I first arrived on Hope’s campus in 2001 as a student. I remember standing in line in front of Dykstra Hall with my roommate, waiting to get checked in and get our keys. A bee buzzed around us in the late summer heat and humidity and I worried it would get stuck in my frizzy hair and make a home with us for the year in Dykstra 345.
Fast-forward seven years and I once again arrived at Hope, this time as an employee, the newly-named Office Manager for the English department. I wouldn’t start working with the History department for a few years still, and I thrilled in my shiny new office–a big step up from my cubicle in my previous job. I took a picture of the nameplate outside the office with my name on it.
Now, fifteen years after my first introduction to Hope, I’ve resigned my position as Office Manager to say hello to a new, unknown adventure.
No doubt I will miss many things about working at Hope. But most of all I’ll miss the people. My faculty have been nothing short of amazing. And the students? The students! Geesh, I could fall over from the greatness of our students. It’s been an honor to get to know you, folks. Love you all very much.
As a writer, there is often nothing more terrifying than sharing my work with others. Whether I’m in a formal class workshop or in a relaxed setting with fellow writer friends, my anxiety always finds a way to tag along for the ride. The critique process has a way of making me feel exposed, so exposed that I want to sink through the floor when I hear someone say that the main character in my story seems one-dimensional or that the ending that I worked on for eons comes off as trite. Having to critique another’s piece can be daunting too. There’s an internal pressure to be insightful, and I struggle at times to articulate why I think something is or isn’t working. On more than occasion I have thrown out lame comments that make me wince when I think about them hours later.
As nerve-wracking as being part of a writing community can be, I have learned over the years, as a creative writing major at Hope and as part of a MFA cohort at Boston University, how vital it is in both bettering my work and forming a network of people who challenge me.
To ward off bouts of shame-spiraling, I try to keep in mind the benefits of workshopping, one of the most essential being that there are more minds than just my own at my disposal. When I am at my wits’ end because my plot has evaporated into the ether, it’s a comfort to have the resources of others’ imaginations to come up with potential solutions for the problematic.
Once I’ve been working on a piece for a while things tend to become muddled, and it can be difficult to put my finger on what doesn’t feel right. It’s good to have people who aren’t also trapped in the mire of my self-doubt. And while I may not want to act on every suggestion I receive, I am comforted by having pages of notes about possible next steps after a critique session.
Being in different writing groups has also improved my ability not only to constructively critique another’s work but also to be a better critic of my own. Once I get past the thought of workshop as something to dread, it becomes an opportunity to immerse myself in different ways of thinking. While it may not seem I have anything more to go on than a feeling when it comes to someone’s story at first, often hearing another’s opinion causes me to make sense of my own.
Workshopping becomes a team sport rather than an individual event. And by helping others hone their writing, certain truths about my own can be revealed if I’m open to it. I may find that another writer’s language is clearer and livelier than mine, encouraging me to declutter my pieces of ungainly metaphors, which wrap their sea monster tentacles around the vessel that is my story. Making these types of observations keeps me mindful about what I am trying to achieve and how I want to get there.
Most importantly, I believe being in community is the best way to stay humble and striving as a writer.
It’s a system of checks and balances on the ego. While I would be dishonest if I didn’t say I enjoy having workshops where I feel like I’ve won all the gold stars, the story a hit, I don’t learn as much from them as the ones that are, in my mind, total train wrecks. When done right, critiques move writers toward development and growth. Though it might be humiliating, a “bad” workshop pushes me to rally and be resilient when facing rejection—something that happens to writers on a regular basis. Though I’d rather isolate myself and wallow after these experiences, my writing communities have always been there to bolster my confidence.
As a Hope professor once said, we need our fellow writers to be both our cheerleaders and coaches. We are there to help each other get up when we stumble and then to move on. So in those moments I feel exposed when workshopping, I try to remember all the good that can come from it. Anxiety, be gone.
This past January, on an icy Sunday afternoon, I took my husband on a hot date. I know, perhaps not a typical first sentence for the English Department blog. Stay with me.
Somehow I’d snagged front-row tickets to see Ira Glass—yes, THE Ira Glass—at WMU’s Snow Auditorium. If you’re not familiar, Ira Glass is host and executive producer of the long-running, highly-lauded podcast, “This American Life.” Josh and I also happen to think he’s one of the most precocious, on-point, and winsome public figures we’ll encounter in our lifetime, and we’re pretty picky about our public figures.
Though we’ve been podcast fans of all sorts for years, it’s become a ritual to listen to “This American Life” while we do the evening dishes, clean up the day’s mess, set out the next day’s lunch. We find the episodes entertaining, certainly, but they also provide us with a type of news we’re hungry for—truly, sometimes even infuriatingly, complex—good journalism, funky journalism, raw and real, stories and people and scenarios that make us question, and curse, and laugh, and cry. We regularly do all four of those things as we bend over the dishwasher or spread a bagel with peanut butter and jelly because these well-crafted episodes include such a gamut of the human experience, from the retelling of a hilariously chaotic Peter Pan production to an up-close exploration of the devastating state of segregation within our public school system. “This American Life” is not messing around.
I’d already decided I wanted to do a class podcast with 358, Intermediate Creative Nonfiction, in the spring semester, since literary essay-writing and this kind of journalism—sometimes called immersive or literary journalism—have much in common. I knew that we’d model our episode after “This American Life,” and I’d been brainstorming with Josh which episodes were the best to assign and enjoy/analyze/steal from as a class. But for whatever reason, when I bought the tickets last fall to see Ira Glass, I thought I was going on a really great date that kind of sort of happened to tie into this thing I was going to try in one of my classes. Front row tickets, man. With my man, man. My kids’ favorite sitter lined up and a trip out of town, man. HOT, right? (No joke, I’m living large here, folks.)
But then we arrive and take our seats and the lights go down and from the minute Ira Glass steps on that stage, it’s as if he knew there was a gal on the front row teaching a creative nonfiction class and planning to incorporate a podcast assignment. It was as if he had designed his talk to teach me how to teach this assignment. His whole talk—riveting from the first word to the last, not only because the guy is wryly comedic but also intelligent, kind, self-aware, and convicted—encompassed why they saw a need for “This American Life” in broadcast journalism, what they hope each episode is doing to fulfill that need, what they look for, where the material comes from, how they craft an episode, how that process has evolved, and why the narratives in “This American Life” are so important—even necessary—in our lives. He talks semiotics and storytelling. He speaks at length about his own undergraduate education. He shares highs and lows of his time in broadcast journalism as well as thoughts on the recent boom in and popularity of podcasts.
By and large, Ira Glass gives an enormous craft talk. He teaches me how to teach what a podcast of this sort is, what to aim for, and how to hit it.
Of course I’d come without paper and pen (who brings that stuff on a date?) so there I was, on the front row, madly tapping out notes on my phone, which galled the women next to me into several sidelong glares and a couple tornadic sighs. Did she think I was texting? I wanted to lean over and say, “This is bugging me, too. You have no idea. I need a whole notebook and my best ballpoint right now, not two ridiculous thumbs!” but I was too busy typing out what I could summarize, key points and main ideas, juicy bits and stunning bits, to commiserate. His talk went nearly two hours, what with excerpts from several episodes and a Q&A with the packed auditorium. Josh and I both said we could have—would have gladly, with bonus overtime for the sitter—listened to him for several more hours.
We didn’t want to leave. (Now that’s a hot date. Am I right?)
The next “podcast” class session with my creative nonfiction folks, I was bursting. I stammered over myself in excitement. I mean, I’d sat at the feet (yes, literally) of the Master Podcaster Himself!
And my dear, beguiled students—all eight of them—were game.
They took it in stride (…that their professor was coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs, so to speak). They invested themselves. They made it their own. On their own. (I cut the kite strings early so it could truly be something of their own making.) They rose to the occasion. They took risks. None of them had done this kind of podcast, which requires a very specific sort of writing that’s a hybrid of the journalistic and literary. Where they collaborated and had to rely and build on the work of their classmates. Where their voices were on display in a digital format. For all to hear.
These 358 students worked together to create a 35-minute podcast with several “acts” (segments that fit together and build around a theme). They each had something to contribute. And, as far as I can tell, they walked away with a greater understanding of (and deep appreciation for) the exact kind of creativity, endurance, patience, thoughtfulness, teamwork, and tech-savvy it takes to pull off every single episode of a podcast like “This American Life.”
We all learned a lot this semester, not least of which is how easily a hot date can turn into a “craft” moment you didn’t even know you needed…which sometimes can turn into teaching-and- learning moments you did nothing—minus the happen-chance to be in the right place at the right time—to deserve. (Maybe we should all go on more dates?)
Please enjoy the following 10-minute excerpt of the podcast, whose theme is “Growth,” from the spring semester’s 358 class. This act begins with a portion of an interview with Hope biology professor Dr. Greg Murray by Elizabeth Ensink and then proceeds to writing and interview by Madison Veverka (with her grandmother) with folded interview questions by Josue Guitron; final editing and production was done by Katie McMorris and Elizabeth Ensink.
A friend recently posted a screenshot of a text debate she had regarding the morality of Severus Snape, a character from the wildly popular Harry Potter series. (I feel weird explaining this, but who knows? Maybe not everyone is as obsessed with Harry Potter as I am.)
Of course, I jumped in: “Snape is one of the best characters in the series precisely because he is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad.’ He’s not a hero and he’s not a villain. He is all of us.”
Several years ago I took a class here at Hope called “wicked,” taught by Jesus Montaño. It specifically looked at “anti-heroes” in literature. We discussed a number of titles, from The Lord of the Rings to Lolita, from Harry Potter to Darkly Dreaming Dexter.
The class looked at character development, context and historical literary connections. Our discussions often turned a bit personal, since everything we experience filters through our own individual lenses. It taught me a lot about myself.
Wicked taught me that more often than not, our decisions are not either good or bad, but rather they are both good and bad. That life experiences usually contain both pleasure and pain.
My husband and I have been processing a possible job change for him. We’ve listed pros and cons to both job opportunities. We’ve discussed how we might adjust our schedules and responsibilities depending on what decision he makes.
But at the end of the day, neither of us feels any closer to knowing what the “right” answer is. My thoughts turned to the debate about Severus Snape and I realized that in this situation, there probably isn’t a right or wrong decision. Both choices will be both right and wrong, for various reasons.
How, then, do we deal with this ambiguity in life? How do we “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” as Isaiah 1:17 asks us to do?*
For me, it comes down to that third word in the verse, the tiny one, just two letters: do. It doesn’t tell me to be right, just to do right. Seek justice. Learn.
Sometimes we learn by achieving. Sometimes we learn by failing. Sometimes we find justice. Sometimes we endlessly seek. But perhaps it’s the seeking that makes it all worthwhile.
*I’m not a biblical scholar, nor do I particularly believe in taking one Bible verse out of context to prove a point. And yet here I am kinda sorta doing it nonetheless. So what. I contain multitudes.
The Hope College Academy of American Poets (AAP) Prize award is funded by the University and College Poetry Prize program of the AAP. The academy began the program in 1955 at 10 schools, and now sponsors nearly 200 annual prizes for poetry at colleges and universities nationwide. Poets honored through the program have included Mark Doty, Louise Gluck, Joy Harjo, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Sylvia Plath, Gjertrud Schnackenberg and Charles Wright. The winning poet receives $100.
Judged by Katherine Bode-Lang
Katherine Bode-Lang’s first book of poetry is The Reformation (2014) winner of the 2014 American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize, chosen by Stephen Dunn. Ms. Bode-Lang graduated from Hope College in 2002 with a major in English and Women’s Studies. In 2002 she was the first winner of the AAP prize at Hope College.
Elizabeth Ensink’s “The Effect of a Sestina on Field Notes”
Ms. Bode-Lang Writes:
“The Effect of a Sestina on Field Notes” is a rare poem that takes its form as an expansive gift, not a new set of confines. With striking images drawing from nature, music, and the poet’s own life, this poem questions what we might learn from all our observing, asking, and writing. In the surprise interweaving of scientific field notes with the sestina form, it seems the writing of the poem itself might be the answer. In this beautifully crafted poem, there’s an attention not only to the form but also to the music of the language at every turn.
The Effect of a Sestina on Field Notes
40.4220˚N, 105.7411 ˚W
Objective: To explore answers on a human page. Conditions: In the cold soil, a plant clings
pale green; its thriving forms a text.
Survival as a question
sings in the wind in eighth notes
and finds an answer where roots connect.
To find truth, the dots must connect
between each thinly crinkled page.
The best ones have notes
sprawled in the margins like clinging
lichen spreading across stones. Questions
grow in rocky soil, with texture.
Methods: When you sent a text
message last night, it didn’t connect
until five a.m. and your question
was past, but I wrote it on a page
of my notebook where it clings
in my mind’s furrows. Field notes:
The black rosy finch chirps notes,
singing soprano without a text
to follow. A pika clings
to its cache of seeds for survival, connects
burrows underground. A field guide page
describes their behavior, without questioning.
Maybe the phlox questions
its brevity: two months to flower. Notes
wither too. Decayed pages
in my trashcan, your handwritten text
with no roots that connect
below the surface and cling–
Not just grow and spread, but cling–
to rocks in all the alpine questions
screaming in the wind. Connect
mountaintops to earthworms and note
each detail with pencil-printed text
and then turn to a new page.
Discussion: Don’t cling to these notes.
Questions, forget-me-nots, bloom from a text,
and human truth connects above the tree-line page.
Tommy D’Addario’s “Anniversary”
Ms. Bode-Lang writes:
Beautiful in its simplicity, “Anniversary” is sewn together with repetition that echoes the movement of what the poem describes—gulls, wind, a running child. Whatever grand gestures we might assume from the title are broken down by the poem’s spare language and images that, united, convey the weight and beauty of this time. There’s a real tenderness to this poem, and I appreciate its quiet attention to a moment.
A man and a child go where the water meets the sand,
where the water meets also the air, and the gulls who slip
the seam between all three. And the gulls are cotton
snared among the dune grass, or they are kites cut loose
into the air, or they are buoys bobbing out to sea. And the child
points at the gulls and cannot take the point back,
and runs among the gulls, who slip the seam between
the child and the clouds, who cannot take the winds
back. The child names the clouds and cannot take
the names back, and lies face-up to watch them pass.
The man breathes it all in and tastes salt, and with the salt
he remembers, and he cannot take the remembering back,
just as he loves the child and cannot take the love
back, and slips the seam between the two.
There are a number of reasons this is insane. Here are a few:
It requires running 26.2 miles. MILES.
The marathon got its name when a man ran (26.2 miles) from Marathon to Athens . . . and then died.
The farthest I’ve ever run is half that distance. Twelve years ago. I probably haven’t run 26.2 miles COMBINED since.
And yet I signed up. I admit, I like a challenge. Which might have been why, back in 2008, I signed up to do NaNoWriMo on October 30, just hours, really, before I would be required to write 50,000 words in one month.
It was hard! Exhilarating and hard. I often had to plan my day around my writing. I woke up early, stayed up late and sometimes neglected other responsibilities in lieu of writing.
But it was totally worth it.
At the end of the month, I had a completed novel. 50,000 words of my own. And life lessons I would cherish forever.
I learned how to manage my time better. I learned how to make a plan and stick to it. I learned how to wing it when need be.
And I learned that sometimes, you just take it one day at a time.
Of course, I could write a novel sitting on my couch and laying in bed. Running a marathon, I’ve heard, involves actual running.
Today marks the final day of classes for the Spring 2016 semester. For many of our seniors, it’s the final day of classes for their undergraduate experience!
We’ve had the honor of working with 45 amazing students who are graduating this year. Some graduated in December of 2015, many will walk in our May commencement ceremonies and a few will finish up their work as July graduates.
No matter their path, we’ve been grateful to walk part of it with them. Please help us congratulate these outstanding people:
Maribeth Van Hecke
As a student of English at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, I was attracted to the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. His rendering of the character Young Goodman Brown was compelling to me.
Of particular importance is Goodman Brown’s search for the truth, and his journey into the forest where he confronts the reality of human existence.
Growing up in the east end of Freetown in my native Sierra Leone, I was always fascinated by masquerades. As a young boy trying to make sense of masquerades, some representing different tribal, spiritual, and cultural affiliations, I always wondered about the identity of the person behind the mask. I would quietly question the necessity of the mask. In my young mind I would ponder on the fact that if the masquerade signifies community involvement and entertainment, why should the identity of the person be concealed?
It seemed to me that the mask offers the person behind it a tremendous place to hide because of the barrier it presents to the community to recognize the person, his motives, and the reason for his actions. Because of this tension between knowledge and ignorance, the masker is in a position of power from where he could not only manipulate but, more importantly, deceive members of the community who are ignorant of his identity.
As I now ruminate on these issues, I again recall Hawthorne’s character who, in his quest for the truth, ended up losing his sanity because he could not handle the reality of what he saw.
It seems to me that perhaps Hawthorne is using Goodman Brown to point out a particular truth about our lives, and I begin to suspect that there is a connection between truth and masking. In my childhood days, I was troubled by the fact that the person behind the mask could clearly identity each and every member of the community and yet we could not identify him, except select members of his group. This sense of exclusion and secrecy bothered me, and so, I came to associate masks with suspicion and secrecy.
However, with time, I realized that perhaps I should reverse my focus on the significance of masks.
Rather than focusing on what the mask conceals, it may be more interesting to concentrate on what the mask reveals.
This struck me as a critical fact because after all aren’t we are all like masquerades? Don’t we all have different personas that we put on for different occasions? From the pious persona we put on in church on Sundays to the scholarly persona we display in front of our students during the week, aren’t we all masking?
Is this what life is about? Do we all put on masks and conceal our true identities behind them? If this is true then I wonder how my students perceive me. Is my identity that of the professor they see in class? Are they making a distinction between the persona of the professor and the persona I display with colleagues at Butch’s restaurant, for instance?
One may say that humanity is a combination of multiple personas. If this is true, is it ever possible to determine the true identity of people? Can we truly know one another? Our colleagues, our students, our kids, and our partners?
Perhaps this is not the essential question. Maybe, once again, I should shift my focus on masks and masquerades. And so, as I grew older, I re-frame the question: is masking necessary? Is there any value to masking? For some of us interested in searching for the truth of existence, isn’t masking an impediment to the process? Can we ever know the truth in the face of multiple personas that mask character and conceal identity?
And so going back to Hawthorne’s short story, it strikes me that maybe there is value in masking after all. If we cannot handle the naked truth, that deception exists in many forms and that it is integral to human existence, then we, like Young Goodman Brown, do need masks. Can we handle what people really think of us? Do we really want to know what lies behind every friendly smile and greeting?
Now that I am in mid-life I have come to appreciate masking and masquerades. I have come to realize that in spite of the manipulation, it is good for my sanity. It shields me from the rude shock of knowing the truth. I have accepted it as my safety valve. I take solace in the fact that in the world of international politics, it is called diplomacy. However I wonder whether this make me a diplomat after all.