Eventually, a novel

For all the writers out there who made big writing plans this summer and haven’t achieved them (yet!?) I send a message of love and encouragement and a porcupine video:

My Particular Plan and its Current Status

I had high (but knowingly unrealistic) hopes that I could finish drafting the second half of my novel in May. I made the goal to write 25,000 words. By the end of May I had only written 15,000. Today, six weeks late, I made my 25,000 word goal. Now I’m realizing I need another 10,000 or so to really finish the whole draft. Right now, there’s a gaping hole in Part III.

Incentives to Keep Going

  • Writing friends. Danielle LaVaque-MantyJennifer Solheim, and David Ward! If I didn’t have trusted, amazing writing friends to share work, gossip, and drink, my writing would be much crappier. I know this because I wrote my first “novel” in isolation. By the time I realized I needed to share it with a real audience and went to some writing conferences with it, it was beyond help. I put it in a drawer and wrote two books of poetry (with support from the friends above plus several others) before trying another novel.
  • Animal videos. Danielle made up this June writing game where we sent each other an animal video every time we wrote another 1,000 words. At first, I was a little skeptical because I thought it might take too much time and be distracting. NOT TRUE! I’d say at least half of writing productivity this past month was solely to get the brag rights to another animal video. I mean, come on. Danielle and Jenn sent stuff like this: Teddy Bear the Talking Porcupine
  • Bigger rewards. I’m going on a week-long writing retreat with my friends very soon! We rented an awesome cottage in Saugatuck, and I can’t wait to have days to immerse myself sans Mom, job, and house responsibilities. Holy crap, I’d like to leave right now!
  • Biggest rewards. The work itself. I’ve created a whole world and characters that let me explore parts of myself and America that I needed to pay attention to. Writing should be a journey, and this novel has definitely taken me on one.

I hope if you’re in the midst of writing, that you’ll turn back to your work with renewed love and patience, and that you have or allow people into your life that will keep those renewals going.


May Novel Writing Plan Prt. 2

It’s almost May! Time for things to grow. Time for me to start another writing plan!

This past semester’s been a heck of a ride. Some good things: I did several poetry readings at LIterati, at University of Illinois Chicago, at AWP, and the Hannan House in Detroit. I also put together a panel at AWP entitled “Who Are We in the Creative Writing Classroom?: Interventions in the Craft vs. Context Fight,” and was really inspired by the discussion. I hope to have the panel grow into a longer project soon. My first poetry book, Autoplay, got some good reviews. Here at American Microreviews, at Best American Poetry (yay!), and coming out in the next print issue of Zone 3.

I went to NIA once a week at the fabulous Ann Arbor Yoga Studio. I’m trying to get at least 30 minutes of yoga or meditation/day (I often screw this up, but life is a daily practice, right?) thanks to this amazing yoga streaming website I found.

My son continually amazes me. He’s now a brown belt in taekwondo, has mad math skills that he certainly didn’t inherit from me,  wants to be a video game designer, and just performed in an aftercare musical play as Jack in the Beanstalk. He’s been taking electric guitar lessons through the Ann Arbor Music Center, which is a pretty brilliant place to learn music. Rather than starting kids off with drills and scales, they taught him how to play a simple version of Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring the first night! Something I love about life and teaching writing is how much we already understand and can do if we are given the right opportunities and guidance.

The bad news, mostly, is that though many students enjoy my courses and often tell me they’re transformational, that despite the fact that I have many students now who have begun to graduate and do great things and come back and want to visit with me, talk, and share their significant work, the administration doesn’t agree with my teaching practice. It’s disappointing, really, given that I am teaching my students the same skills they want me to teach, but in a much more holistic way that privileges the real writing moment and genre over transferrable skill sets. Critical analysis–yes. Academic argumentation–yes. But I embed these skills into a larger writing practice based on scientific method. My teaching is a recursive practice where students have opportunities to carefully observe, to ask questions, and to do genuine research and analysis to answer those questions. I have seen this practice help students in their other courses and in their life. It profoundly disappoints me when boxes, grids, and boundaries unnecessarily limit what a student may learn at a given time. I’m thinking back to an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education that talks about how profound the teaching of writing would be if we approached it like yoga teachers. Rather than stopping the student from doing, for instance, a vinyasa flow, the teacher outlines the practice, allows the student to move through it, and makes a few carefully selected corrections that best help the student move to a new level. At that new level, the student still moves through vinyasa, and the teacher makes more carefully selected corrections to deepen the process.

I guess the purpose of this blog entry is to take stock, to hold things in acknowledgement so I can also figure out how to put them down. Sometimes I fantasize what it would be like if I didn’t have to carry sole responsibility for parenting, teaching, writing, and fulfillment. Then I remind myself that my son, my students, my writing ideas, and my magnolia tree have lives of their own.

To May. To holding. To putting down. To 25,000 words over the twenty days Ambrose is in school. That works out to 1,250/working day. This is my first time going back to the novel since August. I’m at  35,800 words, so roughly the halfway point. For the past few days I have been drawing on the scientific method to try and figure out what it is I want to observe as I come back to this novel, what larger question it poses, and what needs to happen for me to explore that question. I don’t have it quite yet, but just a few days ago, one of my writing partners, Jennifer Solheim, sent me this as madcap inspiration:





My first book of poetry– What Changes and What Stays the Same

Happy End of 2014! We’re all getting notices from WordPress, facebook, and twitter about what we’ve done this year, and the notices have provided me with a good reminder to make my own meaning that’s not curated by an algorithm.

10687252_10153350688483502_1711150883098955763_oIn November, MG Press published Autoplay, my first book of poetry. It was amazing to see this book in print, especially to see the kickass cover that Jeff Pfaller designed and to have some beers with the inestimable editor Robert James Russell, and to celebrate my book launch at Ann Arbor’s fabulous independent bookstore Literati. Other amazing things: poets I highly admire devoted their time and thought to writing awesome blurbs. Thanks to  Marianne Boruch, Keith Taylor, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Christine Butterworth-McDermott, Alex Lemon, Matthew Olzmann, Nate Pritts, and Mary Biddinger for their generous and smart words. Some reviews are coming out, and I’m looking forward to reading them as well. It is a surreal experience to hold your own book, to read from it, and feel it so clearly separated from you.

I’ve been long out of an MFA, and had long-ago outgrown the strange notion I had when I was 22 that publishing a book would radically change my life. Part of the joy of this book coming out was the confirmation that most things keep going like the already are. I started working on Autoplay several years ago, and since then, I have another poetry collection and a short story collection pretty much finished, wrote and abandoned a novel, and am in the midst of writing another novel now. During all this writing I’ve had lots of life changes, the biggest being I bought a house, had a child, and became a widow at the age of 36. Writing has been a constant companion to me through these changes. It has never asked me to prove myself or work harder (things I tell myself too many times every day). Instead, writing has assured me, that wherever I am, whatever I am doing, I can pick up a pen or open my laptop and choose words. Choosing words to write for yourself is always an act of agency and freedom. It is a celebration of connecting the external world with an internal one. It is a hope that it will make a bridge to a place we need to go.

I know that writing doesn’t always feel like that. But I think the best companions in life are often ones who, even when we take them for granted, remain steadfast until we are able to quiet our own bullshit and pay attention more mindfully.

Love, Peace, and Writing in the New Year,


Badass Cover for My Forthcoming Poetry Book, 31 More Days of Summer, and Going Back to School

It’s almost time for school to begin again. The anxiety knot in my stomach is even bigger than usual. What if I’m not prepared as I want to be? (likely). What if my students don’t want to learn? What if I have to stop writing completely until next May because I can’t fit in the time?

What if I stop eating healthy, stop exercising, get a million colds, and sometimes forget to see my son, I mean really SEE him, every day in the beautiful moment?

What if the pipes in my house completely stop working and the 3 bats that have already found their way into my house this summer are really part of a giant bat cave in my upstairs office?

What if I can’t let go of fears and distractions and be present for whatever is?

It helps to write these things out. I have a lot of unacknowledged conversations in my head–it comes with the territory of being a writer and an only parent.

BUT, before I move into whatever this semester brings, I want to take a moment to celebrate too.

  1. My poetry book, Autoplay, is forthcoming this November! You can even preorder it now! The editors Robert James Russell and Jeff Pfaller talked with me about themes/ideas for the cover and then came up with something stunning. I can’t wait! Here’s a link to the cover art and more info:  Autoplay
  2. My panel was accepted for AWP ’15, which means the Dept. will fund my lodging and transportation there, which means I can go and talk with my friends and amazing writers. Minneapolis. Home to Prince. Let’s go crazy.
  3. I didn’t get a draft of my novel done (that’s not the celebratory thing). I am really excited about what I have, though (yay! Balloons and silly string). It’s working. It will be there for me when I have the time to come back to it.

There’s still 31 more days of summer. What if amazing, unanticipated wonders unfold?



How to Achieve a Writing Goal (kind of)

It’s summer! If you’re in the midst of making writing plans, I hope this entry helps you meet your goals.

During the month of May I wanted to write 25,000 words of a novel I started last summer. I began very mathematically, noting that with the 14,346 words I already had, my goal was a total of 39,346. I counted up all the days I could feasibly devote to writing, and concluded that if I wrote 1,055 words every one of those days, I would reach my goal.

Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way, though I have to say that I was pretty dogged about my word requirement in the first two weeks. Then I got a little sidetracked with some work for my forthcoming poetry collection, a conference where I was presenting, having my parents stay for a short visit, getting a twitter account, and having my  computer break down for almost a week.

I reassessed on June 19th, and realized that I needed to up my word count/day to 1,355. That’s a crazy amount for me, but I tried. The result? By the end of May, I either surpassed my goal a little to bring me to a total of 40,071 words, or I underachieved with 36,059. I’m a little pissed at myself that I can’t really make the call. The discrepancy is that I cut and pasted some pages from a former failed novel into this one. While I think they’re going to be amazingly useful to pushing me forward in the plot, it’s kind of cheating and they’re not completely integrated into my current draft yet. The larger number includes them, and the smaller number does not.

This month of writing has instilled the importance of detail into my writing. And by detail, I mean word count, not imagery or metaphor. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t know all the things you need to know to write a novel–like who your characters are, where they come from, what they desire, and what’s their conflict. I’m saying that writing a novel is hard, dedicated work that you have to make time for in your impossibly full day, and that keeping a clear-sighted sense of the word count helps you move towards your goal in a purposeful way.

At the beginning of each morning, I wrote my current word count and the word count I was supposed to achieve by the end of the day on a piece of purple post-it paper. Then I stuck it on the edge of my laptop. When my mind would start to wander, I’d look at it and realize one of two things:

1) I had already written way more than I thought and that I should keep going because I had almost made my daily goal


2) I hadn’t written shit, needed to stop screwing around, and get going.

The important thing was that whether I had under or over-achieved, seeing the word count pushed me to keep going. I never looked at the paper and thought, ah screw it. I’ll just quit early for the day.

I didn’t get any exercise this month, didn’t eat healthy, and drank too much beer, so this month of June, as I give myself a little space from my novel, I’m going to work on health. I just went to my first ever public exercise class at an amazing yoga studio this morning. I’ve been doing yoga privately at home for the past two years but kept putting off going to a studio because I said I didn’t have the money or the time. What I was really saying to myself was that I was afraid of the changes I would have to make to have it happen. What I keep trying to tell myself is that everything’s changing all the time, and that reaching out for what you want is always worth it.



Writing Progress Report B+

In my last post I made a 25,000 word writing goal for the month of May. I want to have a draft of the novel I started last summer and had to put away for the teaching year done by the beginning of fall semester.

It’s the 19th. How am I doing?

Well . . . first . . .

These are things that happened that affected my writing time this month. Is this a cop-out? No. This is a reminder that things always get in the way of your goals no matter how much you try to protect them. This is a reminder to myself that when things go wrong or need attention that these problems are momentary. Acknowledge and then refocus on the goal.

May Problem #1

My computer crashed. @#R%$T%^&. On a Saturday morning when no computer repair shops are open until Monday. @#$%$&^$$*&. They backed up my data, reinstalled Windows, and 6 days later I had an empty computer back that I had to refill.


May Problem #2

My cat, Lucy, is on a rampage.




In less than three weeks she has broken three water glasses and dumped water all over the book my son has been working on for school. I spent several hours of writing time one day blow drying each page separately to save his magnum opus, “The Terrorizing Spring.” It clocked in at 24 handwritten and illustrated pages + a 12-page rough draft. All completely soaked.

May Problem #3

School is never over when it’s over. I’m currently doing work for Sweetland, spent today at the AAEEBL conference, spent yesterday writing my conference presentation and writing a proposal for CCCC. There are also four students who haven’t gotten my written feedback for their work yet. (#shameface #imtrying)

May Problem #4

I joined twitter! If you need somewhere to go, you can follow me there: @babcockjwords

Belated Report: I’ve written 12,805 words. That means I have 12,195 to go. Not in the best of shape considering I can’t write on Sundays or Memorial Day because it’s Ambrose time all the time. So, I really have 9 days left. 1,355 each day. Do it.

(also, an empathetic xoxo to myself and to you if you need it)



Time to Write, Time to Make New Plans

In less than 24 hours it’s going to May! It’s the month I look forward to most every year because it is the most time I have to devote to my writing. My son is still in school, and I’m not teaching. This is my time, and every year I need to focus to make the most of it. Last year, I didn’t take much time to do this, and I underwhelmed myself. The year before, I spent more time planning, and got more done. Did I accomplish everything that I wanted to? No! But I cut a swath. This May, I want to cut another one.

What I have to do in the next 24 hours to get started by the evening of May 1st. Go! Go!:

Evaluate and give paper feedback to 13 more students, attend a 3-hour Minor in Writing Commencement Ceremony, Print off and send my second poetry manuscript to a few contests, write a synopsis for my first poetry book that’s coming out this Fall! (more information about that another time), feed Ambrose some kind of dinner and help him finish his book about a talking cat named Scarf and his owners who are battling “The Terrifying Spring.”

Then–it’s my writing time! What am I going to do? I’m going to draft 25,000 words of a novel I began last summer. I haven’t had any time to look at it since I left off in mid-August, though the opening of the novel is also a 23-page short story that appeared in The Rumpus this January.

Why 25,000? Because it’s half of a nanowrimo word count for a month. As a slow writer and an only parent who is also participating in conference in May, 25,000 words is plenty challenging. I’m already excited and anxious. I’m writing this and already wanting to fudge the numbers. How many words do I already have? I don’t know . . .let’s count this up . . .


39,346 by May 31st. That’s the goal.

I was reading a friend’s blog entry today about passive-aggressive compliments people who aren’t doing anything give to people who are. It’s smart and funny, and Amy, who is one of the kindest and most thoughtful people I’ve met, seems uncharacteristically and delightfully pissed.

It’s hard to make things. And it’s worth the time.


Four Things to Know About Making Chapbooks at College

Chapbooks are opportunities for writing students to locate obsessions and curiosities in their writing and to give themselves permission to take these obsessions and curiosities seriously. In yesterday’s post, I talked about the pedagogical value of making chapbooks. Today, I’ve listed the top 4 things I wish I had known last month.

  1. Word options on PC and Mac are not the same! I have Word 2010 on a PC. On that platform, it’s really easy to format a chapbook through the printing settings by choosing “Print” →”Page Setup” → Set “Gutter” to about .3 (the inside crease of the book where you’ll staple) → Choose “Landscape Orientation” → Choose “Book Fold” under pages. That’s it! Unfortunately, it won’t work on a Mac.
  2. There are two other easy formatting options. If students have free access to InDesign, encourage them to use that! There are some really easy and clean looking design templates. If they don’t have access to InDesign, they can make a PDF of their document, go to “Print” → and then choose “Book Fold.” This is as easy as it gets, though after the students see what it looks like, they’ll have to go back in and change the margins and the font to something that looks better and doesn’t just look like they shrunk their book with a magic shrinking gun.
  3. Printers all operate differently, which means one person might be able to print double sided in the way it would work in the book, and one person might have to be manually flipping pages in the correct way so that things aren’t upside down or out of order. Even worse, there are very few students who have access to a printer where they can load the paper themselves or even get someone to do it. After making a bunch of calls at University of Michigan, I found this amazing Media Center resource on North Campus in the Art and Architecture building where students can choose from a great collection of book weight paper and cardstock and have their book printed right there. If you don’t have a facility like this, it might be easiest for students to just go to a local printing shop to get there book done.
  4. Use a long reach stapler to staple the books. Not even the Media Center had one of these. I bought one at Staple’s for $31. It’s pretty cool, though I ended up stapling my finger in front of the class because I didn’t know the top of the stapler has to be reset after every staple. A little blood on one student’s chapbook adds to the whole chapbook-as-a-unique-artifact thing.

Swingline® 12in. Long Reach™ Full Strip Stapler, 20 Sheet Capacity, Black

Hope passing on this information helps someone down the line. If you have any chapbook- making information to add, I’d love to hear it! I started the semester thinking we were going to make these small, handsewn beautiful chapbooks from a Poets and Writers link this January, but I couldn’t get past step 3 (I tell myself that maybe it would have worked if I had a Mac?) We did fine without it. The students got wonderfully creative with what they added to the inside of the chapbook and their cover art. There were maps and songs. There were ribbons and invisible ink. There were photographs, quotes, fragments, and erasures along with the poetry and fiction they wanted to showcase. I’m looking forward to reading their creations more closely this coming week.

Why Creative Writing Students Should Make Chapbooks!

Hello after yet another long blog hiatus! This is a two-part piece. Today, I’m writing about the pedagogical value of having creative writing students make their own chapbooks at the end of the semester, and tomorrow I’m writing about a few technical things I learned that might be helpful to other people wanting to incorporate chapbook making into their own teaching.

I just finished the last teaching day of an intro. creative writing class. It’s been too many years since I had the chance to teach creative writing, and I was really interested in how my years of teaching other courses would affect the way I approached this one.

For several years now, I’ve been interested in helping students form their own authentic questions and explorations in assignments. Engaged reflection is an important part of this. When I say “engaged reflection” I mean reflection that’s done to make something new rather than something that’s done to merely summarize a past experience. For instance, my creative writing students wrote writing reflections after both their poetry and fiction workshops that asked them to articulate their experience of the workshop in two ways:

  1. How did the writing and workshop experience influence their ideas about revising the particular piece
  2. What techniques, topics, questions surfaced during their writing and workshop experience they’d like to explore in the future?

My teaching is very invested in process-based instruction, and so the second question was posed to help students locate genuine moments of interest to keep them writing. I wasn’t interested in having the students circling over a couple pieces until they were “polished.” Rather, I was interested in helping them locate where their writing is coming from.

The most sustained, engaged reflection students did was to make chapbooks of their own work at the end of the semester. I wanted them to make something where they had the responsibility of locating a recurring theme, sensibility or style in their own writing that moved across the poetry and fiction they’d written over the semester and to design and arrange a book accordingly. In preparation, they wrote chapbook proposals and met with me for individual conferences. During this time I saw the same things that I see from students in my other courses:

  1. Students are typically skeptical at the beginning of any assignment that asks them to synthesize concepts relevant to their writing.
  2. After confronting and getting over this skepticism, students make incredibly exciting and surprising things that draw not only on the work from my course, but also from other parts of their life that they begin to see in relationship to their current work.

Here’s a photo of what happened:

Creative Writing Student Chapbooks

A New Semester of Creative Arts and Community

Hello! It’s been a long time since I’ve posted an entry, and it somehow seems fitting that this entry is born out of a mistake.

I’m getting ready to teach a course at University of Michigan that I set up last year entitled “Creative Arts and Community.” We started a wordpress site there: http://creativeartsandcommunity.wordpress.com/ which features short documentaries the students did in small groups near the end of the semester to highlight important things they learned about local creative arts organizations. They’re a great group of people. Here’s a photo of them, the one I accidentally posted to this blog and then couldn’t bear to delete:

MCSP photo '12

This photo, along with their documentaries, will be moving to the archive and tomorrow I’ll meet a new class and look forward to what they create and add to this site.

I also hope to be posting more regularly here–posts that intermingle among writing, teaching, and life topics, which are topics I firmly believe should be in conversation with each other.

To new beginnings,