R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means To Me…

At the school where I teach, which is non-sectarian, our character education mission is guided by four core values: honesty, responsibility, kindness, and respect. While we try to teach and model all four of these all the time, each year the school chooses one core value to highlight with special emphasis. It’s a four-year rotation, and this year the focus is on respect.

Last year, I was awarded what is essentially Teacher of the Year. (It was a glorious shock, let me tell you!) But part of that means that this year, I was invited to speak to the entire community about our core value of focus. Since that’s a big audience — approximately 1700 people — the largest I’ve ever addressed, and my stagefright was intense, I fell back on a skill that comes naturally to me: storytelling.

And since it went well, I’d like to share my remarks with you.

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Good morning. Thank you for inviting me here to speak about our core value of respect. This morning I’d like to tell you all a story.

When I was seven years old, my mother and my grandmother began teaching me how to cook. My grandmother, whom I called Tita because that’s the Arabic word for Grandma, would come over to our house every Saturday, and she and my mother would spend the day making Lebanese food. When I was seven, they decided it was time I start learning how to do it, too. Now, learning to make Lebanese food is not a quick or simple process. There are no written recipes involved, and it takes most of the day; for example, making a batch of pita bread takes about five hours.

And while we made the food, Tita and my mother told me stories. I learned about how our family’s recipes had evolved over the generations, brought from Tripoli and Zouth-n-Kayek, from Bekfiya and Beirut, then to San Antonio and finally to Houston. I learned about the many people in my family who’d made this food before me and what their lives were like. I learned Tita had not had to measure a single ingredient since the age of twelve because she’d made cooking for her large family a big part of her life’s work.

And while I mixed ground lamb and onions and pine nuts to make kibbe, or stuffed grapeleaves and yellow squash with lamb and rice, I learned I was part of a rich and beautiful tradition. In learning to make this food, I came to understand my place in my family, in my culture, and – I thought – in the world.

One Monday morning, I decided to take some of the delicious Lebanese food I’d made to school with me for lunch. At that time, schools didn’t worry about food allergies, so my second-grade classmates and I all traded food in the lunchroom every day. As soon as everyone sat down at a table, the negotiations would begin:

“I’ll trade you a ham-and-cheese for your cupcake.”

“If I give you my Cheetos, can I have half your peanut butter and jelly sandwich?”

Things like that.

Well, I’d packed my Wonder Woman lunchbox that morning with some of my favorite foods, foods I was proud of, that I had made myself while participating in my family’s heritage. I started with the cookies. I asked, “Would anyone like a ma’amoul? No? I also have graybeh.” They looked at me like I was speaking Martian, not Arabic. So I switched to the English names: “How about a date finger?”

There was similar disinterest for my entrée, spinach pies. These are warm hand-held pies made of soft bread and filled with spinach and onions and lemon, and they were my favorite lunch. I’d brought two because I was sure someone else would want one.

Most of the reactions to my lunch ranged from unkindness – my classmates calling my food weird and gross – to polite distaste. They declined to sample any of it, much less trade me their Oreos for it, even though none of them had ever tried these foods before. And I felt torn: on the one hand, it looked like I was going to get to enjoy it all myself without having to share it; on the other hand, my seven-year-old sense of identity had become wrapped up in this food, in the communal process of creating it, and in what it meant to be Lebanese and to be part of my family. This food represented my culture, my accomplishments, and who I was as a person. So when my friends said my lunch was weird and gross, it felt like they were saying I was weird and gross.

Now, I mentioned that some of them were polite. They didn’t insult my lunch, but they didn’t want to try it, either. Politeness looks like respect, but it is not the same as respect. If you look up respect in the dictionary, you’ll see it means “to consider something in high regard.” To respect someone or something means that you think that person or thing is important and has value. If you look up politeness in the dictionary, you’ll find it means “marked by an appearance of deference or courtesy.” Some of my classmates politely declined to share my food, but it felt like they didn’t want to share in my experience, in who I was.

I did have one brave friend who, after she saw me eating my lunch, decided she would try it. She asked me if she could have a graybeh, which is a thick butter-and-sugar cookie with half a walnut embedded in the top, and I gave her one, and she liked it. Then I broke a ma’amoul – which is a sweet crumbly pastry filled with spiced dates and rolled in sugar – and gave her half. She liked that as well. She even had part of a spinach pie and declared it to be “actually pretty good.” She shared her chocolate bar with me, too. That one friend showed me respect by appreciating what I had to offer.

I want to paraphrase something my wise friend Christa Forster once told me, which is that all the things which make up who we are – our memories, our traditions, what we like or value – these things which make us unique and special are all golden. And when we share what matters to us with each other, we share that gold. And when we accept other people with an open mind and an open heart, when we celebrate what makes each other unique and special, we become richer. Just like my friend in second grade who discovered a whole new cuisine she liked eating, when we respect other people by accepting them, we gain a richer understanding and appreciation of them and what they have to offer, and also of the world.

Thank you so much for your attention today. Have a wonderful school year.

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Thanksgiving 2016

Black Friday. Small Business Saturday. Cyber Monday. Giving Tuesday.

Worn-out Wednesday. (Okay, I might have made that one up.)

It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it? Yet sometimes the banality of life’s daily routine can shock us out of our paralysis.

Even in a year which I will be glad to see the end of, I have more than enough to be thankful for, and I am. I hold those things in my heart when I could easily rail against the unfairness of the world, the moral decrepitude of society, the crumbling state of…well, basically lots of things, including our environment, both literal and figurative.

I had been hoping to make this post on Facebook on November 9th:

30 Days of Gratitude: I’m standing here, with my daughter, in a field of broken glass, staring at the beautiful sky. There is no limit.

But that’s not a post I had the opportunity to make, no matter how many days, weeks, months, years I’d been looking forward to its being a reality.

I reminded my students, when they came to me that day seeking guidance, that culture is not always top-down. It also radiates outward from each person’s choices. It rises from the ground up when we lay its foundation through our actions and voices.

Our school adheres to four core values: honesty, respect, responsibility, and kindness. And even when we don’t see these values modeled for us in the public sphere — and oh, my goodness, we don’t see them there nearly enough — we have the ability to be honest and respectful and responsible and kind. We have countless opportunities every day to choose to adhere to those values, and we must.

If we treat others in every daily interaction, be it in person or online, with those four values, and if we do it consistently, then we can and will change the toxic culture around us.

It will radiate outward.

It will rise from the ground up.

It will shatter what holds us down.

To Be a Valuable Critique Partner or Not To Be: Some DOs and DON’Ts of Participating in a Writers’ Group

A critique group should be one of the most valuable tools at a writer’s disposal.

Three members of the Crack of Dawn Writing Group getting together to produce those mss our respective critique groups will lovingly rip to shreds later...
Three members of the Crack of Dawn Writing Group getting together to produce those mss our respective critique groups will lovingly and appropriately rip to glorious shreds later…

Your rough drafts may be totes gorgeous and amazeballs, but believe me, if you haven’t had anyone else who’s knowledgeable about writing and/or your genre take a look at it and give you some honest feedback, your manuscript probably isn’t done. A critique group of writers supporting each other through constructive discussion about what works, and what doesn’t so much work, is worth one’s tender ego being a little bruised now and then after finding out one’s first draft is not the burnished gold one thought it was.

That said, sometimes you might find yourself in a critique group that’s not a good match for you. Sometimes the personal chemistry doesn’t work so well. Sometimes you need to move along and find other writers to work with, and that’s okay, too.

So I’ve decided, after being asked questions about all of this in several interviews over the last year, and after realizing I’ve spent the last twenty years either participating in or leading critique groups, to write a blog post about the dos and don’ts of being in a writers’ group.

In preparing for this post, I asked a lot of other writers, those in my current group and some not, for their ideas about good critique group etiquette and professionalism: what you can do, and what you can avoid, to make your––and everyone else’s––experience more positive and productive. There were a lot of common threads, and many of the items you’ll read on these lists were echoed by several of the contributors.

I’d like to thank Casey Fleming, Christa Forster, David Jón Fuller, Adam Holt, Brenda Leibling-Goldberg, Tyson Morgan, Meredith Moore, Shirley Redwine, Lucie Scott Smith, and LiAnn Yim for their input. And if you, dear reader, have some further suggestions on what a critique group participant should or shouldn’t do, please contribute to the conversation in the comments section below!

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DO…

When it’s your turn to present to the workshop, assuming your group reads the manuscripts ahead of time, DO SEND YOUR WORK OUT TO THE GROUP EARLY so they all have enough time to read it carefully, rather than rushing––or not reading it at all until the night before the meeting. Each group will determine what kind of prep time they need, based on the number of pages each person presents and how many people are sharing their work at each meeting.

Again assuming your group reads manuscripts ahead of time, DO READ EACH MANUSCRIPT BEFORE THE MEETING, more than once if you can. (If you have time, reading it through once and then making notes on your second pass works well.) Have specific notes to give the person. Commit to the time and effort to make a good try. Give it your best effort, even if you don’t love the manuscript.

WILLINGLY ENTER THE CONE OF SILENCE. It’s a hard skill to learn, but it’s so important to keep one’s mouth shut while others talk about your work. LISTEN FIRST and don’t argue with the critics. Wait until they’ve finished, and only then ask questions about the issues they raised. If there is a significant misunderstanding on anyone’s part, it’s better to clear that up before getting into a protracted debate, but there’s also tremendous value in just listening to the effect your writing has on a reader, rather than interjecting partway through and curtailing discussion. Remember that when your work is published and available for a wide audience to read, you won’t be standing over every reader’s shoulder explaining stuff, and you need to see whether your manuscript can stand on its own, whether what you intended to get across on the page actually comes through. Keep quiet until the Redirect, or until the very end.

Alex Haley said, “Find the good and praise it.” DO GIVE NOTES ON WHAT WORKS in the manuscript. People learn better from praise than they do from criticism. Cheering on a great line, a plot twist, or character insight­­––and being able to say why it works––is so meaningful. It’s too easy for writers to feel like our work––particularly our rough drafts––just plain sucks. Getting notes on the parts that don’t work helps, but so does hearing when we’re on the right track. It really helps, in fact, to start your commentary with the praise; if you can start by looking for the good in another writer’s work, it builds trust and helps the writer find a voice and a path. Just picking apart someone’s work mercilessly is counter-productive.

DO STAY ON TOPIC. Keep focused on the writing and feedback. It’s completely normal and acceptable for a writers’ group that’s been working together for a while and that’s built up a solid rapport of mutually respectful, trusting, cordial relationships to be social when they get together, but if you do, keep this part of the meeting confined to the very beginning or very end of the meeting. In my current group, for example, we always eat dinner together when we meet, and we socialize or catch up or chat about writing in general or writing opportunities we’ve come across that we want to share over dinner, and when we’re about done eating, we know it’s time to get down to manuscript business.

BE RESPECTFUL. Keep the writer’s goals in mind, rather than trying to rewrite the manuscript in your own style. Your comments should be about the writer’s goals and about the craft, not about your own tastes or preferences. Focus more on the reaction the manuscript provoked in you, rather than on how you would rewrite it or what the author should have done. Some good advice is to help “make the story more of itself,” which reminds us to examine what the writer wanted to do with the piece––and make recommendations accordingly. (Another way of looking at this is the adage, “It’s not all about you.”)

GO INTO WORKSHOP READY TO HEAR COMMON PLACES OF CONFUSION. Make a list beforehand of what you think could be improved in your draft. Nine times out of ten, good writers already know what’s wrong and just need that list confirmed by other people and re-articulated so they can start to fix it. That process makes the critique feel less personal. In other words, “They’re not tearing my piece apart, they’re helping me see clearly what I already know but am too immersed in the work to approach with clarity.” If you have specific questions you want the group to address, you can do so in Redirect or (if your group allows this) include a short list of questions with your manuscript (if your group reads them ahead of time).

KEEP YOUR OWN COUNSEL. Ignore overly prescriptive advice. Not everyone follows these rules, and it’s important to remember that you’re the one writing this manuscript, not anyone else. If you’re feeling squeamish or discomfited by the critique you’ve received––either because it’s unproductive or because it’s pulling you in numerous different directions––it’s helpful to remember this is your work. Sometimes you need to go with your gut.

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DON’T…

DON’T MONOPOLIZE THE DISCUSSION. Speak your piece concisely and make your point, and then let someone else speak. If you’re in a group where the critics take turns giving their commentary, and you have more to say after everyone else has had a turn, ask if you can add something. If you’re in a group where the conversation flows more like a dialogue, an open discussion, then pay attention to your involvement so that everyone gets a chance to contribute.

DON’T DISPARAGE THE WRITER’S WORK OR GENRE. Use your imagination and allow the author’s work to grow; don’t try to kill it before it blooms. Even if the manuscript isn’t in your genre, don’t treat it like it’s covered in snot. Everyone has different tastes, and if you’re going to work together, you need to respect each other and each other’s work. It may not be to your taste. That’s okay. Rise above your personal preferences and be a professional. Ron Carlson said the workshop participant’s job is to help the writer understand what her piece is trying to do or be and then give some thoughtful encouragement about how to get it there, rather than trying to bend it to the critic’s tastes. To that end, consider Andre Dubus’ essay “Letter to a Writer’s Workshop.” In short, honesty is good––but negativity, just destructive.

DON’T COMPETE. You’re not there to be the best in the group; you’re there to learn from each other. Be open to the idea that you will all learn from each other. If you were the most competent writer in the room, it would be really tough for you to ever get any better at your craft. Plus, competition really inhibits the kind of trusting rapport a group needs to function well.

DON’T SHOVEL ON THE B.S. As one of our contributors said, “I’d rather have someone be brute than dance around the subject.” There’s a difference between honest praise and kissing up, and anyone whose ego is smaller than Texas can recognize it. “Be encouraging at all times” is very important and worthwhile advice, but this doesn’t mean insincere flattery will be helpful in any way. Be diplomatic and kind, but respect your fellow writers enough to be genuine, too.

As one of our contributors advised, “DON’T USE THE F-WORD.” Be diplomatic and respectful in your choice of language. No personal attacks. And if you’re in a situation where someone is launching them at a member of the group, DON’T TOLERATE IT.

DON’T MAKE THE MISTAKE OF THINKING YOUR WRITING IS YOU. It’s something you produce. It’s not personal, nor is it a reflection of your worth as a human being. Keep this in mind because no one is there to judge you. They’re there to improve their work and yours, so don’t be overly offended by criticism or overly enamored with praise of your ramblings. Just listen, learn, improve, and enjoy. Don’t get defensive, or the people critiquing your manuscript will be less likely to give you worthwhile, honest feedback. The important corollary to this, of course, is simple: DON’T MAKE THE MISTAKE OF EQUATING THE WRTER WITH THE MANUSCRIPT. That’s just uncool.

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I (and the other contributors to this piece) hope you find these guidelines useful. As with any set of rules, of course, you and your group will settle into a dynamic that works for you all. But establishing your rules of engagement early on can save a lot of heartbreak and stress later. Writing and critiquing and becoming better at your craft can (and should) be a fun, productive, valuable process.

May you find an excellent critique group, and when you do find it, may you stick with them. It’s one of the best ways to avoid having too solitary a life, too narrow an echo chamber. It’s one of the best ways to make your work better.

Today’s Feature: Poetry Slam

I suppose it wouldn’t be right to get through National Poetry Month without featuring a little slam.  When I was in my 20s and thought the world was laid before me, I briefly considered trying my hand at poetry slam so I could go on tour like a rock star. No kidding. It was happening in other parts of the country, so no reason I couldn’t do it, too, right? Well, except that I never really got the hang of the slam myself. Just not my style most of the time, much as I like being in the audience.

This fantastic video came across my screen today, and I had to share.

Click here to watch this awesome poetry slam video. (I don’t know why it’s only letting me post the link rather than the video itself.)

The performers Amina Iro and Hannah Halpern presented this poem at the Brave New Voices 2013 Quarter Finals in Washington, D.C.

Banging the Drum for Common Sense

Literary agent Michelle Johnson’s blog pointed me toward this fantastic open letter from a mother to her sons.  If you’re sick of hearing about rape culture, you may continue to hide from reality and hope you and the people you love are never personally affected by this societal scourge.

If you’re sick of rape culture, click here to read this wonderful letter and maybe share it.

For those of you in academia, good luck getting through finals.  As soon as I’m done with them, I’ll be back to posting authorly treats.  For those of you not in academia, count yourselves lucky this time of year, and be well.

Ciao!

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Click here to read my post in response to the media debacle surrounding the Steubenville trial.

Here We Go Again…

I’ve been really sad and angry this week.  The news cycle has upset me even more than it usually does.  I came to accept a long time ago that the political system in our country is dilapidated and crumbling and that it seems to get worse each year.  I still participate, though.  People ask me how I can stand to live in Texas, and the answer is that I love it here, even if I’m embarrassed sometimes by our state government.  Texas has a long and rich tradition in the Democratic party, but many of our non-conservatives are frankly so disgusted or cowed by the current state of affairs that they give up.

I don’t, though.

I don’t ally myself with any party, choosing to be an Independent because honestly, that’s really what makes the most sense to me.  I work to make the world a better place from within as much as I can; I try to keep an open mind.  I have many friends and family members from all parties and all political persuasions, and I know there is intelligence and compassion and good-heartedness in all corners.  I just wish THOSE people made it onto the news.

I’ve been wanting to write all week about the Akin debacle, but every time I tried, I didn’t know where to begin.  There’s just so much to deal with!  (Fortunately, The Onion did a pretty good job of expressing how I and nearly everyone I know feels.)  Perhaps I could start by saying that this was never about a “poor choice of words,” but rather a poor choice of thought.  That the entire concept of rape having different varieties is ludicrous.  That we shouldn’t be offended by the term “legitimate rape,” but rather by the idea that any victim’s pain and trauma could possibly be minimized or marginalized by such utter idiocy as the garbage that spewed from his mouth on Sunday.  That the term “forcible rape,” which was part of some nonsense co-authored by Paul Ryan (currently backtracking as fast as he can from Akin and his ilk) and which implies that rape is only truly rape if the victim also gets beaten up, deserved the ignoble death it got and hopefully won’t be resurrected.

But see, then I start to get angry again.  Not just at Akin, but at all the people who demean others for so very many reasons.  In this world, it’s a hard battle to not hate on people.  It’s tough to remind myself every day not to look down on others for their views or beliefs when they so clearly contradict what I understand as logical or true or good.  But for Christ’s sake, if I can do it, so can everyone.  It’s not like I didn’t have to teach myself this principle, and later in life than it should have been.  Come on, people, deal.

And I have to stop myself — again — from becoming so upset.  Take a deep breath.  Calm down.  Remember that it is not good practice to demean other people for having beliefs different from yours.  Remember that.  Try to make sure everyone does.  Take the emotion out of a situation so you can look at facts.

But when someone on a SCIENCE COMMITTEE says something so utterly mythological it defies not only logic but the common sense God gave a chicken, something so ridiculous that it flies in the face not just of decency but of historical and proven fact, what the hell has happened to this country?  And who let those people in charge??  Oh, good grief.

Today was the first day of school.  I had such a good time meeting all my new students, fantastic and wonderful kids in grades 9-12 who are going to make my days fun and challenging and exciting and intellectually stimulating.  And I got to walk my own children down to their building (I teach in a school which has PreK through 12), and it took forever to get there because my kids had to stop and greet and hug every friend they hadn’t seen over the summer and even the new friends they were meeting just for the first time today.  And when we got to the kindergarten hallway, my son’s new teachers were in the hall exclaiming his name and how happy they were to see him, and he ran to them and hugged them, too.  And my daughter had to stop in each of her old classrooms and hug every teacher she’s ever had — PreK, kindergarten, 1st grade — and visit with them all before joining her new 2nd grade class, who also looked happy to see her.

Today was hectic and energetic, and it was also damn good.

My kids love school, and I want them to.  I count my lucky blessings every day that they’re in a good place, learning and loving it.  This is an excellent foundation for their whole lives.  They are curious.  They question.  They think for themselves, and I am joyfully grateful, numerously blessed.

My kids acting silly in my classroom before school one morning, reminding me to cheer up, that life is still good sometimes. (We don’t let them watch or listen to the news.)

And each day I sally forth, as a parent and as a teacher and as a thinking human being, stamping out ignorance the best I can, one delighted moment or one horrifying piece of propaganda at a time.

Aw, look, here they are again. Doesn’t this just make your day?

Fight the good fight, people.  Be well.

 

Open Apology in Advance to My Pregnant or Expectant Friends When I Give Them Advice About Anything

Having grown up in a large family with dozens of younger cousins and siblings around all the time lulled me, as I plowed blindly into adulthood, into thinking that I was something of an authority on the juvenile human.  From countless hours minding my younger relatives to the slew of babysitting jobs I had in high school and college, I garnered a feeling of intelligence about children which caused my breeding friends to Continue reading “Open Apology in Advance to My Pregnant or Expectant Friends When I Give Them Advice About Anything”