How to

Getting My Embouchure Back


It’s been ages. I know. I don’t know where I’ve been, probably buried under paper grading, dealing with teenagers and even worse adults that act like teenagers, trying to figure out the balance between discipline and patience (in regards to the toddler that now shares a roof with me and Mr. One Mean), doing hot yoga a couple times a week, attempting to do something with my lawn, and the like. That rut I was telling you about ages ago still plagues me. I can’t quite seem to find myself. I have been writing and publishing and working towards that elusive academic job, but, of course, to absolutely no avail. This past year was my best writing year in a long time, probably since grad school, but as Mr. One Mean likes to remind me, who is calling to grant you that interview? Dude is tough, but he keeps it real. I appreciate that. I need that.

I keep trying to visualize myself on a college campus, making a living wage, in my office with students who want to discuss craft. It’s a real dream. In terms of the craft of teaching, I’m definitely improving. In my classrooms (high school and college), I’m doing good work. I can feel it. My students seem to be receptive, hell, some of them might even be learning. In regards to the rest of my life, that is not the case. So much of it is messy and chaotic and I definitely am in the midst of an existential crisis, though what writer isn’t?

So, as summer approaches, I’m eagerly beginning to form my writing plan. Look, I know a lot of you are already on summer vacation (lucky academics!),  but where I live we still have 2 more instructional days and 4 days of exams. It’s really quite horrible. As much as I enjoy teaching (and strangely enough I’m kind of passionate about it), I’m ready to not see the stinky faces of the teenagers I’ve attempted to impart some knowledge on. Everything is moving in slow motion, and I just want summer to be here because summer (even the oppressive heat that comes with it) is the greatest time of year. You pumpkin and fall lovers need to can it. The leaves are pretty, but raking, while an excellent workout, is not my idea of pleasure. I mean come on, multicolored leaves versus lush green and hazy, hot days? There is nothing better. Okay, the crisp air is nice in October. Hush. I’m coming around to the other seasons.

Summer has often meant laziness for me. It’s been a time to decompress the daily interactions with young people that I so love but often find myself getting irritated by. It’s writing that helps me quell the crazy. This summer I’m definitely going to need to get some of that crazy out. I need the nourishment.

Recently, I started writing a short story. I hadn’t written fiction in years and while I teach the craft of fiction and am specialized in fiction, I find the personal essay a more natural form, so when this character popped into my head, I thought, “One Mean, you need to get this chick out of your head and onto a Google Doc.” So I did. And it’s been fun, but I’ve totally hit a wall, and frankly, I don’t think it’s the character or what I presume will be the plot of the story that is stalling me. I fucking rusty, folks. My fiction chops need warming up.

Years ago–like high school years ago–like when volcanic rock was beginning to form land masses in the ocean–I played the trumpet. I was (am) a terrible trumpet player. I was good enough to get through the music and not good enough to warrant pursuing a career as a jazz artist. I was self taught and was transiting to the trumpet in order for the marching band to have balance. The band didn’t need another flute player. I was a good flute player and decent enough musician that I taught myself the notes on the trumpet (mostly by banging the keys of the piano at home and matching the pitches on my trumpet) and called it a day. Honestly, I have to think my poor parents regretted the day they brought home that piano and then later the flute and that trumpet. Anyway, I digress. The hardest part of learning the trumpet was getting my embouchure right. The flute was vastly different from the trumpet, both required the same muscles but not in the same way, sort of like nonfiction and fiction. My mouth was sore for months. My lips would feel numb, though I have been told–not that I would know because I’m such a prude–brass players make the best kissers. In high school a dated two boys, one in band (a baritone) and one not, and I can attest to the fact the baritone was hands down the better kisser so maybe there is some truth to this. My band director was a trumpet player, so he took great care making sure the brass sections were warmed up. We would buzz on our mouthpieces, take great care with our breath, buzz without mouth pieces to enhance the strength in our mouths, and we’d finally put our mouthpieces in our horns and play. When concert season would start, I’d happily put my trumpet away and resume (Confession: I never stopped practicing the flute, which is why I was first chair) my flute practice. My flute embouchure was always working (just like my nonfiction chops are stronger), but in the spring when we’d reveal our fall season opener, I’d have to dust off my trumpet and once again the soreness to my lips would return.

When lips are sore from playing a brass instrument, the whole mouth is involved. The sides of your mouth–the muscles you forget are there unless you play an instrument–ache. Your lips feel mushy (I know I’m so articulate) and numb. It feels as if your lips are full of push pins or maybe what tenderized meat would feel like if it had feelings if it was, you know, alive. When you cool down your lips (like the way you cool down after a jog), your lips don’t fully regain feeling until you’ve had a cold drink. In fact, drinking cold water during a performance is frowned upon–nay, forbidden–because all that warming up gets washed away with the ice.

It is in this way that I feel about my fiction writing. I’ve been practicing my trumpet for a few hours, and my chops are busted. My brain mushy and numb. I’m dusting off my instrument after several seasons of it being enclosed in a case and stored on the top shelf of my closet. The case nearly falls onto your head as you stand on your tip-toes to reach it. It’s heavy and cumbersome, but when you open the case, you’re glad you did because you know good times are about about to roll.


No Pressure

The fall semester before graduating with a masters is a bitch. Not only do you need to bang out a thesis (in my case I’ve decided to work on a novel) but you’ve got to start applying for jobs.  Jobs that aren’t available until the following fall. That is how long it takes to get a job in this elite world of Academia.

Working on my CV: a document I’m told can have not one error on it. We’re talking the commas, the fonts, everything has to be perfect, is beginning to stress me out. According to my employed professors, CV’s must be perfect because getting jobs at universities is so competitive that Departments hiring are looking to get rid of any applicants. So if your doesn’t stand out, guess what you’re done, they put you in the reject pile and it’s over. That means even if you’re awesome, if you picked the wrong paper, the wrong font, and put a wrong comma somewhere you can forget a job. NO PRESSURE.

Because of my short time as a writer my publications section (the section that is supposed to be the most important) is lacking. I’ve got one solid, impressive publication and one other that is okay. Still I have to hope that the jobs that I can apply for will like what little they see and say yeah we’ll go out on a limb with this chick.

I’m also a bit nervous because the CV is one of those documents where the longer the better, well mine is currently at two pages. That is so sad. I guess working on this document is a reminder to send my writing out there. Rejection letters, here we come.

I will say, having been on the job hunt before, that succeeding, getting the job happens when you’re confident. And guess what? I am. I’m great teacher and any university would be lucky to have me on staff as a professor. This will be my mantra as I hunt for a job. Say it with me future professors of America. I’m a great teacher and any university would be lucky to have me on staff as a professor. One more time…

How to: Design a summer composition course Part 2


 So here is my summer syllabus. I would love some criticsm, suggestions. I can always make adjustments to it. I’m quite pleased with it. I am a bit worried about getting all this grading done as quickly as the syllabus demands but I’m sure I’ll survive.

Thanks in advance for your help.


OneMeanMFA’s Summer Syllabus

We will be using a modified portfolio system.  Each portfolio will consist of two major papers, each undergoing a draft and revision process, as well as an additional significant revision of a previous paper.  Clear, written descriptions of all writing assignments will be distributed to the class, as well as the evaluation criteria that will be used.  Response papers and other writing assignments will be reflected in your class participation grade.  The grade break down is:


Paper 1: 100pts                        

Paper 2: 100pts

Paper 3: 100pts

Paper 4: 100 pts


Quizzes: 10pts each (40 pts)

Paper Outlines: 25 pts (100pts)

Annotated Bibliography: 50 pts

Final Portfolio Assignment: 50 pts

Participation/ Attendance: 10 pts


Class total points: 650pts


You will receive substantive comments on all written work through both instructor and peer comments. 

1)     Paper One: Prompt based paper using reading one. You will use the reading to support a topic that works outside of the reading. This paper is worth 100 pts.

2)     Paper Two: Prompt based paper using reading one and two. This paper should use reading two more than reading one. Roughly 60% reading two to 40% reading one.  You will use the readings to support your original idea that works outside of the readings. This paper is worth 100pts.

3)     Paper Three: Prompt based paper using reading one, two, and three. This paper should use reading three more than readings two and one. Roughly 50% reading three to 25% readings two and one. You will use the readings to support your original idea that works outside of the readings. This paper is worth 100pts.

4)     Paper Four: This is a research based paper. You will be required to use reading four  and outside sources. You will need a minimum of three outside sources and a maximum of five. Two of these sources should be books and not retrieved online. You may have a maximum of two online resources, available to you via the library’s electronic journals. This paper is worth 100pts.

5)     Final Portfolio Assignment: This is a written assignment that will discuss your progress as a writer, what you have learned in this course, the strengths of this course and as well as the weaknesses. You will also discuss what grade you believe you have earned. This paper should be no more than 3 pages and no less than one and a half. This assignment is worth 50 pts.

6)     Paper Outlines: You will outline your papers paragraph by paragraph. Inserting which quotes from the readings you plan on using in the final draft of the paper. This assignment worth 100pts.

7)     Quizzes: I will give you a short quiz on the reading in the first 10 minutes of class. Each quiz is worth 10 pts.

8)     Annotated Bibliography: You will take the resources for your research paper, cite it, then give a brief summary of the resources as they will apply to your research paper. The summary should be no less than 2-3 sentences and no more than a half page. This assignment is worth 50pts.


Week One:

 June 23rd


Contracts in

Writing Sample

MLA Formatting

What makes a good paper?

Prompt Paper One

Assign Reading One:

June 25th

 Reading Quiz One

Free Writing Exercise

Discuss Reading

How to outline a paper

Begin Paper Outline


Week Two

 June 30th

 DUE: Rough Draft Paper 1

Review thesis writing

Peer Review

What makes a good thesis?

Begin Changes to Paper


July 1st:

 Continue discussing prompt

Create Paper checklist

Peer Review revised paper 1

MLA formatting Review

Work on paper

Assign Reading Two 

Week Three

 July 7th

 DUE: Final Draft Paper 1

Quiz Reading Two

Free Writing Exercise

Parallel Readings

Discuss Reading Two

Prompt Paper Two

MLA Review: Quotations/ Evidence


July 9th

DUE: Rough Draft Paper 2

Peer Review


Work on papers

Assign Reading Three 

 Week Four

 July 14th

 DUE: Final Draft Paper Two

Quiz Reading Three

Free Writing Exercise

Parallel Readings

Prompt Paper Three

How to Research: Using the library


July 16th

DUE: Rough Draft Paper Three

Peer Review


Work on Papers

Assign Reading Four

MLA Review: Organization


Week Five

 July 21

 DUE: Final Draft Paper Three

Quiz Reading Four

Free Writing Prompt Paper Four

Parallel Readings

Introduction to writing a research paper

How to write an Annotated Bibliography

 July 23

 DUE: Annotated Bibliography

Continue Discussion on Reading Four

Outline Paper Four

Introduce Final Portfolio Assignment

Week 6 (We’re almost Done!)

July 28th

 DUE: Rough Draft

Peer Review

Work on paper in class

July 30th

DUE: Final Draft

DUE: Portfolio Assignment

School’s out for Summer!

How to: Design a summer composition course Part 1

I have a problem. Well many, but let’s just focus on the one. In a week I’ll be standing up in front of students and need to have prepared a syllabus that squeezes a semester into 18 weeks. HELP!

I’m not sure exactly how to squeeze four 6- 7 page papers into 6 weeks without wanting to hang myself. Designing this class has been something I’ve put on the back burner and now I’m wondering what to do. I have been debating if I should do three short papers during the semester then have them hand in  one bigger paper in the end.

Any advice on this would be really welcomed. Maybe if I tell you the requirements for the class we can all brainstorm together and create a great summer writing course.

The students are required to:

1) Write four papers

2) The papers must be around 6-7 pages in their final draft

3) The papers are centered around readings and prompts. All of the readings are connected by some ethical, political, controversial issue ( I know this sounds lame, I didn’t design it).

4) They have the option (if I so choose) to write a research paper. I am thinking I will definitely add this because I have noticed how many students are uncomfortable with this and frankly being able to research is so important in college. I would hate for a professor in a core class ask students about previous research assignments and see glazed over looks in the eyes of my former students. I have also taught high school and know that students don’t do research papers there. In fact, my students that have graduated and gone on to college have thanked me for showing them how to reasearch. So if they are not doing  in high school and not in college , when? I would hate for students to be doing their first research paper in grad school, like so of my classmates.

5) The prompt usually ask the students to come up with some outside situation that applies to the issue in the reading. For instance, the theft of intellectual property.

The class meets twice a week for three hours at a time. I had a professor of mine suggest working on their papers in class. The students will mostly be students who failed the class in the spring, or students who are eager to get a head start for the fall. They are mostly first or second year college students. I’m not sure how important the demographic of students is but I think the eager beaver vs the lazy panda is important when getting the students excited.

This class is a basic composition class that requires students to understand the basics of writing a paper. I’m not sure how to do this. I would love to do a workshop style class, where the students hand in their papers a day before to their classmates and then we spend some time discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the paper. I think this would be an excellent way to get the peer reviewing element of the papers in. I’m not sure how to do this with 20 students.

I have been toying with the idea of having them do five three-four page papers, but then I’d have to grade five papers. I am also working at a camp, and taking a class.


All ideas are welcome.

I will post my syllabus when I’ve designed it so that you guys can give me feedback on it.  Also, it might be such a kick ass syllabus you’ll want to use it yourselves!

Practice Makes Perfect

So while ago I wrote about my non-existent writing schedule. I am proud to say it is no longer non-existent.

Initially when I started grad school I was writing only when I had deadlines. I think this is an issue with a lot MFA students. We are so bogged down with our literature classes and writing feedback for our classmates for workshop that we neglect our own work. I know that was my issue.

I’m currently enrolled in a three year program that requires both literature classes as well as workshops. The amount of literature  credits that I am required to take is three credits short of receiving an MA. It’s quite literature intensive, and because of the heavy focus on literature courses I knew I’d need a writing schedule that would enable me to write my own stuff.

If I continued to let my deadline system continue to be the only drive I had to write, all I’d have written is a crappy thesis I’d be embarrassed to revise, and way too many literature papers than I’d know what to do with. When would I produce anything else?

I was discussing this with my thesis chair. My professor suggested I write first thing in the morning, so that  “then it’s done.” I could move on with my day not worried about not having written anything because it would have been done as my first cup of coffee was being finished.

Since I didn’t have any kind of schedule I decided to give it a shot. I will say I was concerned writing in the morning was going to effect my workout routine. I enjoy running in the morning because it hasn’t gotten so hot yet and I can usually beat whatever weather issue my area may be having. In order to prevent any kind of interruption to my running regimen I set my alarm an hour earlier and decided I’d write for an hour first thing in the morning, then run, then shower and finish up the rest of my classwork.

Well, I will say it totally works for me.  I always thought that I was a nocturnal writer; that my best work flowed from my brain in the late hours of the night. Au Contraire! After a decent night of rest (who get’s good sleep anymore or ever, I know I sure don’t) I’m able to think clearly and focus. The best part of this writing in the morning thing is if that hour of writing sucks I get to run it out of my system and know I’ll be better the next morning or if I have a little bit of time to spare in the evening after class I can try again.

I’m so glad to have found my groove. I was hoping that would be something that I learned in grad school and it seems that after a year I have.

I know that not everyone is a morning person. I definitely am. Actually, I’m kind of an insomniac but I think I prefer the morning to night as far as being productive is concerned. Regardless of the kind of person you are, I think the trick to finding a writing schedule is to force yourself to set aside an allotted amount of time EVERYDAY.

Maybe you don’t have an hour to spare, then give yourself  twenty minutes. I know I waste twenty minutes here and there all day everyday, why not write during that time instead?

I’m sure when the fall starts or when I start my summer teaching I may have to cut my hour down to 45 minutes or even to half an hour, still I don’t plan on stopping my schedule all together because “I’m busy.” My thesis and my writing career are too important.  Plus, I think this is true with so many skills…Practice makes perfect.

This has become my mantra: Practice makes perfect, practice makes perfect and so I encourage all you writers out there to remember that when you are in a slump and can’t “find time to write” you won’t get any better unless you write. That poem, essay, story or novel won’t write itself.

Practice makes perfect.

The Writing Experiment: Part Two

So we did it. We wrote our own prompt as a class.  The new promopt was almost identical to the one the department had written, but because they wrote it they felt confident about the assignement. Here’s how I did it:

First, I had them look at the old prompt and establish goals for the paper. For instance, I had them decide as a class what broad topics they would discuss for the paper like morals/ethics, regulations, gov’t and so on. The simple I question I asked them to have them think about these goals was, “what major points are you going to have when writing this paper?” And so, they rattled off the basics.

Then I had them think about the goals and we applied them when writing the second prompt. I had them put these basics into a prompt which to my surprise (I sadly wasn’t expecting this experiment to do as well as it did) they wrote a really thoughtful and insightful prompt both they and I were pleased with.

Though some of the students did not understand what the prompt (either one) was asking so what we did then was decide as a class what we would be looking for in a paper using this prompt. This was the best part of the experiment because it forced them to think about the readings and what they wanted to write about. We listed all of these things on the board and all I could see was light-bulbs going off. In fact, I even had students tell me, “Miss, this is the best way you’ve ever explained a prompt.” That for me was enough to do it again.

Well, this happened last Tuesday and since then they’ve had to outline their papers and come up with some kind of argument. While I think it was sucessful the true test will be when I read their papers. I’ll keep you all posted.


p.s. My apologies for the irregular posts. I’m trying, but it is that time in the semester where it’s like 10 pgs due here 20 pgs due there, read a 400 pg novel and so it’s all a bit stressful. Not to mention I’ll be grading papers come Tuesday. You all know how that goes. Thanks for stopping by and please leave comments and suggestions. I’m curious what you all think about this experiment and how you think I could improve it.

Will you be my thesis chair?

It happened so quickly I didn’t realize it had happened until I was in my car. My class ended and I was walking with my professor to the parking lot.

“So, how is the novel coming along?” She asked with sincerity.

“It’s coming. I was actually wondering if you would take a look at what I have so far since I’m thinking about making it my thesis.” There were other words exchanged that I can’t remember but suddenly I was saying, “I wanted you to look at since, I was going to ask you to be my thesis chair.”

She looked at me surprised, but agreed to be my thesis chair saying, “it’s still early and if you change your mind don’t feel bad.” I couldn’t stop talking and if my car had been parked in the same lot as hers I might of continued.

Because of my inability to use a filter when I speak, I now have a thesis chair. I’m stoked because she gets booked quickly and I no longer have to worry about the awkward meeting that I was going to have come fall. Some of my friends in the program who are a year ahead of me, graduating this spring, told me about how terrified they were to ask their professors to be their thesis chairs. They feared their professors would say no or that they were too busy. There is also a process with asking, you’re supposed to make an appointment, go their office, find a reason to be there before you casually ask, sweating, your hands shaking, “I was wondering if you’d be my thesis chair.”

I have to say that, although I went about the whole thing casually and in an unconventional way, probably against the good advice of my peers, I have the thesis chair I want and I don’t have to have a stress attack in the fall. Instead, my professor can help me get my thesis/novel ready sooner.

I’ve heard horror stories from my friends, some of whom have been rejected by professors and I’m glad I didn’t sit in my professor’s office nervous. I’m horrible with words when I’m nervous, I can’t articulate what I’m trying to say and just sound crazy. I wonder now if I should have waited until the fall to ask my professor. Did I miss out on a right of passage by not sitting in her office sweaty and rambling?

What do you all think? Should I have been patient and asked formally? I would love to hear some of your stories about your thesis committee.