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It Don’t Mean a Thing: Listening at the End

Duke Ellington recorded his jazz standard, “It Don’t Mean a Thing” (lyrics by Irving Mills), in 1932. The opening of the song questions the value of music that doesn’t possess a certain measure of resonance: What good is melody? What good is music? If it ain’t possessing something sweet The lyrics go on to speculate on what makes a song memorable: Now it ain’t the melody And it ain’t the music There’s something else that makes this tune complete, YES It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing  That swing—a certain something, rhythmically, that creates an unforgettable [...]

By |2019-02-18T07:54:42+00:00February 18th, 2019|Uncategorized|2 Comments

The Value of Silence to the Writer

Cathy and I just got back from West Palm Beach, Florida, where we went to see the traveling Downton Abbey exhibition, and also to just get away to somewhere warm. Besides the exhibition, we had no other plans. We ended up doing a lot of people watching, and we spent a day poolside. Most of all, we let all thoughts of our jobs and our responsibilities go right out of our heads. In other words, we shut out the noise of the world. It strikes me that this is exactly what we writers need to do from time to time. [...]

By |2019-02-11T16:10:22+00:00February 11th, 2019|Uncategorized|5 Comments

Deepening the Essay

I have to apologize for my absence from this blog the past two weeks. Two weeks ago, Cathy and I were in New Orleans celebrating the wedding of our friends, Kristen and George, and then last Sunday an unexpected hospital stay prevented me from posting. So, a chosen vacation and then one chosen for me. Such is life. The trip to New Orleans was a good one, even though the weather wasn’t quite as warm as we’d hoped, but soon after returning I came down with a nasty cold, and somehow in the week that followed my sodium level got [...]

By |2019-02-04T07:26:13+00:00February 4th, 2019|Uncategorized|8 Comments

A Creative Nonfiction Writing Activity

We’re off to a start of a new semester here at Ohio State University, and I’m teaching an advanced undergraduate creative nonfiction workshop. I came up with a writing activity for our first meeting--with a nod toward Dinty Moore whose own activity inspired this one--and I want to pass it along to you. The activity is designed to generate material, while also inviting some consideration of how to make that material have depth and significance. The first step is easy. What’s a favorite toy from your childhood, or what’s the toy you always wanted that you never got? The indirect [...]

By |2019-01-14T06:02:28+00:00January 14th, 2019|Uncategorized|4 Comments

Out Here in the Heartland: Writing the Working Class

I’m reading Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. Early in the book, when Smarsh is tracing the courtship and eventual marriage of her grandparents in rural Kansas, I hit a passage that I just have to read to my wife. “She’s talking about our people,” I say to Cathy, and then I read: During the wheat harvest of 1977, when Betty was thirty-two and Arnie forty-five, Betty drove every evening from her full-time job as a subpoena officer at the Sedgwick County courthouse in downtown Wichita to Arnie’s farm. [...]

By |2019-01-07T08:02:18+00:00January 7th, 2019|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Story Starters for the New Year

Here we are on the cusp of a new year, a time for resolutions and new beginnings. If you’re a writer, it’s time to set your sights on the projects ahead of you. With that in mind, I offer up these ten starters for anyone who likes to tell stories, whether you call yourself a fiction writer, a memoirist, or an essayist.   A stranger arrives. Stories are about the days unlike any others, and one way to get characters involved in something interesting is to have them take notice of a stranger. What is it about that stranger that [...]

By |2018-12-31T08:08:02+00:00December 31st, 2018|Uncategorized|2 Comments

From Our House to Your House: A Christmas Eve Story

This is my Christmas Eve blog post, and I want to use it to thank all of you who bless me—friends, family members, students, and those who read what I write, particularly those regular readers of this blog. To be honest, it sometimes gets tough to come up with new posts, but I keep trying just in the event that something I say might prove useful to you and your writing. I’d also like to use this post to ask you to be mindful of those for whom this time of year is difficult. With that in mind, I offer [...]

By |2018-12-24T05:34:00+00:00December 24th, 2018|Uncategorized|4 Comments

Let Your Stories Be a Little Wild

For the better part of my youth, my father, and then later I, would go into the woods on our eighty-acre farm in southeastern Illinois and cut a cedar which would serve as our Christmas tree. Needless to say, it was always a tree whose branches had grown according to nature’s will, which is to say it wasn’t a pine that had been sheared and shaped to form the perfect upside-down ice cream cone that the tree farms sold. Our cedars could be a little wild, a little unpredictable, just like a good story. We have to resist the urge [...]

By |2018-12-17T07:38:48+00:00December 17th, 2018|Uncategorized|4 Comments

Context and Subtext: Making Dialogue Count

Last night, Cathy and I were driving up I-71 on our way into Columbus for a holiday party, and she was whistling “Let It Snow.” She stopped and said, “When you whistle, do you blow out, or do you suck in?” “I blow out,” I said, “but when I first learned to whistle, I sucked in.” We rode along in silence for a while. Then I said, “I could never whistle with a blade of grass between my thumbs.” “I couldn’t do that either,” she said, “and I never learned how to whistle with my fingers in my mouth.” I [...]

By |2018-12-10T07:11:21+00:00December 10th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Persistence in Spite of Evaluation

Welcome to the end of the semester, that time when desperation is palpable among my undergraduate students, and who knows, maybe even my MFA students, too, but they’re too cool to show it. Relax, I want to tell everyone. You’ll get everything done, and you’ll do it well, or maybe not so well, but you’ll do it, and that’s the important thing. It’s the effort that’s most valuable. The result is, for the most part, immaterial. Here’s the thing no teacher should ever say, but I’m going to say it anyway. Those final grades? When it comes to a life [...]

By |2018-12-02T10:25:34+00:00December 2nd, 2018|Uncategorized|2 Comments