Thursday, December 6, 2012

If Being a Teen Doesn't Make You Want to Cut Yourself, Try Being a Teen RIGHT NOW

The worst time of my life was probably seventh grade.

I mean, it was the worst time of my life apart from the time a couple of years ago. That was when I was savagely attacked, in-person and online, for the pettiest thing ever (I dared to say I was "dismayed" by a hostile, political speech in school. This after the one thing I said I didn't want to hear was a hostile, political speech). I had my career damaged and my name dragged through the mud and I got tons of death threats. I was cyberbullied as a grownup! And yes, it made me want to hurt myself. But anyway. It's all material. I used that material (book forthcoming). I have tried to make the best of it.

That nastiness aside, what still matters now to all of us is that seventh grade, if we force ourselves to remember it, bites the big one. Most of us can agree on that.

It's a nowhere grade at a frustrating age. It's zits and braces, uncoolness and unrequited love, and a horribly early curfew. It's realizing that no, you are not the smartest kid in school any longer, and life is just going to get hard from here on in, and oh yeah, you have five hours of homework every night.

Seventh grade sucked back in the early 1980s (and any other time, I'm sure). But seventh grade seriously sucks right now. 

Why? Two words: social networking. Or, comment boards. Or, anonymous incivility. Or, the Interwebs. Or, smart phones.

We didn't have that stuff when I was 13. Thank the Lord. The worst we had were prank calls on princess phones, or passing notes and giving each other dirty looks in the classroom. And that was bad enough. That was pure pain.

Photo from 12/6/2012 (see link below)

Imagine the extent of the pain now, when countless, faceless creeps can send scary messages right to your inbox, or post to your Facebook wall, or spread rumors about you on comment boards or publish your address for the world to see. These freaky people, conveniently hiding behind nicknames and avatars, can say the worst things about you, and those things might be true or they might be false, but guess what? It doesn't matter because that hell will follow you everywhere. 

It never goes away. You can't crumple and burn these notes. Even if you're only in seventh grade now, those nasty words can get forwarded ad infinitum. They will live forever in the Google cache.  Maybe your tormentors might even threaten to go to your employer with some of their slander. They do that, you know. The haters feed off each other, one-upping the pain, taking it as far as they think can go. 

Need examples? In the news lately have been stories about the infamous Oberlin College Confessional (comment board now defunct? Also see Obie Talk and for more info, visit 

Certain alums have been victims of hateful, horrific mudslinging, name calling, etc. I felt physical pain when I read about this. I was horrified to read the disgusting things people were writing about their peers. After reading, I had to ask that classic question: Why?

Why do people do this to each other? Just because they can? Because other people are doing it? Because it's amusing? Because it makes them feel powerful?

The answers to "why?" do not matter, however. It's pointless to ask why. People never know why they act like savage morons, and they'd likely deny that they did (act like savage morons, that is).

All we can do is say, as people have been saying for time immemorial, if you wouldn't like someone to do that to you, don't do it to another person. We can learn this important lesson way before college. We can learn it before seventh grade--although seventh grade can be the height of meanness. I know: I have a seventh-grader and I have seen some of the horrific stuff the seventh grade is writing about each other.

But for right now, consider how you would feel to have some idiot kid write that you are a "retarded whore" who should die. Imagine that other people chimed in after this (as happened on the Oberlin boards, and as happens routinely in middle school). Picture this going on for years and years of schooling...with the trail of hate following you every day.

This is what it's often like to be a teenager right now: constant status updates, text messages 200 times a day, hours upon hours spent social networking and reading and writing bad stuff about other people. 

It's soul crushing. It's time-wasting. It's hell on earth.

What if you were the parent of a teen who'd been through this? Many parents will tell you they had no idea what was really going on. No idea that people could be so brazenly horrible to one another. No idea who was doing it, or how it could be stopped.

Going to the "authorities" tends to do a little bit less than nothing. We have the right to free speech, after all. We have freedom of expression.  We have the Constitutional right to be assholes who wantonly destroy the life and/or sanity of innocent others. We don't want to take away those rights. Do we?

After I read about Oberlin--where, full disclosure, I originally wanted to attend college, but I never applied because I had the Interview from Hades, wherein a student interviewer yelled at me that I "must be a racist" because I'd worked as a lifeguard at a certain country club; I was traumatized and shocked and crossed Oberlin off my list--I saw in another comment that my own alma mater, Sarah Lawrence, had a notorious board. It's called SLCanon, and I checked it out. It's actually not too bad (some recent comments say that's just because it "got boring," so I have no idea how bad it might have been). 

I was relieved to see mature, thoughtful postings from SLC students about why making anonymous comments is stupid and cowardly and something only "losers" do.

Comments such as: "This website caused so much crisis last time around, so why would people do this again? We are not Regina, Gretchen, and Karen out of "Mean Girls." We left high school to escape this petty, harmful shit, so it should not continue in college. The idea of online gossiping is immature and ridiculous. Grow up, people..."

So that link (above) might be old. It seems this board keep dying and being reborn like some type of insidious phoenix, but the point is that the SLC kids (most of them?) seem to get that anonymous online commentary is just a bunch of troublesome, time-wasting snark borne of self-hatred.

"Don't worry about what other people are saying about you. Be happy!" the SLC kids are saying.

Good advice. I am glad to see that they understand the situation. Now, if only we can get the younger kids logging off and going to meditation class and being jolly, loving people who only see the best in each other.

In the meantime, kids are slashing their wrists because of Facebook and Tumblr and livejournal and their iPhones. I could tell you stories--stories I know all too well.

Yes, it's that serious. But until it happens to you or someone you love, will you do anything about it besides shrug and sniff, "Well, that's too bad, but it's what happens when you dare to be an individual who leaves the house and attends school and has a Facebook account. It's all your own fault..."?

No, it's NOT your own fault, I want to tell these kids; it's the fault of the masses acting like evil sheeple and attacking others to distract from their own faults. It is your fault, however, if you keep doing this to others when you've experienced the pain yourself.

It's absurd to think that we can make ourselves feel better by making others feel bad.

Meanwhile, our electronic age and all the tech tools at our disposal mean it's seventh grade all the time, everywhere.

Could it get any worse? Please don't answer that.

As my own personal activism against cyberbullying, I have a rule: I don't make anonymous comments about other people. I have been through seventh grade, and I've been on the receiving end of hundreds of scary e-mails and blog comments. I've witnessed others going through it, too.

I don't write nasty things about people when I am online--especially people I don't know. It is the least I can do to make the world a better place.

What will you do? How will you help? We have to do something.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Free Lesson in SAT Essay Planning

I spend most Saturdays teaching essay writing for SAT mastery. This week's sample question (a real past prompt from an SAT; the prompts are always generic like this) was:

Do people truly benefit from hardship and misfortune?

There was a paragraph-long lead-in to the question that is supposed to whet the appetite and start giving students a way to tackle the question.

This is what it was:

It is not true that prosperity is better for people than adversity. When people are thriving and content, they seldom feel the need to look for ways to improve themselves or their situation.  Hardship, on the other hand, forces people to closely examine--and possibly change--their own lives and even the lives of others.  Misfortune rather than prosperity helps people to gain a greater understanding of themselves and the world around them. 

First, I should explain that I tend to ignore the lead-in (and advise my students to do the same) because two things usually happen when too much attention is paid to it: 1) it leads to a boring, everyone-is-writing-the-same-thing answer or 2) it can even lead students off topic a bit. Trust me: I have seen it happen. It's a trap, so don't fall for it.

Instead of ingesting the lead-in (beyond a cursory glance), I tell my students to start brainstorming on their own. Start thinking of examples to write about, ideas, quotes, images, etc.

Here is what I came up with for this particular prompt:

REMEMBER! It's important to ignore the knee-jerk, automatic answer, which is YES. Ignore it because you might come up with good material for a less-obvious approach.

Instead, make a YES and a NO list.

We can learn valuable coping skills and life lessons from adversity
We can become more resilient, stronger
More careful, frugal, resourceful
Adversity can be a much-needed "kick in the pants"
After experiencing trauma, we can tell instructive stories that help other people
Others can learn from us
Who benefits from adversity? War profiteers. Oil barons, politicians, weapon makers

Trauma can be, well, traumatizing...for life!
scars, injuries
We might never recover emotionally, financially, socially
could lose family and all stories of past
hardship often causes division in families and societies
Example of returning Vietnam vets ostracized
Refugees' experiences
Economic crisis in USA currently causing hatred between social classes

Literary examples
Night by Elie Wiesel
Many 19th century novels (particularly ones about orphans...Dickens novels would be good)
The Kite Runner
novels about dystopia
World War I novels prove that adversity doesn't improve people; it makes them nihilistic

Historical/social examples
survivors of war
The Greatest Generation
people affected by wars in Bosnia, Cambodia, N. Korea, Africa, Vietnam

Quotes that come to mind
That which does not kill me makes me stronger--a Latin quote, now appropriated by Kelly Clarkson for a song
If you think of any other quotes, jot them down.
If you're really stuck, make up a quote! Seriously. Quotes are good ways to get started!

Spend 4 minutes or so brainstorming. Come up with more examples than you can possibly use. This is important because it will allow you to pick and choose the best examples, and also, based on the strength of your brainstormed examples, you will be able to craft a thesis.

Remember, you need to brainstorm before you have a thesis. You need to write a thesis before you can write an essay. I can't say that enough.

You must invest 1/5 of your time in planning. The rest is for writing. If you've planned well, the writing can be done in about 18 minutes. You only have 25. My math may be screwy (hey, I am an English teacher), but you get the point.

Also remember that your thesis MUST use words from the assignment question. This is to 1) prove that you are indeed answering the precise question posed and 2) keep you on track.

A sample (basic) thesis here:

People do not "truly benefit from hardship and misfortune."

How I actually wrote my thesis (with transitions et al): Use first part of thesis (above) and add the all-important "because."

Example: ...because the potential devastating effects of adverse conditions such as war and poverty can be impossible for many to overcome.

Once I have my thesis, I can plan my paragraphs.

Body graf one will be on Elie Wiesel.

I write my topic sentence (the one sentence I know for sure will be read in the entire paragraph):

Here it is:

Elie Wiesel, author of the Holocaust memoir, Night, survived years in a World War II concentration camp and wrote a highly-acclaimed, bestselling book about the experience, yet Wiesel would likely never agree to go back in time and relive the horror that ultimately made him a literary star.

Second body paragraph is on other survivors (of war, famine, displacement, and abject poverty) and how these survivors, like Wiesel, would likely not agree that the hardship was a benefit to them.

I actually have a third graf in this essay--I don't usually do that since there is rarely time, but this topic is easy enough and lends itself well to refutation, so I went for it. My third graf topic explains how some survivors are clearly more resilient, persistent and resourceful than others, but most people experience long-term trauma, with lasting physical and mental scars. 

Good luck with your own essay.

I will model mine for my students, because I think it's helpful, but honestly, modeling can feel ridiculous, sort of like showing off. It's not; this topic is not too difficult, but I found myself veering off track and erasing many lines. The point is: I model my mistakes, as well. I show how I almost lost control of my topic, but then self-corrected.

No one is perfect, after all.

The Beautiful Anthology makes the New York Times!

I am thrilled to announce that THE BEAUTIFUL ANTHOLOGY made the New York Times!

Under Holiday Gift Guide, 2012, and in Weekend Arts, our precious, striking collection made the Best Bathroom Books category, and there is a short but lovely mention by Dwight Garner.

To buy a copy for yourself, to give as a gift, and/or to keep in the bathroom, here's where you need to go:




Thank you to everyone who has read Beautiful and shouted about its greatness. We appreciate all the kind words and reviews.

Special thanks to our publisher, Brad Listi, founder of The Nervous Breakdown and TNB Books, and our brilliantly talented book designer, Charlotte Howard, who madeBeautiful so enticing to pick up.

Thanks of course to our esteemed contributors: Robin Antalek, Jessica Anya Blau, Greg Olear, Marni Grossman, Stephanie St. John, Stephen Walter, Angela Tung, Lance Reynald, Steve Sparshott, M.J. Fievre, Nora Burkey, Gina Frangello, Zoe Zolbrod, Elizabeth Collins, Tyler Stoddard Smith, Matthew Baldwin, James D. Irwin, Catherine Tufariello, Victoria Patterson, Rachel Pollon, J.E. Fishman, Judy Prince, Melissa Febos, Rich Ferguson, Ronlyn Domingue, Uche Ogbuji, and--last but definitely not least--Quenby Moone.

Friday, August 3, 2012

What is Gangnam Style? International Education

This video has had more than 30 million's truly viral and is probably the most popular video in the world right now. Take a look at "Gangnam Style" from the rapper Psy, out of S. Korea.

It's a pretty good video, actually, as those who make videos have noted.

Pay special attention to the dance and the fashion. Why? Because it's good to know what's going on in the world, and it's good to have a clue about more than just American, or Western, trends.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Why Some TV Shows and Movies are Good for Students

I spend much of my time coaching students to get them the best possible score on the SAT essay (the timed response-to-a-generic-prompt that has been part of the new SAT for the past several years). 

A couple of years ago, there was a prompt that related to reality television. Since most kids watch reality TV shows (indeed, most shows on the tube are "reality" based, and kids in general watch quite a bit of TV), most high school students in the USA were thrilled with this essay topic and found it relatively easy to respond to.

Not the type of students I teach. They were at a loss. No idea what to write. No clue. They floundered.

Why? Because they don't watch television. There is no TV viewing allowed in their homes. No movies, either. 

"Hey, most of us are Asian," one kid told me, shrugging his shoulders. "We don't do TV."

These students also don't know anything about classic films--ones I think they should watch, such as Apocalypse Now. I tell them to tell their parents there is some educational viewing out there; there are definitely movies they should see that will only enhance their understanding of the world, and increase their education.

When I say this, they look at me doubtfully, as if to say, "Our parents are never going to buy that."

So I have a list of things I think students should watch, either on TV or DVD. Maybe an official teacher list will help make the case. Or maybe it won't. I can only try.

And yes, reality television shows are on the list.  The CollegeBoard, maker of the SAT, has included a reality TV prompt twice now on the exam (they may not have it again, but you never really know).

My students need to understand the full gamut of what they may be asked to write about; they need to comprehend popular, cultural trends--if only to be able to rail against them. 

If there is anything in life we disagree with or eschew, we need to fully understand it first to be able to craft a compelling refutation. We need to know the other side's view in order to explain why it's bad, why it's wrong, or why it's a waste of our time.

That goes for any subject--whether it is politics, history, literary theory, or the vapidity of today's ubiquitous and cheap reality TV shows.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Confessions of a Tortured Artist--from three years ago.

"Life, friends, is boring," John Berryman wrote in his famous poem, Dream Song #14. In his next breath, he warns: “We must not say so.”

Berryman's mother apparently told him, as he reports, “Ever to confess you’re bored means you have no Inner Resources.” It never fails to amuse me that Berryman’s next line is the self-deprecating and obviously just plain wrong, “I conclude now I have no Inner Resources because I am heavy bored.”

I love this poem because I know exactly what Berryman means. (Or meant.) I get incredibly bored sometimes and find myself just puttering or wasting time reading the same old online news sites, and yet, I definitely have plenty to do. I have, actually, an all-too-active inner life plus a ridiculously full schedule (raising two children, teaching) that takes care of the outside. Why, then, the ennui?

I have determined the source of my feelings of boredom/depression (and one could certainly argue, I think, that they are one and the same, and that Berryman is actually writing about feeling empty, despite what he has, and what he knows).

I think that the emptiness, and sometimes hopelessness, stems from the constant nagging sense I have that, despite all my efforts, despite a spate of talent and good intentions, I am simply not living up to my potential. Somewhere along the way, I fear that I fell behind. I wonder if I will ever catch up. I wonder if I will live to realize any big success at all.

What my Potential is, I am not quite sure. I just know that it has something to do with artistic expression. It has to do with producing a body of work that, somehow, lives on.

*Note: three years after writing this, I have one book that's just released (The Beautiful Anthology). and another set to release (Too Cool for School). I have still have two novels on thumbdrives: the "surefire award-winners" as my agent said, but then never tried to sell because "no one is buying anything." I was despondent about two years ago, thinking about my novel Pretty Freaky languishing on her Kindle while I waited months and months for the Big Decision about whether or not the agency would try to sell. But now I realize that I can't depend on anyone else to set me up. I have to take control. I am not at the mercy of commercial publishing's lack of taste, or the vagaries of the market. Hell, I worked in commercial publishing! I know how this thing works. I am the master of my fate--no one else is.

I have plenty of work I’ve produced, that’s for sure. The question is: will anyone see it? Will I influence anyone positively? Will my existence make a difference in the world?  (*Guess what? Done and done. Yay for me. It will only get better from here.)

I don’t want to be the person who spends her vacation time cleaning closets or organizing seasonal clothes. I know many people who report that’s what they did for three days, and then they were "bored and had nothing to do.” I could find a million things to do. I would be so happy to have extra time to think. And yet, I know even that would not be enough and that it would get old quickly. I would still have the persistent, lingering fear, feel the painful, haunting twinge that tells me I am, perennially, lacking.

Consciously, I know it is a blessing to have both the urge to make a difference and the ability to create lasting art. But it is also a burden. It weighs on me. It pressures me. It makes me feel at once both superior and inferior. In the end, I am stuck with mediocre, and to me, that’s not good enough.

I want to exceed expectations, including my own. I want something good to come out of what was difficult. As Berryman did, I hope to take the dull and transform it into something meaningful and lasting, something that speaks to other people fifty years from now.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Beautiful Links

Links for The Beautiful Anthology from TNB Books!

The Beautiful Anthology at Indiebound

The Beautiful Anthology at Powell’s

The Beautiful Anthology at Barnes and Noble

The Beautiful Anthology at Amazon

See our page on Goodreads, too!

Watch our awesome book trailer...crafted for us by filmmaker David Grossbach.

Please feel free to write a review on any site if you've read and enjoyed the book.

Like us on Facebook.

A Beautiful podcast from Brad Listi's well-received "Other People" series is here, free on iTunes. Bung it to your iPod (if bunging is a real word) and enjoy when you have an hour to think about life and literature and gossipy things.

We were psyched to be mentioned in GalleyCat's coming attractions here.

Read Beatrice Chernikoff's interview with me in TNB: "A Beautiful Conversation..."

Here is another editor interview on author Caroline Leavitt's acclaimed blog series, CarolineLeavittville.

Also don't forget to read the excellent literary Web site, The Nervous Breakdown!

(P.S., if underlines under links get funky, that is not me; they are fine in draft but tend to randomly appear and disappear on post.)

More links to come...

Happy reading, and have a Beautiful day.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Life Lessons from Elephants

Found via 1,000,000 Pictures. 
Photograph courtesy Martin Nyfeler

An elephant (top left frame) is suddenly attacked while drinking from river. A lurking crocodile bites her trunk and tries to drag her into the water. Notice that the elephant's baby is behind her, terrified--but the mom keeps baby back. 

The crocodile cannot be shaken off, so the elephant mom turns away from river and runs. Baby falls down (but was reportedly okay) and appears to be sitting on crocodile in last frame. No, it was just a scary moment. 

Both elephants are hurt, but survived and were later seen the same day when they returned to the river to drink.

Lessons: You never know when something evil is going to bite you. All you can do is refuse to allow yourself to be dragged down. Shake it off, and leave the monster(s) behind. Don't look back, but also don't be afraid to pick up where you left off. You might be hurt by crocodiles, but if your will is strong, you will recover.

Interesting that I wrote about a very similar situation in the forthcoming Too Cool...

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The History Boys--So Many Parallels...

I actually listened to Leonard Maltin the other day and ordered this British film on demand (99 cents!).

Startled by the parallels with my own ideas about teaching (I am, and have always been, very concerned with total education, producing well rounded, fully literate students and human beings--and yet, most of my teaching is hardcore SAT and SAT II test prep in specialized, afterschool sessions), I loved this movie.

There's so much here that resonated with me, except of course for the pervy parts.


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Tyler Stoddard Smith: a humorist who "never tells jokes."

With Tyler Stoddard Smith’s new book about prostitutes, there is no fear of reading any solemn, stodgy accounts of the brazen businesswomen and men the French call “les grandes horizontales.”
Whore Stories: A Revealing History of the World’s Oldest Profession (on sale now, from Adams Media) is a saucy, shocking survey of 100+ whores—as well as public figures we might not have known were once employed in the sex trade.
When it comes to translating dry, historical, or biographical material into rich, mirth-filled nuggets of prose, Smith is at his best. Whore Stories is outrageous, intelligent, and very funny. It turns out that whores are regular people, too—and many irregular, especially famous people once whored themselves out to get where they are.
As Smith writes of Al Pacino (a surprising addition to his entertaining essays and mini-exposés of infamous whores):

"Dog Day AfternoonThe Devil’s AdvocateScent of a WomanThe InsiderSea of Love . . . Cruising? Perhaps it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that at one time, the über-actor Al Pacino made his daily bread by slanging himself as a sexual spazzino on the island of Sicily. That’s right, before the accolades and before his acting ‘style’ devolved into either whispering or screaming his lines, Pacino the prostitute was a lead role."

Pacino was certainly not the only male thespian involved in whoring. Smith also skewers Inside the Actor’s Studio host, James Lipton, who has admitted his  salad days in Paris as a low-level pimp:

"Today, James Lipton is looking down the barrel at his ninetieth birthday, but all indications are that this histrionic Methuselah may continue pursuing the Holy Grail of Cinema long after solar flares have consumed the rest of us. He’s no Snoop Dogg, but James Lipton and his supercilious baritone, along with his feast of insights and inanities, no doubt sent home from Paris countless young Americans with a thriving colony of genital warts after looking for love in all the wrong plazas."

            Of course, there are the famous whores, such as Xaviera Hollander, the “Happy Hooker” from Penthouse fame. And the violent ones, such as Smith’s personal favorite in terms of pure drama (and uncalled-for violence): Mary “Bricktop” Jackson of New Orleans, who beat her johns senseless in a series of signature, sadistic moves. So, too, there are the Hollywood whores: Thirteen women have won Oscars for playing prostitutes.  Smith covers all types of whores in his raucous compendium of what can happen when money is charged for sex.
With Whore Stories, the always funny Smith (when asked how a pregnant Snooki was going to fit into the new season of Jersey Shore, he responded, “Sweatpants? I don’t know. Look, I just want Tila Tequila back, then we can talk reality,”) explained that he didn’t even have to try to be funny in his new book.  “These prostitutes, pimps, and madams were crazy and funny all on their own. Whore Stories is meant to be humorous, but it’s also meant to be informative and explore some of the darker sides of this ‘career,’ as well.”
For a writer and humorist (or humorous writer) who says he “never tries to tell jokes”—as in, ‘A man walks into a bar…’ Tyler Stoddard Smith’s mind can’t stop dreaming up the funniest way to say things.
“I don’t want people to feel obligated to laugh,” the soft-spoken, surprisingly shy Smith explains of his humor and his disinclination to present obvious jokes for a presumed chuckle. “I know what made me laugh while I was writing, but trying to be funny can often mean trying too hard.  This is why I have such awe of stand-up comedy. It’s not what I do; I‘m a writer. But I don’t want be taken too seriously, that’s for sure.”
So what makes whores funny? “They make people uncomfortable, which is funny,” Smith says. “People also make such grandiose (and often negative) assumptions about prostitution and prostitutes, and they don’t for a moment consider them as people, as individuals. That is inordinately sad, but given the vast number of people who have visited prostitutes, it’s also hypocritical and emblematic.”
By Smith’s own estimation, Whore Stories pays equal attention to both he- and she-whores. But is “whore” now a bad word?  “It stings a little, I know,” Smith admits. “I think it’s a pretty weighted word, at least because, historically, it has been used as a derogatory term, most typically to describe a female. By giving all these whores an unvarnished look, I’m trying to—in a sense—reclaim the word.” His book, Smith explains, might have been more P.C. if titled Sex Worker Stories, “but that doesn’t have any pop.”
Tyler Stoddard Smith

Making facts  “pop” and morph into something new is what Smith often does.  In his inimitable style, Smith works by conducting deep research (usually on Google, especially Google books, he says), then incorporating this serious, historical, philosophical and cultural background into his writings—while ripping on the geniuses who spread big thoughts and created these lasting, iconic impressions. Those jarring juxtapositions, and the absurdity of the situations Smith imagines give life to his unique writing voice.
Indeed, Smith researched well-known quotes about beauty and incorporated them into “Truth and Booty,” a rollicking essay/story (a bit of fact and a hefty dose of fiction) now out in TNB Books’ new collection, The Beautiful Anthology, released June 9.

In his piece in The Beautiful Anthology, Smith riffs on a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“'Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.’ An ironic statement from a man who spent most of his life cooped up in his study, groaning about ‘the infinitude of the private man.’ To be fair, Emerson…once traveled to England where he confused Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s opium for cinnamon (in the ensuing vision quest, he suggested Coleridge publish “Kublai Khan” as a pop-up book, throwing Coleridge into a frenzy, who then asked the blitzkrieged Brahmin, ‘Why am I not getting any fucking buzz from this? This is exactly what you get when you deal with the Moroccans, Ralphie!’”).

Smith admits that his encyclopedic interests and wide-ranging reading habit help him to create his own humorous works (his stories have been featured in: UTNE Reader, McSweeney's, Esquire, The Best American Fantasy, VICE and The Morning News, among others. He is also a regular contributor at the literary Web site, The Nervous Breakdown and an associate editor of the online humor site, The Big Jewel).  
When a variety of material is read routinely and if, as Smith explains, “you reach far enough in all directions, you can pretty much connect anything, and that’s what I often try to do. I find an interesting topic or premise, then I try to hitch it to something ostensibly incompatible and see if it moves. That’s why I’ve written stories about Jean-Paul Sartre as a 911 operator and Emily Dickinson being coached in rap battling.”
            Smith also tries to keep a lot of balls (no pun intended) in the air, working on an assortment of projects at the same time in order to keep fresh and keep busy. He even has a web series called Cody Gambol.  The writing business is picking up, though as Smith admits, everything in today’s publishing climate is a difficult sell. But “even rejection letters are getting more encouraging. Although I did recently receive a letter from a publication that said they were more interested in ‘fiction and nonfiction’ than in what I had provided. Fiction and nonfiction kind of covers the spectrum, so that was discouraging. But my friends [have been] exceedingly encouraging, and my parents have always been preposterously supportive, so much so that I wonder if they aren’t bullshitting me.”
            The conversation then segues to Smith’s observation that many prostitutes have died, inauspiciously, on the toilet. Asked what commentary about dying on the toilet he might offer, particularly since Elvis (not a whore) died that way, Smith says, “…it seems like Sudden Toilet Death (STD?) afflicts those tormented by a sense of dwindling fame. Or perhaps dwindling fame causes one’s bowels to move with more regularity, so there’ s just more bowl time in general. This is something for Steven Pinker, not me. But Steve and I had a falling out over his mullet, so the research probably won’t get done.” Jokes aside, Smith says, “I think dying on the toilet is sad at first, then funny. Of course, the only thing funnier is ignoring the fact that someone died on the toilet.”
            Humor is a part of life, after all. “It’s important to laugh, even if you can’t be happy.” Smith says. “Humor can be like an episodic shock of happiness. A little taste.”
            So, even when the subject is serious (one-eighth of Whore Stories is dedicated to serial killer prostitutes, after all), there’s no reason not to laugh.  It’s yin and yang:  “Recognizing one’s own faults and absurdities in others” is what brings out humor in people, Smith notes. “It’s a strange blend of empathy and cruelty.”--Elizabeth Collins

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Book Trailer--thank you to David Grossbach!

Get psyched for The Beautiful Anthology!

It really helps to have great contributors such as Jessica Anya Blau, whose loving husband, award-winning filmmaker David Grossbach, spent many, many hours crafting this amazing book trailer (short film) for us.

Thank you! Hope this makes you want to read the book, out later this week from TNB Books....great music/poetry in the trailer by contributor Rich Ferguson, too!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

CarolineLeavittville Talks Beauty

If you know me, you may know that I (and 26 other writers) have a book coming out this week. 

It's entitled THE BEAUTIFUL ANTHOLOGY, and it's been a labor of love for over a year. 

Here's the tagline, which is on our Facebook page (
The Beautiful Anthology is an exciting compilation of personal stories about beauty (or lack thereof). Thought-provoking, shocking, and altogether entertaining. ON SALE IN JUNE from TNB Books.

But what I really want to share right now is this interview that bestselling writer Caroline Leavitt did with me and posted today on her popular blog, CarolineLeavittville.

I am tremendously grateful for the chance to talk with Caroline about Beautiful, TNB's exciting new book. 

If you're looking for a good beach read, this is it. You can open the book anywhere and find something interesting--essays, stories, poems, and lots of fabulous photographs. 

Please check it out--on Facebook, on The Nervous Breakdown, and hopefully this week, on Amazon, B&N, Powell's, etc. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

When a Picture Isn't Worth a Word

I have written before about weird graphics, but this sign is the worst example I've seen yet. Thanks to George Takei, for posting it on Facebook.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Four Important Points about Teaching & School

The arts are essential to the school curriculum. No more teaching to the test!

The arts are essential to the school curriculum. No more teaching to the test!
A school is not a business. Learning is not a competition with winners and losers.

Once again, with feeling--from fellow teacher and artist, Angie Villa. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Great Interview with Maurice Sendak--Must Read!

I heard this old interview (transcribed in the article; click link, below) yesterday and it seriously blew my mind. I have seldom been as interested in or as inspired by any interview--and it's because of the amazing stories Maurice Sendak told, the real stories of his life.

I hope other people will find it similarly entrancing.

This is a Terry Gross/WHYY/ NPR "Fresh Air" interview with Maurice Sendak. The heart of the interview (best part) is from 1986.  

Sendak died yesterday, in case anyone was unaware. I think he was 83.

For background on Sendak's death:

Read or listen and remember Maurice Sendak. He speaks of a fascinating life and his stories are well told.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Beware of Artists: McCarthy Was on to Something

Actual poster from 1950s (McCarthy's "Red scare" era)

What's most alarming is the fact that not much has changed, 
and political witch hunts still take place every day, even here. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Is It The End of Public Education as We Knew It?

Ava Cooley, 9, plays her violin to a crowd of more than 500 protesters outside Upper Darby High School before a school board meeting. Cuts are expected to be made to the arts, foreign language, music, technology, and other programs
SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer for the Philadelphia Inquirer

All over the USA, public education budgets are being slashed. Schools are closing; important educational programs are ending. Here in my town in PA, Art classes, music, and even gym are going bye-bye.

Why? Well, with constant cries of "we're too poor!" the schools are trying to devote what little they have to core subjects. That means Reading and Math. All. The. Time. Reading, math; reading and math; followed by--you guessed it--more reading and math!

I'm a huge fan of reading and math, although I think that the way reading is being taught lately is turning kids away from books and not toward them. Being read to, having access to books (oh--that reminds me! Library is another subject that is being cut), enjoying words and sharing stories is what gets kids wanting to read. 

Teaching reading has a new system these days. It's a nightmare. It includes endless, mind-numbing, decoding and prediction lessons. Reading classes aren't getting kids to love reading. These new, "improved" lessons are a colossal failure. But hey: now our kids will spend half their days in school doing nothing but these horrible, boring reading lessons.

If we want our kids to be better readers, the first task is to get kids enjoying stories. Then, introduce them to books. Read those great books to the kids. Make the kids want to read for themselves. Give them access to books. Give them access to all media. Show them how and why the written word is important and exciting. Make them understand that communication is the most vital skill we can have--in school or in work or the world at large.

But back to the budget slashing. Why are we having so many problems? Part of it is the crappy economy, yes. We would certainly have more money if two endless, unfunded wars hadn't been started 10 years ago, if taxes hadn't been slashed, if corporations actually paid taxes (as people do), and if the super-rich paid their fair share. These are all facts. Agree or disagree with the fundamental politics involved, but there is no arguing with the fact that taking in less revenue while racking up massive war debt means less money in the budget. It means that our kids are paying for other people's stupidity and mistakes.

Personally, I think that education is the LAST place where funding should be cut. Ever. But no, in PA, our dear governor would rather raise the prison budget 11% and cut education by 50%. This is not a sick joke; this is real.  Can we have a recall, please?? 

Our dear Governor Corbett also steadfastly refuses to tax the Marcellus Shale frackers who are raping our land...despite the fact that other states DO tax them. And it's not like they're going to go elsewhere to drill.  It's not as if the Marcellus Shale exists in Nevada. 

His argument for not taxing frackers is is the very idea of "trickle-down economics" (after 40 + years, it still hasn't worked) or the other ridiculous soundbite that "rich people are job creators." 

Um, no they aren't. They get richer and what do they do? They cut jobs. How many major corporations have been raking in record profits after massive layoffs or sending jobs overseas? The statistics are shocking. If people read more, they would know this.

Don't get me started on that. Let's get back to education. 

There will be no more Art as a "special" subject; kids will get very little music (I have already complained that the art and music classes in elementary schools have been weak and inefficient in terms of actually teaching kids to play instruments, and my youngest daughter has never brought an art project home from school. As in, not once). Kids will probably get no more gym...and with the obesity epidemic among kids, how is this possibly a good idea? 

I had gym three times a week when I was in elementary school. I had it daily in middle school and high school.

My daughters have gym once a week. They are not heavy, luckily, but a lot of kids are carrying around tons of extra weight. They need more exercise, not more time sitting at their desks doing the same practice tests over and over again.

What is burning my ass more than any of the above, however, is the new idea that our school district has to cut foreign language classes in middle school.

They say there's no time, that kids need to focus on math and reading to get test scores up. Never mind that if we don't get kids early, their brains will close off and they will be literally unable to learn a foreign language.

This all comes back to George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" madness...

Any teacher will tell you that NCLB ruined education, but it was probably meant to. The Republican machine includes the savage agenda of dismantling public education and privatizing everything in order to help some corporations make bigger profits. It sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it's not. It's true. People like the Koch brothers have even admitted as much. 

Here in PA, we can surmise that Governor Corbett is down with this agenda. Keeping the masses stupid is another way for the powers-that-be to keep themselves in control. After all, if people don't read the newspaper and if they don't understand how the system works, they can hardly complain about it or change it, can they?

With NCLB punishing schools by cutting their funding when they don't make "progress" with test scores, schools' very existence is tied to testing. 

Another thing people don't realize is that the NCLB plan will NEVER WORK. Kids with intellectual disabilities have been "mainstreamed" in public schools; they have to take the state standardized tests. They get no special dispensation. Kids who don't speak English have to take the tests, too. In English. No one excludes the non-English-speaking kids!

Yet, according to NCLB, 100% of kids in school must score Proficient or Advanced in state tests by 2014 in order for the schools not to have their budgets slashed even more, or the schools to be closed down and replaced by for-profit charters.

It's the ultimate Catch-22. And people voted for this! They obviously didn't know what they were voting for.

But now they do. Vote these fools out. Maybe it's not too late for us to save public education.

I hate to even think about what a hellish mess school has been for my own kids. How are they ever going to succeed in the global marketplace without foreign language? How will they ever be well rounded, creative people without arts?

What should I do? I am thisclose to homeschooling my kids. But then, I'd still have to pay school taxes...

People around here have been heading to the school board meetings and silently protesting, or putting up lawn signs. Protesting at meetings is a nice idea, but I can tell you from my experience as a news reporter that it won't work. No matter how many angry parents show up, things aren't going to change.  The district has already decided they are cutting arts, gym and library. And Language. It's a done deal (unless some major infusion of cash comes some miracle). Nothing we say to them will change that. Sad but true. 

What we can do is take the argument back to the governor who started this mess. We can protest NCLB and try to get PA exempt from its absurdities. We can vote in politicians who actually care about public education as a noble and vital public service.

Excellent public schools are the best and indeed only way I know to create a smart and strong future society.

With people suffering from ever greater economic disparities, private schools are not the answer. Sure, if you can afford private school, go for it. What about the majority of kids, however? What about their futures?

Do you want them in Corbett's new prisons, or in good public schools?

The choice is clear. Fight for public education. Fight to help our children.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Honoring Each Other's Stories, and Taking the Time to Share Our Voices

I was inspired today by this article: It was written by Wendy Harris for WHYY NewsWorks, and it is the first in a five-part series on teaching and tech.

It's about 1) Using technology to enhance teaching; 2) enabling students to learn how to take advantage of the myriad new ways we having of writing, publishing, and connecting with each other;  and 3) teaching kids how to use language properly while also having fun creating something meaningful and lasting that they can share.

There's almost nothing I love better than hearing other people's stories. I am endlessly fascinated by the tales people tell me about their lives, or the ways in which people have created art from life (putting their stories on's so difficult to do this, and I know, as I am in the final-final edit stages of prepping my memoir for release to the world). 

I meet teachers all the time who want to try this, who want to learn how to teach students to create and publish in new ways. Yes, it takes time to learn some of the tools, but mostly, they are intuitive. Plus, anything worth learning ("worth" as in, it's important to us) should be a joy, not a chore. 

Don't be dissuaded by the learning curve. The thrill of seeing what your class will create will make all of the time spent training seem irrelevant. 

There's nothing more important than hearing or reading other people's stories, either. We all need to have the ability to use language (and now, use technology, too) to do so. What better use of our time could there be than honing and sharing stories?

Blog away. Create iMovies. Animate cartoons. The possibilities are endless.

Have fun creating in the classroom!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The First Book of Mine Coming out This Year

Now, obviously, I have a large photo of the draft jacket of my upcoming memoir, TOO COOL FOR SCHOOL, as a banner here on the blog. The memoir will be out by the summer, published by HBH Press.

But before TOO COOL, I have an exciting anthology I edited coming out from TNB Books, the publishing arm of the acclaimed literary Web site, The Nervous Breakdown

Publication date is June 9, 2012. That's officially still we are on track!

See our facebook page at and be sure to "like" the book!

Many essays of mine may be found on The Nervous Breakdown, along with the work of some of our anthology contributors. (This anthology is new and exclusive work, for the most part, and no, you can't read these essays anywhere else.)

“Subverting timeworn clichés about beauty, this book delivers a fresh exploration of everything from body art and big noses to musical ‘perfection’ and misguided parenting. It’s a stunning, unforgettable collection.”
—Diana Spechler, author of Who By Fire and Skinny

A Collection of Essays, Poems & Art
Edited by Elizabeth Collins
Publisher: TNB Books, June 9, 2012
258 pp.
Trade paperback: ISBN 978-0-9828598-4-1
Price: $14.99

THE BEAUTIFUL ANTHOLOGY is an exciting new collection of essays, stories, poems and art, created by writers from around the world all responding to the essential question: What is beauty?

This endlessly entertaining, touching, shocking, and thought-provoking new work should change minds about what is truly beautiful.  Is beauty to be found in a tattoo, in a scar, or in being clean after years of drug abuse? Is a tennis serve beautiful? Is contemporary architecture beautiful—or hideous? Is there beauty in urinal design, or in the foot of a poor, young Thai man?

THE BEAUTIFUL ANTHOLOGY features the work of well-known and emerging authors alike, including: Robin Antalek, author of The Summer We Fell Apart; Jessica Anya Blau, author of Drinking Closer to Home and The Summer of Naked Swim Parties; Greg Olear, author of Totally Killer and Fathermucker; J.E. Fishman, author of Primacy; Lance Reynald, author of Pop Salvation; Gina Frangello, author of Slut Lullabies and My Sister’s Continent; Melissa Febos, author of Whip Smart; Victoria Patterson, author of This Vacant Paradise and Drift; and Ronlyn Domingue, author of The Mercy of Thin AirOther contributors: Matthew Baldwin, Nora Burkey, Elizabeth Collins, Rich Ferguson, M.J. Fievre, Marni Grossman, James D. Irwin, Quenby Moone, Uche Ogbuji, Rachel Pollon, Judy Prince, Stephanie St. John, Steve Sparshott, Tyler Stoddard Smith, Catherine Tufariello, Angela Tung, Stephen Walter, and Zoe Zolbrod.

Please spread the word and visit Amazon soon to pre-order or buy a copy of BEAUTIFUL. It is a very entertaining book--and I should know, since I've read it about 100 times already.

Monday, February 27, 2012

If There's No Time to Teach Art, Let's Not Pretend to Teach It

It's the contemporary parent's constant nightmare. You buy pricey instruments for all the kids and each kid lasts about six months before wanting to quit, claiming she hasn't learned how to play in school, and citing frustration at not being selected for orchestra.

Each time this has happened, it has saddened me. I protested every time, "You really wanted to play the flute (or violin or guitar or piano). You were desperate for that instrument!" ( I either rented at exorbitant cost or bought outright. Anyone want one of our four guitars? One of our two violins? I think I already got rid of the flute.)

I thought my kids were going to learn how to play their instruments in know, the way we all used to? Well, there are still music lessons in school, but from what I understand, the lessons are crowded, noisy, and there is no personal instruction that takes place. It's catch-as-catch-can. It's essentially learn your own dang instrument.

So, fine. I know that the school has hundreds of students. There is only one music teacher for all these kids. It's frankly amazing that they have orchestra, lessons, and twice weekly music classes.

But here's my point: if there isn't realistically time to teach all these kids how to play the instrument(s) their parents bought for them--and force them to practice at home, fomenting untold familial fights--then let's not pretend that there is.

Let's not act like we're teaching the arts in school if we really don't have the time and/or money to do so.

Let's be realistic. Say to us, the parents, "Well, yeah, it would be great if all the kids learned an instrument. Music instruction and musical practice and learning how to read music is just an all-around great idea. Understanding music helps with understanding many other academic subjects. Playing an instrument is something that every educated, well-rounded person should know how to do."

This probably is said (although I don't even need to hear it; I already know it). 

What isn't said is: "We want to get you all excited to get your kids instruments and sign them up for all our musical offerings. The truth is, however, there is no time in the school day to teach them how to play. We act like there is, but realistically, there isn't. So, go ahead send your kid to school with her violin twice a week, but honestly, don't expect her to learn how to play it here."

That's a harsh truth, but I don't mind harshness, as long as it's realistic. Just be honest with me. Be honest with us. Don't waste my (or our) time.

Say instead: "It is a good idea to push your child to learn how to play an instrument--and then stick with that instrument. Your child isn't going to learn that in school, however. We just can't carve out any time because you know, test prep (PSSA, 4Sight, Benchmarks, etc.) sucks up all the time. No, you'll really need to find a private teacher. So, um, good luck with that!"

If I had known a few years ago that my kids would not learn how to play music in school (I have hired outside teachers after wasting many months expecting them to get some instruction at the elementary level), I could have saved a lot of time, and my kids could have been saved a lot of frustration. They might have actually learned how to play all those instruments by now.

Arts in school--whether that is musical instruction or visual art (another area that I believe is getting short shrift)--is something we all want. We all should want the arts.

We should also expect classroom instruction in the arts. But if that is not realistic anymore--not in this sad time of harsh budget-cutting and too much attention on the TEST, TEST, TEST--tell us that. 

Tell us the school can't do it. Don't pretend that it can. Because pretending helps no one learn.