An Open Letter to My MFA Students


ledge pictures

Lined up on the window ledge in my office are your pictures. Since 2001, when I came to teach at The Ohio State University, I’ve tried to get a photo of each of you, my thesis advisees, and me at Epilog, the end-of-the-year gala reading for the graduating MFAs. I may have missed one or two over the years, but trust me, none of you have ever left my memory.

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Labor Day: Doing the Work

Before I found my way in life and ended up slap-ass lucky with what my father would have called a “pencil-pusher’s job,” I did manual labor. In addition to the farm work that I helped him do, I worked on a Christmas tree farm, and in a shoe factory, a garment factory, and a tire repairs manufacturing plant. The latter required me to be at work at 6 a.m. and to stay there until 4:30 p.m., making rubber patches and plugs in the press room. The work was hot, repetitive, monotonous, and dangerous. Each day was the same as the one before, and each evening found me bone-tired and barely able to eat my supper. Each morning, I woke in darkness and went back to work because my choices were few. I needed the money, and I knew I was lucky to have this job. It was mine to do, and I did it.  I’m convinced that what I learned from this work has helped me countless times in my writing and my teaching. Manual labor taught me to show up each day and to persevere. It taught me that things aren’t always easy. It taught me to put my head down and go, moment by moment. It taught me to do the work. So on this Labor Day, I want to pay tribute to all those who put in the time and do the work by reprinting these excerpts from my essay, “Such a Life,” (from the book of the same title)—a  piece that recalls my father’s own labor at the end of his days.

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At the Start of the School Year

Another school year is upon us, and, as I do each year, I recall a story that the Chair of the English Department told at the start of the year when I was a Ph.D. student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He said that on the evening before Fall Semester classes were to begin, he came across a young man in the hallway who was looking into a classroom. The Chair, good fellow that he was, asked the young man if he could be of help. The young man, a freshman, said in a hushed voice, the sort of respectful voice we used to hear in public libraries, “Tomorrow, I’m going to have my English class in this room. I just wanted to see it.”

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My Mother’s Hands


Because my father lost his hands, my mother made a gift of hers. Cuticles ragged, knuckles scraped, fingernails smashed—farm work showed her no mercy.

Her hands were made for more delicate things, but she gladly sacrificed them because, really, what else was she to do? My father needed her, and she loved him, so she put her hands to work on our farm. She should have had the soft and beautiful hands more suited to her soft and beautiful heart, but life had other plans for her.

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Persona and the Lyric Poem

This post comes early because I’m off to Vermont bright and early tomorrow morning to teach for a week at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference. If you can tolerate it, I’d like to say one word more about persona, this time in connection with poetry.

I’ve chosen this old lyric poem by William Allingham:

Four Ducks on a Pond

Four ducks on a pond,
A grass-bank beyond,
A blue sky of spring.
White clouds on the wing;
What a little thing
To remember for years—
To remember with tears.


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Personae and Tone in Fiction

Personae and Tone in Fiction

I’m still thinking about this issue of persona and how it contributes to the life of our prose. Part of the pleasure of reading a memoir comes from the resonance of different layers (or personae, if you will) of the narrator vibrating against one another. Does the same hold true for fiction? If we look at a third-person narrative, will we find shifts in persona of the effaced narrator and modulations of tone used to good effect?

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The Art of the Twerk: Writing the Miley Cyrus Way

To start. . .ahem. . .with a sentence I never in my wildest dreams could have imagined writing: Miley Cyrus has something to teach us about writing. Intrigued? Read on. Shaking your head in disbelief? Wondering about my sanity? Stick with me. This post is all about the outlandish. It’s about encouraging outrageous personae as a way of opening up aspects of our material that otherwise might remain closed. It’s about using exaggeration to give some jazz to lifeless prose. It’s about the art of the twerk.

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Taking the Temperature of Writers’ Conferences

Since we’re in the midst of writers’ conference season, I decided to rerun a post this morning:

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember the old thermometers, the ones that you had to keep under your tongue for four minutes, the ones you had to shake down with an expert snap of the wrist, the ones that made you squint in order to make out the level of the mercury that told you your temperature. Believe it or not, I’m now the owner of a thermometer very much like this, only this one contains Galinstan, “a non-toxic, Earth friendly substitute for mercury.” You still have to hold it under your tongue for four minutes.

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Writing to Preserve

I lost a pocket comb yesterday. It exists somewhere without me now. It was a black pocket comb, purchased in Anchorage, Alaska, to replace another comb that I lost there. I usually don’t lose combs, but now I’ve lost two in two months.


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Juggling Balls: An Exercise for Opening a Short Story

For whatever reason, I’m thinking this morning about the openings of short stories and what we expect of them. Rust Hills, in his excellent book, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, says the end of a good story is always present in its beginning. The final move of a story is only possible because of everything set in motion in the opening.

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