Book Review: Heirlooms by Rachel Hall

Heirlooms: StoriesHeirlooms: Stories by Rachel Hall
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I’ve known Rachel Hall since we were at Knox College together, so these stories would have been a joy to read no matter what, just for her voice and wry humor and the memories they evoke. Though that friendship is what prompted me to buy and read Heirlooms, I can sincerely say this is a great book, and one I would highly recommend to anyone, especially if you’re interested in World War II (especially the Holocaust, the resistance, and collaboration in France) and how it is remembered (or misremembered). Issues of immigration, race, and discrimination in the U.S. are also folded into the stories as time progresses. It is no wonder that Marge Piercy selected Heirlooms for the C. S. Sharar Chandra Prize. These stories are tightly crafted with economical language and image that nonetheless pack an enormous emotional punch. They are deeply philosophical without being ponderous. They explore the past and our tempestuous relationship with it, clouded with guilt, understandable revisionism, and attempts at retrieval of the stories that have been lost. Individually, each story is poignant. When taken together as a collection, the stories speak to one another and build deeper themes that will reward multiple readings. Characters appear and reappear in new contexts, giving the reader multiple perspectives on their stories as we follow the main characters through four generations.

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Welcome: A Writer’s Craft!

It’s been a long journey to this point, but today marks a turning point in my writing career. My introductory 4-genre creative writing textbook, A Writer’s Craft is now available. I don’t have my copies yet, but it’s on the Palgrave website and listed as In Stock for paperback, e-book, and hardback. Now, besides being a poet, I’m officially the author of a textbook. Who knows where this new phase of my career will lead? It’s exciting, to be sure.

Ginger Chick’n & Fig Stir-Fry

It’s been quite awhile since I posted any recipes to this blog. That’s in part because I’ve tried to make it more about writing, and maybe because I haven’t tried out many new meals — until tonight! And I apologize for not taking a picture, but I wasn’t 100% sure it would turn out good enough to blog about, but it did. And it looked as good as it tasted.

Here’s what led to the recipe: This summer we’re having a bumper crop of figs. We’ve already had our favorite Fresh Fig and Gorgonzola Pasta three times, and we’ve frozen figs to make it again later. So this morning, after picking another batch of fresh figs from the trees in our yard and putting some of them in the freezer, I wondered what to do with the rest. There were more than I wanted to just eat raw (though I did have some), and more will be ripening soon, so I figured I should cook with them and decided to give a stir-fry a try. It was delicious! (Try it if you have figs and don’t believe me — I dare you.)

You already know the main ingredients from the title, and really, I expect you couldn’t go too wrong no matter what else you throw in, but let me explain what I did.

Since we’re vegetarians, the protein base of this meal is called Quorn. They make two varieties: a ground beef substitute and a chicken substitute. To be honest, it’s been so long since I’ve eaten actual chicken, I don’t know whether it’s much like the real thing or not, but that doesn’t really matter. Quorn has a firmer texture than tofu, which makes it a good candidate for this dish. Tempeh or seitan might work well, too, and tofu would be all right but a little soft in texture, even if you get extra-firm. Ginger adds a little bite, and the figs add sweetness. The combination was great, especially with the other vegetables I threw in.

I always start a stir-fry with some onion and garlic in oil. In this case, I added a generous amount of diced ginger, at least a tablespoon, probably more for 1-2 servings. Then I added one small Thai eggplant (the long skinny kind), one small yellow squash, a small sweet pepper, and a couple of mushrooms. I let those fry in a wok for several minutes while my pasta water boiled.

Tonight, I used linguine because that’s what I had on hand, but it would be good with a sturdy rice noodle or bean thread or even asian egg noodle— anything as think as linguine or thicker ought to do well. Boil or soak until soft (follow the cooking directions).

To the stir-fry, I added curry powder, cayenne, and cumin as it was cooking, then added the Quorn Chick’n pieces. Since they’re pre-cooked, all they really need is some time to heat up (you store them in the freezer) and absorb the cooking juices. I also added soy sauce and a little bit of sugar to the mix.

Near the end of the stir-frying, I added one small tomato, chopped, and several quartered fresh figs (about as much volume as the tomato). Then I tossed in a few fresh basil leaves that I had cut into large pieces and a little Sriracha for good measure. Once the noodles were ready, I drained them and then tossed in the wok with the stir-fry to absorb the liquid.

The first bite was to die for — a little sweet, savory, and picante. The heat wasn’t too much (for me), so the basil stood out, especially when I got a bite with a good piece. The tomato and fig didn’t cook too much, so they didn’t lose their shape, and the Quorn gave it just the right texture.

As always with my recipes, it’s more about the principle than the exact ingredients. If you have other veggies on hand or if you prefer to cook with tempeh (its nutty flavor ought to pair well in this dish), then go for it! If you have more fresh figs than you know what to do with, then give this concept a try. It’s hard to go wrong with figs as long as you don’t overcook them. Next time I might try throwing in a little lemon or lime or even orange juice, just to give it a little citrus tang. Or a little cooking sherry to bring out the sweet side even more.



Low-Res or Fully Funded: an MFA Decision

I write a lot about MFA programs because I direct the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing at Mississippi University for Women. I mention this to let you know I am biased on this topic, but I’ve been thinking about the advice people often get about applying for MFA’s: don’t unless it’s fully funded.

On the surface, this seems like good advice. No one would advise you to go into a lot of debt for a degree that doesn’t promise a career with great earning potential, and creative writing is one of those fields where only a very few make it really big — the rest of us do okay, but not well enough to take on a ton of debt. So if you can get someone to pay for your education, why not?

That’s what this post is about. I agree with that advice, but I also think there are trade-offs you should consider. It would be great if someone is going to pay you to write and then give you a degree at the end. There are a few programs that can do that, but even most of the fully funded programs don’t hand out ‘free money.’ They do hand out money; it just isn’t exactly free.

Most programs that are fully funded expect their graduate students to work for that stipend. Usually you will be a graduate teaching assistant or research assistant. That’s great, if you’ll be gaining experience in the field you want to work in. (Do you want to teach at the college level? What are your chances of landing an academic job after graduation?) Often you will start teaching composition, sometimes you might have a literature survey (or lead a discussion section), and maybe you’ll get to teach creative writing at some point. Yes, that can all be good experience, but there are other ways to work your way through your degree.

If you consider that fully funded stipend a wage, then you’ll soon find that it’s not a huge salary. Of course, you do usually get a tuition waiver, which adds to the value of your stipend, and sometimes you are eligible for health insurance, which is another huge benefit to teaching. If you’re fresh out of your undergraduate degree and you don’t have a job, then a program that will give you a job that meshes well with your graduate degree and comes with built-in support from your department can be an excellent opportunity.

Low-residency programs, on the other hand, often don’t offer graduate assistantships. Students don’t live on campus, so it is more difficult for them to work at the university. That’s why many low-res programs aren’t fully funded, but that doesn’t mean they’re a bad deal. The low-res model is set up to allow you to work where you are while you are in school. If you already have a job, you can keep it, and odds are that you’ll earn more at a regular job than you would teaching (though a tuition waiver can make a big difference). Low-residency programs allow you stay where you are, so those with family obligations or other reasons why they don’t want to or aren’t able to move for their graduate degree can still get one.

Those who already are mid-career might be giving up a lot in order to take advantage of full funding at a full residency program. When considering offers or considering where to apply, compare the amount of aid and the cost of the degree against a low-res program where you can keep your current job.

What else should you think about when considering fully funded programs?

I would say you need to bear in mind that fully funded MFA programs will receive the most applications. Competition will be stiff, especially for the best scholarships or assistantships. It’s great if you get one, but your chances are slimmer, so it might be a good idea to widen your application pool to include some partially funded programs or programs without much funding if you think you can afford them.

When considering any program, think about the culture and the writers at that school. I wouldn’t say that a fully funded program is always going to be worse, but it might not be your best fit. If you only go to a program because of the money, you might end up unhappy. If you go to a school where you really fit in and a program that genuinely supports the writing you do, you’ll likely be happier. Finances should be a big part of your decision, but they shouldn’t be the only part, in other words.

The goal should be to get a good degree, work with good writers (teachers and other students), and not go into a ton of debt. Full funding is the most obvious way to achieve that, but a low-residency program (or a partially funded resident program) can do just as well. If you realize that for most fully funded programs you will work your way through school, then keeping your job in order to work your way through a low-residency program may seem like a good alternative.

For most fully funded programs, you will have to uproot yourself, move to another city and live there while pursuing your degree. That may be precisely the adventure you want or need to stimulate your writing. Or you may have work or family obligations — parents who need care, or a partner or spouse whose job isn’t portable, children whose school or family life would be uprooted in a move — that would make accepting a fully funded program’s offer difficult. A low-res program allows you to work from where you live and travel to your program’s campus for residency periods now and then.

Low-residency programs also have some advantages. Because you don’t need to move and because you don’t teach, low-residency students can find internships in their local area. They may explore fields like publishing, marketing, literacy programs, or other writing related careers. And they can learn about those careers where they are. Many writers don’t intend to go into academia, so getting experience outside academia during your MFA can be beneficial.

Which kind of program is right for you: low-res or fully funded? There is no one right answer for everyone. For many, the advice to only get an MFA if it is fully funded seems too limiting. Low residency programs allow you to be creative about how you will fund your MFA from where you live, combining work and university or private scholarships to pay the bills.

How to Buy a Car: the Latest Saga

A few year’s back, I wrote a post about How to Sell One Car and Buy Another in One Day. Even then, I knew that had been a charmed experience and hardly typical, so I thought I would add a post about our latest car buying experience, which ended well but wasn’t quite as easy as the last time.

As before, we had a pretty good idea of what we were looking for to replace our beloved 2009 Mazda 5, which is beginning to show its age. We had done our research and narrowed our options to 3 main possibilities: buy a more recent Mazda 5, a Honda CR-V, or a Mazda CX-5. We liked both the Honda and the Mazda for their gas mileage and cargo space that is nearly as big as what we are used to. Now that we’re out of carpool, we don’t need a 3rd row of seats, but the cargo room with that row down has been a great feature.

After researching online, we discovered that there wasn’t anything available in our town, so we drove about half an hour to test drive a Honda CR-V with low mileage at a pretty good price. It didn’t take us too long to realize it was more of an SUV than we were really looking for. It’s a nice car, but we suspected we’d be happier in another Mazda, so we hit the road and drove another half hour or so to the next town, where there were two Mazda CX-5’s at the same dealer for us to consider.

One was a Sport and the other was a Touring. To be honest, we probably would have been fine with the Sport, though we did like the upholstery on the Touring better, and it had some features we liked, such as all-weather mats  and a 40/20/40 rear seat with a console. Both were 2016 models, and both were red. The biggest difference, though was the mileage: 1,500 miles on the Touring and 12,000 on the Sport. Both were priced well, and there was only $2,000 difference. But the Touring only had one key, so we talked to the salesperson about getting a new one and a luggage cover for the back.

Then came the sticker shock. What with the cost of the accessories, tax, and the dealer’s doc fee, it all added up to be more than we had planned on spending. We could afford it, but did we really want to? And then there was the fact that both cars were red, which was brighter than we were used to. Was this really the right deal for us? We asked the dealer for their best price, but they wouldn’t budge.

We have always heard you should be prepared to leave if you’re not satisfied, so we said we would. The salesperson went back to see if she could get us a better deal from the manager — still no dice. So we left and said we would sleep it over, knowing it would be another hour drive if we decided to get it. Better to do that than to have buyer’s remorse later, though we were sorely tempted, esp. by the Touring with such low mileage (and a Carfax report to back it up).

The next day, we researched some more, found a couple more cars in a bigger city 2 hours away, and wrote the salesperson to say we would be ready to buy the CX-5 Touring if they could come down $1000 to cover the cost of the replaced key and fees. I didn’t really expect them to do that, but I hoped they would meet me halfway, which really would cover the cost of the key and the luggage cover. But we didn’t hear from them. As it turned out, they were very busy that day and didn’t reply until the next day.

Before we heard from the first Mazda dealer on the third day, we left for the bigger city 2 hours away. By that point, one of the three vehicles we were looking at had been sold. That lit a fire under us.

The most tempting car was a 2015 Mazda 5 with about 20,000 miles on it. It was half the price of the Touring, and the deal seemed almost too good to be true. That and the distance to the dealer had kept us from checking it out sooner, but now we felt we had to. It was still on the lot, and when we saw it, we thought it really could be our car. The body was in good shapes as we’d seen in the online photos. The color was a dark blue we liked a lot. We asked about the history, but didn’t get a lot of information from the auto wholesaler where it was for sale.

But when we took it out for a short test drive, it became immediately apparent why it was priced so low. The car had a very distinctive pet odor. At first we thought it was from a very large dog, but eventually concluded a cat must have sprayed in the car. We alerted the salesperson, who claimed they had an ozone device that could get even the worst odors out. We wished him luck with that and headed on our way.

(We have pets. We understand pet odors. This one stayed with us for hours after we got out of the vehicle. It was not going away.)

The next car was a 2015 Mazda CX-5 Sport with 18,000 miles on it. It was also blue, and would have been a good deal. We noticed a few more blemishes than we wanted, but nothing that would be a deal breaker. But while we were talking about the car at the dealership, I got a text from the other dealer that they would throw in the key and the luggage cover for the Touring at no charge. It was practically a new car, but the price was hard to beat, so we left the blue Mazda CX-5 and went to a nearby parking lot to call about the red Touring. It was still available, so we took their offer.

At that point we might have been able to talk them down a little further, but we decided not to risk it. We had compared every vehicle within 200 miles (maybe further) that we could find online, and didn’t find anything close. The price was fair, and we were satisfied to get the second key and the luggage cover as part of the deal. Our trip to test drive two other Mazdas had been worth it because we were now certain of our decision. Neither car was a better option for us — and the one that seemed like it could have been the best deal turned out to be too good to be true.

Now we are the proud owners of the 2016 red Mazda CX-5 Touring. We’re happy with that choice, and even like the red color better than when we first saw it.

It’s great to be able to buy the first car you test drive, and sometimes when you do your research, you’re able to. Then there are times when it takes a little more persistence, and you have to check out all the options to know that you really are making the right choice. You can research a lot online, but you can’t tell everything from what you see. Learning that was worth the effort or we might have second-guessed our decision for years to come. And in the process, we negotiated a little better deal on the car that was already a very good deal to begin with.

Now we can work on selling the car we’re replacing!


How To Find the best MFA program in Creative Writing (for you)

Summer is a time when many prospective MFA students begin searching for programs. Or maybe you’ve already begun that search, but it is now intensified as the application season approaches. Those who want to apply for an MFA need to have a good idea of their top choices soon, so they can work on crafting their writing samples and honing their statements. Application deadlines range from December to March, with most falling in January or February, so it’s not too early to start hunting for the perfect programs.

One of the best resources for this search is still <a href=”; rel=”nofollow”>The Creative Writing MFA Handbook</a> by Tom Kealey. I recommend it to my undergraduates (and often let them borrow a copy) not only because it has a good list of programs (though that list is getting a little dated), but also because it gives good advice on choosing a program. The best advice Kealey gives is that you should find the best program for you, which is not necessarily going to be the top-ranked program. He goes into much more detail about the kinds of choices that exist. Things to consider are the culture of the program, the kind of writing that the professors do or that recent graduates have done, as well as cost, location, and program structure. Finding the right programs for you to apply to is complicated. In his guide, he doesn’t give a ranking of programs because everyone’s rankings ought to be different. He does give valuable information about the programs he lists, though more programs have sprung up since the book was published, and programs change over time.

For up to date information, consult guides like those found at AWP, Poets & Writers, Publisher’s Weekly, and New Pages. Each of these sources provides some different information, so it’s a good idea to consult more than one and compare what you find.

In all of these listings, you can search by state, by genre, by type of degree, etc. This can help you narrow your search. It won’t take long to realize that there are a plethora of programs to choose from and that there is incredible diversity in their offerings. This is why some serious research at this stage can be beneficial.

Of course, there are rankings of MFA programs from sources like The Atlantic or Poets & Writers. What I tell my students about these rankings is that they’re most valuable for finding out where everyone else is probably going to apply. I don’t discourage students from applying to the top-ranked schools, but I do warn them to be aware of their chances. Most of these programs have very limited enrollments. They receive many, many more highly qualified applications than they will ever be able accept. We’ve had someone get in a very competitive program, so you shouldn’t ever sell yourself short, but you also shouldn’t limit yourself to applying only to the top-ranked schools. There are many other high quality programs out there that may be a better fit and where you may have better odds. I recommend applying to a range of schools. Don’t apply anywhere that you wouldn’t want to go, but don’t be so influenced by the rankings that you overlook schools that would be a great fit for you. Consider all of your options, and you should find a program that is the best for you.

Resources like The MFA Years blog or The MFA Draft group on Facebook (the link is to 2018, but a new group is started every year) can also help you research your decision and deal with the process of applying to programs. Also, be sure to read AWP’s Advice Articles about the application process.

In the end, taking the time and effort now to research the programs that are best for you will give you a much better chance of success. Not only will you find the programs that are the best fit, but you will likely also learn a lot about who you are as a writer and what your goals are. This will lead to a clearer, stronger application, and I would hope to a more rewarding experience in the program where you eventually choose to enroll.

10 Strategies to Unblock Writer’s Block

A conversation in the Creative Writing Pedagogy Facebook group got me thinking about this issue again. That conversation was initiated by Julianna Baggot’s blog post Is Writer’s Block a Form of Self-Protection.

First, let me just say that I don’t really believe in writer’s block. I do believe there are many reasons why we don’t write, and that some people call these reasons writer’s block. I believe it’s a concept; I just don’t believe the concept is helpful.

I face what some people would call writer’s block constantly. Starting a new poem, deciding what to write next, trying to decide whether the project I’m working on is a book or a bunch of words that I’ve arranged to look like poems, deciding whether I’m a writer or someone who wastes time with words, fighting to make time to write when there are a million other pressing concerns: all these could be considered aspects of writer’s block. But naming them that doesn’t help me find solutions to those problems. Instead, considering those as part of the writing process — an unavoidable part, perhaps, but also a part of the process that every writer must face — does help.

So here are a few strategies I’ve found that can be helpful in overcoming what some people call writer’s block and I prefer to think of as a stage of pre-writing. It is a stage that can feel like a block when we allow it (or even encourage it) to go on too long and consume our energies, rather than allowing it to lead to productive writing.

  1. Rumination. Sometimes what we think of as writer’s block is simply the necessary phase of dormancy. Instead of actively writing, we are searching for the next thing to write. Our minds aren’t ready to put words on paper, and we don’t have a direction to write in. Calling this phase writer’s block makes it sound like a problem, something to be overcome, when in fact it may be a quiet period that the writer needs to embrace. Thinking that you’re ‘blocked’ leads to stress. Enjoy this time to refuel, and don’t push too hard to get a new project started. To keep from getting stuck in this phase, though, you can begin writing without purpose just to see what might come out. Free writing is a good tactic in this phase. The point of free writing is not to create something good, but simply to explore and see what happens.
  2. Finding Direction. After rumination or maybe as part of that process, writers often are searching for a new direction to write. After completing a novel or even a book or cycle of poems, writers often report casting about, looking for the next big project. Writing prompts and exercises can often help in this stage. The goal is not to complete the exercise and get a great piece of writing. The goal of the exercise or prompt is to distract you. The stress of needing to start something often gets in the way of writing. Because we want it to be a poem, a story, an essay, or heaven forbid, the next novel, we don’t know how to start that. Writing an exercise lets us write without worrying about what we’re starting (other than to follow the prompt). As we do that, often something completely unrelated comes out. After writing several exercises, those unrelated elements may start to add up. The exercises didn’t give you the content that will become your next project, but they did keep you distracted from the need to have a project, so you were able to write about those things and then recognize the project in them. Distraction is often the best way to combat what many think of as writers’ block.
  3. Finding Time. Another thing that gets in the way of writing, especially when we are between projects, is the fact that most of us are incredibly busy. If you don’t have a pressing deadline for a writing project or aren’t energized by being in the midst of a project, then it’s easy to let those work projects or house projects that have piled up take over every spare moment of your life. On the one hand, those are also necessary, and completing those tasks can free you to write later. They can also be a vital part of the process of rumination — keeping busy while you think about writing. But ultimately, if you’re going to get back to writing, you need to make time for it. Taking time away to focus entirely on writing by attending a writing retreat can seem like a luxury. But even if you can’t do that, you can schedule time for writing every day or several times a week. In those scheduled times, make sure you have something to write. Doing prompts or free writing can be a great way to get warmed up. Keep your expectations low: plan to write a list or write a paragraph or write random words; don’t plan to write a poem or a story until you know you have an idea for one. Just write. Doing that, and allowing yourself to write drivel is often the only way to get back to writing something you care about. Usually there is something of value in what you write, though you may not recognize it until much later. But even if none of what you write can be salvaged, it is still worthwhile if it eventually gets you to something you do care to write about.
  4. Journaling. One way to keep writing is to keep a journal. A journal is not meant to be published or even publishable work. It is a free space for writing ideas, observations, lists, rough embarrassing drafts, etc. Sometimes, what causes ‘writer’s block’ is a subject that we need to write about but we don’t know how to make it public. It may be an issue that so consumes us that we can’t write about anything else, but we’re not sure we want anyone else to read (or that we think no one else will be interested in). My advice is to write about it anyway, but write it first in a private journal. Write your way through a difficult subject, and eventually you will be able write about other subjects, too. You may well find that there are portions of the journal that can be made into a public document. Write it first in all its raw honesty, and then cull out the parts that you aren’t willing to share and keep the parts you can share with the world. Or change the names and disguise the circumstances so that you can create enough distance between you and that subject. When writing, know that it never has to be public. When revising, choose what to keep and how you want to make it public.
  5. Banish Your Inner Censor. There is a time in the writing process when we make value judgments, but in the early stages of any project, we really need to keep our inner censor at bay. If we worry too much at the outset whether something will be good enough, we will never write it, so how will we find out? If we have too many preconceived notions about the form or the ending of a piece, we are not free to explore wherever it might lead. If we worry what others will think, we can’t be honest with ourselves. So learning to write without expectations can be extremely valuable. The draft of a poem I write isn’t a poem, but it is a draft that I can refine and rewrite until I’m happy with it. The first draft of a story may be clunky and ill-conceived, but as long has there is something of interest in it for me as the writer, I can revise until that something is apparent to the reader. Writer’s block often happens when we worry too much about the final product and don’t allow ourselves the messy early stages of writing. If we expect the first draft to look like the final product, then we will be continually dissatisfied. If we allow for the fact that all good writing goes through multiple revisions until the final product is distilled from the rough beginnings, then we give ourselves license to begin.
  6. Follow a Form. Often contradictory advice can be useful, and though this tactic contradicts the absolute freedom I’ve been advocating, it can be helpful. A form is essentially a writing prompt. If I try to write a sonnet, I will write something to fit that form. If I decide to write a modern epic or follow any other recognizable pattern, I will find content to fit the pattern. The value of the form is that it forces you to write content that you didn’t intend. To meet the demands of form, you have stretch yourself beyond your limits. Form can lead to valuable surprises. Be willing to reconsider the form at a later stage of the process, but try using a form to generate unexpected content.
  7. Write Different. Sometimes the best way to get out of a pattern of not writing is to try something completely different. The fiction writer who turns to nonfiction or the poet who turns to drama can often stimulate their creativity in the unfamiliar territory. If you’ve been successful at writing in one form, the demands of continuing that success may get in your way, so try a different form where you aren’t the expert. This may give you more freedom to write in ways your inner censor would normally block. Consider blogging or writing creatively on social media or another platform that you’re not comfortable with. Give yourself limitations — novelists might try flash fiction; free verse poets might try haiku. Or break your limits: poets might try prose or longer lines; short story writers or essayists might try longer forms. Push yourself beyond your comfort zone to find the creative tensions that come with new forms.
  8. Set Attainable Goals. Giving yourself a goal or deadline can be helpful in getting back to writing or remaining productive. But keep the goal attainable. It is probably not the best idea to have as your goal that you will write a novel by a specific date (unless you have a contract with a publisher and need to have it finished!). Rather, it is more productive to set goals like writing a certain number of words every day or sitting down to write and actually writing something, regardless of its merit. Once you’ve started writing, then your goals can become clearer. Maybe you’ll realize those words are part of a novel or an essay, and you’ll keep working on that project. Maybe those poems will begin to take shape as a series of poems. Maybe you’ll find the content that you want to keep returning to: whether that is a character and plot or a time and place in your memory or a subject you decide to research for your next project. Set goals that work for the stage you are at in your writing process, and be willing to modify those goals as the project evolves.
  9. Collaborate. Working with others can be the best incentive to keep writing. If your writing partner is looking for your next installment of a shared project, you don’t want to let that person down. Hopefully you collaborate with someone you trust, so that when you send them something you aren’t 100% sure of, they will take what you’ve written and run with it. Another form of collaboration is translation. If you find you don’t have a lot of ideas coming, then work with someone else’s ideas in another language or in another form. If you don’t speak another language, adapt a work from an earlier era to the present. Once you get working with it, allow your own ideas to infuse the work. Listen to music, go to an art museum, go to a reading or read other writers. These are all forms of collaboration that can lead to ideas. If those are specifically about the work of art, then you may have ekphrastic writing. If the other artist leads you to ideas that are mostly your own, then you are simply taking part in the great conversation of art. Often at a reading, ideas for a poem or a character will come that have nothing to do with what the writer is reading: the sound of their words may have called up a memory or a thought, but it isn’t directly related to the other writer’s content. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike, in other words, go in search of it.
  10. Let Others Read Your Writing. Often what we call writers block isn’t really an inability to write. Don’t we all write emails, memos, texts, grocery list, and other practical things every day? We are able to put words on paper. We simply think that none of our writing has merit or is creative. This is the perfect time to give it to someone else. Don’t tell them what they should find in it; listen to what they say they did find that was valuable. Often we are surprised that someone else responds to work we think isn’t good enough. That doesn’t mean we can’t still revise and make it better, but the voice of encouragement from someone we trust can be exactly what we need to embark upon that journey.

The main situation where I encounter writer’s block in others is in the creative writing classroom. There we have a built-in incentive to get over it: a grade. Yet this can also put an incredible amount of stress on the writer. This is why I emphasize the writing process and the reality that no writing is good enough in a first draft. The goal of a class is not to make the writing perfect, but it is to make it better. I value improvement and growth as a writer over perfection. And students in a class have the support system of the class—other students and the instructor, who want them to succeed. Of course, there are also aspects of form that we’ve studied that I want the writer to pay attention to in their finished work. Value is part of my final grade determination, but it shouldn’t be an issue in the beginning, and it shouldn’t be the final arbiter for the grade. I have found that with some encouragement and with some combination of these strategies, writer’s block can be overcome. Sometimes writer’s block is an excuse or a crutch that a student uses to rationalize why they haven’t written. Treating it as a real issue, but not as an insurmountable obstacle, helps the writer start writing. When I’ve faced my own incredibly busy schedules or the lack of direction between major projects (or when yI’ve been stalled on a project), I’ve tried many of these strategies myself. Sometimes have been easier than others, but I’m still writing so they must work.