October 2008

If you don’t know the basics in anything, then you can never grow. You can’t write the next great American novel, if you can’t sustain an audience in a simple five-paragraph essay. It is just that simple. You can’t write well without knowing the “science” behind writing.


For some, they think teaching the five-paragraph essay is a waste of time. I’m not too sure why but I think the argument is teaching the essay format dilutes creativity. Which I feel is utter insanity. I can’t stand when someone feels that in order to be creative you have to go against all the rules. As I see it, being creative means knowing the rules and knowing how to manipulate them to suit your needs.


So, I am going to once again reach into my teaching bag and share with all of you how I taught my students the five-paragraph essay. I would like to toot my own horn here by telling you that when I taught in Philadelphia, I taught in a school that had 9th graders for one year and then they went to a different school for the rest of their time in high school. When my 9th graders wrote essays for other teachers, they always knew my kids because they knew how to write an essay.


I can’t remember how often they wrote essays, but I know that every test I ever gave had an essay portion to it. Let’s say I gave them an essay every two weeks. I also had them write research papers as well. I was such an evil teacher.


The Five-Paragraph Essay:


I always equated writing a five-paragraph essay to making a sandwich. The two pieces of bread are the introduction and the conclusion. They look the same, but have minor changes. The middle three paragraphs are always the “meat” of the sandwich. Let’s go with ham, cheese and lettuce. Each of those could be eaten alone and be perfectly fine, but when placed in order produce a powerfully tasty meal.


After the students get the analogy and (depending on when you are teaching during the day) when they have stopped thinking about the sandwich (which may or may not ever happen), then you can get into the paragraphs and their construction.


We get the brainstorm (I am a big fan of the web) and we find the three supporting details from our brainstorm. Then, we create an outline. Here is where you can get a bit creative. Do you know those cool sentence strips you see the younger grades using? Well, get them. Here is what you do. Somehow get the strips on the board (magnets, masking tape, whatever). When you are making the outline, create the sentences that you will use in the essay and write them on the strips. Now you have a visual representation of how an outline can turn into an essay and it will also save you time because the essay is already written.


Tell the kids that the introduction is a diamond and the conclusion is a pyramid. The diamond is because you start out with a general statement about the topic and then narrow it down to the thesis statement. The pyramid is because you restate the thesis and then expand to a concluding general statement about the topic.


Paragraphs 2,3,and 4 are just the supporting details that help validate the thesis. Just like the meat in a sandwich helps make the bread taste a bit better. 


The concluding paragraph is easy because all that needs to be done is restate the introduction in reverse.


Now, as they start to get the format down, then you can start helping them become more stylistic in their approach to writing the essay. Experiment with sentence structure and vocabulary only after the can demonstrate that they can handle the format. Take it one step at a time and build on top of things. If you throw everything at them at once, then you both are done. They won’t pay attention to you and you will want to throw out your eyes because of all the horrific papers you will be grading.


I taught this in high school to 9th and 10th graders. I don’t think it is ever too soon to start learning this format. Perhaps in middle school you could do a three-paragraph essay (the introduction, conclusion and one supporting paragraph). But by the time they are leaving tenth grade, they should know how to write a well-developed five-paragraph essay.


Also, for compare and contrast essays, you can pick either a four or five paragraph essay. But I will leave that for another time…if you want me to teach you that as well.

I recently met a very feisty woman by the name of Edith. Although we only shared a few words, perhaps a little over a dozen if that, she said something that has been resonating in my mind ever since we spoke.


The discussion was about taking risks and not being afraid. She told me how she has never been one to be scared to “put herself out there” or “make a fool of herself”. Then she said, “it’s just a piece of paper” (referring to a rejection letter). How simple is that statement and yet how spot on.


Why am I afraid to put my stories and essays out there? It is only a piece of paper. They aren’t saying I am not a good enough writer or that I should’ve have quit my day job. All they are saying is that right now, that particular piece isn’t for them. It’s not like they are laughing at me (and even if they are, I won’t hear it, so does it really matter?). It’s just a piece of paper…nothing more.


But in my head, I twist it into so much more. I see it as a failure. Once again, I let everyone including myself down. I freeze because of a rejection letter. I am constantly looking for validation as a writer and that letter says my words are “no good here”.


Sure, it is because I lack self-confidence. But I think it is also because I have fear. This fear flows into all aspects of my life and stops me from doing all kinds of things. The worst part is, I wasn’t always like this. What happened to the girl who used to join every activity in high school regardless of how much her mother didn’t want her to? Where is that girl who sent out her poetry and didn’t care if she got rejected? When did I stop being the girl who took chances?


Here is the answer…I don’t know. As I got older, I just stopped taking chances. I guess I thought I just had to get in line with the rest of the world. Go to school, earn a degree, get a job then die in said job. Along the way get married and have children. Then I will achieve the American dream of the white picket fence and the two-story home. I’ll even bake apple pies and go to yard sales. In the fall, I’ll carve pumpkins and attend the fall festival.


But here’s the thing, I don’t know how to bake apple pies. I want so badly to have that safe plan and be able to just fall in line. However, I keep tripping on my untied shoelaces. People trample over me and no one lends a hand to help me get back in line. I guess I just don’t belong in that line.


Fear keeps me from accepting that it is okay to not be in that line. Fear keeps blocking my eyes from the other line. The one over there, just a bit out of reach. People in that line are laughing and they have papers all over the place. They smile and hug one another warmly. If I just stretch a bit more, I can make it. But that fear keeps my limbs from being loose.


My whole life I thought I only had one chance at being normal. The older I get, the more I see that normal is just a relative term. My normal will never be your normal, and I know, in theory,  that is okay. There is more then one way to be normal, but fear stops us all from seeing that.


However, Edith knows all of that already. She was never one to shy away from a risk. Her normal is the type of normal I want to live in. I want to see a rejection letter not as a testament to being an untalented hack, but as just a piece of paper.


Ps…I am not saying that there is anything wrong with having a life filled with apple pies and festivals. I am learning how to see that things aren’t always what they seem. Also, one day you and I will sit down and I will tell you all about my life. Then you will understand why I needed to hold on to the possibility of achieving that type of the American dream.    

I worried. I fretted. I got an ulcer. All of that stuff happened because I wanted the best piece of writing for the open mic part of the Push to Publish event. Well, I have some good news and some luke-warm news.


First, if you did miss the Push to Publish conference, you missed a really great day. There were so many different types of writers and professionals in the field of writing that it was just an amazing day. I learned so much and talked to a lot of great people. I am really excited about the new connections I made because of this conference and I urge everyone who is interested in writing to go to a writer’s conference. Even though I was there from about 8am to about maybe 7pm, it felt like minutes flew by instead of hours. I can’t say enough about how great this day was and you should be ashamed of yourself for missing it.


But enough about that, let’s discuss the open mic. The day was long and filled with back top back information. So, when five o’clock rolled around and people started heading to the exit with a glazed look in their eyes, I wasn’t annoyed. I was a bit tired as well and I didn’t really do all that much, so I could just imagine how tired and full of information people were from the event. However, some people did stay and I am grateful to them (and I would just like to say hey Marc and your wife, thanks so much for staying…oh wait a minute). I read my story and I didn’t die. I may have rushed the story a bit and maybe I wasn’t loud enough, but still, you have to start somewhere, right?


What I learned from this open mic experience is this: as prepared as you are, you can’t predict the outcome. I read my story and it will be going through another rewrite. I found two things I didn’t like as I was reading it. An open mic is a great way to test your material out. It’s another avenue to see if that joke was funny or if that subplot works or not. People are very supportive at an open mic, so it is comfortable and safe place to try new material out.


I really enjoyed listening to the other people share their work and I was thrilled that they had enough guts to grab the mic and read their creations to an audience. If you are looking for yet another way to improve your written work, I suggest you find the local open mics and grab your own gut.


Sure, no editor came after me when I was done reading and was demanding my story for his or her publication, but I got a chance to read my story and see that it still could use some work. Just like with everything in life, you never know what you will learn from an experience. 

I talk a lot about making connections and never wasting an opportunity. With this blog, I would like to show you that theory in practice and how it paid off.


It all began because I like to google myself. I get bored and I think, maybe I should just make sure my name isn’t someplace it doesn’t belong. So, I just wrote my name in the little google box and waited all of fourteen milliseconds and BAM! My name pops up. Most of the time it was for this blog here. Sometimes it was my book reviews. But then, there was this other blog I was mentioned on. I had to check it out.


When I got there, I started poking around the blog and I saw that there was this other online zine mentioned. Curious by nature, I clicked on the site and I was pretty impressed with what I was seeing and reading. I figured I should just write to these people and see if I could help out in some way. I mean, I have some experience and maybe they could use me.


I introduced myself in an email and sent the links of my work. The next day I was greeted by an email back saying how much they would like to work with me. After doing the high five dance and shaking what my momma gave me at Yoda, I sat down and just smiled. I feel so fortunate that I am going after the thing that I want and it is paying off.


So, my challenge again to you is, do you really want to be a writer? If so, you need to actively go after it. Look online for zines and local publications. See what they require and send your stuff to them. If the magazine or publication is local enough, ask them how you can help them. People do not turn down good free help. You might not be writing right away for them or maybe you won’t ever write for that magazine you are helping. However, it will give you a way into the writing community and it will help you see if this is a place you really want to be in.


We all know that the Push to Publish is just days away. For those of you who will be there, I look forward to meeting you. Also, stop by the Rose & Thorn table during the speed dating round…I will be eagerly waiting to read your material.


Oh and here is there website if you want to take a look: www.theroseandthornezine.com/


I spend a lot of time talking about making sure we understand why we are writing and who are we writing for, but I haven’t really discussed how the same theory can be used when we are reading.


We all read for different reasons. Sometimes we just need a good book to distract us from whatever troubles we have in our lives. Maybe it’s too cold to go outside and there is absolutely nothing on the television, so you want to grab the cat and make her sit in your lap while you read (but if you have a cat like mine, she will eat the book you are trying to read or she will slap her head against yours to let you know that you have to pet her and pet her now). Then there is the reading to learn how to read music or a biography. Lastly, we have the reading because my teacher to me I have to read it.


That is the reading I want to address here in this blog. As a former teacher, I want to let you all in on a little secret. Teachers aren’t making you read something because we are evil; there is something we want you to learn from it. There is always a common thread to what we pick and there is always a purpose (or was that just me). I was always looking for stories that would all relate somehow whether it was characterization, theme, or even plot; the stories connected.


So, when you are faced with a reading assignment for a class, I want to give you some tips to help you read the assignment better.


First, if you have a study guide or questions, read them before you read the text. That way when you find an answer to a question, you can mark it off and this will also keep you focused on the text.


Secondly, make sure you read the headlines. There aren’t written because the author was bored and wanted to fill up space. The headlines are little warning signs to help you know what the next couple of paragraphs are about. Again, this will help you keep your focus because you will know you are reading to learn about whatever the heading told you it would be about.


If you are reading a novel for class, say an English lit class, your teacher definitely picked that book for a reason. Most of the time you will have an assignment for it, so you will know why you are reading it. But, if you aren’t sure then you should ask. If it is something you have to come up on your own, then look at your syllabus and look at the other books you will be reading. Try to find the common thread.


All things are read for a reason. It isn’t because you were told to read it; there is a reason for it. Sometimes I will give people books because I see the main character of that book act just like they do or I think they can learn a lot from the plot. I never give a book just to give it and people don’t read just to look at words on a page.


Everything in life is done for a purpose and reading is no different. If you want to become a better reader, you need to not just focus but focus on your purpose for reading whatever you have to read. We don’t learn because someone told us to, we learn because there is something we need to gain from the lesson. Find your purpose for reading and you will become a better reader. 

About two-thirds of the way through Lucia Orth’s latest novel, Baby Jesus Pawnshop (Permanent Press 2008), protagonist Rue Caldwell experiences an epiphany. As Ferdinand Marcos is being inaugurated to the office of President of the Phillipines, Rue realizes that her position as the wife of an American counter-insurgency specialist renders her a willing conspirator in the political system that is responsible for all of the injustices, economic and otherwise, she has seen throughout her stay in that nation. In the author’s words, Rue “felt a dread, unnameable, that by not objecting, following life lived on an iron track, she was also a part of the farce and the horror.” This sentiment nicely captures the position of Rue throughout the novel and underscores the tension that drives this insightful and intensely humane political thriller forward.

Throughout the novel, Orth demonstrates not just a strong familiarity with early-1980s Phillipine politics, but a solid understanding of the relationship between the members of the rank-and file who live history as it occurs and the larger movements that get recorded in the history books. This gift is especially clear in the novel’s opening pages. As Rue wanders through a marketplace in Manila, she is forced to come to grips with the poverty that surrounds her, and the extent of this poverty comes across almost viscerally when a vendor offers to sell the protagonist an infant described as having “the unhealthy color of raw gray dough.” Juxtaposed against the festivities surrounding the aforementioned inauguration (not to mention the silk scarves and high-heel shoes favored by Imelda Marcos), the poverty that Rue witnesses underscores the absolute injustice of the economic disparity between the haves and have-nots—and, needless to say, serves as a telling explanation for why revolutions occur.

All of this is to simply to say that Baby Jesus Pawnshop is ripe for all manner of Marxist interpretation. Politics aside, it’s also a great read. Orth’s gifts for character and setting are apparent throughout the proceedings, and her political “agenda” (for lack of a better term) never tarnishes the story. Indeed, where a lesser novelist might stoop to the errant didacticism of moral high-handedness, Orth revels in parsing the complexities of ethical gray areas. Overall, a compelling and thought-provoking read.

Okay, I have already discussed my fear of picking the wrong story for the Open Mic portion of the Push to Publish event. There is so much at stake here and I can’t afford to blow yet another opportunity. However, because of all that fear, I am stunning myself into finding a piece. Therefore, I starting thinking objectively about my body of work and I started thinking maybe I should think of it as just another submission to a magazine. So, here is what I think I am going to do with the Open Mic piece and I think that this theory can be applied to anyone looking to pick the right piece to send out to the writing community.


The first thing we all need to do is decide what makes us stand out from the other five hundred pieces of material flooding the inbox of the journal you want to be published in. For me, it is my voice. The way in which I see things and how I tell the reader what I see is what makes me stand out. So, for the Open Mic, I am looking for a piece that has my voice in it. I was first going to use my non-fiction Barbie one, but because I sent that out I felt that maybe I would be jinxing it. Then, I started looking over my writing folder. I wanted to bring in something I talked about in my blogs, so that narrowed my search down to three pieces. Although I have been asking everyone who emails me (including the people who want to sell me Viagra) what I should read, I think the best advice came from someone telling me to take the piece that is the most like me. We all know that I worry about picking a piece that is an overdone story and that fact had me really torn up. However, in the end I am leaning towards choosing a piece that while the main character did try to take her life, the story isn’t about that. It is about how her action caused a different unforeseen reaction in the person she loves the most. Which is basically something we all wrestle with. You know, we do this thing thinking this other thing will happen, but meanwhile something completely out of left field happens instead. So, I am happy with the piece I am thinking about picking and I hope the audience will like it as well.


Now, say you don’t have an Open Mic, but a magazine (or seven) that you want to try in get published in. How do you go about picking the right piece for them? Well, you still have to find the piece that has whatever you think is your gift in it. Once you have that piece, do your research. Find out the: who, what, where, and why of the magazine you are trying to get into. Make sure you follow the guidelines. There is nothing I hate more then someone who can’t follow a simple direction. If they only take submissions twice a year, then don’t send them something when they aren’t looking for submissions. Also, if they have a word count, you need to follow it. As far as I am concerned, you may have written the best story ever, but if you can’t follow rules then I don’t care.


If you pick your best piece and you follow all the rules and guidelines and you still get rejected, don’t take it too much to heart. If they are kind enough to tell you why the piece didn’t make it in, then really constructively look at that information. I think that sometimes people don’t play by the rules in order to give themselves an easy out. Kind of like saying, well they didn’t take my stuff because it was two pages over the limit, not because my piece was bad. Don’t set yourself up to fail. Do you research…look at what does get into the magazine and then make the decision if you think your piece would mesh well in that magazine. The writing world is a hard place, but if you are willing to take chances and work hard, you will get in.

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