading “Meet Liam” »

Why I’m terrible at writing nonfiction

When I was young—high school, college—my writing came from a place of pain. I thought I was in touch with some larger wisdom when I let the words just come, trying to talk about my pain as if I had felt things no one else had, things no one else could understand. “I have seen too many changes, too many unfortunate circumstances,” I wrote. “I have experienced them.” As if I were the only one.

At the time, some of those things were serious, but most were mundane, and none were unique. Still, writing was how I communicated to the world, since I wasn’t sure how to do it any other way. When I blogged about being depressed, I thought I was being honest; when I poured my heart out to the pages of a secret diary I kept on my hard drive, I thought I had found release. When I wrote an essay about losing a man I’d loved, I called him and asked permission, pretending that I hadn’t written a word yet and that I never would if he said no. I had dreams of getting it published, then of someone stumbling across it and sending it to him, saying, here, Alex, see what you mean to her. But even then I was a fiction writer, shaping my life on the page into something it wasn’t: I was less interested in the truth of any given situation and more focused on trying to create the truth I wanted there to be. I made up for the lies by putting into my nonfiction every detail I could think of, relevant or not, as a way, I suppose, of trying to prove it was real.

I always was a terrible nonfiction writer.

These days the only creative nonfiction I venture into are these blog posts, and I still can’t fully commit, but while in the past I over-shared, giving away details of loss and heartbreak on first dates or even before, these days I protect my own stories. Some days I break down and sow tiny clues (or occasionally large ones), but when people do ask, I tell them it’s nothing. And it is nothing—or at least it’s nothing I can’t get through on my own. I made the switch to fiction long ago, but these days I write about things I dread rather than things I want. Instead of giving my characters the traits I wish I had, I give them the ones I’m afraid I already possess: cowardice, naiveté, greed, fear, selfishness, and, above all, a complete inability to be agents of change in their own lives. In some ways, I’m still looking for myself in every single thing that I write. I just do it with lies rather than with half-truths.

I haven’t written anything serious in a month again. I sat down tonight to start a new story, but after listening to a horribly wonderful sad song on repeat for twenty minutes, I finally had to admit that I had reverted to my old habits, and I simply don’t allow myself to do that anymore. Writing isn’t therapy, after all, and I’ve rejected more than a handful of pieces because the writer’s emotion was too fresh for the writing to do anything other than bleed. I want to write stories that make other people bleed, but if I’m the one feeling the cut, that becomes next to impossible.

I pulled out that essay tonight about the man I once loved. I haven’t looked at it in nearly eight years, and originally I was just looking for humorously bad quotes to include in this post, but then I read through it in an objective way I never could before, and I realized it’s not really that bad. Oh, it’s cringe-worthy at times, and it sacrifices heart for pain, leaving it feeling more like a plea than an essay, but parts of it might be salvageable. Just not as a piece of nonfiction. I need some new story ideas anyway, and as I tell my students, I have an advanced degree in how to lie.

Where I’ve been

I’m teaching a senior portfolio seminar this semester (two sections, actually), and we spend a lot of time talking about crafting your professional identity. It’s work, I tell my students, and they believe me, and hey, I’m right, but I suck at following my own advice.

The trouble is I’ve hardly been writing. I’ve hardly been reading. It’s the end of April and I haven’t posted my year-in-review books post yet because, hey, I don’t have much to say anyway. 2013 marked my worst reading year in a long time—probably since I learned how to read. 2013 was also another year in which I didn’t get any bites on my writing, and I finished the year with one book review published and one personal rejection for my fiction.

There’s no doubt about it: I’m losing steam. It’s no secret that I doubt myself in a lot of ways. I’m so afraid of writing poorly that I don’t write. Which is funny, because I don’t actually have a lot of problems submitting once I do have a piece. But I wrote exactly two new pieces in 2013, and so far I haven’t even started a new piece in 2014. I’m behind in the other literary-related commitments I’ve taken on—so far behind, in fact, that in some ways I’m really having to resist the temptation to just disappear because otherwise it means owning up to how irresponsible I’ve been. Yes, I’m balancing teaching with everything else, but plenty of people have figured out how to make it work for them. And yet.

I stopped setting goals for all of this, because I was getting too frustrated with never meeting them. And yet.

I want to write. I really do. I don’t need to write (and I’m suspicious of anyone who says they do). I even think writing is something I have a talent for, though I’ve learned in these past few years that my talent isn’t as great as I’d thought when I was younger. It’s hard to accept that you might be average. It’s hard to admit that your failures are all your own, with no qualifications or excuses.

I’m not here today to make any promises, to say how often I’m going to write, or blog, or read. I’m not even going to think on those things, because I’m afraid that the only outcome for me is disappointment, and I just can’t take more of the disappointment right now. And yet.

With every word comes the potential to fail. With every word comes the potential to be great.

Another collection of things I’ve been saying about France plus some updates

journal entry, May 24
[My hosts] left for Madrid on Wednesday morning, and the weather has pretty much been awful since then, [but] I have gotten out a bit every day. Three times now I’ve walked to the bakery for croissants, and yesterday I also went to the tabac (for postcards) and got some groceries. I especially like the fresh produce market. Maybe I’d eat more fruits and vegetables if they all looked so good.
*Note: a few days later I had zucchini! Baby steps!

email, June 4
Today I went into Toulouse all by myself! I bought a bus ticket, caught the right bus, made the right transfer at the metro, then explored the city. I got kind of lost a few times, but I was always able to find my way back to somewhere I recognized (even without using my map). I did a lot of walking, and I did some shopping, too. I bought a crepe for lunch (ham and cheese), then I found a cafe where I could sit out in the sun and have some ice cream (raspberry sorbet). I did all my communications (in the stores, getting food) in French, and I only screwed up once. I’m getting much better! Then I walked to the Pont Neuf, found a new metro station, and headed home.

tweets, June 2 through June 5

  • Oh, you know. Just going to throw together a dinner of duck confit and roasted vegetables.
  • Five oz. cans of Coke. Who knew?
  • Even when you primarily speak, read, and think in English, it will get difficult to write in English. Seriously. It took me four tries to spell “passionate” this morning (and two to get it right in this tweet).
  • Today, I heard a word that I didn’t understand. “It’s either ‘salt’ or ‘room,'” I thought. Turns out it was “bowel movement.”
  • Honey as a savory pizza topping. Weird. (I had ham.)

in other news
I’m finding all these wines I just love, and so far I’ve had my dad checking for them at Dusty’s, but they’re so far unable to find distributors in the US. The one I’m drinking tonight was described to me as being halfway between a rosé and a red (it’s a Mauzac). It’s delicious. The wine region I’m right next to (in?) is called Gaillac.

I’ve tried a ton of new foods since being here: scallops, duck, zucchini, couscous, sundried tomatoes, and pine nuts (I think there are a few more that I’m missing…).

Going into Toulouse by myself was a big deal for me yesterday. I’ve never done anything like that before, not even in the US. It was strangely exhilarating, and I came home again feeling as if I could do anything in the world. It was a bit like how I imagine Felix Felicis is. Yes, I’m a Harry Potter nerd even in Europe.

I’ve finally been able to do a bit of writing. I’ve been trying some prompts with a friend, and between that and the ways I’ve been getting out of my shell, I’m finding that I actually do have some things to say again. Right now I’m working on a how to piece, and I’ve gotten some work done on a piece that has the same characters as “The Woman Next Door” (in PANK 7). With any luck, I’ll actually have something to bring to my writing group in a few weeks.

One week left here. Time really does fly.


France: a musical interlude

Nothing much going on in France right now. This is the fourth day in a row it’s been cold, windy, and rainy, which means I’ve spent a large portion of the last few days indoors (my hosts are out of town until tomorrow). I did get venture into Tournefeuille on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday for some croissants, groceries, and postcards, and the weather did clear up enough one evening to let me go on a walk, but mostly I’ve been inside, doing crossword puzzles, reading books, attempting to write, and listening to music.

Every time I travel I make a new traveling playlist. I made this one extra long, because I wanted it to last me through two eight-hour plane rides, two airport layovers, and four weeks of scattered downtime. I didn’t plan on listening to it for almost four days straight, though, and I’m already starting to get sick of some of the songs. Here are seven that I’m not skipping by, however (and apparently they’re all by men):

“Bruised,” by Jack’s Mannequin
I never get sick of this song. It’s actually inspired parts to two very different stories I’ve written (and am still writing, I suppose, since they both need massive revisions still).
Favorite line: “So read your books but stay out late some nights, some nights. And don’t think that you can’t stop by the bar. You haven’t shown your face here since the bad news. Well I’m here ’til close with fingers crossed each night ’cause your place isn’t far. And hours pass.”

“I Will Wait,” by Mumford and Sons
This is a sad song that makes me happy. I know that might not make a lot of sense, but I don’t know how else to say it. I’m not happy because it’s sad…I don’t know how to say it. I learned a long time ago that feeling sad is a part of life, and my ability to feel sadness is, in some ways, a gift. None of this really gets at what I’m trying to say. I’ll work on it.
Favorite line: “Raise my hands, paint my spirit gold. Bow my head, keep my heart slow.”

“Semi-Charmed Life,” by Third Eye Blind
I love pretty much every song by Third Eye Blind (and I put about six or so on this playlist), and this is my favorite song of all time. I love it, and I hate when radio stations take out the middle (the best part!).
Favorite line: “She’s got her jaws now locked down in a smile, but nothing is all right, all right.”

“Hey Ho,” by the Lumineers
It’s been interesting to note that the French seem to love this song just as much as I do. I hear it all the time on the radio, or over the speaker systems in stores.
Favorite line: “I don’t think you’re right for him, think of what it might have been if you took a bus to Chinatown, I’d be standing on Canal and Bowery, and she’d be standing next to me.”

“I’m Still Here,” by Vertical Horizon
My dad introduced me to this song. There’s apparently a really cool guitar thing somewhere in the song that he always points out to me, but I can’t ever hear what he hears. It’s a good thing I love this song so much, or all that backtracking to ask if I can hear it now would have made me crazy.
Favorite line: “The cities grow, the rivers flow. Where you are I never know, but I’m still here. If you were right and I was wrong, why are you the one who’s gone, and I’m still here? The lights go out, the bridges burned. Once you’re gone, you can’t return, but I’m still here. Remember how you used to say I’d be the one to run away? But I’m still here. I’m still here.”

“On the Lie,” by the Goo Goo Dolls
I can’t say why, exactly, I love this song, but I do. I really, really do.
Favorite line: “He said, ‘I’d hang and swap clichés all night, but I’m not in love with you.'”

“Carry On,” by Fun.
I started out really not liking Fun. I can’t stand their “We Are Young” song because, to me, it has too much of a blase approach to domestic violence. “Some Nights” sucked me in, though, and this song won me over.
Favorite line: “‘Cause we are, we are shining stars, we are invincible, we are who we are. On our darkest day, when we’re miles away, sun will come, we will find our way home.”