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Going Back To School – Why Does It Have To Be This Hard?

Well, back to my story. As you know, I took an intersession class in Post-Colonial Literature and the Intro to Creative Writing class during the summer. It was toward the end of my Intro class that I was informed that a second 360 lumbar fusion was in my immediate future.

This isn't my spine but it's pretty close to what they did

This isn’t my spine but it’s pretty close to what they did

For those of you that don’t know what that means, a 360 fusion is a spinal fusion where the neurosurgeon goes in through your abdomen or side to do part of the repair work then they flip you over and go through your back to do the rest of the repair work. Hence, the 360. Between each vertebra is a disc that is fibrous on the outside and jelly like on the inside.  Discs acts like shock absorber between the vertebra in your spine. In a fusion, the disc is removed and replaced with a bone graft. The whole thing is held together with metal plates, bolts and screws. Fun, huh?

As soon as I received the news, I spoke to my advisor and the professor that was teaching the Intro to Creative Writing class. Both said to wait until the week before classes started to talk to the professors teaching the classes. I bounced my plan off both of them and they seemed to think it was reasonable. So, three days before surgery, I emailed both professors. I proposed that I be allowed to work from home until I was able to join the class in person. I talked with the Student Disabilities office and found out they could provide laptops with webcams so I could Skype the class and email in my assignments. Since the university does online classes as well as traditional classes, I really thought they would agree to this hybrid type class.

I was wrong.

Does Going Back To School Really Have To Be This Hard?

I can't take classes this semester!?In spite of the fact that I had made the President’s Honor Roll this summer, neither professor would go for my plan. I was beyond pissed – that lingering kind of pissed off that eats at you and just won’t go away. I finally decide to go back to school and barely get started when the proverbial rug is yanked out from under my feet.

Yeah, I know I’m whining. I don’t get whiny very often but this was important to me since the plan was to take Fiction Writing and Creative Non-Fiction this fall and apply to the MFA program this spring. This back surgery has pushed the plan back a full year. What I don’t know is if my advisor and summer school professor were being honest or if they knew I’d get shot down from the beginning and just didn’t have the heart to tell me. Maybe I’ll ask them some day but I guess it’s not really important.

I actually delayed dropping my classes until the Monday that classes started. There was some part of me that believed that I’d somehow be able to start class – never mind that the surgery was on a Thursday and classes started the following Monday. I’m nothing if not stubborn.

When my grandfather was alive, he used to say we were made of “good, old-fashioned pioneer stock” – especially the women. He had a story he would tell about a my great-great-grandmother and how she was the kind of woman who would be out working the fields while nine months pregnant, go into labor, squat, drop a baby and then keep on working. I don’t know if this story is true or not but it makes a good story. Knowing the women in my family, it probably is true.

So, here I am, three weeks out from surgery and though I hate to admit it, my professors made the right decision. I won’t be released to drive for several more weeks, not to mention having to sit in one of those hard, uncomfortable funky desk chairs. I have been looking into online classes but as wretched as I feel on any given day, I’ve yet to make a decision – which is part of the problem. There’s just no way to really write anything of any quality when you have the attention span of a hyperactive gnat. I’m still pissed that the professors wouldn’t work something out with me but the intellectual part of my brain knows it’s all for the best.

oyfRxRBThis experience made me think of all the stories you hear about alcoholic, drug-addicted authors. I only have one question. How?

  • How in the name of everything holy and unholy do alcoholic or drug-addicted writers ever get anything remotely decent down on paper?
  • How are they able to formulate cohesive, coherent plots?
  • How are they able to do the necessary research?
  • How are they able to write stories that land them on the bestseller lists?
  • How are they able to meet deadlines?

Okay, so that turned out to be a bunch of questions but they all address the same issue. How can someone be productive when they are four sheets to the wind?

Unique Fantasy Combinations at Alchemical Words

unique fantasy combinations - oh the possibiitiesI’ve got a new blog post up at Alchemical Words. Once again, I’m talking about fantasy as a genre. Where is the fantasy genre headed? What will it decide to be when it grows up?  What needs to happen for the fantasy genre to make it through it’s difficult teenage years? I begin to ask those questions and search for answers in Unique Fantasy Combinations – Oh, The Possibilities

I even get pretty bold and daring when I attempt to use a permutation and combination calculator! I know, right? I’m pretty sure I abused those venerable mathematical and statistical formulas in order to make my point – meaning that I’m not sure I used the calculator in the spirit it was intended. Besides, everybody knows that statistics can be molded to support anything you want. That said, the numbers do support the idea that, depending on the number of variables such as characters, plot devices, settings, magical elements and so on, it is possible for there to be literally billions of unique story combinations.

Check it out and let me know what you think about my take on unique fantasy combinations

Back Surgery ~ Back To School Obstacle #1

Well, Hell’s bells and dog toenails, it sure didn’t take long for my back to school adventures to get derailed in a big way. And since I can’t seem to ever do anything half way, my return to school is delayed by back surgery – a massive, 6+ hour long 360 lumbar fusion. Here’s what happened:

Oklahoma State University Student Union

Oklahoma State University Student Union

Last summer, I was on campus for my daughter’s freshman orientation. It was almost a year since my last back surgery and I was doing well. There I was, climbing the stairs like a rock star with my sunglasses perched on the top of my head, a hot venti vanilla latte in one hand and my purse in the other. Now, I could tell you guys that I was paying perfect attention to everything around me… I could, but that would be lying. I must confess that I have been known to be a little distractible – especially if multiple venti vanilla lattes are involved. Wind me up, put me in a group of chatty, over-caffeinated moms and hijinks will ensue in short order.

So there I am: laughing, joking, have three simultaneous conversations… I’m a multi-tasking fool and I’m doing anything and everything except paying attention. Then my perception shifted. Seriously. The world seemed ku-xlarge7-300x300to tip on its side and everything started moving in slow motion. All I could hear was the thud of my own heart. People sounded like they were trying to have conversations through vast layers of clear Jello. Yep, just like in the movies. Sounds hokey but hey, who am I to argue with observable facts?

All I remember is twisting myself protectively around my Styrofoam cup of Columbian goodness as I cried out: “No! Not my coffee!”

Some people are extremely quick witted and spew out quips and one liners so fast… I’m envious. I wish I’d had some witty thought or jovial comment but all I wanted was whatever it took so I didn’t spend the rest of the day tromping around campus in coffee stained clothes because, in case you’ve never tried, you just can’t go to the restroom and rinse coffee out of your clothes. All that gives you is wet, coffee stained clothes. Been there, done that. Multiple times.

The last thing I remember was a sea of horrified faces and outstretched hands, fingertips grasping in a futile effort to prevent the careening train wreck happening before their eyes. All my friends know that I’ve had two back surgeries and a neck surgery. The absolute last thing I needed to be doing was falling.

latte-art-dali-clockHave you ever noticed how long it takes to fall? To the casual observer, everything happens in a split second flash. But to the unsuspecting victim of life’s vagaries and affinity for practical jokes, falling takes forever. Time moves like cold paste. I swear it felt like I had time to walk out to the car, get some spare change and go get another cup of coffee.

By the way, you gotta watch those Barristas at the coffee shop in the student union. The coffee is excellent and the shop is always busy, cranking out latte after cappuccino after frappuccino. They’d probably fall over if someone ordered (gasp) a coffee, black. But, because they were so swamped that morning, I ended up with fully leaded coffee instead of my usual decaf. I’ve been almost 100% decaf for years and this one, tiny, miniscule error was the beginning of my demise. So, if you are a decaffer or a half caffer, be sure that’s what you’re getting, otherwise, mayhem may follow your footsteps.

Now, back to the story. After spending an eternity in eerie, airborne silence, I hit the stairs on my back – and bounced. I kid you not, I actually bounced. Everyone froze for a split second (which felt like at least an hour) waiting to see if I was hurt. Then, the spell broke.

boromircoffeememeI was swarmed with people trying to help me up. One of my mom friends took the latte, still clutched in my hand like the flame of victory, while another friend took my purse. I climbed to my feet with all of the grace and agility of a giraffe on roller skates, snagged my cuppa Joe and raised it high, showing everyone that I had spilled nary a single drop. I took my seat to the sound of applause colored with both relief and awe. I had wrestled Ricky, the demon of certain public embarrassment, and emerged victorious.

Back Surgery

The next morning, I could barely move. That hoary old cliché about “an ocean of ______” where in my case, I filled in the blank with an appropriate expletive and the word bruises, not only made perfect sense but was also 100% accurate. [Stupidity Alert: Now, did I pick up the phone and call the doctor?]

I honestly kept telling myself things were going to get better. Three months later, the pain was still bad. You know how they always ask you to give them a number between 0-10 with 0 being no pain and 10 being the kind of pain you get from being a guest at a sadomasochistic torture chamber in some alternate universe? I was at a 7 consistently. I was starting to think that maybe, just maybe, my back wasn’t going to get better on its own. So did I grab my phone and call the doctor?

klutz_logoWeeks passed until I ended up falling again. The pain in my back was so [insert your favorite dramatic adjective, expletive or colorful metaphor here] bad, I stood up and passed out. This time, I went to the doctor. Diagnosis: concussion. I kept waiting for the back pain to subside but when it continued to get worse, I called my neurosurgeon. (What? Doesn’t everyone have a neurosurgeon in their speed dial?)

At first, the neurosurgeon thought we were just dealing with arthritic stenosis. Surgery would fix it and there wasn’t any rush, unlike the first back surgery. After a flurry of MRIs, x-rays and myelograms, the plan changed. Evidently, when I fell the first time, I fractured a vertebra and shattered one of the bone grafts in my spine. The broken bone graft had dissolved, causing the broken vertebra to slip and push into the spinal cord as well as ruin the disc above it. The only thing holding everything together was a metal plate from the first back surgery and it was loose. Surgery couldn’t be delayed; in fact, it needed to happen sooner rather than later. Once again, the subject of paralysis was on the table and it was a serious consideration.

Next: I can’t have back surgery! I’m already enrolled in classes!


Experimenting with Feedshark

If you’ve got a blog, you know how important it is for it to be pinged by search engines and blog and rss aggregators. WordPress has a built in pinger but I don’t always get the pingback messages. A lot of bloggers find pingback messages annoying but for me, that’s the only way I know the blog is getting pinged. I decided to set up a backup with Feedshark. You can either install a bit of code or do a post with the link. Since I don’t like to play around too much in the code, I’m doing the link in a post method. At some point in the future, I’ll update everyone on how my experiment has worked out. You can ignore the link unless you want to visit feedshark.

Misplaced Modifiers and Dangling Participles

four_previewI took my first creative writing class this summer. Four, fun-packed weeks of staring at the same fourteen people for four hours at a whack… You know, I never noticed it until writing this post but the number 4 does seem to be uncharacteristically high profile. I wonder of that’s significant in some obscure cosmological, numerological, psychological, pathological way? Meh, probably not.

Anyway, a funny thing that kept coming up in this creative writing class was misplaced modifiers and dangling participles. Argh! I always thought that the tendency to give creative birth to those madcap pranksters of the written language had been driven out of the average student during high school English.

Dolores_Umbridge_(Promo_still_from_HP5_movie)_10-15-2009I remember my high school English teacher and it was her fervent desire and life goal that no misplaced modifier or dangling participle ever reared its belled harlequin head from between the pale blue lines of college ruled. That lady had a desk drawer dedicated to a collection of red pens and sharpies. Let me tell you what, she wasn’t shy about using them.

I’m betting she has ascended to superhero status by now. Picture Delores Umbridge from the Harry Potter series with a teacher version of Batman’s tool belt around her waist and reinforced gauntlets to protect her from paper cuts and carpal tunnel. The half-moon reading glasses perched on the end of her nose has a built in plagiarizing checker. Be afraid, be very afraid… She is ‘The English Teacher.’

What are Misplaced Modifiers and Dangling Participles?

misplaced modifiersOkay, back to business. What are misplaced modifiers and dangling participles, you ask?

It is, according to the dictionary, “… a participle or participial phrase, often found at the beginning of a sentence, that appears from its position to modify an element of the sentence other than the one it was intended to modify.”

What the heck? Right? I can telepathically sense some people’s eyes glazing over as I type. So, to put it simply, a misplaced modifier or dangling participle is a word or phrase that’s in the wrong place for what it is describing.

This can often lead to confusing and funny mistakes. There were several people in class that seem to have had a special knack for producing these things. What was even funnier in a sort of sad, pathetic kind of way was that they couldn’t or wouldn’t see what they were doing. Since it’s often easier to learn by seeing examples, here are some of the misplaced modifiers and dangling participles I saw in class.

This one is an actual sentence from class:

The bicycles were reported stolen by Mr. Avery, the high school math teacher.

 That’s one rough school! The sentence should be something more like this:

Mr. Avery, the high school math teacher, reported the bicycles stolen.

Here’s another example from class:

Slowly sliding down the slick pole, the drunks watched the exotic dancer.

misplaced modifiersEww… Yeah, this class had a lot of varied interests and no, we didn’t all sit around wondering to ourselves if the person writing the stories about exotic dancers was maybe writing from experience. Some people are just gifted with the use of description, right? How about changing the sentence to something like this:

 The drunks watched the exotic dancer slowly sliding down the slick pole.

Here’s another one from the same story:

Wearing a barely there sparkly G-string and pasties, the man couldn’t take his eyes off me all night.

Wow…talking about switching roles! Usually, it’s the dancers that are wearing the teeny tiny outfits.

There were a lot more instances over the duration of the course and a lot of laughs and red faces. This is what I figured out: The best thing a writer can do to keep from embarrassing themselves is to read their work out loud before ever letting someone else even peek at it. It’s great to be humorous but only if that’s what you’re going for. After all, you’d hate to write a story with one of these sentences:

The principal handed out diplomas to graduates wrapped in protective plastic.

haitiIf you want a more in depth article about this topic, visit Raya’s Dungeon for her article on Mutilating Modifiers and Damaging Dirty Dangling Participles. She explains it quite eloquently.

Do you have any funny stories about misplaced modifiers and dangling participles?


Using Description In Writing

21,597… Yup, 21,597 words – ten different pieces – written and revised in four weeks and that doesn’t include my blog posts here and over at Alchemical Words. Add in the blog posts and the grand total for the month of July comes to… 34,934 words. I am exhausted. But happy.

This is what it felt like to write that much in four weeks

This is what it felt like to write that much in four weeks

I’ve been writing for a long time. I’ve written a lot of things that I’ll probably never share with anyone except my laptop and even my trusty Mactop probably groans at times with what it is required to keep in its memory.

Here’s what happened. I’ve been working on the end of my first really full-length novel but I began to get frustrated with my writing. I know it’s decent and probably even good but I didn’t think it was good enough so I took some online writing workshops.

These were decent but I found them to be superficial. If I had questions about more in depth topics, I was directed to another workshop then another workshop then another workshop with each giving me more superficial information. I wondered why, especially since I was paying for the blasted workshops, why somebody couldn’t just answer my damn questions. While I made some good friends, I always came away from the workshops frustrated. So I took the plunge and enrolled in classes at the university here in town.

I just finished my first creative writing class – ten pieces for a grand total 21, 597 words, a head full of knowledge and some serious feedback from an professor that knows what she’s doing – Lisa Lewis. She won 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for Poetry and has published about a gazillion pieces of poetry. She even has her own Wikipedia page. Not to shabby, eh? So, what did I learn?

Using Description in Writing

One thing I learned is that, in my writing, I tend to do a lot of what I call blocking or giving stage directions. This character giggled. That character frowned. I was missing a lot of good opportunities to use detail and description. Was I being a lazy writer? No. But I was being an inattentive writer. A good writer pays attention and looks for these opportunities to give the reader details about a character. A good writer knows how using description in writing. It improves your writing tremendously.

Take the sentence:

Billy frowned. “I say we jump it,” he said.


“I say we jump it,” Billy said, frowning.

boyonabicycleThere’s technically nothing wrong with this sentence but it doesn’t tell the reader anything about Billy other than he’s not happy and wants to jump something. But what if it was something more like this:

“I say we jump it,” said Billy. He pulled off his baseball cap and scrubbed his fingers through the black stubble of the crew cut worn by all the men in Billy’s family. “Yup. It’s the only way.” He tugged the cap back on his head and spun it around backwards.

Maybe not perfect but we know a lot more about the character. We know he has black hair that he wears in a crew cut. We know he has number of men in his family – a father, brothers, and maybe uncles. We also know that this haircut is something worn by all the men in his family, suggesting maybe military or sports activities. We know he wears a baseball cap and that he uses it as a form of nonverbal communication, which might suggest that he either plays baseball or is a fan of the sport.

Definitely a whole lot more information is given here than in the first sentence. This is something we can all do to improve our writing. Watch for those places that give you a natural point at which you can expand your writing and bring the reader further into your world in dribbles and bits. I think it feels a whole lot more natural than resorting to long blocks of exposition and far more eloquent than simple stage directions.

What are your thoughts about ways to use description?

Going Back To College – Never Too Old For School

I decided I was going back to college. I already have a Bachelors and a Masters so why would I want to do this? After all, I’m not that young any more. But here’s the thing. I have always wanted to be a writer. That was what I set out to do in the first place but I got diverted by well meaning friends who worried that I wouldn’t be able to support myself as a writer. Writers live in some cheap, run down loft and drink to excess, right?

Even grandmas are going back to college

Even grandmas are going back to college

So I did what I thought was the smart thing. I got a degree in counseling. And I was good at it. But it almost murdered my soul. They neglected to tell us in grad school was that there are crazy people out there that will try to hurt you even though they came to you for help. They forgot to tell us that if you are personable, people will refuse to pay their bill because they decided to see you more as some kind of friend they vent to once a week rather than their therapist. I had four different clients declare bankruptcy and leave high and dry for thousands. I had to write off a healthy five digits worth of debt. After one especially nasty stalker client that broke into my office, I quit. I just couldn’t do it any longer.

I didn’t do anything for a long time. Then, finally, after a lot of poking and prodding from my family, I decided to go back to school and do what I had wanted to do in the first place.

Filling out the application was a lark and getting accepted was a breeze. The problem was that the university wasn’t sure what to do with me. I already had two degrees and they weren’t sure how to classify me. They still aren’t sure. But I got enrolled.

My first class was this past May. A three week summer class in Post Colonial Literature. I was incredibly anxious… okay, terrified. All I could picture was a classroom full of eighteen year old children that had gone to school with my daughter. I was going to be that old person. I remember seeing older people in my classes back when I was first going to school. Everyone looked at them like they had three heads or like they were going to morph into something dreadful at any moment.

I was pleasantly surprised. I fit right in and even made some friends. Granted, this was an upper division class and the “kids” were in their early to mid twenties but still, I wasn’t the three headed oddity. I knew I had done well but there was also a subjective component to the class grading.

Then there was the final. I did a presentation on Beach of Falesa by Robert Louis Stevenson. I had to learn how to do a Powerpoint. Crap. My daughter helped me figure it out. They never had this stuff when I was first in school. Hell, I had used a typewriter the first time around. Ah, technology – bane and blessing.

But then the unthinkable happened… The cool fonts I used in my Powerpoint didn’t show up right. Instead of the wonderfully artistic fonts chosen specifically because of their ability to convey the feel of the South Seas, the fonts defaulted to something like Tahoma or maybe it was Helvetica. The slides looked dreadful. I got rattled. I didn’t present as smoothly as I had envisioned it in my head. I sweated the grade and the waiting for grades to be posted was well and truly dreadful. But I got earned an A and no one had treated me like I had three heads or leprosy.

So here’s what I’ve got to say to those of you that are considering going back to college at 30, 40, 50 or even 60


Swallow those fears about being the oldest one in class. God knows, if I could do it, you can do it. We older students are what the university considers “non-traditional.” We are embraced and welcomed. I found that my professors appreciate the opinions of someone with life experience. It brings another level of depth and understanding to class discussions. We know things and think of things that the average college student, inexperienced in life, can not to see or consider.

We are there because we understand the value of education. We take the classes seriously and we do our best work because it means something more to us at our age. I’ve got a lot more to say about this last thing but I’m going to save it for another post.

Just remember, you are never too old to go back to college. If I can do it, you can too. I’d love to hear from anyone that has gone back to school. What was it like for you?

Just ignore this. It’s just a link for some of that technical code crap.