Tag: grad school

Stepping outside your comfort zone

As my official bio says, “she draws on her experiences to tell the stories of those around her, with a generous heaping of ‘what if’ thrown in.” And of course that means I have to have experiences to draw on.

That means holding different jobs, talking to random people (which is sometimes hard for an introvert like myself), living in different parts of the country, traveling wherever and whenever I can, and embarking on whatever adventures I can just for the sake of why not.

My next major trip will be to India shortly after Christmas, where I’ll take a three-week class on working with international nonprofits to help the poor, eat lots of delicious food, and attempt to sneak over to Sri Lanka without getting in too much trouble.

In preparation for this trip, as well as satisfying basic curiosity and using the experience for a class paper, I attended a Diwali festival at a local Hindu temple.


My diversity class talks a lot about the concept of privilege, about how it’s generally unconscious for the privileged person. And while I know that on an academic level, it’s hard to divorce yourself from that concept completely, because wherever I go, I always take privilege with me. I know I’ll always be served in restaurants, and I won’t be harassed by cops (except at immigration in Canada, when I’m trying to go against my privilege), and even if I stick out I’ll always fit in, because I’m part of the dominant culture/power. It’s just a given.

Until Sunday, at the Diwali festival, when I was one of five white people and two hundred plus Hindus/Indians, all speaking languages I didn’t know, having a great time, ignoring me completely based solely on the color of my skin, even though their priest had specifically invited me to their event, because they had no need for me, nothing I could offer them or hold over them because of my privilege.

I felt uncomfortable. Vulnerable. And it’s not something I can remember feeling before, in this context.

It was powerful. Empathic. Something I want to use in my stories, to help my marginalized characters come alive.

And I’m really glad I went.

I got this covered

As I’ve mentioned several times, I’m currently in grad school, working on a master’s of social work. The program I’m in is great, but it’s basically a professional program, and while there are a couple research classes, it’s generally pretty light on methodology and stats and all that fun stuff. I’m strongly leaning towards a doctorate in educational policy, and so I’ve decided to do the optional thesis (also, because I love research papers).

I recently met with my thesis committee. I have two of the profs for class this semester, but I’d never met the third prior to our meeting.

We fleshed out my brief proposal outline (PTSD and educational response to intervention in socioeconomically-disadvantaged high school students), and the third prof expressed concern that I’d be writing the lit review without first taking any graduate-level writing classes.

“I was first author on a couple academic articles I published with a professor as an undergrad, and my thesis won the psych department’s award for best senior thesis.”

She nodded.

“As for creative writing,” I continued, “I have a novel coming out in December.”

Everyone stared at me. “A novel?”

“And, uh, I’ve had almost two dozen short stories published.”

They all smiled and agreed that yeah, I have the writing part of the thesis covered. Now to just do the actual research and hope my proposal gets past the review board next year.

Fall goal review

Every three months or so, I take a look at the progress I’ve made on the goals I set for myself at the start of the year.

  1. Publish my novel, The Lone Wolf.
  2. Average a short story acceptance each month, with the majority of them in paying markets.
  3. Put out a short story collection.
  4. Get another novel ready to query – either 2012’s NaNoWriMo novel, or the one I’ve been working on for a couple years, A Handful of Wishes.
  5. Read 100 books this year.
  6. Kayak the entire length of the Hennepin Canal.

So, how am I doing?

  1. Yes! Evolved Publishing picked it up, and release date is just two months away, on December 2nd.
  2. I’ve pretty much sucked at this. Grad school is taking up a lot of my time (“ambitious” is how one of my thesis committee profs described my academic aspirations), and between reading, class papers, and thesis research, I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like, and I don’t even currently have any submissions out.
  3. Us, Together: A Short Story Collection came out in June. I’m really hoping to have another one, The Futility of Loving a Soldier, out by the end of October, and definitely by the time The Lone Wolf launches.
  4. The first chapter of A Handful of Wishes will be included in the back of The Lone Wolf, so I guess I have to keep moving with it. The semester ends at Thanksgiving, so I’ll have a month to really focus on it, then 3-4 months for edits, before the April deadline for a Christmas 2014 release.
  5. I’m at 57 books this year – 16 books behind. Again, I’m hoping to knock a bunch out when the semester ends. I currently have hundreds on my Kindle to choose from, so this shouldn’t be difficult.
  6. Yeah, not happening. No fulltime permanent job = no new vehicle to transport a kayak = no kayak. Grr.

If you’ve set goals for yourself, how’re they going so far this year? 

The 99-day plan

I’ve been a bit swamped the past week, between reading for class and papers and a big project and a thesis proposal and a brief trip out of town. So for today’s post, I’m copying author Christopher C. Starr’s post about ninjas following their dreams in the 99 days left this year.

Basically, it comes down to three questions:

  1. What results do you want to get over the next 99 days?
  2. What sacrifices will you make to get these results?
  3. If something is going to stop you, what will it be?

1. What results do you want to get over the next 99 days? I want to sell a ton of copies of my novel, The Lone Wolf, which comes out December 2nd. I also want to sell a ton of copies of my other stories,”Tim and Sara,” Us, Together: A Short Story Collection, and The Futility of Loving a Soldier, which I’m still editing. Possibly another longer short story as well. Which means I need to write.

2. What sacrifices will you make to get these results? Basically, it comes down to time management. I need to stop wasting so much time on the internet and just write and edit. And I especially need to get this down because after my novel comes out, I’ll need to focus on finishing and editing the next one (due the end of May), as well as really hitting the research on my master’s thesis (due in August).

3. If something is going to stop you, what will it be? Two things, probably: procrastination and just too much going on, especially when I start working again. I’m taking two classes this semester, which generally aren’t bad if I stay on top of them, but that’s the problem; the readings can pile up very quickly.

What’s your 99-day plan?

Review: Stories from a Teacher by J. Flores

I’m currently in grad school, working on my MSW with a focus on school social work. I was sitting in my policy class the other night and overheard a classmate say, “When I was young I thought I could change the world. Now I know better.”

Of the twenty people in my cohort, I’m pretty much the only one interested in policy; everyone else is going for direct service provision. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

As our professor explained: DSP are at the bottom of the waterfall to help people who’ve already been swept over the edge, while policy people are building a barrier to keep people from going over.

When it comes to education, I’ve done the DSP route. My short story collection, Us, Together, tells about some of the students I’ve worked with, of what they’ve faced. I know what it’s like working with at-risk kids everyone’s given up on.

I also know how much work there is to be done, and as I wrote in a paper for class recently, I’m not giving up. For better or worse, naive as it may seem, I’m going to make a difference, but I feel I’m better off in policy analysis and formation rather than teaching.

Sometimes I feel like that’s taking the easy way out, because teaching is hard. Excruciatingly, heartbreakingly difficult. If you’ve never been in a classroom, officially responsible for subject matter but becoming a counselor, a parole officer, a shoulder to cry on; or if you have, and need articulation of what keeps you going or what made you stop, I highly recommend Stories From a Teacher by J. Flores.

He chronicles his four years teaching high school English, told in about two dozen stories. He writes about the ups and downs, the humor and the despair:

  • meeting with a parent who wanted his son’s grade changed from passing to failing, to teach him that life is tough.
  • joking with his students about skipping school, until one girl missed because of a miscarriage.
  • guiding the students to open up about their troubled home life and helping them find help.
  • turning a story about his college days into a lesson on alcohol consumption.
  • making an impact on a student and not realizing it until he meets her again five years later.

Each story teaches a lesson, either to the kids or to the author himself – and often, it may not be a lesson he wants to learn. Basically, this book boils down to: life is hard for these kids. How much of himself can he truly give to make it better? Can he actually make it better?

And that’s something I ask myself too: can I make it better? I’m not sure, but I’m damn well going to try.

Postmodernism and the unreliable narrator

In my Human Behavior in the Social Environment class, we recently had a great discussion about what paradigm we agree with most:

  • positivism – using a rational approach, we can figure out the cause and effect of everything (if I promote my book on Twitter, I’ll increase sales)
  • post-positivism – using a rational approach, we can figure out correlations; there are too many variables to be definite about anything (I had increased sales after promoting my book on Twitter, but I also promoted it on a Saturday night when more people were home and online, and several people retweeted my posts who normally don’t, and…)
  • postmodern – everyone’s experience is unique and therefore no conclusions can be drawn (I had increased sales after promoting my book on Twitter, but you may not)

Most of us seemed to fall between post-positivism and postmodernism – we think it’s useful to have categories for people in order to identify them (posting about your book on Twitter vs not posting, maintaining a blog vs not having a webpage), but you need to take into account personal differences (having 100 real people following you on Twitter vs 10,000 bots, blogging consistently for 5 years vs not updating it, etc).

Just because I had a good (or bad) experience with Twitter doesn’t mean you will, but that doesn’t make what happened for me any less valid than what happened to you.

Or does it?

This is where the unreliable narrator comes in. What if that narrator’s experience is completely invalid? Just because he perceived something one way, doesn’t mean that’s how it really is.

I think of the male MC in my upcoming novel, The Lone Wolf (out December 2nd from Evolved Publishing). Andrew is every bit the unreliable narrator; he views the world through a very narrow lens, shaped by an abusive childhood. Everyone in his life needs protection, whether they want it or not. Everyone is either a saint on a pedestal, or a fallen hero; there’s no middle ground for him, no shades of gray – including how he sees himself.

As a writer, it’s my job to portray the story through Andrew’s eyes, while subtly letting the reader know his POV is flawed.

What’s your view on postmodernism? Is everyone’s POV just as valid as the next, or do we as readers and writers need to be aware that the way someone sees the world is wrong? Do you prefer reliable or unreliable narrators – and is there even really such a thing as a reliable narrator, when no one truly knows what’s going on in everyone else’s heads?

Midyear writing goal review

Every three months or so, I like to post how I’m progressing on the goals I set for myself in January.

  1. Publish my novel, The Lone Wolf.  I can cross this off because it’ll be out December 2nd, 2013, from Evolved Publishing. Yay me!
  2. Average a short story acceptance each month, with the majority of them in paying markets.  This has not been going so well. I’ve only had one acceptance so far this year (to a token market), “Us, Together” in Fiction365. Okay, two maybe if you count “The Business Trip” reprinted in Free Flash Fiction‘s anthology, The Flashing Type. However, I haven’t really been sending any shorts out. I wrote a bunch for May’s Story-A-Day, so maybe I can get some of those out soon.
  3. Put out a short story collection.  Yes, did this too! I released Us, Together: A Short Story Collection about a week ago. And I’m currently working through edits on another one, The Futility of Loving a Soldier, which should be out – let’s just say soon.
  4. Get another novel ready to query – either 2012’s NaNoWriMo novel, or the one I’ve been working on for a couple years, A Handful of Wishes. I haven’t had a chance to work on this, but I’ll be getting my butt in gear soon because I promised my editor I’d have A Handful of Wishes to him by April 2014 so it can be published December 2014.
  5. Read 100 books this year. I’m currently at 43. I should be at 49 by now, but considering how busy I’ve been with school and work and writing and my kid, I’m not doing too bad.
  6. Kayak the entire length of the Hennepin Canal.  Still no job, so still no kayak to do this. And no time to do it either. Maybe I can do small pieces as part of some weekend adventures later this summer?

If you’ve set goals for yourself, how’re they going so far this year?

A non-writer’s perspective on writing

Last week in class, we discussed David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” graduation speech about choices – choosing to feel that everything happens to make your day bad, or choosing to realize that other people are living their own lives independent of your wishes.

I remarked that I actually enjoy waiting in line because it gives me a chance to observe people and try to figure out their back stories and motivations – something I’m guessing most writers do as well. Every situation becomes a potential plot, every person a potential character.

Tonight in class we had to come up with a word for the professor to associate with our names: “an instrument you play, a place you’ve lived, something about you like writing.” When it was my turn, I said, “I guess I’ll be the writer.” The professor asked me what I wrote. “I’ve had about twenty short stories published, and last week I signed a contract for a novel.” Gasps of amazement and exclamations of “oh, wow” ensued, as well as a round of congratulations.

After class, the professor asked me about my novel; he’d always wanted to write one. Another classmate admitted it was on her bucket list too. She’d taken a writing class at one point, but couldn’t imagine actually writing – and editing – a whole novel.

For these people, as well as coworkers and friends I’ve talked to, it doesn’t matter that I don’t have an agent or a contract with a Big 6/5 publisher. What matters is that I wrote a novel. I finished it, polished it, and found a publisher who wants to help me share it with the world.

So if you want to write a novel, or learn Urdu, or fly a plane, do it. Don’t worry about finding a publisher, or getting to India, or solo circumnavigation of the Earth. Don’t worry about the people telling you that you can’t do it, or it’ll suck, or what’s the point?

Take pride in your accomplishment, in something you’ve done that 90% or more of people will never do despite wanting to.

What’s something you want to do but never have, and what’s stopping you from doing it?

The next stage

When I graduated from college with a BS in Psych and a BA in French, I joined Teach for America, a national teaching program that places recent college grads in low-income, high-risk schools in order to raise student achievement. I spent two years teaching high school English and remedial reading, but burned out due to a less-than-stellar administration, and went on to other things.

The beauty of Teach for America isn’t that it gets people into the classroom; it’s that it gets them hooked on fixing education inequality no matter what career path they take. My fellow teachers in the program have gone on to be policy analysts, principals, and lawyers all fighting to ensure that one day, all children will have the opportunity to receive an excellent education.

And I’m no different. Today is the first day of grad school for me; I’ve enrolled in a three-year, part-time MSW program designed for working professionals with day jobs and families and obligations, the goal being to get my school social work endorsement so I can continue to help at-risk students.

So I’d like to apologize in advance if posts slow down. I try to have 3 posts/week, but between classes, work and trying to get a better job, family, writing, reading, those trips to the gym I’m paying for but that never seem to happen, I’m not sure if I can keep it up.

Writing is important to me, as is connecting with readers and other writers, so I’m going to make a big effort to stop procrastinating and actually write whenever I have the chance – before work, on breaks, evenings when the kid isn’t around. Preferably while still getting at least 5 hours of sleep at night.

When your life is hectic, how do you find balance between work and school and family and hobbies?

Sunshine Award blog hop

Author Sophia Jones tagged me this time, for some random questions:

Favorite Color: Blue. Light blue, dark blue, bright blue.  I also love the combination of a blue sky with a few thunderheads drifting over an asphalt road surrounded by prairie in late summer – such a bright mixture of blues, greens, and yellows.

Tree along the Missouri River south of Bismarck, North Dakota.

Favorite Animal: Jellyfish. And penguins. Possibly lab rats. I would love to get a pair and teach them tricks, but my cat, Sappho, would probably eat them.

I plan to be reincarnated as a jellyfish.

Actually, no, she wouldn’t. She’s old and fat (the vet politely said she’s a “full-figured lady”), and if she can’t be bothered to catch the chipmunk living in the front flowerbeds, I doubt she’d go for a rat either.

Favorite Number: 17 and e. Whenever I crochet a blanket, I use e for my sides ratio.

Favorite Non-Alcoholic Drink: Iced tea, unsweetened because I’m a Yankee.

Facebook or Twitter: Twitter for writing stuff, Facebook for real-life stuff.

Your Passion: Road trips; I would live in my car if I could. And education equality. I start grad school in a couple weeks, going for a master‘s in social work, and today my adviser suggested I go for a school social work endorsement, to which I said, “More classes? Hell yeah, sign me up.” I’m slowly writing my students’ stories, and some day I’d like to publish a big collection of them.

Giving or Getting Presents: Giving. I don’t like getting them, actually. I especially like giving them as guerrilla acts of kindness.

Favorite Day: I tend to be really phlegmatic and don’t get excited about much, including days: Saturdays, birthdays (I prefer to not even acknowledge my birthday, not because I worry about getting old but because it’s just another day), Christmas, etc. Days are days.

Favorite Flowers:  I love blue hydrangeas. And the massive sunflower fields in North Dakota in late summer. 

Heaven = fields of sunflowers as far as the eye can see

 And once again, I’m tagging everyone who reads this. Ha!

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