A Lesson about Sentimentality

A Lesson about Sentimentality


Tonight, I was going through a bunch of files and found one marked “Sentimentality.” It’s a craft lesson I once used in beginning creative writing classes to talk about cliché, abstract vs. concrete language, and unearned, Hallmark-y emotion.

It’s a one-page sheet. I’d pass this out and read it aloud.



Oh, what a wonderful thing God has created. There can be no other thing in the world that God created that stands for anything more beautiful than the family. Everything else in life–money, friends, houses, cars, school, sports, jobs–can come and go, but the family is always there. God didn’t make it easy for the family, but he made it possible–with hard work and everyone working together, caring for each other and working as one. Yes, God made man, then woman, then said, Be a family. This will be my most beautiful creation. 

This family means more to me than life itself. 


Then I’d ask the students to respond. How did these words make you feel?

Some claimed that they were very moving.

Okay. Show me where you find it moving.

That last line. “This family means more to me than life itself.”

Who is saying that?

We don’t know.

Who is “this family” in the last line? Continue reading

Publishing in Print and in Pixels

Publishing in Print and in Pixels


I published my first short story in 1995. Twenty years ago. How can this be?

In Print

I was a graduate student at the University of Alabama. I’d been sending out my stories for two years without much luck. Then, over Christmas Break 1994, I went with my mother, a hospice nurse, on a “death call” in suburb of Cincinnati. The experience stuck with me, and when I got back to Tuscaloosa, I tried my hand at writing a “short short story,” or what we might call now “flash fiction.” 742 words. I sent it to Quarterly West. and they accepted it immediately.

When I got the magazine in the mail, I marveled at it for awhile, and then I put it on my shelf. My poet friend Tim kept the journals in which he’d been published in a place of honor on his desk, like a trophy case, and so I did the same.

I also added a line to my very brief curriculum vitae.

“Hospice.” Quarterly West. 41 (Autumn/Winter 1995): 6-7.

A year later, I published a story in The Florida Review about a man raising his daughter alone. Another magazine on the shelf. Another line on the vita.

“Leon’s Daughter.” Florida Review 21:2 (1996): 88-98.

Slowly, I kept adding more journals to that shelf. More lines to the vita.

Out of Print

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Want to take a class with me?

Want to take a class with me?


This summer, I’ll be teaching a one-day intensive fiction workshop at the Midwest Writers Workshop here in Muncie. Here’s the scoop:

Short Story Fellows Workshop 

Those accepted into this intensive will have the opportunity to have their 5-10 page short story critiqued by me and by the whole group.

Specifically, you’ll be working to improve your facility with scenecraft (when to dramatize, when to summarize), point of view, setting, suspense, and readability.

All work will be discussed anonymously and read aloud.

To apply, send a 5-10 page writing sample in manuscript form (as an attachment) to Cathy Day at cathy@cathyday dot com. Applications will be taken from the day MWW registration begins (February 12) to midnight on March 27.

You will be notified of your acceptance by April 15 so that you can sign up for another intensive if you’re not selected.

Why you should apply

Because Midwest Writers is a great conference. Here’s a previous post extolling its many virtues.

Because normally, I don’t read work by people I don’t know.  I devote my energy to my current and former students–and that’s considerable. All writers get a lot of requests like this from people they don’t know. But I almost always say no. I just don’t have time, unfortunately. But this summer, I will say yes to six people.

Because the best thing a writing conference can give you is writing instruction. Not “how to market yourself.” Not a lecture on “how to write better.” But someone spending time with your words specifically.

Because your work will be read aloud. There’s nothing quite so illuminating as being physically present when a group of strangers experiences your work for the first time. You see them fidget when they get bored. You hear them laugh and sigh. You watch them lean forward in their chairs. (Ever since The Circus in Winter started its journey as a musical, I’ve realized how important and instructive “live reading” can be.)

Because your work will presented anonymously. Nobody will know whose is whose. This might make you more inclined to write about something embarrassing or difficult–which is probably your best material, actually. And you’ll get more honest feedback, too; people tend to pull punches in their critique when the writer is right in front of them.

Come to Muncie!

Registration for the conference opened up today. I hope you’ll consider applying!

30 Easy Pieces for English Majors

30 Easy Pieces for English Majors


This morning I woke up early, made myself some coffee, and got back into bed with my husband and my dog.

I needed to do a brain dump, a blog post, but I was too lazy to walk into another room and get my laptop.

So I grabbed my phone and started tweeting as @bsuenglish, the Twitter account for my department. And an hour and a half later, I’d tweeted 30 pieces of advice

I hope these words help others–not just the students in my department.

2014: My Year in Review

2014: My Year in Review


Was it a waste of my time?

In 2013, I posted to this blog once a week and enjoyed some pretty great stats. 47,000 unique page views. Up from 20,000 the year before.

But at the beginning of 2014, I declared (a little facetiously) that this blog was a waste of my time. Instead of posting once a week, I posted sporadically. About 17 times total.

And a funny thing happened: I still got about 43,000 page views.

How did this happen?

  • Well, I think I got Googled a lot because of the musical.
  • A lot of my old posts about Statements of Purpose and LORs, etc. still get read a lot.

Truthfully, a lot of my blogging energy went into this blog, maintained by my department at Ball State. If you read the post I’ve linked to, you’ll see the stats, etc.

Lately, my blog posts have been about administrating in higher education and my personal life rather than teaching and writing. I guess that’s what happens as time passes–the things that occupy space in your brain change.

I’ll be happy if you continue reading, despite these changes. Thank you.

My year in review

My husband published an essay at the Rumpus on the occasion of the death of chef Charlie Trotter.

The Indy Star did a nice story about me.

Spoke about Literary Citizenship at the Antioch Writer’s Workshop “Paths to Publishing” event. Reunited with Erin Flanagan and met Kirby Gann and Steve Saus.

The night I came back from Yellow Springs, my dog was hit by a car. He lived. We rejoiced.


Went to Seattle with my husband for AWP 2014. Loved Seattle. For some reason, I felt compelled to blog about my marriage while we were there. I put them on Tumblr rather than here. I don’t know why. “Traveling as a Couple,” “AWP Spouses.” And this one, too.

I wrote about my fear of and desire to be looked at on my Tumblr blog. (I wasn’t sure if these personal stories were appropriate for the Big Thing. I guess I felt safer posting them in this little corner of the internet where you might not see it.)

Took part in a roundtable discussion on Money and Creative Writing Programs with some amazing writers (Dinty Moore, Robert Hass, Elizabeth McCracken, and Yiyun Li. ) for Scratch Magazine.

My mom celebrating her first blog post.

Helped my mom start a caregiving blog.

Redesigned this blog. Click around. It’s kind of pretty.

Started a new job as Assistant Chair of the English Department.

Gave a talk at Hanover College because my book was the “common read” there. What an honor.

Published a two-part essay in Inside Higher Education about starting over in academe. Part 1. Part 2.  (This essay started as a blog post, which I sent to IHE instead of posting to my blog.)

Published an essay about the value of a degree in English at The Millions. (This too started as a blog post that I sent out rather than posting here.)

Taught with Dinty Moore at the Grailville Retreat Center for the Antioch Writer’s Workshop.

Found out I’m going to be an aunt again. To a girl this time.

Read with Ben Clark at the R.J. Julia Bookstore and at the Mark Twain House and Museum. What an honor.

West Baden
West Baden

Went to French Lick for a book signing that went bust, but got to stay at West Baden.

Did a webinar for AWP’s Career Services on Requesting Letters of Recommendation.

Saw two of my former graduate students publish books: Karin Lin Greenberg and Katie Coyle.

Saw a new production of The Circus in Winter.

Launched my department’s first e-newsletter. 

Lost two members of my extended family to cancer.

Reunited with an old high school friend and started trading work. Thanks to a new set of eyes, I got excited about my novel again. Worked on it a lot over Christmas Break and have applied for a sabbatical so that I can get that baby out the door.

In Conclusion

I started writing this post feeling like “Man, I don’t feel like I accomplished much this year,” but now I see that I was as busy as ever in 2014.

Thanks, as always, for reading. Have a great year!


This is what I’ve become, part 2

This is what I’ve become, part 2


A few weeks ago, I started thinking out loud about my new job. Here’s part two of my thoughts on the subject.

Don’t all 46 year old professionals wonder if they’ve made the right life choices?

Becoming a bureaucrat

For the last few years, I’ve been able to translate my teaching and writing into interesting blog posts for you, faithful readers.

But I don’t know if you’re that interested in what I did on Friday:

  • Inputted the schedule requests from four different academic areas in my department into a grid.
  • Approved some course equivalencies for a young woman studying abroad.
  • Met with an advisee who doesn’t know what to do with his life.
  • Met with an prospective student who knew exactly what to do with her life.
  • Proofread upcoming blog posts.
  • Tried to find people to teach unassigned classes or cancel them. Why are they unassigned? I can’t talk about it.
  • Answered 50 emails about lots of different things I can’t talk about.

Basically, I’m a bureaucrat.

My mad, bureaucratic, communication skillz:

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This is what I’ve become.

This is what I’ve become.

Teaching Writing

It’s been four months since I started my new job, and the things I most feared have happened.

  • I’ve stopped blogging here.
  • I haven’t been working on my novel as much as I’d like.
  • I care about stuff that I never cared about before–like bulletin boards and registration time tickets and how class rooms are assigned and posters and scheduling grids.

I’m not surprised. Administrating changes you. Entire realms which have been hidden from view suddenly appear, and all you can really say is, “Holy shit.”

This quote from an Inside Higher Education essay by Chuck Ryback is on the money. Read the whole thing here.

Looking back to when I was first hired on the tenure track, I really didn’t know anything about how the systems I was working in were structured. Literally, it has taken me 10 years to even achieve a competent grasp. Why? If a maze built by Daedalus is complicated, imagine a maze built by an army of Daedaluses. Campus and system governance in public universities is deeply complicated and entangled, and this is largely because it’s supposed to be difficult to understand (but that’s a whole different post).

My job as Whack-a-Mole

When people ask me what I do all day as Assistant Chair of Operations, I tell them it’s like this:

You walk in the door and the moles start popping up—in my office door and in my inbox—and I take my mallet and whack whack whack as fast as I can.

Perhaps this makes it sound bad. Like I’m mad. Like I resent the moles from popping up. Like I’m trying to hurt them.

Au contraire.

The “whacking” isn’t hurting, it’s helping, solving, progressing.

For twenty years, I’ve written words that took months if not years to be published, taught students that I (mostly) never heard from again. So there’s something deeply rewarding about walking out of the office at the end of the day knowing that I actually finished something. Even if it was answering/archiving/deleting 50 emails and signing five forms.

My job at the candy conveyer belt

I like coming home and having dinner with my husband and maybe writing a little in the evening or reading or watching a movie, like a normal fucking human being who is almost 50 years old, not a graduate student. Like my doctor. Like my lawyer. Like pretty much every professional person I know.

Except for teachers.

We don’t expect our doctors to help us and answer our questions when they aren’t in their office. Why do we expect college professors and teachers to do this? I don’t know. But it drives me crazy.

I never worked this hard when I was in my 20’s and 30’s. This is a new development. It’s Lucy Ricardo’s candy conveyer belt and the chocolate is coming faster and faster and faster. Because there are real chocolates and virtual chocolates coming in via email.

One reason why I took this new job, I think, is that I’m no longer Lucy at the conveyor belt anymore. I’m her supervisor. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but for me, it was a necessary thing.

My job as a state bureaucrat.

Last night I went to a play with my cousin, who is a freshman at Ball State. She introduced me to a friend and I said I was the Assistant Chair of the English Department, let me know if you need anything, etc.

Later, I saw a dean walk down the aisle and pointed him out. “That’s the dean of your college,” I said to my cousin. She looked at me, and I thought, Oh my God, if I was 18 years old and a freshman, I would have no freaking idea what that meant nor why it mattered in the slightest.

So I said, “Okay, so pretend Ball State is a country. President Ferguson is the President. The deans of all the different colleges are like the governors of the states.”

She nodded. “So you’re like a senator, right?

“No, a department chair is like a senator. I’m like his chief of staff.”

“Oh.” She sighed. “I’m sorry. I just think politics is kind of boring.”

“Yeah, I know. Or think of it this way. The department chair is like the mayor of a city. And the English department is a big city in the country’s largest and most populous state.”

“So you’re like the mayor of Los Angeles?”

“No, more like Sacramento. I’m like the deputy mayor of Sacramento.”

I remembered then that her friend had wanted to meet me because I’m a writer, but lately, I’ve started thinking of myself as the deputy mayor of Sacramento because I really like the job.

And that’s what scares me. Can you help run a city and write books at the same time?

That is the question, isn’t it?

Here are some more:

  • How does your identity change when you take on an administrative position?
  • How do you maintain your identity as a writer when your daily work is so specific to the institution to the place where you work?
  • Since so many of us have day jobs–lots of different kinds–how can we balance our job (paycheck) and our work (art)?
  • How do we keep our work from becoming a hobby?
  • How do we keep our job from defining us?
  • When do we say to ourselves that we’re better at the job than the work? Or can we do both?
  • How do you keep doing your job for years and years and years without becoming overwhelmed by despair?
  • Here’s a great essay that’s helped me think through these things.

(more later, i’ve been thinking about this a lot)


Everything I know about Letters of Recommendation

CW Programs

Note: This is about LORs for the academic job market, not for applying to MFA programs. That post is here. 

True Story

Screenshot 2014-10-20 18.48.32A few years ago, a writer I knew (I’ll call her Chris) sent me an email asking me for some information. A graduate creative writing program had asked her to speak with their MFA students about “going on the market.” How to do a CV. How to write a good letter of application. How to read job ads. How to ask for LORs. That sort of thing.

The problem was that Chris was not on the faculty of that (very prestigious) MFA program. She was visiting and had only been on the job market in a limited way. So when Chris asked me if I would share my job search materials with her to share with MFA students in this program, here’s what I said:

You know, no. And I’ll tell you why.

First, I think that it’s the responsibility of the faculty of that very fine school to mentor their students. Not mine. And really, not even yours. THEY need to make their CVs and job letters and wisdom available to people who worked really hard to get into that school. That is why one works hard to get into that school–for access to that sort of thing.

Second, my materials are for my students and for my friends. If YOU want to see my letter, my CV, really ANYTHING, I would give it to you in a heartbeat. But not to them.

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