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: 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,


Another AWP Appearance

Thanks to my brother and his family who drove from Columbus, Ohio to stay with Ambrose for a few days, and my third-grade best friend who opened her Boston home to me, I was able to make it to another AWP conference.

I am an only parent who prizes sleep, and I still haven’t published a book (though I continue to accrue my yearly trickle of journal publications and writing friends that keep me hopeful), and so, I am well aware that my AWP experience is not the stuff of sensational legend. When I think of AWP abstractly, I imagine two groups of people: the MFA students who are ten or more years younger than me, mostly unfamiliar with serious life circumstances, who sit at the bookfair tables with hangovers and more party invitations. And, the people about ten years older than me who have tenure track jobs and several, award-winning  books and know all the publishing editors, in fact are going to drink with them all (yes, all of them) later that night—a get together that will alter the next ten years of the literary world and will be alluded to in multiple future poems.

Because I belong to neither of these groups and because I have very little available time or money and wasn’t presenting this year, attending AWP doesn’t seem very practical. What purpose does my going to AWP serve? What is my connection to the writing world?

Sometimes it is difficult to take such questions seriously. Sometimes it is easier to misidentify them as brief rhetorical occasions for self-loathing. But they are serious questions, and deserve serious consideration.

I am writing this blog entry on the plane ride back because when I return home, all my responsibilities will meet me at the door and whatever writing inspirations the AWP experience has generated for me will have to wait, for the most part, until the end of the semester (7 more weeks!).

I went to several panels and met up with many lovely friends. The panel that affected me the most, though, was “The Poet Magician: Writing Out of Single Motherhood.” I went to the panel because while I was at AWP I was realizing that I was there as a gift to myself. That I spend so much time working in isolation that I wanted to be surrounded by other writers, and not just all writers in general, but writers who have creatively approached challenges I share and are making multi-faceted and genuine things from them. In short, I realized my AWP attendance was not a search for blanket professional or craft inspiration, but rather a search to see how others were integrating shared personal challenges into their craft, challenges that are rarely spoken of and, though all the personal stories have slightly different variations, are all informed by culture, economics, race, and education. I also went because the title was fun. Fun is a necessary companion to survive struggle.

The panel was a lively mix of struggles and accomplishments, vulnerability and power. Much of the talk centered around both acknowledging the intense solitude surrounding single motherhood (or, “independent parenting,” which we all agreed was a much better, active phrase) and the ways that challenge is also an important writing opportunity, that our unique position to solitude intensifies/heightens what drives most writing in general. Panelist Mairead Byrne, (yet another reason I attended the session–we studied at Purdue together some time ago and I greatly admire her as both a writer and a person) wrote, “When I speak as a single mother, the audience steps away.”

The panel was, perhaps, the most forthright one I’ve ever attended, and also opened up some amazing models for hybrid approaches to writing and new possibilities for the ways our selves and our writing can connect. I was talking to Mairead after the session and she noted that it would be pretty easy for us to just all go have a drink and swap stories, but that it was another thing to provide a suitable critical framework that helps us understand and build. This panel was an important starting point for that.

After my husband died, I continued to wear my wedding ring for over a year. This was partly to continue and honor my connection to him, partly to thwart any dating discussions, but mostly, really, so that I would not be mistaken for a single mother. I didn’t want people to think I was a single mother because I didn’t feel strong enough to carry both my grief and outsider judgment.

Shortly after I stopped wearing my wedding ring, I took Ambrose to a doctor’s appointment. I sat down in the waiting room, and Ambrose started playing with another boy his age. They ran trains around the room and then picked up a play tea set and started pouring cups for me and the other mother. Both of us began drinking from our imaginary cups and as we did this, we also began to talk. The other mother was younger than me and black. I also noticed she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. The ring thing was something I never used to notice before, but now find myself checking all the time.

A nurse called Ambrose’s name and we stood up to go. “Say goodbye to your friend,” I said, and Ambrose and the boy waved to one another. I nodded goodbye to the other mother who smiled and touched my hand. “So you’re a single mother too,” she said. I tensed for a second and almost corrected her, but instead I nodded yes. As I did that I was flooded with a rush of relief. We weren’t ignoring what we both knew. “Yes,” I said out loud. “It’s hard isn’t it?” she said, and again I nodded yes. “He’s a beautiful boy,” she finished.

The 10 Most Devastating (and Funny) Books of All Time

A few nights ago I was reading a conversation about humor in fiction in the current issue of Gulf Coast. The title, “I Start From a Place of Outrage and Sadness,” is taken from a response Elisa Albert gives to a question about when, in the writing process, humor works itself in. Rarely do you get writers agreeing about anything, but when asked this question, all the writers (Albert, Steve Almond, Sam Lipsyte, John McNally, and Deb Olin Unferth) generally agree that humor allows us to travel beyond fear. Lipsyte writes that humor is “a sensibility that enables everyone involved to go places (usually forbidden places) they couldn’t get to otherwise.”

My own favorite books are simultaneously devastating and wickedly funny, and I think a large part of this is dictated by my desire to go somewhere I usually can’t in a genuine way, in a way where I choose to go and to struggle through simultaneous layers of meaning that cannot ever effectively be distilled down into one thing. Nothing that is felt strongly is unequivocably made of one emotion or one knowledge base and humor allows readers to remember that, and to see themselves as both insiders and outsiders, as people who sometimes get the jokes and are sometimes the butt of them. This confusion doesn’t mean there is an ambivalence about the real, important issues that these works confront. The funniest, most devastating novels lay bare social, racial, and economic injustices in very straightforward ways. The ambivalence lies in how we are to go about living with these injustices, about what happens when we struggle to right them, or ignore them, or to think up some Jerzy Kosinski  Cockpit plan to just take some people out.

After two days of soul searching and looking through all my bookshelves, I’ve compiled a top ten list of books that are devastating and also funny. The books are in no particular order, although since Don Quixote is the best book of all time (sometimes Harold Bloom is right) it is in the first-spot position on my list as well. I could spend a lot of time talking about each book individually, but really, if you haven’t read them, you should just go do that. I’m sure there are books that might deserve a space in this top 10 that aren’t here (though I’d be hard pressed to take any of these off)–feel free to rant or add. Again, these are the qualifications: Devastating first. Funny second. (although often when reading such books for the first time the order of which you notice these two things is backward). I fully realize this list is probably too American-heavy, and am really bummed that Flannery O’Connor is the only woman on the list. Are there any readers out there who can persuasively fix that?

Don Quixote

Don Quixote Cover


2666 Cover

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Cover


Watt Cover

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Trout Fishing in America

Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America, the Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, and In Watermelon Sugar Cover

The Metamorphosis

The Metamorphosis (Bantam Classics) Cover

A Good Man is Hard to Find

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories Cover

John Henry Days

John Henry Days Cover

The Tin Drum

The Tin Drum Cover

Anne Carson’s Antigonick–Removing Crusts of Ornament and Slashing Curtains

Anne Carson staged a reading in Ann Arbor from her new book Antigonick this past Wednesday. It’s a loose translation of the Sophokles play complete with Carson’s own handlettered pages interspersed with illustrations on translucent vellum by Bianca Stone (a fabulous poet and artist I am just learning about. If you’d like a quick taste go here to her Poetry Comics). Both the book and the staged reading are arresting and beautiful in their surprises. During the question and answer session after the performance, Carson said one of her translating missions was to “remove the crusts of ornament” in order to present the play more directly, in the way it reads in original Greek. Getting at this directness involved cutting several long scenes down, reimaging the genre of the play to the point that Antigonick is sometimes described as “a new kind of comic book” and adding references to Beckett, Hegel, and Virginia Woolf. During the reading I saw, Carson cast poet Raymond McDaniel as Antigone and Yopie Prins as Kreon, gender-switching the roles in a way that heightened my desire to listen. In this translation, Carson manages to put me on enough unfamiliar ground to rouse my curiosity and to experience this story as a struggle that has and always will keep going.

Her mission to “remove the crusts of ornament” has also been resonating with me this past week. It seems like a relevant goal to strive for in the making of all art, that artists should examine and remove their ornaments whenever possible, and that this removal will illuminate what is (or is not) actually there.

What are ornaments for writers? Pretty similes. Forced cadences. Unnecessary repetition.  Unbelievable resolution. Affectation of all kinds. It is harrowing to think about my own writing against this measuring stick. When am I pretending at something I don’t have? When am I trying to cover this up with sparkles in the hopes that no one (not even myself) will notice?

In The Winter Sun, Fanny Howe writes about our initial tendencies to use words to cover up deeper truths.

Revision is suspicious of first words and assumes they exist only to signal something else, something deeper. I revise what I have written in order to strip away fraud and get to the uncontaminated first intention. By slashing the curtains of words, I might finally glimpse the words behind the words and the silence behind those.

This is such a visceral and elegant statement on revision. “Slashing the curtains of words,” is exactly what Carson has done in this translation of Antigone, and the whole writing world would be much improved if writers devoted more time to this.